Social Groups and Social Stratification The big questions

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Social Groups and Social Stratification

The BIG Questions

  • What is the range of cross-cultural variation of social groups?

  • What is social stratification, and what are its effects on people?

  • What is civil society?

What is a social group?

  • A social group is a cluster of people beyond the domestic unit who are usually related on grounds other than kinship, although kinship relationships may exist between people in the group

  • Members of all social groups have a sense of rights and responsibilities in relation to the group which, if not maintained, could mean loss of membership

Categories of social groups

  • Primary group – consisting of people who interact with each other and know each other personally

  • Secondary group – consisting of people who identify with each other on some common ground but who may never meet with one another or interact with each other personally

Types of Social Groups

  • Friendship

  • Clubs and fraternities

  • Countercultural groups

  • Work groups

  • Cooperatives

  • Self-help groups


  • Friendship refers to close social ties between at least two people that are informal, are voluntary, and involve personal, face-to-face interaction

  • Friends are mutually supportive of each other, psychologically and sometimes materially


  • Vary cross culturally

  • e.g. Racial segregation, gender segregation may limit possibilities for friendships

  • Influenced by technology

  • Cell phones

  • May play important roles in economic survival

  • In low income communities

  • Sharing, swapping goods (food and clothing), baby sitting, lending money between individuals

  • Often refer to each other by kin terms to signify the importance and significance of these relationships

Clubs and Fraternities

  • Clubs and fraternities are social groups that define membership in terms of a sense of shared identity and objectives

  • May comprise of people of the same…

  • Ethnic heritage

  • Occupation or business

  • Religion

  • Gender

  • Often some sort of initiation to be accepted

  • Anything from paying monetary dues to gang rape

Clubs and Fraternities

  • Have a variety of functions

  • Sociability

  • Psychological support

  • Economic and political roles

  • Sponsoring special events

  • Responding to emergencies

  • Collecting food or money to distribute to those less fortunate

  • Volunteering in the community in other ways

  • Etc.

Countercultural Groups

  • People who resist conforming to the dominant cultural pattern – are outside the “mainstream” of society

  • Hippies

  • Youth gangs

  • Body modification groups

  • Importance of bonding through shared initiation and other rituals

Youth gangs

  • Youth gang refers to a group of young people, found mainly in urban areas, who are often considered a social problem by adults and law enforcement officials

  • Are not always violent

  • May be very formally organized or informally organized

Street gangs

  • Have leaders and a hierarchy of membership roles and responsibilities

  • Theories for why individuals join street gangs include…

  • Coming from homes with no male authority figure with whom they could identify

  • Replacing a missing feeling of family

  • Defiant individualist personality – characterized by intense competitiveness, mistrust of wariness, self-reliance, social isolation, and a strong survival instinct

  • **Poverty – declining urban industrial base causes declining economic opportunities. Illegal pursuits that can be pursued often through street gangs are often much more lucrative than available economic legal activities

Body Modification Groups

  • Include people who have a sense of community strengthened through forms of body alteration

  • Doing something that sets apart from others, to identify with a certain body modification group

  • Often not accepted by the “mainstream”

Work Groups

  • Work groups are groups organized to perform specific tasks

  • Prominent in horticultural and agricultural communities

  • Building homes, roads, land preparation, harvesting, or repair of irrigation canals require large inputs of labor that exceed the capability of a single household unit

  • May provide labor for chiefs

  • Often made up of youths

  • Can be informally or formally organized


  • Cooperatives are a form of economic group with two key features

  • Surpluses are shared among the members

  • Decision making follows the democratic principle of one vote per person

  • Agricultural cooperatives

  • Financial cooperatives (credit unions)

  • Consumer cooperatives

  • Business/craft cooperatives

  • May be beneficial economically and may provide a source of mutual strength and support

Self-Help Groups

  • Self-help groups are groups formed to achieve specific personal goals

  • Coping with illness or bereavement

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)

  • Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)

  • Lifestyle change

  • Trying to exercise more or lose weight

  • Numbers have proliferated in recent years

  • Can occur in person or online


Social Stratification

  • Social stratification consists of hierarchical relationships between different groups – as though they were arranged in layers or strata

  • Stratified groups may be unequal on a variety of measures, including material resources, power, human welfare, education, leisure activities, overall lifestyle, and symbolic attributes

  • A person’s position or standing in society is referred to that person’s status

Social Stratification

  • Social stratification appeared relatively late in human history, most clearly with the emergence of agriculture

Social Stratification

  • All social stratification systems have several commonalities

  • People in groups in higher positions have privileges not experienced in lower-echelon groups

  • Those with greater entitlements dominant those with lesser entitlements

  • Members of the dominant groups tend – consciously or unconsciously – to seek to maintain their position

  • In spite of efforts to maintain systems of dominance, instances of subversion and rebellion do occur, indicating the potential for agency among the oppressed

Social Stratification

  • Status in society may be…

  • Ascribed

  • Based on qualities of a person gained through birth

  • More “closed” in terms of mobility within the system

  • “Race”
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Physical ability
  • Achieved

  • Based on qualities of a person gained through action

  • More “open” in terms of mobility within the system

  • Class

Social Class

  • Social class refers to a person’s or group’s position in society defined primarily in economic terms

  • In many cultures, class is a key factor in determining a person’s status, whereas in others, it is less important than, for example, birth into a certain family

  • Is a secondary group

Social Class

  • Prevailing ideology in U.S. is that of meritocratic individualism

  • Influenced by theories of agency

  • The belief that rewards go to those who deserve them

  • Individual has the option of moving up in class if they work hard

  • “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

  • Structurists point to the power of economic class position in shaping a person’s lifestyle and his/her ability to choose a different one

  • Lack of money and other economic resources

Race”, Ethnicity, Gender, and Caste

  • Are secondary groups

  • Highly determined at birth, but there is a slight degree of maneuverability within the system

  • Degree of maneuverability often depends on the cultural-context

  • Degree of discrimination against these groups differs depending on the cultural context

Traditional Concept of “Race”

  • Humans naturally categorize the natural world and other people around them to try to make sense of and order the world and the variation that exists around us.

  • As early as 1350 B.C. ancient Egyptians were classifying humans on the basis of skin color – superficial, obvious differences.

  • Since this time (especially after the discovery of the New World), race has been used to refer to culturally defined groups.

Problem with the Traditional Concept of “Race”

  • Not just descriptive categories of physical appearance, but have been used to rank races in a hierarchy or superiority/inferiority and associate various behavioral and intellectual characteristics with physical appearance, justifying slavery, discrimination, etc. against people of different races for hundreds and thousands of years.

  • Belief that behavioral differences were biologically caused by “race”

Problem with the Traditional Concept of “Race”

  • Racial categories have no basis in biology

  • Biologically, race is not a valid concept, especially from a genetic perspective

  • Impossible to tell biologically where one race ends and another begins

  • Genetic variation within racial groups is much greater than the genetic variation between racial groups

Modern Day Understanding of Race in Everyday Life

  • Race has been traditionally used as a biological term, but it has enormous social significance.

  • Still a widespread perception that certain physical characteristics are associated with various cultural attributes

  • Influence social identity (along with age and gender)

  • Plays a huge role in how someone is initially perceived and judged by others

Modern Day Understanding of Race in Everyday Life

  • Racial classifications based on skin color, depth of skin tone, skin texture, hair color, facial features, other physical features

  • Levels of income, levels of education, amount of money may influence racial categorizations

  • “Money whitens” in many areas

  • People with the same physical features may be considered to be in different “races” depending upon how much money they have


  • Based on false belief that intellect and cultural factors are inherited with physical characteristics.

  • Uses culturally defined variables to typify all members of particular populations.

  • Assumes that one's own group is superior.

  • Racism is a cultural phenomenon (not a biological one) that is found worldwide.


  • Pretending that racism doesn’t exist may allow it continue

  • 1994 – end of apartheid in South Africa

  • Official end of laws supporting segregation

  • Existence of racism is denied

  • Led to lack of public discussions about racism

  • Allows racial discrimination to continue in subtle but often just as harmful ways


  • Racism exists not only between different “races”

  • Racism exists even within “races”

  • There has been a debate within the last year on whether Obama is black enough…


Example: post-apartheid recovery in South Africa


  • Ethnicity is a sense of group membership based on a shared sense of identity

  • May be based on the perception of shared history, territory, language, religion, or a combination of these

  • May experience discrimination based on ethnicity

  • In extreme cases may experience ethnocide = the annihilation of the culture of an ethnic group by a dominant group

Gender and Sexism

  • Gender inequalities are based on perceived differences between people born male or female or somewhere in between

  • Varies cross culturally

  • Patriarchy – male dominance in economic, political, social, and ideological domains

  • Common but not universal cross culturally

  • Varies in severity and results

  • Honor killings are an extreme case
  • Killing a woman whose behavior dishonors her family
  • Legal in Jordon, Morocco, Haiti
  • Have been known to occur in other countries as well - Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda

Gender and Sexism

  • Matriarchy – female dominance in economic, political, social, and ideological domains

  • Found among the pre-colonial Iroquois
  • Minangkabau

Caste System

  • The caste system is a social stratification system linked with Hinduism and based on a person’s birth into a particular group

  • Is an ascribed system

  • Most associated with India

  • Divided into four varnas (their term for their major social categories)

  • Brahmans - priests
  • Kshatriya - warriors
  • Vaishya - merchants
  • Shudras – laborers
  • Within each of these varnas are hundreds of locally named social categories called castes

Caste System

  • There is a fifth group of people called the dalits, or untouchables.

  • There are about 150 million dalits living in India today

  • Are the lowest grouping

  • Sometimes placed outside the varnas system because they are seen as not even being human

  • Discrimination based on caste is illegal in the Indian constitution, but in practice discrimination persists

  • Dalits Can’t own land
  • Relegated to being sweepers, toilet cleaners, working in slaughter houses, etc.
  • Have very limited opportunities for education
  • Have very limited opportunities for advancement
  • May advance if lucky enough to be able to migrate, somehow obtain an education, “marry up”

Civil Society

  • Civil society consists of diverse interest groups that function outside the government to organize economic, political, and other aspects of life

  • Can support the state

  • The Chinese Women’s Movement

  • Can opposed the state

  • Citizens’ rights groups

  • Activist groups

  • Are formed with the goal of protesting certain conditions such as political repression or human rights violations
  • example: CO-MADRES – the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated of El Salvador
  • Formed in 1977 – protests government treatments of prisoners and assassinations and focuses on holding the state accountable for human rights violations during the civil El Salvador war

New Social Movements

  • New social movements refers to activist groups of the late 20th and early 21st century

  • Often formed by oppressed minorities

  • Indigenous peoples

  • Ethnic groups

  • Women

  • Poor

  • Many use cybertechnology to involve networks wider than their immediate social group

  • Use cybernetworking to…

  • Broaden their membership
  • Exchange ideas
  • Raise funds

The BIG Questions Revisited

  • What is the range of cross-cultural variation of social groups?

  • What is social stratification, and what are its effects on people?

  • What is civil society?

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