On Social Inequalities
Blaming a culture for its status on the wrong side of inequality is like blaming a bully victim for the cruelties of his tormentor. Even if some internal faults and deficiencies are conducive to subservience, the aggressor is still to blame for the injustice imposed unfairly. Without a bully there is no victim.
In all human cultures there exists a group disenfranchising another. This proves true for all nations, races, and genders. It may be that the bully is inevitable or it may be that when there is no bully there is no disparity between cultures and the cultures disappear and the definition of human simply becomes more nuanced. Either way, for all perceived cultures there exists an inequality that can only be described as the strong using the skills and resources of the weak. The Culturalist perspective of societal weakness can be defeated by imagining the strength of a postcolonial society without the presence of foreign might.
The Culturalist perspective makes the salient point that certain cultures have traits that make them better conditioned for success in competition with other cultures. A culture’s tendency to embrace principals such as time management, frugality, investment in education, impartial justice, and affiliation with society beyond family (Lawrence Harrison, pp. 299-300) could be the determining factors for aggregate economic success and general autonomy which are assumed to correlate with quality of life.
Culturalists consider less advanced societies reformable. The opinion is often that they never had a chance to develop the skills and values necessary for equality with other societies. Talcott Parsons thought that a society must be able to “(adapt) to the environment,” attain the government’s goals, integrate legal institutions, maintain values, keep a “homeostatic equilibrium” by responsive social change in institutions, and keep “harmonious coordination among institutions.” (Alvin So, pp. 20-21) By setting goals for a successful society, advocates of the Culturalist perspective can create plans to dissolve the inequalities. Using Western society as a North Star for under developed countries, Culturalist adherents of the Modernization plan for helping such countries feel that “they should be moving along the path that the United States has traveled.”
Another variety of Culturalists, call them laissez-faire Culturalists, concede that there is a disparity between genders and races but interpret this disparity as complementary and view the inequality as culture clash. The idea that “a man relates to the world as an individual within a hierarchy (while) a woman approaches the world as a network of many social connections” (Phillip Yancey, p. 84) echoes Harrison’s theory that social spheres of successful, modern societies have “a radius of identification and trust that extends beyond the family to the broader society.” (299) The novel viewpoint of the laissez-faire Culturalists is the assertion that different can be equal. Just because a man might talk more doesn’t mean that he has any more worth or is any better off than a woman who talks less. If this argument is carried through it excuses one group making more money than another group as long as human dignity remains equal and prejudices don’t arise.
Culturalists provide a backbone of personal responsibility. Blaming “The Man” gets you only so far when he’s deaf. Rationality dictates that if someone has advantages over another than there has to be some reason for the inequality. The Culturalist perspective is important for its attempts to find out what went wrong and its help in rectifying those wrongs. For the underdog culture, the Cultural perspective provides answers to the question, “What do we do now?”
Structuralists argue that it is unimportant how inequalities start because small inequalities stretch to large ones like a moth bite in a sweater. Colonialism essentially “destroyed the cultural patterns of production and exchange” (Lappé and Collins, pp. 38-39) that underdeveloped countries relied on for self sufficiency. In the modern world, not only are nations underperforming because of the past havocs wreaked but also because of continual inequality represented by trade deficits to industrialized nations, managed debt, western-engineered coups, and an abundance of other tricks. This “colonialism and foreign domination” (Alvin So, p. 96) has drained the coffers of colonized nations so that they cannot amass the capital necessary to industrialize.
These examples of hopelessness inflicted by the mighty on the meek are embodied in the cultures imbedded in nations as the propagation of the status quo. The woman’s point of view is often discounted and “it is stressed that no one is to blame.” (Mary Crawford, p. 94) When two groups are not equal, maintaining the status quo is maintaining inequality.
By belonging to a culture there is a sense of community and people have a tendency to help those in their community. A dominant race or gender gives advantages to those of similar backgrounds as does society as a whole. For instance men may receive higher wages for the work they are inclined to do. Societies teach inequality through their children. Children are corrected by parents if they don’t play in gender appropriate ways.
There is also the Structuralist argument that inequality is cyclical and that children learn their less than equal place in society by propinquity. When children watch their race be marginalized or their mothers make less money than their fathers, even if no words of racism or sexism are voiced, the child learns the lesson that the world works that way.
The Structuralist perspective is ultimately a stronger theory for its ability to accurately explain the disparity between rich and poor and for the observation that the resources of the rich, the better jobs of whites, the higher social standing of men, and the prosperity of the American economy all come at the detriment of the poor, the minorities, the women, and the foreigners.
If the Structuralist perspective is the stronger theory, then, as the perspective predicts, there must be a weaker theory. The Culturalist Theory does not represent the world accurately and makes people from societies that are oppressed defensive and overly culpable.
The Culturalist argument that cultures can be lifted gently out of their misfortune by appropriate internal reforms is fundamentally flawed. Alvin So identifies characteristics of industrialized societies that he claims are responsible for their success and states that “nonmodernized” societies simply need to adopt these characteristics. This argument is specious because it mistakes correlation for cause and effect. It is just as possible that “low degree of specialization; high level of self-sufficiency; cultural norms of tradition” (p. 25) are traits that develop with the catalyst of success. John Hobson used colonial Britain to demonstrate that professions of equality are practiced exclusively in rhetoric by industrialized nations. When nations try to follow the path to success that Britain claimed they used, they find themselves deceived. Not only did Britain never use egalitarian principles and standards of justice to create an empire but when other nations try to follow that roadmap they find themselves handing Britain money. It is not deficiencies of the countries that cause their poverty. The shrewd manipulation of ideas and the economic and political strength inherent in the dominant culture is what oppresses and keeps poor nations poor. This lesson is also applicable to racial and gender issues. By saying that success is meritocratic, it deceives people of lesser means into solely blaming themselves.
The Culturalist argument relies heavily upon a form of meritocracy. A Culturalist views self-improvement as paramount and dismisses the truth that the difference between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is too large to be overcome by the average man. The fabled stories of overcoming adversity despite spectacular odds are stories of truly exceptional people. It is inconceivable to expect a whole culture to be able to assume the skill set and abnormal mental acumen necessary to take down the dominant culture.
Alvin So states that “social change is unidirectional” and “evolutionary.” (33) Continually advancing technologies make this sometimes true in the long run. However as an active change, cultures have to take money, resources, and cultural capital from the advantaged in order to gain it for themselves. There is a finite quantity of resources and wealth available at any one time and even when wealth increases the rich measure their own wealth as a proportion of the new wealth. So progress tends to favor the advantaged as much as the stagnancy of the status quo. The advantaged act for the most part in self interest and are not interested in losing their luxuries. As societies “progress” the richer societies need more goods and services to progress and the poor get poorer relative to the rich (although they may become materially richer). So even if modernization is irresistible and inevitable, it still will progress at slower rate for less developed countries and the benefits will be negligible. In order for the poor to rise in aggregate status, power, and economic prosperity as the Culturalists say they should, a practically impossible relinquishing of power would be necessary by the advantaged.
The other Culturalist myth in need of debunking is the happy multiculturalism idea that everyone is separate but equally valued. The idea that it is just fine that men and women “use conversation for quite different purposes” (Yancey, p. 86) is euphonic until it is realized that the male way of using conversation is considered the correct way in American society. For a Culturalist to say that it is fine for everyone to be different justifies some people being more privileged and is equivalent to calling the female culture inferior.
The Culturalist perspective, taken as a whole, is the rhetoric of oppression. It declares that with a little hard work adverse starting conditions can be overcome. This defies the logic of equality. If everyone is equal, it follows that those born with more benefits cannot be overcome by those born with lesser benefits without the implication that the advantaged had less aggregate, god-given propensity for success. The cumulative harms of lifetimes of inequality weigh heavily against the Culturalist perspective.
Contrary to the theory prominent in conservative thought that the meek, the poor, the women, the minority races, and citizens of foreign countries are barred from the highest levels of global and American prosperity by a volitional insufficiency, reality demonstrates that structural and institutional oppression is to blame.
Crawford, Mary and Yancey, Phillip. Taking Sides. McGraw Hill: Guilford, Ct.
Lappé, Francis Moore and Collins, Joseph. Food First. Ballantine Books: San Francisco (1978: 75-85)
So, Alvin. “The Dependency Perspective” Social Change and Development. Sage
Publications: Newbury Park (1990:91-109)
So, Alvin. “The Modernization Perspective” Social Change and Development. Sage
Publications: Newbury Park (1990:17-37)
Harrison, Lawrence (ed.). Culture Matters. Bagie Books: New York (2000:298-307)
Hobson, John. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization. Cambridge University Press: