A Structural Definition Of Social Privilege

Social Structure and Hierarchy

Structure makes possible creation and preservation. Structures are the external forms which support life activities. These structures may be physical, social, or psychological. The development of society can only take place by the constant creation of new forms to embody new ideas, new values, new activities.

These structures are not only supportive and protective, but also limiting, restrictive and exclusive. The house is a physical structure which creates a safe and conducive environment for the family restricting the entry of rain, wind, thieves, and the like. Family is a social structure which supports intense intimate and lasting human relationships by restricting personal attachments to those bound by blood or marriage.

Social structure supports a social hierarchy, a chain of command which determines what is to be included and excluded from that structure. In its origins this hierarchy may be entirely functional based on strength, skill and capacity; for example, the strength of the leader to defend his group, the skill of the artisan to produce better quality products than others, the capacity of the educated to solve problems better than others, etc.

But in practice, social hierarchy tends to lose its purely functional justification and becomes an instrument for bestowing and denying rights and privileges. Social structures lend support to this non-functional hierarchy as well and thereby create privileged and underprivileged communities. The functional superiority of the western nations in terms of scientific and technical knowledge, military proficiency, production and organization gave rise to a natural hierarchy in the colonies they conquered. But the social structure erected by the conquerors extended full rights to all westerners regardless of functional capacity and denied any rights to the conquered regardless of merit. The hierarchy was primarily one of privilege, only secondly one of functional efficiency.

Social Determinants of Privilege and Right

Privilege and right are defined and supported by laws, rules, customs, conventions and individual strength. Laws and rules are the instruments used by government to determine the social structure, e.g. the right to sell or gift property supports the privilege of the propertied class. Customs and convention are social determinants of structure, e.g. the privilege based on caste, religion or economic class. Individual capacity and personality strength also define social privilege, e.g. the rights accruing to the strongest, wisest most skillful or most courageous individual.

These same laws, rules, customs and conventions which define and support the rights and privileges of some, also perpetuate the denial of rights to other unprivileged or underprivileged sections of the community. In other words, the structure erected to foster development of the society through greater functional efficiency, also acts as a barrier which positively excludes a portion of the society from benefiting by that development.

Individual Capacity and Social Privilege

The privileged and underprivileged communities can both be further divided into strong or above-average members and weak or below-average members. The strong are able to avail of the privileges extended to their community in order to improve their own individual position through education or employment opportunities. The weak or below-average member of the privileged community is protected and supported by the social structure. That structure prevents the exposure of his weakness, props him up, and helps him to rise to the social average. The educational system in the USA, for instance, is so supportive that it enables even persons of below average intelligence to obtain degree and technical proficiency in advanced fields which are closed to all but the most brilliant student in a developing country.

This same structure which supports and protects the privileged weak, excludes and denies opportunity to the strong member of the underprivileged community who on merit deserves support. This group is forced to suppress its energies and capacities for want of social opportunity and this energy accumulates beneath the surface preparing for a future rebellion, a future which may be decades or centuries or even millenniums away.

The remaining portion of the underprivileged community, those who are weak or below average in capacity, adjust to the domination, exploitation and oppression by the privileged through a variety of responses including total submission, admiration of the dominant oppressor, contentment, frustration, or resignation.

The Role of Structure in Traditional and Developing Societies

All Societies establish social hierarchies and structures, but societies differ in the purpose which these hierarchies and structures are intended to serve. In a traditional society where the Will of the Society is to preserve the status quo, the hierarchies lose their functional character and become almost entirely based on privilege; the structures lose their creative capacity and become conservative or reactionary. Innovation, original thinking, enterprise and ambition are discouraged. The structure preserves the present position of the privileged and prevents the underprivileged from moving up.

In a developing society where the Will of the Society is for progress at all levels, the existing structure and hierarchy are constantly being extended to admit a larger proportion of the society, e.g. the extension of social rights, education, and job opportunities to the lower sections of the population. At the same time the developing society is constantly creating new hierarchies and new structures required for further achievements at the highest level, e.g. the replacement of proprietary managers with professional managers in commerce or the replacement of bureaucrats with technocrats in government.

In the developing society, structure plays more and more a functional role, less and less a role to preserve and deny privilege. The society gradually opens itself to embrace those who had earlier been excluded and to permit their upward social movement. It tries to impart knowledge and skill to all its members and thus to encourage enterprise and creativity.

The extension of rights and privileges results in a phenomenal growth of the society. The extension of family values to corporate life is the essential basis for Japan's enormous economic advancement. The absence of a traditional privilege based structure in North America and Australia explains why the European settlers of these lands achieved far greater material advancement than their relatives who remained on the Continent.

Responses of the Underprivileged to Extension of Privilege

During the process of transition from traditional to developing society, the social will becomes less conservative and more progressive, the attitude towards the underprivileged undergoes a gradual change, and greater freedom and opportunity are made available to previously underprivileged communities. The response of the underprivileged to this change depends on their relative strength and capacity.

The above average individual utilizes this newly found freedom to express his hitherto suppressed energies. In the measure he is also skilled and in the measure freedom is accompanied by opportunity, his energies may be positively channeled into constructive activities, e.g. education to acquire knowledge, hard work at a job, etc. Where freedom alone is given, but not opportunity, his energies may express negatively through assertion, violence or even rebellion.

The weak or below average member responds differently to the changing situation. For him the absence of social opportunity corresponds to an absence of energy, skill, capacity, willingness for hard work, enterprise, or courage in himself, and he has a vested interest in the status quo. When freedom and opportunity are extended to this group, they rarely avail of the change for their own progress, either out of incapacity or unwillingness to exert themselves. When the weak are granted privileges by law, they exercise their freedom by assertion and dissipation, not by greater positive effort. For example, the response of the lower sections to the opportunity for higher education has in most cases been a protest against the magnitude of effort required to avail of that opportunity. The response to the extension of bank credit and electricity is frequently a demand to convert a loan or subsidized service into a grant or gift. The extension of greater freedom to women in Western countries, so that they may better fulfill their natural roles as mothers and centres of family life, has led to a rebellion from those roles and a disintegration of the family rather than its upliftment. This fact suggests that barriers and structures should also be created to protect the weak from destroying themselves during the process of development.

Psychological Structure of Privilege

A true structural definition of privilege must necessarily relate the outer social structure with the inner psychological structure of those in each group, and discover the correspondences between these inner and outer formations. As there is an outer social structure composed of institutions, laws, customs, conventions, and traditions, there is an inner psychological structure of man composed of his thoughts, will and emotion which constitute and express as behaviour, character and personality. To abolish distinctions between the privileged and underprivileged, the inner as well as the outer barriers must be eradicated, e.g. the freedom movement in India gained momentum and achieved its aim only 90 years after its inception when the inner psychological structure of fear and submission in the population had been transformed into one of courage, self-respect, self-assertion and a thirst for freedom.

The extension of privilege to the entire society necessitates the eradication of vested psychological interests in the status quo. The strong must be persuaded to give up their exclusive privileges, and the weak must be motivated to aspire and strive for their rights. Of the two, the latter change is the more difficult, and the former almost inevitably follows from it. But the reserve is not true.

Functioning at higher levels of society requires not only greater knowledge and skill, but greater effort and self-control as well. The underprivileged must acquire a willingness for greater effort, a willingness to risk what they have, a thirst for education. Without that inner effort the extension of external privilege will not have the desired results and may end in destruction.

The will of the society which earlier made the underprivileged majority work for the benefit of a privileged minority has now changed; so that man at all levels is permitted to work for his own benefit and is supported by the society in that endeavour. But the initiative for development lies with the individual, and no one can take the effort for him. What government can and must do is to create supportive social conditions which will foster the development of the individual and provide him with opportunities to channel his energy and skill in positive directions.

The strategy of trying to eradicate underprivilege by legislative initiative, government programmes, subsidies and gifts must be replaced by a strategy which motivates the underprivileged individual to rise by his own effort, which offers him the knowledge and skill necessary for achievement, and which extends to him freedom and opportunity to express his energy, skill and knowledge for his own upliftment. Such a strategy acts on the psychological basis for privilege: it builds self-confidence and self-respect in the recipient and eradicates the sense of beneficent superiority in the agents of change.