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Having What Others Can’t

Why status symbols are a lot more than just money and fancy cars

Lioba Gierke / Lena Rofall / Fabiola Gerpott - March 16, 2023

Tips for practitioners

When asked whether status symbols are important, many people would instinctively answer “no.” But in doing so, they are often being untruthful, even when they don’t mean to be. We, as social beings, have a desire to be noticed and to broadcast our status and societal belonging to the outside world. And that can manifest itself in the possession of more classic status symbols, such as a fancy car or a designer handbag, and nowadays of immaterial objects, such as non-fungible tokens stemming from the art scene. What any given person perceives to be a status symbol is inherently linked to the people around them.

What counts as a status symbol in modern society?

What is thought of as a status symbol is always changing. For example, cars, for decades considered the premiere symbol of status, have only continued to lose significance over time. And as they fade, more immaterial status symbols, e.g., a strong awareness of sustainability, gain prominence. True, one clearly cannot “own” ideals in the same way one can a car, yet they do constitute a form of cultural capital that affords anybody active in related fields clout within certain social circles. To this, we can add other forms of immaterial goods, such as free time, education, travel experiences, or creative self-realization. Having access to goods that are considered scarce only increases our social status, playing into the notion of “having what others can’t.”

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks of “habitus” in his work, referring to the objects, habits, and attitudes that make a person part of a social group. He divides a person’s status into three categories: economic capital (e.g., possessions and money), social capital in the form of social relationships, and cultural capital (e.g., intelligence, educations, morals, and attitudes). Whether these forms of capital will give people a certain status or will simply be “out” again soon is dependent on how times change and society develops.

Our social environment determines our status symbols

Our social environment is what chiefly pulls the strings: what we see as a status symbol, how much status it lends a person, and whether it will continue to have significance. One’s own cultural capital also plays a significant role in determining whether a status symbol is truly seen as such. Take, for example, luxury wines and spirits: For an evening with friends, a bottle of discount wine would be more than enough, but why not a bottle from Château Lafite-Rothschild when it’s considered top notch in certain circles—and you can afford it? Because what is considered a status symbol in one social circle (here, of wine connoisseurs) bears little significance for other groups that lack the type of cultural capital specific to that interest. In other words, only those with enough of said cultural capital would be able to recognize such subtle differences in the wines and consider the more exclusive option a status symbol.

Why status symbols will always play a role in society

Status symbols can be used to broadcast our sense of social belonging. Wearing certain fashion brands or making use of certain types of transport (for instance, opting for a cargo bike over a car) are open ways of doing this. Status symbols may come along that are less flashy than the Rolex one could wear on their wrist. As was mentioned in the wine example, the ability to distinguish fine details plays a role here. The subtlety of a status symbol is described as “stealth luxury.” For example, high-street labels or groceries from the organic food store will only be considered status symbols if the others around the buyer have the corresponding cultural capital. Status symbols are thus not guaranteed universal recognition as such, but rather only from those who are “in the know.”

Status symbols can have an extraordinarily short life span

The short life span of these symbols is certainly a reflection on our own lives and the things that we personally consider worthy of the definition. All the collector’s cards that children once sought out lost their importance once those kids reached their teen years. Then, the compact disc became the important status symbol that nowadays perhaps does not shine as brightly. But then, what are today’s status symbols? There is, of course, no easy way to answer this question. Nevertheless, the question remains an intriguing one, as it brings to light the truth about social influence and our own standards for what we consider valuable. At the same time, it invites us to think about how future status symbols could be.

No fortune teller could give the right answer, and we cannot accurately predict exactly what the future of status symbols will look like. But one thing we do know for sure is that the only constant is change—and that applies to status symbols as well.


Tips for practitioners

  • Remember that a status symbol is not always flashy and showy. They can be just as subtle and nuanced.
  • Social comparison is something that happens both consciously and subconsciously. If you know to which social group you would like to belong, then you can come to some conclusions about what you personally consider to be a status symbol.
  • Note that status symbols are always at the mercy of how times change, as they are a symbol of our society. Paying attention to these symbols can provide interesting insights into the times in which we live.

Literature reference and methodology

Autorinnen der Studie

Lioba A. Gierke

Lioba A. Gierke is a psychologist who studied at the University of Bremen, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania (USA). She is currently a doctoral candidate working at the Chair of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf. In her research, she focuses on the future of the working world with particular regards to effective communication in the (virtual) working space and diversity management.

Lena L. D. Rofall

Lena L. D. Rofall is currently completing her master’s degree in psychology at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. She previously earned her bachelor’s from Ruhr University Bochum. She is currently a student assistant at the Chair of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Düsseldorf. Her master’s thesis is centered around the effect that emotional expression on the part of a manager can have on employees during virtual meetings.

Professor Fabiola H. Gerpott

Fabiola Gerpott is an expert in leadership, diversity management, and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more highly by managers and employees alike. Her research focus is on age and gender diversity in leadership positions.

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