Status and Sociology
Sociologists study the role that social status plays in every aspect of social life. We consider how hierarchies impact opportunities and challenges, often looking critically at how people in positions of power use their status to maintain dominance over others.
Here’s one of sociology’s dirty little secrets: the field is filled with sociologists who wrestle each other for status, often uncritically accepting hierarchies and use the privileges they derive from their institutional affiliations and publications.
You would think that sociologists might refrain from establishing a social pecking order and continually enforcing it. But one thing that I have learned about people is that we are all rife with contradictions (a nice word for hypocrisy).
I typically observe this status game being played out at our discipline’s annual meeting. People wear badges around their necks with their institutional affiliation listed under their names. The first thing a newcomer notes is the eye dart: the glance at the badge to see if the name rings a bell. I confess that I often do it too. Sometimes a well-known sociologist walks by, and you have the excitement of knowing that someone whose book you read is before you in the flesh.
Sociology actually has its own celebrities, celebrities who have no cache outside of a room full of sociologists. They can draw a crowd, and typically they are invited to sit on conference panels rather than submit a paper for presentation pending the approval of a session organizer. Others flock to these sessions to curry their favor, feign interest, try and network, or just to feel like they are in the presence of someone important. (Yes, some are also interested in the session itself too).
Men are the main holders of celebrity status within sociology, despite the fact that there are slightly more women than men in the discipline now. The majority of sociologists—about eighty percent—are white, as are the “stars” for the most part. But unlike the rest of society, age doesn’t minimize status for those who acquired high standing.
Sociologists don’t tend to be stars to non-sociologists, but successful non-sociologists who come to meetings are treated like celebrities. Authors, filmmakers, and journalists invited to sessions often draw standing-room-only crowds. These intellectual stars are to the NPR crowd what the High School Musical cast is to 'tweens (without the screaming, for the most part).
Sociologists also focus on their institution’s rank relative to others. Every graduate program has a rank, and many people choose a graduate program based on how high the school appears on a list (just like undergraduates often do). But it doesn’t end after grad school. Status conscious professors take jobs as stepping stones to try and climb the sociology status ladder, publish in journals based on their ranking, and for some the whole practice of sociology becomes about their personal success. This makes some journal articles unreadable, since they are only meant to impress other status seekers rather than a larger audience.
On my way to a conference years ago, I was aboard a plane and overheard the conversation of the people seated behind me. From their discussion it became clear that they were sociologists who were also headed to the conference. In those days, the preliminary program came in the mail, so I had a copy with me and apparently so did they. They looked up their sessions and noted to each other when they were scheduled to present their papers. Listening in, I looked up those sessions and saw they focused on inequalities of race and ethnicity.
Moments later, a flight attendant passed through the aisle. One of the sociologists called to her, “Excuse me, my coffee has gotten cold!” and demanded that she bring her a fresh cup. As the flight attendant walked away, the sociologist muttered to her colleague that the service was just terrible. When her fresh coffee arrived, she did not respond with gratitude, but with resentment.
I was shocked. First that anyone sitting in coach would have expected that level of attentive service, and second that someone who studies inequality for a living would treat a service worker in that manner.
Most sociologists that I know aren’t as blind to their status or as demeaning as the lady on the plane was. Most sociologists are not cold-blooded status seekers (especially not the ones who write for this blog). But we seldom take a good look in the mirror to examine how we replicate inequality in both our personal lives and in our profession as well.