Sunday, September 03, 2017

Is your suitcase a status symbol? The preformance of social class.

Will Barratt
Professor, Roi Et Rajabhat University

I fly around every few months so I see a lot of airports and people in airports.  (Mostly I fly using other people's money - OPM - as an invited speaker.)  Twice a year I fly from Asia to the USA and other times I fly around South East Asia, where I live.  I always book plenty of time between flights for connections, based on experience, so I have a lot of time to watch the flow of people.

I like luggage and I like airports in different places.  There are different social norms for luggage in different world regions.  There are, as always, different sets of social class performance norms.  Luggage is always the performance of social class. 

Class and contra-class.

The obvious analysis is that designer brand luggage, obviously labeled fashion, is part of the performance of the upper classes, at least the upper half of the general population, but the traveling public is hardly a random group.  Even in mid-range luggage, name brands like American Tourister, and Samsonite have obvious class meaning.  Most air travelers have luggage from non-prestige brands or regional brands.  Some travelers use cardboard boxes and duffle/gym bags. 

Do people purchase luggage by price range and perceived brand prestige?  Yes, and no.  The obvious display of social class comes from expensive designer luggage, brand names imported from other fashion accessories, with brand logos as the pattern on the bag.  Secondary, and more prestige, is luggage from a high prestige luggage brand like Tumi or Briggs and Riley, with a small and discrete label.  Trusted brands, like American Tourister and Samsonite, come in second place in perceived prestige.

Class conscious and contra-class travelers will use luggage as part of their performance of social class within the framework of a hierarchy of prestige in order to manage attributed social class by using non-name or not well known brands.  The bag reflects their attitude about social class.  While this requires a minimal awareness of social class performance through public possessions like luggage, the media environment constantly makes this point obvious, especially in airports and in in-flight magazines and shopping.  Class conscious and contra-class travelers will use luggage at odds with their current felt social class.  This can be expressed as up or down prestige luggage, for example the traveler with a modest income traveling with an obviously expensive bag. 

Class conscious and contra-class travelers do not wish to be class identified, hiding among mainstream travelers.  The public display of wealth, social status, and prestige is not part of their personal identity.  Considering expensive travel fashion as a "rob me" poster these individuals seek to be class invisible using luggage purchased for usability and personal preference. 

tl;dr - You are judged by your luggage.  By everyone including yourself.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Rules of the Social Class Con Game

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University Graduate School

First, the simple, and consequently inadequate, provocative idea: Social class is a con game being run on us.

We have confidence in our beliefs about income, occupation, and prestige, and our beliefs make social class real for us.  We have social systems that reinforce this confidence. We blame others for this con, for creating social class inequities:  Advertisers, marketers, the media, educators, politicians, consumerists, men, women, corporations, white people, bad people.  We disparage negative social class attitudes as classism. 

Other people create this problem, not me.  Social class is not my fault.  "In every game and con there is always an opponent, and there is always a victim.  The trick is to know when you're the later, so you can become the former."  "The more control the victim thinks he or she has, the less control he or she actually has." (Guy Richie, spoken by Jake Green in the movie Revolver).

Most of us see social class as real and external.  Social class has a set of rules.  People in the higher social classes are seen as somehow better than people in the lower social classes. Secretly we believe people in other social classes are somehow not better.

Keeping up, being competitive, getting ahead, winning prizes, winning recognition, these are the markers for winning the game, for being social class successful.

Second, the not so simple complexity that adds more adequacy to this idea of a con game. Social class is a co-constructed idea in which we all participate differently.

Who is behind this confidence game? Who is to  blame for this inequality, for this hierarchy of prestige? I am and you are.

Complexity world views note that many systems are self constructed - this social class conspiracy is created and maintained by Just Grew - this conspiracy, this con just grew as people took advantage of our desires to manage our place in the hierarchy of prestige.
  • Educational institutions suggest that education is the key to moving up in social class.
  • Alcohol companies suggest that their brand of flavored ethanol is the key.  
  • Fashion companies suggest that their fashion brand is key.  
  • Car companies suggest that their car brand is key.
  • Travel companies suggest that a trip is the key.  
  • Coffee houses suggest that their brand is the key. 
Consumption can manage with other people think about you, your status in the co-created hierarchy of social class, at least according to coffee houses, travel, car, fashion, and alcohol companies, and educational institutions.  Magically this new degree, alcohol, fashion, car, travel experience, and coffee will change what others think about you and consequently what you think about your self.  Buy something and feel better about your self.  (And yes, I realized that I just suggested that retail therapy is a bad thing.) Getting people consumed with their own consumption is a rule of the con.

The social class con game is so effective that most people aren't aware that they are in the middle of  a game.   "The bigger the trick and the older the trick, the easier it is to pull, because they think it cant be that old, they think it can't be that big for so many people to have fallen for it"  (Revolver) .  To point out that social class is a con game is an act of civil disobedience, an act of cultural truth that is not welcomed. 

Who wants to know that their branded purse is unworthy.  "Eventually when the opponent is challenged or questioned, it means the victim's investment and thus his intelligence is questioned, no one can accept that. Not even themselves" (Revolver).  Who wants to admit that they have helped co-dreate an unjust system? See also Carl Rogers Proposition 16 - "Any experience which is inconsistent with the organization of the structure of the self may be perceived as a threat, and the more of these perceptions there are, the more rigidly the self structure is organized to maintain itself."  Who wants to realize that their expensive designer purse is just another bag.

It is easy to ego-invest in objects.  Advertisers make sure that you know their brand reflects the real you.  I call bullshit. The difference between most branded products is minimal.  "But I like my new Dell/Asus/Sony/HP."  One of William Gibson's characters, Cayce in Pattern Recognition, has a deep negative psychological reaction to branding - imagine for a moment what that life would be like.  Imagine how out of step she would be in the social class con game.

Game theory applies to "intelligent rational decision makers" and this is most definitely not the case with social class.

People play games differently; people play the social class con game differently.  Take a board game, any board game, and look at the rules.  When we all play by the rules the game goes smoothly.  When we look more complexly then we see that the rules are not so clear.  Monopoly(r),  that beloved board game makes a great example.  1) My grandmother-in-law would play monopoly and buy anything she landed on.  She grew up with no property in the real world and the opportunity to buy property was a treat.  2) Playing Monopoly with a 10 year old Romanian first time player during the Communist era was interesting - he went around the board and got his money for passing Go.  The idea of buying property as a money making scam never occurred to him, for his first game.  He played the game based on his world view developed in a Communist nation.  He got beaten early, learned his lesson, and changed his strategy.

Social class is a co-constructed con game.  Can you stop playing?

Social class is a social construction based on what we each believe about prestige. There is no organized cabal running this con, there is only us participating in it, making money from it, and agreeing that this is all OK.  The social class con game is so effective that most people are conned into helping enforce rules that are not to their advantage.

tl;dr There is no reality behind the idea of social class.  Social class is a con game.

Special thanks to those who created the messages in the movie Revolver.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Social Class as Cultural Imperialism

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

Wikipedia (on 27-11-2016) "Cultural imperialism comprises the cultural aspects of imperialism. Imperialism here refers to the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations, favoring the more powerful civilization. Thus, cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting and imposing a culture, usually that of a politically powerful nation, over a less powerful society; in other words, the cultural hegemony of industrialized or economically influential countries which determine general cultural values and standardize civilizations throughout the world." (bolding added)
Now, use social class to replace the words civilization, nation, society, countries, and civilizations.

One of the underlying principles of the upper classes is that everyone should want to get ahead.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" is an old phrase, and a new movie, about trying to keep ahead, or at least keep even, with others.  If you don't keep up, then you are culturally and social class inferior, and the cultural assumption is that no one wants to be a loser.  Never mind how this idea ignores those with few resources and normalizes those with few resources as losers. 

Culture trickle down is a real thing.  Many fads and fashions begin with the upper classes and trickle down to the lower classes.  The use of visible fashion labels, observable wealth, positional goods, is part of this trend.  Why do we have visible fashion labels?  So that others can read them.  It should also be noted that some fashion trends trickle up, or even trickle across social class subcultures, notably athletic shoes and attire.  In the main, things trickle down.  

Even names trickle down.  In the book Freakonomics the analysis of names showed that baby naming fashion trickles down among European-American social classes.  The baby naming idea has spawned a long discussion in the Freakonomics discussion site.  I note that I have a remarkably 'British' (read white upper middle class) name that was typical of my generation. And I realize that this name has given me unearned privilege because of perceived prestige, or put another way, because of social class cultural imperialism.  People attribute privilege and prestige to me because of my name. When I accept and expect that privilege is when I help co-create and co-evolve the cultural imperialism of the upper social classes.

The mechanism of exporting culture from the upper classes to the rest of the people are advertisements.  Advertisers and the media they own are key players in this propaganda machine.  In a recent listing of the 30 largest media companies in the world Facebook is number 5!  Is it any wonder that a Google search for "Keeping up with the . . . . " fills in "Kardashians" automatically?  Is it any wonder that many web sites don't like AdBlock?  Is it any wonder that Mozilla has a tutorial to manage advertising on Facebook? The idea that if you are not paying for it then you are the product comes to mind.  I love the irony of people paying to advertise a brand name on their shirts, shoes, purses, and laptops.  

In some ways taking control of on-line advertising is an anti-imperialist action.  

The social class cultural imperialism message is that the stuff that rich people have and do is the stuff that you should have and do.  "Don't wear white after Labor Day" is a rule because in the late 19th and early 20th century the wealthy people came back to The City (New York City of course) from their vacation homes on Long Island, or Newport, Rhode Island, or Martha's Vineyard after Labor Day, and the rich people wore white for summertime sailing and summertime sport.  Keeping up with the Vanderbilts became a fashion rule still in force. 

tl;dr - you are being lied to and sold a culture that is not yours.