The Hobo


Last year I saw a video interview of a modern day hobo that left an impression on me. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the video. Anyhow, what made it interesting is that a well to do executive took a month off every year to be a hobo. A hobo is a vagrant worker who travels the country, mostly by train. Of course, Train hopping is illegal and dangerous.

Through its 150 years of history, hobo culture has evolved a widely known code of conduct and has established a system of symbols, bizarre runic like graffiti, a code which warn or tip future hobo travelers of dangers or potential rewards. Camping on the outskirts of train yards and eating opossum cooked over a trash can appear to be favorite hobo pastimes.

Why would a corporate executive take a month off from his high status job and luxurious home to travel America illegally on trains, without cash, living on opossum, and camping in slum conditions? I’m guessing it’s a status driven enterprise just the same. It hints at the romantics of a carefree travelling lifestyle popularized by the likes of Jack Kerouac and combines it with a legacy and heritage that spans a century and a half into American history. To live like a hobo for a month is an accomplishment that makes for a heroic story.

Of course, not everybody with appreciate such a story. The American sociologist, Nels Anderson spent part of his early life living as a hobo. Later, Nels became a Masters candidate under Ernest Burgess at the University of Chicago where he conducted serious ethnographic research into hobos and homeless people. He later earned a doctorate at New York University. Despite Nel’s prolific research and publication record, he was unable to find a tenured position early in life. He published The Hobo in 1923, but he didn’t achieve a tenured academic position until 1965, when his work was finally beginning to garner some serious interest. Nels suffered over thirty years of academic exile because he was stigmatized for admitting that he had been a hobo. At least that is one version of Nel’s life story that I have read.

So how can something that is counter-status (stigmatized) be a status driven enterprise in its own right? Dare to be different? To stand opposed against the dominant establishment has always had its allure. To be free and unbound by society is the vagabond’s romantics. But dare I say that society isn’t always right, if not “often” wrong. Could the hobo be a freedom fighter that is just trying to survive in a society that she sees as oppressive? The status driven executive who spends a month pretending to be a hobo might just be sensitive to society’s injustice and the hobo’s heroics. Status should not be viewed exclusively in sociological terms. I am proposing that status is ultimately a self-communicative proposition of the idealized lifestyle, social role, and social justice that one heroically works to uphold or fights to achieve. Perhaps such a psychological proposition lacks efficacy but serves as the foundation from which the anthro-sociological phenomena manifest.


Organizations often establish various symbols in order to identify their members. The images shown here include insignia from a collegiate secret society, motorcycle club, Scottish clan’s tartan plaid, university logo, military unit, street gang, and a Polish clan’s coat of arms. I would classify all these as formal symbols because the conventions that establish them have the force of law within the groups that they represent. Their purpose, I propose, is to facilitate group cohesiveness through in-group self-identification as well promote the group to the larger world.

Are clothing brand logos ever suggestive of group insignia? Are aesthetic choices in lifestyle, such as clothing, used as a form of informal insignia?

Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs


There is a motorcycle-rally currently taking place near my house and I couldn’t help from trying to measure things up. Most Harley Riders don’t belong to motorcycle gangs. In fact, most enthusiasts claim that “ninety-nine percent are law abiding citizens” (I think that statement comes from the American Motorcycle Association). Nevertheless, some clubs have the reputation of being “one-percenters.” Such clubs include the Outlaws MC, Pagans, and the Hell’s Angels. It seems to me that these clubs possess a special status within the motorcycle community. But why? One percenter clubs are considered by law enforcement agencies to be organized crime syndicates and their members have been indicted for a number of crimes.

Simply put, I believe the reputation given to these groups and their members stems from the efficacy to impose their will. The most successful groups have built reputations based on brawls, confrontations, and even murder. Status becomes a matter of life and death. Within the romantics of violent efficacy is the concept of brotherhood and a mythic belief in the group’s dominance. I wonder how the status of the one-percenter matches up in the upscale suburbs? I am guessing there is a dose of stigma neutralized by the fear of efficacy.

Anti-Status Tradition

At Earlham College, it is customary to address faculty and administrators by their first name rather than professor.

This tradition evolved from the school’s Quaker origins. Quakers believe that simplicity and plainness is one of the pillars of religious virtue. Quakers often refuse to use pre-nominals such as mister, sir, or doctor.

Does the apparent rejection of status indicators mean that it is not there? For one, faculty at Earlham follow a Quaker tradition and aren’t necessarily Quaker themselves. A point made because Earham offers an interesting but not wholly accurate example of status rebellion.

The question raised by the Quakers and other pious traditions such as Amish and Mennonites is whether a status absent model exist. I am guessing that if we review the ethnographies of these groups we will find that social status is as important among them as it is to the individual in society-at-large. We would likely find that each individual has ways of positioning himself or herself, strive to be influential, and are aware of those who are—that their societies give elevated statuses, though it may be implicit.

(A subject for later consideration)


Evidently, there is a trend in Chinese business for hiring white foreigners to pose as important dignitaries. The presence of a visiting CEO from Europe or America increases the prestige of the hosting company. This prestige has led to companies staging events and hiring expats to pose as foreign VIPs.

According to Zhang Haihua, author of “Think like Chinese,” impressions are more important than life. They call it “face.”

Sourced from CNN

Everybody Lies

“Everybody lies,” is the repetitive assertion of the fictional Dr. House. The truth is that I am actually beginning to believe this fictional character’s maxim. The study of influence is in essence the study of bias and its relation between individual, individuals, groups, and culture. If we have an aesthetic preference, say kakis over baggies then we are biased–even more so if we assign social or economic judgment on the matter. According to Ernest Becker, Freud’s Oedipus is really our surrender of self to the bias of our parents, and therefore our society. We wear Kakis because we are indoctrinated to do so, because we are coerced in our esteem not to do otherwise.

Society’s stigmas are, of course, beneficial to the survival of the social system—the system comes first. Another function evolves from the fact that no judgment can come with complete disclosure—no truth is absolute because the foundations for knowledge are uncertain. We may agree that there was big bang, but what was before it is a less resolved “absolute.” If we did have a theoretical answer as resolute (which isn’t to say absolute) as the big bang theory we would still have deeper and more perplexed uncertainties. Existence is a scientific ambiguity though we often pretend otherwise. Even science requires a bias, a paradigm, for its logic.

The virtue of science (in concept) is that it doesn’t accept absolutes—should nature offer a more feasible truth then any prior truth must be adjusted or discarded accordingly. I would argue that biases certainly exist among all scientists, hamper progress, and probably prevent some truths from emerging.  I can imagine that all theories have their dogmatists, and that advocates of competing theories can quickly escalate into coalitions in which ideas become second to individual and group esteem. We are only human, right? One only has to look at the Supreme Court to know that no judgment is without bias.

My emphasis on science and democratic law—two disciplines purported to be neutral—is to illustrate the “fact” of bias. I am speculating that if I mailed surveys to a hundred academics (acclaimed critical thinkers) and sent half purporting to be from Harvard and the other half purporting to be from the University of Phoenix—Harvard will give me more returns. Whatever “truth” those surveys “claimed” to seek would be unchanged regardless of whether the researcher was from Harvard or the University of Phoenix. However, our “truth” IS concerned with the difference.

A possible experiment?

With any regards, I wanted to memo my thoughts on bias, as an influence dynamic.

Rationalism as binary? (The fate of Socrates?)

Bling Bling

Jeweled teeth

Bling bling is a style associated with hip-hop sub-culture. A grandiose display of jewelry, gold, and diamonds denotes its exuberance with no uncertainty. Wearing several large gold chains at once is common. Large gold dollar sign pendants are also a stereotype of the style. I believe the real hallmark of bling bling is that it is a blatant display of wealth.

This style contrasts with traditional American prominence-culture, where subtlety is both an aesthetic and a virtue. I believe the style is blatant because it emerged from impoverished conditions and in neighborhoods that were high in crime. The ability to hold on to precious items in an area controlled by gangs would connote considerable power and influence. Today, the style has been popularized through Hollywood and the music industry.

The last statement has me wondering how influential celebrity is at establishing new status symbols into cultural norms. Celebrity may be taken to be a high status individual (celebrity being relevant)—the gang leader is a celebrity in his neighborhood. Perhaps the status symbol is established first as a semiotically ‘indexical’ sign before it becomes a cultural symbol. However, the celebrity power of hip-hop musicians in establishing bling bling would have been symbolic rather than indexical—they are beyond the streets now. Thereby, celebrity might not be a good term to explain how the symbol originated though it did so indexically and through the renown of high status individuals.

“Celebrity” as I first used it referred to Hollywood and the music industry and I could have substituted it (more accurately) with “arts” and entertainment. What role do the arts have in imprinting a status symbol on to culture?

Occupation and Money

I wanted to explore a comment on an earlier post, written by my friend Storme Jaynes. Storme posits that status is about money and the more you have the more status you have. First, I want to say that there appears to be a good deal of individual and cultural relativity in what constitutes status. While there might not be an individually correct answer as to what constitutes status there does appear to be social norms and psychological universals.  I don’t believe that Storme’s proposition is a social truth. Sorry Storme, but I do not believe you are wrong either—you gave me a relative response—now I am going to elaborate on why I don’t think it’s a social truth.

For one, there is a history of recognizable upper classes clashing. The early industrialist were often snubbed by traditional elite whose wealth derived from land holdings, agriculture, and banking and whose families had been prominent since colonial times. The tendency is to call this snobbishness but it really derives from some complex mechanics that I will not be able to fully elaborate in a short blog post—but will strive to demonstrate the essence.

Any decent sized community has individuals who are considered prominent—prominence is not just a matter of wealth but of supporting community endeavors, culture, and charity. What essentially happens is that prominence develops its own culture. There are degrees of prominence and prominence-cultures and these probably appear more distinct in communities that possess a greater number of affluent families and where such wealth is markedly higher than what the average family posseses.  

In essence, social expectations, norms, and manners develop from the expectations of being prominent. In later generations, it is not matter of difference but a matter of how things are—the old elite and newly wealthy simply cannot understand each other because of culture. The newly wealthy believe they are in the club because of money but the old elite have mostly forgotten about money and give priority to culture. Suddenly it becomes poor taste to talk about money—taboo and stigma become the tools of protecting class.

It is worth pointing out that in a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Labor, Americans ranked the most prestigious jobs as

  1. Fire Fighter
  2. Scientist
  3. Teacher
  4. Doctor
  5. Military Officer

And the least prestigious as

  1. Professional Athlete
  2. Business Executive
  3. Journalist
  4. Union Leader
  5. Stock Broker

It is interesting that they put some of the highest paying occupations at the bottom of the prestige ladder. Although I suspect that experimental enquiry would demonstrate that the majority would give some privilege to the later.

Become a Baron

Scotland is purported to be the last and only country where an individual can purchase a title of nobility that is formally recognized by the government. It appears that there are two classes of titles in Scotland’s nobility—peerage titles and feudal titles. Only feudal titles are purchasable.  These titles essentially existed as a bundle of rights that belonged to a parcel of land. Therefore, the title originated with the land but recent legislation has separated the title from the land–such a title can now be purchased alone.

The most common feudal title in Scotland was a barony but there are also a few earldoms (counts). I have heard that some lawmakers wanted to abolish feudal titles altogether but feared that the government would be forced to compensate for monetary damages—there appears to be a flourishing market for these feudal relics. It also appears that there has been a good deal of fraud and fantasy in this market too.

Clearly this is a formal symbol.  I am not sure if the current law gives title holders any actual privileges other than the right to use the title itself. The esteem is connected to the level of formality (government acceptance) and historic class connotations.  I think it is worth pointing out that despite the formality of the symbol its success is largely informal. This success derives from its class connotations, but the rights that gave rise to these connotations are largely void by the same powers that permit the baron’s continued legal existence. Thereby there is no official measure of esteem for such titles—the government merely allows their existence—what exactly they mean is largely dependent on historic connotation and popular imagination.

Online Social Clubs


A few years ago, Erik Wachmeister had the idea to start a social network website for a select group of global acquaintances. It is worth mentioning that Erik is the son of a Swedish ambassador and aristocrat, Count Wilhelm Wachmeister. Erik’s creation was, branded as a social network for those who already know each other. Originally, aSmallWorld’s membership consisted of affluent and globally minded patrons—a few celebrities among them. Today, aSmallWorld has grown to over half a million members, though membership is still restricted to invitation only. To become a member you must be invited by an existing member who has invitation rights–only select members have invitation rights.

aSmallWorld is not alone, there are at least a half dozen private online clubs that seem to be succeeding. While all claim to be exclusive, it seems that some allow for application in lieu of an invitation.

Naturally, the movement towards “gated” social networks has caused some criticism from those who feel that the internet is or should be about transparency and democratic processes. However, I do not think “social network” is a fitting label for many of these sites.  They are clubs without walls and most of the ones listed here offer their members live events and parties. Indeed, these are social environments for those with similar cultural tastes, interests, and connections much as the traditional gentleman’s clubs, country club, or member’s only nightclub. In terms of status mechanics, in-group dynamics, exclusivity, and social aesthetics are all key components.

aSmallWorld (ASW) is the most renown online club. One can actually find people begging purported members for an invitation on various blogs and forums. I have even heard of invitations selling for $500.00. The only other club where I have seen people publicly begging for an invitation is and it is not near as extensive as you find for ASW. Exclusivity creates demand and demand validates the exclusivity. However, I think ASW has another status dynamic that the other sites lack—renown. ASW has managed an extensive PR campaign and has gained a lot of mainstream media recognition. Combine that with its purported celebrity members and it seems only natural that ASW succeeds in creating desire. Luxury brands often campaign not for the sake of gaining market share (as in conventional strategy) but to establish and maintain the status of the brand because the status consumer expects to be recognized–this appears to be what ASW has done.

Joe Robinson, current CEO of aSmallWorld, also happens to be a Skidmore graduate.

The list offered below is not exhaustive nor does it imply legitimacy or endorsement. These are just a few purported exclusive online clubs–there are others…

The Puppet Master

I said to myself, “eureka,” as it occurred to me that the classifieds section might just be the ultimate source of “status presentations.” A casual glance did not disappoint me…

A self-described wealthy older man is looking for a woman to attend domestic and international events with. The right woman must be petite, classy, and confidant with an affluent crowd.  This is a sexual relationship. The right woman will receive accommodations in the owners mansion (he doesn’t call it that but he does provide square footage) and will received a monthly stipend.

Though this description is openly published, I have paraphrased and withheld the source to protect his already anonymous privacy.

First, this man has defined himself as an affluent man…he lives in a grandiose home, travels regularly, and mingles with an affluent crowd. All of this conveys status but second and more interesting is that he is looking for a status symbol as a companion, one that he controls. He makes it clear that her primary role is to project an image—though he does expect sexual gratification. In essence, there is no personal magnetism, intellectual, or emotional appeal—this is about a staged performance (at least that is what is most important). This man is extremely status conscious and perhaps that is why he is materially successful? Control becomes a new theme.

I am now wondering what role emotions play and for what….

Does high status mean greater dramaturgical mastery? (Goffman)

Anyhow, the classifieds offer a host of information and potential for the study of status. I expect to return there more often for casual inspiration and later for a more methodological and rigorous inquiry(s).