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Men and Status: An Introduction

status
The following is a reprint of an article by Brett McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.

You’re talking to an attractive woman, when suddenly she pretends to wave to a friend behind you, and without even excusing herself, she walks away. You cringe in the moment, and continue to cringe for months afterward when you lie in bed and replay the encounter in your head.

Your brother, a Marine, wants you to hang out with his platoon buddies and you spend the night feeling like an outsider looking in. As they share their combat stories, you have nothing to add, and nobody wants to hear about your accounting job. You can’t help feeling rather less-than, like a suburban wuss.

You were laid off two months ago and you still haven’t been able to find a job. You haven’t even gotten called in for a single interview. You find yourself sinking into a deep depression and are plagued by feelings of worthlessness.

While all these scenarios are different, the feelings they can garner are similar — a deep, visceral sinking and pit in your stomach, a disorientation in your mind, or a heavy weight on your chest. The feelings can seem disproportionate to what’s actually happened, and your logical, rational mind tells you not to make such a big deal of things — that she doesn’t matter, that you live a relatively decent life, that you’re not your job. But it seems impossible to think away the vise that seems to clench your heart.

The reason these seemingly inexplicable reactions can be so difficult to deal with is that they’re rooted in a topic modern culture doesn’t address and doesn’t explain: status.

Men and Status

In America, status is something that we’re all acutely aware of privately, but like good democratic, egalitarians, we publicly pretend like it doesn’t exist or isn’t that important.

Yet there’s no escaping status. We’re hardwired to be aware of it, to monitor it, to seek it, and to feel pained when forced to surrender it. Neurons fire and hormones are released whenever we lose or gain status. It’s an involuntary process that we share with our caveman ancestors as well as every other mammal in the animal kingdom. It’s inextricably woven into our biology and neurology because for thousands of years, high status was closely connected with access to resources and reproductive success. Gaining and maintaining one’s status was thus vitally important to ensuring the survival both of a man’s mortal life and his genes for generations to come.

Status has always been particularly important for men. Biologists have long observed that males across species (including our own) are much more sensitive to “status defeats” and have a much stronger drive to attain status than females. Within humans, a man’s drive for status is woven into nearly every facet of masculinity. It underlies core concepts such as honor, Jack Donovan’s “tactical virtues” of strength, courage, and mastery, and the 3 P’s of Manhood — protect, procreate, provide.

In fact, across cultures and time, becoming a man was essentially a status that one earned by performing manly deeds and living up to the standards and code of one’s tribe. One was born male, but had to become a man. In nearly every culture on earth, gaining the title of man required a male to undergo strenuous, painful challenges and ordeals, and to endure them with courage and stoicism.

In our modern culture, vestiges of this idea of manhood-as-earned-status can be found in exhortations to “Man up!” or “Be a man!” Despite a half-century-old attempt to root maleness exclusively in biology and/or culture rather than behavior, when a male is told to “be a man” about something, he knows exactly what it means; and if it’s directed at him by his peers, it especially stings because they’re questioning his status — questioning whether he’s a man among men.

The Oversimplification of Status

The primacy of status in the lives of men led me to embark on a yearlong research project on the subject. What I discovered is that, like honor, status is an incredibly complex concept that is influenced by biology, psychology, and culture. Yet an acknowledgement of this complexity is rarely to be found in our modern discourse. Instead, writers, pundits, and even academics typically oversimplify the subject in a couple of ways.

One way in which status gets oversimplified is when we talk about it only in terms of things like class, race, and sex. While it’s true that the status that comes with being a member of a certain population segment influences whether that group of people as a whole will flourish or flounder, this macro-view of the subject overlooks how status rears its head in our one-on-one interactions, when our class, race, or sex aren’t significant factors.

Even in the most mundane and seemingly even-footed interactions, we are signaling (often without being aware of it) our self-perceived status to others and observing their signals too in order to determine our respective place in that social hierarchy. The pace at which we talk, how we take up space in a room, and whether we make eye contact with the other person all are subtle signals of high or low status. Contrary to popular belief, there doesn’t even need to be animosity in these status “contests.” In fact, most of our everyday status interchanges are very friendly and help social life run smoothly.

The other way in which discussions of status get oversimplified is often seen in the “manosphere.” There, status is frequently presented in terms of an alpha/beta dichotomy.

Under this two-pronged rubric of status, alpha males sit at the top of the social hierarchy and have greater access to money, power, and sex. Becoming an alpha male requires a man to display aggressive dominance, often by fostering the “Dark Triad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Beta males, on the other hand, are low status and submissive guys who are weak and passive. They’re “nice guys” who can’t say no, don’t have confidence, and just generally don’t have balls. Unless these men can learn how to be dominant and gain some swagger, the thinking goes, they’ll have no luck with the ladies, and feel stymied and depressed.

Yet while dominance is believed to be a trait one must possess to gain status within a group, it is not actually a trait at all. Dominance from the anthropological perspective is a term synonymous with status. When sociologists and primatologists talk about a “dominant male,” they’re simply describing a “high-status male.” And while aggression can be an effective route to achieving status/dominance, it isn’t the only one.

These two strains of thought — status-as-socioeconomics and status-as-aggressive dominance get some things right, but miss the bigger picture of status and the complex way it operates. Let’s take a closer look at the real and multi-faceted nature of status.

What Is Status?

The most basic definition of status is this: Status is one’s rank in a group of people.

Easy enough.

But things get much more complex as you probe deeper. So let’s start digging:

Status is Relative

It’s important to keep in mind throughout this entire discussion that there is no such thing as absolute status. It’s all relative.

First, it’s relative to the people who make up your immediate and intimate group. We don’t care how we fare compared to people living in another country or people who are in an entirely different socioeconomic strata. We care about our position relative to our friends, co-workers, and close competitors, because how our friends, co-workers, and close competitors are doing is more relevant to our personal success and flourishing. A law student doesn’t care about his class rank compared to another law student in a different law school. He cares about his class rank among the peers at his own school. As an American living in the suburbs of Tulsa, I never think about how an uber-rich Saudi oil tycoon is doing way better than me financially, but boy, when I see that a friend got a new car, I feel a twinge of envy, and curiosity about how much money he’s making, despite my best efforts to be aloof.

Research has backed up this implicit understanding we all have that status is relative to the people who make up our immediate and intimate group. For example, experiments have shown that the amount someone will spend on conspicuous goods (clothes, houses, cars, etc.) depends on what others in their social group are spending on those same things. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Jones” phenomenon. So if someone notices that their co-workers are buying premium brand clothing, they’re likely to go out and buy similarly priced clothing (even if it hurts financially to do so) to avoid being perceived as the low man on the totem pole; they may even try to buy a more premium clothing brand to gain higher status than their peers. Thankfully, many folks can avoid these consumer arms races, but there’s still a primal itch to take part in it.

Second, status is relevant to the culture of a particular group. Every group has a unique culture that places varying emphasis on different values and markers, and thus attributes status differently. In societies such as India, the family in which you are born will determine your status for the rest of your life. In America, we believe that you can increase your status through striving and effort.

The fact that status is relative means that if you’re living in a pluralistic society in which you might be a member of several different groups and communities, you can simultaneously hold high or low status in various roles in you life. You can be a big fish in a little pond in some situations, and a little fish in a big pond in others. You might be the big cheese in your LARP-ing club, but you’d be laughed out of the football team’s locker room. Making awesome gains at the gym will win you kudos from your fellow bros, but not from the MENSA society. Or you could be like Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation: everyone at work thinks you’re a loser, but your family absolutely adores you and gives you all the respect you’d ever want.

Types of Status: Achieved, Ascribed, and Embodied

According to sociologists and animal behaviorists, there are three types of status: ascribed, achieved, and embodied.

Ascribed Status

Ascribed status is the status one has because of birth or a role they take on later in life. The class you’re born into, your race, and your sex comes with status built into it. So for example, if you’re a white dude born into an influential and rich family in New England, you’re going to have more inborn status — in America at least — than if you’re a black woman born to a poor family in the South. Ascribed status is what fuels the caste system in India and was the basis of aristocracy in Europe and the early days of the United States. Ascribed status isn’t unique to humans. Primatologists have also observed it in our primate relatives as well. For example, male chimps born to high-status females will go on to enjoy higher status in all-male coalitions later in life.

Ascribed status doesn’t just come with birth; it can also be conferred simply by assuming certain positions later in life. For example, research has shown that randomly assigning someone as a “leader” for an ad-hoc group will give that person status in the eyes of his peers. Sure, he might do something later on to lose that status (being too domineering, making poor decisions that affect the group), but simply filling the role of leader gives the person status. Parenthood comes with ascribed status for the same reason — in the eyes of children, at least until they’re teenagers, parents hold power and authority.

Another way in which we can get ascribed status is just by growing older. In most cultures, older people are given deference by younger folks simply because, well, they’re older, and they have at least hypothetically had more experiences and gained more useful wisdom.

Ascribed status is typically stable and doesn’t change all that much over the lifetime of an individual. Typically, more traditional cultures place greater emphasis on ascribed status.

Achieved Status

Achieved status is the status one has gained through his own efforts. It’s status that is earned. Individuals that provide benefits through ability and talent to the group in which they belong earn the respect and status of that group. In modern, Western industrial societies, achieved status is given more importance than ascribed status. In America, we aspire to the ideal that Thomas Jefferson (an aristocrat who personally embodied both ascribed and achieved status) espoused — that the nation should become not an aristocracy of birth, but of virtue and talent.

Because achieved status is dependent on one’s personal effort, it is much less stable and secure than ascribed status. You must constantly prove to your peers through action that you’re still worthy of the respect and deference they’ve lent you.

Achieved status is also seen in primates, often in a more brutal and violent way. Male chimps that can violently dominate other male chimps will typically be seen as the “alpha male” of the group. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t born to a high-status female. Chimps can also earn status by grooming other chimps and sharing resources with the group.

The same dynamic holds true in human communities. Men can gain status through demonstrations of strength and aggression, but they can also achieve status by mastering a skill that benefits their community, and by cooperating with others. Which avenue of status-achievement works most effectively depends on the circumstances.

Embodied Status

Embodied status is status that we get from our physical characteristics. Tall, handsome, fit men have more status than short, unattractive, chubby men. Included in embodied status are traits like posture and voice. Research has shown that men who stand up straight and have a deep baritone voice will be perceived as having more status than a man who slumps his shoulders and talks in a high-pitched tone.

One of the ugly sides of embodied status comes with physical and mental disabilities. Despite society’s best efforts, research has shown that handicapped individuals are seen as inferior. While Western countries have made significant progress in removing this stigma, in some cultures around the world individuals with physical disabilities are treated with severe scorn and are ostracized from the community. This behavior is also seen in animals. Evolutionary psychologists and biologists hypothesize that the ill-treatment of those with disabilities is, in effect, a natural sorting mechanism to rid the gene pool of the defect. Thankfully, for us humans, evolution isn’t destiny. We can call on the “better angels of ourselves” and treat those with physical disabilities with dignity and respect and provide opportunities for them to gain status in other ways.

Embodied status sits in the middle of ascribed and achieved status. Just as we have no control over the class, race, or sex we’re born with, we have no control over our genetics. So if you’re short, you’re always going to be short and will have to deal with the subtle slights that sometimes come with being vertically challenged. But there are some aspects of our embodied status that we have control over. We can exercise and eat right so we have a fit-looking body. Dressing well boosts one’s status too. Just taking care of some basic hygiene like brushing your teeth and washing your face can up your embodied status as well.

One thing to keep in mind is that ascribed, achieved, and embodied status interplay with one another. Ascribed status can give an individual a leg up on gaining achieved status. For example, a middle-class, suburban kid will likely have more opportunities to develop the traits and skills necessary to gain even more status than a poor, urban kid will.

Achieved status likewise can help one get ascribed status. A poor kid who pulls himself up by his bootstraps can eventually get the ascribed status that comes with being a middle-class adult. Roles that come with ascribed status like doctor, police officer, professor, firefighter, soldier, etc. take effort on the part of the person to get in that role in the first place. They first achieve status, but then enjoy the fruits that come with the ascribed status of those roles.

Embodied status can provide more opportunities for individuals to gain achieved status. For example, research has shown that good-looking people earn more money than not-so-good-looking people. But again, genetics isn’t destiny. Even people who didn’t get Brad and Angelina’s good looks can gain high status through achievement. This higher-status-through-achievement in turn creates opportunities to accentuate embodied status by losing weight or getting dental veneers.


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