Social Stratification of Non-Western Culture

There are a number of Non-Western cultures – cultures not having primary roots in ancient Greek and/or Roman thought – around the world who divide themselves into groups. Many times these groups are based on some sort of social hierarchy to which a person is born, such as class-color or class-caste, and it is hard to rise above that ‘station in life’.   In some societies, such as Japan, the idea of interdependence is promote, in which the culture of the society strongly emphasizes belonging to and contributing to collective goals, thoughts or goods and not an individual goal, thought or good.

In this discussion, we will focus on social hierarchy, based on the class-color continuum seen in Central and South America, and social stratification developed in and around this tendency. It will also consider how industrial development resulted from the ideals of the dominant classes of people and how it, in turn, affected the disenfranchised – deprived of the certain rights – people of Central and South America.

The social structure within any society is based on that societies need for establishing boundaries between groups of individuals. Even before the Conquistadors – European explores from Spain and Portugal – ventured into South America a clear definition of who belonged to what social group had been established by the Aztec, Maya, and Inca.

Aztec Social Structure

Fig. 1 Aztec social structure before explores arrived. (Jamison, 2012)

Mayan Social Structure

Fig. 2 Maya social structure before explores arrived. (Oshins)

Inca Social Structure

Table 1. Inca social structure before explores arrived. (“The Inca social structure,” 2013)

In today’s society we use the term “complex society” to address the social classes of people in a specified region and the roles of power and control in that region. In Central and South American social hierarchy, and therefore structure, is most often dependent on skin color. However, there is another power construct at work which plays an active role in society, that of “social stratification”. In this case, stratification refers to the layers of people in a society. These social operating units include families, communities, sets of communities, political parties, military establishments, and government units. Each of these “strata” controls a certain amount of the environment, although some exercise more control than others. As a result inequalities of power develop and confrontations inevitably occur resulting in different levels of “articulation”. The individuals who participate in these confrontations eventually occupy a sort of representational status for their particular strata and different relationships between the strata form.

After the struggle for independence in South America, the caudillo – military dictator – emerged. There were two major groups of these strong leaders, the elite and the popular, but both served to usher in a reign of stability and prevent further disintegration of the various national states. They encouraged and enabled the building of infrastructure and legitimatized their rule through the endorsement of the military, landowning aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, many caudillos had served in the army and understood the importance of the institution to either enforce or destroy a ruler.

The elites were those who enjoyed social, economic, and political control. Within the elite strata, two political attitudes predominated: liberalism and conservatism, much like we see in the United States. The liberals mirrored progressive attitudes while the conservatives held fast to traditional colonial values. Neither group was interested in the difficulty of the commoners or in the redistribution or restructuring of social, land, and labor systems.

In many Latin American nations, the mestizos – person of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry – and mulattoes – person of mixed European and African ancestry – formed the largest social classes. However, it was not until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, that they were able to articulate their position in the power construct of their country. On the other hand, even though slavery was abolished in 1888, slaves and their descendants still remained in the lowest social class along with the Indians, who were still enslaved by the labor markets and debt servitude.

Social Structure after Colonization

Fig. 3 Social hierarchy of South American societies during colonization by the Spaniards and Portuguese.

While the growth of Latin America was shaped by the elites, they generally failed to see the bigger picture. The many miles of railroads did not link up the principal cities of their nations, like they did in the United States, eliminating the possibility of unification for  people in various South American nations. Loans were taken out to fund further “modernization” advancements and the government was forced to budget even greater sums to payback interest.

These loans would eventually lead to the destabilization of many smaller South American nations and result in the many of issues seen in South America today. On other hand, larger South American nations, such as Brazil, were able to stabilize and began to industrialize by forming their own factories to support internal demands. This enabled them to develop more balanced economies, base them on a multitude of products, and protect them from the fluctuation in European markets. These advances helped to form a very small middle class of mestizos and mulattoes who were able to rise into the new social strata.


The social structure within any society is based on the societies need for establishing boundaries between groups of individuals. Even before the European explores arrived in Central and South America the natives or indigenous people had created a social structure based on either birth statues or conquest of other native tribes. In later years after the European explores arrived newer social class were developed to fit the needs of the Europeans. After South America gained her independence a new social structure developed based on the caudillo, which created two major groups of strong leaders, the elite and the popular. However, both served to usher in a reign of stability and prevent further disintegration of nation states with in South America. In many cases, these groups are the ones responsible for encouraging and enabling the building of infrastructure, while at the same time legitimatizing their rule through the endorsement of the military, landowning aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic Church.


The Inca social system. (2013). Retrieved from

Jamison, L. (2012, March 20). Aztec and the social classes of the time . Retrieved from

Oshins, A. (n.d.). Aztecs, incas and mayans, oh my!. Retrieved from

Sayre, H. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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