The many faces of status

post by Morendil · 2010-04-15T15:31:03.163Z · score: 39 (46 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 109 comments


  Dominance hierarchies
  Social stratification
  Self-esteem and the seesaw
  Positive sum self-esteem transactions?

The term "status" gets used on LessWrong a lot. Google finds 316 instances; the aggregate total for the phrases "low status" and "high status" (which suggest more precision than "status" by itself) is 170. By way of comparison, "many worlds", an important topic here, yields 164 instances.

We find the term used as an explanation, for instance, "to give offense is to imply that a person or group has or should have low status". In this community I would expect that a term used often, with authoritative connotations, and offered as an explanation could be tabooed readily, for instance when someone confused by this or that use asks for clarification: previous discussions of "high status" or "low status" behaviours seemed to flounder in the particular way that definitional arguments often do.

Somewhat to my surprise, there turned out not to be a commonly understood way of tabooing "status". Lacking a satisfactory unpacking of the "status" terms and how they should control anticipation, I decided to explore the topic on my own, and my intention here is to report back and provide a basis for further discussion.

The "Status" chapter of Keith Johnstone's 1979 book "Impro", previously discussed here and on OB, is often cited as a reference on the topic (follow this link for an excerpt); I'll refer to it throughout as simply "Johnstone". Also, I plan to entirely avoid the related but distinct concept of "signaling" in this post, reserving it for later examination.

Dominance hierarchies

My initial impression was that "status" had some relation to the theory of dominance hierarchies. Section 3 of Johnstone starts with:

Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them killing each other for food, mates, and so on.  Such animals confront each other, and often fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is made to change the ‘pecking order’. This system is found in animals as diverse as humans, chickens, and woodlice.

This reinforced an impression I had previously acquired: that the term "alpha male", often used in certain circles synonymously with "high status male", indicated an explicit link between the theoretical underpinnings of the term "status" and some sort of dominance theory.

However, substantiating this link turned out a more frustrating task than I had expected. For instance, I looked for primary sources I could turn to for a formal theoretical explanation of what explanatory work the term "alpha male" is supposed to carry out.

It seems that the term was originally coined by David Mech, who studied wolf packs in the 70's. Interestingly, Mech himself now claims the term was misunderstood and used improperly. Here is what David Mech says in a recent (2000) article:

The way in which alpha status has been viewed historically can be seen in studies in which an attempt is made to distinguish future alphas in litters of captive wolf pups [...] This view implies that rank is innate or formed early, and that some wolves are destined to rule the pack, while others are not.

Contrary to this view, I propose that all young wolves are potential breeders and that when they do breed they automatically become alphas (Mech 1970). [...] Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so "alpha" adds no information.

An informal survey of other literature suggests that "alpha male", referring specifically to the pack behaviour disowned by Mech, entered the popular vocabulary by way of dog trainer lore. My personal hunch is that it became entrenched thereafter because it had both a "sciencey" sound, and the appropriate connotations for people who adhered to certain views on gender relationships.

Stepping back to look at dominance theory as a whole, I found that they are not without problems. Pecking order may apply to chickens, but primates vary widely in social organization, lending little support to the thesis that dominance displays, dominance-submission behaviours and so on are as universal as Johnstone suggests and can therefore be thought to shed much light on the complex social organization of humans.

An often discussed example is the Bonobo chimpanzee, where females are dominant over males, and do not establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves, whereas males do; where the behaviours that tend to mediate social stratification is reconciliation rather than conflict, something that is also observed in other animal species, contrary to the prevailing view of dominance hierarchies.

This informal survey was interesting and turned up many surprises, but mostly it convinced me that dominance hierarchies were not a fruitful line of research if I was after a crisp meaning of "status" terms and explanations: either "status" was itself a muddle, or I needed to look for its underpinnings in other disciplines.


Social stratification

Early on in Johnstone there is an interesting discussion of status by way of his recollection of three very different school teachers. At various other points in the chapter he also refers to the stratification of human societies specifically, for instance when he discusses the master-servant relationship.

The teacher example was particularly interesting for me, because one of the uses I might have for status hypotheses is in investigating the Hansonian thesis "Schools aren't about education but about status", and what can possibly be done about that. But to think clearly about such issues one must, in the first place, clarify how the hypothesis "X is about status" controls anticipation about X!

I came across Max Weber (who I must say I hadn't heard of previously), described as one of the founders of modern sociology; and Weber's "three component theory of social stratification", which helped me quite a bit in making sense of some claims about status.

What I got from the Wikipedia summary is that Weber identifies three major dimensions of social stratification:

This list is interesting because of its predictive power: for instance, class and wealth tend to be properties of an individual that change slowly over time, and so when Johnstone refers to ways of elevating one's status within the short time span of a social interaction, we can predict that he isn't talking about class or wealth status.

Power status is more subject to sudden changes, but not usually as a result of informal social interactions: again, power status cannot be what is referred to in the phrase "high status behaviours". Power is very often positional, for instance getting elected President of a powerful country brings a lot of power suddenly, but requires vetting by an elaborate ritual. (Class status can often go hand in hand with power status, but that is not necessarily or systematically the case.)

Prestige status can be expected to depend on both long-term and short-term characteristics. Certain professions are seen as inherently prestigious, often independently of wealth: firemen, for instance. But within a given social stratum, defined by class and power, individuals can acquire prestige through their actions.This is applicable for wide ranges of group sizes. Scientists acquire prestige by working on important topics and publishing important results. Participants in an online community acquire prestige by posting influential articles which shape subsequent discussion, and so on.

But, while it struck me as conceivable to unpack terms like "high status behaviours" as referring to such changes in prestige status, it didn't seem entirely satisfactory. So I kept looking for clues.


Self-esteem and the seesaw

Johnstone refers to status "the see-saw": he sees status transactions as a zero-sum game. To increase your status, he says, is necessarily to lower that of your interlocutor.

This seems at odds with seeing most references to status as meaning "prestige status", since you can acquire prestige without necessarily lower someone else's; also, you can acquire prestige without entering into an interactive social situation. (Think of how a mountaineer's prestige can rise upon the news that they have reached some difficult summit, ahead of their coming back to enjoy the attention.)

However, most of what Johnstone discusses seemed to make sense to me if analyzed instead as self-esteem transactions: interactive behaviour which raises or lowers another's self-esteem or yours.

There is lots of relevant theory to turn to. Some old and possibly discredited - I'm thinking here of "transactional analysis" which I came across years and years ago, which had the interesting concept of a "stroke", a behaviour whereby one raises another's self-esteem; this could also be relevant to analyzing the PUA theory of "negging". (Fun fact: TA is also the origin of the phrase "warm fuzzies".) Some newer and perhaps more solidly based on ev-psych, such as the recently mentioned sociometer theory.

Self-esteem is at any rate an important idea, whether or not we are clear on the underlying causal mechanisms. John Rawls notes that self-esteem is among the "primary social goods" (defined as "the things it is rational to want, whatever else you want", in other words the most widely applicable instrumental values that can help further a wide range of terminal values). It is very difficult to be luminous, to collaborate effectively or to conquer akrasia without some explicit attention to self-esteem.

So here, perhaps, is a fourth status component: the more temporary and more local "self-esteem status".


Positive sum self-esteem transactions?

Where I part company with Johnstone is in seeing self-esteem transactions as a purely zero-sum game. And in fact his early discussion of the three teachers contradicts his own "see-saw" image, painting instead a quite different picture of "status".

He describes one of the teachers as a "low status player", one who couldn't keep discipline, twitched, went red at the slightest provocation: in other words, one with generally low self-esteem. The second he describes as a "compulsive high status player": he terrorized students, "stabbing people with his eyes", walked "with fixity of purpose". In my terms, this would be someone whose behaviours communicated low regard for others' self-esteem, but not necessarily high self-esteem. The third teacher he describes as "a status expert":

Much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

To me, this looks like the description of someone with high self-esteem generally, who is able to temporarily affect his own and others' self-esteem, lowering (to establish authority) or raising (to encourage participation) as appropriate. When done expertly, this isn't manipulative, but rather a game of trust and rapport that people play in all social situations where safety and intimacy allow, and it feels like a positive sum game.

(These transactions, BTW, can be mediated even by relatively low-bandwidth interactions, such as text conversations. I find it fascinating how people can make each other feel various emotions just with words: anger, shame, pride. A forum such as Less Wrong isn't just a place for debate and argument, it is also very much a locus of social interaction. Keeping that in mind is important.)

Detailed analysis of how these transactions work, distilled into practical advice that people can use in everyday settings, is a worthwhile goal, and one that would also advance the cause of effective collaboration among people dedicated to thinking more clearly about the world they inhabit.

Let the discussion stick to that spirit.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by pjeby · 2010-04-15T16:19:22.132Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One component of the way I use the word "status" myself is one's perception of influence or importance within a group.

One's self-perceived influence reflects one's expectation regarding whether one will be treated with respect, listened to or ignored, taken seriously or patronized, appreciated or taken for granted, treated fairly or unfairly, and so on.

I think, that if you taboo "self-esteem", this is a good unpacking of the Status aspect of self-esteem. Prestige, wealth, and all those other things are simply inputs to one's expectations about how one will be treated -- which is why people can have those things and still not act like they have high status. Status in a behavioral sense is a set of emotion-backed high-level predictions about how others will treat us in response to our action.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-04-15T21:27:05.052Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing that Johnstone emphasizes, and which I was a bit surprised you didn't explicitly mention, is that status isn't something you have, it's something you do. For instance, the "status expert" teacher would alternatively raise and lower his own status in relation to that of the students, thereby maintaining an atmosphere that was maximally conductive to learning. The low and high status teachers tried to stuck into just one mode of status, regardless of what was most appropriate to the situation.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn't understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first.

Status is a confusing term unless it's understood as something one does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa.

I don't think this really contradicts the idea of status as a zero-sum game. Also, to support the "status is something you do" case, the book was also full of various improvisation exercises designed to make explicit the different ways of trying to claim status.

External circumstances - like having climbed an especially high mountain - can make it psychologically easier to claim status, but you could still simply not claim it and treat everyone your equal. I suppose part of the confusion that makes people think status is something you have is that it is socially expected that you allow people in certain roles (like kings) to claim status automatically, and people might get uncomfortable if those people refuse to claim it. (You can probably imagine some superior whose refusal to claim higher status and an insistence to act friendly would feel uncomfortable to you.)

I was reading a social psych book on group dynamics a while back, and it defined status as the ability to control the group. A person with a great degree of status is able to choose the topics of conversation, the tone in which different topics are being discussed, as well as how much attention the individual other members get. That's probably still missing some important things, but I think it's the best definition so far. It also explains some things like Yvain's question of why having an interesting medical problem might raise your status - the woman bringing up her medical problem was trying to make the conversation center around herself, i.e. trying to claim status.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:44:17.867Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point. I felt some regret as I posted that I hadn't mentioned this, but it seemed to me that the notion of "self-esteem transactions" I introduced did direct attention to status as something people do.

You can find the relevant quotes about the three teachers in the excerpt I linked to.

status as the ability to control the group

This can be in part a matter of positional power. In my secret identity I am sometimes called on to work with a group as a facilitator: pretty much by definition, my job description is then to control the group (or more precisely the group's process).

Granted, It's not all about the position. I know how to build trust and rapport, and I can even articulate some of how I do that. I suspect that if I was clueless about these things I'd have a hard time facilitating group meetings.

comment by Caspian · 2010-04-16T16:12:03.781Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"status as the ability to control the group"

Since I haven't seen anyone say it explicitly, this type of status is not zero sum. Members of a cooperative group have more ability to influence it then members of an uncooperative group or members of a group lacking confidence to propose actions.

comment by FrankAdamek · 2010-04-16T13:47:28.919Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the post. I feel that status is not difficult (for me) to assess in a group, but I appreciate your pointing out the lack of a solid and predictive definition.

I think that PJ Eby's comment has been closest so far, but that it could be more specific. My best definition so far is:

"The ability to determine the social interaction". (Excluding physical interactions, those having additional complexity). By "determine the interaction" I refer roughly to the ability to control the topic of conversation, and plans of the group.

Everything else discussed feeds into this, and this in turn often feeds into those same things. I.e. Having self-esteem or wealth may help you with this, and having this may help you gain self-esteem and wealth. Extrication is difficult.

At the same time, none of the other factors are required in all interactions. You may have someone who has very low self-esteem, at least generally, yet is the expert on the original Transformers show on a web forum, and has sway there (and acts confidently with sub-communications). You can have a wealthy and famous scientist, who in a group of "regular folks" is extremely diffident. Having the ability to determine the interaction without ANY of the factors discussed (including confidence) seems exceedingly unlikely.

I've been viewing status as a system which resides mostly in the unconscious of the participants in an interaction. Everyone is assessing theirs and others' ability to determine the social interaction, for that group in that situation. These unconscious systems react by controlling the voice, posture, etc, and act as cues for others regarding that person's own assessments. It is simply too difficult for the conscious mind to quickly handle all these assessments and signals.

The group usually will come to a group assessment, based on the assessments of each member. E.g. if everyone else is treating someone as high status (able to determine the interaction), you are more prone to make the same assessment. If someone acts like they have this ability, your unconscious is thinking that they probably have this ability, and will be more likely to react like they do. The system is there in order to quickly and effectively determine who leads a group, and over time the most capable members of a group will tend to assess their own ability the highest and project the strongest signals (conjecture). It also displays who has the most "resources" (such as ability, supporters, food, and furs). I'm doubtful that currency and prestigious specialty professions have been around long enough for us to adapt specifically to them in an evolutionary sense.

Factors such as class, wealth, and prestige affect how strongly you assess your ability to determine the interaction. When visible to others, depending on the person they may affect how strongly they assess your ability to do this. Apparent knowledge of a domain helps to provide this ability in a given situation. Being interesting, funny, or beautiful also helps to provide this ability. Though even in these cases it would still be possible to be ignored, if the majority of participants didn't assess you as having the ability to control the interaction, for whatever reason. (Beauty might take you far, but beauty without knowledge won't serve you that well in an esoteric scientific discussion with many participants).

A different kind of "status" would be when visible wealth or prestigious attracts others to a person, based on more conscious preferences and assessments of benefit, separate from actually caring what that person says. You might have a billionaire who couldn't for the life of her convince a group where they should eat for lunch without paying for them, but well, she COULD pay for them. Of course, a person could have both types of status.

The assessment of ability to determine the interaction varies based on situation (a bunch of fellow scientists vs a bunch of attractive women, perhaps), but the underlying system changes on the time scale of any largely unconscious process. It may "have a rule" that when someone compliments you on your ability, your'e more able to determine the interaction, but it's hard to change those rules, such as "you don't know what you (can) say around a bunch of attractive guys". If the system were easy to "game", it wouldn't make for a very good way to actually organize groups. I know of some very smart people who hate working in groups, partly because unconsciously they don't currently assess or project a high ability to control the interaction, and are therefore unable to get people to listen to their good ideas.

Relating to PUA literature "shit tests", people can test others' signals (and assessments) of their own ability to control the interaction. If you apply a little pressure and their assessment changes, it wasn't that strong. If they still are convinced they have that ability, it makes it seem more likely that they really do, (and have the skills and resources to back it up).

I don't have much in the way of references or data, my hope is that if what I've written makes sense, your experiences with people will corroborate it. I agree that it seems unlikely that humans would lack any dominance theory, and it seems like we have one, albeit a complex and potentially loose one.

comment by Caspian · 2010-04-16T15:31:34.866Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Johnstone portrayed of status as being zero sum, but it wasn't a zero-sum game where each person always tried to maximise their status. Sometimes they'd lower it deliberately. And since he wasn't using it in the self-esteem sense, they might even be having fun while lowering it. So I think it could be a positive sum game in terms of utility while being zero sum in terms of (this type of) status.

This is an interesting subject for me as I kind of enjoy playful teasing but don't feel like I've really got the hang of doing it myself. Sometimes I manage it and then I'm half-surprised I managed it without upsetting the other person.

But it makes sense since this type of conversational status isn't the same as the status people get most worried about.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T13:19:18.370Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is an interesting party game played with cards that for some reason I only remembered just now. Here is how I recall it.

You take a group of people and assign each of them a card from the deck, Ace high, deuces low. You give everyone a headband so that they can carry the card around on their foreheads, where others can see it but they can't. You have the group mill around talking to each other, instructing them to take into account the rank of the person they're talking to. After some time you ask people to pocket their cards, mill around some more, then line up in what they think is the order corresponding to their rank.

To the extent that this order reflects the card ranks, we can conclude that social interactions act as a carrier for information that allows people to sense a linear hierarchy. (I can't remember, when I played it, how close the match was.)

comment by JackChristopher · 2010-04-29T02:47:23.404Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you're describing is a canonical warm up game in improv acting.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-29T09:27:35.873Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ooooh, thanks. I'm not surprised to find out about the status-improv link, with Johnstone as the point of departure in my investigation.

But follow the hyperlinked term "Status" in the page you linked to, and what do I read?

Status is a character's sense of self-esteem.

comment by JackChristopher · 2010-05-01T01:41:54.011Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I always felt that LW/OB in general were/are using "status" in different ways than I understood it from studying improv acting.

pjeby's highly voted comment best sums how I always thought about "status".

On the dominance hierarchy theory: We should taboo "dominance", and "submission" for that matter. What do we mean then?

comment by ata · 2010-04-16T00:40:13.320Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this. I've noticed that it's tempting (and all too easy) to construct just-so stories explaining any behaviour in terms of whatever status we are already assuming the actor holds (one illustration of this: Eliezer's list of hypotheses for why high-status people seem stupider, versus thomblake's response listing some equally reasonable-sounding hypotheses for why high-status people seem smarter). And if we see someone behaving in a way that contradicts our perception of their status and some popular signaling hypothesis, we can call it countersignaling and have that feel like an explanation even though we failed to anticipate it. Hopefully, formalizing what we mean by "status" will be a good step toward making status/signaling hypotheses testable and falsifiable.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-16T10:56:06.458Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And if we see someone behaving in a way that contradicts our perception of their status and some popular signaling hypothesis, we can call it countersignaling and have that feel like an explanation even though we failed to anticipate it.

What about when we know exactly what we are doing, predict it in others based on context and personality and find it the simplest way to explain what is going on?

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-04-15T21:45:00.997Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Status is one of those cases where it's easy to mix up concepts that're related by levels of indirection. A person's status is (A) the amount of power and accomplishment they have, (B) other peoples' perception of A, (C) their own perception of A and B, and (D) the signals they give off based on C. When people talk about status, they're referring to some subset of A,B,C,D. Except that B, C, and D are all based in psychology, which means that they can be severed from their nominal definitions by implementation details. But the relations between the definitions mean that usually, statements involving one also involve the others.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:53:37.219Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you interpret Mrs X's complaint in light of the above theory?

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-04-15T22:56:41.280Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They're executing adaptations that're supposed to make them compete over status (as others' perception), but they hit a corner case which flips the sign of the link between status (as others' perception) and status (as actual worth). This makes the conversation funny, and also makes all the participants very low status in the eyes of an outside observer, to whom the flipped sign does not apply.

comment by HughRistik · 2010-04-15T18:41:59.734Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another face of status is the concept of "social stimulus value," which basically means how positively others respond and evaluate you. Social stimulus value could be a measure of "bottom up" status granted by others, as opposed to "top down" status claimed by oneself, and it seems to be consistent.. The introduction to this study talks more about social stimulus value.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:17:22.299Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting, thanks. This is behind a paywall so I'll defer closer examination for the time being, do you have more information? Does "social stimulus value" include things such as physical attractiveness?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-04-16T05:54:32.402Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the Bonobo chimpanzee, where not establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves

Where do you get these beliefs?

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-16T18:41:33.321Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Speculation: from a network of opinions and research that, while credentialed and credible, is ultimately motivated by feminism's delight in debunking any kind of dominance other than that of the patriarchy over its victims. I don't mean that the work he used is poor; only that it was preferentially rewarded and promulgated by such a desire.

Anyway, who cares if dominance is overblown in other primates? We can and should study human behavior directly - while some aspects of it may be close to our cousins, different aspects evolve at different rates.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T06:23:13.640Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not going to answer that, as you have access to the same tools for research that I do, and are welcome to post pointers to better evidence if you have them.

I will note that the way you framed this question is a wonderful example of what I refer to in the post as "self-esteem transactions" over text channels. Whether intentional or not, this comes across as a query crafted to lower the addressee's self-esteem ever so slightly.

"What planet are you from?" is the same sort of line, a little blunter.

comment by Jack · 2010-04-16T06:58:37.329Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no comment on the status issues in this exchange but I am a little confused about the question of dominance hierarchy among Bonobo females.

Wikipedia says

While social hierarchies do exist, rank does not play so prominent a role as it does in other primate societies.

This article HughRistik linked me to refers to an Alpha female.

Here is an abstract on the issue.

While dominance relationships have been widely studied in chimpanzees, in bonobos, dominance style and linearity of hierarchy are still under debate. In fact, some authors stated that bonobo hierarchy is nonlinear/ill-defined, while others claimed that it is fairly linear. In this paper, we test the hypothesis that a shift in group composition determines changes in linearity of hierarchy. To test this hypothesis, we collected data on one of the largest captive groups in the world, in the Apenheul Primate Park (The Netherlands). We investigated the linearity of the hierarchy in two different periods, with a shifting group composition. We used the corrected Landau's index and David's scores to estimate which animals were most dominant. The major overall result of our study is that hierarchy is fairly nonlinear in this group: during the first study period (eight adults), the hierarchy was nonlinear, whereas during the second one (six adults), it failed to reach statistical linearity. We argue that the reduction of the number of adults is the principal factor affecting linearity. We also found that dominance interactions were evenly distributed across sex classes in both study periods. Furthermore, no correlation was observed between age/body weight and rank. As for the overall dominance relationship between males and females, our results suggest that there is no exclusive female dominance in the Apenheul group. The dominance style of bonobos may be loose and differentially expressed in diverse groups or in the same group, along with shifting conditions.

In addition to the bolded, this suggests that dominance theory is a useful lens even for studying Bonobos; even if Bonobo hierarchies aren't linear, they're still hierarchies.

And then this

As Frans de Waal has explored in various books, especially his Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (with Frans Lanting), bonobos have a mostly female hierarchy, but there is also a male hierarchy. It’s just that the male hierarchy is about being attractive to the females. Since mating is not controlled by either sex, fitness here is determined by how well the individual is accepted by the entire troop, unlike with gorillas or the common chimp, where male control is the norm.*

This is just from googling "Bonobo female hierarchy". So it does seem reasonable for Doug to ask for a cite.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T07:13:37.206Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My source is this article, the very first Google hit for "bonobo dominance hierarchy", which (apparently citing de Waal), states bluntly "There is no true dominance hierarchy for females; rather they are called 'influential' females."

it does seem reasonable for Doug to ask for a cite.

Do note how you obtain better results if you know to ask nicely.

My main point is that the Bonobo social organization puts, to say the least, a very different set of connotations on the term "alpha" than it carries in everyday discourse or in PUA lore, and that we should look with at least some caution at our theories of dominance as applied to the human animal.

comment by Jack · 2010-04-16T08:16:01.271Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do note how you obtain better results if you know to ask nicely.

I think "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" should be a rationalism quote.

My main point is that the Bonobo social organization puts, to say the least, a very different set of connotations on the term "alpha" than it carries in everyday discourse or in PUA lore, and that we should look with at least some caution at our theories of dominance as applied to the human animal.

Taking facts about primate dominance hierarchies and just assuming they map onto humans is certainly epistemologically irresponsible. But given that dominance hierarchies appear, in one form or another, throughout the rest of the primate kingdom, I would be quite surprised if there weren't similar features in human social organization. Pick up artist literature, the successes of the movement aside, is certainly not a serious scientific attempt to assert a theory of dominance hierarchies in humans. But since dominance hierarchies play an incredibly significant role in mate selection among primates, one way to detect dominance hierarchies among humans, I think, is to pay attention to who has their pick of the opposite sex. So I find it highly plausible that who PUA/every day discourse would refer to as "alpha" is approximately who a socio-biological analysis of human groups would refer to as "alpha".

One of the reasons the dominance theory perspective on status appeals to people here, I suspect, is that it happens to do a pretty good job reflecting how status plays out in our lives. There is a reason "alpha" talk was adopted in the first place. Traits that are like the behavior of bottom of the hierarchy primates indicates low status in humans (small size, passivity, few if any mating prospects) and traits that are like that of top of the hierarchy primates indicates high status (size, aggression, mates the most). All else being equal, that is. Obviously this is all complicated in humans by wealth, governments, class, culture etc. But it makes a lot of sense to look to dominance hierarchies as the evolutionary source of human status. We can test this hypothesis: What I listed above as the traits associated with the different ends of status hierarchies in primates is all I know and mostly based on recollection and common knowledge. Assuming there are primatologist accounts of additional behaviors associated with the different ends of the dominance hierarchies we can check to see if they correspond to our notion of status.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-16T18:22:08.787Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people employing heuristics and strategies for becoming better-liked or more-influential (PUA included) ultimately get their views from observation of human behavior (or some guru-regurgitated version thereof). That they sometimes make wooly arguments by analogy to some story about a pack of wolves, or paleolithic man, is indeed shameful, but I'm sure that they aren't actually studying animals and then using those conclusions to guide their interactions with people.

comment by thomblake · 2010-04-16T18:37:27.571Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do note how you obtain better results if you know to ask nicely.

Where do you get these beliefs?

That did not seem particularly impolite to me. Isn't it ordinary to expect a rationalist to have some idea where their beliefs come from, especially for empirical generalizations?

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T19:03:20.321Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That did not seem particularly impolite to me.

I didn't say it was impolite. I do assert that it was a putdown. You can try a few variants:

"What is your source for this assertion?" - more formal, clear and exact. "Where do you get this" - the brisker, more informal version, still acceptable.

The chosen phrasing conveys incredulity and a subtext that I'm making things up: the connotationally active term is "belief" instead of "information" - the latter would convey a presumption that I'm in fact well informed, and would be a more charitable interpretation.

There is an additional charge of contempt carried by the word "these" instead of "that", since the quoted passage about which the question was asked contained a single assertion of fact. The image that comes up is a hand waved at the context of the quoted passage, as if the latter was just one particularly outrageous example picked among others.

"These beliefs strike me as odd" would be a more respectful phrasing; the presumption of imaginings vs information is still there, but the locutor at least owns up to that presumption: "strikes me" is a useful phrase for doing that.

With "where do you get" added to the mix, you have a triple whammy. The "you" form generally puts the interlocutor on the defensive, it easily comes off as an accusation.

So "where do you get these beliefs" carries the following connotations:

  • you are making shit up
  • the above is just one example, I had to start somewhere
  • you should know better than to try that on me

The tone is technically polite, but that only adds to the insult. There are usually many, many ways to choose how to say any given thing, so the particular way you pick is never innocent.

Whoever masters the skill of the artful putdown wields great power indeed...

...especially if they also know the next ploy: to accuse the offended party of "reading too much" into an "innocent" remark, meant "in good humor". That one is a mainstay of the verbal bully.

comment by thomblake · 2010-04-16T19:54:15.435Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the thorough reply! I'm often in the position of making comments like "where do you get these beliefs" (at least, judging by the responses I get) and (honestly) responding that the offended party was reading too much into an innocent remark meant in good humor. I usually try to dissect the thing after to figure out what went wrong.

It didn't occur to me that 'belief' might have weird connotations since I usually mean it in the purely epistemic sense; a different phrasing might be 'putative knowledge' which sounds much less nice to me. It seems someone dubious about your assertion's value might even have to call it 'putative information' rather than 'information', so I'm not sure that helps much.

Also, 'you' didn't strike me as odd since it was directed at you, and the question certainly wasn't about where some other person got their beliefs. That said, my wife complains about my use of pronouns like that regularly. For example, I might say "your car", "my car", or "our car" interchangeably with no particular intent since they unambiguously refer to the same car, but she will read something into particularly "your car" so I've been on my guard about the pronoun "you" lately. On even more of a tangent, I wonder if this relates to uncomfortableness about the various pronouns for 'you' in Japanese language.

Did you study how to unpack these things, or is this one of those things that goes with being neurotypical?

comment by pjeby · 2010-04-16T21:54:15.908Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It didn't occur to me that 'belief' might have weird connotations since I usually mean it in the purely epistemic sense; a different phrasing might be 'putative knowledge' which sounds much less nice to me. It seems someone dubious about your assertion's value might even have to call it 'putative information' rather than 'information', so I'm not sure that helps much.

One of my mentors once suggested "So, what led you to that conclusion?" as a relatively neutral way to probe the origin of a belief, without connoting disbelief or disagreement.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-04-16T22:11:32.803Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[citation needed]

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T20:28:33.911Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reminds me of the constant teasing my wife and I trade about "your kids" and "my kids". Denotationally the same, but the connotations of the possessive are quite strong.

Study - no, at least no more than you could say I've studied language in general and how we do things with words. Maybe more sensitive to "these things" than is typical.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-16T10:44:10.377Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will note that the way you framed this question is a wonderful example of what I refer to in the post as "self-esteem transactions" over text channels.

I will note that as Douglas's question carried a status transaction it gave you an excuse to reply with your own far more powerful status message, which in many cases leaves even important questions unanswered. (I myself prefer to ignore all "Where is your evidence!" demands when I think the question is mostly social rhetoric.)

Fortunately Jack ignored both transactions and gave a well thought out position on the topic in this instance. I was quite uncomfortable myself with the conclusion that Bonobo social behaviours were being used to support but I think Jack gave a far more complete response that I would have.

comment by FrankAdamek · 2010-04-16T13:58:41.233Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your post also contains a pretty nice status transaction.

God I love recursion.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-16T14:13:15.294Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your post also contains a pretty nice status transaction.

Two. I'd like to think they were both positive sum.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T13:03:51.885Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

your own far more powerful status message

Flattery will get you anywhere with me.

Kidding aside, don't you think the very fact that we are using purely linguistic interactions as a medium for those transactions is evidence that they may have little to do with our primate inheritance?

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-16T14:20:22.991Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kidding aside, don't you think the very fact that we are using purely linguistic interactions as a medium for those transactions is evidence that they may have little to do with our primate inheritance?

There is a large variation in the types of signals used for status tractions among primates, from violence and sex through to posture and vocalisations. By going linguistic with we have merely spiralled our primate status transactions off towards an extreme.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-16T18:22:52.501Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'll show him yours if he'll show you his?

comment by Jack · 2010-04-15T22:48:54.137Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Stepping back to look at dominance theory as a whole, I found that they are not without problems. Pecking order may apply to chickens, but primates vary widely in social organization, lending little support to the thesis that dominance displays, dominance-submission behaviours and so on are as universal as Johnstone suggests and can therefore be thought to shed much light on the complex social organization of humans.

I'm just googling around but it looks like the default for multi-male, multi-female primate societies is a linear dominance hierarchy. The existence of Bonobos suggests whatever status programming we have might be more flexible than some claim. And that's a really interesting notion and ought to be explored. But I don't think it is sufficient for throwing out dominance theory. It seems reasonable to infer, even without knowing anything about human group structure, just from facts about other primates, that humans likely have some kind of dominance hierarchy. And if actual humans (like us!, we're authorities!) feel like these theories capture some of what we mean by status in human groups then some of the insights we find in primatology are probably applicable to humans. Bonobos are likely the exception, not the norm. Moreover, it looks like primatologists don't have any problem using the word "alpha" to describe those on the top of these dominance hierarchies (If people are really too busy to just google through these things I can go back and pull out examples).

I think the dominance hierarchy is probably about the same thing as prestige status. Prestige status does confer power over small groups. But it would be a very messy way to organize very large groups. I think power and wealth status are likely constructions that are much newer than prestige status. They're part of how we organize large (100+ ?, 1000+ ?) societies, societies much bigger than any in the ancestral environment. These kinds of status are more flexible in form (in just a decade we can go from comfortable monarchy to comfortable democracy) but more stable in internal structure, in which individuals have the highest status. I suspect it gets a lot harder to compute hierarchies as group size expands. In a group of 1000 the 100 with the highest status is hard to determine. The 100 with the most wealth is relatively easy to determine. And it also isn't likely to change any time soon (whereas prestige could). We also probably lack programming that helps us make sense of these kinds of status whereas we are more likely to in the case of prestige. Occasionally of course, prestige status issues will come up in the context of broad social organization. For example, prestige status may influence the outcome of close elections.

comment by HughRistik · 2010-04-15T23:18:02.752Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interestingly, it seems that bonobos do have what primatologists call "alpha males".

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-15T21:22:26.768Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find I have a better grasp on the meaning of 'status' than I do on the meaning of 'self-esteem'. Status is clearly a complex phenomenon and somewhat hard to define but it is somewhat objectively visible (people can generally agree on who has high status and who has low status in a given situation). 'Self-esteem' seems a much woollier concept and more subjective. I found your overview of status quite interesting but you lost me a bit when you tried to explain 'status' (which I feel I have a pretty good 'I know it when I see it' understanding of) in terms of 'self-esteem' (which I don't feel I have a very good grasp of as a concept and am not sure I fully understand your usage of).

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:37:41.316Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, that's useful feedback.

Here is a suggestion. I might agree that "people can generally agree on who has high status and who has low status in a given situation". A useful question is, once you correct for class, power and prestige, do you expect that anything remains to be explained about people's ability to agree on who has high status?

In other words, if we somehow accounted for all discernible hints of class, power and prestige, would you expect that people's judgements of "X has higher status than Y here" would still be correlated with something?

If yes, what do you think that "something" would be?

Johnstone suggests that we would see correlations between such judgements and things like "moving your head while speaking".

My hypothesis is that (barring pathological conditions such as Parkinson's disease), if there is anything to Johnstone's observations, moving your head while speaking should be correlated with positive answers to questions such as the following: "Do you think of yourself as a person of high value? Do you think you can achieve pretty much anything you set your mind to? Do you think you deserve to lead a happy, successful life?", etc.

That is, I do not deny that Johnstone, by profession (and by admiration for Desmond Morris) a keen observer of the human animal, had insightful observations. I do think that "status" is a confusing term to use to label his observations, because it is too easily conflated with "class, power, prestige".

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-15T22:06:10.815Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here is a suggestion. I might agree that "people can generally agree on who has high status and who has low status in a given situation". A useful question is, once you correct for class, power and prestige, do you expect that anything remains to be explained about people's ability to agree on who has high status?

I think my qualification about agreements on status in a given situation is important and somewhat independent of class, power and prestige. Wealth, class, power and prestige are all factors in status but within a given social situation where these are fairly evenly matched they are not the deciding factors in who comes out on top in any status games. In social situations where there is incomplete information about the relative levels of these things status moves are a complex game which are partly attempts to signal these qualities and figure out relative rankings.

I would expect that if you took a group of strangers and placed them in a social situation together you could find agreement within the group and from observers over what relative status was achieved that could not be fully explained by wealth, class, power or prestige.

It is interesting to observe people in situations where they do not have the pre-qualification of status normally granted by wealth, power, class or prestige. There's a fairly run of the mill reality show on TV at the moment called Undercover Boss, the premise of which is that a CEO goes undercover at his own company and works entry-level jobs. I've caught a few episodes and found it quite interesting to observe how some of the participants seem to maintain status even without anyone knowing who they are while others cannot without the benefit of the external factors that usually grant them status.

comment by alexflint · 2010-04-16T11:40:58.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to use "CPP" to refer to "class, power, and prestige".

I agree that CPP is by itself insufficient to predict consensus about a person's status. However, consider the following. Suppose we put a group of strangers in a room, and one person (call them S) had an excellent ability to act as if they had high CPP. So S convinces the others that he/she is a fortune 500 CEO or a world-champion boxer or a Nobel laureate or something appropriate. I hypothesize that, all other things equal, group consensus will be that S has highest status and I further conjecture that this can be explained by the following evo-psych argument. Each person in the room has ancestors who were served well by gaining the favour of others with high CPP, and, on average, their assessments of who had high CPP were accurate enough to be useful. Therefore the strangers in the room are predisposed to trust their own assessments of who has high CPP and try to gain their favour, hence explaining the group's consensus that S has high status.

Notice that the actual characteristics of S (i.e. his bank account balance, current job, physical prestige, past achievements, etc) is insufficient to predict his status among the group -- rather it is his acting ability that provides the final causal link -- yet the CPP characteristics plays a central explanatory role since their relationship to evolutionary fitness explains the predisposition of the group to react in a certain way to the excellent acting by S. In particular, CPP explains why S would have received lower status if he/she used his/her acting ability to, say, convince others that he had very long toenails, or that his digestive tract was unnaturally long -- these things suggest no evolutionary fitness to those who gain the favour of S.

My point is that the factors at the end of the evo-psych explanation (CPP in this example, in reality I suspect there are more that we haven't thought of) are distinct from those that provide the causal links along the way to group consensus on status (acting, or "signalling", in this example, but in reality this part of the process is far more complex). So if status really is is an evo-psych phenomenon then we should expect to encounter two classes of variables along the way to understanding it. Let's not get them confused.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-16T18:42:42.561Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A surefire way to provoke anger in people is to 'cheat' in status games. Claiming status that you do not really 'deserve' tends to trigger righteous fury. This is the main force that restricts the degree to which people claim status beyond their CPP in social interactions. In the modern world it is possible for people to get away with cheating at status games for much longer than it was for most of human history and the consequences of being found out are less fatal so it is adaptive to push further than it was in the past.

comment by thomblake · 2010-04-16T18:44:51.981Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, cheating in any social games angers people. Note that telling bad jokes provokes violence.

comment by HughRistik · 2010-04-16T19:53:39.605Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?

"Nothing, chimneys can't talk."

Did anyone else actually find the joke in the article really funny?

P.S. Don't hurt me.

comment by thomblake · 2010-04-16T20:05:14.360Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found the joke funny the first time I heard it. When it was "What did the banana say to the elephant"!

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-16T18:48:12.936Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I'd argue that to a first approximation all social games are status games however.

comment by thomblake · 2010-04-16T18:57:38.308Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the case made by that researcher regarding the jokes, anyway.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T22:19:21.060Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just going undercover might not correct for all hints about class, to single out but one of the components - think Pygmalion and things like language, accent, body posture.

On the other hand, I suspect you're partly right, to the extent that you could put people in an IRC chatroom, really stripping everyone of nearly all observable properties, and some of them would still come out as being "on top". But that's also grist for my mill: I'd expect those to be the more skilled at manipulating perceptions of self-esteem through subtle use of language.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-15T22:26:48.586Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm still struggling with exactly what you mean when you talk about 'self-esteem'. You seem to be saying something like this:

There is a somewhat objective property called 'status' that we can observe people having more or less of in a given situation. Many social interactions serve to raise or lower relative status positions. There is a hidden variable called 'self-esteem' which is the thing that is actually being manipulated in social interactions and it is more fundamental than status.

Is that roughly what you are saying or am I misunderstanding?

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T22:47:54.970Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That feels close, yes. I might quibble over the "somewhat objective".

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-15T23:02:15.570Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

By somewhat objective I pretty much just mean what I suggested earlier: you could ask a group of observers or participants in a social situation to rank people by status and there would be broad agreement. You indicated you might agree with that. I think this property would correlate with things like wealth, class, physical attractiveness, power and achievements but I don't think they are sufficient on their own to explain it - there are other factors. I also think the issue is complicated by the fact that some of these 'other factors' are things that assist people in acquiring money, power and recognition for their achievements.

It seems like you might be using 'self-esteem' as a catch all term for the factors that explain status that are not covered by wealth, class, power and achievement. I don't find that a useful application of the term. If you mean something narrower than that then I think you're missing out on other important explanatory factors.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T23:19:55.670Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not a catch-all, but a specific disposition, which would show up in, say, psychometric tests asking people questions such as the ones I mentioned above.

Again, I don't really care whether we name a particular variable "status" or "self-esteem" - just so long as we're not mistaking it for another variable (e.g. class, power, prestige), and "status" does have the unfortunate ambiguity with these others.

But my inquiry is more into how many variables are in play, what the causal relationships between them might be, and so on.

comment by mattnewport · 2010-04-15T23:30:50.624Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well 'status' seems to me to be somewhat like 'intelligence' - most people have an intuitive conception of what it means and could rank order others in a way that would tend to match the rank ordering of other observers. It also correlates to some extent with a number of other traits such as wealth, power and prestige. It is not clear however to what extent a unitary g) exists for intelligence and similarly it is not clear whether a unitary 's' might exist for status.

My understanding of 'self-esteem' is a factor that probably correlates with status but it is not clear which direction causation works. In other words reducing discussion of status to discussion of self-esteem is a bit like reducing discussion of intelligence to discussion of logic puzzles. Focusing too narrowly on this one factor ignores many other important factors that contribute to the broader idea of status.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-16T18:32:41.379Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Individual power in society is such a broad concept as to entirely encompass status. So you must have had some more specific meaning in mind. I'd guess you meant explicit organizational authority (I'm an airline security screener; I'm an assistant to the CEO).

If that's what you meant, then what remains is less formal roles and precedents in established social groups, and in forming groups, physical attractiveness combined with (behavioral) signals of belief/confidence in a person's chance to earn consent in controlling or at least being accepted by the group.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-16T19:09:50.699Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

explicit organizational authority

Yep, positional power.

I don't think that individual optimization power (ability to steer the future in regions which maximally advance that individual's preferences, even when these outcomes are detrimental to other's preferences) encompasses all of what is referred to as "status" in Johnstone. It doesn't explain, for instance, why keeping your head in a fixed position while speaking should convey high status.

then what remains is less formal roles and precedents in established social groups

What do you make of the assertion that two strangers who've never met can assess each other's status?

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-17T02:57:13.418Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


What do you make of the assertion that two strangers who've never met can assess each other's status?

The question seems ill-posed. After all, how much influence they have over each other is negotiable. What they'll be able to judge is only the observable status-bidding and status-associated signals.

Say they're simultaneously interacting with some group - then they'd start to see what each others' status is in that group only in the tautological sense that they'd see how much influence and deference they command.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-17T03:11:25.526Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can guess the status of someone (in their own little tribe(s)) in much the same sense that you can guess their occupation, and based off comparable indicators.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-04-17T18:14:48.212Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I guess I can predict a large part of it from just their physical appearance and their "out in public" mannerisms. But it's only by seeing their actions+consequences in a context that I know their status there.

comment by alasarod · 2010-04-18T18:27:20.091Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Calvin and Hobbes on status

comment by alexflint · 2010-04-16T10:53:04.064Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for identifying this collective lack of understanding. Before reading this I hadn't even realised that I didn't know what "status" really was.

I actually find the "social stratification" more compelling than the last two sections. I'm not sure that "self-esteem" is any more substantive than "status". In the case of the mountain climber and the teachers, "self-esteem" is recognised by others, so it's just not just something that one identifies in themself, it's also identified between people and (perhaps) within groups, in which case it becomes "esteem" rather than "self-esteem", which I think is synonymous and no more substantive than "status".

The question is:

  • Why do students react to teachers according to their posture etc?
  • Why do people react differently to mountain climbers who summitted versus those who have not?

I suspect the answers will involve

  • coalition economics (it's inadvisable to oppose someone who already has a large body of supporters),
  • evolutionary xenophobia (it's adaptive to trust those within my tribe over outsiders since they are more likely to share my values and traditions), and
  • wealth (I try to gain favour of those with wealth in the hope that they will bestow some on me)

I think these are the type of factors you were talking about under "social stratification" (no exact correspondence).

Also, I seem to remember that Steven Pinker's "How the mind works" might have some relevant information on this topic. I'll pull it out and see what I can find :)

comment by Airedale · 2010-04-15T23:45:16.149Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think an attempt to unpack what the LessWrong community means when it talks about "status" is highly useful, and am glad that Morendil started this discussion. I tend to agree with those who have said that that self-esteem might not be the most useful avenue of exploration and that we shouldn't discard the idea of dominance so quickly.

On a lighter note, I highly recommend to anyone who has not read it Class by Paul Fussell for its highly amusing, possibly somewhat offensive, now quite dated, but still recognizable description of the class structure in American society. Fussell partly stratifies by income/wealth, but a lot of his descriptions are based on tastes, styles, language, and other matters not (at least directly) related to income. Fussell's class structure also seem to have at least something to do with what status sometimes means in our discussions.

comment by Jack · 2010-04-15T21:57:24.396Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As an aside I'm really surprised someone as well read as you could have not heard of Max Weber until now.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T22:01:12.094Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The more I learn, the more my ignorance seems to expand. ;)

comment by Jack · 2010-04-15T22:56:18.459Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder how often stuff like this happens. My father mispronounced "sword" until college. Somehow things just get missed in education (formal and self)-- I have to wonder what is that one fact or event that everyone around me knows about but I don't!

Anyone else have examples of things educated people are supposed to know of that they somehow never learned about until surprisingly late?

comment by Rain · 2010-04-17T00:03:41.369Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Until a few months ago, I didn't realize The Beatles purposely misspelled their name as a musical pun.

comment by phaedrus · 2010-06-29T08:22:33.324Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just realized today why they chose the name "GATTACA" for the eponymous movie.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-17T18:04:04.647Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know whether most educated people know this, but I just found out that herring and sardines are the same fish. They're herring when they're alive and sardines when they're food.

comment by Jack · 2010-04-17T19:47:19.168Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't know this either, yet it does seem like something I should have known.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-17T20:18:33.178Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not only that, but it's probably wrong. Sardines and herring are related species, assuming that I can trust wikipedia. And pickled herring does come from fish which are larger than sardines.

Perhaps the thing I learned is that you can't trust the fact-checking at NPR.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-18T08:40:00.224Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I got three karma points for a statement which is almost certainly wrong, and no points for correcting it?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-19T10:59:02.756Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm also thinking that my "does this make sense?" circuit wasn't active enough.

I had a feeling that herring were larger than sardines, but it got overridden by the authoritative-sounding claim that they were two names for the same fish. In fact, I've eaten both canned sardines and pickled herring,. It's obvious that the latter is slices of meat which are bigger than whole sardines-- and I completely forgot sensory experience in favor of the words.

comment by radical_negative_one · 2010-04-18T16:17:16.057Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to both the articles on sardines and herrings, herrings are sometimes labeled as "sardines" when sold. Sounds like that could be the source of the error.

comment by Bo102010 · 2010-04-17T01:30:59.311Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just, moments ago, realized that a "farm team" (e.g. a minor league baseball team) does not refer to the players, but to the function of the team.

(I thought that a "farm team" consisted of not-good-enough-for-the-majors players who came from small, perhaps farm towns. In reality, it's a "farm" for the major league team.)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-04-15T23:17:25.898Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by MartinB · 2010-05-01T22:01:39.981Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really like Bill Brysons: short history of almost everything Which does a great job in introducing science and the neverending about of repeated mistakes on its way. Even my mom read it - and this thing has 600 pages.

For the non-fact oriented part of eductaion there is a nice book in germany called 'Was man alles wissen muß' from Dietrich Schwanitz. (engl:'what one should know'). He does a great job at explaining many of the areas counted as 'education' while also explaining the influence on status and how to fake it. I am sure similar books are widely available also for engl based cultures. as for actually knowledge, I still learn new english words almost every day (which is to be expected, since its not my first language.) And i also learn about now tools for my field regularly. It might make sense to read a good introduction book on the own field at times. But I also dont really expect anyone to know everything there is.

Fun fact: i used to think that one of the pronunciations of 'issue' is just plainly wrong.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2010-05-17T05:41:21.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For the non-fact oriented part of eductaion there is a nice book in germany called 'Was man alles wissen muß' from Dietrich Schwanitz. (engl:'what one should know').

I got interested when I read about this. The book doesn't seem to have been translated into English and I can't really read German, but turned out there was a Finnish translation, 'Sivistyksen käsikirja'. I read that one, and it was nice enough overview though a bit idiosyncratic and obviously rather German-centric. People who actually know something about the stuff the author is writing about will probably have complaints though. The author carefully keeps most of the science bits vague and handwavy, but still managed to stumble occasionally when going for something more detailed.

The part about relating to other cultures had an amusing bit. The original book had apparently had a bunch of statements in the lines of "Unlike us Germans...", and it looked like the translator had just replaced this with "Unlike us Finns...". No idea if the rest of the statements had been translated verbatim, but I'm rather afraid they were.

I was also a bit surprised at Douglas Hofstadter being mentioned several times, as he's pretty much completely unknown in Finland for example, and the reasonably positive attitude towards modern IQ research, which seems to be something of a taboo in western humanities academia.

comment by MartinB · 2010-05-19T09:16:44.186Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read that one, and it was nice enough overview though a bit idiosyncratic and obviously rather German-centric.

I would expect an english book to exist that serves a similar purpose. One thing I got from the book was the concept of using 'education' as status signaling. And the whole chapter on 'what one shouldn't know' - makes me not talk about some of my favorite TV shows in the wrong place. (side not: the pure version of Big Brother serves as a decent experiment for social interaction)

Maybe the next generation of scientists will have fewer trouble quoting Anime, or Mainstream movies in their work, than the one before.

People who actually know something about the stuff the author is writing about will probably have complaints though.

They do.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2010-05-19T10:18:49.284Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm guessing the second half of the text in the first quote block is a reply that should have been unquoted.

Movies have been cultural currency for around 50 years now, and some TV shows from the last decade like Sopranos and The Wire also seem to be considered reasonably respectable, unlike pretty almost all mainstream TV drama up until 2000.

Anime is still low status, and seems to be a bit worse now than it was in the 90s. The shows that aren't mostly shallow and formulaic are obscure. There aren't any similar widely recognized quality shows as there have been in TV recently, and the perception of anime has shifted from innovative and exotic popular culture into escapist entertainment for socially maladjusted shut-ins. The shows are quick to latch into exploitation patterns that reflect this.

comment by MartinB · 2010-05-19T11:05:47.585Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, i got the quote function wrong - already corrected.

According to Schwanitz there is a canon of art that is considered worth knowing. An educated person picks and can talk about some subset of it to show off his educational status. Modern art forms are not yet part of that.

The canon is of course dependent on culture and subculture.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-05-19T13:05:13.007Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect you mean "contemporary" or "current", not "modern". Unfortunately, "modern art" (at least for painting) got co-opted for Picasso and such, and it's been a while since him.

I have a notion that canons aren't an inevitable part of art, but appear if people happen to build them.

Part of this is that I lived through a transition (I'd put it sometimes in the 80s) when it was no longer possible to keep up with print science fiction. Before that, it was possible to have a shared knowledge base of both the second rate stuff and the first rate.

At least for the Western canon, part of what was going was the contradictory belief that there was universal art that people had to be educated to appreciate.

At the point, the quantity and availability of art has gone so high (and both are likely to increase), that I think it's going to be harder and harder for any group to act as gatekeepers to say that liking some art is proof of worthiness.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-05-19T14:54:13.595Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a notion that canons aren't an inevitable part of art, but appear if people happen to build them.

These people are trying to build a new one.

comment by KevinG · 2010-07-20T18:33:19.749Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A few thoughts…

  1. I take status to be an index of social efficacy.

  2. Humans are social creatures and identify with social groups. If this is the source of status then it could be attained by dominating the group but it could also be attained by benefiting the group.

  3. Because status is a group dynamic it is also relevant between groups. You could take this to mean that groups accord varying measures of status to other groups but also that high status in one group does not automatically translate into other groups. In this regards status is the esteem of a group for an individual. However, I would not limit a definition of status to that because it could also be the efficacy of an individual to control the group.

  4. I am not sure I would regard self-esteem as a measure of status but it probably is or is among the prime motives for status achievement.

  5. In regards to attaining status by lowering another’s self-esteem... If influence is the reason for doing so then there are probable cognitive heuristics that support and detract from such a tactic depending on particulars. Denigrating another individual can give the appearance of authority. The benefits are that you demoralize a competitor while making them an example of your authority to the group. That said, it seems there are heuristics that promote cooperative behaviors—e.g. likability and reciprocity. Therefore you can also achieve higher status by elevating the esteem of other people—and I would suggest that in most cases this is more durable.

comment by Morendil · 2010-07-08T20:01:23.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Pending a new post Kaj Sotala and I are planning to collaborate on, add this blog post to the list of sources for interesting claims about status. (Through HN.)

Item: "status is regulated through dopamine levels". This may be a reference to this study.

An interesting find (for me) was learning how the study measured status: they used the "Barratt Simplified Measure of Social Status" as well as the "Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support".

The former is clearly a measure of what I called social class in the above: it is a combination of family members' occupations ranked on a pre-established list of professions, plus subject's level of schooling. The latter is straightforwardly a subjective assessment of how strongly people around you support your goals.

(The blogger, apparently unaware of these instruments, confidently cautions: "please don’t confuse the notion of group status with cultural concepts of socio-economic status". Yet it is precisely the latter which underpin his claims regarding dopamine levels!)

Item: "this is one reason why people become self-conscious of being photographed: their status is being broadcast in a very real way."

Item: "In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates aggressively". This is the blogger quoting Johnstone who is himself excerpting from a book, The Human Zoo.

Item: "high status group members are required to stifle the expression of lower status group members".

Item: "A healthy concept of self-esteem will allow you to switch between high-status and low-status roles as necessary."

comment by whpearson · 2010-04-16T11:06:03.383Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is worth breaking down status into wealth, political power and popularity.

The last can be seen as zero sum in some situations. Consider a party there are N people you could try and talk to, but only time to speak to N/2. So you have to decide which half to talk to. If you had a strange mash up party of functional programmers and 16 year old girls. I doubt you would find a linear ordering of who people wanted to talk to. You would do better to separate it into two groups, and you might find orderings there.

People want to be talked to at parties/in general because it opens up more business/research opportunities.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-16T11:04:59.132Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

These transactions, BTW, can be mediated even by relatively low-bandwidth interactions, such as text conversations. I find it fascinating how people can make each other feel various emotions just with words: anger, shame, pride. A forum such as Less Wrong isn't just a place for debate and argument, it is also very much a locus of social interaction. Keeping that in mind is important.

Sometimes I wish I could get that out of my mind. (*Mutters about the epistemic inefficiency of primate communication.*)

comment by cousin_it · 2010-04-15T18:01:38.144Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, status isn't about self-esteem. Status is about who you feel can beat you up and who you feel you can beat up. Two people meeting for the first time can instantly establish relative status by using body language that you'll find pretty hard to tie to self-esteem.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-04-15T18:31:51.295Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Virtually everyone could probably beat me up, including my little sister, and I find this irrelevant to my judgments of status.

comment by BenAlbahari · 2010-04-16T00:49:18.807Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Being dismissive of things you're not good at is beneficial to your status.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2010-04-16T01:27:44.414Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If status was always about one particular skill or trait (for example, the ability to beat people up), this strategy wouldn't work.

comment by BenAlbahari · 2010-04-16T02:18:59.000Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Status is relative to a group, and each group values different skills and traits. We gravitate towards groups where we have value.

comment by Jack · 2010-04-16T01:50:28.215Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But calling attention to things you're not good at is bad for your status.

comment by BenAlbahari · 2010-04-16T02:14:04.151Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. But if the topic of something you're not good at comes up, what are you going to do? Various strategies:

a) Downplay the importance of the thing that you're not good at.
b) Change the subject.
c) Make a joke about totally sucking at that thing (while keeping the literal subject the same, it changes the implicit subject to the social ability of making other people laugh).
d) Mention a close relative, friend, or partner who's really good at that thing (increasing status by affiliation).

I think I may even do e) which is to show enthusiastic appreciation for the thing I'm not good at, possibly sprinkled with demonstrating surprising knowledge of the thing I'm expected to not know about.

UPDATE: f) Riffing on 'c', liken yourself to a low status group. HT Barack Obama

comment by AstroCJ · 2010-07-23T04:14:03.640Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you serious? You missed

g) Make an honest attempt at grasping the subject matter.

I'm not sure if this is what you intended e) to cover, but if I meet a topic I'm completely unfamiliar with, my first instinct isn't to destroy the conversation.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-04-17T22:01:15.619Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I voted this up because it raises a useful background theory that many people might have lurking subconsciously in their head (and which they want not to be true and so they instinctively down vote to drive people who make the claim out of the community - the post was at -3 before I wrote this and voted it up).

(ETA: The comment being responded to appears to have been edited to be more abstract and less colorful. Other than adding this note, my text has not been correspondingly edited.)

In practice, I think this status formula is true in certain communities that assign prestige in certain ways but it is not true in others. Alicorn pointed out that it didn't apply to her, but the point is worth making that it doesn't apply to me for similar reasons. This is largely because because we are female, educated, and live in the first world. There are different communities that have different implicit bases for prestige... and some of them do work on physical violence and the treatment of females as something vaguely like chattel slaves and others operate only a few symbolic steps away from this model. (In these communities, you'll notice that female status and its processes are largely ignored.)

As cousin_it pointed out in a response to a different comment:

Which situation makes you more conscious of status: when your Pokemon collection is smaller than Bob's, or when Bob beats you up and takes your girlfriend? To really feel the concept, you have to be close to the monkey life.

Directly and simply, this is clearly not the basis of the status of:

  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Warren Buffet
  • Lady Gaga
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Stephanie Meyer
  • John Stewart
  • Robin Hanson (in the world and dramatically here)
  • Alicorn (primarily within this community, so far)

The people enmeshed in communities whose prestige works (for men) on this basis of capacity physical violence are tragic and deserve (where feasible) offers to help them up out of the poverty of "baseline monkeyhood". The standards for women in such communities are different than for men (and frequently invisible to them), but they are similarly primitive and lead to women to spend the bulk of their lives thinking that their best years are behind them rather than in front of them.

Those communities tend to be "objectively" impoverished in terms of material, culture, and institutions... and they are hard to help in part because any attempt at giving them a hand "up" implies a standard of judgment that sees their current system for allocating prestige as defective and in need of repair (which poses an inherent ego threat to the people who currently "score high" within that framework and have substantial influence).

So, yeah, I think that the status formula that cousin_it succinctly spells out here is functionally true for a significant percentage of the humans on the planet - young impoverished males with few prospects for "upward mobility". If adults flinch from recognizing this "head on" and then thinking about the implications it does the world a disservice.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-04-17T23:22:56.226Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't vote it down, but those that did voted it down because it is wrong. What you describe here I agree with. (At least I agree with the description of circumstance not necessarily the normative claims or predictions of emotional impact on those in question.) But for all 'capacity to beat you up' is highly relevant to status it is not the same thing, even in tribes where primitive status competition mechanisms are in place. Coalitions and rights to getting resources or mates without the tribe expelling you are too important even then.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-04-18T10:39:03.510Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I claim that "capacity to beat you up" is more relevant to status than self-esteem is. To understand the causality here, let's do some counterfactual surgery on graphs. While you try to modify node A by sitting around for three months trying to raise your self-esteem, I modify node B by hitting the gym and taking boxing lessons for the same time. Then we meet and ascertain which node was more causally relevant!

Of course there's no need to actually try this experiment because a lot of people have tried it already. For example, I can compare different versions of me at different times, before and after I learned to hold my own in a fight.

Coalitions, mate rights etc. are important, but they have causes too. The ultimate factor that determines your coalition-worthiness or mating-priority is often your projected chance of winning a conflict.

comment by khafra · 2010-04-15T18:13:28.000Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't seem to cover all uses of "status" in the Johnstonian sense; one of his first examples is a small group of men and women competing over who has the most interesting and debilitating physical difficulties.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:14:59.351Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mrs X: "I had a nasty turn last week [...] I thought I should faint or something."

Johnstone comments: "Mrs X is attempting to raise her status."

My anaysis would be: Mrs X is fishing for a "stroke", the way you'd fish for compliments. It is a ploy to manipulate others in her group into a particular self-esteem transation, namely commiseration. She expects something like "Oh, you poor thing. What happened, did you have to go to the hospital?"

Mrs Y: "You're lucky to have been going to a cinema."

Johnstone analyzes Mrs Y as "blocking" Mrs X, and I'd tend to agree - this move denies the request for a stroke. There's a subtext, too, that Mrs X is something of a spoiled child: that she has an inflated estimation of herself.

I could go on to analyze the rest of the dialogue in that vein, but for me there's little value in saying the same thing except using "self-esteem" instead of "status", that's just fighting over definitions.

More interesting is the idea that everything Johnstone refers to are fleeting components of status, whereas there are attested long-lasting components (class, power, prestige) and the connotations of the term "status" tend to conflate all these components.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-04-15T18:45:49.839Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll be pretty disappointed if our community accepts the idea that humiliating other people has less to do with status than comparing Pokemon collections. Which situation makes you more conscious of status: when your Pokemon collection is smaller than Bob's, or when Bob beats you up and takes your girlfriend? To really feel the concept, you have to be close to the monkey life.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-04-15T18:53:30.985Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is true, but status still isn't about who can beat up who.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-16T07:29:52.949Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In particular, the fact that armies are typically controlled by older men (in rare situations, by older women, and in one unique situation (Joan of Arc) a young woman) implies that status among humans isn't about who can personally beat up who.

Football players take orders from managers and team owners.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:25:43.423Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

close to the monkey life

That sounds like an allusion to dominance hierarchy theory, which my informal survey suggests is a muddle. Do you have pointers to solid, recent research on dominance hierarchy theory that could plausibly apply to humans?

People do sometimes react strongly to things we think weird, like not having the bigger Pokemon collection.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-04-15T23:02:33.087Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, there's anecdotes.

comment by anonym · 2010-04-16T03:48:23.214Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you mean "physically capable of beating up (regardless of the consequences)" or "beat up and get away with" or something else?

comment by Jack · 2010-04-15T21:21:14.384Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that status facts aren't facts about self-esteem. But (1) only in a few communities is status about physical conflict. Obviously, this isn't the relevant criterion for women or middle class and higher adults. (2) Status isn't about self-esteem but the two affect each other in important ways. If people around you can detect low self-esteem it very often lowers your status. Moreover, having low status can lower your self-esteem. High status can raise self-esteem and high self-esteem can signal high status. This circular relationship means that status and self-esteem are (a) nearly coextensive so it isn't surprising that we might confuse the two and (b) causally connected in a way that makes it worth our time to pay attention to self-esteem in exactly the way Morendil suggests.

comment by Morendil · 2010-04-15T21:07:02.832Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of Johnstone's stories is about strangers passing in the street, so you might have a point there. At any rate it makes a good test case. (This could be a fun topic for empirical study. Station yourself with a video camera at a street corner, interview people afterwards with a psychometric instrument.)

On the other hand, based on what evidence can we confidently rule out ties to self-esteem? It seems to me, on the contrary, that a diffident person would reliably make way for a more confident person. And if two self-assured people are passing in the street, each with a strong policy of "let other people make way for me", you'd get exactly the kind of dance we do see.

comment by Mike4785 · 2010-04-19T15:28:38.215Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hello - I was web-browsing and came across your message about "status." Without having time to read through all responses, I felt I'd send you this quick message to relate a sociological definition for the term. (I have taught the subject at a community college level, while still proceeding through graduate studies at a major university.)

Status, for sociologists, properly refers merely to one's position in some social arrangement, which could either be a very clear-cut position (as in a bureaucracy) or a less clear-cut position that nevertheless has some sort of recognition by others who interact with the person. The terms "high status" and "low status" are in common popular use, but should more properly refer to high and low "prestige." Prestige refers to the extent to which a person (or a category of persons) tends to receive favorable recognition from others, and this recognition may or may not be connected with the person's status. For example, each U.S. president may automatically be granted great prestige by some persons, merely by virtue of having that particular status as president. But there are many cases where various persons have great prestige without necessarily occupying specific positions (having a particular status). There are many ways in which such apparent mismatch becomes rectified, as prestige tends to be supplemented by the granting of various honors that bestow particular statuses that reflect and formalize the prestigiousness of the person. Examples include honorary degrees or credentials, nominal leadership positions generated by new organizations dedicated to causes or values shared by the individual who is prestigious in that group.

It is true that the concepts of status and prestige (although confused by persons use of the phrase "high status") are related to social stratification, and Max Weber was indeed an important early theorist in this subject (sociology being a pretty young discipline, writings of 100 years ago are considered early, or "classical," in the field). Indeed, the more modern term, "socioeconomic status" (SES) is intended to reflect Weber's multi-faceted approach to the subject of social stratification, in that the "three Ps" (property, prestige, power) that roughly correspond to Weber's original terminology of class, status, party (economic, social, political) are, in the modern SES framework, given a simplified (but more easily measured) treatment as being composed of education, income, and occupation (the latter being considered one of the most important "statuses" when it comes to evaluating one's position in a social stratification system, often conceived in terms of social class, whereupon similar phrases to the ones you mentioned, "high class" and "low class" are often heard, and many persons, who are unaware of the sociological endeavor to use specific words with specific meaning, tend to freely substitute one word for another and thus may refer to "high status" when they may actually mean something like "high class" or "high prestige.") In SES, the "socio-" would be connected with education, the "economic" component would be connected with income, and the "status" component would be connected with one's occupation. These three variables are imperfect indicators but have the virtue of being relatively easy to identify and measure. (The measurement of occupation, to make things even more confusing for those who haven't taken a course in social stratification, tends to be on the basis of "occupational prestige" - I mention this only to give additional emphasis about the actual complexity of the subject, and thus the need for precision in the use of these words, when sociologists describe and write about the subjects.)

Note also that for Weber, "status" was closer to "prestige" than the modern sociological conception of the term's meaning. A long process over the past century has been involved in the favoring of certain terms over others, in sociology, and indeed the introductory sociology textbooks and courses tend to spend a great deal of time distinguishing between common, lay uses of various terms, and the specific meanings that sociologists intend when they use the terms.

Does this help to clarify things at all? Part of the challenge of sociology is that, as with physics, there are many concepts that are really best understood in relation to other concepts (and thus the concepts get introduced to students in pairs or sets; e.g. mass is different from weight, although related to it; power has a specific meaning different from force or work, although the concepts are seen to be related to each other in very specific ways that requires diligent training and practice to understand), but unlike physical systems, the social systems that sociology deals with are often specific to the context of specific times and places (e.g. American society of the early 21st Century) and thus it is much harder to speak in terms of general, universal laws. Given the difficulty of quantifying sociological relationships, it turns out to be very important for sociologists to speak clearly and precisely (sometimes seeming, unfortunately, to do the opposite, when their writings are read by those who are not aware of the need for precise language and distinctions, and who are also unfamiliar with the "jargon" and precision being painstakingly used in those writings).

Feel free to ask me any follow up questions, if you like...

Thanks! Mike

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-04-19T16:12:37.341Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for posting this. It's always interesting to see how what seem like obvious concepts actually have histories and are disputed.

Education, income, and occupation strikes me as a classification that's destructively over-simplified. How does it handle power and respect relationships which are outside the mainstream? I'm thinking of children, street gangs, and terrorist groups. I don't think it can even generate an adequate description of families. I'm going to file it under "prime example of drunk and lamp post fallacy".

You might be interested in this description of how status is handled in the SCA-- it argues that having a system of three types of honor (for service, research, and heavy fighting) contribute greatly to the success of the organization.