Social mobility in the Caribbean

Unit 1 Module 3 - Social Stratification & Social Mobility

Social Mobility in Caribbean Society
An Overview

Anglophone C'bean Social Structure pre-1950

East Indian Social Mobility:
In the larger island territories such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, which received East Indian labourers, these workers were, designated to the lowest position in the social structure. East Indians are no longer situated at the bottom of the social structure as a social grouping, but rather, there is a tendency towards a multi-ethnic placement that has been influenced by, economics, gender, age, health, educational attainment etc.

Indeed East Indians have acquired a great deal of economic power (through entrepreneurship, public and private sector employment) and have come to challenge the traditional political dominance of Afro-descended Caribbeaners. This is most notable in territories such as Trinidad and Guyana. 

African Social Mobility:
The African population of the Caribbean has been largely descended from the formerly enslaved populations. For almost 400 years enslaved blacks were stereotyped as inferior. They held no political power, no wealth, no citizenship and were denied to actively and openly participate in their own cultural tradtions. All of these factors relegated them to the base position within the caste-type socially stratified social structure.

After Emancipation Africans abandoned the estates, in a bid to seek out and create a socially and economically independent life. The intent to uplift themselves and following generations from the bottom of the social strata. Most Africans sought to educate their children –thus generating distaste for agriculture and a preference for non-manual labour. This gave rise to the educated black middle class of the twentieth century. Africans rose to political dominance in most of the island territories and maintained such power from the 1960’s unto the present.

Summary of Caribbean Social Mobility:
CLR James observed that in the West Indies, education has been a powerful factor in the formation of the middle classes. However, although some black proletariats have been able to pull themselves up from the masses through education into the middle class, they can never rise to the bourgeois class.

Today, with the changes in contemporary lifestyle, which includes – the democratization of Caribbean nations, and the influence of meritocratic values over the traditional particularistic ones (particularly in the public domain) the social structure has become more complex. This complexity may also be due to the expansion and diversification of the economy and educational curriculum now available in the West Indies.

Contemporary researchers have noted that there has been a tendency towards fluidity of movement within the middle strata.  It must be noted however those in spite of these visible and tangible socio-economic changes, inequality continue to exist throughout the region.

According to Gordon:
They show that those Jamaicans whose parents were agricultural labourers, domestic and unskilled manual workers had virtually no chance of ending up at the top of the middle strata….Only four out of 1,000 males with agricultural labouring origins, for example, were likely to end up in this top stratum, despite the vaunted expansion of the educational system and the opening up of new positions.


The empirical evidence suggests that although the social stratification system have moved from the tendency to be caste like to that of being class oriented – hence the noticeable mobility between social stratas, we note that individuals of the uppermost parts of the social structure continue to maintain their position, whilst those at the bottom, struggle to move up and maintain second place.