July 04, 2011

Class, Status and Culture

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

How can you tell how financially well-off someone is? Do you look at their clothing and scan for certain labels? Is that why designer labels/emblems are outside garments and other products?

How about their shoes? Do those give you some indication? Do you try to see what kind of car they drive to make a judgment? Or perhaps you examine their fingernails to see whether they are well manicured or their feet to check for pedicure status?

Does the fact that someone carries a 24 carat gold e-reader signal their arrival at the summit of the socioeconomic heap, or does their home have to include the $6,400 Kohler Numi toilet which features a heated, motion-activated seat and built in speakers for playing its radio or an MP3 player? And if a woman is carrying a Birkin bag does that cement her status as among the glitterati? (For tips on how you can own one of these bags which start at around $8,000, and for a peek at how Samantha, of Sex and the City snagged a Birkin be sure to look at the following video.)

clip_image002clip_image004We display status symbols to telegraph information about our status to others. And we read those symbols to make a determination about others. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about the status symbols that we use to connote wealth—or any other status—and without the relevant context, these status symbols are lost on us.

For example, what does a six-foot concrete bird or airplane statue perched on a roof mean to you? Here, in the U.S., they probably mean nothing, and might make us ask “What’s up with that?”However, in Punjab, India these statues connote wealth.

What about owning a dog? Lots of people have dogs as pets in the U.S. But in China, where costs associated with registering and owning a dog have been prohibitive, owning a dog has become a symbol of wealth. Dogs, particularly Tibetan mastiffs which are considered holy, are the must-have status symbol in China and may cost about half a million dollars there; one puppy sold for $1.5 million to a Chinese multimillionaire. People extend their purchase of status symbols to their pets as well, buying diamond encrusted collars, designer clothing and matching jewelry for themselves and their pets: At one website I visited, items included a gold plated silver collarette with stones on sale for £2,200 (about U.S. $3,600) and Louis Vuitton dog carriers range from $1,920 to $2,490.

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Like other symbols, status symbols derive meaning from their cultural context. You’ve probably seen an uncomfortable-looking man holding a woman’s purse. In the U.S. it is a reasonable assumption that such a man is granting a favor to a woman. However, in China, men and women don expensive designer purses. Lest you think this a fringe element, 45 percent of the high-end purse market in China is male. What experiences have you had with status symbols differing in meaning based on their cultural context?

clip_image006There is sometimes a transformation in the meaning of a status symbol. I remember seeing High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or Humvees, on TV in coverage of the Gulf War, so I associated them with war. The symbolic meaning of these vehicles was transformed when they became symbolic of wealth with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s purchase of a customized version–making him the first civilian to own one in 1991. Schwarzenegger encouraged its manufacturer to produce the vehicles for the public, and Hummers became a symbolic of wealth and muscle—and for many detractors, gas guzzling vehicles belonging to wealthy people willing to ruin the environment.

clip_image008Bear in mind that status symbols tell us various types of statuses, not only that one is wealthy. For example, an engagement ring announces that a woman plans to marry. The kind of engagement ring may hold clues to her and/or her fiancés wealth. Also, a status may be negative. Frustrated with her 15 year-old son’s poor grades and his disregard for his school work, one mother had the youth stand at a busy Tampa intersection with the following message written on poster board and hung around his neck:

I did 4 questions on my FCAT and said I wasn't going to do it … GPA 1.22 … honk if I need education.

(The FCAT is Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test. See a picture of James Mood III and read more about his story here.) What status did the sign convey? How about when judges sentence offenders to hold/wear signs of their crimes? Two women who found and then used gift cards at a Wal-Mart store were sentenced to hold signs with the following message:

I stole from a 9 year- old on her birthday! Don’t steal or this could happen to you!

Similarly, one judge ordered a sex offender to display his status as such with a sign on his car and notices around his home.

Status symbols connote distance: distance between me and the person who can afford a Birkin bag and knows what one is; and also distance between law abiding citizens and those who transgress and must indicate this by hanging signs of their activity. Status symbols serve to demarcate boundaries, and the meanings of those boundaries are rooted in cultural contexts.


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Why should we look at the superficial. I say we should not judge and lood at what's inside. Considering that is what counts.

Status symbol only works with the people who play the game inside their cast... no? That's why they are so many subcultures. I didn’t even know the brands that you mention... I abhor brands I even pay more not to have them on what I wear... I think it is an old model that will tend to disappear... I hope so! it’s soooo superficial!

I think these days we pay to much attention to others status. We need to stop judging how wealthy or poor others are and judge only on personality.

I don't think that people should be judged by their social status either. Just because someone cannot afford a highly expensive purse or ring doesn't mean they are bad people or something. People should be judged by their personality and not what they wear or can afford. Also I think that status symbols are effective in stopping people from committing crimes. I think if the person has truly stopped and are truly sorry for what they did they shouldn't have to have a status symbol like a sign saying what they did. Forcing people to use status symbols will for sure help them realize that they should not have done whatever bad thing they did though.

Also, it is a class symbol to even be able to notice the different brands. For the average middle class person, you'd think that buying a Coach purse at Macy's is rich, but really rich people go for much bigger ticketed accessories to show true wealth.

I also think that these class symbols are why many Americans today are having economic troubles. They reach beyond their means to seem like they are part of a high class.

The last paragraph of this blog post was very meaningful and was a very good conclusion for what you were trying to say. In my opinion, there is no way of being able to tell who how financially well off someone is, not by status, not by their accessories, not by the way they comport themselves and not by their clothing. There are many people who can be extremely wealthy yet do not like to flaunt it. On the other hand, there are the people who are not necessarily well off but like to give the impression that they are by spending the limited money tat they do earn on things they do not need to make them seem wealthier. For those reasons, I do not even think it can be a question whether or not you can tell how financially well off someone is.

I also really liked the last paragraph of your entry, it really speaks to me about how your viewed in society doesn't make you any better than anyone else. It's crazy how much has changed that women use to be at the bottom of the totem pole of status in society and now women hold some of the most high up jobs in society.

I cannot tell just by looking at the person from head to toe his financial status. There are many people out there who would dress up so elegantly but then they are so poor! On one hand, those who are really rich would hide from simple clothes and outfits.

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