How Status Signaling Evolved
Contrasting the signaling styles of old elites vs new elites
We’ve described the differences between the old elites and the new elites. We’ve discussed status and signaling. Now, inspired by the book, “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class,” let’s contrast the signaling styles of old elites vs new elites.
From economic to cultural capital
Elites used to distinguish themselves by what they consumed. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote about how the wealthy bought silver spoons even though they weren't more useful than regular spoons — they were purely a sign of status.
The fact that these goods were expensive and useless is what made them high status, since only wealthy people could buy them. Expensive watches and fancy purses serve the same purpose today.
But over time, manufacturing improvements made goods like silver spoons much cheaper and thus accessible to a wider audience. This meant they were no longer reliable status indicators. As a result, elites stopped buying material goods as much and instead pursued more durable forms of status: what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital”
Cultural capital is a collection of a distinctive aesthetics, skills and knowledge usually obtained through education and pedigree: how you speak, dress, and what you read and watch.
Cultural capital is what unifies the poor adjunct professor and the rich lawyer. More importantly though, cultural capital is what separates both of them from the highly-paid plumber without cultural capital. The highly-paid plumber won’t be in the same class as the former two even if he makes much more money than the poor adjunct professor.
Cultural capital came to supplant financial capital as the currency of class mobility. Anyone can accidentally get rich, the logic goes, but it takes years to acquire cultural capital.
Another way of describing this shift is from conspicuous consumption to both inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous production.
Inconspicuous Consumption and Conspicuous Production
While the middle class today buys luxury cars, fancy handbags, and expensive watches, the elite class buys inconspicuous goods like education, health care, and child care.
The key to inconspicuous consumption is that it should be invisible to everyone but those in the know. Inconspicuous consumption is also difficult to emulate without a lot of knowledge or money. After all, the purpose of inconspicuous consumption is signaling high status to other high status people without arousing the envy of the masses.
A classic example of this is when a Harvard alumni says they “went to school in Boston”. They’re signaling to elites that they also attended Harvard while simultaneously avoiding “outing” themselves as a Harvard alumni to those of lower class. They’re aiming to signal high status and humility.
This is one example among many of elites pursuing and framing their accomplishments in ways that are hard for normies to notice — let alone replicate — while still being legible to other elites.
That’s inconspicuous consumption. Now let’s discuss conspicuous production.
The negative side effect of the aforementioned manufacturing revolution is many goods are now produced in places that utilize oppressive child labor and degrade the environment.
Since elites want to highlight their moral superiority, conspicuous production serves as a way to distinguish themselves from non-elites who can’t afford to know or care about the negative environmental consequences.
Whole Foods is a good example. Shopping at the grocery store chain signals you care about animal rights, environmental consciousness, and more broadly, being an informed and conscientious member of society. (Except when the founder advocates for capitalism, but never mind that.)
Conspicuous production hits that sweet spot — it signals the person is enlightened enough to care about an issue and rich enough to do something about it.
In addition to inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous production, elites also demonstrate their status via what is best described as “productive leisure.”
Since we used to live in a society that had much lower social mobility, elites didn’t have to work hard to remain elite. So instead they signaled their eliteness by demonstrating how much leisure they were able to afford. Status signifers ran the gamut from footbinding to playing golf. Anything that projected “I'm wealthy enough that I don't have to occupy my time working like a peasant laborer.”
But this all changed when we transitioned from an aristocracy to a meritocracy. This was when the idea that wealth and status should be earned instead of inherited was introduced. Now, instead of emphasizing ones’ family background, they began emphasizing their effort.
Under this new theory, those who worked the hardest would get ahead. This meant it was important to signal one’s hard work so as to show you were one of the elites. Otherwise people might think you weren’t elite or the system was unfair.
Hence the invention of productive leisure: listening to NPR, doing yoga, going to museums—amassing cultural capital.
From Manners to Language
As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, elites demonstrate their social class through manners and language — among other forms of cultural capital. To paraphrase the late social critic Paul Fussell, it takes time to acquire word choices and turns of phrase, — signs of how much leisure one could afford.
Elites use terms that you only learn in universities: “cultural appropriation” or “problematize” or “heteronormative”. When people say these things, to quote Rob Henderson, they’re often saying “I was educated at a top university” or “I have the means and time to acquire these esoteric ideas.”
This makes sense. As Bourdieu in The Forms of Capital wrote, “The best measure of cultural capital is undoubtedly the amount of time devoted to acquiring it.”
Through that lens, one obvious way high class people signal their status is by focusing on changing the world. After all, only rich people can focus on the planet and not just their paycheck.
From Highbrow to All Brow
Just like luxury goods became cheap, high culture became democratized so much so that it gave up its role as a status signifier. Anyone can learn an instrument or go to the opera. What became harder for people to amass was a fluidity between high and low culture. Having an eclectic set of cultural tastes and expertise is a sign that that knowledge base took a long time to acquire. Knowing which house music artist is slightly cooler than the others (e.g. Fred Again over Kaytranada), and which book was once cool but lost its appeal as it became read more widely (e.g. Sapiens) is a sign of high status. These are the subtle gradations that you can only demonstrate your understanding of it you are embedded in a certain culture. There are all sorts of subtle gradations of this type that act as membership bids to a club. This is why people say things like “I liked X before it was cool.”
What people are doing is showing that they’re both lowbrow and highbrow at the same time. They are proving themselves to be both inclusive (anti-snobbish, nonhierarchical, cosmopolitan, etc.) and exclusive (rarified, distinctive, educated, etc.).
This contradiction makes sense given that the people who talk most about inclusion went to the most exclusive universities in the world.
This phenomena also tracks closely with our separate discussion of the new elite — those who have 60s values but 90s money. This new elites are more humble, egalitarian, productive, and mission-driven than the old elite — and yet they’re just as status-seeking as ever.
They try to be humble to avoid inciting envy, productive to signal eliteness, and world positive & egalitarian to signal their status while also justifying their power.
Elites believe their practices are for the good of society — education is good for their kids, yoga is good for their body, etc. Some of that is true, but of course it’s also a way for them to subtly indicate their status to the people they care about impressing. Stuff White People Like described this phenomenon well.
One way of thinking about the old elite and the new elite is the difference between Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. Donald Trump before becoming involved in politics was the apex of 80s / 90s wealth — suits and tuxes and supermodels. Flashy and gauche.
In contrast, Zuck wears hoodies, only eats meat he’s killed himself, optimizes his body, and learns Chinese on the side. Trump engages in conspicuous consumption while Zuck engages in inconspicuous consumption, conspicuous production, and productive leisure. What he isn’t doing is saying “problematic,” but maybe that’s partly why Gen-Z sees him as a bit of a boomer.
Since social media has made brazen status-seeking more obvious, and since it’s low status to pursue high status things so directly, we’ve seen people start to signal status more subtly — sometimes even through counter signaling. Hence the Harvard student saying they went to school in Boston. Or Zuck sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Or Elon living in a hut.
These tactics are designed for obviously high status people to avoid the wrath of the envious. For everyone else, it’s variations of the above status games all the way down. In a status-mobile world, everyone’s going to be jockeying for status. And in a world where class signifiers aren’t as obvious, people are always going to be signaling.
While this all might seem daunting, the old world wasn’t any better. While you knew where you stood in the old world, that’s because you were stuck there and couldn’t move up the ladder. While all this signaling may seem convoluted, it’s worth remembering that this perpetual state of constant signaling and corresponding status anxiety is the opportunity cost we pay as a society for the benefits of social mobility.
Thanks to Molly Mielke