Symbols of Class Status

Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in 1951:

* Co-operative activity based on a differentiation and integration of statuses is a universal characteristic of social life. This kind of harmony requires that the occupant of each status act toward others in a manner which conveys the impression that his conception of himself and of them is the same as their conception of themselves and him.

* Status symbols visibly divide the social world into categories of persons, thereby helping to maintain solidarity within a category and hostility between different categories.4 Status symbols must be distinguished from collective symbols which serve to deny the difference between categories in order that members of all categories may be drawn together in affirmation of a single
moral community.

* Persons in the same social position tend to possess a similar pattern of behaviour. Any item of a person’s behaviour is, therefore, a sign of his social position. a A sign of position can be a status symbol only if it is used with some regularity as a means of ” placing” socially the person who makes it. Any sign which provides reliable evidence of its maker’s position whether or not laymen or sociologists use it for evidence about position-may be called a test of status.

* By definition, then, a status symbol carries categorical significance, that is, it serves to identify the social status of the person who makes it. But it may also carry expressive significance, that is, it may express the point of new, the style of life, and the cultural values of the person who makes it, or may satisfy needs created by the imbalance of activity in his particular social position. For example, in Europe the practice of fighting a duel of honour was for three centuries a symbol of gentlemanly status. The categorical significance of the practice was so well known that the right of taking or giving the kind of offence which led to a duel was rarely extended to the lower classes. The duel also carried an important expressive significance, however; it vividly portrayed the conception that a true man was an object of danger, a being with limited patience who did not allow a love of life to check his devotion to his principles and to his self-respect.

* Status symbols are used because they are better suited to the requirements of communication than are the rights and duties which they signify.

* We tend to be impressed by the over-all character of a person’s manner so that, in fact, we can rarely specify and itemize the particular acts which have impressed us.

* Furthermore the manner prescribed for the members of a class tends to be an expression in miniature of their style of life, of their self-conception, and of the psychological needs generated by their daily activity. In other words, social style carries deep expressive significance. The style and manners of a class are, therefore, psychologically ill-suited to those whose life experiences took place in another class…

* (5) Cultivation Restrictions. In many societies, avocational pursuits involving the cultivation of arts, ” tastes “, sports, and handicrafts have been used as symbols of class status. Prestige is accorded the experts, and expertness is based upon, and requires, concentrated attention over a long period of time. A command of foreign languages, for example, has provided an
effective source of this sort of symbol.

It is a truism to say that anything which proves that a long span of past time has been spent in non-remunerative pursuits is likely to be used as a class symbol. Time-cost is not, however, the only mechanism of restriction which stands in the way of cultivation. Cultivation also requires discipline and perseverance, that is, it requires of a person that he exclude from
the line of his attention all the distractions, deflections, and competing interests which come to plague an intention carried over an extended period of time.

An interesting example of cultivation is found in the quality of ” restraint ” upon which classes in many different societies have placed high value. Here social use is made of the discipline required to set aside and hold in check the insistent stimuli of daily life so that attention may be free to tarry upon distinctions and discriminations which would otherwise be overlooked. In a sense, restraint is a form of negative cultivation, for it involves a studied withdrawal of attention from many areas of experience. An example is seen in Japanese tea ceremonies during the Zen period of Buddhism. In Western society the negative and positive aspects of cultivation are typically combined in what is called sophistication concerning food, drink, clothes, and furnishings.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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