Saturday, February 25, 2012

Field Guide to Social Class Status Strivers

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

This blog entry is humor, and consequently should be taken seriously. 

Social class is inherently a hierarchy and some people are social class competitive, seeking social class status as a competitive sport.  Vance Packard’s book The Status Seekers published in 1959 remains required reading for anyone serious about social class and status.  Not all people seek status or compete for social status but status striving seems to be part of the modern human condition.  There many ways to compete for social class status and in reality people combine methods.  However, some people emphasize one particular way of social class striving.  This is about those people.

Status is about ego.  Status is about peoples’ sense of self.  Achieving status is about establishing a place in a social hierarchy, which is ego fulfilling.  Seeking external ego validation through status competition is a time honored tradition.  It also leads to difficulty when ego validation is not forthcoming.

Status is interpersonal.  If you are alone in a room wearing high prestige products you have no social status.  Well, you do have social status in your imagination, and not in real life.  Consequently status is about behaviors in interpersonal environments.

Some people compete for status in material ways, purchasing positional goods.  Some people compete for social status through experience, purchasing travel and experience.  Some people compete for social status through self improvement and the acquisition of knowledge and skills.  Some people compete for social status through social connection.

Humor mode on;


Identifying features
Members of this group can be readily identified by obviously labeled fashions.  A higher prestige subspecies can be identified by subtly labeled fashions or icon labeled fashion.  Varieties of fashion and accessories will vary with region and ethnicity, but the display of fashion is a constant for materialists. Popular visual media represents a homogenized variation in status symbols and this can become normative.  

While immature and mature plumage may vary, prestige consumer good labels are a key identifier.  The presence of any Apple product is always a significant feature of the accessories package associated with members of this group. 

Hipster emphasis on anti-fashion and accessories readily identifies them as materialists and they should not be confused with young or immature intellectualists. 

Members of this group may be found in shopping areas that have prestige branded stores.  Ritual display of status materials requires large numbers of social class striving competitors, consequently shopping malls, restaurants, and gala events are the natural display habitat for materialists.

A rare variant of the materialist has no labels and the serious observer must be familiar with garment construction and style as well as with fabric quality.  While many people have no obvious, subtle, or icon labeled fashions they may not be materialists at all, so careful observation of fashion and accessory quality is critical.  Having no labels may mean the a person has opted out of status striving using material goods.  Consequently other forms of social class status striving should be used for identification.

One statusologist has suggested that the diminishing size of the label or logo is related to higher status as well as to ego security, consequently the total lack of a product logo with the highest quality construction and material is the highest status and reflective of a high level of ego security.

Purchased status in material goods is differentiated from earned status which is the basis for the socialist and the intellectualist.


Identifying features
Members of this group are identified by two features, one physical, and the other cognitive.  Travel experiences are the most common form found and the physical evidence of travel experiences are souvenirs and symbols.  Office and home displays of objects “found in a little market” are used to remind the owner of the experience, reassure the owner of their prestige experience, and make visitors to the office or home space aware of the experience.  Similarly sportswear with location labels act as sigils of experiential competition.  Obscurity of location has higher status, for example Hard Rock Beijing has higher status that Hard Rock Cleveland.  More subtle symbols are seen in class rings, which signify other types of experiences. 

Cognitive displays are typically forthcoming in casual conversation and begin with the ritual phrase “When I was in . . . “  Experientialists will include references to their experiences in conversation to compete for status.   

There are many types of experiences, and the main three are event experiences, travel experiences, and attained experiences.  Event experiences are participation in things like music events, theater events, charity events that are typically local or regional.  However a trip out of town to Broadway counts as an event experience. 

The travel experience can be arranged in a hierarchy of status based on mode of travel (bus, ship, air), number of people, and destination or activity.  A small group tour trekking in the Himalaya Mountains has much more status than a bus trip to Las Vegas, or a cruise to Grand Cayman Island.  Solo tourism off the beaten path is much higher status than any bus tour.

Attained experience, like a college degree, is altogether different.  While travel experiences can be purchased, like material goods, attained experiences take time and effort.  In some instances travel and attained experience can be combined, for example trekking in the Himalayas.  Training experiences, self development courses, hobby competitions all require effort, and the visible symbols are typically class rings or certificates.  Displays of diplomas, by faculty or by anyone, are ways to communicate superiority of experience.  Ironic displays of a collection of college IDs are the same. 

Evidence of experiences through conversation or physical objects is a critical display feature of the Experientialist.

Live theater, concerts, and similar events are a natural habitat; however attendance can be a sign of social networking for the socialists, or of gaining the experience, or even of both.  Tour groups of all types are a natural habitat.  Historical locations are a natural attractant for Experientialists.  Bed and Breakfasts are for the solo traveler Experientialist.

Because of the segmenting of experiences there are many varieties of Experientialists, and individuals have been known to transform from one type to another.  For example statusologists have long recognized the transformation from the group tourist to the solo tourist, from the local and regional experientialist to the national and international experientialist.  This inflation of destination is common with aging.

Culturalists / Intellectualists

Identifying features
Fashion and plumage for members of this group tend to be anti-fashion, have no visible labels, and feature drab colors.  Making distinctions between anti-materialists and Culturalist takes training and careful observation.  The stereotype of brown tweed jackets with elbow patches is archaic.  Elbow patches have been removed in an attempt to counter this older identifier but the Harris Tweed or brown corduroy jacket remains a staple fashion statement.  Intellectualists will rarely wear class rings, often a symbol found in the Materialist / Experientialist, but will casually mention their collegiate, graduate, and post-graduate intellectual provenance in conversation. 

Conversation is a critical identifying feature for the Culturalist / Intellectualists.  References to theory or critical theory is a definitive characteristic.  References to post-modern anything is a definitive characteristic of the immature Culturalist / Intellectualist. 

Immature Culturalists / Intellectualists can be identified by desperately trying to be misunderstood.  This engagement in the pursuit of understanding is typical of the immature plumage or the serious status striving Culturalist / Intellectualist. 

Members of this group are found in book stores, coffee shops, live theater performances, art galleries, lectures, or watching films (not to be confused with movies).  A key feature of any event is conversation about the event and even conversation about the conversation of the event.  Coffee houses, especially those that encourage conversation or have weekly poetry readings, would close without Culturalists / Intellectualists.  There is a natural enmity between modernists and post-modernists and their ranges rarely overlap.


Identifying features
Socialists can be identified by their name dropping behavior.  They will constantly mention other people, especially people of perceived importance, in a familiar way.  Further confirmation of this identification will be found when they greet you, shake your hand, and use your name in conversation.  If the Socialist deems you to be important or to have resources the conversation will move forward.  If you are deemed unworthy by the Socialist they will move on to another conversation.  While well dressed, the Socialist’s fashion will be traditional and conservative such that no one will be offended by their style.  Consequently members of this group will appear bland but will perhaps accessorize with a single piece of flair, like a brightly colored tie or a scarf. 

Young and immature members of the socialist type can be found in youth organizations in which there are opportunities to interact with high prestige men and women.  These are typically organization with “Junior” in the name.

Opportunities to engage in conversation in order to build relationships are necessary features of the natural habitat for Socialists. Members of this group can be found in any group setting in which there is an opportunity to meet and greet people, especially people with access to power and resources. 

Humor mode off;

This was written as I was preparing material on “What type of middle class are you”.  
 “Desperately trying to be misunderstood” was used as a phrase by Prof. Kevin Bollinger who embraces anti-fashion and intellectual rigor.

Keywords: social class humor types middle class positional goods

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Darwinian College, the free market natural law college experience

(Please do not confuse this fictional Darwinian College with the real Charles Darwin University, or the real Darwin College.) 

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Imagine the idea of college as we conceive of it in the US.  We have restricted access and strive for high graduation rates.  What if we had open access and restricted graduation?  What if we based college graduation on free market economics?  What if we based college graduation on pure capitalism?  This is about the private university system, in good capitalist fashion, and not about the socialist state supported public university system.  So what kind of university would emerge?

Darwinian College. 
Many will enter, few will graduate.
No admission requirements. 
$200,000 tuition and fees in cash up front.
If you are among the 20% who we let graduate, you get your money back.

Each semester administrators and faculty will intentionally cut the number of students so that no more than 20% of the students enrolled would graduate in four years.  Points toward graduation will be given for classes and for everything else.  Students must participate in intramural activities (sports and non-sports), must participate in student organizations, must do service activities, and must take on campus work and leadership roles.  Everyone is rated on all out-of-class and all in-class activities.  Summer experiences are required. 

Businesses don’t want to promote or even retain all employees.  The military only selects the best and most accomplished for advanced training and specialty services, and not everyone makes the cut. 

Darwinian College is a free market example of capitalism, using the natural law of selection and survival.  

Why shouldn’t college be selective like that?  Why is a high graduation rate a good thing?  Doesn’t a high graduation rate mean that the course work is easy and that anyone can pass the courses?

Imagine the prestige of being one of only 20% to graduate.  Apply now.

keywords: retention graduation college humor survival free market natural law selectivity humor social class

"See things differently and you will see different things"

January 2016 note: I am not endorsing this idea of a competition on campus.  This college idea is the natural extension of many business practices.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflections on the Perception of Privilege

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

While I do not believe in the importance of coincidence, I sometimes notice similar things happening in a close time period.  I know that this is mostly a matter of selective attention on my part, but it is a delight nevertheless to notice coincidences.

The first incidence: I was conducting a staff development workshop on student learning and social class at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater for the student affairs staff and I introduced myself by saying:  “Hi, I am Will Barratt.  I am an old white guy, and I am the child of privilege.”  I thought it was only fair to contextualize myself within social class since I was talking about social class.  After I was done with my presentation people came up to the front with questions and comments as usual, but one comment stood out for me.  “You said you were privileged and then you didn’t apologize for it.  You made us deal with it.”  I had not intended to challenge people in that way and it was nice to know that was how my introduction was perceived.

The second incidence: In my research team meeting a week after my work at UW-Whitewater one of the team members noted that he had a comment made to him after a mock interview in the job search process.  After his mock interview he was given two comments in particular "Don't say 'Child of Privilege" "Admitted privilege--deliberately put himself in the position of outsider."  The research team members had spent a year talking about social class so the comment that he was privileged was for him a statement of fact.  Apparently such a statement makes other people nervous. 

The third incidence: I am re-reading Vance Packard’s 1959 classic on social class The Status Seekers

Sociologist August B. Hollingshead of Yale University found that psychiatrists—supposedly uninhibited, open-minded individuals—“tend to react with embarrassment when the question of social class is raised.”  One responded to a direct question about the social classes in his town of New Haven, Connecticut, by saying, “I don’t like to think too much about this. (p. 6)

Is it more socially acceptable to be first generation on campus than to be the child of privilege?  Is there perceived virtue in humble beginnings?  Are people being judged for the social class standing of their parents?  Are some of those judgments negative if you were the child of privilege?

I was an Ivy League professor’s kid.  I didn‘t grow up wealthy, but I had a lot of experiences and met a lot of famous and talented people.  I was an Eagle Scout and went to Philmont ranch, to Schiff, and to the National Jamboree.  I had access to computers in high school in 1966.  I had a great college and graduate education with little debt.  I had strong family support.  Even when I was of an age to be held accountable for my own life I still had privilege to draw on; when I was working on my dissertation I could call my sister, or my father, or my wife for advice since they all had a Ph.D.

Being the child of privilege enabled me to experience social class contrast and that has enabled me to see social class in certain ways.  First generation students experience social class contrast on campus and that enables them to see social class in other ways.  The key to seeing social class was the contrast between how we grew up and the settings in which we find ourselves now. 

Zachary D. Nicolazzo in Men Behaving Badly: Making Connections between Moral Development and Fraternity Men ( uses the phrase bad-dogging to describe how men are sometimes treated when they misbehave.  I have loved this phrase since I first heard it.  Are the children of privilege being bad-dogged just because of the family of origin?  Is it my fault that you have difficulty with my having had more economic, social, and cultural resources as a child and as a college student? 

We should all be held accountable for our lives after a certain point.  I should be held accountable for understanding my privilege, for what it has meant, for what it means, and what it will mean.  I should be able to read Peggy MacIntosh’s White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack ( and understand both whiteness and social class privilege.  Similarly others should be held accountable for understanding their attitudes toward privilege.  Social class conflict is complicated, and we all need to understand the pieces we co-create.  Social class does not exist without our consent.  

keywords: social class privilege prestige rich guilt 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Social Class of Origin Narrative Experience

Will Barratt, Dan Boyle, Jason Bushnell, Melissa Michalek

Instructions to facilitator
We designed this experience for college students and it has been used effectively also with graduate students and non-college adults.  Students in a remedial college course experienced difficulty telling their own stories and hearing how they might have been different from other students' stories.  As with all participants gentle patience was effective in making this a positive experience for those challenged by it.

We recommend that if you are facilitating this with little experience in discussing social class that you read our examples.  However, for the experienced multicultural/social class professional, you may wish to include your own examples.

Learning goals for this experience include:
- Perceiving social class differences
- Awareness of self in contrast to others
- Increased comfort towards social class discussion

The format is designed for groups of four people and groups larger than five are not recommended because of time constraints.  We are intentionally leaving social class undefined because individuals will come to this exercise with their own experiences and lenses that help them define social class in their own way.

To help facilitate each person’s narrative provide the following list of topics for them to discuss.  This experience works best when the participants discuss all the topics.

Topics for display
In a visible spot in the room post the following:
     House and Home
     Recreation and Leisure
     Parental/Guardian Work
     Parental/Guardian Support
     Social Class Bubble
     Current Felt Social Class

Instructions to facilitator

This experience is designed to have each participant tell the story of their social class origin in order to generate conversation about personal social class. Each of you must decide how much self-disclosure you are comfortable with and no one will be pressured to share more than they wish.  However, participants will most likely get out of this experience what they put into it.

Each person should take three minutes to tell your story about as many of these six topics as possible.  These six topics include important parts of our social class narratives.  As you listen to other members of your group speaking please only ask clarifying questions so you don’t disturb the flow of the narrative.

Here are two example stories:

Parental work: “Throughout my childhood my father had a steady job that was able to support my mom and two siblings.  When I started college, my father’s jobs and paychecks became less consistent.  If I compare my family’s financial stability from when I was growing up to when I was in college there is a significant difference.  For instance, we would go on multiple vacations and gifts were plentiful on holidays before I started college.  Once I was in college family vacations were few and far between and gifts were on a tight budget.”  Melissa

Social Class Bubble:  “The undergraduate university I attended was literally a safe ‘bubble’ within a city filled with crime, violence, and poverty. Many students’ parents simply paid the obligatory $47,000 a year, gave the student a nice vehicle to drive, and told them to stay on campus and away from the city. Other students did take the chance to volunteer off campus, but I think that only highlighted the social class difference between the university and the surrounding community.” Jason

Now it is your turn to share your social class story focusing on each of the six topics.

I will let you know when three minutes are up so the next person can take a turn.

Instructions to facilitator
Small group reflection questions 

Once each participant’s narratives have been spoken there is a series of questions to stimulate reflection.

Reflection will happen in two stages; first in small groups then in the larger group.

Read the reflection questions below and allow time for each group member to answer each question.  After all of the questions have been asked and answered the discussion should move to the larger group.
Participants stay in their small groups.

After each person has answered the first question proceed to the second question, then to the third. Make sure that you allow for no more than two to three minutes for each question to be answered.  The short time is designed to create a desire for more conversation that will occur out of class or after this experience.

The first and second questions are about recognizing the emotional nature of our identities and our emotional responses to others’ stories.

The third question is designed to elicit responses that explore social class awareness and reflections on social class contrast as well as the variety of ways in which people can be in the same social class.


Each person should answer each of the three question truthfully and fully.  I will read them one at a time and give you each time to answer it, then I will read the second question.  Once each of you has  answered the three questions we will have each group report out what they discovered.

(Facilitator, read one question at a time and leave 3 minutes for small group discussion)

How did you feel when you told your story?

How did you feel when you were listening to other people’s stories?

What stood out for you in others’ stories that were different from your story?

Instructions to facilitator
Large group reflection questions

Participants should move their chairs so that they can participate in a large group discussion.  After all the groups have reported out on the first question proceed to the second question, then to the third.  Make sure that you allow for no more than two to three minutes for each question to be answered.  This is intended to ensure that they leave wanting more discussion and are more likely to continue the conversation after.


(Facilitator, read one question at a time and leave 3 minutes for small group discussion)

Someone from each group should report how your group answered each question.

What were the feelings in your group as you told your stories?

What was it like in your group listening to other people’s stories?

What were the things that stood out in your group as you heard other people’s stories?

Summary and Closing 
Remember that this experience is designed to move quickly and leave questions unanswered so that students will continue to engage issues of social class in their life and in the lives of those around them.  You many wish to close the experience by suggesting that they continue to reflect on social class in their life and continue to discuss social class.

Credits (edited 1/2017)
Will Barratt, Roi Et Rajabhat University
Dan Boyle, University of Toledo
Jason Bushnel, Baylor University
Melissa Michalek Magnusson, Central Washington University

keywords: experience exercise social class RA class personal student affairs college campus