Vance Packard
The Status Seekers

(first published, April 1959)

"An explosive exploration of class behavior in America and the hidden barriers that affect you, your community, and your future."


Chapter 22 “Should Status Lines be Maintained?

"The folks on top probably like it better than those on the bottom."—CLIFTON FADIMAN, The New Yorker.

IN THE COURSE OF THIS BOOK I HAVE PROCEEDED ON THE assumption that a more open society is preferable to a more rigidly stratified one. That assumption, perhaps I should point out, is not unassailable. There is much to be said for a clear-cut hierarchy of status. Here, briefly, are some of the principal arguments for a clearly stratified society.

1. Stratification is necessary in order to get difficult tasks performed. A man who undergoes years of arduous training necessary to become an accountant will be motivated to undergo that training only if there is a reward at the end. One reward, of course, is the satisfaction of being an accountant. But most people require additional rewards -- even the Soviets are discovering -- in the form of pay and prestige. On an island in the lagoon of Venice, virtually all youngsters born there assume they will go into the glass industry. When they are twelve years old they are tested. The most gifted ones become glass blowers and are trained for roles that have the highest pay and prestige. The rest take over the various jobs of preparing and handling the glass, and have less pay and prestige.

This might be viewed as a natural order for an efficient society. As the saying goes, carpenters need kings, and kings need carpenters.

2. Many people tend to accept a status hierarchy -- and their place in it -- naturally. One of the textile workers in Paterson, New Jersey, who was interviewed by sociologists seemed to recognize the naturalness of differentiation. He asked: "If there were no rich people, who would the poor people work for?"

As Russell Lynes has observed, "It may be sad to say it, but a great many people seem to want to know where they and other people belong, if only so they can move out of their niche into one they believe is better."

In some societies at least, status is cheerfully assumed. During the summer of 1958, I talked with a Venetian gondolier who obviously was very pleased with his $1,050 gondola. I inquired how one went about becoming a gondolier.

"It is simple," he said. "You are the son of a gondolier." This arrangement seemed wholly satisfactory to him and he said he had never seriously considered any other station in life.

Many people in the lower classes, further, seem to accept automatically as superior the judgment of their superiors. In the armed services, enlisted men who come up for courts- martial have the right to request that other enlisted men be on their trial panel. This privilege is not typically requested. Most enlisted men prefer to leave their fate up to officers.

Three sociologists of the University of Chicago have been conducting a fascinating study of the role of social status in jury deliberations. Using actual jury panels in Chicago and St. Louis, they have arranged for several dozen juries to listen to recordings of two actual trials and then go into deliberation.

The assumption in a jury, of course, is that all members are equal. And all members must concur before a verdict is reached. In practice, the investigators found that higher- status jurors tend to dominate the proceedings. (This may be because they have had experience in taking charge of things and lower-status jurors haven't.) At any rate, a juror who was a proprietor was three and a half times as likely to be chosen by fellow jurors to be foreman as a common laborer. Interestingly, in at least a third of the cases, the first juror to speak up after they sat down was elected foreman.

Before they deliberated, each juror was asked privately what he thought the verdict would be. It turned out that the verdicts favored by proprietors on the jury were, more often than not, the ones finally agreed upon. After the deliberations, jurors were asked privately which jurors had, in their mind, contributed most to the decision. In general, those with higher social status were felt to have carried the most weight. Finally jurors were asked what kind of people they would like to have on a jury -- in terms of four occupational categories -- if a member of their own family was on trial. The majority favored professionals and proprietors.

3. Life is said to be more stable and serene in clearly stratified societies. This viewpoint was most effectively articulated perhaps by anthropologist Ralph Linton after he had studied many of the world's primitive societies.<2> In this world, he said, you can have one of two kinds of status. You can have a status that you have "achieved" yourself through your efforts and talents; or you can have a status that society automatically "ascribes" to you. When people are going through a change of adjustment to their environment -- as during our own frontier days -- there is a great demand for the special gifts that can be provided best by people who achieve their status. Class lines crumble. If, however, your society is well adjusted to its environment, then there is little demand for people of unusual talent, and a society of ascribed status -- where little attention is paid to seeking talent outside the born elite -- is likely to produce more tranquillity. Linton said:

"Americans have been trained to attach such high values to individual initiative and achievement that they tend to look down upon societies which are rigidly organized and to pity the persons who live in them. However, the members of a society whose statuses are mainly prescribed are no less happy than ourselves and considerably more at peace."

For example, he explained: "Where there can be no rivalry in vital matters and no social climbing, snubbing becomes unnecessary and indeed meaningless.... Members of different classes can form friendships that are the stronger because their interests can never clash.... Membership in a rigidly organized society may deprive the individual of opportunity to exercise his particular gifts, but it gives him an emotional security which is almost unknown among ourselves."

An echo of this thinking appeared in the pages of the London Observer when it held a contest a few years ago for the "best defense" and the "best attack" on class distinctions. One reader rising to the defense wrote: "Stratification by class releases the individual from preoccupation with his own personal failures."

4. A society that encourages status striving produces, in contrast, a good deal of bruising, disappointment, and ugly feelings. If a society promotes the idea that success is associated with upward mobility, those who can't seem to get anywhere are likely to be afflicted with the feeling that they are personal failures, even though the actual situation may be pretty much beyond their control or capacity to change. Educators and ministers would seem to have a responsibility here to try to ease the damage; and some are doing it. Educational psychologist Lee J. Cronbach has asked his fellow educators this blunt question: "How much should the school urge children to be ambitious and mobile, in a society where most of them will find jobs calling for little skill?" And one of America's leading ministers, the Reverend Dr. Robert J. McCracken of New York's Riverside Church, has in sermons admonished his listeners to be realistic about ambition. It is an admirable quality, he said, but added that we are not all equal in native capacity. "Most of us," he said, "are modestly endowed and we shall not achieve effectiveness or happiness until we recognize it."

The person standing still in a culture that glorifies upward progress often suffers hurts. The greater menace to society, however, is the person moving downward. Any society that has a good deal of upward circulation is bound to have some downward circulation too. We can't all stay at the high level our elders or we ourselves achieve. The person being declassed is, as previously indicated, almost invariably in an ugly mood. He is seething with humiliation and apprehension. If society has not developed a mechanism for quickly and gently helping him find a new, more humble niche, then he becomes a bigot, a searcher for scapegoats, and an eager recruit for almost any demagogue who promises to set up a completely new social order.

5. The culture found in a stratified society, some say, is more satisfying, interesting, and stimulating than that found in a homogenized society. In such a stratified society you have levels of culture, and you have a long-trained elite dictating what is good and proper for each class. In modern America, where especially at the consuming level the masses have to a large extent become the dictators of taste, we have to endure: the horrors of our roadside architecture and billboards; our endless TV gun-slinging; our raw, unkempt, blatantly commercialized cities; our mass merchandising of pornographic magazines, our faceless suburban slums-to-be; our ever-maudlin soap operas. Voices have been crying out for the restoration of some kind of elite that can set standards and make them stick. Ortega y Gasset was one of the first to deplore the revolt of the masses. Harvard's historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has bemoaned what he calls the "conspiracy of blandness" coming over American life. In England, sociologist T. H. Pear has viewed somewhat uneasily the breaking down of class distinctions there. What is it doing, he asks, to the polish of social life, and the long-famed gentle manners of English folk? And he adds the wistful observation that he thinks of rank -- as exemplified by royalty -- as making England interesting and picturesque.

These, then, are five of the principal arguments that can be offered in favor of stratification. All run counter to the ideals of the prevailing American ideology. A society of ascribed status such as Linton described may offer a Hindu security and happiness in knowing his place, but it is hardly appropriate for mid-twentieth-century America since it shows little interest in the discovery of new talent. We confront in America a historical situation that cries out for a society of achieved status. We are badly maladjusted to our environment and are becoming more maladjusted every month. For example:

—We are in a state of precarious adjustment in our relations with other major societies (notably Russia's).

—We are still desperately trying to adjust to the growth of vast bureaucratic institutions.

—We are still trying to adjust to a way of life that calls for frequent uprooting of our people and moving to new addresses.

—We face the challenge of absorbing 100,000,000 additional persons in our populace within the next twenty to twenty- five years.

—We face the challenge of learning to live with a technological plant more awesome, prodigious, and frightening than anything the world has ever known.

For all these reasons, we need to draw upon all the talent and intelligence we can muster. We need to encourage by every means possible the discovery and advancement of people of unusual potential in our three supporting classes. In a rigidly stratified society, such people are not even considered.

The challenge to us is to recognize the realities of our current class situation. The main reality is our tendency toward greater rigidity in our stratification while pretending that precisely the opposite is occurring. We are consigning tens of millions of our people to fixed roles in life where aspiration is futile, and yet we keep telling them that those who have the stuff will rise to the top. We don't even allow them the satisfaction of feeling secure, dignified, and creative in their low status. And, socially, we look down upon them.

Because of this frustration and isolation imposed upon many members of the supporting classes, we have a frightful shattering of integrity. This shows up in the extraordinarily high psychoses rates we encounter as we approach the bottom of our social scale. And it shows up in the fantastically high delinquency and crime rates among the younger poor of America. In Spain, where class lines are better understood and accepted, you have vastly more poverty but relatively little accompanying juvenile delinquency.

Perhaps it also shows up in something medical investigators have noticed. As you get near the bottom of the social scale, there is an abrupt rise in a disorder called anomie - - feeling isolated, loosely attached to the world, and convinced that things are tough all over.

Status distinctions would appear to be inevitable in a society as complicated as our own. The problem is not to try to wipe them out -- which would be impossible -- but to achieve a reasonably happy society within their framework. If we accept that context, much can be done to promote contentment, mutual respect, and life satisfaction.

There appear to be two principal approaches. One is to promote more understanding between people of the various class groupings in our society. The other is to make class distinctions less burdensome by making certain that people of real talent are discovered and encouraged to fulfill their potential regardless of their station in life. In the two final chapters, we shall explore these two possibilities.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:01 EDT