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Stratification: Sociology and Social Structure

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Topics: Sociology
What have been the major characteristics of changing patterns of stratification in the Caribbean? Show specific evidence to support your answer.

An egalitarian society is one in which no one is categorized as poor or rich, as all members are equal. However there is no such society! Persons can only dream that one day our society will be egalitarian, but the reality is, we live in a society based on class, exploitation, oppression, privilege and status and although the stratification in the Caribbean has changed slightly, it still exists.
For Haralambos and Holborn (2004), stratification ‘refers to the presence of distinct social groups which are ranked one above the other in terms of factors such as prestige and wealth’. With accordance to this definition Mustapha describes social stratification as ‘structured social inequality’ which is the unequal distribution of wealth, power, prestige, opportunities and influences.

According to the view of Karl Marx, classes came about when the difference in income was so great that it enabled one group of people to exploit the labour of another. The exploiters were usually a small group of persons and the exploited, a large group with no property owning nothing, but their labour. This scenario of the rich exploiting the poor can be traced back to slavery days. The exploiters beings the plantation owners were white in race, and the slaves of African descent being the ones exploited. The pattern of stratification in the Caribbean, with the rich whites dominating the poor blacks has changed over the years. The closed society that was present during slavery was based solely on ascribed statuses which Mustapha describes as’ those that are fixed at birth and unchangeable during a persons lifetime.
A persons’ race and sex are example of ascribed statuses. Feminist S, Firestone showed that sex-class system in which men belong to the dominant exploiter class and women, regardless of their economic situation, occupy the subordinate class. Females were unable to hold certain jobs that were classified as male jobs such engineering and any other manual labour jobs, they were not seen as able to do these jobs and even if they were holding the same position as a male they would be paid less.
Simply put, race is related to physical features such as skin colour or facial characteristics. During slavery race was a major factor that contributed to the stratification system. The whites were seen as a more superior race and in economic and political terms they were more powerful than browns or blacks since ascription was combined with differences in wealth and income. Blacks were unable to hold certain positions because there was no social mobility from one class to another. Also they did not have the required knowledge to work the same jobs as the whites because they were not given the opportunity to be educated.

Pluralism has been said to be one of the greatest reasons that the Caribbean societies are stratified. There has been tension in the plural societies especially between the East Indians and blacks because of issues that occurred during the period of indentureship when the East Indians arrived on the plantation and were willing to work for lower wages, causing the African’s wages to be lowered as well.
M.G Smith regarded most West Indian societies as plural societies. His assumption was based on the fact that ‘there are many different cultural segments that exist side by side but do not share important social institutions such as family and marriage, religion and property.’ Smith believed that it was through these segments that stratification occurred; with whites on the top, brown in the middle and blacks at the base.

Lloyd Braithwaite viewed the social structure in Trinidad ad one based on an ascriptive vs. particularistic foundation. The whites were viewed positively and the blacks negatively. Indians, Chinese and other immigrants separated themselves from the blacks. All these things caused a lack of integration among the ethnic groups causing the division and stratification to exist. In Trinidad at this time one could not do certain things unless you were whiter. Mustapha gives this example; ‘one could not have been a carnival queen unless she was white.’ Although there was discord amongst the different ethnic groups, one thing that linked them together was an assimilation of white values through the process of acculturation. For example English was accepted as the official language. Creolization occurred amongst the ethnic minorities, which is the process of change and adaptation that occurs over time. Interculturation also took place during the period of indentureship amongst the whites, blacks and the East Indians. Creolization prevented a threat to groups that were trying to preserve their culture and heritage, but it was also a tool used for adaptation and survival so it was vital.
Selwyn Ryan (1990), built on Braithwaite’s earlier work and stated his belief that the ascriptive- particularistic foundation on the social structure of Trinidad has given way to an open class system based on meritocracy. No longer does a person’s ethnicity or race affect his/her life chances in society. Ryan believed that the social structure had undergone a significant transformation because of three main factors. However he believed that the ascriptive- particularistic vestiges still exist today.

The three main factors that led to the change in stratification systems from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ are the availability of education, political independence and the transformation of the economy and each of these factors enabled social mobility which was essential for the stratification systems to change. During slavery times blacks were not given the opportunity to be educated and therefore they did not have the same skills and knowledge as the whites who had been educated, schooled and been taught various skills that would help them in the world of work. This enabled them to hold high positions in terms of job opportunities. As the centuries went by after slavery was abolished, blacks were given the opportunity to be educated and to go to school. This does not mean however, that they were given equal education opportunities because the whites would have sent their children to be educated in the finest private schools where they would get taught by the teachers with the greatest qualifications. Neither the less, blacks were still able to gain enough skill to move up in class and social hierarchy, and hence social mobility occurred.
The economy was set up so that things were done in the interest of the persons of higher class, but as the time has passed the economy has been transformed and now it benefits people of all classes.
During the colonial period the government consisted of whites who dominated the society there was no way that the slaves were able to vote of have their say, everything was done according to how the whites wanted things done. It was only after they got political independence that there was a sense of equality where certain concerns were to be discussed.

It can definitely be said that there has been a change in stratification in the Caribbean, from a ‘closed’ society where social mobility was not possible, to an ‘open’ society where social mobility could occur and the life chance of persons were not based on ethnicity or race.

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