The structure of Colombian society in the 1980s--strongly influenced by traditions inherited from sixteenth-century Spain-- was highly stratified, having well-defined class membership, pronounced status differences, and limited vertical social mobility. The urban sector was characterized by a more flexible social system, a growing middle class, and greater participation of the population in national politics. Rural society in all but a few regions was organized in rigidly hierarchical structures in which change of status was very difficult. Only in the coffee-growing departments of Caldas and Antioquia were there sizable segments of the population exhibiting the traits of a rural middle class.
In the 1980s, social scientists continued to disagree about the definition of class in Colombia, the composition and relative importance of the middle class, the role of the upper class in the larger society, and the degree to which the society was evolving into a more open system. It was difficult to speak of social class per se because class implied feelings of cohesion and exclusiveness vis-à-vis other classes--characteristics that did not uniformly apply to status groups in Colombia. This class consciousness among persons with similar economic, occupational, and sociological interests was found only at the highest stratum of society in Colombia.
Four classes and their relative proportions could be distinguished in the mid-1980s: upper class, 5 percent; middle class, 20 percent; lower class, 50 percent; and the masses, 25 percent. There were also two important transitional subdivisions: the new rich, who constituted perhaps 3 percent of the total and were tenuously members of the upper class; and the upper lower class, organized blue-collar workers, and poorer white-collar workers, who made up about 15 percent of the total.
Classes were distinguished by occupation, life-style, income, family background, education, and power. Within each of the classes, there were numerous subtle gradations in status. Colombians tended to be extremely status-conscious, and class membership was an important aspect of social life because it regulated the interaction of groups and individuals. Social class boundaries were far more flexible in the city than in the countryside, but consciousness of status and class distinctions continued to permeate social life in both sectors.
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