Status Reproduction in the U.S. and Europe

In a New York Times article about the American electorate’s allergy to elitism, we find the following quotation:

In a nation without a titled aristocracy, an elite education may well be the most important membership card. “American elites have a problem that the Europeans don’t, which is how to assure that their children and their children’s children retain their elevated social position,” said Jason Kaufman, a Harvard sociologist who has written on elites and American culture. “Americans do this through cultural institutions and exclusion — art museums, classical music and tremendously elitist universities.”

Shouldn’t read too much into a stray quotation, but, unlike Kaufman, I don’t think there’s much difference in the way American and European elites reproduce their status.

European countries have abolished privileges attaching to hereditary titles.  Your name may have a "von" or a "de" in it, but that doesn’t get you any formal, explicit privileges, except in the very highest reaches of the nobility.  Most of the titled Europeans I know work in ordinary jobs, and have the same concerns as the rest of us.  Of course, noble families do tend to be richer than others, which always helps.  And, as an acquaintance of mine who’s a baroness recently told me, the title helps in everyday transactions with government bureaucrats and suspicious landlords.  But if you get poor grades or have no talent, even the most august title isn’t going to help you rocket to the top of any hierarchy.  At most, it’ll prevent you from dropping out of sight.

In one way, young members of the European nobility have it worse than wealthy Americans: Europe’s state-dominated education system has no real counterpart to America’s sprawling network of non-selective private colleges of the dumb rich, who will happily accept giant tuition checks to make sure junior gets some college degree, and will even arrange discreet rehab-clinic stays if necessary.  In Europe, a wealthy 19-year old with a glittering title will have to compete against the hoi polloi to get into a state university, because those are the only institutions that confer real prestige.  Most of them do get in, of course, since the less…er, diligent young viscounts will get help from tutors and boarding schools.  But if even that doesn’t get them into university, there’s no real fall-back option available to them in Europe — which is why they are often to be found at American colleges of the dumb rich.

Aside from the universities, then, the things Kaufman identifies as markers of cultural cachet for Americans — museums and classical music — are used exactly the same way in Europe.  Bourdieu’s Distinction says it all here; in fact, one of the main themes of Distinction is that the importance of refined tastes as a sign of social status steadily increased in Europe at the same time as, and because, traditional hereditary privilege was being dismantled.  Especially in Germany, drawing excess attention to your title or wealth is taboo, so in order to establish status distinction, you’ll have to sit through a few boring classical concerts, get that precious doctorate (g), and read some books about art and philosophy now and then, just like all your non-titled friends.  (There are also a lot of people who genuinely love art and classical music, bless  their souls, but here, I’m talking about the multitudes who use these things mainly as status markers.)

7 thoughts on “Status Reproduction in the U.S. and Europe

  1. In terms of higher education and status, Britain then seems to be somewhat between mainland Europe and the US, as there, it’s also the state universities that have the highest prestige, but in order to get into them, one has to be able to afford it as well. It also helps a lot if you went to a posh public school (which aren’t really public, after all! The Brits and their confusing names!) which not a lot of people can afford. I read a statistic some time ago and it said that something like 2/3 of all accepted applicants to Oxbridge are drawn from just 100 public schools around the country! This is extraordinary and shows just how much the Brits still celebrate status and class distinctions.


  2. In Germany, reading “Die Zeit” and playing the piano forte (and never, ever play soccer!) might also help to express a certain class attitude.


  3. Classical concerts will help, ballet is better, opera is best, Bayreuth is the icing of the cake.
    There is a tendency that Germany will also get these kind of schools. EBS is mentioned on and off.


  4. Loved that link to America’s worst Colleges, Andrew. Bennington is notorious but far from the only one of the genre.

    I have one quibble. Virginia Militart Institute (VMI) is listed as the worst military college. While I have no doubt that the title is richly deserved I believe that another institution deserves that accolade even more: The Citadel, located in Charleston, South Carolina. This for historical reasons (Citadel cadets helped start the Civil War & located in the heart of Southern Secession, but also because of the notorious saga of the first female cadet at the Citadel (Shannon Falkner) and because a best-selling novel has been written about the school by a graduate who improbably became a great writer: “The Lords of Discipline”, by Pat Conroy. Conroy also wrote an autobiographical account of his senior year ‘My Losing Season’ about his experiences playing basketball for the Citadel. I can recommend both books without reservation, as well as anything else Conroy has written (“The Great Santini”, “Beach Music”, and above all his magnus opus “Prince of Tides”).

    VMI has not been favored by alumnus such as Falkner and Conroy and therefore I think comes slightly behind.


  5. “Isn´t that a form of elitism too?”

    Absolutely. TYhe ‘classless society’ has developed social classes. allways had them truth be told. They went a bit out of fashion during the 60’s but have been reinvented as the ‘meritocracy’.


  6. Some qualifications about Brits, class and elitism. Oxbridge undergrads are disproportionately drawn from ‘public’ schools, but these days, given substantial attention payed to access initiatives & a faculty (i.e. interviewers) heavily drawn from lower/middle-middle class backgrounds that disproportion has probably mainly something to do with superior education received at average public vs. average state schools. That of course can be paid for, but you have to be smart in the first place to make enough out of it to get into Oxbridge, esp. given the interview. Otherwise you will probably go to Durham or St Andrews – and provided you speak with the right accent, you will then be outing yourself as posh (or would-be posh) but not smart enough for Oxbridge.
    More interestingly, and where I think the UK class system is genuinely different from the German, and maybe (!!) from the US (haven’t lived here long enough to really be able to say), is that class status is almost exclusively tied to cultural signifiers, and has really Nothing to do with income. You can be on the dole or an alcoholic in the shelter and still be upper or upper-middle class. Conversely, you can (or could, tee-hee!) be a hedge fund manager earning millions and will still be working or lower-middle or middle-middle class, if you haven’t mastered – and that means, mastered Well, otherwise you’re just would-be – the relevant cultural signifiers-cum-attainments (ballet is an attainment; correct vowels are a signifier:). Kate Fox, Watching the English, is very, very revealing on the English class system.


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