A key feature of societies is that they are socially divided. Different social groups have access to different amounts of power, wealth and influence. Societies are divided by inequalities between different social groups and these determine the life chances and well-being of individuals. The main consequence of recognizing that we live in such a society is the realization that we can understand better the structure of that society if seek to identify and analyze the different social divisions that exist (Alcock, Erskine & May 2003). This essay will explain what social divisions are and why interrelationships amongst them are significant. Then using chosen article ‘Using Focus Group Research in Exploring the Relationships Between Youth, Risk and Social Position’ this essay will try to show how the interrelationship of social divisions are demonstrated in it.
When we meet someone we are aware of their sex, age, ethnicity or disability. The way we categorize people influences how we behave towards them. The classification of people into categories occurs in all societies and this process is called social divisions (Moore, 2001). Social divisions focus attention upon social groups, different ways in which societies may be grouped and most critically, relations between different social groups (Alcock, Erskine & May 2003). As the term ‘social division’ is very broad, it is possible to include under its ambit all types of differences like class, gender, sex, ethnicity, thus societies have hierarchies that are organized through social and economic divisions (labour, wealth, income are important), gender and sexuality divisions ( position as a man or as a woman), ethnic and racialized divisions (ethnicity), age divisions (age is important), health and disablement divisions (body, mental capacity or health are important) (Macionis & Plummer, 2008).
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Social divisions are socially created rather than ‘natural’ (i.e. skin colour takes on significance in our society and does impact upon the way those of African origin are treated, but eye colour, hair colour are not important). They are the outcome of previous social interactions, events, decisions, stereotypes and struggles (Moore, 2001). Social divisions have at least two categories, each of which has distinctive material and cultural features, where one category is better positioned than the other and has a better share of resources because it has greater power over the way our society is organized. In other words, divisions tend to divide people into ‘better’ or ‘worse’ categories creating social inequalities. Those in the ‘better’ categories have more control over their lives, more money and can generally be seen to lead happier lives.
Those occupying the better positions often take their advantages for granted but, nonetheless, social divisions are still all about advantage and disadvantage. They are therefore also about who has the power to create and maintain this situation in which inequalities persist (Payne, 2006). The particular combination and balance of memberships also matter. For example, to be white, middle class, male and healthy is not only different from being black, working-class, female and sick, but also different from being black, middle class, male and healthy. We need to consider how the various divisions seem able to work in specific combinations and, in a somewhat less coherent way, also work together as a whole to make up what we know as ‘society’ (Payne, 2006).
Moreover, divisions require at least two sides – for example, to be black or white, male or female, in good health or ill, heterosexual or homosexual and this often implies a hierarchical relationship in which one category is advantaged precisely because it is more highly valued in relation to its opposite, at a structural, social level. Since the two sides are constructed in relation to each other to belong to one side is defined in terms of not belonging to the other. In this sense the two sides of social divisions can be seen as mutually constitutive: one side exists only in relation to its opposite and is defined by its difference from this opposite (Braham & Janes 2002).
However social divisions are neither permanent nor fixed but they are ‘socially constructed ‘so that while there are always social divisions, their precise form varies from society to society. For example seeing men and women as groups posits a form of classification of individuals according to certain criteria usually dependent on genitalia but also behavioural, identificational and performative criteria, but this does not mean that these individuals always belong together, i.e. to the same group, for they can be allocated or allocate themselves to others on other criteria (Anthias, 2001).
Social divisions are not the same as social differences. Social differences are mostly based on the accident of birth. Normally we don’t choose to belong to our community. People around us are male or female, they are tall and short, have different kinds of complexions, or have different physical abilities, disabilities but every social difference does not lead to social division. Social differences divide similar people from one another, but they also unite very different people. People belonging to different social groups share differences and similarities cutting across the boundaries of their groups. For example, Carlos and Smith were similar in one way (both were African – American) and thus different from Norman who was white. But they were also all similar in other ways – they were all athletes (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 2007).
Social divisions have a major affect on the way that people see themselves and the structure of society, but interrelationships between social divisions are significant too (Marsh, 2006). We cannot exist in isolation and ignore the fact that we often group with those who are like us. Just as we pigeonhole other people and adapt our own behaviour towards them, so too do they adapt to us, in a continuous creative process but these values can alienate people, who are not like us (Payne, 2006). The social divisions can function to reinforce the material inequalities of individuals or interrelate to produce contradictory locations where human subjects are positioned differentially within these social divisions. For example, black working-class men may be in a position of dominance in terms of gender but subordination in terms of ‘race’ and ‘class’.
It can also involve psychological costs where you may identify with one position but are located in another – this may apply to transsexuals, middle-class children in working-class schools, ethnic minority children who identify with the majority but are excluded, women who identify with male-defined occupations and attitudes: all these may involve bullying and harassment as well as new forms of social avoidance (Anthias, 2001). Now I will use my chosen article ‘Using Focus Group Research in Exploring the Relationships Between Youth, Risk and Social Position’ and show how interrelationships of social divisions are demonstrated in it.
The article draws upon research and considers the value of the focus group method for exploring the relationships between youth, risk and social position. Groups comprising young, homogenous people (males, females, white British and ethnic minority) occupying similar social positions were used to generate talk about aspects of everyday life regarded as a risk. Similar risk issues were raised and discussed in groups (divided by gender and ethnicity) according to different culturally embedded meaning-frames and interpretive repertoires, indicating how habits dispose people towards different understandings and practices according to the relations of class, gender and ethnicity (Merryweather, 2010). For example for young, middle-class women risk was understood in a range of shared activities including alcohol consumption, nighttime leisure activities, fears of having drinks spiked or the threat of sexual assault. Women co-produced a narrative account of material risk practices associated with their particular social position and constructed themselves as active risk-takers.
In this respect, narratives were performative of feminine identities transgressive of traditional restrictive gender stereotypes, illustrating here how risks were understood according to the specific relations of gender and class (Merryweather, 2010). For young black and ethnic minority working-class women (BME) risk was understood in terms of experiences of racism, women providing examples of having felt out of place in certain white-dominated spaces like shopping centres or airports. Moreover, discussion of risks associated with violence was informed by reference to specific material experiences and culturally embedded understandings of what constitutes normal behaviour for young BME women (Merryweather, 2010). The group co-produced a gender distinction between violent, physically aggressive masculinity, and non-violent, traditional femininity.
Related, the absence of reference to direct forms of risk-taking behaviour also reproduced distinctions between these women’s femininity, co-constructed here is fairly traditional terms of female passivity, and the more active risk-taking femininity like white, middle-class women, illustrating here how risks were understood according to the specific relations of class, gender and ethnicity. Like BME women the main risk issue for young BME working-class men were experiences of racism, however here discussion focused more on direct experiences of racism like being routinely stopped by police or suffering verbal racist abuse. The discussion was also characterized by gendered performances which differed significantly from those evident in the group of young BME women. The young men talked about racism in ways that were performative of tough masculinity. For example, a few men expressed a desire to avenge their abuse via physical force (Merryweather, 2010).
Such talk reproduced an understanding of working-class masculinity marked by physical toughness often viewed as generated and contested within BME cultures. However, the young men performed masculinities in ways that positioned themselves as rational and respectful non-aggressors (restrained themselves on account of their assailants’ age). In this respect, such material experiences and the meaning frames through which they were understood were indicative of the relationship between class, gender, ethnicity and age (Merryweather, 2010). As for white middle-class males, the main risk issue was contacted with groups of other young men, alcohol consumption and witnessing guys in the city centre. The discussion was concentrated on alcohol consumption. What made this group interesting was the degree of contact and tension evident between certain members of the group (Liam and Mark).
Liam’s discussion of alcohol as an everyday risk practice accorded with the collaborative account generated by the majority of this group and was informed by the habitus at the specific intersection of class and gender at which such risk practices have their own ‘cultural logic’. Heavy drinking has long been associated with a tough, working-class, ‘hegemonic’ masculinity and Liam, although middle – class, performed his gender in such terms, highlighting that gender and class intersect in complex ways (Merryweather, 2010). However, Mark (higher social position) experienced and understood alcohol consumption in quite different terms, and deployed his own ‘rhetoric of reason’, challenging Liam’s claim. In doing so he at once undermined Liam’s claim to hegemonic masculinity and performed his own masculinity in a way that drew a clear distinction between himself and Liam.
Then Liam reproduced a distinction around class and gender, positioning Mark in terms of subordinate masculinity, as a weak and inferior man who lacked the authority to speak on issues such as alcohol consumption. This conflict showed that material experiences can be understood differently because of the relationships between class and gender (Merryweather, 2010). To conclude, this essay has reviewed what social divisions are, why they are significant and how they are shown in my chosen article. To sum up, social divisions refer to social groups, different ways in which societies may be grouped and relationships between these groups. Social divisions can be distinguished on the basis of characteristics such as gender, age, class, ethnicity, health, sex, etc. Relationships between social divisions are significant too because they can reinforce social inequality. Using the article this essay demonstrated how young people identified different issues as risky aspects of their everyday lives through relationships with the material world according to social class, gender and ethnicity.
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- Anthias, F. (2001). Looking at Ethnicity and Class. The Concept of `Social Division’ and Theorising Social Stratification. Sociology. 35(4), pp. 835-854. Available from: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/35/4/835
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- Merryweather, D. (2010). Using Focus Group Research in Exploring the Relationships Between Youth, Risk and Social Position. Sociological Research Online. 15(1), pp. 2-13. Available from: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/15/1/2.html
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- Payne, G. (2006). Social divisions. (2nd Edition). UK: Macmillan Publishers Limited