The Nature of Social Class

The following are six characteristics of social class:

Social Classes exhibit status:

Social class and status are not equivalent concepts although they do have an important relationship. Status generally refers to one’s rank in the social system, as perceived by other members of society. An individual’s status therefore is a function not only of the social class to which he belongs but also of his personal characteristics. For example, the fact that an individual is a scientists man that she has a high rank in the total social system. However, scientists employed by a prestigious research institute earning $75,000 a year will have higher status or rank than a scientist employed by a small firm and earning $35,000 even though both may be members of the same social class. Moreover, an individual’s personal contributions to society will help determine his or her status. A scientist who discovers a breakthrough in laser technology, for example will have higher status than another who has made no such significant contribution.

Each society subjectively establishes its set of values. These values are reflected in the ideal types of people in that society. That is, those ho more nearly conform to the ideal are accorded more respect and prestige, while those who conform less nearly are ranked lower by the society. In one country members of the armed services may be accorded the greatest prestige, in another politician educators or business people may be selected. The particular criteria used, as well as their relative weights, are determined by the values which that society stresses. Factors that seem to be important in determining status are: authority over others, power (political, economic, military) ownership of property, income, consumption patterns and lifestyle, occupation, education, public service, ancestry and association (ties and connections).

Symbols of Status:

People buy products for what the products man as well as what they can do. That is, products and services are seen to have personal and social meanings in addition to their purely functional purpose. This idea was expressed long ago by Thorstein Veblen, who suggested that there is a tendency by some members of each social class to conspicuous consumption while others spend more conservatively. By conspicuous consumptions Veblen referred to consumers purchasing things that they do not really need so that others can see what they have done. The things consumers buy become symbols telling others who they are and what their social class is. Even today, research indicates that status symbolization is alive and well, that status consciousness of material items remains an important aspect of American culture. Illustrating this idea was a recent study that ranked the following as top luxury marketers in their respective categories: Absolut Vodka (liquor) Lincoln (US automotive), Mercedes- Benz (imported automotive), MGM Grand Air (travel), Sony (consumer electronics). Channel and Ralph Lauren (tied in fashion and apparel). Rolex (jewelry), Henredon and Waterford (tied in home furnishings) In spite of the importance of luxury status symbols as we saw, cultural values are shifting. As a result, conspicuous consumption by the really rich is déclassé. They appear to be shunning prestige items frivolity and a lavish display of wealth – this ostentation is for the nouveau riche – because it’s not socially acceptable. Such stealth wealth means some people don’t want to show off; they are more apt to buy quality items that are quieter and that don’t scream money, glamour, and glitz.

In a complex society in which financial wealth dictates status one’s possessions becomes a substitute indicator of the individual’s worth, value, wealth and so forth. Possessions, therefore, take the place of income as an indicator of status, since we aren’t likely to know too much others are paid. Consequently, there may be members of a society at each social class level who seek to achieve a certain higher status by virtue of their possessions. It should be noted, however, that others at the same level may be content to save more and spend much less extravagantly.

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