The Class Project 6: The Status Civilization


Human beings are apes.  We’re social animals, prone to creating hierarchies.  We do this a lot, and we have several ways of looking at it.  We have formal and informal structures and terminologies; we talk about rank, pecking order, social position, alpha males, dominant and submissive, corporate pyramids, and on and on.  There seems to be a desire to keep it all simple, to reduce everything to, “I’m at THIS LEVEL, and she’s above me, and he’s below me, and I want to move up.”

Except that it isn’t really simple at all.  We don’t each have a single level.  Even in formal hierarchic structures like the military, there may be complications.  My father was a TSgt in the U.S. Army during World War II — that’s “Technical Sergeant,” and I suspect that would be some sort of Specialist in modern terminology — which theoretically meant that he had to obey the orders of any commissioned officer in the chain of command, except where those orders conflicted with other orders.  In practice, it didn’t work that way, and more than once he found himself giving orders to a full colonel and expecting them to be obeyed, with the full weight of Army regulations saying they had to be obeyed.  Humans specialize, and that conflicts with simple hierarchies.  In a life-or-death situation, a doctor gives orders; in cosmetic surgery, the patient does.

But we still want to know where we rank in our hierarchies.  We want to define our status.

There are lots of ways to measure status:  money, education, birth, occupation, manners, formal rank, popularity, accomplishments, awards, accolades, appearance.  In relatively primitive societies these tend to bunch up — the right birth gives you rank and access to education, bestows wealth, keeps you well fed so that your appearance isn’t marred by malnutrition or disease, gives you the time and training to learn formal manners, etc.  In modern society this is less true — not gone, certainly, but less definite.

This is the change that led some folks to proclaim the U.S. a classless society — we no longer had all these status markers concentrated in one small group at the top of a social pyramid.  Instead they’re strewn about all over the place.  It’s very confusing.

Some people, when considering the issue of class, simply choose one scale of status markers and use that to define class — wealth and birth are the most common ones, I’d guess, though occupation and education are in there.

I don’t think that works.  Remember, I’ve said before that I think class is defined more by attitudes than anything else, and those attitudes are influenced by all these factors, but not determined entirely by any of them.

The attitudes themselves don’t work well as status markers because they’re not immediately obvious enough, by the way, but I think they do influence how people respond to you and perceive your status.

And how do the members of various classes look at the various status indicators?  Well, that’s where this series of essays bogged down when I first wrote it, six or seven years ago, but let’s take a look.

For the lower class, it seems to me that the major status markers are clothes, style, and success with the opposite sex.   If a man’s got it goin’ on, got the threads and the looks and the ladies, then he’s a success, even if he can’t hold a job or pay his rent.  Being seen as dangerous, as someone people don’t mess with, is also a plus.

For the working class, I’m not sure.  For some people it seems to be a matter of character, of playing by the rules — if you’re seen as a solid citizen, a good spouse, a good parent, a good worker, someone who does his duty, then you’re respected and recognized as having high status, but is that it?

For the middle class, it’s money.  Money is how you keep score, and you show how well you’re doing by buying expensive stuff.  You buy the biggest house you can, in the best neighborhood you can, to show how well you’re doing, how you’re climbing up the status ladder.

For the professional class, it’s education and peer recognition of professional success — which is often reflected in money, but not always.  For the professoriate, publications are as important as pay.  Degrees count — if you have a doctorate, you’re higher status than someone with a mere master’s.  For a lawyer, the prestige of your firm is a marker, and you can collect status points by handling high-profile cases.  Addressing the Supreme Court bestows more status upon you than a mere raise in pay.  Awards and honors, speaking engagements — these are all ways to count coup.

And for the upper class — well, you get to choose.  You’re already in the top bracket, just by being who you are, and you can decide how you want to compete — or if you want to compete.   Some people do it with family connections, some by going into politics or philanthropy, etc.

Me, I decided to write.

7 thoughts on “The Class Project 6: The Status Civilization

  1. Except that, even in the upper class, there are distinctions with the “old money” families looking down on the “new money” families. This despite the fact that nouveau riche types tend to be richer in general.

    Class distinctions tend to be pretty slippery, especially if you bring in racial and ethnic differences. Class has a way of changing depending on changes in circumstances.

  2. But I don’t consider nouveau riche to be upper class. They’re middle-class people who have lots of money, they aren’t upper class.

  3. “But I don’t consider nouveau riche to be upper class.”
    Which is rather an “old money” attitude. 😉

    Seriously, though, there is a difference between “nouveau riche” as “rich middle class,” which is exactly what you mean (and can be considered an insult), and someone who is literally “newly rich” and is simply being snubbed by certain powerful social circles that exist in the upper class regardless of their own attitudes and actions.

  4. Yeah, it probably is an old-money attitude.

    And yeah, not all new-money folks are nouveau riche, and some are indeed snubbed by the snottier old-money folks. I suspect it’s partly because a lot of new-money families are nouveau riche, so the old-money families are wary and need convincing.

    Class distinctions are slippery; I wrote these pieces partly just to work out my own thoughts on the subject.

  5. A better book on class than the snarky professor one (which ends up with his “classless” sexually immoral and don’t remember to bath academics as transcending the system) is Ruby Payne’s A framework for understanding poverty. At least if you have read the snarkfest book first.

    Useful, among other things, for understanding why micro-loans work, why micro-grants are a disaster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *