BOSS Blog 10: Status and power make the world go round

BOSS Blog 10 by Gert Jan Hofstede, 24 September 2020

Does money make the world go round?

“Money makes the world go round”. Not the gold, the paper, or even the information of it. What matters is the status and power that money can bring.

Consider:

o   With money, one can become a philanthropist and help people

o   With money, one can buy weapons, sex, power.

o   Money creates a pecking order that signifies social status.

Only, as the Beatles knew: “Money can’t buy me love”. Sure enough, some people will love and admire rich persons, if they believe that it is status-worthy to be rich; but most will just pretend to, to the extent that rich people are also powerful, and could harm you if they wished.

Status and power make the world go round

So in reality, it’s status and power that rule. I use these words here in the sense coined by US sociologist Theodore D. Kemper. I believe that this work constitutes a brilliant sociological summary of human sociality. It also fits quite well with Hofstede’s culture work, and it can be used to model sociality. Let me introduce the main concepts. I’ll build on them in later BOSS blogs.

Words that denote status and / or power issues

status and power words

Status

‘Status’ for Kemper is all the involuntary admiration, respect, and love that we give and crave. See the figure: All the words in the left oval are about status. So status is, first and foremost, something that we claim, give and receive in everyday interaction. As a result, a status hierarchy develops in society and in every group within society. Depending on the group’s activities, that hierarchy could be more or less obvious. It will simultaneously be expressed in all kinds of currency: kindness, power, beauty, skill, daring, money - to name a few. I am claiming status by writing this blog, and if you read it to the end, you are giving me status.

Power

It is only when the mutual exchange of status fails that power enters the scene: see the right-hand side of the figure. While status is about voluntary acts, power is about everything that people coerce one another into. We use power when we receive status insults, or if we have learned that this is a good way of obtaining what we want.

The difference

Status and power are opposites. A newborn baby incites huge status conferrals, while having no power whatsoever. An enemy may have power, but is often considered unworthy of any status. A kind person tends to give status to everyone; a bully uses power on everyone.

Status and power are intertwined

Oftentimes though, feelings are ambiguous, and status and power are intricately linked. This is usually the case for the words in the centre. Consider love. In the early phase of love, an overwhelming sense of admiration prevails. At some point, if the love is unrequited, or otherwise not answered fully enough, the lover could start resenting the loved one. From that moment on, the lover has a motive to start using power on the loved one, in any of a multitude of ways. This power use could range from crying, or giving a cold shoulder, to leaving, all the way to killing. Violent emotions are associated with felt status insults by loved ones.

Playing the status-power game is all we do

In fact, we people play the status-power game all our lives. If something “gives us energy”, it means it gives us status. We like those whom we can count on to give status to us. We long to give status to those we love. We do nothing else. The status-power game is our life.

This can be deeply problematic when opportunities for status elevation here and now are balanced between future status rewards. Consider Coronavirus responses. Can we stop living for the benefit of the vulnerable? Consider climate change. Can we stop living for the benefit of later generations?

The answer to these questions is: we can only do that if those others matter to us. In Kemper’s terms: if they are reference groups to us that have an important voice. I’ll explain.

Reference groups

We play the status-power game in groups: our household, siblings, family, tribe, club, country, religious community…Out-groups in particular are often dealt with as one: all its members are supposed to be equally worthy of status and equally likely to use their power on us. In the groups of which we feel a member, we are acutely aware of our status worthiness compared to others. When we feel a member of many groups, we are driven to give more attention to those groups that give us more status. Some groups of which we are not a member can nevertheless be key reference groups to us, depending on our value system: for instance, ancestors, later generations, or God.

Reference group meeting

As we live our lives, and believe ourselves to be independent, our steps are being directed by our reference groups. Most of these data from our infancy. We are a meeting ground for our reference groups. For everything we do, without our awareness, they meet and argue in us. Reference groups that give us more status, or have more power over us, have a louder voice.

“Being ourselves” means doing what the reference groups that give us status, whisper to us, instead of bending to the power of other reference groups.

Leaving a group

The decisive action for a group is to leave it. Can you leave a group of peers, a country, a marriage, a family, a religion? This is where culture begins to matter. In some cultures, all of these are possible; in others, none of them. In most, it depends on many contingencies.

Status-power and culture

So, the status-power game changes depending on a society’s culture. I assume that the reader is familiar with the six Hofstede dimensions of culture; if not, see www.geerthofstede.com.

Collectivism - Individualism

This is about the social unit of status worthiness: is it the individual? Or the group, tribe, nation? For instance, if you make a social blunder, do you suffer as an individual, or are you putting your group to shame?

Power distance

Here, the issue is: Are all people equally worthy of status? Does “might make right”, that is, does high status justify power use? Does low status justify obedience?

Masculinity – Femininity

Inversely to the previous dimension, the question here is: is the use of power, or showing muscle, worthy of status? Is it “The devil take the hindmost”? Or is being weak and needing protection worthy of status, that is, actual protection?

Uncertainty Avoidance

This is about anxiety in the face of unknown things. Do we fear the power of unknown things? Or do we see opportunities for status elevation in the face of the unknown?

Short- or long-term orientation

This is about the amount of context we create around our status-power game. Do we zoom in and consider status worthiness here and now? Or do we zoom out and think about ulterior consequences? In the former case, identity and morality are deemed immutable; in the latter, these things are deemed subject to change. Yin / Yang, for instance, makes sense in a long-term oriented context, while arguing about the truth of propositions makes sense in a short-term oriented context.

Indulgence - restraint

One of our reference groups, with a voice when it comes to deciding what to do, is our organism. The Indulgence- Restraint dimension of culture is about the weight that we give our organism in the concert of reference group voices. Indulge (give status to the organism) or endure (punish the flesh)? In indulgent societies, there is more joy, but also possibly more impulsive violence.

Moral

Described in this way, we humans seem deceptively simple. At the basis there is status, and power, and reference groups. Variations in the resulting status-power game we can describe in six dimensions of culture.

Only, as players of chess or go know, specifying the rules is not the same as playing the game. The game of life remains endlessly varied, challenging, and full of secrets. In this Blog I briefly specified some building blocks. I'll come back to you about how they combine into the game of life.

References

Kemper, Theodore D. (2011) Status, power and ritual interaction: a relational reading of Durkheim, Goffman and Collins. Ashgate.

Kemper, Theodore D. (2017) Elementary forms of social relations. Routledge.