RANK & STRATIFICATION HAVE HEALTH IMPLICATIONS

The Whitehall studies[1] found a strong association between grade levels of civil servant employment and mortality rates from a range of causes.  For instance, males in the lowest grade (messengers, doorkeepers, etc.) had a mortality rate three times higher than that of males in the highest grade (administrators).  These and other studies indicate that those in the lower ranks of society, the poor and powerless especially, are more prone to stress and stress-related illnesses.  Stress releases hormones that adversely affect the body’s ability to fight off damaging pathogens and repair damage done by illness. 

Political & economic domination has physical consequences for people.  It is not simply and merely about the upper class being able to afford a bigger house or a swankier car.  Political and economic domination is a health issue.  Obviously, a rich person can afford better health care, and that is one understandable factor; but the Whitehall studies show that low position in a ranked society creates more stress than a person in a high position.  Furthermore, that increased stress creates more illness.  The lower ranked individual has two factors working against him or her: (1) greater stress producing more illness; and, (2) less ability to access good health care to deal with the stress and illness, the later also heightening the individual’s stress level.  This is one pernicious feedback loop affecting the lives of people without the benefits of high rank. 

It is not just about getting sick but rather there are mortality implications.  Whitehall researchers found that there is a steep inverse relationship between social class, as measured by their study of graded employment, and mortality from a wide range of diseases.  The theory is that the lower one is in the chain of command in an organization, and presumably society at large, the less control one has over one’s life. 

The Whitehall studies showed that if a person does not have to take orders on how to act or perform a task, or when to do that task, that person has a lower heart rate, less stress hormones and reduced blood pressure than a lower order person who is told what to do by superiors.[2]  People who experience powerlessness in life are more likely to get sick and to die earlier than people who are higher ranked and therefore feel less stress because of their high position in the social order. 

This is rooted in our physiology and presumably has been influencing human beings throughout their evolutionary journey.  The study of stress and rank in baboon society show similar results to the Whitehall studies.[3]  While high-ranked baboons have less stress and illness than subordinates, they are incapable of building social structures that lead to stratification or the hoarding of substantial material resources as humans have done since the Neolithic Revolution.  Thus, while low-ranks baboons are under stress because of inferior rank; low class humans are under stress because of both rank and stratification i.e., because they lack power and also resources to ameliorate their stress-related problems.

Not only do lower ranked humans and baboons have greater stress producing more illness, but also their elevated stress damages their brains i.e., stress-related hormones can endanger the brain by reducing the size of neurons and affecting functions such as learning and memory.[4]  Clearly, this can have negative implications for families that are passed on through the generations.  In other words, lower social class is self-reinforcing.

With regard to my study of political & economic domination,[5] (for the two go together as I have occasionally indicated by using the made-up word, poleconomic domination), being dominated has more than social effects on the individual.  Rank affects health, a fact of our primate heritage; and stratification, a result of political & economic domination in human society, even more.  Those in the lower rungs of society are caught in a double bind: low rank produces greater stress and illness and lower income and reduced access to prime resources prevent them from adequately addressing the stress and stress-related illnesses.

 

 

 

 

 

 



[2] Kuper, H. & Marmot, M. (2003).  Job strain, job demands, decision latitude, and risk of coronary heart disease within the Whitehall II study, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57:2:147–153.

[3] Sapolsky, Robert.  1990.  Stress in the Wild, Scientific American 262:106–113.

[4] Sapolsky, Robert M.  1990.  Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

[5] Mendonsa, Eugene L.  2008.  The scripting of serfdom in medieval Catalonia: An anthropological perspective.  Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.  2008b.  Literacy and the Culture of Domination in Medieval Catalonia.  Kindle ebook.  Amazon.com.  2008c.  The Fabrication of Political Domination: From the Paleolithic to the Present.  Kindle ebook.  Amazon.com.

 

 

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