Status Recognition in the 1980S: Invidious Distinction Revisited

Scott Dawson, Portland State University
Jill Cavell, Louisiana State University
ABSTRACT - Scholars in the 1970s suggested that Americans had lowered their desires to express social status through ownership of material items. Yet, the social environment of the 1980s seems more receptive to marketing strategies with status orientations. Using retail institutions, the same stimulus objects of a 1970s study, this investigation suggests that status recognition in the consumption environment has advanced considerably. As in the case of other abstract social judgments, interjudge agreement remains high regardless of the age or occupational status of raters. Differences in consensus, however, are found for different income and education groups,
[ to cite ]:
Scott Dawson and Jill Cavell (1987) ,"Status Recognition in the 1980S: Invidious Distinction Revisited", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 487-491.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 487-491


Scott Dawson, Portland State University

Jill Cavell, Louisiana State University


Scholars in the 1970s suggested that Americans had lowered their desires to express social status through ownership of material items. Yet, the social environment of the 1980s seems more receptive to marketing strategies with status orientations. Using retail institutions, the same stimulus objects of a 1970s study, this investigation suggests that status recognition in the consumption environment has advanced considerably. As in the case of other abstract social judgments, interjudge agreement remains high regardless of the age or occupational status of raters. Differences in consensus, however, are found for different income and education groups,


As originally envisioned by Weber (1946), status is the degree of social honor, respect, or prestige awarded to an individual by others. Performance of a social role is the firmest basis for making status judgments. This fact is supported by a large body of sociological research shoving that status evaluations of occupational titles are extremely homogeneous among members of different cultures (Trieman 1977) and subcultures (Alexander 1972). Based on occupational titles alone, members of society evaluate an individual's status with considerable agreement. Within small communities where residents are familiar with nearly everyone, status evaluations are relatively easy to make. However, today the majority of the population lives in large metropolitan areas, lessening the probability of meeting an acquaintance outside of some common social structure (e.g., work, church, neighborhood meeting). Unless a deference entitlement (e.g., occupational title, educational level) enters into the social interaction between any two unacquainted individuals, an evaluation of prestige or status is dependent on visual cues (Eisenstadt 1968). Since the turn of the century observers of society have argued that members of the modern community have been more or less forced into reliance on the correct display of material items, rather than reputation, in order to convey status (Goffman 1951; Form and Stone 1957; Simmel 1904).

Belk et al. (1982a; 1982b) note that the ability of symbols to communicate status is s result of encoding and decoding. Encoding of a status level is achieved by ownership of symbols which presumably are unique to that level. For example, advertisements for Piaget watches or Mercedes Benz automobiles appeal to the use of symbols to encode status. Their ability to communicate that status rests on the extent to which these products are confined only to upper social classes. Symbols which become diffused across levels of the class hierarchy are what Goffman (1951) terms "fraudulent," meaning that members of society can no longer be assured that ownership of these symbols deserves a certain level of status. Symbols found as relatively homogeneous within class levels include furniture, clothing, and housing (Porter 1966; Schaninger 1981).

Accurate communication of status also depends on most members of society perceiving a symbol to represent an approximately similar level of status (status decoding). In other words, if the majority of individuals do not make similar status attributions from a symbol, its effectiveness in communicating status is diminished Homogeneity or agreement of status symbolism has been substantiated for various product categories including clothing (Douty 1963), health care (Munsen and Spivey 1981), automobiles and housing (Belk et al. 1982a; 1982b).

In sum, the various positions an individual occupies are the clearest source of his or her prestige. These positions, however, rarely facilitate status communication in the urban environment. If ownership of material items is homogeneous within class positions (status encoding), and society agrees as to the deference entitlement (status decoding), symbolization is achieved. This investigation examines the strength or homogeneity of status recognition (decoding). As Coleman (1983) noted in his review of the significance of social class, however, disaffection from status encoding took place during the 1970s. Several social trends underlying this disaffection suggest that homogeneity of status decoding may not be of a high level.


Blumberg (1974) proposes that status is dependent on an item being both socially desirable and scarce. For example, dumping grounds for nuclear wastes are scarce but not socially desirable and do not lend status to their geographical locations. A Picasso, conversely, does say something about the status of its owner since it is both unique and socially desirable. Two arguments suggest material items may no longer effectively communicate status.

Rising Affluence

This argument, the most prevalent, claims that everything I from dish washers to automobiles are no longer scarce because of technological advances and rising disposable incomes. Proponents of this view argue that only such items as housing, yachts, stables, and private jet aircraft retain their abilitY to communicate status (Blumberg 1974).

Change in Consumer Attitudes

A shift in the sentiments of some Americans away from materialism and toward simplicity and self-reliance is a trend directly opposite to that of expressing distinction with material items. One example of this shift in values has been labelled voluntary simplicity (Shama 1981), which manifests itself in behaviors such as growing vegetables and commuting on bicycles. Viewed from the perspective of consumer encoding, this lifestyle represents a trade-off of status sought from materialism, for self-esteem and status based on self-relying performances.

At an estimated eight million people (Shama 1981), the number of voluntary simplifiers is a small proportion of Americans. Yet, it is a smaller representation of a larger social trend which grew from the turbulent 1960s. During this period racial equality and antiwar movements appeared to cause a percolating up, rather than a trickling down of social class values (Blumberg 1974). This dramatic switch, sometimes termed Radical Chic (Wolfe 1970), is the antithesis of the trickle-down theory of fashion (Simmel 1904), and took place when a large contingent of anti-status seekers began to copy the long hair, head bands, beads, and faded jeans of the existing counterculture. Content analysis of advertising reveals a decrease in the use of status-oriented theses during the 1960s (Belk and Pollay 1985), In sum, this period of time witnessed the first major assault on materialism and its status connotations in modern American Society.


While the anti-materialism/status movement of the 1960s is well documented, monitors of American values have recently detected a rise in conservatism (Yankelovich 1981) For instance, Belk and Pollay (1985) also found that, although the materialistic advertising themes of doing (i.e., activity that is aided or provided by the product or service) still do in ted those of having (i.e., ultimate value is derived only from ownership) during the 1970s, the trend is reversing. In other words, to the extent that advertising reflects the values of those it is designed to appeal to, the status-oriented values of materialism are on the rise.

Several other recent societal trends suggest the reemergence of status encoding and decoding. The widely recognized Yuppie population, for instance, is capturing the attention of marketers of expressive products. A 1985 report on Pontiac's Grand Am led to the conclusion that Yuppies want "more personal cars in keeping with their need for self-expression" (U.S. News & World Report 1984). This encoding of status through consumption may be due to the large number of Yuppies who are upwardly mobile (i.e., as compared to those who have inherited status). Several scholars have noted that mobility is positively related to the use of status symbols within societies (Bensman and Lilienfeld 1979; Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Belk and Pollay (forthcoming) found that in Japan, a country with greater mobility over the past forty years than the United States, there has been a greater use of status themes in advertising. Taken together, these recent social trends suggest that the display and recognition of status symbols may again be a powerful component of American culture.


Observing the possible resurgence of status symbols is confounded by probable differences in status recognition among members of the population. Specifically, previous research suggests that age, social class, and sex (not investigated here) may all systematically affect decoding of status stimuli.


The results of several studies point to an increase in status consciousness with age (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982b). Belk et al. found status and success inferences based on ownership of automobiles and housing strongest among college and adult aged respondents. Yet, another study conducted by the same researchers indicated that college students may rely more on visible consumption than adults when forming stereotypes (Belk, Mayer, and Bahn 1982a). Collectively, these findings suggest that consumption-based status inferences do increase with age, but may level off or even decrease after the early twenties.

Social Class

Members of different social class levels may also make disparate person inferences from consumption stimuli. When provided with ownership of brands in value-expressive product categories (e.g., automobiles and magazines), differences in user stereotypes (e.g., successful versus unsuccessful, informed versus uninformed) have been observed across members of different social classes (Munsen and Spivey 1980), Differences in status inferences across social classes are less clear. Respondents of higher social class levels were found better able to form status inferences from living room pictures (Davis 1956) and from descriptions of other individuals (Form and Stone 1957) than those lower in social class. Another study, however, found nonsignificant differences in consumption stereotyping for adult respondents of different social classes (Belk, Mayer, and Bahn 1982a). The same researchers later discovered that children of higher social class formed stronger consumption inferences than those of lover social class (Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982b),

Studies indicate that prestige judgments based on occupational titles differ by indicators of social class (e g., Alexander 1972). Hodge and Rossi (1978) conclude that while members of all social strata share a set of common values concerning the status of occupations, lover social class groups exhibit more error. Similar findings were reported when examining occupational prestige evaluations of respondents with different levels of education (Guppy 1982).

The existence of a positive relationship between social class and strength of status stereotyping from consumption stimuli is equivocal. However, between research specifically addressing this relationship and results from occupational prestige grading, the evidence is more in favor of this relationship than not.


Consumption Objects

Data were collected to assess the strength of status inferences related to material possessions and to discover whether or not this strength might differ by age and social class. Clothing was selected as the consumption cue because of its ability to convey information about status (Douty 1963; Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982b; Solomon 1983). Naves of stores where clothing can be purchased, rather than clothing brands, were used as stimuli for making status inferences for two reasons. First, there is a smaller, more recognizable set of clothing stores than clothing brands. More importantly, the use of store names will facilitate comparison with an earlier study of status judgments that also used these stimuli (Felson 1978). The results of that study shoved that "don't know" responses numbered up to 40 percent for some stores, leading to the conclusion that material lifestyles mask more than produce invidious distinctions. Several criticisms have been leveled at the methodology of this study, most importantly that it should have used patrons of stores as stimuli, rather than just store names (Semon 1979),

Modifying Hirschman's (1978) retail store typology, three stores where clothing can be purchased were selected from each of five categories including local department, national department, mass merchandise, discount, and specialty. Respondents were given a set of cards containing the store names and asked to remove all they were unfamiliar with. They were then instructed to rank the remaining cards from lowest to highest in terms of prestige, using as many piles as they wished. To al ow for the possibility that patrons reflect more about the status of stores than stores themselves (Semon 1979), the cards were shuffled and respondents were later requested to rank the stores according to patron prestige.


Differences in consumption inferences may also exist by gender, but appear dependent on product class. When evaluating automobiles and housing, males seem to draw stronger person attributions than do females (Belk et al. 1982a; 1982b). Conversely, females appear to make stronger attributions when clothing is the consumption cue (Hamid 1972). The sample was defined as women 18 years of age or older. Therefore, if status expression (encoding) and recognition (decoding) have undergone resurgence since the 1960s or 70s, the-exclusive female sample will have a higher probability of detecting this trend.

Mall intercept interviews were conducted at two large shopping malls within a medium-sized southwestern city. In accordance with the work of Blair (1983), a sampling plan was designed to provide maximum representation for time, day, and location. Editing resulted in a usable sample of 284 from a total of 316 interviews conducted. Comparison of this sample with income, education, and age data of the surrounding population revealed a marginal difference only with respect to age. The sample is somewhat skewed toward young females (mode - 18).


The ability to successfully communicate status through clothing symbolism would be evidenced by finding a status hierarchy of stores and a high level of agreement among respondents within the hierarchy. Accordingly, the analysis proceeded by examining the status hierarchy, discerning the level of agreement, and then comparing agreement across class and age groups.

The 15 stores used as stimuli here to conform to a hierarchy (see Table 1). Similar to the price/quality dimension underlying Hirschman's (1978) retail store typology, the prestige dimension yields an ordering of discount, mass merchandise, local department, specialty, and national department stores. Aberrations are one local specialty store and one national department store, which are both perceived as significantly less prestigious than other stores within their categories.

Despite the fact that none of the three national department stores have outlets close to the market where the data were collected, the majority of respondents had heard of them and were quite capable of evaluating their status. Only in one case are the number of "not heard of" responses greater for a national department store than for a local specialty store. The reputation of the more prestigious national stores is apparently due to substantial media and word-of-mouth communication. This conjecture is supported by the number of respondents who had not even been in any of these stores during the previous year (i.e., 71 percent, 77 percent, and 78 percent). unfortunately, the instrument did not inquire as to amount of catalog shopping at any of the 15 stores. Although respondents may have not physically been in the three national stores, they say have for ed impressions by seeing and/or purchasing clothing through the stores' catalogs.

Overall, the average percent of "not heard of" responses for the entire 15 stores is 14 percent. This is a lover figure than the average of 20 percent "don't know" responses Felson (1978) obtained from an inventory of five stores, all of which were selected on the basis of being well known within a local market (Chicago), Moreover, when the store inventory used here is paired for purposes of comparison (i.e., those store types not present in Felson's inventory - specialty stores and those stores without outlets in the same market), the average "not heard of" response is 1.7 percent While the female sample used in this study may have inflated status recognition over what it might have been with a mixed sample, the data suggest that recognition of store status has risen over the past ten years.

Agreement in the prestige ranks of the entire sample was determined from coefficient of variation and kurtosis values. The coefficient of variation reflects the amount of dispersion in a distribution by expressing a variable's standard deviation relative to its mean. Kurtosis compares the peakedness of a distribution to that of a normal distribution. The height of the normal distribution equals a kurtosis value of 0, with values above indicative of a more peaked distribution (i.e., a greater level of agreement). As seen in Table 1, no coefficient of variation values exceed .5 (i.e., standard deviations are not 50 percent of their means), and all kurtosis values range from 2.12 to 39.48 (i.e., peakedness is at the least two times that of the normal distribution). Both of these measures show a consistent and substantial level of agreement in the store prestige ranks. Perceptions of status for two well-known discount stores and one national mass merchandiser are nearly unanimous, perhaps reflecting that people have a highly defined notion of what constitutes a low-status store.

As noted above, one of the primary criticisms of Felson's (1978) earlier study was not asking respondents to evaluate the status of the people who shop in stores (Semon 1979). Presumedly, people would feel less sure about the status of an inanimate object (i.e., stores, cars, residential areas) than they would about the status of the people associated with them. The comparison in Table 1, however, shows only two instances in which kurtosis values are greater for patron than for store status. Cultural norms in America are comparatively less class oriented than they are in other countries (e.g., India, England), and the evidence here suggests that people have less difficulty making status evaluations of inanimate objects than they do of people.

The overall strength of status perceptions was determined from Kendall's Coefficient of Concordance (W) for all rankings. This measure reflects the total level of agreement between all respondents' rankings and ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 indicating absolute agreement. A problem is presented by the number of "not heard of" responses for several of the stores. Because these responses reflect a lack of knowledge, and therefore agreement, their exclusion would inflate the value of the measure. One heuristic for solving this problem is to impute mean ranks for missing values. Another is to exclude the four stores with substantially higher percentages of missing cases. Employing both of these heuristics showed no significant differences between any of the possible W values. The overall strength of store status perceptions is exceedingly high (.73 to .89 depending on heuristic et) and is approximately equal to the strength of occupational prestige perceptions (.75 to .95 - c . f ., Trieman 1977). As found above in the case of individual store ranks, there is more overall agreement in i store prestige ranks than in patron prestige ranks (.81 versus . 75).



The final research question concerned whether the strength of status recognition differs according to age and social class. Components of social class were examined separately including occupational prestige (Trieman 1977), education and income. After breaking the continuous variables into quarters, and education into appropriate categories, Kendall's W was calculated for respondents in each group. Because of the large number of missing cases across all four characteristics, Kendall's W was also calculated after eliminating all specialty stores and stores not located in the metropolitan area. While the latter an lysis did result in several significant changes, the trends within characteristics remain similar.

The findings in Table 2 suggest that individuals are in high agreement in store prestige evaluations regardless of age or occupational prestige. However, level of agreement increases substantively as both education and income increase. This occurrence say provide a partial explanation for the equivocalness in the relationship between social class and strength of status inferences found in prior studies For instance, Belk et al (1982b) measured social class by forming an index in which occupational status was weighted more heavily than education The results here suggest occupational status and education, along with income, should be treated as conceptually distinct; combining them say lead to masking the separate underlying effects




The data collected here do allow one to draw conclusions regarding status recognition (decoding), but do not provide direct evidence of possible trends in motivations to express status through ownership of material items (status encoding). Yet, it seems quite unlikely that status decoding can exist independently of status encoding. People have to receive cues (e.g , from browsing, advertising, word-of-mouth) in order to form status attributions about brands or stores. For instance, the recent growth of materialistic themes in advertising (Belk and Pollay 1985) should manifest a greater level of awareness concerning how ownership of various brands can facilitate expression of status. The fact that these theses are growing in prevalence implies that consumers are responding favorably by demanding products and patronizing stores with materialistic positionings Following this line of reasoning, the findings of this study suggest that both status recognition and expression in the consumption domain have risen considerably since the 1970s

The results also provide a current insight of people s perceptions of the structure of retail institutions. Using multidimensional scaling to analyze free response data, Jain and Etgar (1976) found the primary dimension underlying discount, mass merchandise, and local department stores was prestige or status The results here establish a similar and definite hierarchy of stores along the dimension of status, one which parallels the price/quality retail structure described by Hirschman (1978) This provides additional evidence that people organize stores relative to one another in the most parsimonious fashion possible, that being according to status or prestige.

The principle of lease effort also seems to underlie inferences made from occupational titles and physical attractiveness. Both of these are among the first social cues elicited from strangers and they, as well as store prestige, are ambiguous and formed by Gestalt mental processes. Each of these three social cues are abstract and find their evaluations in the core values of culture. Barring few exceptions, studies of occupational prestige rankings (c. f., Goldthorpe and Hope 1972) and physical attractiveness ratings (Patzer 1985) find levels of agreement similar to those found here.

The results here may be further informed by studies of American ideology. Huber and Form (1973) concluded that consensus of major ideological tenets are greatest when they are stated in general terms, rather than when phrased as concrete situations. While store or occupational prestige to not directly reflect economic or political ideology, they nevertheless are global and demonstratively high in consensus. When stated in such abstract terms, the prevailing value system tends to obscure its day-to-day implications.

Although age and occupational prestige do not differentiate individuals' agreement of store prestige, education and income were found to be salient factors in discriminating the level of consensus. Comparable trends in agreement across education levels have also been found in studies of occupational prestige grating (Guppy 1982). To the extent that store prestige reflects dominant ideology, a similar explanation for these findings can be applied. members of higher economic and educational groups, having benefitted from the pluralistic American value system, are more unanimous than lover groups in their support of this ideology (Guppy 1982; Huber and Form 1973). Individuals of higher income have done well by this system, while those who obtained high levels of education are likely more informed about pluralistic ideology than those with fever years of education.

Specifically related to consumption, individuals with higher incomes way have more homogeneous notions about the status of stores by virtue of their ability to shop across the entire prestige hierarchy. Individuals of lover income say never make purchases in more expensive and prestigious stores, while others may save money for occasional purchases in these stores. The result appears to be widely differing status evaluations of stores within the hierarchy.

The substantive differences in consensus across education levels may also be attributable to media consumption and course content. Education is positively related to magazine and newspaper readership (Hornick and Schlinger 1981), and this higher level of media consumption may result in more informed ideas of what represents store prestige. Higher education also emphasizes aesthetic experiences and provides opportunities for consumption of various cultural events. The resultant artistic abilities could cause the high levels of agreement found here among individuals holding graduate and undergraduate degrees.

Self-expression through status symbolization appears to be a viable behavior in the current social milieu Status consciousness of material items again seems to be an important aspect of American culture. In lieu of increasingly conservative attitudes toward politics and careers, perhaps this result is not surprising.


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