"Table of Contents"


   Experiencing the Humanities


A Web Textbook

CollegeHumanities.org,  or  OnlineHumanities.org




2. Society and Culture:
Patterns of Human Behavior

Dressing for the Carnival*

Chapter Two of
Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell

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Society and culture are, together, the sea of people and institutions all around us that we sometimes call our "community." The society and culture of our local community might be made up of all the ways of small-town or suburban life, or perhaps all the ways of city life, or even the society and culture of a local neighborhood in which we live.

In a wider sense, our whole country is one big community. And each of us is a member of it.

Here are the sections in this chapter. Each starts with a question:

Can a community be a family?

What is the difference between loners and socializers?

Is there a divide between rural and city?

Does your biology--your genes--affect society?

hat are basic class structures?

Does America have a caste system?

Are society and culture continuously in progress?

Do racism and ethnic inequality matter in society?

Why do towns and cities die or grow?

Can a community be a family?

Some sociologists say that since the advent of television in the 1950s, our country really has become one great community with many shared experiences--the same programs, clothes, cars, beliefs, feelings, and hopes and doubts as expressed on the same television programming from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico. This makes sense, if we consider that the average person watches three to four hours of television per day: we in this country have become one big community--one big society and one culture--much more so than we used to be when all people had was radio and magazines.

"Society" is the sum of all the different social groups, social rules, and social interactions we experience in living, working, and playing with our fellow humans, whether we want to or not. The "culture" of a society is its own particular stage or level of refinement, especially in intellectual and artistic pursuits.

A society or group that is highly cultured will have a highly refined--thought out and experienced--level of intellectual and artistic sensitivity. An example of a more highly cultured society is what you find on a college campus. Here people purposely are pursuing more intellectual and artistic thoughts and sensitivities.

A society or group that is hardly cultured at all will have very little thought about abstract ideas, nor will it have very much sensitivity to the arts. An example of a society with a very low level of culture would be a group of cavemen and cavewomen at the beginning of human history, or perhaps tribal people in modern-day countries where almost every minute of the day is taken up in the pursuit to find, make, and eat enough food to survive.

In fact, this constant pursuit of food and of shelter-- constant work--is one thing about which many intellectuals complain in our own society. These intellectuals say that we often must spend so much time working at our jobs that we have little time to experience intellectual or artistic stimulation in our lives. And one time-honored remedy for this, however small, is to require a humanities course in college so that we can at least learn how to pursue the intellectual and the artistic a little better on our own.

What is the difference between loners and socializers?

One popular theory of society and culture is that we can be divided, in general, into two groups of people: those who are "inner directed" and those who are "other directed." Sometimes the two also are called "introvert" and "extrovert," or "loner" and "socializer."

The theory of "inner directed" and "other directed" was well developed by a sociologist named David Riesman in his 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd. Other sociologists have further developed the idea. Basically, you are an inner-directed person if you like to work alone a lot, develop your best energy by being alone, often keep our own counsel, and consider your individuality very important. And you are an other-directed person if you like working and spending a lot of time with others, develop your best energy by being social, enjoy hearing others' thoughts and opinions, and consider people and socializing important.

There are obvious strengths and weaknesses to both inner-directed and other-directed ways of living. However, most people draw strengths (and weaknesses) from both of these sides of their personalities. You are likely to have some traits from both sides. Neither side is considered bad or good by sociologists and psychologists: the two sides are just different.

However, sociologists say that both types--or all types--of people are needed in a successful society or community. And psychologists point out that if you as an individual are having a problem, you may find it useful to try out a practice from the opposite side--the side you are not. 

Is there a divide between r
ural and city?

For thousands of years, people of all levels of education and all styles and manners of culture have written about the distinct difference between rural life and city life. In the past one to two hundred years as cities and suburbs have grown much larger, the distinctions between these two have grown even greater.

The two are very different if you are thinking of living on a farm or in the woods versus in the center of a major city, also called an urban area. This is true in almost all nations in the world. However, there actually is a continuum of several distinct places where people live. In each, people develop societal and cultural lives and patterns that are somewhat distinct from each other:

rural countryside (farm and woods)
villages and rural towns
-- suburbs close to or like rural towns
inner suburbs -- suburbs next to a major city
urban inner city

What is each group like?

First, it may help to contrast the two different extremes, rural and urban. In the rural countryside, you have very few other people around you. Your "home" is not just your house but also the yard and even the fields around you. When you want to "get away" from people, it is your family you want to escape for awhile, and you can go outside to do it. Because the only people around you regularly are your family members, family life becomes your dominant and even usually unconscious background in your life. To see people other than family, you may have to travel miles by bicycle or car.

You also develop what is called a "rural" or "pastoral" way of life, meaning you are closer to nature, more aware of storms, and usually (in developed and developing countries) safer from those who might do you harm. Medical emergencies are a little more worrisome, as you may need to travel a good distance to get medical care. You are more likely to be a hunter or have a hunter in your family and consider firearms helpful or at least necessary, and you are more likely to have animals--whether farm animals or pets--around you. Studies by sociologists, psychologists, and medical researchers say you are more likely to have a calmer, less stressful way of life.

Second, signifcantly different from rural countryside living, are urban areas--the inner or central city. In the inner city, you have a constant barrage of people around you. Your "home" is your house or apartment and the immediate outdoor walls or indoor hallway around it. You more often think of "getting away from people" as going into your home. The constant ebb and flow of people outside your home becomes a dominant, usually unconscious background in your life. If you want to be around people, all you have to do is go outside. Friends may live very close to you but also are more easily accessible by walking, bus, rail, and car.

You also develop what might be called a "city" way of life, meaning you are used to more noise, lights, and activity, the elevated dangers outside of your home and how they vary from area to area and day to night, and often consider firearms more a problem than an advantage. You usually have fairly quick access to medical care in emergencies. You also are more likely to be wary of animals, especially large ones. Sociological, psychological, and medical research suggests you are more likely to have a moderate or high level of stress in your life.

Are there mixtures of these two differing poles?

Third, though, are the areas between these two opposites. These areas compose a large mass of humanity throughout the world. Three distinct living areas exist on a continuum between rural and urban: villages and towns, exurbs, and inner suburbs.

The first of these middle groups, villages and towns, compose the great majority of the population in rural areas. In these places, many of the attributes of living on a farm or in the woods exist, such as the closeness to nature and the greater calm in living. However, villagers and town people have somewhat better access to friends, medical care, and, if needed, police. In many ways, however, their livelihoods and culture are linked closely to the farms around them.

The second of these middle groups, exurbs, are the suburbs that are on the outside of metropolitan areas: i.e., they are the outermost suburbs, close to or even sometimes containing countryside. Culturally, they are a mix of small-town and big-suburban ways, with more of a sense of country culture and ways but with much greater and faster access to friends, inner-city life, medical care, and police.

The third of these middle groups, inner suburbs, almost always are smaller than the urban city around which they are circled closely, and they also are more likely to have people of similar economic and even racial makeup in them. Their economic and racial makeup can vary quite a bit, from poorest to richest and in one dominant racial group to another, and these factors make them quite varied culturally. However, all of them have in common close access to the urban city at their center with faster access to a wider variety of friends, if they wish, and many other cultural factors they share with the inner city.

You also may want to notice how the political beliefs of each group are different, too, and how that affects voting in a country. In some countries, where each individual's vote is counted equally, this voting tends to favor the wishes of urban and suburban communities over those of rural communities. In other countries, such as the U.S., where each state has an equal power in some of its political bodies--such as in the U.S. Senate--some types of voting give more equal power to rural communities, even though these communities may have much smaller populations.

The best way to experience each of these five sociological cultures and their attributes is to live in them for awhile. You also can learn quite a bit simply by talking with those who were raised in them or have lived in them for a long time.

Does your biology--your genes--affect society?

Another popular theory--or rather a popular argument-- is the fight that many intellectuals have over "nature" versus "nurture."

The "nature" people often are in the "hard sciences" such as biology, neurology (the study of the nervous system), and medicine. Some of them believe that the genetic code we are naturally born with is the primary determining factor for what we will become. They say that even the smallest details of our personalities, whom we marry, what jobs we choose, or whether we are grumpy at breakfast as we read the newspaper headlines--that all of these may be determined by our DNA--by the genes that we have in our cells at birth.

One powerful proof of the "nature" argument is research done on identical twins who have not known each other since birth. These twins have the exact same sets of genes. When studied, these twins usually have extremely similar patterns in their lives, marrying, having children, dying, and even choosing spouses and jobs at similar times in similar ways, as if they were preprogrammed to do so.

This research on twins, and other research, suggests that individuals, groups, and even whole societies are deeply and thoroughly tied to our genetic codes.

The "nurture" people, on the other hand, often are more "soft science" or theory-oriented people in the social sciences: sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Some of them believe that our personalities, social institutions and cultural patterns are determined primarily by the way we are "nurtured"--the way we are brought up as children--and by what we learn all around us as we continue to grow as adults.

Those who believe in the nurture theory argue that we are somewhat blank at birth, like clean blackboards, and our experiences mold us as we grow up. The most powerful argument in their favor is, perhaps, that it is obvious to all of us that we can be deeply affected--and deeply changed--by the kinds of jobs, money, friends, lovers, relatives, successes, disasters, and accidental events we experience. Therefore, according to the nurture theory, society is free to choose much of its rules and also the cultural level it will have.

Are society and culture more controlled by rigid genes from birth on? Or are society and culture essentially free to choose what they will become by shaping themselves to be better?

It seems likely, at this point in time, that both sides of this argument have a big piece of the truth: we are much more deeply affected by our genetic coding than we perhaps realize; but we still are deeply affected, too, by the way we were brought up and what we continue to experience. We as individuals and as a society are, to put it in another (more philosophical) way, profoundly fated and profoundly free at the same time. At any one time, one or the other--genes or societal freedom--may affect us more. However, both play a very large part in an ever mingling dance of biology and free culture.

What are basic class structures?

There are many theories about culture, too. One such theory that combines ideas about both culture and society is that our society is divided into three main classes with various socio-economic sub-groupings. The three main groupings are:

upper class
middle class
lower class

These three groupings sometimes are further subdivided in ways such as this:

Upper class subgroups:
     upper-upper class (extremely wealthy)
     middle-upper class (fairly wealthy)
     lower-upper class (somewhat wealthy)

Middle class subgroups:
     upper-middle class (very comfortable)
     middle-middle class (comfortable)
     lower-middle class (barely comfortable)

Lower class subgroups:
     upper-lower class (struggling, but often comfortable day to day)
     middle-lower class (poor but mostly independent of government or other aid)
     lower-lower class (poor and dependent on government or other aid)

And there are other class labels, many of which intermix or are part of the above classes:

white collar: managerial office workers in middle or upper classes

pink collar: female secretarial and managerial office workers in middle and lower classes

professional class: people with salaries (rather than hourly wages) and, usually, jobs requiring little or no physical labor

creative class: professional artists, administrators, and teachers of the arts and crafts; those whose living is directly related to such activities; and those who choose geographic locations and jobs because of the presence of the arts and crafts

working class: lower to middle-lower classes doing semiskilled and skilled non-office labor

immigrant class: recently arrived immigrants and/or their children; usually poor or working class on arrival, though some are already middle or occasionally upper class (such as doctors, technology experts, et al.)

welfare class: the poor who are either not working or who have jobs with pay so low that they still qualify for free or reduced housing, food, health benefits, and/or cash assistance

homeless class: those in deep poverty without housing of their own. Some hold jobs with pay too low for housing. High levels of alcoholism, drug addiction, and/or significant mental illness

It is hard to assign income levels to the three main class groups of upper, middle, and lower.  However, in 2012 (when income-figure revisions were made in this chapter), according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "[S]ocial scientists generally define the middle class as those with household incomes within 75 [to] 150 percent of the median" (Spencer, "Falling incomes rip a hole in middle class," 4 Mar. 2012).  These figures likely remain close to accurate because of the slow recovery from the 2008 Great Recession and because of the 2020 COVID-19 Recession. These percentages therefore would create the following national family income brackets: The dollar amounts will vary somewhat by state; by rural, suburban, or urban area; and from other factors. (Note: As of the end of 2021, with inflation at about 6% and the stock market having gone up quickly, these figures have become higher for the upper class and some middle class people.)

The Upper Class:
In an average geographic area: $100,000+

Major suburb, city, or well-to-do state:
Rural or impoverished area or poor state: $80,000+ year
Typical elements of culture (but not necessarily limited to these):
4+ years of college education; large house, second home or rental property; cultural activities may include attendance at or support of symphonies, dance (modern, ballet, etc.); hardbound books and more expensive magazines, more costly restaurants, dinner parties, nightclubs; expensive personal computers and cell phones for each household member. More likely to be a middle-age or older couple with grown children.  
The IRS said about 235,000 American people and households (roughly 1% of the population) reported $1 million or more in yearly income in 2009.  According to a Nov. 2011 Gallup Poll, the median income Americans said they would need to call themselves "rich" is $150,000 per year.

The Middle Class:
In an average geographic area: $40,000 to $100,000
Major suburb, city, or well-to-do state:
$60,000 to $100,000
Rural or impoverished area or poor state: $40,000 to $60,000 per year
Typical elements of culture (but not necessarily limited to these):
1+ yrs. of post-high school ed.; average-size house, a cabin or medium-size boat or RV; cultural activities may include movies, videos, clubs, dancing, paperback books, inexpensive restaurants, travel by camping or by discounted air flight, popular magazines, churches or nightclubs; budget personal computers and cell phones for each household member. More likely to be a couple with children at home, a single in a reasonably well-paid profession, or an older couple living mostly on social security and a small pension/401K.

The Lower Class (Poor and Working Classes):
In an average geographic area: $4000 (in public or private aid) to $40,000

Major suburb, city, or well-to-do state:
$4000 (in aid) to $45,000
Rural or impoverished area or poor state: $4000 (in public services such as free food) to $30,000 per year
Typical elements of culture (but not necessarily limited to these):
2-4 years of high school education; smaller house, camping or relatives for travel; cultural activities may include TV and videos, fast-food restaurants, churches or bars, relatives, street scenes, parks, and/or free or low-cost computer services.  More likely to be a single parent with two or more children, an elderly adult or couple living primarily on social security, or a member of an economically disenfranchised group such as a minority, disabled person, or recent immigrant. 
This category includes homeless individuals, most of whom are eligible for a minimum of $4000 or more per year of food, health, housing, and/or financial public support in most states.  Poor families with children usually qualify for $6000-$20,000 or more per year, depending on family size, state, and location. 

Who belongs to what class?

If determining class by earned income is difficult, it is even harder to do so by culture.  This is why social scientists label a person's class level not just by economic factors, but also by social and cultural factors. This is why the often-used label "socio-economic class" exists: it is important, in establishing a person's class, to look at both socio-cultural factors and economic factors.

Thus people in the U.S. and elsewhere often tend to define class not by rigid categories of income but also by interests, cultural inclinations, friends and family, and other socio-cultural factors.  You can look at people's style of living, type of work, and even their personality types, interests, and feelings in understanding the class with which they are most likely to identify themselves.  There will, in short, be many crossovers in the three major categories and subcategories above.  In addition, it is a time-honored tradition in American culture for people in their late teens and twenties--even into their thirties (and for some groups, such as artists, indefinitely) to make their own way in the world, no matter from what class they come, such that they experience having much less income than their past, friends, or cultural associations might normally indicate. 

A new type of class has been discussed in detail recently. Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University calls it the "creative class" in his book of 2002, The Rise of the Creative Class, and Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson calls this group of people "cultural creatives" in their book of 2000, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.  All three authors argue that this group of people composes up to 30% of the population of the United States.  The core people in this group make their living as artists and craftspeople of all kinds; a larger, secondary number service the arts and crafts as administrators, teachers, and suppliers; a third and largest group participate in artistic, craft, and related cultural events to such a degree that they choose where they live and work--and often with whom--according to the the extent and diversity of arts, crafts, and cultural events found in these places, jobs, and people.

Immigrants are another significant class in many countries, especially the United States, which historically has welcomed them. In fact, a significant number of agricultural interests--farms, businesses, meat-packing and canning plants, et al.--especially depend on poor immigrants coming to the U.S. each year for work that most white citizens refuse. A few immigrants arrive in the U.S. and other countries already firmly middle or upper class. However, a large majority come from poorer countries for better economic opportunities. Some succeed very well; others, less so. However, statistical reports through many decades suggest that first- and second-generation immigrants tend to be more successful financially and more law-abiding than equivalent socio-economic classes who already are citizens. Because many immigrants are darker skinned, race also becomes a greater issue. (See below.)

Does America have a caste system?

The answer to this question depends on how you understand caste. First, what does "caste" mean?

A "caste" system is a political, social, and cultural separation of people into higher and lower status groups or ranks. These groups are ranks are based on factors that people cannot control and are unchangeable, even genetically determined. For example, in a caste system, you might declare that tall, thin people with blonde hair are the most intelligent just because of their looks, and you would treat all others as less intelligent. This would be a caste system.

India is a real-life example of a caste system, Perhaps the most commonly known such system on earth. Caste in India has been illegal since 1950, but it still operates unofficially in much of the country's culture and society. The Indian caste system developed from about 1000 BCE (BC) or earlier. It has five basic groups or levels. Before this system became illegal, you could never move from group to group; rather, you were literally born to a group with no chance to change to another. Occasionally people would adopt the look and behavior of a higher caste and sometimes successfully fool others. However, the great majority of the time, each caste group was a separate level in descending order of importance, value, and power, with many subdivisions and family lines. You were born into your parents' caste. Since 1950, government and other jobs and education gradually have become more available to all castes in India. However, the old caste system still has a strong affect, especially in more traditional areas and communities. The five major castes of India are:

Another example of a caste system was the World War II Nazi belief that the Aryan (Germanic) race was the Master Race. The Nazis first crafted their legal system of exclusion of Jews and others by examining early 1900s U.S. Jim Crow laws in the southern (and other) states, such as laws against white and black people marrying, blacks having equal access to public transportation, and blacks owning property in white areas. While the Nazi caste system has been repudiated by the world, small groups still exist in Europe and the Americas who believe in it. The Nazi caste system included the following levels of human and "subhuman," the latter of which the Nazis hoped to sterilize and eventually eradicate:

Most countries have modified caste systems that operate in ways that usually are more subtle, quiet, and extralegal--outside the law. People in higher castes are those with money, power, and, often, lighter skin tones. Those in lower castes are, on average, poorer, less educated, and, often, darker in color. Most of these countries--many of which are wealthy democracies--claim that they do not have caste systems because everyone has equal power to vote. However, if you examine the levels of society based on money alone--how much people earn in their adulthood--not many people are able to move more than one economic step above (or below) the level into which they have been born. In addition, particularly in the U.S., caste systems have been enforced by legal power and, sometimes, violence. This was especially true in the "Jim Crow" American South from shortly after the Civil War through the 1970s, and still happens now.

In wealthy countries' caste system, just economic power alone--whether you are born poor, lower class, middle class, or upper class--becomes a very important and powerful money-caste system. This is especially true when barriers between economic levels of wealth and poverty often keep them separate. For example, the rich give their wealth to their children, often provide them with more expensive educations, and have friends and acquaintances that help them and their children find higher-paying jobs, thus ensuring that most children of the rich are at least economically comfortable themselves. The same is true for middle-class society and its advantages.

On the other hand, the lower classes and the poor have much more difficulty getting quality educations, jobs, and social approval than do the children of the middle class and the rich. As a result, the lower classes and the poor are highly likely to remain in the same economic class into which they were born, or to raise themselves only marginally to just one economic step up.

If you add skin color and gender to the equation, an even stronger and more devious type of caste system is visible. Especially in America (and to some extent in other wealthy nations), gender divides men and women into two groups: men often are expected to be more powerful and secure, but women less so. Men who show lack of power and security--and women who show too much power and security--often are disliked.

The divisions of skin color can be even more dramatic: those with greatest privileges are white, Asians are second, Hispanics/Latino/as are third, and Blacks and Indians/Indigenous People are at the bottom. There are exceptions, of course, and many wealthy nations slowly are ending such divisions, legally and culturally. However, progress is slow. In many hidden ways, people have instant, automatic impressions and feelings about those in other skin-color groups, often subconscious.

Here is the modern caste system that some people in wealthy nations--hopefully, fewer and fewer in each new generation--still tend to follow:

Main order of each caste level:

  • Top Caste: The rich

  • The comfortable/secure (middle classes)

  • Physical laborers (working classes)

  • The working poor

  • The poor on welfare

  • Asians and Hispanics/Latino/as

  • Lowest Caste: Blacks (and those partly Black) and Native Americans


Caste influences by gender in each level and overall:

  • Higher: Men

  • Middle: Women

  • Lower: LBGQT (lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, and transgender) 


Caste influences by body type in each level and overall:

  • Higher: Taller, thinner, blonde-haired
  • Middle: Average in height, weight, and hair
  • Lower: Shorter, heavier, black-haired

Caste influences by age in each level and overall:

  • Higher: Ages 25-55

  • Lower: Ages 0-24 & 56+

In other words, if you are rich, white, male, tall, and thin, you usually fare far better in life in the Western countries with better opportunities for education, good jobs, future wealth, and leadership opportunities. On the other hand, if you are Black or Native American, female, short, and heavy, you may have significantly fewer opportunities in life regarding education, jobs, future wealth, and leadership, and you may have to fight harder and longer for these opportunities.

There are, of course, exceptions in every major group at any given time. One great exception often is in government and public-institution work where those who hire and evaluate actually can be sued or even fired for excessive discrimination. For this reason, those in lower-caste situations often succeed better in such institutions.

Many people, especially those in higher-level caste situations, think that everyone has an equal chance to work hard and succeed, especially in a democracy. To some extent, this is true. But it is much easier for those at the top to stay there, and significantly harder for those at the bottom to rise in Western countries' caste system.

Are society and culture continuously in progress

The answer is yes and no. Take a look at your own class level, first.

Can you change your own class level?

Many people change their class level at least somewhat, and there are a few who move significantly upward or downward. However, according to studies, most people--by the time they are in their forties--work their way into, or close to, the socio-cultural or economic class to which their parents attained. Thus as your class level changes, it may simply be reverting from being poorer in your twenties to attaining the approximate class level of your parents as you get older. 

This relative lack of class mobility may have a number of causes. For example, some people may be most comfortable in the socio-cultural or economic class in which they grew up, or a certain set of types of jobs that are part of that socio-cultural or economic class: if you want to be in some form of public or private service, for example--teacher, social worker, minister, etc.--likely one of your parents may have had such a job, too, and the average pay levels for such jobs tends to give people some kind of middle-class life.

Or instead, some people may come across sudden hardship that their parents never had to experience, and thus they may not have as much income as did their parents. Racism, sexism, or ageism also can make a difference. People of color in particular find climbing the class structure more blocked, just because of their color and related complex related issues. Likewise, women may have more trouble climbing to a higher class than that to which they were born if they are in households with no adult male because of sexism. And older people may have trouble reaching or maintaining a higher class because of less respect for them in times when the economy may be favoring younger professionals.

Some of the lack of class mobility--up or down--also can be inter-class prejudice. Some people in higher classes have disrespect for those who are poorer, thus blocking the latter's climb to better conditions. In addition, some people in lower classes have disrespect for those from higher classes, thus discouraging themselves or their children from trying to climb higher. The reasons for both class mobility and the lack of it are many and complex.

Many are born into wealth or poverty who do not earn or deserve it. It can be harder in the U.S. to rise from poverty, especially, because the poor have fewer benefits or opportunities than in many European countries.

Is there general progress for humankind?

Most countries in the world--including the U.S.--experience very gradual economic and related improvements. But this may happen over centuries rather than a few years.

In the U.S., for example, the lifestyles of the average wealthy in the 1700s became, in the 1800s, the lifestyles of the average middle class. And these same lifestyles became available in the latter half of the 1900s to many working class people. Historically, in the U.S. even if you are  relatively poor but stable--with a place to live and a source of food--you now have a much better life than you would have, say, in the 1700s. Just one statistic alone, for example, the average length of life, helps illustrate this. In 1750, the average person lived about 35 years. Now, in the first part of the 21st century, the average length of life is about 80 years. Of course, with life span and other details, the rich usually fair better than the middle class and the poor. However, the lives of each group--rich, middle, or poor--do tend to improve as the centuries progress.

Does this mean continuous progress, economically, socially, and culturally? Yes and no. Continuous progress can happen for many hundreds of years. However, in the history of humankind, interruptions are normal, too. Many interruptions, such as economic "recessions"--periods in which the economy and the number of jobs shrink--may last a few years. Wars may cause longer disruptions. The economic shrinkage known as the Great Depression of 1929-1939 was a ten-year disruption. One of the longest disruptions in human history was Europe's Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval or Dark Ages, of about 1100-1450 CE (AD). (Some historians argue it started closer to 500 CE.) However, the long-term outlook for socio-cultural and economic life--over many thousands of years--is one of gradual improvement.

In spite of difficulties in labeling some people, the class system of understanding society and culture can lead to a number of interesting observations about societal groups and individuals, their habits, and their ways.  However, when you make class-system observations, you should remember that many other societal and cultural aspects of life may not be affected by class: in other words, they may exist in several different classes or even the entire country. This is why you may find using several of these different classification systems of society helpful.

Do racism and ethnic inequality matter in society?

They do make a big difference, especially to those being treated unfairly. You can't really understand social structures without understanding racial and ethnic issues. In fact, social scientists and sociologists say that skin-color prejudice exists, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the world. They offer a variety of explanations, some better than othrs. Whatever the reasons, this prejudice leads some people in most countries to consciously or unconsciously prejudge others negatively.

The levels of racism in the world tend to be divided (often, but not always) along lines of economic development. A commonly used economic and developmental division of countries is:



(In any one country, not all conditions may apply.)

Developed countries ("wealthy nations": e.g., Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States, Western Europe, et al.)


Better laws, more equal enforcement of them. Widespread communication and technology. Lower levels of  poverty, more economic opportunity. Equal voting. Some immigrants welcome

Developing countries (nations of "moderate wealth": e.g., China, Eastern Europe, India, better-off Latin American countries, et al.)


Some good laws, but poor in consistency or equality of enforcement. More conflict. Poorer communication and technology. Fewer economic opportunities. Greater poverty. Some immigrants tolerated

Underdeveloped countries ("undeveloped" or "third-world" nations: e.g., the poorest countries in Africa, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, et al.)


Dictator or military may make laws with prejudicial enforcement. Conflict/repression. Competition for survival. Poor communication and technology. Widespread poverty. Immigrants not wanted; some minority citizens forced to flee

Note again that racism exists in almost all societies. However, when a country is richer, life tends to be somewhat fairer and more equal for minorities. When a country is very poor, there is a tendency among dominant races and ethnicities to judge minorities harshly. One strong exception to this may occur when a country is mono-cultural--which means having just one race and ethnicity--in which case there may be less obvious racism, no matter the levels of wealth or poverty. (However, the poorer the country, the greater the class differences may be--see "What are basic class structures" above.)

Note, too, that all three of these types of nations have a number of citizens who don't like immigrants; and, again, that all three types of nations tend to be more accepting of lighter-skinned immigrants, and less accepting of darker-skinned immigrants. Again, these are averages, and any one nation may appear to be an exception.

Where does the U.S. fit on the scale of racism?

The U.S. is better--or less racist--than many developing- and underdeveloped countries. This tends to be true, on average, of most of the developed or wealthy nations. However, the U.S. was one of the last developed, wealthy nations to make slavery illegal. Most developed, wealthy countries had decades or even centuries to develop strong economies with less racist cultures. In addition, the U.S. developed itself economically by taking the land of other racial and ethnic groups more so than many other developed, wealthy nations. A third factor is that the U.S. made a much bigger economic investment in slave labor in recent centuries than did many other developed, wealthy countries.

As a result, even though U.S. laws about racism have been changing, this country is still catching up to many other developed, wealthy nations. African-Americans (who often call themselves "Blacks"), Native Americans (who call themselves "Indians"), and Latinos and Latinas (who often call themselves "Latinos") have had fewer decades in which to improve their legal and economic positions in society. For this reason, a higher percentage of U.S. Blacks, Indians, and Latinos are members of the poor and the working classes--and fewer are in the middle and upper classes--than are white European-Americans.

One frequent sign of this is that a majority of people of color in the U.S. have experienced racist or anti-ethnic behavior by others around them, but only a minority of white European-Americans have experienced similar prejudice. Some people of color, for example, when questioned by police, call it "stopped for walking while Black" or "stopped for walking while Indian/Latino." Statistics indicate that people of color are arrested far more often, by percent of their population, than are whites. Courts also tend to hand out longer sentences to people of color than to whites for equal offenses. This trend holds true even if only poor people of color are compared with poor whites.

Poverty does play a very important role. Both poor whites and poor people of color commit more crimes than whites with livable incomes. Some poor people (regardless of color) look for every opportunity that keeps them from homelessness or, even, simply their and their children's illness and starvation.  And some poor people (regardless of color) commit more crime because they feel life has been very unfair. Still others are simply very angry about what life has dealt them.

There are more poor whites in the U.S. than poor people of color. However, this is because there are more whites in general. As a percentage of population, the percent of poor people of color is higher. This difference is considered a problem of race by most scientists. Scientists who study genes, the brain, and intelligence report, repeatedly in study after study, that if you compare people of all colors who have equal health and equal opportunity, they are equally capable, intelligent, and successful. In other words, race does not confer biological advantage or destiny on any skin color.

So, what does cause economic and social skin-color differences? Social scientists have argued for decades--some of them for centuries--that greater poverty, less health, shorter lives, and less education among people of color is the result of hundreds of years of racism that still is not fully resolved.

Why do society's protests and riots happen?

Both peaceful and violent protests and riots have occurred throughout the history of most developed, wealthy countries. They have happened regarding not just race, but also labor, gender and other conditions. The larger the size of protests, the more likely they are to attract more attention among a majority of people, and thus the more likely they are to create change. Some protests even can lead to the founding of new governments in countries: just a few modern examples are the United States, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Russia, India, many African and South American nations, and China. Large and/or prolonged protests have a history of working, which is why in some countries--especially in democracies such as the United States, India, Western Europe, and others--people's right to free assembly to protest is considered a basic human right.

Regarding riots, however, the record shows more mixed results. In a riot, there is violence against property and/or people. Some riots lead to so much change that revolutions are the result--riots that become organized and turn into armed wars of revolution, such as what founded the United States and changed France from a kingdom into a democracy. However, other riots inflict many millions of dollars of damage to businesses--and harm to some individuals--that only make conditions worse for the very community in which the riots occur, making that community's health and development worse, rather than better.

Race riots in the U.S.  have, in particular, been noteworthy for hundreds of years. Between in the 1500s-early 1900s, most race riots were of white European-Americans invading neighborhoods of people of color to damage, loot, and sometimes massacre them. Early examples of this include invasions of peaceful Indian villages during the first centuries of the birth of the U.S. and its expansion westward. The same happened sometimes in the U.S. Southwest just before, and for a several decades after, that part of the country was taken away by conquest from Mexico, its former owner.

However, race riots against Blacks were especially frequent. They still were happening in the early 1900s. A famous example in U.S. history is the white Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Armed whites invaded one of the richest and most successful Black districts in America, sometimes called, nationally, the "Black Wall Street." White rioters looted, burned, and killed during two days until Oklahoma's National Guard stepped in. The estimated death count was 150-300 Black citizens, 800 more injured, and 10,000 Black citizens left homeless, (For more detail, see the "Genocide" section of  this book's "Chapter 7-C: A History of Disasters.")

In more recent years, racial protests and riots have changed. The modern era of protest by mostly peaceful protesters began with the Martin Luther King national protests in the 1960s.  Such protests now are led by people of color and supporting whites. There are exceptions, such as the mass protests by millions against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s and more recent protests for the Equal Rights Amendment and against discrimination against women. However, increasingly, demonstrations in the U.S. are about racism and related issues.

The most recent example of a mass national protest of this kind has happened in the weeks following the May 2020 Memorial Day killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by four policemen. The four were fired, the main one soon after charged with murder and manslaughter, and the other three with aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter. This killing was a turning point nationally. It followed the nationally publicized February and March police killings of three Black people--Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma. In addition, dozens of other killings of Blacks gained regional infamy in just the decade before, at least of two of whom died pleading to police, like Floyd, "I can't breathe." 

After the Floyd killing in Minneapolis, shown in a ten-minute video, protesters--both people of color and whites in large numbers, young and old--marched and held vigils in over 75 U.S. cities and in several overseas cities such as London and Paris during the following two weeks and more. If protests were counted like visits to Mall of America, then more than a million "visits" to protests were made in the U.S. alone in the aftermath of Floyd's death. And in the first several weeks after it, several major cities and states quickly either made changes or proposed them to limit police use of force.

In some locations, especially Minneapolis, where the killing happened, looting and burning also occurred until police and National Guard stopped it. In Minneapolis alone, over 1500 public and private structures had some kind of damage or destruction, including several dozen that were burned and many more that were looted. The estimated property damage was $500 million dollars. That amount of money is the rough equivalent of taking away about one entire year's salary from every family of four in the city. It also means that multiple badly needed resources--like grocery stores, health centers, drug stores, and gas stations were destroyed in the poor and working class neighborhoods that most depend on such resources being within walking distance.

Some of the rioting, in particular, was eased when, each day after rioting in Minneapolis, thousands of volunteers of all ethnicities and colors turned out to clean up the streets and distribute basic goods such as food in neighborhoods left with no grocery, drug, or general stores. In addition, volunteer and paid artists created hundreds of peaceful protest paintings on the plywood boards covering windows and doors of a thousand or more still-standing businesses.

Why are there riots?

Rioters usually represent only a small percentage of protesters in most mass demonstrations. However, unfortunately, they often receive the most dramatic news headlines. Pictures and videos of burning businesses, arrested rioters, and excited news reporters grab viewers' attention. This, in turn, creates a significant political and social backlash against all protesters, however peaceful, especially from people in untouched neighborhoods or rural areas.

Even more unfortunately, most riots destroy the businesses and homes of neighborhoods of people of color. This further destabilizes and impoverishes the very cultures and communities that most need such businesses. And the damage can be long lasting. For example, after the major Watts Riot of 1965 in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 after Rodney King's beating, decades have been required for businesses to return the neighborhood to its former vitality.

The same is happening in the 2020 international protests that started with the police officer's killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The civil unrest in Minneapolis-St. Paul alone, according to Minnesota's Governor at the time, was second only to the 1992 Lost Angeles-Rodney King riots in destruction. The Minneapolis riots also started a two-month long period of riots in many other major cities, as well, throughout not just the U.S. but Europe and elsewhere.

Why do rioters riot? In race riots, a very small minority use violence and destruction to create chaos. Creators of chaos often are called "anarchists." They use destruction and violence to create change or even a "race war." For example, in the five months after the riots in Minneapolis against Floyd's death in that city, the city's authorities charged three white racists--two of whom came from small towns over 100 miles away and one of whom is a member of the white, far-right, extremist, anti-government  "Boogaloo Boys"--with causing or starting some of the most significant initial damage to a police precinct, which was burned down, and businesses that were burned in the first few nights of protests. So far, one of them has pled guilty. These--as well as Black racists--often hope to start a nationwide war of Blacks against whites in which their own color will win.  The actual numbers of such anarchists are very small. Unfortunately, their violent acts may have a much larger effect because these they are like the match that starts a fire.

Once violence has started, it can be difficult to stop. Anarchists try to sustain rioting. In addition, many people in a racially oppressed community of color see that life is harder, unfairly, for them. Some of them, especially younger people, will let their anger control their actions. After the initial breaking of windows or starting of a fire, others who feel hopeless may follow. Seeing a hopeless future, they also may resentfully deface and loot any property that is available, or, at the least, properties of businesses that they think have taken advantage of them or owe them a break. In addition, often they assume that insurance will cover the costs of fixing these businesses and that they, the looters and window breakers, are inconveniencing only the white power structure. However, if greater acts of violence are committed such as burning an establishment or seriously harming people, such actions are, again, more often committed by the more dangerous and few anarchists of any color who, trying to incite a race war, are hiding in the midst of a riot.

An important social and political lesson that political leaders have learned since the 1960s is to bring in protective forces--such as police, National Guard, et al.--as quickly as possible to limit looting and burning. Such actions also more quickly stop individual anarchists from turning a protest into a riot. However, the social and political leaders also have learned that police and National Guard must use nonviolent means of crowd control as much as possible, and avoid killing or permanently injuring people, so that violence from the police and National Guard does not inflame protesters into becoming rioters. 

How can unequal treatment be changed?

Societies with low or nonexistent levels of racism and ethnic inequities often have helped solve their racial problems by working on them for literally hundreds of years. Such societies say that equal laws and consistently equal application of them are very important.

One interesting change happening now is that population densities are increasing dramatically in this century. More people are living more closely together. As a result, they more often are forced to either get along or to fight. Fair, equally enforced laws help dense populations share space with each other better.

A second interesting change is a specific new use of technology: the recent dramatically expanded use of video in cell phones, police body cams, and police drones with cameras. The new uses of cameras are creating what sometimes is called a "paradigm shift"--a major change in how laws are enforced. Videos are powerful, more factual, and thus more believable statements of violent and illegal acts than are simple verbal and written reports.

Are protests good? The U.S. Constitution thinks so. At its birth, the U.S. enshrined the right to gather peacefully in protest in its constitution. A large majority of U.S. citizens continue to believe that peaceful protest is acceptable.

Often, according to experts, the best solution to racism is a combination of efforts. One, say experts, is to build strong community support among all people for what a community wants. A second effort is to look to other communities and countries that have more successfully improved racial and ethnic relations. A third effort is to listen to expert advice from people within their own neighborhoods who have, through years of hard-won experience, discovered methods that work in their communities.

Why do towns and cities die or grow?

Some of the issues about inequity of wealth versus poor, and of racism, lead to the question, can a community, town, or even a city, gradually die? Over decades and centuries, some towns grow into cities lasting thousands of years, while others disappear after a few dozen or a few hundred years. Sociologically, questions of what makes a town die or, instead, survive and even grow into a strong, functional city have much to do with why, how, and where people gather in groups to live. Three elements in particular are important: cultural variety, physical resources, and social safety.

Should the culture of a community be the same or not?

This first element means having a town that accepts, serves, and enjoys a variety of cultural voices, generational ages, and races. This helps a city be flexible in its growth through the ages, providing many different people with a multitude of living styles.

A town or city that might fail in this regard is one that is built for just one primary purpose. The ancient Mexican cities of Teotihuacan and Tula lived and died because they were built only as government centers. Many small towns in the American West rose and fell again during the Gold Rush, or to serve major cattle-drive trails, but lasted only several dozen years. However, towns that developed plans, patterns, and services for a wide variety of people were more likely to succeed.

Are physical resources important?

This second element means that if a town is more likely to develop if it is able to depend on several major resources. If it depends on just one or two--whether fish, iron ore, salt deposits, beautiful countryside, crafts and arts, or many other natural or cultural resources--then when  those one or two resources disappear, so might the town.

For example, on the coasts of several continents, for example, many small fishing villages thrived for hundreds or even thousands of years. However, in many areas, fish numbers decline and one-family fishing businesses have to close; some towns also die as a result. The same thing is happening gradually, for example, with iron in northern Minnesota's Iron Range: iron imports from other nations have become cheaper, and the small towns that supported many of the iron mining companies are contracting significantly in size.

Some fishing villages and iron mining towns are, however, turning to another important resource: tourism and trade in arts and crafts. The extent to which they can do so is closely connected to the extent to which they will survive or even grow. Towns also are more likely to be able to thrive and grow if they are located geographically in two or more advantageous places: for example, towns are better situated for taking advantage of resources if they are on a waterway and also a major trail/road, and especially if, geographically, they have several long-term resources nearby that can be used.

Is safety important?

A third sociological element, safety, has much to do with how much a whole town or city can be kept safe from invasion. Historically, towns with walls have fared much better. This is why many medieval towns in Europe had walls with gates that could be closed or at least controlled at night. There also had to be plenty of space for public movement and events within those walls, so medieval towns and cities had to have extra wealth, and be willing to spend it, to build walls that were significantly long, high, and strong in order to survive marauding robbers and invading hordes. Rome and Jerusalem are two Western examples of cities with successful walls.

However, safety isn't just in walls. A successful town or city usually will have the wealth and will to develop a police force that makes people feel safe, not brutalized, so that people of all ages, cultures, and races want to continue to live in the town and others want to move to it. Likewise, a town needs a group overlooking public health to avoid contamination by water or from outsiders, and a political group or class to help maintain reasonable order so that people feel psychologically safe that there is order and consistency in what is expected of them.

For example, many towns in the American Wild West of the nineteenth century fell apart because they had no mechanisms in place to protect the townspeople from individual desperados and invading gangs. Others had no stable, workable political and cultural order that made people feel safe and left them with the desire to stay in the town, or others to move to it.

Variety of culture, shared use of physical resources, and community safety all are vitally important. With them, communities may grow and thrive for many hundreds of years. Without them, a community may fail.

Are new societies better?

Socio-economic division of society by class, race, or ethnicity is only one group of theories about culture and society. Another theory is one popularly assumed by many historians and anthropologists. It is the theory, or assumption, that societies at the beginning of human history had a low level of culture, and human history has shown a gradual progress of culture throughout the ages.

There are a few problems with this assumption, though. One is obvious--we have had times in history, and may have more such times, when war, famine, disease, or other causes have set cultural levels back to primitive levels. Periods of time in the middle ages are good examples, times when the Plague swept through countries, destroying a third of European society, or times such as World War II when the plague of racism called The Holocaust destroyed almost 90% of the Jewish race in Europe--a race with one of the strongest records of intellect and artistic achievement since almost the beginning of recorded human history.

Clearly, it is possible for culture to be set back. Often, the cultural level of a country is dependent upon the length of time it has been at peace, and the relative wealth it has, allowing people time to think and to be artistic about things other than mere day-to-day survival.

Another problem with the theory that culture has gradually been improving throughout the history of humankind is that some societies were at their highest level of culture before written records even were being kept. We imagine that humanity started with half-human apes gradually learning to think and draw; however, the truth is that there is a great gap of time between the ape- human who was our ancestor, and the earliest known histories of human endeavor. Some of the earliest records, in fact, suggest even earlier races of human beings that had complex cultures, evolved philosophies of thought, religion, and politics, and subtle and rich arts. Ancient Egypt, early Vedic India, and possibly some of the earliest Indians in South or Central America all may have been much more evolved civilizations than we understand or are able to study or know, simply because ancient records of them do not adequately exist.

If such cultured nations did exist five or even ten thousand years ago, it might suggest that we do not need to have a highly developed mechanical or technological civilization in order to have a highly developed society or culture: our machines and inventions may not be necessary for us to have high levels of thought and artistic feeling. Perhaps the flower of our being human--the ability to reflect about life and experience artistic representations of life--is something that can happen outside of technological advancement.

If such is the case, then we might find that society and culture are helped by technology only because technology makes a safer, better living possible for a wider number of people--and thus most of us can have more time to develop our thought and feeling.

In any case, the important thing for us to realize now is that in the U.S., at least, we are a society with the time and money to pursue higher levels of culture. We may not have a lot of time; but we actually do so without thinking about whenever we talk over ideas with friends, see a better movie or appreciate music that makes us feel more deeply. We are a society that in some ways takes a developed culture for granted. We enjoy our culture, our ideas and theories about life, our arguments, our appreciation of music and dancing and the arts. And we would feel lost as a society without these.

Some philosophers argue, in fact, that what makes our society and our civilization so special is that culture is available to almost all of us universally. We are a nation and a civilization of thinkers and feelers who ponder truth and take great pleasure in our arts. And this brings us far more joy and meaning than those who struggle from day to day just to survive can have. It is something for which we can all be thankful.


Exercise 1

Make a list of the ways in which you feel you are "inner-directed," and another list of the ways in which you feel you are "other-directed." Which do you feel controls your life more? Do you feel satisfied with this? What would you like to add or subtract?

Exercise 2

Make a list of the ways in which you feel you are the product of your nature--of your DNA or genetic code. List things like eye color, height, etc., and which parent and/or grandparent you may have received it from; also list personality traits you have that are similar to your parents', if you think these traits might have something to do with genetic coding passed from your parents to you.

Then make a similar list of the ways in which you feel you are the product of nurture: the ways in which your parents brought you up that made you what you are now, the ways your surroundings affect you to make you what you are now, and the ways in which you hope to have future surroundings and how you hope these future surroundings will change or affect you.

Compare the two lists. Which things from the two lists could possibly have to do with both nature and nurture?

Exercise 3

Go to a shopping mall or other area where people of different kinds gather, stroll, and talk. Choose two or three different sets of people, one at a time. Get near each set in turn and, without looking at them, write down a list or description of how they talk and how their sounds are made.

Then move away and watch them from a distance, again without letting them notice you. Make a second list of how they look and move, how they dress, who they are with, what they are carrying or doing, etc.

Compare the two lists. Can you make any connections between the way they used language with the way they look? Which socio-economic class levels do they appear to be part of? Why? How can you tell? What are some other signs of these class levels in your own area or in the area in that you observed these people?

Exercise 4

As a class, count off into several groups of three to four people.  The ones then will represent the rich (top 20% of the population economically); twos, threes, and fours, the middle classes (middle 60%); and the fives, the poor and working classes (bottom 20%).  Each of the five groups should gather in their own, separate part of the room.  Each of the groups should choose a leader by whatever method it wants.  Your instructor then should take out ten sheets of paper and distribute them as follows to each leader: the leader of the ones should receive 7 sheets, the leader of the twos through fours should receive 1 sheet, and the leader of the fives should receive 1/4 of a sheet.  This represents approximately the distribution of wealth in the U.S. in 2002 according to the level of privilege.  Distribute your wealth in each of your groups. Then write on a piece of paper the answers to the following questions.  Discuss your answers aloud.


1. How do you feel and how do others feel around you?
2. Does your group seem to be more talkative or less so than other groups?  Why?
3. How did your group choose your leader?
4. How did your group distribute your "wealth" (your paper)?  Were there any problems?

Exercise 5

What type of rural, suburban, or urban area have you lived in? Which of the five from the chapter above was it: (a) farm or woods, (b) small town/rural town, (c) exurban (edge of a metropolitan area), (d) inner suburban (close to a major central city), or (e) inner city (urban)? What are some of the major traits, expectations, and ways of talking, living, and acting in that area that you have lived in? Then choose a different one of the five and make a list of similar activities and ways of living that you think people in that area experience? Then compare your notes with someone who has lived in a different area--or especially the one in which you imagined living. If it helps you, start by rereading "Rural Countryside versus Urban City" above.

Exercise 6

Make a list in three parts, describing the town or city you know best from living in it. Write, in three columns or three places on your paper or screen, "What my town/city is doing that will make it thrive," "What will kill it," and "What could be changed." List several items under each of these three categories. If it helps you, start by rereading "Why Do Towns and Cities Die or Grow?" above.

Exercise 7

Was there any kind of caste system in the school you used to attend? If you are in college, describe it for the high school you were in; if you're in high school, then describe it for your junior high years. Make a list or a short description showing each type of person in the caste system, from top to bottom.

Exercise 8

How can your own society, town, or community become better? Make a list or description of several points that could use improving and how you would accomplish this improvement.

*Image in Chapter Title:
Dressing for the Carnival, 1877, Winslow Homer, Metropolitan Museum of Art. 13 March 2020.

Most recent major revision of text on this page: 6 Jun. 2021. Small editing changes: 5 Dec. 2021



Richard Jewell

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