Social Webs: Relationships of Stratification and Equality
Human beings are social creatures. We naturally gravitate toward complex social systems of interconnected relationships. What comes to mind when you think of the word “relationship?” It the social sciences it implies a connection between people or groups. Many relationships are rewarding and beneficial, but some may be problematic and disabling, such as social stratification. Social stratification is the presence of hierarchies of dominance in a society, when some groups are valued above and have power over others. This is notoriously difficult to change in a society, as it may be partially instinctual.
- Social stratification causes disadvantages for many groups, such as women, the poor and non-white people historically in countries colonized by European or “Western” powers. In non-Western countries, various religious sects, ethnic minorities, political groups, the poor and women exist along a stratified hierarchy. Humankind's inclination toward organizing societies this way may be instinctual based on how much value a society perceives it draws from a given group.
- One of the most problematic consequences of social stratification are adverse impacts passed from generation to generation, such as poverty, illness and crime. Literacy and access to education decreases with each layer of disenfranchisement a group will experience. For example, women in certain countries may not be allowed to do certain things such as leave the house unaccompanied by a man or hold some jobs traditionally held by men, but she may be allowed to learn how to read if her family is rich, if there is no public education available. For other women who are poor, disabled or stigmatized in some way (a member of a certain ethnic group or religious sect) they may be barred from any access to education whatsoever.
Non-State and Nation State
- Some of the disparities of inequality arise from the complexity of differing social systems. Non-state political systems, which humankind evolved within, were largely less hierarchical than the modern nation-state today. Though some authority was always present, tribes and chiefdoms with a few dozen to a few hundred (upwards of a few thousand) people who lived closely with the earth as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists or horticulturalists were more respecting of women in authority. With countless different languages and age-old traditions, these societies were (and are) shamanistic in their religious practices; they sometimes honored those born with disabilities as having valuable spiritual gifts. Nation-state systems, on the other hand, were and are vast, complex hierarchies of agricultural and military power. With multiple millions of people, a figurehead leadership, the use of currency, and the invention of machines, these societies have traditionally been less generous toward women, disabled people, and minority ethnic groups.
Resilience and Change
- Throughout the twentieth century, societies have employed religion and spirituality to combat stratification or inequality. Consider the Catholic liberation theology of South American movements, most notably led by Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Archbishop Romero lived in a land which was facing a torturous military regime responsible for cruel and inhumane treatment of the Salvadoran people. Romero said, “If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people”. He was inspired by the sacred teachings of Catholic Christianity about resurrection and eternal life, and he used these great visions to embolden his people to stand up for their rights as human beings. Sacred mythology can give us insight into the collective subconscious, illuminating timeless questions about society and the struggle for equality. Other movements have called on the power of the arts and literature to empower disadvantaged groups. Female authors have long been a steady force for women's rights, and music of ethnic minorities bonds suffering people in a shared experience. Survivors of trauma or war, who are prone to becoming stigmatized or marginalized (veterans and those suffering from mental health issues) may turn to art to express what they have experienced and what they believe about the society they must learn to be a part of again.
- Many contemporary movements strive to mimic the greater social equality our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew in their daily lives. A return to interest in sustainable, egalitarian agriculture (such as permaculture), various women's rights movements, and integrating people of different ethnicities champions the inherent value we all have to contribute to society. In many hunter-gatherer worldviews, a person's ability to contribute to the society was more important than their gender or phenotype. Furthermore, our ancient ancestors were not worried about the destruction of the earth's environment, there being a poignant relationship between the suppression of marginalized groups and the treatment of the earth.
Looking Back with Perspective
- However, the advances of the modern world have, arguably, brought more equality to our time than at any other point in history after the invention of agriculture. We are fortunate to have the ability to do research and understand the grand arc of our history. We in the modern day have the rare ability in history to maintain perspective on society and attempt to prevent stratification where possible. We now have a discernible past, the ability to learn from social history so as not to repeat its worst failures. We may even choose to emulate the successes of a time already lived by our ancestors before us. The ability to glimpse our societal trajectory contributes to a universal code of human rights, an idea which would be impossible to achieve in days gone by.
- Nanda, Serena, and Richard L. Warms. Cultural Anthropology. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2010, 2010.
- Bottero, Wendy. Stratification: Social Division and Inequality. London: Routledge, 2007.
- Dahlberg, Frances. Woman the Gatherer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
- Golden, Renny. "Oscar Romero: Bishop of the Poor." USCatholic.org. February 5, 2009. Accessed August 17, 2016.
© 2016 Amber MV