Stratification is a word geologists use to describe the way rocks build up in layers. It’s also a word that can be applied to sociology. In worldbuilding when we discuss social classes, we’re discussing exactly that: social stratification.
Unlike layers of rock however, social stratification isn’t so clearly defined. Part of that is because of the nature of intersectionality. People belong to different social groups, and often we belong to multiple social groups. Often those groups are determined by things outside of our control, with some exceptions of course.
While I could write (and have plans for) an entire post on intersectionality and how it works, today we’re sticking to the basics of social classes, starting with how to define a social class.
One of the first things to determine is whether you have a class system or a caste system. Although moving up in a class system is difficult, it can be done. Caste systems however are locked, barring entry from one class to the next—both up and down.
At a bare minimum you’ll likely have three social classes. That is the upper, the middle and the lower class. However, in reality you can have far more. Typically the additional layers in social hierarchy are built around the middle class, forming into ‘upper middle’ and ‘lower middle’ classes. You can further differentiate the other classes—upper or lower elite, or even adding a difference between lower-working and working-middle classes.
Regardless of how many classes you have, you’ll need to understand what the difference between each one is. To understand that, take a look at where your power is held. This includes political power, monetary power and physical power.
Depending on your governmental system, the people holding political power could very well be based on either heritage like a monarchy, or elitism such as wealth. Those who hold more power will fall higher in the social ranking than those who lack it. With power comes better access to resources.
Other defining factors for social class include things like education and occupation. Jobs deemed to be somehow unclean or low-skilled won’t net much in the terms of resources (such as wealth or political sway) and as a result, aren’t likely to provide better opportunities either for themselves or their families. Opportunities to better oneself and as a result, better your social class, can be barred because of something like gender, disability and nationality among a dozen other factors.
The tricky part of this is that there’s rarely a clear cut off between one class and the next. When working with measurable things such as acreage of land owned or money it may help to define a range for each class and keep in mind that there will be bleed between each layer and the next. Also keep in mind that even if two characters have the same access to resources such as wealth or education, other factors such as health, ability, gender and family reputation will affect where they fall.
How do your social classes break down? What does social stratification look like in your worldbuilding?