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Pirates & Social Stratification

In this post, David Mayeda, takes look at an example of global stratification, where fishing companies from higher-income countries strip resources from poor, local fishermen off the coast of Sierra Leone. It is a classic example of how gaps between the rich and the poor still widen, on a global scale.

One of the most widely used concepts in sociology is “social stratification.” Taken literally, stratification refers to a kind of layering. By adding the term “social,” sociologists argue there exist different levels of social layering across all societies, demarcated by measures of inequality. Systemically, social stratification can be measured in three ways: (1) by access to resources/wealth (e.g., money, social networks, weapons, computer technology); (2) power (the ability to influence others, often against their will); and (3) prestige (the status one commands within a society).

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. If you don’t know where Sierra Leone is, well, that may be one indicator of its lack of status in the global economy. Speaking of the global economy, the Human Development Index (HDI) ranks countries with regard to overall quality of life based on three major criteria: whether those in the country’s population (1) live a long and healthy life; (2) have access to knowledge; and (3) hold a decent standard of living. According to the 2011 HDI, Sierra Leone ranks 180 out of 187 countries globally, as it still recovers from a brutal civil war that lasted throughout most of the 1990s and up until 2002.

In contrast, the top five ranking countries in the 2011 HDI are, in order, Norway, Australia, Netherlands, United States, and New Zealand. This index is one way of saying on a global scale, these countries stand very high in a socially stratified world, whereas Sierra Leone stands quite low in comparison.

The news site, Aljazeera, recently produced a two-part documentary that exemplifies how fishing companies from the Republic of Korea (which ranks 15th on the HDI) are trawling illegally off Sierra Leone’s coast, not only stealing valuable fish from Sierra Leone’s fishermen, but also ruining their fishing equipment. To better understand how social stratification operates in a tangible, global setting, watch the two videos, below, and identify how the South Korean fishing companies are able to leverage their greater wealth/resources, power, and prestige over Sierra Leone fishermen.

Pirate Fishing – Part One:

Pirate Fishing – Part Two:

With regard to resources, the South Korean companies have bigger, more robust ships. As seen in Part One, these larger South Korean ships can ruin the Sierra Leon fishermen’s meagre resources (e.g., smaller fishing nets) without repercussion. They also have greater wealth, which they can use to bribe key officials from the Sierra Leone government to look away and not enforce international fishing regulations. The South Korean companies’ greater wealth and ability to manipulate Sierra Leone officials is also a measure of power – they are able to influence key decision making processes and ultimately stimulate corruption with Sierra Leone’s governmental structure. Finally, look at the lack of status Sierra Leone’s fishermen hold. The only people who listen to their concerns are the Aljazeera journalists. In fact, had Aljazeera not produced this documentary, it is unlikely this injustice would have been uncovered or dealt with at all.

Even within the larger South Korean fishing vessel, one can see clear social stratification. The Aljazeera journalistic crew was able to utilize its resources and status to wield power, leading to fines levied on the South Korean company. And it is clear workers on the South Korean vessel lack much in the way of wealth/resources, power, or prestige. Still, from a more global perspective and looking at things more collectively, South Korea’s higher position across a socially stratified world enables its organizational groups to extend their privilege over those in Sierra Leone.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In either of the two parts of the documentary presented above, how else were the three dimensions of social stratification illustrated? For instance, who did the Aljazeera crew need to rely on in order to board the South Korean ship, and what specifically did this group provide in terms of wealth/resources, power, and/or prestige?
  2. The videos presented here show a stratified relationship between two countries. How does global social stratification manifest between other countries? Provide specific examples of how other countries with high resources/wealth, power, and prestige perpetuate their privilege over countries that fall lower along the social stratification spectrum.
  3. Think about how social stratification shapes your life. What status sets shape social stratification for you? Is stratification based on age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., and why do you think this is?
  4. In western media, issues concerning Africa are very rarely addressed. Why do you think this is, and what might this suggest about the western public’s general interests?