Chapter 8

Aspects of Social Stratification

Ole Fr. Ugland
Salim Tamari

The purpose of this chapter is to present a general picture of Palestinian social stratification, by bringing together relevant social and economic issues investigated in the previous chapters. As in all societies the social status of any family or individual reflects realities which may appear elusive and beyond the grasp of quantitative science. This obstacle may in part be overcome by applying quantitative methods to relevant social phenomena which are in fact quantifiable. A systematic account, based on a discussion of selected characteristic features of socioeconomic differentiation in Palestinian society, may be attempted.

The analysis is divided into three parts. First, some general observations on the socioeconomic distribution are made by reference to four major head of household (HH) characteristics. Second, a description of the interrelationships between these characteristics is presented, followed by the construction of an aggregate distributive index. Third, the Palestinians' own perceptions of socioeconomic inequalities are related to the stratification pattern as it emerges from the discussion.

Research Strategy
It is common in social science to assume a more or less strong element of division or differentiation between social positions or social roles in a society. Individuals or groups of individuals are conceived of as constituting higher and lower differentiated strata or classes, in terms of some specific or generalized characteristic or set of characteristics.

There is, however, little common agreement as to which elements or aspects of a society that reflect this structure of social "layers", nor as to which explanations that are important concerning mobility between them. Likewise, some societies will be characterized by more or less clear-cut and stable differentiation between the layers, while in others the borderlines will be more blurred or changing.1

The concept of "class" is highly contentious in Middle Eastern societies; some would deny the salience of classes, while others would argue that although classes may exist, ownership relations are secondary to relationships of political power.2 This latter view may partly be supported by the historic experiences from the feudal state under the Ottoman rule. It has been argued that "state monopoly, particularly over land, hindered the development of social classes, and in a sense prevented the crystallization of class conflict". Stratification has, consequently, "tended to be variegated, and unlike the Western societies to be group-based along tribal, familial, sectarian and ethnic lines, where primordial attachment rather than class consciousness typified these societies".3

We will not attempt to solve this problem here by superimposing absolutely consistent class divisions or by defining any kind of broadly accepted "poverty line". Nonetheless, in order to describe socioeconomic variations within contemporary Palestinian society in a coherent fashion, some indicators need to be decided upon.

Proceeding from the assumption that the family-based Palestinian household constitutes a strong network of social and economic obligations and privileges, the status of the (acknowledged) Household Head may provide us with adequate information as to the social stratification of the Palestinians.4 First, four different indicators - education, occupation, housing conditions and economic wealth - are selected. Reflecting various aspects of the HH and his household, taken together they are assumed to have vital relevance to the identification of socioeconomic differences. Secondly, we suggest a division into four main socioeconomic status categories along each indicator - high, upper- and lower middle and low - which are assumed to reflect general levels of status differences. The latter category ("low") is crudely considered as referring to living conditions below the "deprivation line".

To avoid the difficulties in obtaining accurate information on the status of specific households within their community - i.e finding ways of measuring the deference and honour accorded the HH - the analysis instead focuses on the HHs own perceptions. How does he/she rate his/her influence within the community? What are his/her attitudes to the generation - and to the prevalence - of socioeconomic inequalities?

Elements of Socioeconomic Differentiation in the West Bank, Gaza and Arab Jerusalem
Two properties are considered to be vital indicators of social status. First, two major educational shifts have occurred (see also chapter 5, on Education). In the late 1950s and -60s free and universal public education became available to camp populations and to villagers. In the mid 1970s and early -80s free university education also came within reach of more disadvantaged sections of the urban and rural population. While education in earlier times for economic reasons was confined to the higher social strata, which were in a position to send their children abroad, free and universal education now became relatively accessible to all categories of the population.

Educational status is measured here by an index combining information on level and length of education. This combination facilitates a necessary distinction between HHs with various categories of primary education (primary- preparatory-, or kuttab levels)5, of which three in ten have had up to five years of education, while seven in ten have attended school for more than five years. All in all, one in ten HHs have acquired a higher university degree. The largest category (six in ten) have upper middle (secondary) education. One in ten have lower middle (primary) education and two in ten report no education at all.6

Secondly, various developments and the enhanced availability of public education has given rise to new kinds of occupations: professional and semi-professional employment outside the agrarian system. The dwindling number of peasant workers, who have steadily abandoned their farms under the pull of wage labour, has left the role of agriculture increasingly marginalized. With increased wage labour opportunities, the income of hitherto poor peasants has increased, redefining their status compared with the former privileged economic position of land-owners.

Different "productive" roles in a society are generally considered as being of different functional significance to society, and thus to the attainment of a higher or lower degree of prestige. The complexity of the Palestinian labour market, together with limitations on geographical mobility, complicate status ascription by reference to the present occupation of the HH. Aiming to differentiate between different occupational prestige categories, occupational training is considered a fairly valid indicator.7 The occupations are further grouped into four categories: High-status occupations comprise high-level professionals (one in ten). Upper middle range occupations imply middle-level professionals, business management- and skilled workers (three in ten). Lower middle status occupations are understood to be sales workers, farmers and traditional craft artisans (three in ten). Low status HHs have not been trained for any specific jobs (three in ten).8

New types of labour have given rise to new forms of status acquisition, replacing land as the primary indicator of economic wealth (except where agricultural land has appreciated in terms of its real estate value). First, the increase in private disposable income, extensions of infrastructures and access to Israeli markets, have rendered "modern" consumer durables a prime indicator of economic well-being. The possession of certain luxury goods clearly distinguishes the better off from the rest of the population.

As previously mentioned, income has not been measured directly in this survey. Consequently, social status in terms of economic capital has to be deduced from other income-related information. This can be done by charting ownership of a set of what is commonly known as "cutting edge" consumer durables: Colour TV, washing-machine, modern oven, bathroom, video, stereo and dishwasher. When frequencies of the different items are added, the following distributive pattern emerges: HHs possessing none of the items included can be categorized as low-status (four in ten). The low middle category (two in ten) has but one of the items. The upper middle category (two in ten) possesses 2-3 items, and the high status category (two in ten) owns 4 or more.

Secondly, housing is of particular interest in light of the pivotal importance of the family within the Palestinian society. Housing functions as an indicator of family economic wealth and also determines or reflects the status of the family within the local community. Thus, substantial resources are pooled into housing, which is also considered a safe area of investments in an otherwise uncertain world.

The housing index provides measurement of density and internal comfort. While density indicates the number of persons per room, internal comfort reflects the availability of a set of amenities which the HH disposes of: shower, flush toilet, fitted kitchen or heating by central, electric, gas or solar energy. The best housing situation is defined as having more than three of the specified amenities and encompassing less than two persons per room (one in ten HHs). The most unfavourable position can be defined as having no or only one amenity while living in a house with more than two persons per room (three in ten, of which 70% live in households with more than three persons per room). Three out of ten occupy each of the two intermediate low- and upper middle positions of having maximum two of the specified amenities while having less than two person per room, and having three or more amenities but living with more than two persons per room.9

Table 8.1 summarizes the selected items, and the grouping in four categories as to whether the socioeconomic status is considered to be high, upper- or lower middle, or low. Each category is further accorded a status score ranging from 1 for the low status category to 4 for the high status category. Numbers in parentheses indicate the distribution of HHs in each category.

Table 8.1 HH stratification indicators. Percentage distribution in parentheses
Status categoryHighUpper middleLower middleLow
Status score4321
Education (index)
No. of years>6>6<50
professional (6), business
skilled (31)
Salesm, farmer
No job
Consumer durables
No. of items4-7
Housing (index)
Comfort items>33-22-11-0
Persons per

Although the four dimensions for theoretical reasons are treated separately, in the real world they will occur in a multitude of interdependent combinations, constituting complex life situations. Two assumptions may be made in order not to over- or underestimate good or bad situations in the following analysis:10 First, we assume that a bad situation in one field may be compensated by a good situation in another: A person with two lower scores on the four indicators is worse off than a person with one low score. Second, as long as differences in quality or attractiveness of the four indicators (as opposed to the status categorization within them) cannot be judged, they simply are accorded equal weight: A low score according to one indicator, may be offset by a good situation in another. In other words, we allow good and bad situations to outbalance each other.

Independence, accumulation or compensation?
An important element in the analysis of social stratification is the way in which different relative rankings are connected. Which of the four present indicators are most closely related, thus contributing most significantly to differentiation among Palestinian HHs? Does high-status education translate into high status occupations, high housing standards and high material wealth? Which types of combinations of high and low status characteristics are most common?
Three general distributive effects are normally considered in this respect.11 First, no or rather weak connections between the various indicators may be revealed, indicating a non-systematic distribution of goods and burdens. Secondly, if the distribution is systematic, good or bad situations may either accumulate (those with unfavourable conditions in one field will also experience a bad situation in the other fields) or, third, they may imply compensation (a bad situation in one field is offset by a good score in another). In the light of results in the previous chapters we may expect a pattern of accumulation of good and bad situations respectively. Table 8.2 presents the results of a statistical analysis of covariation.

Table 8.2 The four socioeconomic status indicators: matrix of covariation (Pearsonšs r). All coefficients significant at .001 level. N=813
EducationOccupationConsumer durables
Consumer durables.34.25

The coefficients give us two valuable pieces of information that lend themselves to straightforward interpretation: First, the strength of the association between the indicators tells us to what degree there are any systematic patterns in the relation between them. The measure theoretically varies from +/- 0.0, indicating no covariation, to +/- 1.0 indicating total conformity. Further, we may observe the direction of the relation, i.e. how positive covariations indicate accumulation (status consistency), while negative correlations denote compensation (status inconsistency).

The table clearly demonstrates a systematic distribution of benefits and burdens among Palestinian HHs, although the patterns are far from totally conformal. The general trend is one of accumulation or status consistency: all four items co-vary positively, indicating that "privileged" and "deprived" conditions tend to accompany each other respectively.

Although all the four elements are clearly related, the most systematic covariation is the one found between education and occupation on the one hand, and between housing and consumer durables on the other.12 Other relationships are somewhat weaker, the weakest being between occupation and housing. A distinction between on the one side "social status" (education and occupation) and on the other "economic wealth" (capital goods and housing) is indicated. This is seen from the relatively speaking weaker covariation between than within the respective social and economic categories. One might ask if this an indication of problems concerning the translation of social status into economic wealth. We will return to the question below.

The Stratification Index
So far, we have discovered clear patterns in the distribution of high and low status scores along the four socioeconomic indicators. The relationships do not, however, operate within iron laws. Some HHs break with the general pattern. To sum up, the often complex combinations of social and economic characteristics, a socioeconomic distribution index has been created. Here the status scores (from 1 to 4) along the four different indicators have been added (thus giving a score from 4 to 16) as can be seen from figure 8.1.13

Figure 8.1 HH socioeconomic distribution index

The distribution is grouped into four status categories. Most HHs appear to experience a "middle" level situation. A peak is observed at the upper side of the upper middle category and at the lower side of the lower middle category. From this point, the status scores fall gradually. More HHs experience a relatively deprived situation than a relatively privileged one, but with very few experiencing either absolute deprivation or absolute privilege.

Comparatively speaking the distribution reflects a situation that lies somewhere between the classical "pyramidal" and "diamond" shaped structures. While the former is found in many developing societies, in which the majority of roles are ranked low, the latter is typical of many modernized societies, where there sometimes is a strong pressure toward social equality as well as a need for increasing numbers of middle-ranking officials.14

Although we do not have directly comparable indicators, and while it may be true that the index also reflects our own subjective evaluation of good and bad situations, it can be fairly said that the Palestinian stratification diverges from the rest of the Arab world. The deviation may be caused and reinforced by several factors: First, Palestine (as it never achieved independence) has not developed a public sector and, more specifically, a state bureaucracy, a sector that in neighboring countries accounts for enlarged strata of public officials and civil servants. Second, traditional Palestinian hierarchies were, from 1948 onwards, severely disrupted as a result of war and expulsion, leading to the loss of the landed classes and the traditional elites. Third, as a result of pressing economic hardships since 1967, a considerable segment of Palestinian professional and business elites have emigrated to the diaspora (the Gulf and the U.S.A). The observed distribution may thus reflect limited possibilities of socioeconomic mobility during the last decades, leading to the present pattern of socioeconomic homogeneity centered upon low- and lower middle status categories.


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