Goffman, E. 1951. “Symbols of Class Status.”

Goffman, Erving. 1951. “Symbols of Class Status.” The British Journal of Sociology 2(4): 294-304.

Status, position, and role have been used interchangeably “to refer to the set of rights and obligations which governs the behaviour of persons acting in a given social capacity” (294), but these rights and obligations tend to be fixed, impacted by external laws and threats, as well as internal sanctions, such as shame and guilt.  Goffman assumes that people of relatively same social position behave in similar ways – making behavior an indicator of social position.

These rights and obligations also tend to falter in light of regular communication – thus, status symbols are used as “specialized means of displaying one’s position,” acting as “[…] cues which select for a person the status that is to be imputed to him and the way in which others are to treat him” (294). Status symbols categorize society, and maintain boundaries between (and solidarity within) these categories. SS designate position, but not the means used to fulfill that position – and are of categorical (identificatory of rank) and sometimes expressive significance (expressing lifestyle or cultural values of that person). In this, status symbols tend to be more useful in communication rather than the rights/duties they represent.

  • Status symbols are not collective symbols “which serve to deny the difference between categories in order that members of all categories may be drawn together in affirmation of a single moral community” (295).
  • Status symbols are distinguished from esteem symbols “which designate the degree to which a person performs the duties of his position in accordance with ideal standards, regardless of the particular rank of his position” (295).
  • Status symbols can be used “fraudulently” – misrepresenting a person of having a status that the person does not possess.
  • Status symbols “provide the cue that is used in order to discover the status of others and, from this, the way in which others are to be treated” and “[…] frequently express the whole mode of life of those from whom the symbolic act originates” (304)
  • Two types of status symbols – occupation and class symbols
    • Occupational symbols – two types: 1) credentials that infer a person’s work training/history; and, 2) demarcates levels of prestige within work environment
    • Class symbols – multiplex and overlapping – rooted within cultural values/traits, but does not have the penalties afforded in a misrepresentation of class (compared to sanctions given to misrepresentation of occupation/misuse of occupational symbols) – which are regulated/restricted from misuse by both external sanctions, internal restrictions, natural restrictions (naturally-occurring scarcities – small amount of resources, antique/vintage supplies, high status assigned to attending a limited seating play), socialization restrictions (memberships based upon identification with “behaviours [that] involve matters of etiquette, dress, deportment, gesture, intonation, dialect, vocabulary, small bodily movements and automatically expressed evaluations concerning both the substance and details of life [….] – a social style” (300)), cultivation restrictions ( dedicated study of “avocational pursuits involving the cultivation of arts, ‘tastes’, sports, and handicrasts” (301)), and organic restrictions (developmental and semi-biological traits that indicate long-standing membership in a group, or the traits passed down from a particular group).

Statuses can be ranked on a scale of prestige, “according to the amount of social value that is placed upon it relative to other statuses in the same sector of social life” (294), as individuals are rated on scale of esteem  – judged upon how well the individual fits the ideal performance appropriate for that particular status.

Class symbols bear the weight of a few issue areas: 1) the rise and fall of classes – and the subsequent inability of classes being unable to economically/politically support their symbols/expectations; 2) the infiltration of (and use of status symbols) by curator groups – those of lower classes that have access to higher-class symbols (and may thus misrepresent themselves); and, 3) (over-) circulation of class symbols widening their reach — resulting in need to create new or more specialized symbols to represent their class, and resulting in a loss of meaning/solidarity within class groups.


DQ: Okay – this is neat in a definitional sense, but Goffman seems to have some major hang-ups in the blending of class symbols —- in a time where being a cultural omnivore tends to hold more esteem (access to a breadth of resources, ability to navigate worlds), how do we view Goffman’s dedication to class authenticity/segregation?


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