Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflected social status and social class

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Indiana State University

Our social status comes from quite a variety of sources.  Some of our social status comes from our own accomplishments, some from our parents, and some from reflected social status of our purchases and affiliations.  Positional goods, prestige fashion, are one example of reflected social status.  If you wear or carry a high fashion high prestige high status accessory then the status and prestige of the object transfers to you.  Women’s fashion purses are an example of positional goods.  The large corporate logo, the identifiable pattern of the cloth, and the repeated logo are all designed to enhance the reflected social status of the owner. 

It has been argued that large logos, obviously labeled fashion, are the sigil of an insecure middle class and subtly labeled fashions are the sigil of a more secure upper middle class – smaller labels occur as you move upscale in fashion.  The status secure require no labels.

But, what about other reflected social status?  In some ways sports team affiliation and the emphasis on a team’s win-loss records is one way to achieve reflected status.  “Everybody loves a winner!”  This leads to all manner of accounting behavior – excuses – when the team is losing.  Interestingly the social status of a particular college is a reflection of the status of their sports teams.  Drawing a parallel between winning at football and preparing a student for Pre-Law is a stretch, but many people manage to make that illogical and data free jump. 

College affiliation, often marked by the class ring sigil, the t-shirt sigil, or rear window decal sigil, is another way to attain reflected social status.  Somehow a child’s academic affiliation becomes part of the reflected social status of the entire family.  “Well, our daughter is Pre-Law at Darwinian College you know.” Both the child’s major and the university are sources of reflected social status for parents. 

College reputation is critical for faculty and administrators.  The kind of work people do is central to social status - there is a large literature on occupational prestige.  Looking closely where people work is a critical part of social status.  Working at a high prestige campus has higher social status than working at a lower prestige campus.  Most campus public affairs offices publicize the campus as excelling in some area so that the rest of campus can bask in reflected glory.  Key phrases describing a campus enter into common language.  For example this was brought to my attention by a colleague:  "We are a world class campus." My question would be why faculty and administrators feel a need to affirm and create a specific kind of status.  Is the status created so that the faculty and administrator can accept the reflected high prestige.  Do faculty and administrators on low prestige campuses soft pedal their institutional affiliation in order to avoid reflected low prestige?

Positional goods can be purchased, sports team affiliation can change, and accounting behavior employed to explain the losing season.  “Well, it was a building year.”  And yet, reflected social status is a stronger source of social class attributed identity than are individual accomplishments.  For one thing, it is easier to see reflected social status through the sigils on display.  It is far harder to see accomplishments.  

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