What Is Social Stratification? How Historical Accidents Divide Us

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is social stratification? What are social stratification examples that make clear how class and ethnic divides create and foster inequality? How is social stratification based on mythmaking and accident?

Social stratification is the ranking of people into imagined hierarchies. These rankings have no basis in reality–they’re created to maintain the status quo, allowing the most powerful to retain power.

We’ll cover a social stratification example that looks at how imaginary hierarchies and random events created the race divide in America.

What Is Social Stratification?

Sapiens evolve genetically to organize themselves into large groups, so they formed societies through the use of imagined orders and writing.

We require these imagined orders to function, but they’re not equitable or impartial. They result in systems that discriminate some and privilege others. In fact, there’s no known society that doesn’t discriminate.

Social stratification has a purpose: it lets us know how to interact with others without actually knowing them, which in theory is more efficient and lets us function in large societies. For instance, a woman selling flowers doesn’t know all her customers personally. To figure out how to divvy up her energy and time, she uses the social cues dictated by each person’s place in the hierarchy—such as the way he’s dressed, his age, and, often, his skin color—to determine who is the executive, likely to buy a lot of expensive roses, and who is the messenger boy, only able to afford daisies.

Almost all hierarchies and social stratifications are imagined. But we usually claim that they’re natural. For example, capitalists believe that the rich are wealthy because they have better business sense, make better choices, and are smarter and harder working. They earn their wealth and the high-quality health care, education, and nutrition that come with it. But (according to Harari) it’s proven that most rich people are wealthy because their parents were wealthy, and that most poor people are poor because their parents were poor. Wealth is rarely purely “earned.”

Just because our social stratification are imagined doesn’t mean there isn’t diversity in our biological aptitudes and abilities. Some people are smarter or more skilled than others. But we don’t succeed or fail based on these aptitudes alone. Society still largely determines who wins and who loses by dictating whose abilities are nurtured and who get what opportunities.

What Are the Causes of Social Stratification?

Imagined societies are generally propped up by three elements: a historical accident, the fear of pollution, and the vicious cycle of discrimination. These are the causes of social stratification.

Historical Accident: The roots of prejudicial social stratification often lie in a random occurrence in history rather than biological differences. 

Fear of Pollution: Humans are biologically programmed to feel repulsed by people and animals that might carry disease. This is a survival instinct. But although the fear is biologically-based, its historical manipulation and exploitation is based in fiction. If you want to ostracize a group (such as Jews, gays, blacks, or women), tell your society that they’re polluted and could contaminate you if you interact with them.

Vicious Cycle of Discrimination: Once a random historical event that benefits one group and discriminates against another occurs, that hierarchy is perpetuated by the people who benefit from it. This reinforces the prejudices used to justify the system. These prejudices, in turn, help maintain the system, and the cycle continues.

Where these three elements come together we find the origin of social stratification.

Social Stratification Example: Racial Discrimination in America

Let’s look at how these three elements of social stratification perpetuate discrimination in America to answer the question, What is social stratification?

Historical Accident 

One of the primary sources of America’s racial hierarchy is the slave trade of the 16th through 18th centuries. In a sense, it was a historical accident that Europeans imported to America millions of slaves from the African continent rather than Europe or Asia.

  • Firstly, it was cheaper to get slaves from Africa than Asia because Africa was closer to America
  • Secondly, a slave trade already existed in Africa. It made financial sense to buy slaves from a market that already existed rather than create a new market on a different continent. 
  • Thirdly, plantations in American colonies like Virginia, Haiti, and Brazil were plagued by yellow fever and malaria, diseases that originated in Africa. Africans had, over time, become more immune to these diseases than Europeans or Asians, so it made economic sense to invest in people who would live longer to work the plantations. Let that irony sink in: the genetic advantage of immunity contributed to the social disadvantage of Africans. They were slaves to masters who were genetically inferior to them in this sense.

Fear of Pollution

The Europeans justified their dominance in America by exploiting the idea that blacks were filthy and carried diseases. Even after the abolishment of slavery in America in 1865, the stigma of being unpure continued and intensified. The “Jim Crow” laws in the South were established to “protect” whites from being violated and contaminated by blacks. Whites thought they could catch diseases by studying in the same schools, shopping in the same stores, and eating at the same restaurants as blacks. Interracial sex was considered the filthiest and most dangerous violation.

Vicious Cycle of Discrimination

While the institution of slavery was still in place, theologians spread the idea that blacks were descendents of Ham, the son of Noah whose offspring were cursed to be slaves. Biologists used the myth of moral and intellectual inferiority to justify African slavery. After slavery was abolished, these myths perpetuated the prejudices that created them, creating a vicious circle.

Racial prejudice has become so ingrained in our culture that we’ve stopped seeing it, even when it’s right in front of our faces in the form of the Anglo beauty ideals promoted by every commercial and billboard. As this Social stratification example shows, hierarchies aren’t based on reality, and even a random accident can set up a dangerous cycle of prejudice.

The genetic differences between groups of Sapiens is negligible. Genes can’t explain why some groups are privileged and others aren’t. We must see these historical developments in terms of chance events that are perpetuated by those who benefit.

What is social stratification? It’s the ranking of people into imagined hierarchies based on historical accidents.

What Is Social Stratification? How Historical Accidents Divide Us

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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