A sociological approach to studies of inequality will have to consider characteristics such as class, gender, race, poverty, sexuality, health and education to name but a few.
‘Social stratification’ is a sociological term and can be defined as “structured inequalities between different groupings of people” (Giddens, 1998, p.240). In modern societies, class divisions are the most distinctive form of stratification, as a person’s social class has a large bearing on their life chances.
Whilst a person is born ‘into’ a class, social mobility (i.e. moving, normally up, the ladder of class structure) provides an individual with the opportunity for social change. Although attitudes have changed in recent years, the most acceptable way to belong to the upper class is to be born into wealth.
People living in poverty face inequality on a daily basis. They will be more likely to have a poor standard of housing, live in a deprived area, eat a poor diet, suffer from ill health, receive a low standard of education which in turn will affect their job prospects, which in turn will determine their standard of housing; it is a vicious circle. A person born into poverty learns to function within that poverty through socialisation and as a result may come to expect little from life in the way of education and employment prospects.
A person’s gender can subject them to experiencing inequality. Women have historically been involved in domestic work; caring for their children, their husbands and their homes whilst men have a more public life being the breadwinners and providing for their families. This has resulted in women being economically dependent upon their husbands and although more women are now balancing a career with raising a family (because child care commitments fall, in the main, to women) more women than men have part-time jobs or drop out of the workforce altogether whilst raising their families. This has led to men having “…more wealth, status and influence than women.” (Giddens, 1998, p.260).
Inequality as a result of a person’s race is a major division in society and although the Race Relations Act of 1976 aims to put an end to racial discrimination, non-whites still experience inequality. A 1991 study of unemployment rates by ethnic group in Great Britain found that 8.8% of the unemployed population were white compared with 18.3% being of ethnic origin. A further study carried out by the Office for National Statistics in 1996 found that whites earn a higher average rate (ï¿½7.73/hr) compared with non-whites who’s hourly rate was 79 pence less at ï¿½6.94/hr. Along with pay, ethnic minorities face inequality in terms of unemployment, housing and as victims of crime. (Giddens, 1998).
The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report has focussed attention on the issue of institutionalised racism in the criminal justice system and new recruitment practices try to reflect that we live in a multi-racial society (West Midlands Probation Committee, Annual Report, 1998/99). Despite this, another example of institutionalised racism is evident in the present Labour government’s policy of giving vouchers to refugees – these refugees are deemed by the government as being incapable and not trustworthy of spending their money on ‘appropriate’ goods and so are given vouchers in place of cash.
Another group of people in society who experience inequality are lesbians and gays. Same-sex marriages are not legally recognised in the UK and lesbian and gays are discriminated against in other areas; e.g. same sex partners cannot be each other’s next of kin and immigration laws do not allow a lesbian or gay man’s partner to reside in the EU. There is also inequality in the age of consent; heterosexual and lesbian couples can have sex at age 16 but the age of consent for homosexuals is 18 years (www.stonewall.org.uk, 2000).
What value might “thinking sociologically” have for service users and carers?
To think sociologically is to “understand a little more fully the people around us, their cravings and dreams, their worries and their misery” (Bauman (1997) in Giddens, 1997, p.17). It is to look at the wider picture; not from a personal perspective but taking into account the people and world around you.
Service users may feel vulnerable and anxious when dealing with carers. A carer who is able to think sociologically can try to put the service user at ease by showing respect for them, being sensitive to their needs and their worries and being empathic.
It is essential that all service providers think sociologically, unconsciously and competently, and at all times. By doing so they will show respect for a service user by acknowledging their rights and their freedom of choice. Thinking sociologically affords service providers a holistic approach to tackling the problems and issues of service users (Bauman, 1997).
By way of illustration, an ex-drug addict may not only have the issue of staying clean to deal with, and if a service provider is thinking sociologically they will look at the wider issues that may have led the individual to drug dependency. For example, this particular service user may have turned to crime in order to feed their habit and may now be experiencing inequality as employers do not want to take on someone who has a criminal record.
Using a holistic approach like this means that problems and issues from all angles are taken into account and, as a result of this, a comprehensive and competent service is provided. This is better for both the service user and the service provider because when problems are considered from all angles they are more likely to be resolved, which means that the service provider is offering a quality service and the service user is less likely to need the service again.
When a service provider thinks sociologically the service user will feel validated, in control of their own lives and, most importantly, able to maintain their dignity.
Thinking sociologically can help the service provider because once a way of thinking has been ‘learned’ it is impossible to ‘unlearn’. For example the service provider may find themselves questioning the way something is done and simply being told that it has ‘always been done that way’ will not provide a satisfactory answer; the sociological awareness brought about in the care provider’s mind through thinking sociologically will render them less easily influenced and more inquiring (Bauman, 1997).