Social Stratification

Social Stratification

In Chapter 3 we discussed how individuals belong to various social groups. For the purposes of understanding socialization, we described how important it is for individuals to recognize the significance of these social groupings. For the purposes of understanding oppression, we must also understand that these groups are given different value in our society. This process of assigning unequal value is called social stratification.

PERSPECTIVE CHECK: Figure 5.1 is not intended to imply that these are the only forms of oppression in society. For example, we have not included oppressions such as adultism, ageism, linguicism, or sizeism, nor have we separated out the way that anti-Semitism is both a form of religious oppression and also


ethnic oppression. Our intention is not to deny the reality of these forms of oppression but rather to provide a starting point for those new to the recognition of group membership and social positionality.

All major social group categories (such as gender) are organized into binary, either/or identities (e.g., men/women). These identities depend upon their dynamic relationship with one another, wherein each identity is defined by its opposite. The category “men” can have no meaning without an understanding of a category called “women.” Not only are these groups constructed as opposites, but they are also ranked into a hierarchy. This means that one group (men) is positioned as more valuable than its opposite (women). The group that is positioned as more valuable—the dominant group—will have more access to the resources of society. The group that is positioned as less valuable—the minoritized group—will have less access to the resources of society. The terms used to describe these relationships of inequality between dominant and minoritized groups usually ends in “ism.” Figure 5.1 illustrates the historical and current relationships between some of these key social groups in Canada and the United States and the term for that specific form of oppression.

Figure 5.1. Group Identities Across Relations of Power


As you read down the table, you will probably find yourself in both dominant and minoritized group positions (i.e., falling sometimes on the left side and sometimes on the right side of the oppression column). One is not simply a man, but a cisgender man, a White man, or a man of Color; or a working-class White man, perhaps a working-class gay White man, or a heterosexual Christian able-bodied man of Color—and each of these identity positions intersect in important ways.

In the case of women’s suffrage, we can see how these intersecting group identities add more layers of complexity. Women’s suffrage is a more complicated story when we add the dimensions of class and race. White women of the upper classes led the initial movement for women’s suffrage in both Canada and the United States (Davis, 1981; Devereux, 2005; Newman, 1999). In Canada, racial exclusion in suffrage was not removed until the 1940s and did not extend the right to vote freely to Indigenous peoples until the 1960s. In the United States, Black women did not have full access to the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So while the women we commonly refer to as suffragists were oppressed as women, they were privileged as White women: Their race was made neutral and natural to the exclusion and marginalization of women of Color, as they were held up as representing all women. For example, one of the key issues of suffragists was entry into the workforce. But of course women of Color had long been working outside the home. Their interests may have been better served by calls for economic justice. The life and work of Dolores Huerta (Figure 5.2) embodies the concept of intersectionality.

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Social Stratification
Social Stratification

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