Past Perceptions of Social Inequality in the Philippines

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

A game changer - corporate responsibility in the age of extreme inequality  | Oxfam

There are several types of social inequality in the Philippines. There is inequality based upon ethnicity, gender, land ownership, linguistic ability, and religious affiliation. However, by far the most blatant, pervasive, and important type of inequality is that described as class stratification. Class stratification enters into all interpersonal relations, economic arrangements, and political leadership.

The other types of social inequality can, in fact, be seen either as extensions of the class system to particular settings (e.g., the church or the classroom) or as the class system in which one dimension (e.g., land ownership or ethnic identity) is emphasized. Class stratification is the framework in which all of the other inequality happens.

With this in mind, it is somewhat surprising that the class stratification in the Philippines is so poorly understood. Different observers have said that there are widely divergent numbers of classes with different composition and different size. In some cases, if the name of the country were not mentioned, one would wonder if they were talking about the same society.

One observer, Dr. Frank Lynch, later head of the prestigious Institute of Philippine Culture at the Ateneo de Manila, stated in 1959 that, as far as he could determine, there were no social classes in the town that he studied. He had interviewed the town's citizens extensively and had found, first, that the people could not agree upon definitional characteristics of classes and, second, that they could not agree about the placement of their neighbors in a postulated upper-middle-lower class hierarchy. Some would say family X was in the middle class and others would say that family X was in a lower class. Lynch states that the town's citizens understood the concept of social class and could be observed altering their social behavior to reflect status differences between families. However, in the absence of unequivocal evidence, he was forced to conclude that classes were, at best, "latent".

All other observers have concluded that there are social classes, but have differed remarkably on the number, composition, and size. Shortly after the sixteenth century Spanish conquest of the islands, Miguel de Loarca  and Juan de Plasencia  described the prehispanic Philippine society as a mechanism for more effectively governing them. Plasencia stated that the Tagalog society was composed of four estates which he identified as the datu stratum (principales or maginoo), warrior-nobles (maharlika), commoners (timawa), and "slaves" (alipin). The "slaves," in particular, were subdivided into two different strata, serfs (namamahay), who could purchase their freedom, and true slaves (gigilid), who could be sold but could also be granted their freedom. The datu stratum controlled access to land and in that regard the strata could properly be identified as estates. However, the stratification did not depend entirely upon a legal definition of land ownership and, consequently, the word class would have been more appropriate. As in all class situations, families could and infrequently did change their inherited status.

Loarca described Visayan society in roughly the same way, stating that there were four strata, but, as Scott points out, there are some important differences between the Visayans and the Tagalogs. Among the Tagalogs, stratification was more land based. The Visayans explained their strata with caste mythology, saying that different strata descended from different members of the same family and, hence, intermarriage would be incestuous. Under the datu stratum, the Visayans placed the tumao, who were related to the datu group, the timawa, who were illegitimate offspring of the datus, and the oripun, a complex lower group that included serf and slaves. The Visayan society reduced to two classes if one considers that the oripun worked the land and the others did not.

Several questions remained unresolved by these two early observers but it seems clear that stratification precedes the Spanish conquest and is not a product of colonization. Early in the twentieth century, Kroeber  offered a three-strata description of the Philippines in which there were wealthy rulers, commoners, and the poor. He equated the commoners with a "middle class" but stated that the poor were, in fact, "slaves." The condition of slavery, i.e., being owned, was inherited but there were two kinds of slaves depending upon whether an individual could purchase his or her own freedom. Thus, he suggested that the Philippine society was composed of landowners, freemen, and those owned by the landowners.

After the Second World War, there was a considerable increase in interest in the nature of Philippine society by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos. One of the first of the postwar commentators to recognize and accurately assess the complexities of the stratification was Gerald Berreman. In a brief monograph, he stated that the Philippines society was characterized by "two widely separated classes with intergrades" and by a middle class growing in the hiatus between them.' He identified the upper class as landholding leaders (caciques or ilustrados), the middle class as small landowners, professionals, tradesmen, and government employees, and the lower class as landless tenants or, in the urban context, industrial or domestic labor. He acknowledged the inequity between the Filipino population and the Chinese population but regarded this as an ethnic phenomenon rather than an extension of the class system. Berreman thus moved the study of Philippine stratification clearly away from Kroeber's inaccuracies and set the stage for more detailed investigations as, for example, the investigation into the nature of the "intergrades," which, as we will see, are a key element in the inequality.

Unfortunately, in more recent reports, most observers have had a tendency to gloss over the nuances of Berreman's description and to describe the society as simply divided into two classes with an emerging middle class. Eggan and Hart, for example, both said that there were only the landed elite and those who must work for the landed elite, but added that a middle class was beginning to develop as the result of educational opportunities in the larger cities. In contrast, Pal  denied the existence of an emerging middle class and stated flatly that the society was composed of just two classes, an upper class (10% of the population) and a broad lower class (90% of the population), who worked the land and served the rich. These assessments were thus simplistic and counterproductive, obscuring rather than illuminating the social inequality.

More complicated descriptions of the stratification have also appeared in the literature. Hunt attempts to describe the composition and size of the classes in some detail. He suggested that the upper class is 1% of the population and is composed of large landowners, professionals, big businessmen, and upper government officials. Below this stratum is the middle class, which he states is 12% of the population and made up of "minor" government officials, "some" teachers, "most" businessmen, and "medium" landowners. A lower class is divided into two parts: an upper-lower class segment is 32% of the people and represented by skilled laborers, government clerks, "some" teachers, "some" sari-sari owners, store clerks, "small" farm owners, "most" office workers, and "some" tenant farmers. A lower-lower class segment is the remainder of the population, 55%, and is identified with unskilled laborers, "small" farm owners (again), "most" tenant farmers, and household servants. Unfortunately, the terms given in quotes above are not clarified and there is no indication in his paper regarding how he decided which occupations belonged in which strata or the manner in which the percentages were ascertained. He also fails to consider that there might be variations in the structure that might reflect different rural and urban settings.

Vreeland and her associates refer to the Philippines as "highly stratified"  and suggest that ethnicity and social group membership are dimensions of Philippine stratification in addition to the more commonly mentioned occupation, land, and education. This is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction but, regrettably, their work does not seem to be based upon careful, systematic fieldwork. Having introduced the concept of ethnicity as a class determinant, they fail to separate big businessmen, who are predominantly Chinese, from large landowners, who, in general, are not. Social group membership, such as membership in the Rotary or Masonic clubs, is definitely a reflection of class standing in the Philippines. But it is clear to even the casual observer that these are elite organizations and that few, if any, of the members of these clubs are middle class, identified as "writers, civil servants, teachers, clerical workers, merchants, mechanics, tradesmen, small businessmen and small landowners". Further, it is simply untrue to say, as they do, that a substantial percentage of the upper class is American, Spanish, or Philippine-born Spanish. They give the percentages of the population for each class as 1% upper, 12% middle, and 87% lower class, figures that are not supported by actual survey data.

One final example of the interpretation of Philippine stratification is the work of Kerkvliet (1980). Kerkvliet did a detailed study of the stratification in a town of 1400 people, and found the people to be "thoroughly conscious of [their] classes". He thus suggests that stratification is an emic, rather than etic, phenomenon. The people recognize and evaluate the several economic forces acting on them (the market value of rice and other crops, cost of fertilizer and land, etc.) and their stratification results from this semi-rational evaluation. He identifies seven classes:

(1) families periodically without rice, 3.4%;

(2) families with rice but no cash, 25.8%;

(3) families with some cash, 38.2%;

(4) families with cash for extras, 21.3%;

(5) families with surplus cash and savings, 7.9%;

(6) families with investments or businesses, 0.6%; and

(7) families with bigger investments, 2.7%.

This study is a good contribution to our understanding of the internal structure of a town, in contrast to a village or a city, but it is limited by the author's lack of scope. The strata he identifies are likely to be what Berreman called "intergrades," substrata of classes that would be more obvious in nearby cities. Aside from this, Kerkvliet has not adequately demonstrated that the social and economic cooperation among the people of the town is guided by the seven strata. If the strata are emically recognized, this would have to be the case. It is also somewhat disconcerting that he admits using his own judgment regarding the placement of the families in the "classes," rather than objective data.

In summary, it is fair to say that much remains unclear about social stratification in the Philippines. First, most observers have assumed that classes exist in a form approximating a tripartite model, i.e., that the Philippines would have lower, middle, and upper classes. This model was an answer that they brought with them and imposed upon the observations rather than deriving the class structure from first-hand observation. A second problem has been the absence of objective evidence for the classes. It is easy to observe, subjectively, that there is a range of socioeconomic statuses in play here and to use this to propose possible stratification. It is more difficult to demonstrate objectively how the range of statuses is broken down by the families to create exclusive layers in the society. Only when we understand this will we understand the nature and mechanisms of the system. A third problem lies in the lack of recognition of the obvious variations in the society, specifically, the hierarchy of central places. As in most countries of this kind, the Philippines has a large number of farming villages surmounted by a hierarchy of towns and cities ranging from the protopolis, the smallest type of city of which Ozamiz is an example, to the primary city (Manila). The differences of power, wealth, and status that generate and maintain social classes emanate from the larger central places and these places must be studied to understand the class system that permeates the whole society. And there will be differences in the class system in different places. But, most certainly, towns and farming villages are not the best places to study the society's stratification. Most of the families in these places are of the same class.