Integration Paper on Social Class and Inequality
Introduction to Sociology
Professor Sharon Preves
Due by November 18th, 2002
Turned in by November 25th, 2002
Yong Ho Kim
Any large enough society in the world today faces problems of individual and social inequality among its people. In chapter 10 of his book, Newman has addressed this issue through different approaches and mentioned theories from other sociologists who have talked about the poor class.
Two opposing views on inequality
Structural-Functionalists argue that inequality is unavoidable given the way society works. Some occupations, such as health and teaching, exert an important influence on society. Therefore, these occupations need to be occupied by talented and responsible people, and the only way to encourage those people is to offer them better rewards in the form of money and prestige. Through an analogous reasoning, if anybody, regardless of talent, could serve in a position, then that position needs not to be rewarded as highly, since somebody will fill it up anyways.
Of course, the idea of competitive individualism is permeated in this thought, since the assumption is that since most people want to occupy important and influential positions, they will work hard to obtain such goal. And this idea, that people only need to put effort into their work regardless of their initial conditions to get those positions and thus “succeed in society”, is what competitive individualism is about.
Conflict theorists state that there is a starting difference for people that is almost impossible to break given the desire of the wealthy and powerful class to maintain their status. According to conflict theory, since people will try to get their best out of the circumstances, the very rich simply exploit the better chances they have of making higher profit because of their initial resources.
Marx divides people into three classes depending on the factors of ownership and control of labor. Those who don’t neither control nor own labor, are called proletariat. Those who own labor but do not control it, are called the petite bourgeoisie. And, those who both manage and own labor are called Capitalists. However, as capitalism evolved and systems of production became more complex, there was a need to add the managerial class into the model, who are those who control labor but don’t own it.
I was vaguely aware of the Marxian model of class, but couldn’t really place my family – or my parents – neatly in the opposing proletariat-bourgeois model, until I found Wright’s model which included the managers. From the strictly social point of view, my parent’s job as missionary involved hiring people using resources of the supporting foundation. I could glimpse the dilemmas of the managerial class (and the ambiguity they represent to the rest of the social divisions) as my dad had to fire several people who opposed foundation-led local projects. He would have built close-knit friendships with co-workers, but still it was him who decided their hire.
According to Newman, absolute poverty and relative poverty are different concepts. Absolute poverty refers to the absolute minimum to sustain life. Relative, on the other hand, refers to the standards of “minimum” as defined by the particular culture the poor person is located in. Strictly speaking, for example, not having a bathroom at home would still be considered above absolute poverty levels.
This leads to the issue of inequality across countries around the globe. Various sociologists point out that the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries in the world keeps on increasing. Newman to several authors who point at the causes of such increasing gap as colonization and other factors, but I think it’s more extended.
Tak points out that there are numerous and various regulations in the international arena today than there was two hundred years ago. Back in the 1800s, while Europe and the U.S. was undergoing the intense process of industrialization and development, no country slowed them down with concerns of the growing deterioration in the ozone or health care and minimum wage rights of the workers. Stabilization of worker’s living standards and environmental concern rose only after a firm industrial base for mass production was already grounded. Tak is a Korean philosopher, but I believe many third world country politicians do think this way too. It is unfair, hence, that governments of developed countries point at third world country industries, charging them of deterioration of the ozone cap when the current hole has mainly been produced by the western circle’s contaminants in the past century, and this way slow the process of development down and in check with the developed country’s own interests.
Enduring disparities in income and wealth
Sociologists agree in that the difference between the upper and lower class is becoming bigger through the years.
I can recall a clear example of this during my half year stay in college in Chile. I enrolled in the math engineering program, and a close friend of mine went to medicine (in Chile, as in most other countries, medicine is an undergraduate program). The annual tuition for math engineering is $1500, whereas medicine is $2800. Most of the entering class in math eng. were often too poor to pay the tuition in an annual basis, so they paid monthly with an interest fee. Some of them could have gotten into the civil engineering program (which pays more after graduation) but couldn’t afford the tuition, which was $230 higher.
Later in the semester, students from the engineering division, along with the humanities and forestry division went on a campus-wide strike because the state financial aid didn’t meet requested need. The medicine division didn’t join the strike, since no med students were under state aid. Once this body of students graduated, the ones who paid most during it would be making more money out of their respective jobs, and the opposite was to happen to those in the lower end. This is how I could see that a poor family would almost eternally be driven back to the cycle of being poor, simply because better paying jobs would require college degrees that cost more.
Social benefits of poverty
The structural-functionalist approach can reason further in the usefulness of the poor class. First of all, society can hardly function without a group of laborers on a very low wage. Few people are willing to work on time consuming activities that don’t pay well. Thus, having people pushed by their daily necessities to work in conditions otherwise intolerable serve the interests of the bourgeois class. On the same line of argument, the poor purchase goods that wouldn’t be acceptable in regular conditions, such as food that run a high risk of being corrupt or houses without a window, or worn out clothes. Inability to be on an insurance plan is frequent.
The poor depend on a welfare system that requires a specific (governmental or otherwise) bureaucracy, which generates employment for middle-class laborers such as economists, doctors, social workers, and urban planners.