Introduction to Sociology

Take-home Final Exam

Sociology 001: Introduction to Sociology
Prof. C. Reinarman
Copyright © 1999 B. A. Collie Collier


Sociology 1 - Final Exam

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Question 1:

Is American society as open, as upwardly socially mobile, as we like to believe? Social mobility is defined in Giddens as the movement of individuals and groups between different class positions. From further study of Giddens we can deduce that the U.S. is a class-based society, based on the four common elements found in class societies. These are: that class systems are fluid, are in some part achieved, are large-scale and impersonal, and that class itself is economically based. Thus individuals in the U.S. are not born to a particular class and do indeed have some social mobility available between classes to them, unlike a caste system. Furthermore the borders between classes are not clear-cut, and inequalities are not expressed through individual relationships, but through large-scale, impersonal societal institutions. However, in spite of the apparent looseness of class relationships, studies show that our life chances for changing economic status are not as good as the myth of America's 'open' society might have us believe, but are about the same regardless of which society we live in. Indeed, it is the last of the four characteristics of a class society (class systems are large-scale and impersonal) that give us the first clues as to how social stratification is maintained in the U.S.

It is always easier to be impersonal, to treat someone you don't know poorly, as opposed to someone you know. Thus certain social myths arise as a sort of mental shorthand that allow such behavior. For example, there is in America a pervasive, although statistically incorrect, view of the poor as lazy welfare recipients, responsible for their own poverty and living on government handouts. In reality about a third of those living in poverty don't receive welfare because they don't know they could. Additionally, about half of the welfare recipients are actually working. However, as a result of these myths, being on welfare in America has become a source of shame, even a sort of lifetime sentence if its recipients are among the long-term unemployed.

Perhaps the clearest example of this deliberate stratification can be found in the article "Domestic Networks" by Stack, concerning the Flats, in particular the incident where one of the families received a windfall of over a thousand dollars cash. The welfare office discovered this within a week, and immediately refused any further monies to this family until all the cash had been spent. As Stack put it "The first surplus the family ever acquired was effectively taken from them (p. 353)." Had the welfare office not done this it is possible the family in question might have been able to use the money to improve their financial situation significantly. However, since they were allowed no extra benefit from this money, they were effectively kept from either doing so, or changing their status whatsoever.

An unequal and stratified society is maintained by less direct methods as well, of course. It has been noted in recent studies that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is caused at least in part by structural mobility, or the increase of better paying occupations at the expense of lower paying ones. Reich discusses this extensively in his article "As the World Turns." In it he notes three broad categories of American jobs: 1) symbolic-analytic services, 2) routine production services, and 3) routine personal services. He points out that the number of well-paying, high status symbolic-analytic jobs is growing rapidly in America, at the expense of the routine production or blue-collar jobs. Blue-collar jobs, in fact, are being increasingly moved from America to some other country by the international corporations (themselves run by members of the symbolic-analytic category of jobs); unsurprisingly the rich benefit and the poorer suffer by these actions. Finally he notes that routine personal services, while a growing category, are increasingly feminized and are traditionally low paying, low status jobs filled by persons of color. Here we see race and gender used to determine who takes which jobs.

Status can be, of course, as fluid as class. In our class notes the concept of intergenerational and short-range mobility was discussed. It is true, as was noted, that intergenerational mobility, or the idea that your kids will do better than you did, is a goal in the U.S. However, what might appear to be intergenerational mobility is sometimes in actuality short-range mobility. For example, a blue-collar worker might be proud of his child's white-collar job, since it is higher status than his job is. Checking the actual income of the parent and child would reveal, however, that the blue-collar worker in actuality makes more money than the white-collar worker; thus the child has only short-term mobility.

From a theoretical perspective Marx' assessment of the relationship between the capitalists and labor as an exploitative one seems correct. Owning the means of production and taking the surplus value, as the capitalists do, does seem to increase the gap between the rich and poor. However, whether it was done deliberately or not, the middle class is today materially much better off than it was in Marx' time. It is the lower class that appears to be accumulating "misery, agony of labor, slavery, ignorance, brutality, moral degradation," and frequently they are too busy trying to find jobs to be starting a revolution of the masses. They appear to be more like Weber's 'pariah groups' than Marx' 'middle class.' Weber's theories, including his recognition of the importance of status (which can be drawn from race or gender as well as class), appears to be closer to actuality than Marx' theories. As noted in Giddens, status is based on subjective evaluations of social differences; since race or gender is as easy or easier to recognize as class, they all (unsurprisingly) strongly affect status, which helps determine who gets which jobs. As Aronowitz notes in his article "Colonialized Leisure, Trivialized Work," 'The condition of success of capitalist culture is its ability to thwart the development of alternatives. This task can only be achieved by exposing the new elites to their negations and assisting them to find ways to make any negation an instrument of domination (p. 381).' Or in other words, despite individual effort or ability, we can see that wealth, power, and privilege are still socially structured along class, racial, and gender lines.

Last Updated: Tue Dec 14 1999