Social status and watch collecting Pt 2
"The best measure of cultural capital is undoubtedly the amount of time devoted to acquiring it."
A previous post I did on this topic covered the concept of 'the status game'. This post is a step deeper, looking at how status can transcend our possessions, and permeate our beliefs, too. Do you think our beliefs confer status? Does this, in turn, inflict an unseen cost on lower social classes? How can we course-correct?
In 1899, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class. The book arose from three articles that Veblen published in the American Journal of Sociology between 1898 and 1899: (i) "The Beginning of Ownership" (ii) "The Barbarian Status of Women", and (iii) "The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labour".
In this book, he posits that because we can't possibly know the financial status of other people, observing whether people can afford expensive products and leisurely activities, gives us a good indication of their means. Of course, this explains why it is difficult and expensive to purchase anything which might be used as a status-signaling prop e.g. A Rolex.
Back in Veblen’s day, status was displayed using elaborate clothing such as tuxedos, top hats, and ball gowns, or by passing time engaging in activities like golf or beagling. Of course, this was only accessible to people who were not manual labourers, people who could spend their time and money on objectively 'pointless' stuff.
Veblen even goes so far as to say, “The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master’s ability to pay.” In other words... butlers, he thinks, are status symbols as well.
In short, his idea was about how economic capital was often converted into cultural capital.
In 1979, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu echoed these thoughts in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Bourdieu proposed that people with "cultural capital" — education and intellect, style of speech and style of dress, etc. — participate in determining what distinct aesthetic values constitute good taste within their society. In fact, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron coined and defined the term cultural capital in the essay "Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction" a few years before, in 1977.
Perhaps along similar lines of thought to Maslow, Bourdieu essentially proposed that once our baseline physical and material needs were met, people could spend more time cultivating the “dispositions of mind and body” in the form of distinguishing themselves using conspicuously expensive taste and habits.
Moving to the animal kingdom for further examples... the biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed that animals exhibit particular traits, and behaviours because they are so physically costly. The first example which most people are aware of, is the peacock's tail; only a healthy peacock is capable of growing large and impressive plumage while still being able to evade predators. A perhaps lesser known example is the behaviour of the gazelle. This study details how healthy gazelles are more likely to 'stot' (bounce around) to signal how fit they are. This essentially says to predators "I am so healthy, I can waste energy to bounce around, and you might as well not bother chasing me because you are better off chasing one of the weaker ones."
For humans, luxury watches and designer hand bags are costly signals of economic capacity; for gazelles, stotting is a costly signal of physical capacity.
One major difference, is how human signals trickle down and become devalued over time. As a strong signal becomes more widely adopted, it becomes a weaker signal, and the affluent people abandon it. Watch collectors have seen this happen with the mass-adoption of Rolex and other mainstream brands leading affluent collectors to find something more special. This is why we increasingly see rarity being highly coveted - it reduces accessibility and preserves the power of the signal for the affluent.
There are also historical examples of phenomenon. Take spices... The word “spice”