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

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