Tuesday, August 12, 2008

World Building: Stratification

by Sabrina Klein


Stratification of culture comes in many forms. However, in a world that has many races that differ not only in appearance but in ability it brings about a whole different perspective. Stratification in the anthropological sense is the division of a group of people by some defining difference that may or may not be changed by the individual being divided. Fantasy and science fiction have unique view upon this common everyday occurrence.

In the reality of our world peoples are divided by many things “race”, religion, occupation, age, sex, marital status, social rank of nobility, and many other ways that are smaller and usually occur within or in combination with the previous listed. Cultures within themselves may or may not persecute people for these differences, yet one culture may or may not persecute another culture or group for a difference. In kindergarten we are all taught to see what is different rather than what is the same. However, this is also human nature. Fantasy races are usually modeled after humans in some way, whether it is via anthropomorphization or through physical form. Modern and ancient literature gives many examples throughout the real world.

There are several ways to apply stratification. It can be divided up between the parts of culture. For instance, the stratification of leadership is the most predominant in any culture. It is the most prominent form and usually employs the others to define it. Leadership can come in many forms, and often is defined by what the culture reveres as the most precious. Types of leadership come in many forms, and can also be defined by; age, sex, religious status, economic status, or status by birth in an existing cast system as seen in India.

Caste systems make defining stratification easy because the system is just about written in stone and it takes serious upheaval to make changes. The process of status change within a caste system is often well defined, and usually close to impossible except via marriage to a higher stationed family. Caste systems can also follow occupation or any other form; age, secular & profane, as well as sex. One culture can divide itself using any of those in combination with others and just about any other reason.

Fictional worlds define other things that separate peoples going beyond simple appearance, but stem into abilities is where stratification becomes instantly apparent. If you have one race that has a significant advantage in an area over another, and that area is critical to the social food chain the race with the advantage is going to keep the social as well as possible economic advantage. The advantage in a sci-fi setting could be the ability to repair technology really well could put them at the top or the bottom of the social food chain. However something that needs clarified within the aspect of this culture is how this advantage comes about to this race. Do they have an advantage because they came from a more technologically advanced society? Or is it something within their racial makeup that gives them special insight. It would depend on how the two races were introduced. If the second race instilled fear and kept them as slaves they would be at the bottom of the food chain. Until someone started a cunning enough rebellion to create equality or give them their own space in which to live free from the suppression of the other race.

It could also work the other way. If the technologically inclined race kept the innovation information from the other races it would give them a decided advantage. This could also work in two cultures of the same race. Insert magic and you have the same scenario with magic instead of technology. Except, with magic there is general something that is innate within the practitioner that allows them to work with the supernatural.

Therefore it couldn’t necessarily be learned, as technology could be learned. It would also be a little harder to keep the magically inclined race from upsetting the social order without a physical form of enslavement. This could be drugs given to them to make them either addicted or subservient. Drugs have been well known in primitive cultures and even technologically advanced cultures to be used to control a population.

Examples in classic literature of peoples who became servants because of their differences include the Sidhe, a.k.a. Tuatha de Dannan, and the humans. In Irish mythos the Sidhe were the peoples that were considered gods. They had special powers and were faster, had magic and they were stronger. They also had weaknesses. The Irish mythos gives us several examples that are described well. These Sidhe had magical powers and the humans feared them. There are other examples of other races in classic literature. In Norse literature there are Aelves, Dwarves, and Ettin. The Greeks had nymphs and satyrs. The only difference is that these races didn’t live side by side. The Sidhe did, to an extent, but they were often two separate communities with a dominant and subservient relationship.

World building:

Within an overall stratification there can be sub-stratification such as an ancestral/elder stratified culture using a matriarchal governmental system. This would mean that women would form the hierarchy, and the eldest of all regardless of who was related to who would be in charge. A culture could use money as the stratifying means and thereby creating a capitalist system. The rich would always be the ones in charge, but that could always change and competition would create a cut-throat society. Families would become the second dominating power and marriage to a family of status would be a means of breaking through the next higher class. There by a culture such as this would not only stratify by money but also by marriage, and to throw a huge monkey wrench into the works. What if it inheritance was automatically inherited by the first born. Now to being a first born child has its own status. Then what if polygamy and polyandry were acceptable? Wouldn’t that brighten up the complicated nature of the stratification of a culture?

The above example creates a capitalist culture with inheritance of status via wealth. That wealth is inherited through first born children regardless of sex, and those first born children who define the top of the food chain may have as many spouses as they deem fit. This creates a highly competitive and potentially cut throat society with a multi stratified culture.

All in all what purpose does stratification serve within world-building? Conflict. What purpose does conflict serve? Without conflict there is no motivation to excel, and it is major force behind change. Conflict serves the purpose of creating obstacles for the people within the world. There are arguably other ways to create conflict; war, oppression, slavery, greed, but all of these usually have a root. The stratification of the culture in question. Creatures that are self aware will always want something better for their children or at least they want to keep what they have already. If something threatens that dream, conflict happens. Conflict doesn’t always happen outside the people, it also happens on the inside. Internal conflict is usually fueled by a perceived external or real external conflict.


Types of stratification: Governments.

-cracy: defined as rule; From Greek a root that means; strength or power. 

Democracy: a government in which the supreme power is held by the people.  IE: United States 1776-present.

Monarchy: a nation or state of government by a monarch. IE: Great Britain, France, H.R.E., & Spain circa 1100-1600 C.E.

Theocracy: government by official regarded as divine, those who pose as gods are who are believed to be empowered by gods IE: Ancient Egypt to circa 30 B.C.E., usually this form of government is ruled by those viewed as gods. 

Hagiocracy: this form of government is ruled by those whom are regarded as holy within the principles of the governing religion.  IE: Vatican State to present.

Empire: a large state or group of states under a single sovereign who is usually an emperor.   IE: oldest known: Akkadian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Roman Empire, Persian Empire, Imperial China, & Incan Empire.

Parliament: a formal governmental conference, an assembly that constitutes the supreme legislative body of a country.  IE: England (later Great Britain) 1200 C.E.-present, France 13th c.  C.E. to present. 

State: centralized political system with the power to coerce.  *please note that this definition is an anthropological perspective. 

Republic: a government in which the supreme power is held by the citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives governing according to the law. Rome (6th c.  B.C.E.  to 1st c.  B.C.E.)

Federation: constituting a form of government in which power is distributed between central authorities and constitute territorial rights. IE:  Germany & Austria at present (fictional: United Federation of Planets-Star Trek)

Coalition: a temporary union for a common purpose. IE: NATO, Delian League & Peloponnesian League circa 477 B.C.E. 

Aristocracy: government by a noble or privileged class.  IE: any form of government in the European Middle Ages that passed power on via heredity. 

Dictatorship: government or country in which absolute power is held by a dictator or small clique. IE: Cuba 1959-present, Known real Dictators: Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Gaddafi of Libya, and Manuel Noriega of Nicaragua. Some regarded Julius Caesar of Rome, Adolf Hitler of Germany. (fictional: Big Brother, 1984, George Orwell; The Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum)

Tyranny: government in which absolute power is vested in a single ruler. 

     Tyrant: one who governs oppressively or brutally?  Nero of Rome c.37 C.E.-68 C.E., Caligula of Rome c.12 C.E.-41 C.E., and Tuthmosis III of Egypt c.1458 - 1425 BC ( he was perceived as the embodiment of a god from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians- but to us a dead false god...)

Chiefdom: regional polity in which two or more local groups are organized by a chief, who is head of the hierarchy. * Please note that this definition is an anthropological perspective. Usually this is associated with a tribe. (IE: Various Native North American Tribes)


Other Types of stratification: *not  limited to.

Caste: any group distinguished by its social position. (IE: Hindu caste system, Ancient Greece & Sparta (free peoples and slaves), ancient Hawai’i.)

Age (IE: Dogon of west Africa)

Sex (IE: Jewish)

Kinship (IE: feudal Japan)

Occupation (IE: USA-Unions)

Language (IE: Medieval Christianity: Latin was used as the holy language, and the serfs weren’t permitted to learn it)

Religion (type) (Abrahamic Traditions)

Religious stature (secular/profane) 

Economic status (Crusader England)

Race (however perceived within the world) 

Ethnic heritage (1920’s Chicago, Boston, New York)

Physical limitations (blindness, deafness, etc)

Lineage (lines of nobility) (Medieval Europe, Imperial    China)

Military status (warriors may have higher rank within a culture, as may hunters) (IE: Ancient Sparta)

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