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Biological referents for social inequality

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

What do age, race and sex have in common when used for creating social mobility barriers and/or bigotry?

What these three things have in common is that they all interface between biological and cultural (or social) on the cusp, as it were. We all vary in our age, sex and physical characteristics. We have no choice in the circumstances of our birth, eg a choice of parents, date and location of birth, or what variation of x and y chromosomes are involved in the uniting of egg and sperm ("luck of the draw"). These variations are not pure enough to make precise biological categories, but we human beings add meanings to those physical variations and create social categories (believing them to be biological). See Race and Biology.

All three lie on the interface; all three are problematical as biological categories (yes, even sex).  All three are used to socially construct barriers to social mobility.  All three are used to construct bigoted and prejudicial thinking, and thus the unequal treatment of individuals. Note that barriers to mobility (actions) and bigotry or prejudice (thoughts) are different, although similar, and you should distinguish between them.

When groups are formed by people with similar physical characteristics (often because of their closeness in birth and residence), they may interact, and may develop similar, learned traits. This may reinforce the prejudices of people, and appear (falsely) to support the wrong notion that people's physical characteristics may determine their social and psychological attributes. Thus you get stereotypes about people according to their age, race and gender.  The treatment of individuals because they are so categorized may include refusing them service in shops or rental housing, this is based on bigotry (a way of thinking). The refusal of offering jobs or promotions on such basis is a hindrance to upwards mobility (seldom downwards).  Refusing to issue driver's permits and giving permission to purchase liquor or tobacco, is institutionalized (legal) discrimination.

The glass ceiling refers to barriers hindering upward mobility of women, not to race and age. Although there are different physical characteristics between babies, children, youth, adults and seniors, there are no precise biological boundaries. The choice of a particular precise age to issue licences or start pensions is physically arbitrary. Not hiring persons (or forcing them to retire) for being too young or too old, regardless of their abilities, is a serious barrier to mobility, as well as action based on bigoted thinking Differences in dressing, acting, talking (even the variations in using tones of voice –– males tend to use three while females tend to use five tones) are all learned, and learned differently by males and females (and changed by transgendered individuals). What is masculine in one culture might be feminine in another culture. Race may be based on normal biological variations but there are no pure categories, many blends in between (by both intermarriage and by descent), and many exceptions to common stereotypes.

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Last update: 2012.02.02

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