Social stratification defines any structure of inequality that persists in a society across generations. Social strata are groups of people — who belong to the same social class or have the same social level. Social strata are organised in a vertical hierarchy. In the early societies people shared a common social standing. In the hunting and gathering societies there was little stratification: men hunted for meat while women gathered edible plants. The general welfare of the society depended on the mutual sharing of goods between all members and no group emerged as better off than the others.
Social inequality began with the emergence of horticulture and pastoral societies. For the first time people had reliable sources of food and the population increased. Not all members of the societies needed to be involved in the production of food and people were free to choose their occupation. In the agriculture societies that followed, the division of labour resulted in job specialisation where people valued certain jobs more than others. The industrial revolution that started in the 18th century further differentiated people according to their wealth and occupation.
Social stratification can be organised in terms of class, gender, race and ethnicity, age or disability. Social classes based on the economic differences between groups in terms of income and wealth, possession of material goods, occupation and status. This type of stratification is and open system. People are born in a certain class but can move up or down between the different layers. This change of class is called social mobility. People I higher social classes have better access to health, better education, housing and work conditions.
There are two main theories about the formation of classes and the class conflict, the Marxist and the functionalist. The Marxist theory was created in the early to mid 19th century by the German philosophers Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). According to the Marxist theory, class is related to the ownership of the means of production. In the capitalist system, the ruling class owns the means of production. This includes the working class, which has only its own labor of offer in order to survive.
The functionalist theory was created in the 20th century by the American sociologists Kingsley Davis (1908-1997) and Wilbert Moore (1914-1987). The functionalists believe that the classes are necessary to make society effective. According to this theory, a certain number of tasks with a different level of complexity must be accomplished in any society. Those who perform the difficult tasks are entitled to more power, prestige and money.
Social stratification based on race and ethnicity is underpinned by differences determined by the genetic and cultures of groups. Sociologists claim that differences between races are minor and this type of stratification is social. The stratification based on ethnicity results in treatment of groups of people with prejudices and discrimination, giving them different life chances. Unequal life chances can include income, housing, health and employment.
Age stratification could lead to different social status. In some societies older people have higher social status, while in other countries they are considered to be of less value compared to youngsters. Disability stratification is based on physical disadvantages. People with physical disabilities can suffer discrimination in a number of areas.
There are many examples of the injustice of social stratification in our history. The story I am going to tell today has been told many times. It has been made into a classic movie, the story of the unsinkable ship Titanic, this romantic movie is a favourite among movie goers, lovers, and critics and just about everyone. Sadly, the story, the real story on the sinking of the Titanic and of those who survived is an example of the social stratification and how unjust this really is. This year 2014, is the 102 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – an incredible horrific tragedy that resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 individuals.
Queenstown (Cobh) its last port of call – is just a few kilometres from my home town. The Titanic was dubbed “unsinkable” and was so confident in its invincibility that its lifeboat capacity could accommodate less than half of the individuals onboard. While this means that most of the individuals didn’t make it, it does not mean that everyone on board had an equal chance of survival. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The Titanic represents a very clear cut example of social class divisions providing different opportunities (in this case, opportunities to get on a lifeboat and survive) to individuals occupying different classes. Your odds of survival were greatly shaped by your structural location aboard the ship i.e. your social class, gender and age.
The Sad Story.
Under the command of Edward Smith, the ship left Southampton with 2224 passengers on board for Cherbourg and then on to Cobh. Titanic anchored off Roches Point on April 11th 1912 at 12noon and remained in the harbour for almost two hours taking on supplies, mail and additional passengers. They were taken to board Titanic from the old pier in Queenstown as it was then known, in tenders called America and Ireland. The Titanic then sailed with 2347 passengers aboard, including some of the wealthiest people in the world, as well as hundreds of poor emigrants from Europe seeking a new life in North America. The ship had advanced safety features, but there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all those on board. Of the 64 lifeboats supposed to be onboard just 20 were placed on the ship. Four days into the crossing and 375 miles (600 km) south of Newfoundland, on the 15th April 1912, the Titanics hit an iceberg at 11:40pm ship’s time.
The glancing collision caused Titanic’s hull plates to buckle inward along her starboard side and opened five of her sixteen watertight compartments to the sea, the ship gradually filled with water. Meanwhile, passengers and some crew members were evacuated in lifeboats, many of which were launched only partly loaded. The first lifeboat had only 28 people on board (all from first class) when in fact the maximum capacity for each lifeboat was 65 people. By 2:20 am, the giant ship broke apart and foundered, with over 1000 people still on board. At the time of sinking, some stewards kept gates from the lower decks (third class) locked waiting for instructions, some allowed women and children to the upper decks. These gates barred third class passengers from the other passengers, however these gates were not in place to stop a third class passenger from taking a first class passengers seat on a lifeboat, instead the gates were in place as a regulatory measure to prevent the “less cleanly” third class passengers from transmitting diseases and infections to the others. (This was to save time when they arrived in New York, as only the third class passengers would need a health inspection)
In total only 37% of passengers survived. While no one’s luck was good, for some it was not luck but structure that interfered with their chances of survival. Of the 141 women in 1st class 4 perished. Of the 4 women who died three did so because they chose to stay with their husbands. Of the 92 women in 2nd class – 13 died, and 91 of the 179 women in third class died. There were 112 children – 7 in 1st class (1died) — she became separated from her parents, 25 children in 2nd class they all survived and 80 in third class with 55 deaths. Off the 341 men in 1st/2nd class 258 died. There were 450 men in third class, 391 of these men died. Just 44 of the passengers that embarked in Cobh survived. 18 of those lost were form Cork. Nellie Shine(third class) survived and lived to the age of 101. She is believed to be the last Irish Titanic surviver. Nellie passed away 1993 and rarely spoke of her ordeal aboard the ship. Widow Margaret Rice from Westmeath and her five American citizen children were all lost in the tragedy, the biggest family grouping to die. The pier that Cobh’s Titanic passengers left from still stands. It is know as Heartbreak Pier, while Fastnet Rock, the last bit of land seen by Irish emigrants, was referred to as the Teardrop of Ireland.
100 years ago who was allowed onto the rafts largely determined who lived and who died. This was mostly based on your social class and thus it was your social class that determined your life chances.
The story hasn’t much changed today. Access to health insurance, preventative health care, clean air and water, healthy food, and experience of stress are determined by your social class. Since around 1980, the difference in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest has actually grown. Infant mortality rate is highest for low income individuals families, but is even higher in middle class families when compared to the wealthiest (1st class) citizens. Infant mortality is one of the most important indicators of the health of a nation, as it is associated with a variety of factors such as maternal health, quality and access to medical care, socioeconomic conditions , and public health practises.
When researching the sinking of the Titanic and the percentages of those who survived by social class you get a good idea of how social stratification played out on this ship. Indeed we all know “women and children first” 81% of the men on board died. This disaster is a classic extreme example of the relationship between social inequality and mortality, illustrating how gender, race, and aspects of social class impact on our lives. Because the ship was divided into 1st, 2nd and 3rd class cabins, class stratification was exceptionally clear.
What happens when the class of ticket you purchase equates of your life or death? This was the reality for many passengers on the Titanic on the 15th of April 1912.