The Impact of Social Stratification

We’re all human. None of us have a say in what circumstances we are born. Pretty much any other characteristic by which people can be defined produces some form of social stratification. Thinking about it boggles the mind. I’ve grown up with the ideas of caste and class, and tried to understand how anyone can willingly accept being “put in their place” by the people around them. In the end, I think it all comes down to the perception of power, the ways in which circumstances can be used to dominate society.

It is fair to say that society, like reality itself, is created and sustained by our participation. Society is an unspoken contract, and one that is sort of worked out on the fly and passed down in its present, imperfect form through each generation. We pride ourselves on the progress we have made, but honestly it seems that whatever progress we have made has been in spite of ourselves. But, how can we address it critically and sensibly?

It is so easy to point the finger of blame, or to rationalize human behavior, but I’m still asking myself, “Why does anyone put up with this?” There are certain things, things we have created, that make us desperately unequal. Consider the tendency of formal organizations to create authority, or formal systems to create wealth, or formal status or merit to create prestige.

These are useful things, but they need to be paired with responsibility, integrity, and humility. Look at the way that groups are formed on the basis of common identity or purpose, but create trends of positive and negative discrimination, and the guidelines for institutionalizing them as caste or class. Think of the many ways that individuals who have gained a privileged place in society have acted to protect their privilege by limiting opportunities, controlling resources, creating surplus labor forced to compete for reduced wages.

The fact is that any system or organization can be leveraged to create power, in one of many forms. Money is economic power. Prestige is social power. Authority is political power. This is power we all have, but depending on where we are in the system, that power is either channeled away from us, or right into our hands, and it happens because we allow it to happen. The problem is that social stratification dramatically shifts the balance and flow of power. The more concentrated the power structure becomes, the more severe the inequalities of society.

The ultimate danger is not revolution, however. The more extreme the imbalance is, the more coercive the power structure becomes, the more controlling it becomes. The real danger is not that people will fight the system. The real danger is that they will simply abandon it. They will try to escape their miserable lives through drugs and debauchery, they will turn to crime and simply take what they require, or they will quietly, desperately, take their own lives.

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