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June 10, 2009

What features of society cause different groups to have different opportunities?

Excellent sample research paper by TaiAnn Thompson - Spring 2009

In this paper I want to explore the causes of affluency and poverty. In our society it seems that the rich are continually getting richer and the poor are getting continually poorer. The rich are admired for their "opulent displays of consumption", while the poor are rebuked for the inability to save or work hard enough. My question is, why does our society continue this pattern of destruction? There is a very unequal allocation of society and world resources, with a majority of the resources going to the smallest population with the smallest amount of resources stretching out to take care of the world's biggest population, those at or under the poverty line.

On one side of Los Angeles, California you can drive up to a mansion surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and a Porsche parked in the driveway. The occupants of the house hire butlers, maids and cooks to handle their daily chores. They may comment on "having to settle for a Rolls Royce", or one major upset in their day is caused by their ex-best friend being spotted wearing the same $5,000 dress as them. These people do not consider what it would be like to go hungry for a week because their food stamps have not renewed yet for the month.

Quite possibly, less than an hour drive away you could drive up to a trailer in a community that is parked on a slab of cement with actual grass being a drive away. The occupants of this home are looking for employment, they do not have health care and so when they have dental problems, the cheapest way to fix them is to pull them and finding a job while missing teeth may almost seem impossible. Their major concerns for today are "how am I going to pay food, rent and bills this month so my family is not sent out onto the street". These people do not know what it is like to have all your worries be unrelated to finances. So, why is there this extreme difference in worlds?

Social class and how things are broken up starts out as a whole social system. For instance, "a sports organization consists of players, owners, managers, fans, cheerleaders and sponsors. Each group has a different status within the organization. Together, they constitute a whole social system, one marked by social differentiation" (Andersen/Taylor). "In 2004, 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line. Half of the families seeking food assistance had at least one adult working" (OCPP). When we live a life of privilege we forget about the depravity of living conditions for some. The decline of fair working and living conditions has caused many stress and health problems.

These problems make finding a job and holding it, and finding affordable housing and keeping it a very difficult, every day struggle. These factors play off of each other and cause a cycle that we have not yet figured out how to break.

Social status does not only affect our individual lives in theory, or in identification; social status affects us in every aspect of our lives. "Social status is the position someone occupies in the social structure. Social status helps to provide the guidelines for our behaviors as well as for our rights and privileges within the group or society" (Wolf). All societies implement a form of social stratification, which is loosely defined as structured inequality by Sociologists. This is both systematic which means that it occurs in an organized fashion across every societal system; and systemic which means that it continues throughout time: the idea that the higher status one achieves, the better stereotypes this person receives. For example, a master status is the status with the highest significance in the eyes of the society this may look like the CEO of a company. This is a high valued job, the CEO is seen as a hard worker who persevered through life, education and determination to acquire this high powered position. This CEO is looked up to by most, even though the person occupying this job could have been given the job by a parent or another form of legacy that involves no education or hard work.

"Marx concluded that capitalism was merely a stage of world history. Moreover, capitalism was not the endpoint of history, but merely an intermediate period that would ultimately sow the seeds of its own demise, leading to a socialist state" (Schaff, Marta). Marx assumed that this conflict was integral to the social structure of capitalism and would never leave unless the entire system was not only changed, but replaced. He also argued that the unbiased environment under capitalism would most likely develop in a way that encourages the workers to band together and develop goals that work for them. The gathering of goods valued and the cause of more and more production causes the Capitalists to become more and more powerful.

This extreme division between classes pushes until there is a conflict, when finally the straw breaks the camel's back. The workers need to continually become more and more aware and diligent in equality between the classes otherwise the division in power will become too great causing extreme polarization of the classes. This, Marx said, would cause the inevitable revolution that would ultimately destroy capitalism.

There is a theory by Karl Marx that revolves around class struggle. This is the theory that builds a foundation of education on the possible reason behind society's downfall and the question of which features of society cause different groups to have different opportunities. Marx's idea is that we have two classes that are defined by their relationships to "means of production". There are two classes under the Marx theory: The "Capitalist" which are those who own the means of production, and the "Worker" which are those who sell their labor for wages. Our depravity falls into the consequences of a system that is based on the pursuit of profit. Marx also claimed that the "class conflict between capitalists and workers would inevitably lead to a revolution". The class structure of the United States is elaborate - arising from the interactions of old wealth, new wealth, intensive immigration, globalization and the development of new technologies. The rising rate of bankruptcy among the middle class shows that the middle class is not as secure as it is presumed to be. Class is not simply a matter of individual levels of income and prestige. Instead, class is defined by the relationship of the classes to the larger system of economic production (Andersen/Taylor).

This problem begins at a very young age, even in elementary school children are bombarded with status, whether their family "has" or "has not". Throughout schools across the nation, and schools over the boundaries of time it is seen that the more money you (or your parents) have, the more popular you are going to be. This popularity springs from consumerism and the idea that the more things we have, the better we are in general. This idea is widespread and you can see it in every cognitive age throughout our lives.

Social class is a very important aspect to us in the United States because it has taken over the idea of Caste systems. Instead of being born into a specific lot in life as with the caste system, in the class system that we have in the United States today, if you are able, you can change, or escape from the class you were born into. "The concept of life chances, introduced by Max Weber, is the best way to understand what class means. Your life chances are the opportunities you have for achieving economic prosperity. A person from a humble background, for example, has less chance of ending up wealthy than someone from a more prosperous one. And the best chance an individual has of being wealthy is to start off as wealthy in the first place" (Giddens).

"A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside of us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful. If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labor" (Marx).

Bourgeois production in its basic form is the mode of production by which a product is made into commodity and/or is produced specifically for exchange. The money system that we have in the United States right now is turning into a joke. Marx foresaw this when he described the illusions of the monetary system. When the monetary system is based on a subjective view of value on production and labor, it soon becomes useless and therefore the money that we exchange for goods and labor slowly turns into a fake system.

Without these innovations, capital accumulation over the previous decades would have been significantly lower. And so would it have been if finance had not penetrated more and more deeply into society. The result has been that consumer demand (and hence, prosperity) in recent years has depended more and more on credit cards and mortgage debt at the same time that the weakened power of trade unions and cutbacks in social welfare have made people more vulnerable to market shocks (Judis). Gold and silver, when serving as money, did not represent a social relation between producers, but were natural objects. "Modern economy, which looks down with such disdain on the monetary system, does not its superstition come out as clear as noon-day, whenever it treats of capital? How long is it since economy discarded the physiocratic illusion, that rents grow out of the soil and not out of society?" (Marx).

The social class system that we have set up in the United States is fueled by our capitalist/consumerist society; this description of our society is also fueled by the social class system. We are a society that prides hard work and determination, as long as that hard work results in you being monetarily wealthy and having a lot of things to prove how rich you are. It does not matter if the person is a hard worker, it matters that you have the money to spend. Having the money to spend must mean that you are a hard worker, and we like hard workers. This attitude causes the social class systems to stay in place. This is fueled also by our Capitalist government which puts emphasis and privileges towards those who are already wealthy, and removes opportunities from those who do not have economically. "Capitalism and communism stand at opposite poles. Their essential difference is this: The communist, seeing the rich man and his fine home, says: 'No man should have so much.' The capitalist, seeing the same thing, says: 'All men should have so much.'"

As a society we look up to those who have money, they are able to have the best toys, clothes, education, health care, lawyers, etc. Then there is a parallel to these people, a whole nation full of people who do not have those same luxuries, some people who are literally destitute. "The system reproduces inequality, not just prejudice people" (Wolf). "Don't wanna be a martyr in this war / don't wanna hear the same excuses anymore / that every thing's a threat and it's only gonna get worse if we let it / don't wanna blame the rich for what they got / don't point a finger at the poor for what they have not / though the politician and the priest live in the belly of the beast because we fed it" (Lee). The answer is not found in the people alone, the answer is found in a flawed system and learning how to change, fix and replace the things that no longer work for our society, regardless of how long these laws or ideas have been in place.

Andersen & Taylor. General Sociology: Sociology in Everyday Life.

Giddens, Anthony; Duneier, Mitchell; and Appelbaum, Richard. "Introduction to Sociology". Sixth Edition. Norton and Company, Inc. New York, London, 2007.

Judis, John B. "Confessions of a True Believer." EBSCOhost: Foreign Policy; May/June 2009 Issue 172, p142-143, 2p, article.

Lee, Amos. "Freedom". Supply and Demand. CD,

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital. Gateway Edition, Chicago, 1970.

OCPP. Leachman, Mark; Sheketoff, Chuck. "Oregon's Income Tax is Harsh for Low-Wage Workers. http://www.ocpp.org. Februrary 22, 2006.

Schaff, Marta. "Communism." EBSCOhost: Communism. 2009, p1-2, 2p, article.

Wolf, Rowan. In class notes. Spring Term 2009.