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A Hierarchy of Hierarchies

October 26th, 2006 · 7 Comments

Crooked Timber‘s Henry Farrell disagrees with the core thesis of the Will Wilkinson article on status competition that I linked the other day. Sure, Henry argues, there may be an ever-growing number of associations, activities, and subcultures within which we measure our status, but these are themselves part of a Great Chain of Being along which each group or activity also has a status. You may be king of the geeks, but you know full well that your meta-status is still low, because the jocks are cooler than the geeks. Or something like that.

Obviously there’s something to this: We all understand that being a bestselling author, a movie star, or CEO of Microsoft is going to be more impressive to people you meet at a bar than, say, making level 70 in World of Warcraft. If your professional and romatic lives are generally failures, your +8 vorpal blade will not, in fact, fill the emptiness within. But I think everyday experience confirms that it’s also emphatically not the case that there is any Great Chain of Being among subcultures. My high school, for instance, was fairly sharply divided into pretty clear cliques with porous but recognizable boundaries. But, contra the 1950s teen movie stereotype, there wasn’t any single ordering of cliques that all of them recognized. Probably the jocks and their hangers on thought it was still 1953, and that they were at the top of the pecking order—the cool kids. But the hippies, the skaters, the computer nerds, the drama kids—they all thought the same thing, ultimately. Just as every faith is the One True Faith to its adherents, every clique is coolest to its members. And people are actually almost shockingly good at narrowing their focus to status within a clique: Recall the famous anecdote about chess prodigy Bobby Fischer bursting into a conversation about politics some fellow players were having and demanding “What does this have to do with chess?” Even when we recognize at some level that our own chosen affiliations and pursuits aren’t the most important or prestigious or lofty in the world, we do a good job of acting as though they are.

I also doubt that whether “the guy at the bar” would be impressed is necessarily the right metric. Even within, say, the world of novelists, while Danielle Steele is doubtless wealthier, sells more books, and is exponentially more likely to be familiar to the Man on the Clapham Omnibus than, say, Benjamin Kunkel, I feel morally certain that Kunkel regards himself as “higher status” because, in the eyes of his own circles, he is.

I suppose I should note that this is potentially a double-edged sword, though. Billionaires presumably don’t gauge their status relative to the great unwashed masses, but rather by comparison with other extraordinarily wealthy folks—perhaps gazing enviously at the handful of multi-billionaires. (A perk of hewing to a fringe ideology, I suppose, is that I’m not in direct status competition with my commie writer friends.) But whether you prefer Will’s more optimistic many-ways-to-succeed account or this rather more disheartening many-ways-to-be-mediocre version, the upshot for policy efforts to make people feel better about their status is proably he same. The former suggests that you don’t need policy intervention, because status isn’t zero-sum and people who aren’t high-status on the economic dimension will find another on which they are. The latter suggests that intervention just isn’t likely to do much good, since if you flatten one dimensions of comparison, others will just become more salient. Folks with equal incomes will compete to be the most stylish or erudite or otherwise badass, because the will-to-status is more deeply ingrained than any of the particular arenas in which we pursue it.

Tags: Sociology



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Caliban // Oct 26, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    I like how Warcraft status is getting to be the archetype of “big fish in a little pond.” :) As a player, I can say it’s a good one.

    To me, the key feature of the discussion is the malleability of the effects of status seeking. People are capable of tuning it out and the negatives we would seek to ameliorate through policy could be ignored. The justification for a minimum level of welfare is that people need food, housing, warmth. Without them, they actually will suffer and die, unless they’re a Breatharian. :)

    But for status seeking, you choose whether or not to accept the negative externality of “superior status pollution.” You say, in not so many words “I have decided to be harmed emotionally by that guy’s good fortune.” You could (and I do) just say “eh, good for him.” It’s not a negative that is inexorably imposed upon you like starvation. How can we establish policy with such un-measurable and imprecise effects?

    Most people resent the success of mean people more than nice people. Should mean rich people receive a higher tax than nice rich people? How can we enact any policy that is entirely dependent on the subjective perspective of other?

  • 2 Caliban // Oct 26, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    I sure rocked out the SAT words index there, with “inexorably,” “ameliorate,” “Warcraft,” and “malleability.”

    -Brian Moore

  • 3 Steve Sailer // Oct 26, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    Men can make up as many status hierarchies as they want, but women don’t have to care. I suspect that being on the Forbes 400 impresses women more than being among the top 400 World of Warcraft whatevers.

  • 4 Christopher M // Oct 27, 2006 at 7:00 am

    Happily, Steve, there are straight women out there impressed by a man’s status on any number of hierarchies. I have no idea if World of Warcraft is one of them, but there are certainly women who’d take a talented rock star, lefty activist, or motorcycle gang leader over anyone on the Forbes 400 in a second. Who knows, maybe there are even women who’d prefer the most ubiquitous purveyor of racialist propaganda on the interblogs!

  • 5 johngalt2112 // Oct 29, 2006 at 6:03 am

    This post was beautifully written, but I have to wonder if the skateboarders and other less cool cliques were really as confident in their status as jocks and other more universally recognized cool kids.

    I think the solution is learning to be happy with yourself for what you do with what you have, rather than how you compare with others. That may be easier said than done.

    But there is an obvious rebuttal to Farrell, and that is that any kind of forced redistribution won’t help people’s sense of self-satisfaction at all so long as they realize their elevated status is due only to force, and not because their own essential characteristics have raised them. Also, every society has hierarchies, so the question is which one is in best service to the good.

  • 6 Christopher M // Oct 29, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    Pretty much everyone with “elevated status” in our society owes that status in significant part to “force” and not just their own “essential qualities.” How many of the high-status elite would long survive in a state of nature?

  • 7 Caliban // Nov 2, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    ” How many of the high-status elite would long survive in a state of nature?”

    The Governor of California would probably do pretty well. :)