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The Status Seekers

The majority of Americans rate acquaintances and are themselves being rated in return. They believe that some people rate somewhere above them, that some others rate somewhere below them, and that still others seem to rate close enough to their own level to permit them to explore the possibility of getting to know them socially without fear of being snubbed or appearing to-downgrade themselves

When any of us moves into a new neighborhood -- and 33,000,000 Americans now do this every year -- we are quickly and critically appraised by our new neighbors and business acquaintances before being accepted or rejected for their group. We, in turn, are appraising them and in many cases attempt not to commit what some regard as the horrid error of getting in with the wrong crowd.

Furthermore, most of us surround ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, with status symbols we hope will influence the raters appraising us, and which we hope will help establish some social distance between ourselves and those: we consider below us. The vigorous merchandising of goods as status symbols by advertisers is playing a major role in intensifying status consciousness. Emotionally insecure people are most vulnerable.

Others of us, less expert in the nuances of status symbols or more indifferent to them, persist in modes of behavior and in displays of taste that themselves serve as barriers in separating us from the group to which we may secretly aspire. They can keep us in our place. If we aspire to rise in the world but fail to take on the coloration of the group we aspire to -- by failing to discard our old status symbols, friends, club memberships, values, behavior patterns, and acquiring new ones esteemed by the higher group -- our chances of success are diminished. Sociologists have found that our home addresses, our friends, our clubs, our values, and even our church affiliations can prove to be "barriers" if we fail to change them with every attempted move up the ladder. This is a most disheartening situation to find in the nation that poses as the model for the democratic world.

Many people are badly distressed, and scared, by the anxieties, inferiority feelings, and straining generated by this unending process of rating and status striving. The status seekers, as I use the term, are people who are continually straining to surround themselves with visible evidence of the superior rank they are claiming. The preoccupation of millions of Americans with status is intensifying social stratification in the United States. Those who need to worry least about how they are going to come out in the ratings are those who, in the words of Louis Kronenberger, are "Protestant, well-fixed, college-bred."(2)

Even our children soon become aware of the class labels that are on their families and are aware of the boundaries that circumscribe their own daily movement. If even children know the facts of class, you may inquire, why is it that so many opinion molders have been announcing their conclusion that classes are disappearing?

The discrepancy arises partly as a result of a generalized desire on the part of United States adults -- particularly businessmen -- to support the American Dream. Also it arises from the widespread assumption that the recent general rise in available spending money in this country is making everybody equal. Class, in fact, has several faces and income is just one of them. With the general diffusion of wealth, there has been a crumbling of visible class lines now that such one-time upperclass symbols as limousines, power boats, and mink coats are available to a variety of people. Coincidentally, there has been a scrambling to find new ways to draw lines that will separate the elect from the non-elect.

A working-class man, however, does not move up into another social class just by being able to buy a limousine, either by cash or installment, and he knows it. In terms of his productive role in our society -- in contrast to his consuming role -- class lines in America are becoming more rigid, rather than withering away.