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The postmodern society is all about boundaries. Individuals tend to associate themselves with one or several groups. Age, gender, education, and other social characteristics either facilitate or impede the implementation of their life goals. Oftentimes, people speak about clashing civilizations, thus turning culture into one of the most controversial group boundaries (Sen, 2001). The clashing civilizations theory classifies people according to a unique but allegedly commanding system, the system of culture (Sen, 2001). Despite the controversy surrounding of the concepts of culture and multiculturalism, these are not the only boundaries in today’s society. Almost everyone in the modern world felt the boundaries of personal income at least once in a lifetime. It is income that sets the boundaries of the social class and makes it difficult for individuals to pursue their social goals. The system of income classification, like any other system, divides the world into categories, further depriving individuals of an opportunity to create and maintain plural identities.
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We were all born in a definite social class, since our parents always had (or did not have) a certain level of income. Income predetermines social class belonging and exemplifies one of the most powerful group boundaries. When I say that I belong to the middle class or the middle social stratum, I usually imply the level of income I managed to earn in the past several years. I also mean that the level of income is the boundary that defines social groups and classes and, consequently, encourages social class members to see themselves in a number of ways. Most people in the developed world think about their counterparts in terms of their income and income differences. No single person sets these income boundaries or has the power to fix individuals’ position within any particular class. Rather, it is a complex set of life circumstances, including the social status of parents, level of education, individual perseverance and motivation, as well as success and luck, that can help an individual cross the boundaries of one class and, through increased incomes and better well-being, move up the social ladder.
Being a member of a particular social group, class, or stratum means having a unique vision of the world, which stems from the individual’s current social position and reflects his/her experiences moving across the strata. I must say that, despite the emerging claims for freedom, democracy, and equal opportunities, the income boundaries of social groups are hardly porous. The ease of penetration into a social group is negatively related to the level of income. Simply put, it is not difficult to fall down the social ladder and become a member of the poorest social groups, but entering the highest social strata, even when the level of income is high enough, can be extremely prolematic or even impossible. It is possible to say that the social groups where the level of income is the highest try to maintain fixed boundaries, whereas the poorest layers are always open to newcomers. These are my perceptions of difference and belonging, which reflect my current level of income and position in the middle-income social group. I personally witnessed some members of my group fall into poverty and try to become more affluent. I have a feeling that, no matter how hard I try and how much I earn, most society members will keep seeing me as a middle-income individual, who is not capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. These non-porous income boundaries suggest that classification and division are natural and even necessary (Sen, 2001). In reality, group boundaries have already kept thousands of individuals from attaining their most desired goals.
The costs and benefits of being a member of a particular income group are numerous. Middle-income group members have better financial capabilities than the members of the lower social classes, but they face greater challenges in terms of preserving their social status. Middle-income individuals also assume greater responsibility for their future, as they do not rely on the state welfare like members of the poorer groups. At the same time, the income boundaries among different groups greatly influence my perceptions of the social reality and change my views on the members of other groups. On the one hand, I tend to view members of the lower social groups as either too lazy to pursue challenging income goals or those, who have faced too many hardships that impeded their goal attainment opportunities. Also, I do not believe that the members of these income groups have too many chances to cross and overcome their group boundaries. On the other hand, I feel that the boundary between my group and the members of the higher income groups is almost impenetrable. As mentioned earlier, the income boundaries between groups are not porous and require a great deal of persistence and luck to break or expand them.
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My current group position has considerable impacts on the way I view the world. I feel privileged against poorer society members and groups, but I may not be able to see the difficulties they might have experienced in their pursuit of a better life. Simultaneously, I perceive members of the higher social strata as more powerful and even luckier in their financial strivings. As a person who has had few opportunities to break the income boundary and move to a richer social group, I may not have a complete picture of social diversity and the main drivers behind the major social shifts. I may not be aware of the factors other than luck and coincidence, which enable members of other social groups to cross the boundary and enhance their wellbeing.
I believe that belonging to a particular social ggroup leads to prejudices. The scope and complexity of such prejudices vary across social groups. The most essential feature of all income groups is that their members will never view other individuals as organically the same (Sen, 2001). On the contrary, we are diversely different, and the fact of belonging to this or that income group further intensifies this belief (Sen, 2001). As stated earlier, I belong to the middle-income group, and I tend to view poorer group members as either unlucky or incapable of achieving a better income status. I can assume that members of more affluent groups have similar perceptions about me, as their group status changes their perceptions of the social reality.
Unfortunately, the biggest drawback of such classification and, actually, any classification, is the reduced ability to see the world beyond our prejudices. Under the influence of social prejudices and group boundaries, we assume a uniform view of the world, where individuals’ success and status are measured mostly by the level of their income. Other individual characteristics and talents do not matter, when it comes to income. Consequently, we forget that every person has a unique self-conception, which encompasses more than one feature, talent, and ability (Sen, 2001). Sen (2001) says that religion cannot be one’s self-engulfing identity; in a similar vein, income alone cannot create the full picture of one’s identity and self.
However, the biggest problem is not about the presence of various classifications and income boundaries. Much more serious is the problem of stability, which often translates into stagnation. This stability does not allow individuals crossing the boundaries of their social group and pursuing a better life. Fixed boundaries present a bigger problem than the mere presence of the income classification. Such classification could become a potent motivational factor for those who find themselves at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, but they realize that their attempts will not bring any tangible result, and this is why they will not even try to change the situation. At the same time, we keep viewing them as unlucky, unsuccessful, or lazy while they are enjoying their lives and are not willing to sacrifice their plural identity for the sake of a higher income.
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Income is one of the most salient group boundaries in the contemporary society. These boundaries are often fixed and do not allow for an easy and effective transition from one group to another. Group belonging leads to the development of prejudices, which make it impossible to create a complete picture of the world. As a result, those at the lower levels of the social hierarchy have no motivation to pursue a better way of life.
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