What's Your Social Status? Depends Who You Ask
The complexity of status striving in our society
Posted Feb 24, 2012
It is not inevitable that a society will lack agreement about the status of its members. I studied status perceptions in a small community of Amazonian Shuar hunter-horticulturalists (1, 2), for instance, and when I asked them to rank 25 community members in terms of who received the most respect, they were essentially of one mind in the rankings they produced (Cronbach's alpha, a statistic used to measure agreement of this kind, was a remarkably high .97 out of 1.0). But modern industrialized societies are relatively enormous in size and complexity, and so it is not surprising that they tend to contain a relatively great diversity of status communities. This diversity can lead to political conflict (for example, anger at bankers has helped fuel the various "occupy" demonstrations of 2011-12), but could it also produce social benefits? And why do these different definitions of "high status" emerge in the first place?
These scenes are interesting because they document a radical recalibration in Jimmy's perceptions of status competition, and of his own status, in his social universe. In his life as a mod, he had at one time been fairly well-respected, but that all changed after he lost his home, job, girlfriend, friends, and scooter. He'd become an outcast in that world now, and for good evolutionary reasons he feels terrible about it. But then he feels saved by the realization that the hierarchy of the mods was really just an illusion anyway. The skills that make you high status in the mod community (such as the ability to fight, dance, or look cool on a scooter) aren't particularly conducive to professional success in mainstream society. When Jimmy realizes that the king of the mods gets no respect from the real world, it's like he is waking up from a nightmare; it doesn't matter anymore if Jimmy is low status among the mods, because the mods are low status to the larger society. Instead of killing himself to end the humiliation of losing so much status, he trashes the social system that took that status away from him.
(A version of this article will appear as the author's "Natural Law" column in the banking magazine Global Custodian).
1. Price, M. E. (2003). Pro-community altruism and social status in a Shuar village. Human Nature 14: 191-208.
2. Price, M. E. (2006). Monitoring, reputation and "greenbeard" reciprocity in a Shuar work team. Journal of Organizational Behavior 27: 201-219.
Copyright Michael E. Price 2012. All rights reserved.