Global Stratification in Real Life: “Elysium” as Nonfiction

Is global stratification futuristic? What does global stratification look like today? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the filming locations used in “Elysium” rank.

I was recently reading about the film Elysium in Wired  (see, I don’t just read fashion magazines). I have not seen the film, but I am troubled by how the film  provides a futuristic portrayal of inequality by relying on existing global stratification for it’s backdrop (i.e., filming location):

  • “Elysium takes place in 2154, when the 1 percent live out their caviar dreams and enjoy spectacular health care on board the film’s titular space station—while the rest of humanity suffers on a ravaged, overcrowded Earth. The orbital utopia scenes were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, while a Mexico City slum stands in for LA. Blomkamp spent two weeks of the four-month Mexican shoot filming in one of the world’s largest dumps, a place swirling with dust composed partly of ‘dehydrated sewage.’ ”

In other words, utopia already exists in Vancouver, Canada, while a location complete with “dehydrated sewage” can be found in Mexico City, Mexico. Futuristic inequality is not really futuristic because already exists in 2013 in the form of global stratification.

Sociologists use the concept of “global stratification” to describe how nations are are ranked hierarchically. In contrast, class stratification would focus on social class inequality or racial stratification would focus on racial inequality.

Let’s explore how Canada and Mexico compare with one another in 2013 on two factors: life expectancy and infant mortality.

Table 1. Life Expectancy for Canada and Mexico

Rank Years
Canada 13 81.57
Mexico 72 76.86

Life expectancy refers to the number of years a person can expect to live given certain demographic characteristics. In this case, the key demographic variable is nation.

Being Canadian adds 4.71 years to a persons life expectancy, compared to being Mexican. What can you do in 4.71 years? I completed a Bachelor’s degree in less than 4.71 years. Canada ranks 13th in the world in terms of life expectancy, while Mexico ranks 72nd.

A longer life expectancy indicates that a nation has better access to higher quality health care. Moreover, nations with lower life expectancies tend to have higher rates of poverty and lower levels of education. In other words, life expectancy is one measure we (i.e., sociologists, demographers, public health workers), can use to gauge inequality. Let’s look at another variable, infant mortality.

Table 2. Infant Mortality for Canada and Mexico

Rank Deaths/1,000 Live Births
Canada 182 4.78
Mexico 103 16.26

Infant mortality refers to the death of a child less than one year of age. Higher infant mortality rates, like lower life expectancy indicates less access to and lower quality of health care, lower levels of education, and greater rates of poverty. It also indicates lower rates of pre-natal care. Infant mortality is another way to estimate inequality. While both nations have relatively low rates of infant mortality, Mexican infants are 3.34 times less likely to reach their first birthday compared to Canadian infants. When you translate the numbers in Table 2 to percentages, this is what you get: 1.6% of Mexican infants and 0.478% of Canadian infants fail to reach their first birthday. In contrast, nearly 12% of infants die before reaching their first birthday in Afghanistan.

In sum, a futuristic film such as Elysium can only be made on location if global stratification already exists.

Dig Deeper:

You will use Table 3 to answer question 2.

Table 3. Unemployment and Poverty Rates for Canada and Mexico.

Poverty Rate Unemployment Rate
Canada 9.4% 7.3%
Mexico 51.3% 5%
  1. What is global stratification? How is it different from other types of stratification, such as class or racial stratification?
  2. Use complete sentences to describe the poverty rate and unemployment rate in Canada and Mexico, using the information in Table 3.
  3. Using The World Factbook found here, find the rates and rankings for the United States of America and another country of your choosing for the following variables: life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty rate, and unemployment rate. Prepare a table that includes all of these measures.
  4. In 5-7 sentences, explain the information in the table you created in question 3.