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Status Performances

Prestige is sometimes measured directly by asking respondents to give esteem points to different occupations listed in a questionnaire. This is what Rauhala (1966) did in his study on social stratification in Finland. He asked 118 municipal councillors from the four biggest political parties to assess 1293 listed occupations in terms of how they thought they were valued and esteemed by Finnish people. The highest scores were given to the highest-ranking civil servants, such as president of the Supreme Court, prime minister, governors and ministers, but also to the highest clerical officeholders, namely, bishops, as well as professors who represent the highest layer of professionals. At the other end of the scale were the occupations of shepherd, shoe shiner, errand girl and street sweeper. A comparison of Finland with other countries where similar studies have been conducted shows that similarities are much more striking than differences (Svalastoga 1959; Goldthorpe and Hope 1974; Coxon and Davies 1986). Useful as this approach may be, it was clearly not feasible for the purpose of this study because of my historical perspective. I therefore decided to delve into the world of status performances in order to see whether they would be useful in an analysis of prestige as a determinant of ranking.

Weber (1978b, 936) maintains that in whatever way it may be manifested, all stylization of life either originates in status groups or is at least conserved by them, especially among the most privileged strata. In his study on the cultural meanings of meals, Jack Goody (1984, 99, 135, 140) discusses the same idea. Tomb paintings from ancient times, for example, show that there was a great gulf between the frugal diet of the peasantry, which consisted of dates, vegetables and occasionally fish, and the elaborate tables of the ruling classes—a gulf that was not simply a matter of quantity but also of quality, complexity and ingredients. In his argument, Goody takes meals as signs of hierarchical order. Interestingly, though, he goes even further and maintains that this gulf is deeper than mere differences in quantity, quality and complexity give us to understand. He remarks that at the lowest end of the hierarchy, people ate to live, while a minority displayed their high status by enjoying sumptuous meals. DeVault (1994, 203) expresses the same difference as follows: while working-class women tend to organize family meals on the basis of custom and habit, the professional and managerial class stylizes eating to create a gastronomic experience. Bourdieu’s (1989, 372-96) formulation sounds similar: the destiny of the working class is to accept the necessary, whereas the upper class has the capacity to cultivate their taste and lifestyle. Paraphrasing class differences in this way speaks of a deep divide between different social strata: some people are in a position to fabricate their meals according to their taste and appetite, while others have to content themselves with what is attainable to them.

The Italian philosopher Agamben (2011, xii) captures this radical difference between the highest status and others by asking, why does power need glory? To appreciate the relevance of this bizarre question, it is worth quoting a longer passage from Agamben’s (2011, 214) book The Kingdom and the Glory: If power is essentially force and efficient action, why does it need to receive ritual acclamations and hymns of praise, to wear cumbersome crowns and tiaras, to submit itself to an inaccessible ceremony and an immutable protocol—in a word, why does something that is essentially operativity and oikonomia need to become solemnly immobilized in glory? Even the sovereign, who is above the law must submit to ceremonies of these kinds. Agamben’s question brings to light two important components of government: government is put into effect in operative actions, but also in ceremonies and protocols intended to manifest the prestige of those who occupy the highest positions. If this bipolar construct were applied to my own research setting, the conclusion would be this: people in different occupations do not only accomplish their job tasks, but also capture esteem to different degrees, as shown by various performances. They finally fix the order of precedence among people, but the concentration of status performances in the upper echelons implies that such performances are most relevant to the upper echelons. Kings and noblemen built palaces to perform their high status, but their humble contemporaries did not live in single-room cottages to perform their low status, but out of necessity. Yet even cottages are performative: they show that people living in them are of low status. Perhaps Goldthorpe was right when he said that in upward and downward social mobility only Classes I and II are relevant. This bipolar construct also implies that the term status is not applicable to all strata, or at least that it is more applicable to the higher ranks—but I leave this question open for the time being and return to it later, once I have elaborated all the status hierarchies included in this study.

The reason why Agamben rejects ceremonies as symbolic is because operative government and ceremonies are superimposed. The insignia— throne, crown, sceptre and orb—are genuine symbols of kingship, just as a flag is the symbol of a nation and five stars is the symbol of a first- class hotel. However, there are many performances that are not intended to symbolize, but to directly demonstrate the hierarchical order of kings, nations and hotels. In this respect, the most archetypical specimen is perhaps procession, which organized itself in full compliance with the ranking order (Muir 2005, 258). Magnificent palaces built for kings, monumental governmental buildings and five-star hotels, then, must more or less directly reflect their position in their respective hierarchies. It is here that the idea of equivalence shows its strength: performances of status must somehow be equivalent to the status they perform (Geertz 1980, 13, 131).

There are several alternative concepts that could be used instead of ‘performance’. Discussing Venetian annual processions, Muir (2005, 258) says that these were a living ‘representation’ of the regime.

Burke (2009, 1-13) also uses this term in his analysis of the glorification of King Louis XIV, but in addition he uses the term ‘fabrication’, by which he means image-making, the ‘making of great men’ by magnificent palaces, grandiose paintings, portraits, statues and other artefacts to manifest the king’s uppermost station. For Goffman (1982, 28-57), whose focus is on everyday social situations, the key concepts are ‘presentation’ and ‘performance’. He (1982, 32) uses these terms to refer to all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers. Performances in front of others refer to that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion.

Goffman (1982, 81) hits the nail on the head when he says that a status, a position, a social place is not a material thing that is possessed and then displayed; instead, it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished and well-articulated. In the heyday of monarchical rule, ceremonies and protocols were ‘front’ performances par excellence. When under performance, people were inclined to adjust their conduct to the script of the performance and to mask their personal thoughts about, say, the sincerity of the parties taking part in the ceremony. And more than this, as King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) writes in his memoirs: the ritual [of his coronation] made his kingship ‘more august, more inviolable, and more holy’ (Burke 2009, 42-3). This was why coronations were mandatory. The term ‘materialization’ is also a good concept, as used by Mukerji (1997, 314, 319), for example. In his mind, the image of Louis XIV in a town square, which served to keep the king in his subjects’ consciousness, was a political tool not because it represented monarchical authority like a text, but because it worked to instantiate it locally. It was a demonstration of power, the materiality of state power, not just a representation of it. Geertz (1980, 13) speaks of the material embodiment of political order. Mills’s (1970, 87-9) terminological choice in turn falls upon ‘status activities’ through which prestige is acquired.

Finally, Finch (2007) suggests the term ‘display’ for use in the context of families. Display, she says, is the process by which individuals, and groups of individuals, convey to one another and to relevant audiences that certain actions constitute ‘doing family things’, thereby confirming that these particular relationships are ‘family’ relationships. This sounds perfect, but Finch (2007, 76-7) denies that display is tantamount to performance as defined by Goffman. This is, first, because performance is more about illusion than reality; second, because it makes a clear distinction between actor and audience; and, third, because performance implies face-to-face interaction and excludes physical objects as tools for display. This is not how I understand performance. As I have explained above, it also includes physical objects such as photographs, clothes and residences, all of which are used to display one’s status. Moreover, I do not see performance as illusions, but as an essential element of reality. Display is thus a good alternative for performance, and I see no real difference between the two concepts. My choice of the theatrical term of performance was ultimately motivated by the way I understand status performance.

Since this book is concerned with the interweaving of family and status, I pay major attention to two performances of status, that is, the choice of spouse and the inheritance of status. The choice of spouse is not treated as a dependent variable whose variance is measured against the independent variable (status), but my aim is to see how both of them in their prioritizations participate in the organization and reorganization of hierarchies. Such performances derive their energy from the imperative of status equivalence and from competition for social rise and fear of social decline. Accepting a person as one’s spouse means bestowing prestige on this person, because this person is like me and, more importantly, like me and my social equals in my surroundings. Ultimately, this is a matter of access to social circles in the formation of which status equivalence has been of vital importance, particularly at the highest echelons. Similarly, the succession of occupations is regarded as a performance of status, yet of a distinct kind, because it is put into effect generationally. In this case, too, the imperative of status equivalence is the dynamo that masters the choices of occupations in the next generation. But as Geertz (1980, 120) remarks on the Balinese ranking system, the whole of society, from top to bottom, is locked in an intricate and unending rivalry of prestige. Status hierarchies are thus not stagnant but in constant motion, not only in Bali but in Europe as well, leading to social rise and social fall as well to the reorganization of status hierarchies. Marriages and occupations chosen by the next generation are of utmost importance in this respect.

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