The Stratification Illusion

Stratification is a malicious tool used by the ruling class to diverge us from those well-established institutional problems and hinder us from bringing social changes. This essay will utilize various sociology theories to discuss how common people are forced to form the reality of a stratified society, why it is dangerous and whether there exist possible solutions.

We categorize everything. The major categories into which we sort humans—race, class, and gender—in themselves may not be harmful. However, what more concerning are those categories that seem to be doing the job of ranking. We are all sorted into a layered system through stratification, “the ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal rewards and life chances in a society (Newman, 2020).” However, as opposed to the structure-functionalist view, social stratification is by no means a natural outcome that can be easily justified. Instead, stratification is a malicious tool used by the ruling class to diverge us from those well-established institutional problems and hinder us from bringing social changes. This essay will utilize various sociology theories to discuss how common people are forced to form the reality of a stratified society, why it is dangerous and whether there exist possible solutions.

The stratification process is simpler than what it sounds like: it resembles the well-known divide-and-conquer approach. Division requires the segregation of many people into smaller groups. However, since segregation is only meaningful when each group is slightly different from each other, it is necessary to assign a specialized tag called “symbol”. Symbolic interactionism argues that “humans act toward a thing on the basis of the meaning they assign to the thing (O′Brien, 2022a).” When people claim they belong to the lower, middle class, or upper class, they mean much more than stating the class itself: they are also implicitly suggesting their prestige, wealth, lifestyles and so on that are embedded into their class so that the listener expects who they are and how to react. However, meaning is not inherent in a state of nature but is socially derived and negotiated through interaction with others (O′Brien, 2022a). Modern people have many ways to interact with the outside world, but they can be generally divided into two channels: media and interpersonal interaction. Thus, to permeate people’s reality about social stratification, one must control both channels to create an environment where there is no place to escape, no time to escape, and no one to provide counterevidence (O′Brien, 2022b).

Modern people spend a substantial amount of time consuming media content. US adults spent an average of 13 hours and 21 minutes per day with media in 2020 (Lashbrook, 2021). Though we are devoting more and more time to digital media instead of traditional media, mainstream media outlets continue to dominate our sources of information. In fact, 90% of the US media outlets are controlled by 6 large corporations (Lutz, 2017), owned by the higher-class people from a relatively concentrated network of major conglomerates and investment firms, and used for indoctrination that mobilizes public support for their own interests (Chomsky, 2017). One common piece of indoctrination is the promotion of stereotypes against a certain group of people. Global Strategy Group published a report on the role of racial bias in the media as it pertained to coverage of people prosecuted in the criminal court system. One of their findings showed that mugshots were used in coverage of 45% of cases involving Black people accused of crimes compared to only 8% of cases involving white defendants (Urell, 2021). And, when we watch news stories about the poor, they are represented by people of color at a rate that is far greater than statistical reality, without mentioning the fact that there also exist millions of poor white people in the US (Wise, 2013). The intention behind is to assign negative symbols to the colored people: crime, poverty, and so on, so that the audience who has been emerged into this kind of narrative for an extensive amount of time will form a reaction like a reflex: even if they are not personally biased, they cannot help but to make connections subconsciously when they think of or hear about the colored people.

However, the promotion of stereotypes is not always in a negative way. Sometimes it can be positive too, though their difference does not matter too much because they are not serving the interests of the target audience anyway. For example, it is popular for the media to positively portray people from the higher class in advertisements. As we all know, advertisements aim to sell branded products, but firms have also discovered that they will work better if they could deliver “images and messages that tell a wide range of stories, and many of those stories involve perceptions of social class (Wisconsin School of Business, 2021).” Though the lower-income families and working-class people make up a large proportion of society, they rarely appear in any advertisements. What people see more often are scenes portraying middle-class families enjoying the coziness of home featuring a branded product, or representations of the upper-middle or even elite class that allow a secret glimpse at how they live and what they consume. The intention is to assign additional meanings to the branded products apart from the value of their functionalities, which will then justify a “premium”: charging a higher price for the same product. As a result, the lower-class people will be more likely to purchase a product that they barely need or can hardly afford, so that they can live in an illusion that they have successfully mobilized to a higher class through the possession of goods.

Another concerning trend recently is the excessive entertainmentization of institutional problems related to race or social class which happens mostly on social media. On April 7th, 2021, African American creator Joey Cassanova uploaded a video to TikTok called “If You Only Knew What I’ve Been Through” in which he pretended to be riddled by a spray of bullets as words flash on the screen, alluding to his past trauma: child abuse, foster care, being molested, depression, PTSD, the murder of his ex-wife, the loss of his father and heart attacks (Dickson, 2021). Though he expected the audience to interpret his work as a call for recognition of those institutional problems hounding the lives of people from the Black community, thousands of influencers who were mostly white appeared to be mocking it by sharing their “trauma” like having small boobs or being allergic to peanuts. This is just one of many examples where we seem to be amusing ourselves to death, causing a dangerous decline of seriousness, clarity, and value of public discourse (Postman, 2005). We are not trying to argue that it is wrong to use entertainment as a form to discuss or expose social problems. Instead, the issue is that we are gradually losing our moral line as we are so used to being entertained by everything. The goal of entertainmentization is to reduce the general public’s sensitivity to the institutional problems that used to be a heavy topic so that when people talk about unfairness or inequality, they will treat it as a normalized fact without question. The subsequent consequence is the silencing of people like Joey Cassanova who wish to challenge people’s reality by speaking up but give up because there is little hope of earning deserved respect, credit, or recognition.

While media plays an essential role, the reality of social stratification will not make full sense without people taking it to a more daily, interpersonal level. One of the best cases to analyze the issue is the latest trending word in China called “mingyuan” which translates to “celebrity girls”. A “mingyuan” describes a young woman who does elaborate window dressing through objects or acting, mostly on social media such as Instagram, so that she looks like someone from the upper class. Their action is a form of impression management, “the process by which people attempt to present a favorable public image of themselves (Newman, 2020).” A successful impression management depends on the control of objects, called “props”, that convey identity. Common props for a “mingyuan” include luxury cars, mansions, designer bags and shoes, and even private jets which can be rented and shared for staging and taking photographs (Pablito’s Way, 2021). It is not difficult to understand how they may have learned about the “correct” selection of props, which has been explained in the previous paragraph about how companies indoctrinate the audience with connections between their products and a certain social class. However, the bottom line here is the reason for such a performance. Undoubtedly, people sometimes do certain things to fulfill their own satisfaction, but we also spend a substantial amount of time worrying about what people around us think about us. The Look-Glass Self theory suggests that we all use others as a mirror that reflects ourselves. We constantly observe their reactions to our behaviors, which helps us to determine what kinds of behaviors are more favorable (Cooley, 2022). Thus, the reactions from a certain group of people that they may interact with are key factors required to explain the presence of such a performance. After all, the primary goal of impression management is to “project a particular identity that will increase the likelihood of obtaining favorable outcomes from others in particular social situations (Newman, 2020)”. For women who have no noble family background but want to live a luxury life, snagging a rich husband or celebrity is probably the most convenient way to upgrade their social class. Thus, the target audience of their performance is their “Prince Charming”, a man from the upper class who is also seeking a companion. Because the “Prince Charming” is more likely to be looking for a girl who has a similar social class or family background, those who have the best skill pretending to be a part of that group have the best chance of acquaintance, and thus receiving the most opportunities to build up social connections necessary for climbing up to a higher social class. Though we do not mean to judge their actions, their influence on society is way beyond our imagination. Since reality is socially constructed, a worrisome consequence is that other people, especially the other young girls who have insufficient social experience and interact with social media, will form a distorted reality of social stratification by class: a reality that the upper class becomes the majority and being part of it is easy, without realizing that their reality is constructed by carefully chosen deceptions.

The worst consequence of social stratification is the conflict between groups of people. A certain group of people who think that they have been ranked higher through stratification may believe that they are more superior to others. A white person who believes in racial superiority may think that people of color deserve to be treated differently. A man who believes in gender superiority may think that women deserve to be treated differently. And a person who carries fancy designer purses may believe that people who do not own them deserve to be treated differently. As a result, discrimination, especially quiet discrimination becomes a part of our daily life. People of color still suffer noticeable disadvantages in economics, education, politics, employment, health care, vulnerability to crime, and many other areas (Newman, 2020). Men still benefit from living in a society where language, identity, intimacy, history, culture, and social institutions are built on gender distinctions, even if the men themselves do not support such inequality. And school violence is still prevalent among young children who judge their peers by which brand of shoes they wear and cellphones they use. Little do they notice that their reality of social stratification is a pure product of manipulation. There is no reason why we should not expect repercussions from those who are being oppressed, but people often overlook the fact that many who are believed to be the privileged and the enforcer of oppressions are also victims of the oppression in a broader picture. As African American artist Steve Locke wrote, “[whiteness] oppresses not just black people, but people who think it offers them something other than dominance over their fellow man… poor white people have been sold a bill of goods that offers them white supremacy and takes away jobs and economic growth (Locke, 2019).” From Marx’s view, people who believe that they are the benefactors of stratification live in a bubble of false consciousness, “situation in which people in the lower classes come to accept a belief system that harms them (Newman, 2020)”. When people believe that supporting stratification benefits themselves, they will devote themselves to oppression on others, those who are similar and should have become their allies, leaving no time left to question who or what behind has created the situation.

The question remaining is whether there exist solutions for all the mess. Unfortunately, the plan has been working out almost flawlessly for a long time for the powerful classes in society to prevent positive social movements, “continuous, large-scale, organized collective action motivated by the desire to enact, stop, or reverse change in some area of society (Newman, 2020).” In many places, we are even observing countermoves that seek to “prevent or reverse changes sought or accomplished” by us. While institutional changes are always difficult, there are still a few things we can do to help eliminate the effect of stratification, at least personally. Our goal is to eliminate boundaries between stratified groups, including race, gender, class, and so on, but elimination does not mean ignoring the existence. As common people, we must first reach an agreement on recognizing the unequal benefits that some of us enjoy while others do not. Then, we must use our sociological imagination to openly identify the deep-rooted and long-lasting institutional problems in our society that create those inequalities. That is, we must learn to step up from our personal experiences and analyze them within a larger social context. We may not have the power to solve them entirely in a short time, but waking people up from stratification illusions and pushing them to focus on the real institutional problems are the first steps we must take. The long-run solution, however, requires more radical changes including revolutionary movements, “collective actions that attempt to overthrow an entire social system and replace it with another (Newman, 2020).” The media should stop spreading misinformation and prejudice against a certain group of people. Firms should portray a larger variety of people from different backgrounds in their promotions. Social media platforms should restrict juveniles from accessing those rigged videos promoting lavish lifestyles. In short, all the institutions that people interact with must take their moral responsibility and stop treating profits as their only priory. However, since these institutions control almost every aspect of our society and government decision-making, an effective system that can restrict their influence must be first established: an extremely challenging task whose future seems to be unclear.

We are all in this together: as a famous movie quotes, “how you fall does not matter; it is how you land (Kassovitz, 2020).” As the real majority of the society who possesses limited resources and voices, we all fall in different ways, experiencing different sorts of oppression: race, gender, class, or any, but it does not matter. What really matters are whether we can recognize the issues and stop fighting with each other for things that no one owns (Wise, 2013). Only if we unite, we can make changes for a better future.