The truth is that social hierarchy isn't just confined to the high school cafeteria, but is instead a large part of our everyday social lives. Status hierarchies can be about workplace power, respect among peers, or stereotypes ascribed to us by virtue of our membership in a social category (e.g., gender and race). I believe that one of the, often overlooked, bases of status is social class--the money we make, education we obtain, and the job prestige we garner. Social class is the great social ladder that ranks us in society.
Most of the time we think we don't see class in our everyday lives. This is largely attributed to the fact that our relationships rarely cross social class boundaries. Think about it: The neighborhood you live in, the restaurants you attend, and your seat at a professional sporting event is sorted in terms of social class. We even date and marry within our own social class. We also rarely walk around displaying our degrees, bank accounts, and occupation titles. These conditions make us feel like class doesn't matter for our everyday life experience.
But if we were to look more closely at our social lives, there is a surprisingly large amount of information that reminds us and others of our position on the social ladder. The list of things that provides information about social class is quite long: The hybrid car we drive, the organic grass-fed bison we eat, the European vacation our family takes annually, the suit we wear to work, and the IPad we read this blog post on all send information about our social class to others. These signals rank us everyday on the social ladder of society, and either place us above or below other individuals.
That social class rank is signaled throughout social life has several consequences. The first is that other people will be able to accurately discern our rank in society based on very little information--even in the briefest of social exchanges. For example, 60 seconds of watching video of two strangers interacting was enough for a sample of undergraduates to accurately pinpoint the social class of the strangers in the videos (a correlation of r = .20). In more recent research, another sample of undergraduates was able to accurately discern social class rank based on photographs taken from Facebook.com profiles (a correlation of r = .30 to .40).
Signals of social class also provide us information about our value relative to others. Sometimes, if we pervasively see ourselves as low in rank relative to others, this can have detrimental consequences for our work and school performance. Imagine being a low-income student at a school surrounded by wealthier students. A low-income student's government subsidized school lunch and hand-me-down clothing provide information to his/her peers of lower social class rank, and this feeling of lower rank can hurt the academic performance of low-income students.
A study from Northwestern University demonstrated evidence of this pattern. In the research, middle class students at Northwestern University were either reminded of the school's location or that it was full of high ranking members of society. When informed that they were surrounded by people high on the social ladder, middle class students performed worse on a measure of executive functioning (e.g., the ability to plan ahead and shift attention between tasks).
I hope this blog post has convinced you of the pervasive nature by which social class ranks us in society relative to others (If not, check out the paper it is based on here). This is the central idea behind much of my research, and one that I think guides my understanding of my own social life even today. What do you think rank does to you in your everyday life? Let me know in the comments!
Kraus, Michael W., Tan, Jacinth, J. X., & Tannenbaum, M. B. (2013). The Social Ladder: A Rank-Based Perspective on Social Class Psychological Inquiry, 24, 81-96 DOI: 10.1080/1047840X.2013.778803
Johnson, S. E., Richeson, J., & Finkel, E. (2011). Middle-class yet marginal? The influence of socio-economic status at an elite university on executive functioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 838-852 DOI: 10.1037/a0021956