Social differences can be described as the apparent differences of persons solely on the basis of their social characteristics and constructs. Some common social differences are the ethnic differences, gender differences, racial differences, social class differences (mostly in terms of wealth) and cultural differences (Braham & Janes, 2002). However, this is just a simplistic definition. The nature of the social differences as well as their causes is more complex than this basic definition. Sociologists have diverse perspectives on the nature of social differences. This paper will outline only two sociological perspectives on how to understand the differences. It will then outline how class differences can lead to stratification. It should not be lost that how the social differences are understood will impact on how they will be responded to.
Ways of Understanding Social Differences
As it has been mentioned, there are many ways of understanding social differences. However, this paper will discuss only two of them; essentialist perspective and social construction.
In some cases, it is can be possible to understand the social differences in an individual’s behavior simply by their membership to a given social group. For instance, take the case of an African or Caribbean patient. He/she may be perceived to behave in a very physical way because of their (certain) innate psychological or biological attributes that are very common to almost all members of their respective ethnic group. In addition, when a male person is behaving in a very aggressive and competitive manner, it can be understood that this generally how men are. In an essentialist perspective, the differences in a person are inborn, by virtue of them belonging to a particular group. These behaviors will thus be fairly fixed and consistent in their entire lives (The Open University).
The difference is viewed very much like an essence coming from within a person and that they will interact as thus. Some essentialists believe that the causes for these differences are derived from the differences in individuals’ genetic make-up while some propose that they are caused by upbringing and socialization (in the community (ethnic and cultural differences) or family set up (gender differences). However, what all of them are in agreement is that the differences come from within a person, they are relatively fixed and are consistent within a particular group of people (The Open University).
Social Construction Perspective
This perspective recognizes that there is diversity within groups. This is due to the dynamism of the socialization process. Therefore, it is not advisable to label a particular group with one superlative; there are differences within that particular group also. In this perspective, sociologists regard the differences as processes whereby people are constructed as different. This approach acknowledges that various types of context play a big part in this process. For instance, take the case of Dalrymple who characterized Indian women as being emotionally reticent. This assessment may be flawed since there are many contexts that may have played a part during his observation rather than the inborn cultural differences. This is because the interaction process may be affected by the fact that Indian women (from a marginalized community) were visiting a male doctor (from the majority white) which may lead to limited emotional openness. This process would have been different if they were visiting an Asian doctor (The Open University).
Social differences are constructed in a particular group. The ways in which person will think and communicate demonstrates the dominant ideas of his society. Therefore, the inequalities of power in terms of race, gender or ethnicity will affect how the difference in a person is socially constructed (The Open University).
Whichever perspective one may use, he/she cannot deny the fact that there are indeed social differences in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or class. A person is either white or not; female or male; African or not. When the social differences become very apparent and some people feel that they cannot tolerate these glaring differences, it may lead to stratification.
Social Differences and Stratification
Stratification can be defined as institutionalized imbalances on the basis of power, status or wealth between different categories of individuals living in a single society. These include particular ethnic groups, castes or social classes. In the next section, I examine how the Pomo Indians became stratified (UW).
Pomo Trade Feast
Pomo Indians were the original settlers of coastal Calif. This area was very extensive and had three zones with each zone having different characteristics for different economic activities. These Indians were divided into more than 30 autonomous groups, each having hundreds of members. The resources differences meant that some groups could access certain benefits which the others couldn’t. However, when a group had a bumper harvest, a trade feast was organized of all the groups. The head of each group (chief) was charged with controlling the public storehouses. He was also given some assistants, mostly his kinsmen. This position was in most cases monopolized by the family of the incumbent, who had a higher chance of inheriting it. This role gave him ultimate power which could be misused (UW).
The chief had the responsibility of calling a feast when there was a bumper harvest. He would send out invitations to the other groups, who would come with shell money that would be given to the host in exchange of food. The host chief and assistants would count the money and decide how it will be divided, as the festivities went on. After the division, the chief would retain some of the food for personal consumption. The exchange of food for beads was also carried out. As a result, the wealthier families used this occasion to accumulate more food than the rest. As time went by and more and more feasts were held, the chief and his men together with the wealthy families used the occasions to accumulate more wealth. This created a social inequality in this society. The chiefs thus enhanced their control over the communities. This aristocracy led to class stratification (UW).
Social differences are inevitable; they cannot be ignored at all. This is because there are no equal opportunities for all, not everyone can be white and not all people that are born should be male. Accepting these differences however, does not mean that we stratify the society.