Social Divisions – Chapter 7 – Discovering Sociology

In Chapter 7 we look at how societies
are divided, the real divisions that have impact on groups of people and often
inequalities in society. In order to think about social divisions we have to
recognize that the goodies of society, the privileges and capitals that we have
in society, aren’t shared out equally – not everyone has a fair start in life and
not everyone has equally good lives in society – and to understand this, to
understand this unfair or uneven distribution of these things, we need to
look at power. We need to have a sociological understanding of what power
is. At its simplest level, power is the production of intended effects or to be
able to get what you want even if someone else doesn’t want that.
Sociological theories of power have developed much more than that, become
really quite complex, and we look at those in the book and discuss that in this chapter, but we focus now more on the ways in which this power is
used to structure society and the three core ways that we focus in this chapter
are based on race, gender and class. Now there are others we could have focused
on and there are others you could look at in further reading, around religion for
example, around countries and nation-states, but these are the three
we’re focusing on now. So the first core issue we focus on in terms of
divided societies is that of class, partly that’s because going back to Karl
Marx and kind of the birth of sociology we discuss in Chapter 2, the economy
and how money has been unevenly distributed is a core way in which
societies are divided, and that has been central to sociology, particularly
British sociology, but something that’s important that has emerged is that when
we talk about class we’re not just talking about your financial wealth or
how much money you have or how much property you own; there are social
dimensions to class as well and we really focus on this in the chapter by
looking at the work of Pierre Bourdieu and we look at and he talks about
different capitals, so there is an economic capital (how much money you have)
but there’s cultural capital, social capital and symbolic capital – not going
to go into all of those now but it’s to recognize that who you know matters in
terms of what life chances you have. Where your degree is from, or whether you
have a degree, it’s not just the skills you have with that but the status that
that confers, and so in order to understand how
societies are divided by class, why middle class people and upper class people tend
to receive better things from society and from governance and institutions
than working-class people, we need to be able to have that sociological
understanding. The second area we look at is that of race. Now race really came out
and took on importance and emerged even as an idea as the global slave trade
occurred and as European traders conquered America and other countries. Race became so valued because it was the thing that legitimized slavery, because
it was through racist ideas that people that groups of people could be deemed as
less worthy than other groups of people. So that’s why when we talk about race
some people will put race in quotes and other people will use ethnicity to talk
about kind to talk about issues but then the other key way that is used to
understand this is with the term critical ahead of it, so to say that and
that critical is to recognize that social justice element and to recognize
the deeply problematic way in which race emerged as a term. And so critical race theory placed race as the primary lens of analysis and it said we need to
understand if we want to understand society we have to think about race and
about who is gaining from these decisions in racial terms. And that’s
been a really important strain of theory in this area and we cover it
in the book in detail, but then black feminist thought came along alongside that
and argued that while race is of fundamental importance it shouldn’t be
at the expense of other ways of thinking and so black feminist thought said
actually gender and class and sexuality are other key ways of understanding
society and the concept they used, which is really important here, is
intersectionality, is this idea that different forms of oppression don’t just
stack on top of each other but that they act synergistically to produce something
different and that can mean that if you are a gay man your experiences will be
very different if you’re rich and white and living in England versus if you
are poor and black and living in a homophobic country in a different part
of the world. So intersectionality recognizes how these things will be
different in different contexts. And building on that kind of idea of black
feminist thought the third core area we look at is that of gender –
looking at how power and privilege is unevenly distributed based on one sex.
Just like with understandings of race these theories of gender speak to issues
of social construction, how there are some biological realities to
being a person of color or being a particular gender, but the meanings and
the inequalities that we see in society have nothing to do with that biology but
are the result of social structures, interactions and social histories that
have led to these differences. And in the section on gender we focus as well on
the political action around this, so we look at feminism and how there are three
stages of feminism that have sought to contest and challenge inequality by
gender. Sadly there are many other topics we could have focused on in this chapter
on how societies are divided; what we’ve provided here though is a conceptual and
sociological framework by which you can understand such inequalities and we hope
that you take these ideas and reflect on them in your life and in understanding
societies around you.

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