Class Politics and Status Politics

An excerpt from a classic text on the rise of Prohibition distinguishing class politics from the symbolic, expressive movements of status politics.

Class Politics and Status Politics

The following is an excerpt from sociologist Joseph R. Gusfield’s Symbolic Crusade, a book from 1963 about Prohibition in the United States. As Matt Karp and others have pointed out, our current juncture is not dissimilar to the Gilded Age—a confused political time that saw bitter partisan rivalry, class dealignment, and momentous culture wars, resulting in that most curious “noble experiment.” For Gusfield and others, we often confuse class politics (a social struggle between people with different material interests) and status politics (a “characterological struggle” between people with different cultural commitments). Whereas “class politics is an effort to influence material gain, to rectify discontents by directly affecting the distribution of wealth”, status politics is rooted in “affect or emotion, generating action which, in the use of the psychological concepts of ‘projection’ and ‘rationalization,’ need not affect the distribution of prestige.” While we don’t agree with everything here—Gusfield’s reading of school integration as only symbolic seems insufficient—we do find the basic distinction here useful. Gusfield is certainly not dismissive of status politics, but he does note its particularly symbolic character: “the significant meanings are not given in the intrinsic properties of the action but in what it has come to signify for the participants.” More critically, he also invokes Freud in claiming that status politics are often kinds of substitute satisfactions, which leads us to wonder how else expressive movements might be satisfied.

From Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Copyright 1963, 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

The concept of “class” has generally been used among sociologists to refer to the control and allocation of goods and services. Classes are distinguished by different degrees of control over products. Categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat, middle and working class, labor and management, farmer and banker are relevant to the analysis of the division of labor and its relation to the division of economic power. A class is a sociological group in the sense that its members, by virtue of their common placement in the economic structure, share common interests. They are subject to a similar fate on the market. When people in similar economic positions organize around common symbols and through associations they assume a degree of unity and organization. A class structure is the system of relationships between the different classes in a society, including their differential power and the extent of organization into politically relevant associations.

Social status refers to the distribution of prestige, sometimes also called social honor. By “prestige” we mean “the approval, respect, admiration, or deference a person or group is able to command by virtue of his or its imputed qualities or performances.” A status hierarchy tends to develop among groups which differ in characteristic ways of life. It is the essence of a status hierarchy that within it, some groups can successfully claim greater prestige than others. Insofar as such groups are identifiable and owe their unity to other than class elements it is analytically useful to call them “status groups.” In American society we are used to designating groups such as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, native and immigrant, Negro and white as status groups. We are also familiar with less explicit groupings such as “the old aristocracy,” “the nouveau riche” or “the lumpenproletariat,” designations by which we refer to the subtle interrelation between dimensions of status and dimensions of class.

It is by no means the case that classes and status groups are equivalent. One is not always the reflection of the other. The lack of fit, and even conflict, between principles of class designation and those of status designation is the source of Max Weber’s multidimensional approach to social stratification, which is followed in this study. For Weber, although social status might be closely related to economic bases, it was not determined by this exclusively or primarily. Hereditary charisma, political authority, and, above all, distinctive styles of life gave rise to status-bearing groups which claimed and were given a specific place in the distribution of prestige. “The class status of an officer, a civil servant, and a student as determined by their income may be widely different while their social status remains the same, because they adhere to the same mode of life in all relevant respects as a result of their common education.”

The two dimensions of class and status make up two analytically separate orders of social structure. In the class order economic power and products are distributed. Men have their positions on the basis of functions in the division of labor. Prestige, however, is distributed within the status order on the basis of group qualities. In the long run, it may be true that class shapes and limits the existence of status. In the short run the crystallization of class into status is hardly precise. The wealthy lawyer possesses more prestige than the wealthy gangster; the third-generation rich more than the first-generation very rich; the college graduate more than the high school dropout. The classic accounts of the nouveau riche in the novels of Stendhal or of C. P. Snow attest to the lag between changing economic power and changing forms of respect and admiration. Only cardplayers and economists are forced to concentrate on the long run.

Symbols of Status

Since the social status of a group consists in the evaluation and respect which it receives from others, the status structure is necessarily “subjective.” Approval, respect, and admiration are attitudes rather than actions. They are conveyed through acts, including language, which express prestige by symbolizing an attitudinal state of respect. Sociologists label such prestige-laden acts as instances of deference or, in negative terms, instances of degradation. The employee who holds the door open for the employer is performing an act of deference. He expresses the subordinate nature of his position by acting out the prestige of the employer. The function of the act is only incidentally economic. The saving in energy for the employer is trivial. The entire act is ceremonial, marking the imputed prestige of the employer vis-à-vis his employee. Many acts of deference and degradation, of course, become institutionalized, serving as signs of status without necessarily connoting the attitudinal respect.

A status system involves at least two persons, one who confers prestige and one who receives it. Insofar as the system is composed of groups rather than persons, the prestige-receiver must be “placed” as a member of the prestigeful group by those who confer prestige. “A sign of position can be a status symbol only if it is used with some regularity as a means of ‘placing’ socially the person who makes it.

Status groups are communal. They share a common culture in the form of standards of behavior, including patterns of consumption and work orientations. This culture, or style of life, is normative for members of the group. It constitutes the “canons of decency” by which group members live. For those outside of the group, who are potential prestige-givers, these items of behavior become symbols of the status of members, who are potential prestige-receivers. The styles of home furnishings, for example, in upper middle-class homes are matters of proper taste which appear appealing to those who share this culture. To “outsiders” they are signs of the group membership of the user.

Two forms of symbolic action are thus involved in our analysis of the relation between groups at different prestige levels. One is the system of values, customs, and habits distinctive to a status group, which we shall call its “style of life.” Such behavior serves as a symbol of membership in the group. Veblen’s accounts of conspicuous consumption are illustrative of this symbolism. The other form of symbolic action is that involved in ceremonies of deference when one group interacts with another above or below it in rank. In the United States, a myriad of racial customs serve to dramatize the lower status of the Negro. The use of the back door when entering a white man’s home in the South is just one such instance.

Class and Status Politics

So far we have used the terms “class” and “status” in a static fashion, as if the degrees of income, power, and prestige were distributed in accordance with the shared expectations and values of rich and poor, controllers and controlled, prestige-givers and prestige-receivers. We can imagine a society in which there is such consensus, where classes and status groups are content with a system. Often this is not the case in complex, industrial societies or in societies undergoing intensive changes. The idea of class conflict and class struggle is well established in the analytical apparatus of political science, history, and sociology. The idea of status struggle is somewhat newer and is implicit in the distinction between class politics and status politics.

This distinction between politics of class and of status has been developed by both Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Lipset in an effort to analyze the various movements associated with Senator McCarthy and extreme right-wing political organizations in the 1950’s. They have both argued that there are two different, though interrelated, processes at work in American politics. In class politics (Hofstadter uses the term “interest politics”) we have the conflict between the material goals and aspirations of different social groups such as is found in the traditional right and left. In status politics the conflict arises from status aspirations and discontents. “Status politics refers to political movements whose appeal is to the not uncommon resentments of individuals or groups who desire to maintain or improve their social status.” Both Lipset and Hofstadter believed that periods of economic recession accentuated conflicts of class politics while periods of relative prosperity brought issues of status discontent to the forefront of political struggle. Both maintained that status politics was characterized by hostility to outgroups, ultradogmatism, and extremist attacks on democratic procedure. “… the political movements which have successfully appealed to status resentments have been irrational in character and have sought scapegoats which conveniently serve to symbolize the status threat.”

Status discontents are likely to appear when the prestige accorded to persons and groups by prestige-givers is perceived as less than that which the person or group expects. The self-esteem of the group member is belied by the failure of others to grant him the respect, approval, admiration, and deference he feels that he justly deserves. This may occur when a segment of the society is losing status and finds that prestige-givers withhold expected deference. It may occur when a group is making claims to greater prestige than it has made in the past and finds that prestige-givers do not comply with the new claims. The effort of ethnic groups to raise status through political recognition of candidates, of occupational groups to raise their status through changes of names (as “janitor” to “custodian”), or of the nobility to prevent the purchase of titles and use of luxury goods by a rising middle class are all instances of attempts to enhance or defend a level of prestige under conflict.

If status systems depend on the acts of prestige-givers in relation to prestige-receivers, then efforts to redistribute prestige depend upon the ability to control the giving of prestige against the reluctance of the prestige-givers to grant it. Only in this sense can social status be a subject of political conflict. In our usage class politics is political conflict over the allocation of material resources. Status politics is political conflict over the allocation of prestige. In specific cases the two processes overlap and affect each other. Resources bring prestige and prestige often leads to material advantages.

The importance of the distinction has more than analytical value, however. Classes and status groups are different collections of people, different ways to slice the cake of society. Just how we perceive political struggles, as matters of class or of status, has a great bearing on the groups we perceive as parties to a political conflict. The thrust of status politics lies precisely in identifying noneconomic segments as crucial in certain social and political conflicts.

When divergent styles of life claim equal or superior prestige, the bearers of these styles are involved in a clash to establish prestige dominance and subordination. Status concepts lead us to focus upon just such elements of values, beliefs, consumption habits, and the cultural items differentiating nonclass groups from each other. Thus David Riesman has described many of the social and political struggles in contemporary America not as conflicts between groups defined in economic terms but as a “characterological struggle” between people who are both nominal members of the middle class but whose cultural and characterological commitments are sharply dissimilar.

There is another form of politics which has been confusingly represented in the discussion of status resentments. This is the expressive element in political action. Hofstadter’s usage of status politics illustrates the confusion between status and expressive elements: “Political life is not simply an arena in which the conflicting interests of various social groups in concrete material gains are fought out; it is also an arena into which status aspirations and frustrations are, as the psychologist would say, projected… status politics [is] the clash of various projective rationalizations arising from status aspirations and other personal motives.” In this characterization, class politics is an effort to influence material gain, to rectify discontents by directly affecting the distribution of wealth. Status discontents, however, are seen as sources of affect or emotion, generating action which, in the use of the psychological concepts of “projection” and “rationalization,” need not affect the distribution of prestige. In our usage, this latter sense of politics as an arena in which feelings, emotions, and affect are displaced and expressed is what we mean by “expressive politics”—political action for the sake of expression rather than for the sake of influencing or controlling the distribution of valued objects. The goal of the action, the object of hostility or love, is not a “solution” to the problems which have generated the action. Politics, in this usage, is a means to express how the actors feel about their situation. Studies which have attempted to “explain” lynchings of Negroes by whites in America as consequences of the low price of cotton are the classic example. The frustrations of economic setback give rise to aggressive feelings which are then displaced against targets with little power to resist.

Expressive elements may, of course, often be found in conjunction with elements of class or status even when expression is not the primary characteristic of the action. This study emphasizes the analytical distinctiveness of status as a concept in political analysis. The crucial idea is that political action can, and often has, influenced the distribution of prestige. Status politics is an effort to control the status of a group by acts which function to raise, lower, or maintain the social status of the acting group vis-à-vis others in the society. Conflicts of status in society are fought out in public arenas as are conflicts of class.

Status Movements

Status movements are collective actions which attempt to raise or maintain the prestige of a group. They can be distinguished from class movements and expressive movements by the nature of their goals and by the character of the groups to whose values and welfare the movement is oriented.

Class movements are oriented toward the “interests” of particular groups in the economic system of production and distribution. The Townsend movement sought to enhance the economic security of the aged; the Labor movement aims at increasing the well-being of the employee in his relations to the employer; the Saskatchewan C.C.F. is representative of the aims of independent wheat farmers. The membership of a class movement may be wide, as in the case of the Labor movement, or relatively narrowed, as in the case of the C.C.F. In all cases, however, class movements encompass aims in the name of groups located in the economic structure.

Class movements are instrumental in their goals. Their goals are statable as alterations in the system of behavior characterizing the society. The Populists pressed the aims of farmers in demanding greater regulation of banks and railroads. The Labor movement favored the minimum wage act. The Townsendites were after pensions. The movement is presented as a solution to the discontent from which it arose. Achievement of objectives will change the situation in ways which remove the sources of frustration, resentment, or anger. Even a religious movement can be interpreted as instrumental, as a means to a tangible, material end, as in H. Richard Niebuhr’s description of Christian sects in the nineteenth century: “Ethically, as well as psychologically, such religion bears a distinct character. The salvation which it seeks and sets forth is the salvation of the socially disinherited. Intellectual naivete and practical need combine to create a marked propensity toward millenarianism, with its promise of tangible goods and of the reversal of all present systems of social rank.”

Status movements are oriented toward the enhancement of the prestige of groups. The carriers of the status movement may be status communities—status groups such as Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, or Negroes and whites. Status communities are sharply delineated segments of the status system, with associations, institutions, and a group life akin to a subcommunity within the society. The conflicts between religious and ethnic groups in American politics are good examples of conflicts about relative prestige between status communities. Groups may be less explicit than these. They may consist of status collectivities—status groups which, like status communities, share a common style of life, but lack the explicit definition and the associational unity of status communities. Unlike groups such as religious and ethnic communities they have no church, no political unit, and no associational units which explicitly defend their interests. They possess subcultures without being subcommunities. Examples of these are cultural generations, such as the traditional and the modern; characterological types, such as “inner-directed and other-directed”; and reference orientations, such as “cosmopolitans and locals.” The examples used above are also cases of conflicts between paired opposites. Each subculture in the pair is the contradiction of the other, its carriers denying the claims of the other to prestige.

As status groups vie with each other to change or defend their prestige allocation, they do so through symbolic rather than instrumental goals. The significant meanings are not given in the intrinsic properties of the action but in what it has come to signify for the participants. It is symbolic behavior in the sense that we speak of the cross as the symbol of Christianity, of pens as phallic symbols, and of clothing styles as symbols of social status. In symbolic behavior the action is ritualistic and ceremonial in that the goal is reached in the behavior itself rather than in any state which it brings about.

Two illustrations from recent politics will illustrate symbolic goals in status conflicts. In the election of 1960 Protestant-Catholic conflict was a major source of candidate loyalties. Were Protestants protecting the White House from papal domination? Were Catholics trying to enhance Catholic doctrines by a Catholic president? Only the naive and the stupid will accept either of these suggestions. At stake, however, was the relative prestige of being Protestant in American life. The ability of a Catholic to break the traditional restriction in American politics does mean that prestige accruing from being Protestant has diminished; the prestige of being Catholic is enhanced. This meaning attaches no matter what President Kennedy might do in his official acts. It is a symbolic meaning given to the election of 1960. In a similar fashion the current school desegregation struggle is symbolic rather than instrumental. Whether or not most Negroes will actually be attending integrated schools in the near future is not the issue. Northern cities have developed little more than token integration. Public acceptance of the principle of integration, expressed in token integration, is an act of deference which raises the prestige of the Negro. Whether better educational conditions for Negroes will result is not the significant issue. It is that of equal rights. It is pointless to criticize token integration in instrumental terms, as not worth the intensive struggle to obtain it. To miss the symbolic goal of the token is to miss the crucial quality of it.

In both of the illustrations we have used status communities—Catholics and Negroes. When we analyze the less explicitly formed status collectivities, we also recognize the existence of symbolic goals of the same order. In his study of reform movements, Richard Hofstadter provides us with an excellent example. Men of the Mugwump type—old family, college-educated, well-off people—found their status in American society slipping while those whose moralities they detested were ascending. “… they [the Mugwumps] tended to have positions in which the initiative was not their own, or in which they could not feel themselves acting in harmony with their highest ideals. They no longer called the tune, no longer commanded their old deference. They were expropriated, not so much economically as morally.” In our interpretation, the acts of this group, which Hofstadter sees as the basis of the Progressive movement, were attempts to restore that deference by actions symbolizing the lowered prestige of the corporate businessman, the machine politician, and the newly rich. They attempted, in acts such as the merit system, antitrust legislation, and enforcement of municipal anticorruption laws, to “cut down to size” the newly ascending status elements. The fact of political victory against the “enemy” shows where social and political dominance lie. The legislative victory, whatever its factual consequences, confers respect and approval on its supporters. It is at once an act of deference to the victors and of degradation to the losers. It is a symbolic rather than an instrumental act.

Expressive movements are marked by goal-less behavior or by pursuit of goals which are unrelated to the discontents from which the movement had its source. The dancing mania of the Middle Ages, one result of the Black Death, is a classic instance of an expressive movement without any defined goal beyond release of tension, anxiety, and unrest. Men and women danced in the streets until they dropped. Expressive movements in their “pure” form are divorced from any goal in terms of changes demanded in the social system. Interpretations of movements as expressive are likely to utilize psychological mechanisms of displacement, projection, or rationalization to explain the actions in which they are interested. Thus Mannheim explains the rise of German Fascism as the eruption of irrationalities which had not been integrated into the social structure and which were now forcing their way into political life. When original instrumental expectations fail, a movement often succeeds in developing symbols which are substitute goals for the “real” aims. “In the first stage men flee to symbols and cling to them mainly because they want to avoid that anxiety which, according to Freud, overwhelms us whenever the libidinous energy remains for long without an object.”

Joseph R. Gusfield was Professor of Sociology at the University of California and the author of Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement.