stratification and what evidence is there to suggest that contemporary Australia is or is not stratified?

Social Stratification refers to the division of society into various hierarchical layers based on their socio-economic conditions. Some groups are given more power and prestige than others, whilst lower groups are dominated by the higher (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *).

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Social stratification is founded on four principles:

It reflects society rather than individual differences and therefore does not work according to meritocracy

(2) It is fixed and transmitted from generation to generation;

(3) It is universal but has different faces in different countries

(4) Social stratification is not just inequality of power but also reflects variances in beliefs to that differ according to groups. For instance, higher groups are more likely to be politically Conservative and to share a certain religion / religious perspective. (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *).

Social stratification is usually categorized into 3 main classes:

1. upper class,

2. middle class,

3. lower class.

Each of these is divided into subsectors of professions.

Research consistently shows that social stratification is adverse for a society. High social inequality is often positively related to increase in homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression, teen suicide, and prison population amongst the lowest social strata.

Weber argued that there is irreversible class differences and that people are inescapably born into certain brackets. class differences, therefore, inescapably lead to variations in life chances. (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *)..

In Weber’s opinion there are four classes:

1. The propertied class

2. Intelligentsia

3. Traditional petty bourgeoisie

4. Working class (ibid.)

According to Marx, the latter was created by the bourgeoisie for control and for manipulation. Weber accepted this but also emphasized status and party identification for instruments of class definition.

Stratification is generally seen as an unfair fact of life where position is not determined by merit but by birth. Dominant classes betray and manipulate inferior classes and inferior classes have an almost impossible chance of battling it through and succeeding in life on their own terms.

Australia and Stratification

Australia has an upper class, upper and lower middle class, and working class. The upper class consists of property owners, people of inherited wealth and leaders of corporations as well as moneyed people. Many of the upper class in Australia appear to identify with a global agenda rather than with a national agenda (Sklair, 1996). The middle class consists of three spheres:

a. The lowest middle class which is people with working class incomes that have the life of middle class

b. The central middle class which consists of non-manual professionals such as doctors, accountants, engineers, which is the majority of Australia, and which most Australians aspire to.

c. The upper middle class which is people who have professions and income of middle class but live upper class standards

The lowest sphere, the working class is made up of two tiers:

a. those whose occupation is manual. The unskilled to skilled blue collar workers such as tradespeople, factory workers and laborers.

b. The underclass who are homeless, unemployed with incomes at or below the poverty line, and welfare recipients with extremely limited life choices (Sklair, 1996).

Most Australians believe that social and upward mobility is possible in Australia (ibid).

Nonetheless, observers such as Aspin (1996) argue that: ‘Structured social inequality exists, especially in the areas that affect life chances, such as income, work, education, health and involvement with the law” (p.94). The percentage of living longer than the first year of life, of flourishing in childhood, of remaining healthy and growing tall, of avoiding jail, and gaining a successful job and education all depend, in Australia, on one’s particular social class.’ (Ibid). This, however, may not be so different than, for instance, in America — a country that attempts to demolish social differences but where socio-economic status nonetheless exists. It may be that this is fixity of human life predetermined by eth amount of money that one makes.

On the other hand, there are natives, such as Aborigines who do have a harder time than the normative Caucasian in Australian society and this certainly affects their chances at success (Aspin, 1996)

The longitudinal Life Chances study conducted by the Brotherhood of St. Laurence (2006) found that 73% of low income families remained in their low-income niche since birth with the low-income status — and the gap between rich and poor — increasing to 31% as the years passed. Commenting on stratification of Australian society, Aspin (2006) noted that ‘The concept of class, and the differentiated outcomes that it can produce, continues to prove relevant within the changing environment that these young people are growing up in’ (p.30).

2. The term “Islamphobia” has been coined to describe a new form of racism in Australia said to have evolved since September 2001. Thinking sociologically, explores the relationship between religion and ethnicity in 21st century Australia.


Islamaphobia consists of overt and covert bigotry and discrimination to Muslims regardless of their practices and individuality and merely based on their race. (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *).

Islamaphobia is a contemporary source of prejudice that is rampant in many parts of the Western world; it seems to be huge in Australia (Hassan, 2012) particularly after 11 September, 2001 and Australia’s participation the “War on Terror.”

There has been verbal and physical abuse of women wearing headscarves and the chador and many incidents of racist actions to Muslims have been recorded in the Australian news.

Islamaphobia has been defined as “Fear of and prejudicial views on the Islamic faith and Muslims as an ethno-religious community” (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *p. 447).

A key perception of Islam is that it is a threat to Western way of life.

There are two views of Islam: open and closed. The open view sees the wide spectrum of Islam including those who seek to make peace and are open-minded. The closed view is racist (Homes; Hughes, & Julian, *). Islamaphobia is the closed view and seems to be prevalent in Australia.

Australia and connection between religion and ethnicity

There are many who believe Australia to be a racist country whilst mouthing tolerance but insist on assimilation. The dominant religion is Protestantism which is that of the White upper middle and upper classes. Many of the lower classes practice Islam or Hinduism or some other Indian strain. And indeed there is manifested intolerance towards these ethnic groups and to their practiced religion. Socio-economic status seems to parallel religion and advantages seem to largely swim to those in the upper brackets who manifest a certain stain of Christianity (or agnosticism or atheism).

Hassan (2012) observes that whilst “Ethnic Australians are told to “assimilate,” “they are “cleverly divided, weakened and put in “their places,” in segregated communities.” Indigenous Australians particularly feel racism and discrimination. Whilst Australians do espouse service to a multicultural society where all are treated equally despite skin color and background, research has shown that about 85 per cent of Australians believe that racism is a problem in Australia (Hassan, 2012)

3. A twenty-year-old unemployed Lebanese male steals an $80,000 luxury care. He is arrested, convicted and sentenced to two years in goal. A white male steals $10 million dollars from investors. He is arrested but not convicted. How might sociologists explain this scenario?

The example typifies ethnic discrimination and bigotry.

Australians subscribe to the idea of a meritocracy. Yet as we have seen, blatant discrimination between Whites and other ethnicities occur on a routine level. And this discrimination is not limited to Australia alone.

Reason for this discrimination may be reduced to various factors:

1. The conflict thesis — where the dominant culture is afraid that the minority culture will grow and overtake it. There is also an innate fear of and distrust towards individuals who are different. Sherif and Sherif’s (1953) conflict theory, is an example of one such explanation which attributed intergroup conflicts to interracial interests and social structure.

2. There may also be the “labeling” assumption where people already associate a certain group / individual with a certain tendency and are apt to see them that way. This effects perspective of other and interpretation. The judge expects the Lebanese to steal; his punishment is harsher since he is considered guilty even before being tried. The White male however may be exonerated due to the same stereotypical associations (that the White is ordinarily honest and that usual circumstance beyond his control caused him to deviate).

3. Simply the existence of institutional racism which consists of three forms:

(i) Personally-mediated – the existence of personal forms of prejudice that the owner is aware of.

(ii) Internalized, – Internalized reflects stereotypes that are part of the human’s makeup. It also refers to socialized prejudices that the human absorbed from his culture

(iii) Institutional. – The bigotry inherent in and traditional to the organization / country / particular institution. This, Hassan (2012) claims is endemic to Australia. Although Australians possesses internalized and personal prejudice too.

The internalized explanation has become the dominant paradigm of today. Researchers, such as Kahneman and Tversky, demonstrated that rationality was reducible to mental heuristics, and prejudice came to be considered as an inevitable outcome of cognitive schemas (namely cognitive structures that guide information processing). This cognitive approach — still cited in standard psychology textbooks (such as Weiten, 2007) as source for stereotypes and prejudice) is the theoretical basis that underlies prejudice-associated interventions. Many sociologists and psychologists believe that prejudice is a product of evolutionary heuristics that cause us to stereotype in order to separate our group from another.

Political power

In another way we can explain the above with the Marxist and Weberian theory of political power where the dominant class — which happens to be White in Australia — holds political power due to their higher income and educational privileges and arbitrarily controls individuals of ethnic minorities.

In Australia since the 1980s, it has been economic factors that have influenced government and politics. Politicians are unlikely to act against the interests of big businesses and the Labor party accepts economic rationalization as its philosophy and deliberately courts big business (Kelly, 1994). Most of the political policies accord with corporate concerns. In this way, it is the upper class — rather than the government that rules Australia and so, therefore, if a member of the central or middle class white male is convicted of larceny he is more unlikely to receive a severe sentence than is an ‘outsider’.

In fact, many individuals of the lower middle class and working class often feel victimized and powerless in their class situation. They have limited access to power, often lose in class conflicts, and cannot even appeal to their political and union leaders — most of who come from central and upper middle classes (McGregor, 1997)

4. Why has free access to public education not led to equal educational outcomes?

This can be informed by the controversial Coleman report which concluded that academic achievement was not related to distribution of finances or to any sort of endeavor on the government’s part of rising academic achievement in the schools’. Rather academic excellence rested on something that was outside the purview of the government and this was on family background. In other words, that the socio-economic status of the family instigated how they were rated in school and how they were perceived and this, in turn, had a rebound effect.

Later researchers came up with similar conclusions suggesting that improvements on schools would have no effect until the government touched the family itself. As long as certain disadvantaged families endured problems and privations, these schools catering to these children would be affected.

There are many factors of exclusion that serve to keep members of underprivileged social classes in their place. One of the most prominent is called ability grouping and tracking .

Ability grouping and tracking

This is where students are labeled, either by IQ and other tests (that reflect cultural tendencies) or by bigotry. The result is reinforcing prophecy where students act out the stereotypes accorded them and are ‘stuck’ in their place. In Australia, we can see this with where many children from tribal members have a difficult time assimilating with members of the larger community, and that this may be due to prejudice and labeling. For instance, approximately 10% of students attending Australian schools and mixing with White Caucasian children are from Aboriginal backgrounds, the majority of whom travel from the local Aboriginal Trust to the school each day. The school’s results from national testing data show that the indigenous students had poor results with more than 25 per cent being below the national minimum standard in reading, writing and mathematics likely due to prejudice and labeling.

Education also socializes the child into his or her role in life. The rich man’s son is prepared for the law, whilst the student who attends working class schools is socialized for a working class job and income (Encel, 1970).

Parental expectations

Edgar (1981) too shows that expectations of the parents of the different groups too influences educational outcome. A professional father for instance may expect his son to pay more attention to the law than would the miner whose son attends the school. True that Australia does grant equal education and does encourage social mobility, but the father may not expect his son to be capable of achieving it. For the same reason we have gender differences too. Religion, ethnic background and parental and family (as well as environmental) expectations all influence child’s academic attempts and child’s inclinations towards certain studies.

Educaiton of parents and environemtn of family

In a different way, it is also likely that simply high education of parents have an impact on motivating children and on setting their basis for achieving higher grades.

Support for this assumption comes from the ACER report (2013) that shows growing social stratification amongst Australian schools where students from higher socioeconomic families achieve higher educational outcome: “Socio-economic status, as measured by parents’ occupation, was found to have had a significant effect on the scores achieved by students. Throughout the 1975-1998 periods, students whose parents were employed in professional and managerial occupations had the highest average scores and students whose parents were production workers or laborers had the lowest.” And these results have stayed constant and grown. It may be that the rarefied and enriched educational environment of the child of the professional gave him an advantage in education that the child from the working class family lacked. It is also possible that the child from the advantaged family was given more attention and props necessary to succeed whilst the stress of poverty and deprivation challenged the education of the more deprived student. (ACER e-news (2013).

Other reasons for differences in educational outcome.

Many students from lower-class families may be compelled to leave school and help support their parents. They are thereby stripped of the chance of a college education and other vocational possibilities that the child from the middle class family naturally receives. This is supported by conclusions of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence Life Chances study (2006) that showed that children of low income families are often impeded from continuing their education and most never have the chance to continue on to university.

Finally, although not conclusively, although Australia may insist on free access to public education, prejudice of parents form higher / middle class families prompts them to send their children to specialized schools where they are separated from indigenous Australians. These schools happened to be better funded and to have more amenities and, consequently, the children from wealthier families receive a better quality education. (The Age, 21 March 2008).

Given these factors it is no wonder that products of disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds have a harder time getting into elite colleges, finding quality jobs and retaining them, and procuring the same privileges that their colleagues form more privileged, oftentimes White backgrounds do. It is not that the schools need improvement; it is societal factors that do.

In short, education is both a determinant of income and class and determines income and class. And all of this is highly apparent in the social stratification status of Australia.


ACER e-news (2013) Report shows impact of growing social stratification among Australian schools

Aspin, LJ (1996), Focus on Australian Society, Longman, Melbourne.

Encel, S. (1970). Equality and Authority: A Study of Class, Status and Power

in Australia. Melbourne: Cheshire Publishing.

Hassan, JA (2012) Axis of Logic “Multiculturalism” and Australia’s Great Divide.

Macionis, Gerber, & John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.

Sklair, L. (1996) Conceptualising and researching the Transnational Capitalist Class

in Australia. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology. vol. 32.

no. 2.. pp. 1-15.

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