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February 22, 2010

Age-Based Stratification

By Rowan Wolf, PhD. September 2005

Social Stratification by age is the most fundamental of stratification systems. One could argue that the way a society structures itself and its cultural ideology around age is indicative of how it constructs other forms of stratification. For example, one of the primary ways of "putting people in their place" is tone of voice. Higher status groups are generally talked to in a "respectful" tone of voice. Those with lower status are often "talked down" to - or talked to as if they were children. This early socialization into age status rules and roles is often reflected in the way other status group rules operate.

Age stratification is similar to other forms of stratification with the distinctions between strata being drawn by age groups. What those groups are and how they are layered varies widely across cultures. The most basic strata are infants, children, adults, elders. How many strata there are, where the transitions are, and the social structuring and roles of each group is truly a societal issue.

In societies where infant mortality is high (including the U.S. prior to the 1900's) infants are frequently not considered "people" or even given names for a period of time after their birth - usually three days to three months. Children have been seen as "expendable" in some societies
(Western Europe prior to the 1600s) through what we now call "toddlers." In hard times, the youngest children might be literally pitched out so the rest of the family could survive.

Like other forms of stratification, age systems divide resources, privileges, and responsibilities to the different strata. Sometimes special rights, or even laws apply to some groups but not to others. For example, in the U.S. we have various laws that are status based. Most of the remaining "status offenses" apply to those who are not yet adults; however, this has not always
been the case. The age-based status offenses cover activities for which it is legal for adults to engage in (drinking, being out after a certain time, reading certain materials, etc.), but are illegal when engaged in by a "minor." Adults can "run away" from home legally; children cannot. One of the remaining status differences among US citizens is that opposite sex couples can legally
marry, (so far) same sex couples cannot.

In many societies (and some cultures outside mainstream U.S. society) age stratification shows a clear progression across the age structure. Children have the lowest status, followed
by adults, followed by elders. A number of factors have influenced how age stratification actually works in mainstream society in the United States. Below we will explore some of the social forces that have influenced the "natural order" of age stratification.

It appears that for much of the history of human society, there has not really been the concept of
"childhood" as we know it today. Once a child was able to speak and eat on its own, it was essentially considered a miniature adult capable of participating in a limited way in the survival of the family. Once "children" hit puberty, they were considered adults, though they might not take on adult roles until they formed their own family. There was no concept of adolescence. For
many places in the world, this is still largely the case. To a large extent, the invention of both childhood and adolescence are a function of increasing agricultural production and industrialization.

In agricultural societies, including the U.S. during the agricultural period, the family was the primary economic unit rather than the individual. As soon as children could contribute in any way (pulling weeds, gathering eggs, hauling water, etc.) they were contributors to the economic unit. While public education was an early feature in the United States, it was extremely limited and structured to fit around agricultural schedules (as it still is today). School was not mandatory, and focused almost totally on reading and writing. As the industrial revolution progressed and became institutionalized business owners required higher levels of skill from their workers.

Slowly, the amount of education offered, the skills needed, and finally mandatory education created a longer and longer period of dependency for children. This changed their status from being economically productive members of their families to ongoing dependents. As we advance towards the middle of the twentieth century, mandatory education expands through high school, and we invent adolescence. Adolescence is that period of time from the onset of puberty, to "legal" age. - basically, 21 years old.

What we see happening here is that the concept of age is changing as social conditions and economic demands change. It is interesting when we look at the roles and expectations that we have of various age groups. Children went from "miniature adults" expected to act like adults but without the rights of adults, to a carefree, dependent period of exploration and learning. When we look at the expectations of "teenagers," we define this as a rebellious period of individuation. We simultaneously expect adolescents to act like adults and rebel from them at the same time. This is a period where people are sexually mature, but socially and economically dependent.

There does finally come a time when people reach adulthood (as it is currently constructed), but even that is in flux. The expectation, and necessity, of education beyond high school has many "adults" ending up in an extended adolescence either living with their parents or being supported by them as they continue their education. Rapidly increasing costs of living combined with stagnant or falling wages also send "adults" back into their parent's homes. People can find themselves in the situation where they are legally adults, but trapped socially in childhood.

Childhood in the U.S. also has another interesting effect in that children are essentially "property." The laws of child custody and care largely follow property law. Anyone who has been adopted (or is familiar with adoption) will know this very well. You are property that is removed from one owner (your parents) into the ownership of the state, who then confers "title" to you to the adoptive parents. This property relationship is apparent in other aspects of life. Parents are not simply responsible for the care of their children, but for their actions. Parents are esponsible for paying for the damage their children cause (such as breaking a window) the same way they are if other property causes damage (say your dog bites someone).

Let's explore the other end of the spectrum - the elderly. Just to put things in context, in the United States in 1820, only 2% of the population was over 65 and virtually none were over 85 years old. Fifty-eight percent of the population was under twenty. By 1950, eight percent of the population was over 65, 34% were under 20, and still virtually none were over 85. By 2050, it is expected that 4.8% of the population will be over 85, 21% over 65, and 25 % under 20 (U.S. Census Bureau). Social Security was implemented in 1935 by President Roosevelt. The driving force in implementing a paid "retirement" was to move older workers out of the labor force to make jobs available for younger workers.

This is where one of the problems with stereotypes of the elderly came into play. We live in a society that has become increasingly centralized on the economy as the center of life. Working, and the work one does, becomes central to our concepts of ourselves and how others see us. Think about introducing yourself to someone. What is generally within the first three questions that get asked? "What do you do?" Paid labor makes us not only able to function in society, but has come to define who is a "productive" member and who is not. What mandatory retirement did was to force people out of "productivity." They were no longer "useful" to society. They were dependent upon others for their survival (even if they had savings of their own). Because of the central place of "work" in this society, non-workers are of lower status. When a policy is implemented that essentially makes an age group economically dependent, then they lose "value" within the conceptualization of the society. Hence, we get all the negative stereotypes of the elderly.

There is another interesting twist at play within the U.S. construction of age. That is an idealization of "youth." Now it is hard to say what "youth" is but it appears to span the late teens to the mid-twenties. It is this age group that is seen as being vibrant and "attractive." However, this is also an age group that is seen as not being particularly "mature" and "responsible." All of this serves to create a conflict that on one hand elevates the status of this group, while those falling beyond that age are seen as increasingly less socially desirable. We can see this emphasis on "youth" as desirable at the other end of the spectrum - children. Increasingly, even very young children are dressed and decorated to look like "little adults" - more mature, and certainly more sexually mature, than they are.

The Affects of Age Stratification in
Our Lives

It is difficult to overstate the impacts of age stratification in our society and our day-to-day lives. From the role expectations of various age strata, to the stereotypes, to the segregation of age groups, to social policies developed, age impacts us all of our lives. Children are expected to be obedient and carefree. Teens are expected to be rebellious and destructive. Adults are expected to be "contributing, law abiding" members of society. The elderly are portrayed as largely feeble of mind and body, backwards and stuck in their ways, and drains on the society personally and economically. Children are segregated into schools, and within that into narrow age groups. Adults are in the world of work. Many elderly are ultimately institutionalized, or left alone in a shrinking world of friends and family. Both physical and social isolation reinforce our cultural perception of age and the people who populate them.

Social class and race play tremendous roles in the actual impacts of the age stratification system. Those across the population who lack economic resources suffer disproportionately. If we focus on the issue of age (and there are many aspects that go beyond age) in relationship to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans we see that the poor elderly, and disabled seemed most trapped and most likely to die in the disaster. Those without resources - in general - were not able to leave the city. They had neither the transportation or economic resources to leave. Those who had a choice (in other words were free and able to leave their homes) could go to the Super Dome or the Convention Center. There was not food, water, medical supplies, or backup generators at either location. Of those who did not, or could not, go to these "shelters of last resort" many were elderly and/or disabled. Many of these lived alone or in nursing homes. Some were in hospitals, and the public/charity hospitals were not evacuated until days after the storm.
By and large, they were left behind and left to die.  In one case, residents of a nursing home were strapped to their beds and left to drown in the rising waters. At the time of this writing, the owners of the nursing home are facing charges for 34 deaths (International Herald Tribune). As of (9/13/05) over 1600 children evacuated from New Orleans and the surrounding area are still either orphaned or separated from their parents.

Generally, those who had the economic resources were able to evacuate before the storm. This included residents in more expensive nursing homes and independent living centers, and those in the private hospitals. The primary difference between escaping or not, between living or dying, for the elderly and disabled was their social class. Disproportionately this meant that those who escaped and lived were white, while those who did not were people of color. President Bush stated: ""The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort," ( CBS 5.com, 9/13/05)  but neither the preparation for disaster, or the efforts afterward were able to overcome the institutionalized racism, classism, or ageism of out society.


Age plays a basic role in our social structuring and institutions. It is important to realize that age, while an ascriptive status, is socially structured and transforms across time and society. Our basic introduction into the roles and rules of status occur in our early socialization as children. The foundation of how we interact across status groups - including age groups - are located in those early lessons.

Not all societies or cultures have the same age systems and meanings as mainstream U.S. society. However, in terms of the age status groups within mainstream society in the United States, children and the elderly vie for the lowest status while adults have higher status. There is a cultural discrepancy on whether "youth" or "adults" have higher status within this system. On one hand, "youth" is presented as being socially desirable, but "adult" is seen as being economically more stable and responsible. On the whole, "adults" have higher status than youth. This is a dramatic contrast to many other societies (and even cultures within the United States) where elders clearly have the highest status and are valued for their wisdom.

To Explore Further

The History of Childhood : a Powerpoint presentation from California State University. examining the concept of childhood in Western Europe from 500-1550.

The Philosophy of Childhood from Stanford University discusses the concept of childhood and how it has changed over time.

The History of American Education links to articles covering different periods in the development of education in the United States.

History of
American Childhood
- this is a detailed course description, but it contains some interesting discussion about the development of childhood.

The Invention of Adolescence - Psychology Today article on the invention of adolescence. It looks at both the cultural and physical changes that have occurred from the 1600s forward.

Explore a Century of Teen Life to Uncover Chicago's Past  This is an interesting examination of "teen" life over the last 100 years in Chicago. It offers an excellent comparison of the vast differences in what we think of "teens" now and what their role in society was a hundred years ago.

Social Security History This is an exploration of the implementation of social security as a program from 1935 to the present.

Video on Structured Inequality

Here are links to the video "The House We Live In." that I showed (or tried to show) in class. The first link is to the entire 57 minute video, the second link is to the same video broken into 6 parts. If you have high speed access, then the first link will work fine for you. If you do not have high speed internet, then the 6 part video is the better way to go. In either case, you must enter user name wolf and password wolf.

Full 57 minute "House We Live In" (high speed modem)

6 part "House We Live In" (lower speed modem)

This video is part of a 3 part series called "Race: The Power of an Illusion".

February 17, 2010

Distorted Looking Glass

An excellent example of paper 2 by Eric Peek - Winter 2010

In a time when survival was entirely unorganized and unpredictable people valued a different assortment of attributes. You were respected for being a good hunter, gatherer or someone who was physically fit and had the ability to go beyond the laws of nature. As time continued on, man discovered innovative ways to make life more adaptable to fit our needs. We found ways to bring resources in closer proximity to where we lived by creating cooperative social groups known as societies. With basic life sustaining resources in a manageable position, humanity found themselves in a world where we could use our brains for more than just survival. This allowed humanity to invent new contraptions and concepts that further improves the quality of life. In this evolved western based society, people strive to modernize in order to be viewed as a success. We've come to value modernizing, because it allows us to be more productive and efficient. This momentous appearance has attracted other societies to join our ambitions. Not all societies see modernizing as a means to success.

Ferdinand Tonnies was an analyst who deeply studied societal structures. He discovered two types of societies, the Gemeinschaft society and the Gesellschaft society. A Gemeinschaft is a community that is socially intimate; everyone in the society is personally connected on both a social and an economic level. The opposite of a Gemeinschaft society is known as a Gesellschaft society. In a Gesellschaft society it is more common to have impersonal relationships in both the economic and social structure. The point being that a Gemeinschaft society is more fixated on an intimate web of human relationships while a Gesellschaft society is more about individual's cooperating to maintain their personal wealth. The interesting thing about these societies is not just their social foundations but also how they interact when they collide.

Before 1962 there stood a village that was a pure Gemeinschaft society. This village was occupied by the Ladakh. In 1962 the Ladakh abruptly got on a pathway to convert to a Gesellschaft based society. Before the conversion, this isolated society used natural farming methods, scavenged for resources and manufactured their own tools with out any help or influences from neighboring cultures. In other words they were an "intimate community" that relied on the success of the group.

The Ladakh also followed a Gemeinschaft style economy, which is distinctively diverse in comparison to our own. Helena Norberg writes in her article The Pressure to modernize about the Ladakhns. She wrote about the economic strategies of the Ladakh. "The labor one needed was free of charge, part of an intricate web of human relationships."(2) What this is suggesting is that the Ladakhn's obtained every thing they needed to survive by creating social arrangements with members of their own society. Everyone who lived in the Ladakh's society worked to maintain the health of the whole village by sustaining life giving necessities and distributing evenly throughout the group. The Ladakhi's were on a steady path that allowed them to prosper in their isolated environment.

In 1962 the Ladakh's were discovered by the outside world for the first time in recorded history. Almost immediately they converted their culture to a Gesellschaft society. This adopted westernized culture required a new approach on how they would survive. They had to use money to make basic transactions and to obtain money the Ladakh's had to adjust their occupations. The Ladakh's found themselves absent of the knowledge and resources needed to be wealthy in a westernized economy. They did not have enough jobs, the right resources or the education required to successfully adapt into the newly formed society. This caused the Ladakh's to become economically poor.

The story of the Ladakh's is simply a tragedy, but what troubles me is why they felt the need to convert to a Gesellschaft society. Holmes talks about the false assumptions the Ladakh's had on western culture "They cannot so readily see the social or psychological dimensions - the stress, loneliness, fear of growing old. Nor can they see environmental decay, inflation, or unemployment."(3) What the author was trying to express is that the Ladakh's were completely mislead. They were showered by our media, which could be confusing to those ignorant of our concepts and values. The Ladakh's had no way of knowing what it took to be a part of a modernized society; they only looked at what they saw without realizing the sacrifices that come with it. There are also a number of sociological laws that contributed to the Ladakh's desire to change.

We perceive ourselves based upon our interpretations of how others react to our actions. Once these responses are fully translated and developed into understanding they act as a guide to social growth. This concept is known as the Looking Glass Self. It's called this because it's essentially a mirror of oneself created by the people who we interact with. This metaphorical looking glass or mirror is a delicate structure that can be warped or cracked with any form of social interaction. For instance, when the Ladakh were introduced to the new culture their looking glass changed. Exposure to the foreign culture revealed new ideas and new technologies that were far more advanced than their own. Norberg mentions how the Ladakh felt in comparison to the new culture "In contrast to these utopian images from another culture, village life primitive silly and inefficient."(3) This must have caused the Ladakh to reflect upon their own societal accomplishments. Seeing how little they accomplished in comparison must have made them question their own looking glass and the images that are being reflected back from it. The Ladakh were the victim's looking glass that was warped by the visual superiority of the modernized nation.

Language also can alter ones perception. According to Essentials of Sociology a down to earth approach, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a concept that is defined as "rather than objects and events forcing themselves onto our consciousness, it is our language that determines our consciousness and, hence, our perception of objects and events."(44) What this is saying is that when people are exposed to new words they gain new symbols, which can essentially alter their perception on a particular object or event. The Ladakh were affected by this law because they were introduced to the Indian language and the western culture. This exposure gave them a new perception on themselves. Norberg states that the Ladakh youth associated Western society with words such as "speed, youthfulness, super cleanliness, beauty, fashion and competitiveness" (3). All these words are primarily associated with power and success and are attributes that most people strive for. The Ladakh on the other hand were labeled with words such as "primitive" and "inefficient" which are negative words. The Ladakh must have felt ashamed of their culture for being associated with such words and symbols.

People feel the need to modernize because they want to gain a new perception of their limits. The more we advance the closer we are to discovering greater things. What we need to realize is that it takes a long time to develop a society that can handle the pressures of modernization. The Ladakh's unfortunately couldn't grasp this concept. They thought the American life was easy and simple, but in reality it is the most complex and delicate society ever assembled. They converted because they were mislead by glamorized advertisement and misinterpreted language. The desire to modernize made them unaware of the serenity that they could have, if they had remained with their original way of life.

Henslin. "Essentials: Sociology a Down to Earth Approach."

Norberg-Hodge. "The Pressure to Modernise and Globalise."

February 15, 2010

Modernization -Globalization- Culture

This is an excellent example of paper 2 by Kelly Sittser - Winter 2010

As Americans we believe to view our way of life as the best way to live. We have developed technology that makes life easier for us. You want to talk to a friend send them a text message, you want to go out and take photos poof your digital camera will not only take the photo but you will be immediately able to see the image. We can log into a number of social networks to say "hello" to any acquaintances or family members that maybe on your friends list. We are a society that loves technology so much so that actual personal relationships seem to be a thing of the past. In American culture we tend to place value in materials, looks, and science/technology. The core family value is a thing of the past, education is not nearly important as it use to be; it seems more like a fashion show. Who's wearing the latest and greatest fashions? Parents give kids credit cards as a way to show their children that they are loved. Where are the family traditions that are to be passed down? Have we lost all core values that make us lose sight of a true family culture?

America is a country that believes it leads the way into the future. We have the best of the best in everything. America often feels superior in the way it lives The American Culture has began to descend into the farthest corners of the world. It seems as though it has been decided if you aren't living like us then you are behind on the times. We don't like to leave people behind in our efforts to make people more "civilized." After all what could a first class nation of inventors do to make all other life on this planet easier? We surely can bring all people into the modernized world. What happens to those other people who aren't apart of the current modernized first world countries? Do these more powerful nations take it upon themselves to bring to them new technologies and ideas on how people should live? What should these people lose if in fact we modernize them into a way of life that may not work for them? In reading "The Pressure to Modernize," by Helena Norberg- Hodge, I couldn't help but think about these questions.

In the example of the Ladakh people modernization seems to have torn a very deeply rooted culture into two pieces. Within culture there is tradition, traditions that are passed down from each generation. Those traditions are what make a community thrive. These people have held true to their roots, for more generations than first world nations have been alive. They understand the lay of their land and know how to cultivate what they need to survive. They take no more and no less than what is given to them. They have strong family connections to each other, and understand how population works within their community. Even money plays different role in their society. The Ladakh basic needs for shelter, food, and so on could be met without money. In the article it was cited as "The labour one needed was free of charge, part of an intricate web of human relationships." I thought that part was an interesting observation. That everyone's needs could be met without using money but relationships between people.

In the modernized world we hold no idea to a true concept of community like the Ladakh have. The great divide will begin to spring fourth as the younger generation of Ladakh begin to take on Western modernization ideas. This is leaving their culture, traditions, and values even their native language behind. With the younger generation leaving behind the foundation on which their community is built how will this affect later generations?

Modernization and Globalization have been around longer than we can probably even realize. If we think back to the roots of America we can clearly see that at first we began to modernize and globalize the Natives that inhabited this land. It starts off slow, bringing western education to a people that were already educated in the ways of their land. Perhaps we begin to tell them their style of dress is primitive, so we begin to bring "western" style to them. Maybe we show them that it's better to live in a house versus what they live in. Modernization does not think of the damage it does to a community of people rich in traditions. Without a thought of what it might not only cost a people, but what it costs the earth to have these traditions broken.As with the case of the Native Americans it wasn't enough to modernize them into western culture, they ultimately have lost much more than western modernization has ever given to them.

As a modernized American I can feel within myself this loss of culture and community. I can't help but wonder what it is that I have missed out on having no real sense of community or tradition in my life. In the article it was mentioned how modernizing was making the younger generation of Ladakh people feel ashamed of their traditions and culture. However they lose a true sense of identity of where it is they come from. They are reaching out a culture that has no real basis in building traditions or culture. Western culture is based on the now, leaving no traditions to be passed down such as farming (which use to be the back bone of our country). I found myself searching for culture and community that has unity with instilled traditions and hard work. Often I've felt very rootless not sure of where I come from.

With modernization and globalization we stand to lose what little unity we have within those small communities that make them so valuable. We forget that our way of living might not be right for everyone. I sometimes wonder if it's right for Americans. I think perhaps we have a lot more to learn from these communities than we have to learn from modernizing.