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In this lesson, we define global stratification and discuss how nations are stratified.

We discuss the outdated three-world model as well as the current differences between high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries.

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Global Stratification

Several times in this class, we’ve discussed the diversity of the U.S., including significant inequalities between social classes. But throughout history, inequality has existed everywhere. It seems like some people have just always had more wealth, power, and prestige than others. As a result, society is stratified.

Social stratification is a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy, and we’ve talked about it in depth in other lessons. In this lesson, we’ll focus not on how classes of people are stratified but how entire nations are stratified in relation to each other. Global stratification is social stratification on a global scale. Where social stratification draws attention to inequalities between smaller groups of people, global stratification draws attention to inequalities between entire countries.

Three-World Model

The three-world model was originally based on political ideologies
World Categories

For a long time, Americans have used three categories to stratify nations: first-, second-, and third-world. However, these ‘world’ categories were socially constructed during the Cold War. The First World included the U.S.

and other capitalist nations. Communist nations made up the Second World, and the Third World was everyone else. So the categories were originally based on political ideology.

Over time, they started to also be used as economic definitions. For example, when you hear about a third-world country, you probably think of an undeveloped nation with widespread suffering.Although the three-world model was useful during the Cold War, it is less useful today as it does not accurately reflect the uneven distribution of resources and power among nations.

For one thing, it lumps together over 100 nations as the Third World. Some of the nations in this category are much more industrialized than others and make enough money that they certainly cannot be counted among the poorest countries of the world.

Income Categories

For this reason (among others), sociologists now categorize countries based on gross domestic product, which is an indicator of a country’s wealth and standard of living. As with social classes found on a smaller scale, money is the biggest determinant of status when it comes to global stratification. Most of the important differences between nations originate from their degree of wealth or poverty. Therefore, the most popular global stratification categories today are high-, middle-, and low-income countries.

Let’s look at the characteristics of each of these.First, high-income countries are the richest nations with the highest overall standards of living. Rich nations are generally those who were the first to industrialize. They are capital-intensive and utilize advanced technology. High-income countries include approximately 25% of the nations in the world, yet they hold most of the world’s wealth. Three examples are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

Although these nations do have many poor people, most of the poor still have a better standard of living than the lowest-income nations.The largest proportion of the world’s nations – about 42% – falls into the middle-income category. Middle-income countries have average income and a standard of living about average for the world as a whole. India, Egypt, and Mexico are examples of middle-income countries. Most of these nations became industrialized relatively late in the twentieth century, so they aren’t nearly as advanced (or wealthy) as high-income countries. And, although life is substantially better for these people than their low-income neighbors, it’s not even close to the lifestyle of most in high-income countries.

Problems that people in low-income countries face include insufficient housing and unsanitary water
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