Understanding society is not coherent without an understanding of the thirst for social status. It is difficult to overstate – this desire dominates the psychology of most of society’s members. Competition for social status is a driving force behind many common behaivours, attitudes and beliefs displayed by many people in almost all societies in history. Occasionally this fact is made plainly obvious or openly acknowledged, but more often than not it is hidden behind some facade of an explanation, where people have the appearance of pursuing some other goal during their attempts to advance their own social status.
Social status is different from power
Social status is different from, though related to, power. It is often said that one of the most fundamental driving motivations in humans is a desire for power. It is certainly true that this drives the actions of some people, including many who would never admit it, and many who haved seized positions of power in all societies. However, the pursuit of social status better describes the motivation of the majority of people, many of whom would willingly choose to give up power in exchange for social status.
Such desire for social status is, of course, not held equally by all people. As a result of genetics and the human environment, it varies in strength in each person. It also competes in people’s hearts with other motivations, such as their moral connections to other humans, with hedonistic pleasure, or simply with habit. Yet, in comparison to these other motivations, it is often disguised or overlooked. And because its influence is less obvious, we learn a great deal about society when we uncover its influence. Understanding its prominence is vital, but this does not imply moral acceptance or encouragement of this phenomenon. Though it is pervasive, it is frequently destructive and will commonly come into conflict with the wellbeing of society and its members. We understand it in order to limit its harm.
Studying social status may be difficult, however, because it may appear to be a somewhat illusionary phenomenon. Any group of humans can select certain characteristics that are deemed to signify status. Some common examples throughout history include the possession of physical strength, the capacity and use of violence, religiousity, moral virtue, conspicuous consumption, financial wealth, material wealth, the possession of rare or exotic objects or tools, the appreciation of obscure pleasures, skill in an occupation, physical attractiveness, the possession of intelligence or knowledge, or the use of charismatic social qualities. The selected qualities change over time and vary in each society, culture or subculture. One of the most useful characterisations of a society is in what attribute it selects as a measure of social status.
Understanding of social status is further confused because those with high social status are not neccessarily those who truly have the qualities in question. They are simply those who are perceived by others as having them. True possession of the qualities eases the way, but having them is neither neccessary nor sufficient for social status. Many examples exist where social status was won through the deceptive management of people’s perception.
What are the indicators of social status?
One strong indicator of a group’s mode of social status is the presence of a broad yet unspoken opinion that certain qualities are generally desirable. They also attract more moral acceptance than if they were not associated with social status. These qualities are widely sought-after and desired (though actual pursuit is related to perception that the social status is obtainable). It is also usually widely accepted, though not always aloud, that the needs of those with high social status ought to be prioritised.
Another common indicator of social status is the unspoken opinion exists that it is morally wrong to behave in a hostile manner towards those with the chosen qualities. This is often coupled with a belief that any attack or hostile action against someone with high social status, verbal or physical, is motivated by jealously. Hostile acts also commonly receive social sanctions even from those who do not possess social status. In this way it social status is different from power, in that sometimes those who oppose power are widely accepted or even celebrated.
Why social status?
This provides us with a strong clue as to the origins of social status, and its relationship to power. When a society faces a crisis, such as a shortage of resources or an attack by outsiders, being in a position of power allows a human to place themselves in an advantagous position that prevents themselves or their children from being harmed. It particularly places them in a position to do so while being able to fend off the attacks from rivals within the group, for example by exercising social power to cause allies to counter-attack the rival. Having power provides a signficant advantage to the individual human.
However, a struggle for power is incrediby damaging to the group. The parties involved will usually damage eachother, but will also bring into the conflict all their allies and consume any resources at their disposal. The end result is a massive loss of wellbeing in the entire group. While the pursuit of power is still overall a viable evolutionary strategy in some cases, and remains central for a minority of humans, any group with a high population of power-seeking humans will inevitably suffer and be less likely to survive as a result.
In contrast, the pursuit of social status is considerably less damaging, at least in the short term. Members of the group achieve success without direct conflict being neccessitated, and through the approval of the group. Behaviours designed to increase social status are generally less harmful to the group than behaviours designed to maximize personal power, particularly if social status is deliberately linked with behaivours that benefit the entire group. For example, a culture that encourages competition to possess knowledge and wisdom encourages a situation where the group and members are better equipped to make decisions for survival.
In this sense, social status is a socially and genetically evolved human tendancy to compete indirectly, under the sanction of the group and governed by socially determined rules, in order to reduce competition’s harm to the group’s overall fortunes. So long as reproduction is dependent on the social fortunes of the individual, some form of competition is inevitable in evolutionary terms. However, through the use of social status a middle ground between perfect cooperation and uninhibited competition is achieved.
The good society
A good society is a society where the primary mode of social status is possession of moral virtue, where moral virtue is the promotion of the wellbeing of fellow humans and life more broadly. Other qualities, including the propensity to work hard or the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, are not ignored or discouraged, but they are only associated with high social status to the extent that they serve a greater moral purpose – the wellbeing of fellow humans and the preservation of life.
The means by which such moral purposes can become the central form of social status is a question of far greater difficultly. Explicit promotion and defence of the value of life is an excellent starting point. However, the greatest caution must be exercised, as social status and its use of social sanctions has a natural vulnerability to be being hijacked or perverted by those who feign moral virtue to achieve social status, or in many cases, power. Such people will pervert moral vitue to promote their own agenda. They will also promote conformity to the perverted agenda. Conformity of opinion has nothing at all to do with moral virtue. Walking a moral path in life is incredibly complex and difficult, and for those willing to walk the path, it is only discovered through investigation, discussion and contemplation. Unity of opinion, even amongst those with honest motives, only appears when the way, in all its complexity, becomes clear.
This should not deter solid action however. The pursuit of social status will for now remain one of the most common and powerful human motivations, and our selection of its specifics in such an age as this will determine whether we thrive, or whether we, as a civilisation, die. Therefore, for those of us that care for humanity’s future, we must work hard and without hesitation to deny or award social status based on a simple principle – the honest pursuit of morality and the preservation of life.