Commonsense practice or state-sponsored caste system? Social stratification in Bogotá, Colombia

Steven Bunce is a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, where he is researching the nation's class system and the incorporation of internally displaced persons into the city's sociocultural landscape. 

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A running joke in Colombia is that the rich want to be English, the intellectuals want to be French, the middle class want to be Americans, and the poor want to be Mexicans.  - William Ospina, 1996

Since 1988, residential zones in Colombia’s capital have been organized into six strata (estratos). This holds an important administrative function by which the upper classes pay a higher rate for their services or utilities to subsidize the costs of services for the lower classes.

While degrees of social stratification and grouping based on socio-economic status are evident in all societies, there are very few cities in the world in which income-based class divisions are explicitly categorized and its citizens classified and demarcated via a public policy.

This naturalization of a social order based on earnings tends only to confound non-Colombians, most of whom have very different takes on why the system was introduced in the first place:

  1. I’m not sure.
  2. Hasn’t it always existed?
  3. It started right after the revolution.
  4. It came into effect shortly after industralization.
  5. President Gaviria (1990-94) introduced the scheme
  6. I’m not sure, but it makes total sense to me that there should be estratos. They’ve existed for as long as I can remember.
  7. There have always been rich people and poor people, you need only read the bible.
  8. This is basically the government taking a census of its citizens to determine their economic capacities. It is a form of social control, introduced around 1994.

In her works exploring social mobility in Bogota, Uribe (2008) recalls a conference in which journalists and academics from several Latin American countries and the USA were shocked by the use of the word ‘strata’ and its socio-economic application in Bogota.

They were alarmed by how unremarkable this system was to Colombians, who regarded it merely as a straightforward means of formulating taxes and subsidies for public services. By the end of the meeting the Colombians in the room were made to feel “as if we’d collectively acquiesced to a state-sponsored caste system.”

Trends in survey responses allowed Uribe to formulate certain conclusions about the impact of stratification citizens: The primary finding was that it had molded citizens perceptions of social mobility and created conditions in which hierarchy is perceived as ‘inherited’ and perpetuated a reality in which economic stratification acts as a barometer for social representation.

Less apparent is how, in a little over two decades, the stratification of Bogota has made an indelible impression on how citizens perceive the social order and, in turn, relate to one another.

To illustrate, in the relationships classifieds, a young accountant’s assistant seeks an uncomplicated girl he can talk with, writing:

“I am 23, 5’ 7”, from estrato 2. In another personals ad, a middle-aged man in search of  “a woman who enjoys dining out and cuddling in front of the television” includes his strata level in the same sentence as his eye color and profession (Uribe, 2008).

I met with Consuelo Uribe and put to her that this mention of ‘caste’ and hierarchy resonated with how society functions in India, where the lower class of ‘untouchables’ are forever locked into a subordinate position with very little hope of social ascension.

I was warned that this is way too loaded a comparison to draw – the case of ‘The Untouchables’ represents one of the strongest racist phenomenon in the world – a place in the social order predetermined by one’s belonging to the Dalit caste, who are relegated to the lowest jobs and live in constant fear of social humiliation (Mayell, 2003).

In Colombia, it certainly remains difficult for the popular classes (particularly ethnic minorities) to move up the social ladder, but it does occur. Nevertheless, she emphasized that there are very few places in the world where class divisions are so explicitly demarcated and “frozen”.

I have since been compelled to explore what effect this ‘freezing’ has on the city’s social fabric and citizen perceptions of insecurity, particularly at time when so many residents have described the city as slipping back into chaos, high crime rates and widespread intolerance.

Having arrived in Colombia with the intention to research forced displacement, I am consistently pulled in the direction of investigating the fragmentation of civil society and its relationship to, among other things, the country’s stratification system.

Bogota represents somewhat of an anomaly in terms of many Latin American cities, in that its urban socio-spatial segregation and north-south divide is not clearly visible in the landscape via a ‘city of walls’ (Caldeira 2002) or insulated housing estates, although buildings in the more affluent neighborhoods do have tighter security and guards.

Instead, zones are allocated a number between one and six and administrative fees are charged accordingly. Unoffically, as many residents have conveyed to me, there is a strata zero (poor zones of informal housing) and a strata seven and eight (in the city’s northern outer limits).

Gonzalez (2007) argues that the stratification system has generated conditions of more acute socio-spatial segregation, which reproduces itself over time. This operates on several levels.

For one, a 2002 study by McIlwane and Moser of poorer neighbourhoods of Colombian cities revealed a high degree of ‘area stigma’. Even those with greater cultural capital (such as academic qualifications) found it difficult to overcome the stigma of residing in a poorer zone of the city. 

On the other hand, the increased cost of living in Bogota has provoked a trend in which residents wish to descend a stratum, or have no desire to ascend as the overhead is too costly, further indication of more acute spatial segregation and ‘freezing’.

In Caldeira’s analysis of Sao Paulo’s fortified enclaves, she notes how such acute segregation and culturally homogenous clusters of residents tends to erode the elite’s notion of a public interest, and convert the public space of the city into a site of suspicion and restriction, severing the ties the privileged sectors may have had with the rest of the city.

While not actively fencing residents off into different socio-economic zones, the nature of the city’s zoning policies nevertheless generates a landscape in which the majority of residents rarely come into contact with citizens outside of their social class.