We Build Civilizations on Status. But We Barely Understand It.
“We see status virtually everywhere in social life, if we think to look for it,” writes Cecilia Ridgeway. “It suffuses everyday possessions, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food brands we prefer, and the music we listen to.” And that’s only a partial list. Status influences the neighborhood we live in, the occupation we pursue, the friends we choose. It attaches itself to our race, gender, class and age. It shapes our interpersonal interactions. And, most of the time, it does all of this without us even realizing what’s happening.
Ridgeway is a sociologist and professor emerita at Stanford who has spent her career studying what she calls the “deep story” of status. Her 2019 book “Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter?” is the culmination of decades of research into what status is, how it actually works, and the myriad ways it shapes our world.
We typically think of status as social vanity limited to elite institutions or the top percentages of the income ladder. But Ridgeway argues that the truth is closer to the opposite: Status is everywhere. It’s the water we all swim in. And the reason it’s everywhere is that it’s one of humanity’s oldest and most powerful social technologies — a technology that has built civilizations, inspired revolutions and spurred countless innovations while also reinforcing some of our world’s deepest inequalities and injustices.
So this conversation is about making visible an often overlooked force that shapes so much of our world, our lives and even our sense of self. It also explores how status hierarchies emerge from “a fundamental tension in the human condition”; why sports, religion, fashion and meritocracy can all be considered forms of status “games”; how status games simultaneously help explain the advent of modern science and the pervasiveness of racial and gender stereotypes; why scholars increasingly view status as a “fundamental human motive”; why our society allocates higher status to investment bankers than teachers; how public policy can change our status beliefs; how elite-status signaling has shifted from wearing fancy clothes and driving expensive cars to reading The New Yorker and listening to NPR; how the internet has completely transformed our relationships with status; and much more.
The Sum of Small Things by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
The Knowledge Machine by Michael Strevens
The Status Game by Will Storr
Envy Up, Scorn Down by Susan T. Fiske
The Psychology of Social Status by Joey T. Cheng, Jessica L. Tracy, Cameron Anderson
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
This episode is guest-hosted by Rogé Karma, the senior editor for “The Ezra Klein Show.” Rogé has been with the show since July 2019, when it was based at Vox. He works closely with Ezra on everything related to the show, from editing to interview prep to guest selection. At Vox, he also wrote articles and conducted interviews on topics ranging from policing and racial justice to democracy reform and the coronavirus.
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You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Carole Sabouraud and Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.