In search for a new social stratification

by Tarek Chemaly

Poems & Articles by Tarek Chemaly
Our Common Solitudes
Casting for a PG rated movie
In search for a new social stratification
© Tarek Chemaly 2002 -2022

Trying to belong

"All the lonely people/ Where do they come from?/ All the lonely people/ Where do they belong?" asked the Beatles in the lyrics of "Eleanor Rigby" thus eloquently summarizing humanity's search for roots and belonging.

Ubiquitous criteria inverted

Sociologists have long agreed that the two ubiquitous criteria for social stratification were age and gender with elderly and males - respectively - placed at a higher point of the stratification ladder. Yet, when Time magazine wanted to shoot the most influential people of the internet, it included 19 year old Shawn Fanning the man behind the MP3 code. A comment was that - in any other industry - Fanning would be serving coffee instead of being on equal terms with the other people in the photograph.

Actress Julia Roberts, in a poll done in October 2000, managed to outdo all her male counterparts as the most important person in Hollywood - and to think that one time she was labeled as only a "Pretty woman".


The post-industrial stratification theories

The classical pyramidal structure of society was certainly very much shaken by the advent of the industrial revolution, but it is the post-industrial revolution which we are currently witnessing that will inevitably transform the concept of social class into a different entity than the one accustomed to.

Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell argues that "In an industrial society, the services are transportation, utilities, and finance, which are an auxiliary to the production of goods, and personal services (beauticians, restaurant employees, and so forth) [...] but in a post-industrial society, work is primarily a "game between persons" (between bureaucrat and client, doctor and patient, teacher and student)."

Bell also argues that the major class of the emerging new society is primarily a professional class, based on knowledge rather than property. But he also stresses that the control system of the society is still a political process. However, "in terms of status (esteem and recognition, and possibly income) the knowledge class may be the highest class in the new society”.

Sociologist Gosta Epsing-Andersen joins Bell in his theory and compares the Fordist [As referring to Ford industry model] hierarchy to the post-industrial one with the former being managers/proprietors - clerical workers - manual production workers and the latter being ordered into professionals or scientists - technicians - service workers.

Whereas the above two schemes of hierarchy are in no way fixed and applicable in all countries and societies, they demonstrate clearly that the "class" as it was known in the Marx and Engels models has disappeared and in order to fulfill the intrinsic human need of belonging, many have searched for and found other alternatives.


Internet as an alternative

Designer Jeffrey Zeldman says that "The Industrial Revolution and the 20th Century put a dent in institutions on which the species has long depended. Institutions - like family, village, and church - that bind us together. The web cannot replace those institutions, but it helps fulfill our deep, culturally thwarted need for contact."

Finding refuge in the Internet has become common practice with the proliferation of sub-groups, sub-cultures, webrings and other assorted classifications to rally like-minded individuals scattered all over the world.



Television has certainly been another alternative, Reverend Paul Haworth says "What you watch is what you are: Cowboy channel, Christian channel, CookBook channel, Business channel, the list continues to grow - and to divide. Who will you be this weekend?".
Reverend Haworth, himself in search of the multiple facets of belonging nowadays, told this writer that "Our post-modern world offers us so many multiple perspectives. We can get inside one another's head like never before. Will this draw us closer together or will it put us more on our guard? Am I devaluating another culture when I seek to enter into its hidden world whilst keeping my hands clean and my exit clear?".


Blind nationalism

Other refuge places for identity can certainly be blind nationalist theories, yet even these tend to fail when put into historical contexts. Advocates of the theory of the Lebanese union with other nations under the pretext that it was so at the beginning of the century can highly be contested when remembering that Lebanon has been known to be historically cited in manuscripts dating as far back as 3000 BC when other so-called nations did not exist yet. How far does one go to trace boundaries of lands in order to belong?

Due to technical complications, I once had the opportunity to spend an entire night in the no man's land between Lebanon and Syria and I went back and forth on foot several times to both countries in a very short lapse of time. Nothing was more challenging to my concept of borderlines and territorial fragmentation.

Nationalism has the side effect of focusing on self-sustainability and the economic sufficiency. In his celebrated essay "Jihad v/s McWorld" with McWorld referring to the globalization of corporate culture and it's spread throughout the world, author Benjamin Barber states that "Athenians idealized what they called autarky, and tried for a while to create a way of life simple and austere enough to make the polis genuinely self-sufficient. To be free meant to be independent of any other community or polis".

Whereas it is unarguable that providing the minimum of food self-sufficiency for a nation - such as Japan's production of wheat at a cost six times the international market prices - is a must for any country, going as far as total excludability on several levels would be an utter denial of the concept of "comparative advantage" which means that some nations can produce certain goods more efficiently than others and therefore should specialize in those goods. At one point, "autarky” is an outright economical failure.

Cultural independence
Another aspect of national "autarkies” may be reflected in cultural independence is a long sought after concept championed by France whose ministry of culture issued a decree a few years back to ban the use of English language words in the national media. An Armenian poet tried to write a poem based solely on words of Armenian origins while excluding all other influences. Very ironically, the title of the poem was "Requiem" - a purely Latin word.



Another choice such as Religion can be found on the menu. It's essence is defined by Barber through stating that "solidarity is secured through war against outsiders. And solidarity often means obedience to hierarchy in governance, fanaticism in beliefs, and the obliteration of individual selves in the name of the group. Deference to leaders and intolerance toward outsiders."

"Outsiders" seems to be a key word when one talks of belonging. A search on outsiders lead to discover the existence of a very restrained online community of witches, Wiccans and pagans in Lebanon. A woman who identifies herself by the name of Angeltear and who belongs to the community told this author that she feels like an outsider, and that she cannot identify with society's thought patterns and ways of being anymore. "Naturally being a "potentially prosecuted" minority, we stick together" added the woman.



Sports have always been about that - a clansman attitude towards a particular star or team. Any self-respectable English hooligan - if such an oxymoron exists - would throw a spontaneous three hour seminar on the topic. On a personal note, I tend to be quite a fan of Formula one driver Michael Schumacher. His direct opponent Mika Hakkinen gets on my nerves severely.

However, when Schumacher won world championship last year on the Suzuka Japanese ring, and when Hakkinen was asked about his feelings in the press conference, he uttered "So sad" with the looks of a five year old who had been denied the lollipop he had been promised. And at that moment, Hakkinen was lovable again - because the competition was over.

For the sportsmen themselves, the story is not much different with them finding their identity among competitors who seek the same goals and it is the presence of opponents which lead them to surpass themselves and be the "top of the class”.


Reference groups

Growing up without strict reference groups and communities may be a dream for some, such as Angeltear, but a nightmare for some who experienced it. A British female friend who had been raised in a hippie community experiences this lack of constants. "I was brought up too freely, without rules or boundaries. Now, if I find myself in times of doubt, I have nothing reliable to go back to" she once told me.

Family ties are often seen as a basic support network for the individual to feel part of. It's geographical location is a home - a concept often taken for granted for those who have one. Famous Writer Lars Eighner, whose work "Travels with Lizbeth" depicts his days of homelessness on the road spoke to Arab Ad about what a home meant to him. "The essence of "home" is the ability to exclude others. Those who have homes may seldom exercise that right: neighbors, guest, and distant relatives may come and go. But the person who is at home knows he can exercise the right to be left alone any time he pleases".


Consumer culture

It becomes therefore obvious that "to belong" is the result of personal experiences and points of views with very few people seeing as a mass act involving numerous individuals. Director Quentin Tarantino once implied that what keeps us together as a specie are McDonalds', Madonna and Kevin Kostner.

The shopping masses should know something about it. It feels safe to consume what everyone else is and although it is an individualistic experience, it does however provide a sense of sharing and anonymity. Adapting large corporations concepts to local markets is the essence of their expanding.

No Coca-cola market is the same. When the famous brand name was implanted in China, it first read "Ke-kou-ke-la", meaning "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax", depending on the local dialect. Coke researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent "Ke-kou-ko-le", translating into "Happiness in the mouth".

Yet, beyond phonetics, there exists a black liquid with a trademarked contour shaped bottle and a red wrapping waiting to "recruit" us.

Is this where "the lonely people" the Beatles talked about belong?

Tarek Chemalyis an agriculture engineer and an environmental economist working in the creative deparment of an advertising agency, in Beirut. He says that he never lived in Beirut. It was Beirut which always lived in him.

top of page