Revisiting The Cultural Omnivores

Back in January, I reviewed Philippe Couleangeon’s book on the metamorphoses of distinction, a book in which he examines the changes in the concept of cultural capital and distinction in the context of mass education and multiculturalism. In the review, I noted,

“Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.”

Today, in a New York Times column, Shamus Khan produces a similar argument regarding elitism:

“Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.”

Khan notes the new character of this development in the context of rising cosmopolitan individualism and self-cultivation (the self as individual project, a theme upon which I have touched many times). In the process, the class-based nature of cultural is nicely made to disappear:

“Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.”

And Khan makes a point similar to Couleangeon’s mixed with some culture of poverty-as-justification:

“Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around.

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.”

And cultural openness becomes another tool for symbolic violence and a justification for social inequalities as reflection personal defects rather than products of class dynamics that are hidden and the Khan neatly highlights:

“Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.

Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.”

Welcome to the world of the cosmopolitan ethics and the spirit of 21st century capitalism.

Read the whole column, it’s great.

Book Review – Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction

Philippe Coulangeon‘s Les Métamorphoses de la Distinction: Inégalités Culturelles dans la France D’Aujourd’hui provides an overview of the state of cultural capital and profits of distinction 30 years or so after, well, The Distinction, in the context of massification of higher education and public policies of cultural democratization and democratization of culture (and no, that’s not the same).

This is an interesting book but not an easy read. The writing is quite convoluted with a lot of intricate sentences containing qualifiers and modifiers and sub-propositions. If you are not familiar with French, you are going to need to do a lot of sentence mapping to figure it out. It is a shame because the book has a lot of good points and anyone interested in issues pertaining to cultural capital should read it.

The book explores four main questions:

1. What is today the role of culture is the structuring of class relations?

2. What are the consequences of the mass higher education starting in the 1960s and with even more intensity throughout the 1980s and 90s? Has this massification reduced the cultural dimension of class structuring?

3. What has been the impact of public policy regarding cultural democratization?

4. And finally, have all these developments transformed the norms of cultural legitimacy and the symbolic dimension of social domination?

1. So, is culture still a “classing” factor, or a class marker? Does The Distinction still hold? In the study, Bourdieu and his co-author extends the idea of cultural legitimacy and dominance to a whole range of cultural practices and lifestyles and show that the social stratification of taste, style and modes of consumption is as important that consumed goods and products. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a structural homology between the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles.

This forms of stratification of taste and lifestyle, combined with reproduction of inequalities in education, contributed to highlight the symbolic dimension of social class relations. And in both contexts, the establishment of norms of “good taste” and proper school dispositions contributes imposing forms of symbolic violence against the subordinate classes. Ways of eating, dressing, talking, etc. mark people along class lines. The imposition of such norms, legitimated as non-class based, serve as mechanisms of closure and exclusion.

Another aspect of symbolic violence is to disguise the arbitrariness of dominant norms of taste as individualized (therefore, a lack of taste is an individual shortcoming) rather than class-based exclusion. The same goes for academic success where class-based legitimate curriculum favors the children of the dominant classes, but success and failure is promoted as a matter of  “ability” (an individual trait) or other individual characteristics. These forms of class-based institutional discrimination are still quite prevalent in a lot of social settings (such as job interviews, entrance exams and social networks).

But is it the case that class is now less important, as a social marker, than gender or race / ethnicity, for instance? Coulangeon argues that that is not the case. the data on French cultural practices still show significant social distinctions. It should not be forgotten that the consumption of cultural goods takes money. And in the context of increasing inequalities and economic crisis, the upper classes are still the ones with money to spend, as a larger part of their income, in that department. As such, access to the most legitimate cultural practices is still largely marked by strong inequalities whether these practices are public (such as museum visits, attendance at classical music concerts, etc.) or domestic (reading).

At the same time, this inertia of cultural habits has also been accompanied by a relative decline of the most legitimate practices even in the dominant classes without a corresponding democratization (the upper classes may read less but it does not mean that the lower classes read more).

And third evolution: there seems, according to Coulangeon, to have been a lowering of the profits of distinction to be gained from legitimate cultural practices, especially the domestic ones, so that upper classes are then more likely to engage in public practices.

2. What of all this in the context of the massification of higher education. Wouldn’t one expect a greater access to higher education to expand the consumption of dominant cultural practices? Coulangeon makes mince meat of two common criticism of greater access to higher education: (1) a decline in the social value of college degrees as they become more widespread, and (2) a decline in academic ability alongside grade inflation. On the first one, he argues that the fact that young people with college degrees having a hard time finding jobs may have more to do with the labor market and greater precarization than the value of degrees per se. If anything, it is more costly to NOT have a college degree today than ever before. As to the second one, the decline arguments are usually based on data that compare generations that are hardly comparable. Rather compare college students of today with college students of yore, it would be more significant to compare individuals with comparable background, and see the differences between those who received college degrees and those who did not.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation between level of education and cultural attitudes and practices. So, logically, the expansion of higher education should have led to a corresponding expansion of the demand for legitimate cultural goods. According to Coulangeon, that has not been the case. Part of this has also to do with the greater porosity between the educational institution and mass media culture. This means that the current generation of college students has high levels of consumption of such mass media and entertainment products, and less of legitimate, scholarly-approved cultural goods. Socially, there has also been a decrease in the  cultural authority of education as a social institution, and its ability to legitimate cultural goods and practices.

What has happened then, according to Coulangeon, is an inverted mimetism: rather than college students from the lower classes adopting the cultural habits – albeit imperfectly – of the upper class, it is students of the upper classes that have absorbed cultural tastes and practices of mass, popular culture. This does not mean that class differences have completely disappeared. Family background, in terms of cultural capital, still matters. But a main effect of the expansion of higher education is that working-class families now realistically consider college as part of the educational aspirations for their children.

However, Coulangeon notes two additional effects of the expansion of higher education: (1) a loosening of class solidarity replaced by a greater individualistic outlook on social mobility, based on equal opportunity, and (2) beyond a relative uniformization (through the irruption of popular culture into academic culture as the numbers of working-class students increased), there is a stark contrast in terms of living conditions: as upper class students see their time as students as a time of innovation and experimentation, working-class students live it as exposure to precarization (rather than the social and financial autonomy an earlier entry into the labor market gave them in previous generations). Class still matters.

Finally, the decline in cultural authority of the institution of higher education is also a product of its expansion. As more working class students gained access to college, the aura of prestige enjoyed by the institutions declined. The greater the social distance between the working class and the institution, the greater the prestige. And vice versa. Social proximity led to reduced prestige.

3. Public policy in the cultural domain has been based on two different conceptions: (1) cultural democratization, that is, increasing access to “high” culture for the masses, such greater access being defined as a universal social good; and (2) greater democratic culture, that is, legitimizing of erstwhile marginalized cultural forms (originating from specific ethnic minorities, for instance, or lower-class forms). How has this worked?

Coulangeon argues that, when it comes to cultural practices, social origins (generating dispositions) may still exert a heavy weight compared to social position (hence, greater weight to cultural habits inherited during family socialization than through education). But this needs to be qualified somewhat in the context of plural socialization that creates a volatility of cultural tastes. At the same time, with a lessening of the level of prestige and legitimacy enjoyed by the educational institution, there has a been a corresponding decline of the profits of distinction connected to the possession of high cultural capital alongside the emergence of new culturally-valued goods and practices (such as a cosmopolitan outlook and soft skills).

There is therefore a redefinition of what cultural legitimacy means.

4. Regarding this configuration of the meaning of cultural legitimacy, Coulangeon notes that the upper classes’ cultural practices, rather than being exclusionary, have trended towards eclecticism, a phenomenon captured under the metaphore of the omnivore, as opposed to the parochial working classes, univores. Therefore, cultural stratification would now look like an inverted pyramid where the upper classes are characterized by the diversity of their cultural repertoires and the lower classes by their limited ones. The definition of the cultural omnivore covers both quantity and quality (greater practice across a more varied repertoire that includes both high and mass cultural products, with a global / cosmopolitan outlook). Here again, of course, one should note that such eclecticism is facilitated by economic resources.

However, this does not mean that there is absolutely no exclusionary element to this eclecticism. Certain popular genres are still excluded (such as hip hop or heavy metal) from this more diversified repertoire that is defined more by its aversion to certain products and practices, than by its inclusion. Therefore, another distinction in cultural capital is between the active aversion of upper classes for certain practices and products as opposed to the passive ignorance of popular classes of the more traditional high culture. The lines of exclusion may have shifted but they are still present.

Coulangeon also associates this cultural eclecticism of the dominant classes to contemporary management practices, based on human capital and diversity, and in which some sort of multicultural communicative capital may be useful. But it is also connected to globalization as the cultural (and economic and political and social) elites have become more globalized (the transnational capitalist class, in all its components). Therefore, the possession of such multicultural capital is clear class marker as it reflects exposure to, and possession of, the cultural resources of globalization. This is where the profits of distinction now are located, and no longer in the classical humanities. And the acquisition of such multicultural capital is built through world travel, exchange and therefore a symbolic and material domination of space, beyond the “old” forms of distinction and cultural capital, more marked by a domination of time.

So, where does this leave us? It is rather clear that we should no bury the cultural dimension of class too quickly. This symbolic dominance attached to cultural capital is alive and well, but in reconfigured dimensions that take into account greater access to higher education, globalization, a decline in the traditional prestige of education as social institution, and the rise of new forms of cultural legitimacy, no less symbolically violent than their predecessors.

Book Review – Inside Toyland

Among the sociological topics I like reading about, I particularly enjoy sociology of labor, especially those based on deep ethnographic work combining micro-analysis of social relationships in the workplace with macro-analysis of structural inequalities.

So, this is why when my colleague Mike recommended Christine L. Williams‘s Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, it was a no-brainer for me to jump on that book. It also has to do with the fact that I am always on the lookout for potential sociological readings for my freshmen / Sophomore classes.

For this audience, good qualitative sociological work is often much more palatable than peer-reviewed articles with incomprehensible statistics (for their level). Part of it is because I remember, as a first year student, how refreshing it was to read Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or anything by Goffman compared to Lazarsfeld.

Inside Toyland is an ethnography of work in toy retail. Williams spent time working at two different toy stores, catering to different social classes and therefore with different normative expectations of what service is and of employee relations. It is a book that is a rather quick read, with very little jargon but a lot of sociological content as Williams closely relates her ethnographic experience with social theories and works relating to her work. One will find references to Bourdieu’s cultural capital and habitus as well as domination, alongside Hochschild’s classical study of emotional labor and time bind, among many others. But overall, the writing is fairly informal and the insertion of a lot of examples from her field notes breaks up the reading in pleasant ways.

Inside Toyland is a rather short book but it covers all the bases of sociology of work and labor relations. Williams addresses a multiplicity of topics from changes in the US workforce, to the stratification within each toy store along with the privileges associated with each status. The book deals with class, gender and racial issues in the workplace within and between stores as structural inequalities are a major topic. It does a great job of exposing the invisible flip side of racial discrimination: white privilege and the naturalization of white entitlement.

But the book is also a study in the sociology of consumption, that is, not simply where people buy toys (by social class, for instance) but also what and how people consume toys and the various meanings and social relations symbolized through toy consumption.

In other words, Inside Toyland covers all the aspects I emphasize to my students in terms of the sociological imagination: SHiP, structure, history and power. In that last respect, the book goes into some details into the ways in which management tries to control shop floor workers (associates) in contrast to the ways in which associates find ways to resist such attempts at control and how social interactions in the workplace contribute to the reproduction to social inequalities on the macro level.

The fact that the ethnographic locus of the book is toy stores also means that there is a lot in the book about parent-children relationship (with obligatory reference to Lareau) based on social class, within the context of US individualistic and consumerist culture. Overall, the book shows how much Lareau’s class-based parenting styles are incarnated in shopping practices.

As I mentioned above, this book is a rather quick read that covers a lot of sociological territory at a level acceptable for undergraduates. It certainly illustrates the rich aspects of participant observation and introduces a lot of sociological thinkers in an approachable manner.

Mandating Equality

This is interesting:

Needless to say, this is a good idea. At the same time, ideas like these (think affirmative action) are often misunderstood because they examined as if the only existing form of discrimination was interpersonal. Actually, such a program is designed to fight structural / systemic discrimination, that is, the form of discrimination that exists even in the absence of interpersonal sexism. Rather than wait for cultural change to affect social structure, the idea is to change the social structure to change the culture. It is also a recognition that economic relations are embedded in structurally discriminatory relations and practices. Finally, such programs are also designed to progressively make up for the cumulative effect of institutional discrimination: by pushing for a proportion of representation, the idea is to allow a previously disadvantaged category to start accumulating cultural and social capital that it was previously denied.

It is also in this line of thinking that I agree with banning the burqa as part of holding the secular line and it was interesting to see Turkish-born, German sociologist Necla Kelek state the following:

As I see it, a ban on religious practices that contradict established secular values and are directly repressive is part of the same process as mandating quotas of women as seen above. It is fighting inequality and disadvantages.

Book Review – The Meritocracy Myth

When one teaches introduction to sociology courses, one is always on the lookout for a good, readable book that makes a powerful case for the relevance of sociological analysis without dumbing it down or turning it into “you can have better relationships thanks to sociology” kind of drivel. After all, introduction to sociology textbooks are mostly horrendous and I don’t know who could ever be drawn to sociology just by reading a textbook (hence my own personal revolt and work-in-progress).

One of the things that sociology does well is debunking: take commonly accepted ideas and show systematically and with data how these ideas are actually false. That’s why when my new colleague mentioned The Meritocracy Myth by Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller jr., I was immediately interested because if there is one thing American students reject outright, it’s the durkheimian idea of social facts that are constraining on individual behavior or the supposed “natural” idea that some people are just smarter than others (I teach at a community college, you’d think they’d be more critical of that one, but nope, and rationalizations abound) or that people’s social positions reflect their moral worth.

In the book, McNamee and Miller review the roots of meritocratic individualism and then proceed to deconstruct all the different aspects of meritocracy and explore how social privileges and disadvantages are socially allocated based on a variety of factors mediated through various social institutions. They provide a strong demonstration for the power of the social structure. Seamlessly combining social theory (like Bourdieu on social and cultural capital) and recent data, the authors mercifully work towards a welcome “everything you believe is wrong” conclusion.

“The acceptance of meritocracy in America is predicated not on what ‘is’ but on the belief that the system of inequality is ‘fair’ and it ‘works.’ According to the ideology of meritocracy, inequality is seen to be fair because everyone presumably has an equal (or at least adequate) chance to succeed, and success is determined by individual merit. The system supposedly works because it is seen as providing as individual incentive to achieve that is good for society as a whole; that is, those who are most talented, the hardest working, and the most virtuous get and should get the most rewards.” (4)

This is the mark of an ideological construct that it is promoted by a variety of institutional arrangements (schools, media, etc.) so much so that it becomes natural (after all, how different is this from the structural-functionalist view of inequalities). And like many ideologies, this belief is a cultural underpinning of the maintenance of the status quo, politically, economically and socially while making increasing levels of inequalities acceptable. And like many such ideological constructs, they are based on scrapping from view the nasty side of the history of social privilege, as perfectly illustrated by this Ampersand comic found at Eric Stoller’s website:

So, McLemee and Miller deconstruct this belief, taking on the sub-arguments one by one and showing how they do not survive scrutiny. They demonstrate how social privileges and disadvantages are allocated before birth and are accumulated every step of the way as the privileged accumulate social, economic and cultural capital by sending their children to “the right kind” of kindergartens, pre-schools and schools. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Chamboredon’s thesis on Social Reproduction is well known: schools reward upper-class habitus and privileged kids’s possession of the right kind of social and cultural capital and allow them to accumulate more of it.

The authors also examine and discard the “attitude” argument (“those with the right attitude succeed”) as well as the moral argument (success comes to the virtuous, those who postpone gratification, as opposed to the poor who, as often repeated, have the wrong values, go for immediate gratification and have their own self-defeating subculture, as the culture-of-poverty argument goes). One would think that with the economic collapse and the exposure for the whole world to see of the incompetence and immorality of the financial class, that argument would have been put to rest, but no, the mortgage crisis was the fault of all these poor people who could not defer gratification and had to buy houses they could not afford (never mind that reality shows otherwise and points the blame higher on the social ladder).

“But,” my students often argue, “what about athletes, and Oprah?” (Why do they ALWAYS have to bring Oprah to the conversation??):

“One could argue that these ‘elites’ are truly talented and have extraordinary physical qualities not available to the average person (e.g., size, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination). Raw talent alone, however, is not enough. Talent has to be cultivated through recruitment and opportunities for training. Potential talent can go unnoticed, particularly in the absence of opportunities to develop and exhibit it. Training may be expensive and not easily available to people of modest means, particularly in such sports as golf, tennis, swimming and figure skating.” (28)

And then, there is, of course, the question of inheritance, the most obvious mechanism of transmission of privileges. Advocates of meritocracy should militate for the abolition of any form of inheritance, after all, it is unearned. Of course, it would be impossible to scrap any unearned privilege from one generation to the next as it would be impossible to eliminate social and cultural capital. Indeed, what is captured under the “silver spoon” expression covers a wide range of behavioral and dispositional traits and symbolic advantages that go beyond material wealth.

There are also all the different forms of structural discrimination by race and ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, age and others. Being part of the dominant group constitutes an invisible (and therefore deniable) form of unearned privilege (as the comic above also illustrates) that has cumulative effects.

And then there’s luck, just plain and simple: being born in the right place at the right time, at times of economic transitions (as opposed to economic recession… the structure of opportunities is pretty bleak right now, especially for those already disadvantaged because they have nothing to fall back on, which is another advantage to the privileged who can then engage in greater risk-taking behavior with bigger potential pay-off because they have greater resources to fall back on).

“In thinking about who ends up with what jobs. Americans tend to first think about what economists call the ‘supply side.’ In labor economics, the supply side refers to the pool of workers available to fill jobs. The ideology of meritocracy leads Americans to focus on the qualities of individual workers: how smart they are, how qualified they are, how much education they have, and so on. These ‘human capital’ factors, however, represent only half of the equation. The other half, the ‘demand side,’ is about the number and types of jobs available. How many jobs are available, their location, how much they pay, and how many people are seeking them are important but often neglected considerations in assessing the impact of merit on economic outcomes.” (137)

So, once we have the picture of an unequal system that is a far cry from the claims of the meritocratic ideology, why should we care? We should care because increased stratification, first, is unfair. Some people are gaming the system intentionally or not, and for others, the system is gamed in their favor. So, basic social justice applies. As the book demonstrates, most of the privileges are unearned.

More than that, as demonstrated in The Spirit Level, social inequalities are bad for society on a variety of indicators. An unequal society is even bad for those who benefit the most from unearned privileges, so egalitarian policies are the solution to provide equality of opportunities, or even, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett recommend, equality of results (somehow, always a more controversial claim). Most of the remedies McLemee and Miller suggest are well-known: progressive taxation, government spending, etc. Nothing really new here.

As I mentioned above, this is a book really for undergraduate students. The professional sociologist will not find anything really new in the book, but clear conceptual definitions and some pretty nice argumentative retorts to usual students defending the meritocracy myth. It’s a book that should be mandatory reading for any sociology department’s undergraduates.

Corporate Mergers and Cultural Gatekeepers – Revisiting Howard Becker

I don’t blog often on microsociology and symbolic interactionism. Fortunately, others do that very well. Case in point, this post over at the Sociology Lens, based on the merger of two of the largest talent agencies, William Morris and Endeavor (thereby creating the very large William Morris Endeavor):

This is a good opportunity to remember that these kinds of phenomena have diverse impact on the social structure. What is happening here is not just a matter of continuing economic concentration in different sectors of the corporate world. It is also a matter of cultural production. Following Bourdieu, one could argue that the merging of these companies and the constitution of corporate giants in the field of talent agencies concentrates power (and cultural and social capital) into fewer hands and reduces power for other social actors in the field of artistic production.

The Rich Are Suffering Too… Or Maybe Not (And Who Cares)

So, the rich are suffering too:

Then, add the living expenses:

Add children:

Conclusion? Well, maybe these people will have to learn to do the stuff they have outsourced to other people. If anyone has any doubt that we are in a service economy, just look at these expenses: it is wealthy people outsourcing largely non-manual labor and paying for a range of services unavailable to most. No doubt that catering to the needs of the wealthy has been an expanding economic sector. At the same time, it is hard to feel bad that some of them will have to cut back on personal training, vacations and other luxury.

Not only that but as much as they might suffer, they still have enough to weather the bad economic times. Most are not so lucky… and that is if they suffer at all. According to Le Monde, wealthy people spent €206 million just on the first day of the auction of the Bergé-Saint Laurent collection. These buyers do not seem to be feeling the crunch. So, who’s buying?

Fortunes beyond anything one can imagine and unlimited budget. These people are discreet and refused to be photographed and they comprise the richest 200 fortunes on the planet. They are bulimic buyers and already own so much that they have lost all sense of value, according to the auction manager. They buy entire collections to display them on huge yachts on which they spend three days a year. So, because it deals with the richest of the rich (Richistan), those who are largely unaffected by the vicissitudes that affect mere mortals, the market for art is also largely unaffected by the economic crisis: if something is put on the market, it will find a buyer.

They are David Korten‘s Cloud Minders. They are protected from structural violence even though they may have contributed to the current conditions. Again, social privilege means not having to live in the risk society of one’s design.

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.

The Sociopathy or Sociology of Traders?

On the sociopathic side, we have this:

And I mean the Santelli rant, which I do not want to embed from YouTube because the comments there are just vile. But do listen to the crowd of traders that surround him, note when they cheer and when they boo.

And then, there were the Enron traders that "managed" the California energy crisis:

Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room, both the book and the film are worth everybody’s time.

This leads me to a post by Denis Colombi (yet, again) on the sociology of trader compensation prompted by the French government’s intention to cap said compensation. Let’s follow Colombi’s analysis:

The Trader as Myth

In the current context, the question of traders’ compensation (translation: the humongous bonuses) have made headlines and attracted political attention. By and large, and following Bourdieu, Colombi argues that compensation reflects not just their position within economic structures of remuneration but also within symbolic structures reflecting relationships of legitimacy as part of their power position in the field of economic relations. The myth (as in foundational culturally-accepted story) of the traders serve to provide legitimacy to their compensation, that is, to make acceptable for a variety of actors, especially political actors. In the current context, one could argue that traders are facing a crisis of legitimacy: their compensation is now viewed with some skepticism even though the structure of the field itself might remain unaffected.

So, what is the myth or social representation of the trader? Christian Bale in American Psycho? The trader has become a shortcut for any kind of "Wall Street" worker, a player in the world of wealth and finance (Colombi also mention the crush of my youth, Largo Winch although the feminist in me might probably cringe at some of the stuff). The trader has also become personified in the media through the highly-publicized cases of Nick Leeson and Jérôme Kerviel, embodying the typification (in Schütz‘s sense) of the trader. The persuasive strength of the representation is based on the idea of extreme power that can impress as much as terrify because competence at playing high-stakes financial games is borderline sociopathic. The Golden Boy can easily be turned into the psycho-killer but both representations involve some super-human powers in terms of capacity to influence and manipulate social reality on a global scale… which is why the two traders mentioned above contribute to the persuasiveness of the myth of the super-powerful being who can single-handedly destroy giant transnational financial institutions as much and generate enormous wealth for them.

Traders have power of life and death (in terms of employment and livelihood) over the masses below them on the social ladder. In that context, indifference to human life is a job qualification. The price to pay for enormous competence only accessible to a few. After all who can understand global financial mechanisms (not even the players themselves apparently)… Didn’t Thomas Friedman tell us years ago that no one was in charge of globalization? Traders are the only ones who have access to the esoteric knowledge that allows them to navigate the global financial system and manipulate it. At least that’s the representation.

When it comes to compensation, their stratospheric levels are based on two elements of the myth, according to Colombi:

  1. The trader has an important job involving high risks not just for him (he’s a man, of course… capitalism ain’t for girls or the faint of heart) but for society as a whole, as exposed by the financial crises experienced by the global system in the past 20 years.

  2. The trader needs these super-human qualities to exercise such a dangerous function. In order to properly "work" the system, he needs certainly some diplomas and degrees (as classical or traditional legitimation) but also to be exempt from some of society’s moral restraints(I might add) along with charisma and exceptional personality.

All this is part of the justification discourse on high compensation.

In times of economic crisis, these elements can turn against the traders or their employers (the Enron tapes were damning for the entire company). In good times, the traders are treated like the high priests of global finance, endowed with special knowledge, incomprehensible for us mere mortals. But this means that when things go South, the entire class suffers from contestation of their power and a loss of legitimacy. After all, society lets them roam free based on the idea that they will police themselves (like that ever worked) and besides, one for the source of legitimacy of the traders is the principle of rational efficiency: the good ones make money, the bad ones don’t and the system sorts them out without any need for outside interference.

When things become critical (as "in crisis"), all trading activity becomes "speculation" as the questionable activity of gambling for gambling’s sake without any social utility. In this sense, speculation becomes the archetype of the disembedded economic activity but with devastatingly real consequences that the traders never considers or suffers. All of a sudden, societies discover in their midst social actors with no sense of citizenship and civility.

Trading Power (pun intended)

For Colombi, as much as the crisis might cause a loss of legitimacy of the traders, as class, it does not undermine the relationships of economic power that underpins their existence as class, again. For instance, high compensations are presented as a means to motivate them to work harder and more effectively (Thanks, VeganProf for finally explaining the difference between effectively and efficiently to me!) in the interest of their employers and not just themselves. However, the bonuses that have been so discussed and questioned (by Presidents Sarkozy and Obama, for instance) are not distributed on a class basis but on an individual basis. If bonuses are incentives, as the common discourse goes, rather than rewards, they cannot be attributed individually.

Citing Olivier Godechot‘s work, Colombi proposes an alternative: rather than rewards or incentives, bonuses are part of hold-ups (ransom?). When an individual loses or leaves a job, s/he takes with her/him a body of knowledge, competencies, information and relationships which will allow them to demand greater compensation from her/his next employer who will want to acquire such knowledge, competencies, information and relationships, all social and cultural capital that can be translated into economic capital. And these social relationships are essential. Far from being a purely rational world dominated by abstract laws, the market is actually highly personalized (hence the importance and utility of economic sociology). The possession of a network of relationships is therefore a major source of power especially when the individual trader is the only link between two other nodes in the network.

However, social capital takes time to build along with a network. This means, according to Colombi, that the banks, as employers, invest in a trader for the months that it will take for him to build social capital in a profitable fashion. The problem is that social capital is highly transferable once someone has it. The return on investment might go to another employer. As much as social capital is collectively produced (it takes more than one individual to create it), it is individually enjoyed and will derive high financial compensation for whoever possesses it.

And indeed, when talks of capping or even eliminating bonuses started in the United States, for companies that took bailout money, the pushback from the financial world was immediately that the oh-so competent traders were all going to leave and go work in other countries, for competitor companies. For Godechot, this potential blackmail ("give me my bonus or I’ll leave and you’ll be hurt") is the equivalent of the armed robber holding a gun to the cashier’s head. Is it only hold-up or truly hostage-taking?

Social Privilege as Skillful Impression Management

Let me put it differently. The difference then lies in certain criminals functioning from an upper-class, dominant habitus which entitles them to a better – read "non-criminal" – social perception. Their cultural and social capital allows them to be viewed as upstanding individuals.

This is really no different than arguing, as Bourdieu and Passeron argued in La Reproduction, that white-collar criminals – such as Madoff – possess a dominant habitus and forms of capital that make them more at ease within social settings from which they will commit their crimes, just like upper-class kids have a habitus that match more closely the cultural expectations of the educational system (manners, speech patterns, etc.) which makes them more at home within the system and creates a more peer-like relationship with the teachers.

In the case of white-collar criminals, their upper-class habitus is basically a guarantee of initial non-criminal perception. In this sense, social privilege turns into a form of interactive skill: the capacity to produce effective impression management.

It is partly this possession of a habitus that is more homologous to that of members of the criminal justice system (especially the judicial part of it) that explains the kid globe glove (thanks, Jay!) treatment white-collar and corporate criminals receive, compared to the punishment handed down to the riff-raff who commit less socially costly crimes, but have the misfortune of a subordinate habitus that endowed them with less social and cultural capital, more at odds with the norms of the criminal justice system.

And as Todd Krohn notes, not only do upper-class criminals get treated significantly more leniently than street criminals, they also get to not be entirely blamed for the crimes they have committed. Indeed, regarding street criminals, one will often invoke "don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time" motto, whereas for white-collar criminals like Madoff

It’s actually a two-fer: Madoff gets some exoneration and the system also escapes blame as responsibility for the current troubles gets redirected from political and structural considerations to moral ones attributed to people lower on the social ladder.