And The Award Goes To…

… Joel Best, for Prize Proliferation, Sociological Forum, Vol. 23, No. 1, March 2008, pp. 1- 27.

Prize proliferation, the topic of Best’s articles, is simply the multiplication of awards being created for a variety of achievements or performances in many social and cultural domains and across institutional domains (including within the ASA). For Best, the study of such proliferation belongs to the study of social problems: we should examine the social, cultural and institutional conditions that produce this pattern in so many different and unrelated domains.:

"The trend toward prize proliferation illustrates how social conditions can produce many, largely unrelated claims that, in turn, lead to patterned social activity. Further, this trend generates reactions – prize proliferation has its critics, who produce counterclaims that construct it as a social problem in its own right." (6)

Awards then (honors for activities such as accomplishments – the fulfillment of specific requirements – championship – straightforward victory – or excellence – judgment of practice, usually the most controversial) are socially organized around three types of actors who benefit from them:

Award Givers

According to Best, award-giving involves three processes (each of which can be a source of criticism):

  • Establishment: creation of the award and its parameters as well as costs and terms

  • Selection: choosing who will receive the award

  • Presentation: the actual delivery of the award to its recipient.

Depending of the award, these processes can be simple of complex.

Why do groups, organizations or institutions create awards? Because it benefits them in different ways:

  • It promotes solidarity within the group by affirming the group’s values and rewarding those who incarnate them best.

  • It encourages group members to do well and inspires them.

  • It enhances the giving organization’s visibility, status and prestige as well as power within a given field.

  • It fosters networking and social capital by bringing together giver and recipient (especially if the recipient has more visibility than the giving organization).

Award Recipients

What do recipients have to gain?

  • Obviously a recognition for their performance, the more prestigious the award, the greater the esteem one receives and the greater the impact on one’s life (such as a Nobel Prize or an Oscar).

  • An increase in various forms of economic capital (if the award carries a cash prize or if its prestige brings better economic opportunities to the recipient… an Oscar recipient might get better parts and command more money), cultural capital (especially if the award is highly prestigious: getting a Nobel Peace Prize allows the recipient to speak out on issues with greater access to the media), social capital (the recipient is put into contact with other people and organizations directly or through the prestige of the award).

  • An increase in self-esteem by being socially recognized.


  • Awards ceremonies can be entertaining (who was not watching the Oscars last Sunday AND complaining about how boring the whole thing was?) and dramatic

  • Ceremonies can also promote social solidarity and group values as rituals (Best gives the example of the Nobel Prize of literature awarded to José Saramago but interpreted in Portugal as an award to the entire nation, its culture and language).

All the benefits constitute incentives to create awards and therefore contribute to prize proliferation.

Sociological Analysis

For Best, awards are created by their givers as solution to a claimed problem, but that, in itself, does not explain prize proliferation.

Best uses the interactionist concept of social worlds to explain the proliferation.

"A social world is ‘a set of common or joint activities or concerns bound together by a network of communication’ (Kling and Gerson, 1978:26)." (13)

When groups split off, segmentation occurs:

"Such segmentation is rationalized as providing an arena or forum within which people who share some interest can contact one another; it offers a more efficient means of finding like-minded others (Strauss, 1984). People who share an interest are particularly likely to form new social worlds when they perceive themselves as disadvantaged by existing social arrangements. That is, they construct the existing order as problematic, and they propose establishing a new world as a solution. The change creates a venue within where respect can be assured because the new social world is homogeneous, its members self-selected because they appreciate its purpose."(13-14)

Any such segmentation will require legitimation both for its members and to the outside world and the creation a prizes can fulfill such a function: reward the members for the upholding of the values of the group, inspire other members to achieve as much if not more than the current recipient.The award also shows the members what counts as outstanding achievement and what they should strive for.

But the award also establishes the group as "serious" to the outside world and gives visibility to the group, its goals and values. The lower the prestige of the segmented group, the greater the need for legitimation. An award can also establish the recipient as the public face of the group to the outside world and therefore attract public attention.

"Note that segmentation and legitimation form a cycle. The limitations of existing social arrangements foster segmentation, as people who find themselves frustrated or disadvantaged seek remedies through establishing a new social world. Such new worlds, in turn, work to legitimize their existence as separate entities. (…) But this, of course, creates a new established order, one that leaves some still feeling excluded, setting the stage for further segmentation and, often, prize proliferation.

When new social worlds are constructed as overt reactions to past disadvantage and exclusion, prize proliferation may be especially likely." (16)

[Emphasis mine]

So, what kinds of criticisms would prizes attract, mostly from outside the social world? According to Best, some awards may be marred by scandals or corruption or critiques may question the recipients. A more sociologically interesting criticism is that of symbolic inflation (the prize equivalent to grade inflation): the military awards more medals (the types of medals have also proliferated) than ever, universities award more honorary degrees. Organizations that become more selective and restrictive in awarding prizes are therefore placed at a disadvantaged:

"When rival organizations or social worlds cannot control each other’s behavior, the collective benefits of minimizing inflation may seem much less immediate than the selfish advantages from making more awards. Why shouldn’t our service personnel or our students garner the same media benefits as those in rival organizations?" (19)

So, calls for stricter standards may be heard or a few awards may be rescinded but the inflationary pressures remain.

Best argues that egalitarian norms also promote prize proliferation as championship awards (one clear winner, such as valedictorian) turn into achievement awards (plural winners, all students with a 4.0 GPA, for instance). But once a award becomes more accessible and awarded to more individuals, its value might decrease (increase the supply and the value – symbolic in this case – goes down).

At the same time, as Best notes, college admissions and military promotions alike require more and more types of accomplishments beyond grades or service: "More awards create more opportunities to shine" (21). This then also contributes to prize proliferation. But when many awards are available, the individual value of each gets diminished.

Furthermore, Best argues, borrowing Goldner’s (1982) concept of pronoia ("the delusion that others think well of one"), that recipients find too much validation in these awards:

"We can deduce that prize proliferation also ought to promote pronoia; even as prizes become relatively plentiful, recipients can tell themselves that the honors reflect the same high esteem they did when prizes were less common." (22)

More generally, one could argue that prize proliferation is the product of living in a society as diverse and segmented as the contemporary American society, with a multiplicity of social worlds. Individualism and competitiveness do not explain the proliferation of non-competitive prizes. As Best argues,

"Contemporary social conditions encourage segmentation; they make it easy for people to break off to form new social worlds. Rising standards of living have allowed many people to express their personal interests through consumption, thereby inviting a proliferation of lifestyles. Improved communication lets these individuals locate others with similar interests. (…) To the degree that a social world’s members view their participation as an important identity, as a source of status and even honor, that world is likely to seek to legitimize its activities. Prizes are one manifestation of this organizational development." (24)

Best also emphasizes again the importance of ideological shifts such as greater egalitarianism and the pop psychological focus on self-esteem in this trend. Overall, as Best concludes,

"Prize proliferation can be seen as just one indicator of these worlds’ role in allowing individuals to understand their lives as worthwhile." (25)

And in the context of a society in crisis, prizes are a source of valued identity that can be used as a buffer against disintegrating social conditions, and, yes, anomie.

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