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Class, Race, and Gender Structures Are Special Social Structures

Class, race, and gender are all social structures in society, but they are also very special structures, characterized by the following qualities:

The individual is placed in all three at birth.

One’s initial position depends on biology or family.

The individual’s position in all three is perpetuated by the family.

That is, the family directly places the individual (for example, by determining race or bestowing wealth), and the family teaches the position to the individual (for example, how to act “like a man” or how to be a “young lady” or the way that “people like us” are supposed to act).

The individual’s position in these structures influences placement in most other structures.

In government, in business, in the military, or in education, what one can achieve is influenced by class, race, and gender positions.

The individual’s position in these structures is generally fixed.

We cannot, of course, change race or gender. Class position may be less fixed, but for the vast majority of people, class placement at birth has a strong influence: The rich generally stay rich, the poor stay poor, and those in between move slightly above or below where they were born. Class position at birth acts as a constraining force: It does not determine where one ends up, but it does act as an important influence.

Various institutions in society cooperate to protect and perpetuate the structures as they have developed.

Political, legal, economic, educational, religious, and kinship institutions socialize us, encourage us, and reward us to accept the existing social patterns and our place in them. Often, the structures are presented as just, moral, and natural; opposition to them is condemned as immoral or unpatriotic and is subject to punishment.

These structures are embedded in a long history.

They are therefore difficult to challenge or alter. We are used to them. They are less open to challenge than structures created in other forms of organization such as groups and formal organizations. It is difficult for most of us to see realistic alternatives to them because they seem so much an integral part of our taken-for-granted world. Even for those of us who want to do away with them (or at least to alter them), it is often difficult to make sound suggestions about how to institute workable changes.

The term social stratification or stratification system is generally applied to social structures that are relatively fixed, such as class, race, and gender. Stratification, of course, is a concept borrowed from geology, where it refers to the layering of rocks

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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