Social Class and Life Chances as seen through Survivor Rates on the Titanic

We have just eclipsed the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – an incredibly horrific tragedy that resulted in the deaths approximately 1,500 individuals.  Astonishingly, this accounted for over two-thirds of the individuals onboard. This from the ship that was dubbed “unsinkable” and was so confident in its invincibility that its lifeboat capacity could accommodate only about half of the individuals on the ship (they decided that they didn’t want the “extra lifeboats” to ruin the aesthetic beauty of the ship’s decks). In short, the Titanic was not well-equipped for a possible tragedy, which ensured that a great deal of individuals were to be doomed when tragedy did strike.  While this means that most of the individuals wouldn’t have survived (which the survival numbers verify), it does not mean that everyone on the ship had an equal chance at surviving. In fact, quite the opposite was true.

This real-life occurrence can be a useful starting point for instructors trying to introduce the concept of social stratification (inspired by David M. Newman’s Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life textbook). The Titanic represents a very clear-cut example where social class divisions provided different opportunities to individuals occupying different classes (you can use “life chances” quite literally in this instance). An individual’s odds of survival were greatly shaped by his/her structural location aboard the ship (i.e. your social class, gender, and age).

Here is an interesting chart illustrating the survivor rates by gender and class:

This chart is the official report from the British Board of Trade on the survivors.  Clearly, members of some social classes were more likely to survive than others.

While I have yet to use this specific example in class, I am sure that it can be effectively utilized to illustrate structural location and access to resources and one’s “life chances.”  The survivor rates are so stark and pronounced when broken down by social class that it makes for a very clear example of differential access to resources.  This is why this chart is so powerful.

I would imagine that a couple of potential challenges you may encounter are “That’s just the way it was back then,” or “That was just one specific instance onboard a tragic ship’s sinking at sea.”  While it’s true that social class probably isn’t quite as rigid now as it was in the days of Titanic, it should make for smooth transition to social class as a means to greater access to resources (i.e. better school systems or nicer neighborhoods).  These more modern examples can help to show that social class remains an important consideration when thinking about one’s access to resources and how this may shape life chances.

The movie, Titanic, could obviously be used or shown in clips in conjunction with the official report.  Throughout there are many examples of differences in treatment, expectations, and norms of individuals based on social class.  It may also be fruitfully analyzed as an illustration as to women’s “second-class status” and treatment (at times being treated as property).  The main female character, Rose, is presented as a strong and independent female, though it is made obvious throughout the movie that she is the exception to the norm (all for a good storyline!).

Whether you choose to use the actual film or simply the above survivor statistics, this can be a powerful example and metaphor; it takes some pieces of information that students are probably aware of, but perhaps have never thought about sociologically – a powerful tool to use when teaching.

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