Social Divides: Who, Where and How
As we look around us, amid the crowds, among networks, online, in real life, we can easily see that we classify people, by race class, culture, income. We do not do so all the time consciously. It has been anchored in our society, a basis we have a hard time getting rid of. It appears evident, as we answer questions all the time about our backgrounds (Caucasian, Asian?) that, we, human beings, belong the same species, and that different races spread over the world. Nature works this way, and this diversity incarnates our treasure. Moreover these categories organize our reality for further studies like diagnosis and measurements. However, on the other hand, classification also participates in enforcing social distances, in widening racial divides.
Then, what does this word classification mean anyway? Dictionaries and other reference sources give several definitions depending on the context in which we use the word "classification", all related to a more global one;
arrangement according to some systematic division into classes or groups (Webster's New World Dictionary)
Thus, to classify means to organize things from a bigger category in different smaller ones, using several factors. A class has different meanings as a noun. It defines first a category of things having the same properties or attribute and differentiated by kind, type or quality. It is referred to a "taxonomy" in biology:
a system of arranging animals and plants into natural, related groups based on some factor common to each, as structure, embryology, biochemistry, etc. : the basic taxa now in use are, in descending order from most inclusive, phylum (in botany, division), class, order, family, genus and species (Webster's New World Dictionary)
Thus, in biology, classifications enable to group and organize different taxonomic groups regarding their similarities, their phenotypic and genotypic resemblances. The social behaviors or living environments do not affect these biological categories.
In sociology, the word “class” used to define the rich and educated people, now it has a larger meaning: it orders a society divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status. The word “perceived” points out the relativity of any classification. It seems always relative to the human perception, point of view, choice. Thus the population’s own way to assign different categories to different people forms social classifications, all this of course would all be relative to the studied society. The categories dividing the population in reality such as dominance, class, race and interests exist also on the Internet, a virtual world concealing users’ appearance unless they decide not to do so. Internet and social networking sites prove that society itself, more than any superior hierarchical dominant power, establishes classifications.
Obviously we can imagine an utopian world with everyone on the same status as basic and clear as "Earth citizen" and with the same habits, rules, culture, but would it be really an interesting planet to live on, without variety? What would be just pointless to travel. Besides, we seem to head in this direction, with Mc Donalds in Russia, what will be the next step of globalization? However, globalization does not rub diversity alone, the flow of people around the world does it too, now people have multiple backgrounds, and all this gene flow has such effects as the blond hair phenotype which tends to disappear gradually, and so, logically, races tend to disappear also. There would not be any race classification anymore as processes of natural selection. Our phenotypes tend to homogenize and some genotypes tend to disappear, but this scenario has not happened yet. Moreover even if race classification did not exist, there would still be other categories to keep classifying people.
Who are these people affected by our classifications? Pierre Bourdieu proposes two main categories of our societies, the dominants and the dominated:
Symbolic violence rests on the adjustment between the structures constitutive of the habitus of the dominated and the structure of the relation of domination to which they apply: the dominated perceive the dominant through the categories that the relation of domination has produced and which are thus identical to the interests of the dominant. (Bourdieu)
Bourdieu explains that society, with its hierarchical structures builds "laws" incorporated by the dominants unconsciously. Dominated people in the structured society feel resentment in front of dominants’ social position and power that dominants want to keep and preserve because they see an interest in dominating. Sometimes the classifications come from a hierarchical dominant power like governments and laws. Sometimes it comes from the society itself.
A girl like me, a short documentary video, deals with what African American youths think about themselves, with self-recognition, self-identification, their origins, and cultures. A black child chooses a white doll saying that it represents the nice one. A little girl with a pink Cinderella sweater first says that the black doll seems bad and then recognizes she looks like the black doll. This experiment illustrates mis-recognition: the recognition of the error of self-prejudice or racism from society embodied in the dominated without the dominated knowing that they feel conditioned by society. Mis-recognition seems to be an identity problem.
Robert E. Park gives one explanation of why such classifications exist in the concept of race consciousness:
Race consciousness is to be regarded as a phenomenon, like class or caste consciousness, that enforces social distances. Race relations, in this sense, are not so much the relations that exist between individuals of different races as between individuals conscious of these differences. (Park)
Thus, according to Park, race relations only exists if people consciously notice any difference among races, otherwise no classification would be made. As a result, 5 years old African American children present unconsciously a black doll as bad compared to a white one, before realizing they look like the black one and deducing the consequences of their observation . Thus I would even correct Robert E park statement by saying that people do not seem necessary “conscious of these differences". They auto-classify themselves like they do when they decide to get into a community club for example.
However parents and school influence children. Schools especially seem to be one of the first places where children experience society’s conditions according to Barack Obama:
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students. (Obama)
Thus, the early children’s education participates in the formation of a gap, here an achievement gap, between black and white students for example. The gap here takes place between black and white students however we could imagine the same situation for students from high and low social economic backgrounds, or from different culture backgrounds. Besides, this achievement gap is following most of the time children throughout their all life and mis-recognition could arise from this point.
Moreover advertisements, movies, TV shows, magazines, and online networks influence children also. Classifications do not only exist in our real world but also on the Internet. Nowadays we face the network gap, which seems to divide users on MySpace and FaceBook, according to Danah Boyd:
The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other 'good' kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, 'burnouts,' 'alternative kids,' 'art fags,' punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. (Boyd)
Boyd claims that the students who use MySpace and Facebook belong respectively to low socio-economic class students who might have stopped studying to work, and students who have access to college education. We see here two new categories. We saw before, the dominants and dominated, the black and white students, now we have the “good” kids and the “others”. This new category crosses the dominants and dominated categories: the class categories. The “good” kids would be the dominants and the “others” the dominated. MySpace and Facebook are the mirror image of the school system, which reflects the image of Bourdieu’s society conception.
Thus is mis-recognition an identity problem or a problem with the influences spread out in our society? When talking about races, the difficulty to overcome is the different notions. Some notions must not be confused, for example, race relations and racism, ethnocentrism, or intolerance. Indeed, generally people apprehend stereotypes, because stereotypes make classifications; also they don’t want to accept the world as is, to admit that Equality do not always supervises our lives, and that they may be somehow and sometimes responsible for it. First of all, racism as a racial antipathy has nothing to do with race relations. Race relations stands for the interaction that people of different races have within a given society. In a cosmopolite city, where people from all over the world interact together, races can meld totally without people building communities with people from their country, or be organized in tight communities. Often in the United States, we organize races in tight communities. Thus race relations promote classifications of races: a classification as a distribution in categories without any question of superiority. When hostility and an ideology of superiority sneaks into any race classification, racism begins. Even if races can be melded, we don’t erase class divides: we even marginalize people. Besides people can belong to different categories at the same time, class category and a racial category.
We classify people also by their income, their lifestyle, their job, and their hobbies. This can be seen on network websites also as in our real life:
At 1Up.com, a content-heavy social site where gamers trade tips, stories, opinions and gossip, the philosophy is that people don't need to choose a single social network-they can be a part of several. Of its members, 50% also belong to MySpace, 18% to Facebook 9% to Xanga and 6% to Friendster. (Klaassen)
Klaassen gives the example of 1Up.com as a Social Networking Site where people with the same hobbies gather online. He points out also that these same gamers belong to several others social network sites, not only one. This is more accurate to the functionment of out society, it would be too simple to classify people in two or three categories. Today, people move and go through so many jobs, hobbies, that they present several characterizations.
There is an important paradoxe, here, in New York City. People present themselves as Americans. Even if they arrived at three years old, some won't wait five seconds before revealing their Polish or Russian backgrounds. Some of them say the way you act, you speak, the time you have spent here, make you American, not your citizenship. So they are Americans, all Americans, and they recreate a Russian community, a Chinese community. They try to stay absolutely together. Abbey Klassen explains again how much people prefer to gather in specific groups :
Shawn Gold, senior VP-marketing and content at MySpace, said that there are definitely subcultures emerging within his massive social-networking site. And for users who want efficiency, one social network is certainly easier-and MySpace is continuing to evolve its tools for self-expression, video, mobile and aggregation.
We believe it's better to be niche, look at the real-world communities-they're made up of pockets of people with similar interests. While social networks all look fairly similar now, they're in a primordial stage. They'll start branching out and super-serving the audience and giving value that you can't find in a general-market site.
Soon, he'll launch Glee.com, a social network for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender crowd. It joins his other sites, BlackPlanet, MiGente and AsianAvenue, which aim to attract blacks, Hispanics and Asians, respectively. (Klaassen)
Thus, so far we had Social Networking Sites destined to the totality of the population: MySpace and Facebook. Then even those two started to see their users segregating themselves with goods kids on Facebook and the “others” on MySpace. From now on, according to Klaasen, social networking sites will focus only one category at a time and start being less general. They will start establishing even online social categories such as skin color, origins or sexual preferences.
Works cited :
"A Girl Like Me" Kiri Davis, Director, Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, Producer http://www.understandingrace.org/lived/video/index.html
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Economy of Symbolic Goods.” Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Trans. Randal Johnson. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Boyd, danah. 2007. "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace ." Apophenia Blog Essay. June 24 . http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html
"Classification" Webster's New World Dictionary 1982
Klaassen, A. (2006, November 6). Niche - targeted social networks find audiences ; Users flock to specialized communities but don't abandon MySpace, others. Advertising Age, 15.
Obama, B. (2008, March 18) A more perfect union. Philadelphia, PA.
"Taxonomy" Webster's New World Dictionary 1982