By Zach Richer
At the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, then President Cecilia Ridgeway addressed the convention with a call to arms. The theme for that year’s conference was Interrogating Inequality, and Ridgeway was concerned that her colleagues had left by the wayside one important measure by which society is stratified: status.1
That sociologists have begun to ignore status is dismaying, but it is also surprising. The idea that status differences constitute important forms of social inequality dates back to the founding of the discipline; Max Weber famously set the agenda in a canonical essay from 1920, “Class, Status, Party.”2 Weber’s aim was to sort out three bases of stratification that dominated different arenas of social life. For Weber, ‘Class’ structures the field of economics—of production, the market, and private holdings. Likewise, party is concerned with allegiances and the wielding of political power by allied interest groups.
Status as a form of inequality is more amorphous and imprecise.
Unlike class position, which could be tied to one’s access to productive resources, or party, in which power emanated from one’s government office or organizational position, Weber argued that status “depends on a specific positive or negative social assessment of honor.”3
Although institutions such as prestigious schools, respected workplaces, and private clubs can play large roles in establishing an individual’s status, much of what goes into constructing status hierarchies takes place in everyday interactions and practices. That is, class and party positions are acquired through material wealth and political power, respectively, and status positions are secured through social judgments.
The cultural foundations of status inequalities have been of particular interest to sociologists ever since Weber (and in the case of turn-of-the-century American sociologist Thorstein Veblen4, even before Weber). Ridgeway’s own work in status construction theory rests on the same premise that ‘honor’ is a distinction accorded to people through broad social assessments rather than our individual values.
We gain or lose status when the people around us recognize our actions as worthy of esteem or respect—not necessarily their esteem or respect, but those that are commonly assumed to be the natural standards for awarding or withholding status, however unnatural those standards may be. Ridgeway calls these standards ‘frames’—or the pre-given set of characteristics we unconsciously use to interpret social actions.
One frame of particular interest to Ridgeway is gender.5 She argues that, whether we aim to or not, our conduct in interactions with other people is shaped by prevailing social judgments regarding the gender of the parties involved (including assumptions about our own gender that may be held by our interlocutor).
The goal of the sociologist, then, is to understand the social conditions—what she refers to as the “setting” or the “local context”—in which these frames are more or less salient.
Another approach to understanding status inequalities comes from the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.6 For Bourdieu, individuals are located in several different fields of social activity, each with its own standards for success—perhaps our salary and residential address if we are investment bankers, or our citation index score and academic affiliation if we are scholars.
What secures an individual’s status within these fields is a combination of pursuing the kinds of actions that are likely to accrue these specific resources for ourselves and knowing how to appropriate those resources in a way that reveals our familiarity and comfort with them. What’s more, the relationship between our status positions and personal choices is mutually reinforcing: the material comfort that comes along with academic life tends to allow the mind to wander into abstraction; such a disposition, in turn, allows the scholar to put forth the kinds of sociological theories that catch the eyes of his or her colleagues.7
In both Ridgeway and Bourdieu, we see how culture matters for status judgments, and we see how it varies across different “local contexts”, on the one hand, and “fields” on the other. But as foundational as these approaches have been, their references to space are largely metaphorical. This elision of place is prevalent within sociological studies of status-bearing practices.
Take consumption. Sociologists have shown us that our choice in consumer items matters for status judgments (“Don’t order the wrong thing!”) as does the style and manners of our behavior (“Don’t order the thing wrong!”) I went to the shopping mall to investigate if where we engage in everyday practices makes a difference in how those actions are judged.
If this was indeed the case, I hypothesized, then by understanding where status takes place—and by analyzing the places that lend status to the individuals and groups who assemble there—sociologists could learn something about how status hierarchies are shaped, and also see how status is unequally distributed throughout the physical spaces in which we live, work, and shop.
Locating Status at Istinye Park
In order to see whether and how space mattered for status judgments, I researched a place that was widely associated with elites. As it happened, a new shopping center had just opened in my sometime-home of Istanbul, Turkey, which, in its opulence and exclusivity, surpassed any mall I had seen in the United States. That such a structure was built in Istanbul is no accident: a fast-growing but polarized economy, coupled with rapid rural-to-urban migration, created an environment ripe for status-signifying practices. What, how, and (I supposed) where residents of Istanbul consumed would go a long way in determining the legitimacy of their claims to belonging in the city.
Istinye Park stakes its claim as Istanbul’s premier shopping destination and therefore an ideal location for observing how status hierarchies take shape. I spent the summer of 2011 at the mall, recruiting customers and patrons to participate in open-ended semi-structured interviews regarding their shopping practices and choice of shopping venues. All told, I and an assistant conducted interviews with 40 participants in the study.8 What I found was that people are highly attuned to how space and place determine their shopping practices.
They spoke openly about the features of Istinye Park that made it an attractive destination, and also with frequent and unprompted reference to other shopping venues they deemed inferior and unattractive. Whenever my respondents justified their presence at Istinye Park in contrast to another shopping destination and its surrounding areas, I made a note.
At the end of my study, I got an idea of how different places measured up to the status profile of Istinye Park, and how judgments about the status of places corresponded with the assumptions of my respondents about the people who shopped there.
The result produced something of an unconventional map, what I have called a social topography9, detailing where status inequalities take place around the city, and how those places themselves are instrumental in constructing those same imbalances.
Status as Spatial Practice
When we conjure an image of status inequalities, we are likely to think of a hierarchy. Perhaps more than other forms of inequality, status seems to lend itself to the idea of rank—the top-to-bottom vertical listing of positions from “high” status to “low” status individuals. But in talking to customers at Istinye Park, it became evident that status has a lateral distribution too, shaping the contours of the city according to the differently-valued social practices that take place at the various locations. Part of this story is related to the placement of Istinye Park. Unlike most other shopping malls in Istanbul, which are situated in dense retail environments along the metro line, Istinye Park was constructed away from the main public transit arteries, just north of the stock exchange and the ring road linking the European and Anatolian sides of the city.
This logic is not lost on Istinye Park shoppers, as explained by Cavit, a pseudonymously-named restauranteur, “This place was consciously chosen from the start. It attracts the elite strata…at their point of intersection.” Mobility plays a big role in the story by facilitating the arrival of certain kinds of customers while making it hard to reach for others.
Coşkun, who had driven to Istinye Park from a neighborhood near the center of the city, told me that “coming to Istinye Park without a car is nearly impossible. [Public] transportation here is pretty tough. At best, you’d ride the metro and go from there to here, [but] even that is a world of distance walking under the sun. People who come here have cars.”
In a dense city where private ownership is fewer than 13 per hundred, the built environment serves as a silent accomplice to status hierarchies by granting access to some kinds of consumers while excluding others. Shoppers at Istinye Park have the means to go there, increasing its allure as a destination.
But cities are wont to change, and when the shape of a city changes, so does the status associated with certain shopping centers. Take the example of Alp, a jovial graphic designer who recently began shopping at Istinye Park after he gave up on the erstwhile elite mall, Akmerkez: “You know what ruined the atmosphere at Akmerkez? Kids from [the working class neighborhoods of] Gültepe and Kağıthane came and ruined the atmosphere.”
As important as infrastructure is, it would be a simplification to chalk up status hierarchies to the physical form of the landscape alone. Place isn’t fate, much as some of Istinye Park’s elite shoppers would like it to be, and some people are willing to brave “a world of distance under the sun” to participate in the spectacle. But it isn’t just access that constructs status imbalances, it’s also atmosphere.
Bülent, a recent transplant from a city outside Istanbul, tells me that he feels uncomfortable going to Istinye Park because of how other customers make a “character analysis” of him based on his clothes. He tries to keep his distance from the courtyard “because the way they look at you, sometimes it can really affect you. Normally, I go out there to smoke. On foot, that is, not sitting down.”
These symbolic practices aid in the work of segregation where the geographic location of the building falls short, sending cues to shoppers like Bülent to go back inside the building to a space more suited to their status. Customers at Istinye Park work hard to maintain their mall as a space exclusive to people who occupy similar status positions among the Istanbul elite. Part of this work is accomplished through segregation, but part of it operates through the imagination.
In other words, Istinye Park functions as an elite space not only for its own unique features, but in an actively expressed contrast to specific places in their city where other people shop.
By naming places of lower status, and imagining the motives of the people who shop there, the elite shoppers enlist these areas in a status hierarchy that stretches across the city. Thus, an Istinye Park shopper is someone who exercises taste and discretion in choosing a mall, in contrast to people who shop in the middle class neighborhood of Bakırköy, who are “just people with homes nearby or those who’ve got business to do there.” Calling out by name the places where people of low and middle status level live and shop completes a social topography of Istanbul that positions Istinye Park as its peak. Like a relief map showing the highs and lows of a physical landscape, charting how people classify their city gives us an idea about how status, too, is distributed across space.
This is no static map. Places rise and fall in status according to how (and by whom) they’re used. Likewise, no individual resident or habitué of a given location can be guaranteed the same status just by staying in place—places maintain their character only through fostering certain kinds of practices, and excluding others.
- Ridgeway, Claudia. (2014). “Why Status Matters for Inequality.” American Sociological Review 79(1): 1-16.
- A newer translation changes the title of Talcott Parsons’ original translation into English. See Weber, Max. (1920/2010). “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Stände, Parties” Journal of Classical Sociology 10(2): 137-152.
- Ibid., p 142.
- Veblen, Thorstein. (1899/2009). The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ridgeway, Claudia. (2011). Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- See in particular Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). The Scholastic Point of View.” Cultural Anthropology 5(4): 380–391.
- For more methodological details on this study, see Richer, Zach. (2015).“Toward a Social Topography: Status as a Spatial Practice.” Sociological Theory, Forthcoming.