The Dukes of the Statusphere

Is there such thing as the democratization of snobbery?

The very excellent Misty Harris (follow her on Twitter, she’s great) has a piece today about a new trendwatching report that purports to be a look at the changing nature of status markers. Apparently status-seekers are moving away from the standard  forms of conspicuous consumption (car, house, jewelry, clothes, electronics, etc.), into a new “statusphere” that “includes everything from a person’s eco- credentials to their number of Facebook friends and knowledge of local restaurants. Think of it as the democratization of snobbery.”

Well I don’t know about that. If there’s one idea that can be refuted from your armchair, it’s the idea that status can become democratic. But what is true is that there has been a shift, though it isn’t entirely new. In fact, it is just the shift chronicled in chapter 4 of the Authenticity Hoax, where people now seek status through various forms of conspicuous authenticity.

The best quote in Misty’s piece is from professor June Cotte, who says: “There’s some indication that the wealthy feel guilty about having so much, and that in the face of massive unemployment, they shouldn’t be showing off the biggest diamonds or newest Mercedes.”

That’s true. But it hardly means that the the wealthy have stopped exploiting their privilege. At least everyone”s money is the same colour, even if some have a lot more of it than others. But when status becomes less about what you have, more about who you know, that’s when it becomes truly pernicious. As marginalized groups have known for centuries, the first thing the elites do to preserve their status is cut off the mechanism for being able to simply buy your way in. That’s what has always motivated race-based bans for private clubs, or racial or religious quotas at universities.

And so the trendwatchers Misty is quoting get it exactly wrong. If anything, the turn away from conspicuous consumption has made status-seeking less democratic, not more.

(crossposted)




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The Dukes of the Statusphere

  1. I agree with pretty much everything in this post except the idea that "the number of Facebook friends" could be a marker of authenticity. If anything, an above average number is a HUGE mark of phoniness (or at least career-related networking and not actual human connection). I mean, any old 17th rate attention whore can have millions of Fbook so-called 'friends." Heh, I now expect the authenticity-seeking race to begin for fewest number of "true" Facebook friends to begin– begin the de-friending, reallies! (I think "reallies" should now become my copyrighted property btw ;^) )

    • And I expect royalties if Fbook starts some kind of crazy tiered friend system, where your besties are noted above other mere acquaintances. I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this but can Fbook implement it without causing MASS bitchiness in the populous?

      • I think that's what MySpance used to do. Bluh.

  2. This is interesting, and seems correct, but I think it would be far more interesting if Potter addressed the same phenomenon occurring in the ideological sphere. There are certain ideologies to which adherence is regarded as a status symbol. Being into environmentalism, for example, is generally equated with some kind of virtue. Likewise vegetarianism. Atheism is a status symbol for those who wish to be viewed as independent thinkers. Outspoken support for gay marriage automatically marks one as a tolerant, compassionate soul. And so on.

    The rebel sell and the authenticity hoax occur in matters of the mind to to at least the same degree as they do in styles of dress.

    • It all depends on who your friends are. Are you: 1st-year uni student? Enviro/vego/locovore/atheist is for the cool kids. Are you: part of your local hunting and fishing club/born-again Bible study group? Anti-gun registry, anti-sex ed and anti-gay marriage is likely to get you more positive feedback at the local watering hole. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, and Potter mostly focuses on the marketing efforts (whether from Whole Foods or from Sarah Palin) to get you to buy your pre-diesposed version of it. And don't tell me that some Palin-loving tea-partier thinks they aren't less virtuous than some vegan save-the-whaler. They BOTH they represent the more "real" among the populous.

      • Very good points. I was thinking Gaunilon-centrically.

      • I'm a big lefty environmentalist in many ways, but the frigging foodie/locovore thing drives me crazy. If you want to impress me with food tell me how much you donated to the food bank, not the artisan bread you made last night from the flour you hand-ground from your neighbour's dandelions.

        Gaunilon does raise a good point though. I am so tired of politicians and political people claiming to represent "real Canadians." Canadians are diverse and there's no such thing as a "real Canadian" or "average Canadian."

    • Atheism as a status symbol? Please.

    • You non-conformists are all the same. . . .

      • I'd say "Try the veal", but my vegan facebook friends would drop me like a locally sourced, organic, solar-oven-cooked hot potato.

  3. Andrew – I think you are wrong when you say that status cannot become democratic. Isn't status, by definition, an implicitly democratic process? The street peddler tips his hat to the "guvnor" because he chooses to recognize the gleaming top hat as an indicator of status. The ink-stained journalist listens intently to the blow-hard published author because he chooses to recognize book sales as an indicator of status. The hallmark's of status are chosen by the masses (or at least the indicators proposed by the elites are ratified or endorsed by the masses who agree to recognize them).

    • That theory only holds water if the respect given is viewed as merited. It is far more likely that the street peddler is after a tip. Economic forces are leading to a show of respect but it would be rare for the shoe shine boy to really be pleased with this arrangement. The Barcelona of late 1936, as described by Orwell in the opening pages of Homage to Catalonia, was a society where status could be considered democratized; tipping was banned and the language of social status seemed to disappear for a time.

      This topic raises a number of questions. There have always been status symbols not directly related to wealth. I wonder if the importance of those signifiers has, one, really grown more recently, and, two, whether or not the ability of outsiders to attain them is less limited now or more. It is clear that the status self imposed poverty provides is intrinsically linked to rejecting one's parents wealth, or pretending to depending on who is paying the rent for that Williamsburg apartment, as opposed to working class individuals who reject the opportunity to attain wealth.

      • Fair enough, but think of all the interactions you witness everyday where status is being recognized. How many of those involve the hope of a monetary reward? Very few. (like the jounrno/writer example above)

    • "The ink-stained journalist listens intently to the blow-hard published author because he chooses to recognize book sales as an indicator of status." John Grisham comes to mind. Whenever he is challenged on the merits of his writing, he points to his bank account and book sale numbers and shrugs, saying that is the only opinion that matters.

      However, an author can have a recognized status without necessarily being well read by the masses. Many literary prize winners come to mind. They may have status without huge readerships, largely due to the awards they receive. So sometimes the status is democratic and sometimes it can be elite-driven.

  4. Potter I just visited my library and tried to get Authenticity Hoax. I am in Guelph, our library system has five copies and they are all out. I had to put a hold on a copy, so you book is popular in Guelph at least. I am looking forward to reading it, I am interested in all this talk about finding authentic self.

    "That's true. But it hardly means that the the wealthy have stopped exploiting their privilege."

    I have been thinking about this for a few years after reading something Jane Galt wrote about privilege in America. It is interesting that a lot of status symbols are more democratic now and more people can afford things – lease a Mercedes if you can't afford to buy one, installment plan for diamonds, easy qualification for mortgage means people are buying bigger/larger homes than previously …. etc.

    But who you know, who you family knows and connections with people from college are not so democratic. So we are now getting a lot of people who have all the advantages of life – parents with money, family connections – but they are convinced they have had to struggle to achieve success like everyone else. They believe this because everyone can have a Mercedes now if you work hard enough.

  5. "On Monday, President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to succeed John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. Kagan's resume is incredibly thin. She was named dean of an Ivy League law school after only four years on its faculty. Kagan has never been a judge, and she had never argued a case in court prior to being named Solicitor General in 2009. But Kagan has one qualification that trumps nearly everything else: she's an alumna of Harvard, and formerly a faculty member there.

    If it sometimes seems that the nation is governed by an elite liberal clique of college fraternity and sorority pals who are out of touch with average Americans, that's because it's largely true."

    Potter or anyone else Have you been following this story?

    I have seen a few stories like this in the past few days from both right and left. Not everyone is happy that someone with little experience but who knows the right people has been nominated for Supreme Court. Republican base made Bush change his Harriet Miers pick because she was lightweight, will liberals/progressives do the same now?

  6. Related to the status issue, it seems like everything has to become a culture these days. You can't just listen to punk music, you have to be a punk. You can't just ride a bike, you have to be a part of a bike culture – you have to either dress like a douche and ride a singlespeed, or wear racing spandex all the time and ride a road bike. You can't even be someone who 'likes good food,' you have to be a gd foodie.

    • Most people ride single speeds because nobody steals them. can't speak to the dress/style correlation.

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