Pyramid of Status Hierarchies

This research showed that there has been a strong tendency for the uppermost echelon to stand out in many status hierarchies, as if by natural force, and furthermore that this stratum tends to be very thin. Royalty was such a tier par excellence, as was the nobility, both of them on a hereditary basis, but both of them also competed for the highest possible status, royalty on the international political scene and the nobility in the hierarchy of offices. Moreover, histories of entrepreneurial dynasties suggest that the owners, lavishly praised in these books as the richest people in the world and as emperors or princes of their empires, formed the kernel of the highest tier of the entrepreneurs’ status hierarchy.

Among professors, too, it is possible to discern a small group, those whose scientific merits have set them apart, by virtue of either some invention or grand theory they have developed or by virtue of outstanding excellence in their field. They have been showered with academic awards, and ultimately crowned with the Nobel Prize, all evident performances of status. The highest tier of artists, in turn, has been sifted out through processes in which credentials have been assessed and rated by art historians and critics and a whole host of other people and agencies. In making their determinations of the best works of art they have not only considered the quality of each work on its own merits, but in fact pre-selected for assessment only those works that represent certain artistic genres or styles, those that were eventually to form the main currents of art history. The highest tier since the nineteenth century has thus consisted of artists whose works formed the centrepieces of Impressionism and Modernism, the two movements I have examined in more detail in this book.

Among politicians, the hierarchy has been established in political organizations and in elections at different levels, but the highest standings have been conferred on those who, as Hess (1997) says, have been elected as presidents, senators and representatives of Congress. I would add to this list chancellors, prime ministers and other cabinet ministers, who in Europe enjoy a high status. But success in climbing the political ladder depends decisively on the favour of voters—the general public—a new significant element in the creation of the highest echelons in some status hierarchies. In many fields such as theatre, cinema and music, the success of artists has depended on good favours from the general public.

But status hierarchies have also been formed locally, among others by entrepreneurs and parish clerics who attained the highest ranks in their home regions. Local dynasties were significant in the past, indeed as late as the nineteenth century, when rural communities were much more populous than they are today. But local achievers have always been of lower rank than those whose successes reached national or even international level.

Frank and Cook (1995) paraphrase the tendency to single out a tiny group of achievers by saying that the winners take all. By ‘all’, Frank and Cook mean money, and a minuscule bunch of ‘winners’ taking most of that money. Frank and Cook (1995, 45) admit that this is not a new phenomenon, but add that the propensity to pay excessive remunerations to some CEOs and top athletes is now spreading without constraint. However, I would say that wherever status hierarchies emerge, they give birth to pyramid-like hierarchies with a mere tiny group of achievers at the top. The ‘1 per cent’ (Savage 2015, 170-1) who are said to own the greatest part of the world’s riches share much in common with what has been said above, but the uppermost echelons are formed differently in different status hierarchies and, therefore, they cannot be identified using the yardstick of money alone. As I have shown in this book there are also many other yardsticks, and it is in fact these that conclusively decide who the winners are who take all. In all cases, though, the uppermost tiny tier is so high up at the apex of the hierarchy that it earns elite status—or so this tier has often been called by scholars.

The two Italian classics of elite research, Vilfredo Pareto (1968) and Gaetano Mosca (1965), say that a small class that rules and a more numerous class that is ruled is a natural-like phenomenon that has been present in all societies throughout history. However, they also note that no ruling echelon or elite has ruled forever, but is always replaced by a new elite. In my data set, this circulation of elites sounds plausible for royalty and the nobility, who reached their glorious heydays more or less between 1600 and 1800. Royalty and the nobility then lost their privileges and gave way to elected politicians who rose to power at the helm of state governance. At the same time, however, other status hierarchies emerged and widened the range of elites to include not only the political elite or ruling class, but also economic, cultural, intellectual and celebrity elites, as they were to be described by elite researchers (Mills 1970; Bottomore 1976; Ruostetsaari 2014).

On the other hand, Savage and colleagues (Savage 2015, 170) identified a 6 per cent elite in their study on social classes in Britain. Savage explains that the considerable size of their elite is due to the way they measured class positions. In addition to economic capital, their class criteria included social and cultural capital. Those who scored highest on all forms of capital assets were included in the elite. These were well-to- do people living in large apartments in esteemed areas, people with the highest amount of ‘highbrow’ cultural capital and people with extensive social networks with other high-status groups. They form a special type of elite, a kind of lifestyle elite that also enjoys an economically advantageous position.

Many other class researchers make no distinction between the amount of social and cultural capital possessed, or between other status performances, but bracket together all higher-grade professionals (e.g. Goldthorpe 1980). This expands the uppermost echelon quite considerably. When academic professionals were still small in numbers, say, in the nineteenth century, their proportion was not much greater than the nobility’s. The expansion of university education, particularly since the 1960s, has brought us to the era of mass higher education. It is suggested that the watershed is 15 per cent: when participation in university studies in younger age cohorts exceeds this magical limit, we move from the era of elite university to the era of mass higher education (Kivinen et al. 2007, 236). In some monarchies, where the nobility was almost as populous, accounting for 10 to 13 per cent of the population, it was thought that mass ennoblements had an inflationary effect as there were not enough high offices available for so many noblemen. In this kind of situation we are likely to see the onset of two developments: the high-status group that has outgrown its size will begin to decline in status and/or a new uppermost tier will arise from this large social segment or outside it, which will then create a new small elite.

There was a time, in the not too distant past, when a university degree carried considerable prestige. At that time, Masters of Arts and Science were highly esteemed men, a 1 per cent elite of their own kind. But in contrast to many former status assets, education was extendable, which resulted in the professionalization of ever more occupations. Among them were artists, who are now university-level professionals like other learned professionals. This was one tendency—to move polytechnic and vocational education to the profitable haven of university—which conferred more prestige on any occupation. The other way was to create vocational opportunities for workers and many others who had so far earned their living without any vocational training. Workers who schooled themselves to become technicians formed a new higher layer in the working class, as is evident from Goldthorpe’s (1980, 41) class schema: technicians are here placed in Class V, whereas workers occupy a position below them. In Savage’s (2015, 168-72) schema, I think, technicians could be grouped under the ‘technical middle class’ or ‘new affluent workers’, depending on their economic, social and cultural capitals.

My informed guess is that the status of the ever-expanding assemblage of professionals has had significant consequences for the social structure, and that academic professionals are part of this changing structure. There is some evidence that their standing has already fallen into decline. Cuts have been made to the amount of public funding made available to universities, backed by intimations that academic research has failed to contribute to economic growth, or even to provide the tools that the authorities need to tackle social problems. Moreover, returns to education have become less rewarding. This kind of situation gives rise to a fear of falling, something that has been discussed for quite some time (Ehrenreich 1989). In France and Italy, diminishing opportunities for advancement are leading to rising rates of downward social mobility among those born in the 1970s (Chauvel 2008). These developments bring to mind the situation of the nobility in the nineteenth century, when noblemen in higher offices were increasingly replaced by learned commoners, creating a risk of social decline for the whole of nobility. Initially the lower nobility adjusted to this new situation by going to university to get their diplomas and so to gain admission to learned professions. These certificates are still required, but there is less certainty than ever that they will ensure entry into a learned profession. It is interesting to consider, then, whether the uppermost ranks in the status hierarchy of learned professions can better safeguard the status of their descendants than the lower ranks of professionals.

One option could be that competition for elite positions accelerates in increasingly divided status hierarchies, as indicated by the split of the status hierarchy of professors according to disciplines. The lists of most famous or influential scientists in different fields are one symptomatic example of this trend. On the other hand, it is possible that the new trend throws increasing numbers of people with an academic degree out of the middling classes and into the precariat, as defined by Savage (2015). However, due to the phenomenal growth of vocational and academic education, status hierarchies as a whole no longer constitute a pyramid-like structure, which has been eroded by the swelling of the middle ground.

Based on my own research I am inclined to define the real elite in much narrower terms as consisting of the 1 per cent who are the privileged few. They still follow the same imperative of status equivalence that, as I have shown, a host of uppermost echelons have been following for centuries. They are today’s royalty, so to speak, while the rest of the Savage’s 6 per cent elite would be today’s ‘nobility’, those who emulate the elite—or those who adjust their taste to ‘royalty’s’. However, the vast middle ground is hardly adjustable to any class structure. One way to solve this problem could be to distinguish between strong statuses, which are mainly at the top, and weak statuses, which are mainly in the middle ground. Savage’s precariat would also be a strong status. The imperative of status equivalence has much more efficacy at the very top and at the bottom, whereas in the middle ground status equivalence has less strength.

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