August 24, 2008

Status and Sociology

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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 clip_image002[5]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).

clip_image002[7]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 clip_image002[9]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.


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Thank you for this post, I enjoyed it. It's often amazing to me how sociologists do not put our knowledge into use in our relationships to one another.

For example, going to the social psychology job market gathering in NYC at last year's ASA was a prime example. The purpose was to meet and greet, but they didn't pay attention to group dynamics research in how to arrange it. Rather than thinking about how best to situate such a meeting so people actually mingled, they just plopped us in a room like any other gathering. The result? People just talked to those they already knew or had come with.

Hi Karen.

So, what are your conclusions? Inequality is bad? I was there once. Communism tried fixing that one. Problem is that as soon as you appoint someone to enforce equality you create inequality.

I personally wrestled with status for decades. My conclusions:
1. Status is genetic, even fish do it.
2. If it's in our genes, and almost all group species do status, then there must be great value in it. What is great about status?
3. I have come to see the power and beauty of dynamic inequality.

Don't fight it. Realize Status is driven by many variables, especially behavior. By changing your behavior, you can change the status dynamic in a group. By deliberately manipulating the unconscious signals of status, you can reduce stress and conflict, increase innovation, dynamically shift leaders to fit the situation, and accomplish great things.

It was an epiphany for me! I change my consulting practice about business culture to training people how to use status signals to improve relations and communications. I don't call it Status. (I tried, but people have a negative association with the word.) So I call it Nonverbal Leadership. That works, most of the signals are nonverbal and Leadership / Followership is more acceptable than Dominance and Submission.

I hope a different perspective helps.

Michael Cushman

Are you sure this woman isn't from Hollywood? For real, that is just rude.

I've wrestled with this problem during the course of my PhD and found it almost all-consuming - to the extent that essentially my PhD has gone from being a case study on socialist activists to that plus a 'state of the discipline' bout of sociological reflexivity.

What is to be done? This side of socialism I cannot see the form of the discipline changing much. But to minimise its effects, especially on how the hunt for status impacts and distorts our research, I think Bourdieu is the best place to start.

Interesting post, Karen. It's fun to read sociologists doing sociology on sociology.

Interesting post, Karen. It's fun to read sociologists doing sociology on sociology.

I have just discovered your posts and I'm very impressed. This one on status is particularly thoughtful.
The role of status in the discipline has a special place in my heart. I wrote a little essay about status in Footnotes a few years ago, "Let 50 Flowers Bloom."

I believe that you are a 100% correct. How can sociologist sit and lecture us on social standing, all while they are constantly enforcing separation of status of people. They may be right is describing social status because they are the ones enforcing it.

I think that in a way everyone fights for social status. Even in their own community of people like sociologists. Even though they are just a small group, they still fight for the higher status. I think that no matter what group or where you are, there are going to be people who fight for a higher status.

Status is something that everyone can see in their daily lives. At school, at work, and in sports are some examples of how these statuses can run our lives. Its is defiantly a shocking thing to hear about presenting something about inequality be so rude so someone who was serving her, which could be considered as a lower status than her. Our statuses are inevitable in life. We all strive to achieve a higher status and our culture and society forces us all into them.

This makes some of the newspaper articles to read, because they are intended only to impress others rather than applicants to a wider audience.

I found this post very interesting. I suppose I never really thought about how people who work in the same area have such high competition for status. Everyone nowadays wants to impress who matters and who will be able to get their name out in the world. Name recognition has become so important in the world today whether it is a celebrity or very good author. It is also interesting how which college or graduated program you participated in can decide your status. There are many pieces that put together your status.
Thank you for posting this, it really helped!

I found your article very truthful. I even liked how you used the comment that you sociologists even fight to have status. It is a big part of most people's high school careers and they usually don't have the same status once they leave high school. Thank you for this very intellectual insight on statuses.

It's funny that sociologists, who know the workings of social status and it's effects so well, also have their own community with social structures of their own. It is really very hypocritical that someone who studies sociology and knows so much about inequality could be so critical and harsh on someone they believe has a "lower" status than themselves. It really proves that everyone has a status. This is a very eye-opening post! Thanks for it!

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