Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Status of Status Games

I don't worry too much about notions that consumption is driven by status-seeking. Not because it isn't - it would be surprising if at least some consumption weren't status-driven. Rather, because status-seeking affects just about everything, from consumption to not consuming to leisure to exercise and more. 

The richest entrepreneurs got that way by coming up with new goods and services to make the rest of us better off; in earlier eras, they'd have sought fame and renown through displays of prowess in killing people in battles. I prefer today's version.

Here's Hanson on the status of status-games.
But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status. No, you’ll start to see some new kinds of behavior as the sort of thing that people do who don’t care about status, but are just being “real”.
Then you’ll start to become aware that other people that you know agree with this new attitude of yours. You’ll get more comfortable with saying that you approve of these sorts of behavior in others, with hearing others say the same thing, and you’ll notice that you feel good when other people credit you with such behavior. You and your associates will all feel good about themselves, knowing they they are all good people who deserve respect because they do these behaviors, behaviors that they all know are not about status seeking.
At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.
Wellington has some major authenticity hipster beard-quality status-games going on in which I refuse to play a part.

In related news, a quarter of all Welshmen are descended from 20 men who won a particularly nasty status game fifteen-hundred years ago. Bill Gates has nothin' on them. [Update: Thomas Lumley, to whom I defer in such things, calls bogus on this particular stat.]



  1. Hipsters have certainly ruined beards for the younger generation of academic.

    I'm less sure whether hipsters have helped or ruined beer. On the one hand, the hipster demand drives up the cost of good craft beer. On the other hand, the long run supply response to the hipster demand means there is a much greater selection of good craft beer. On the third hand, the new influx of craft beers means that there are a lot of crappy beers around now....

  2. As usual in the media, the DNA claim is largely bogus -- the 1/4 figure is for direct male-line descent, considering only Y chromosome haplotypes.

    Those 20 are probably ancestors of everyone in Wales. And in most of the rest of the world. Many times over. That's what happens after 50 generations.

    Doesn't affect your point, I just find this sort of genetics irritating.

  3. Expanding on this, now I have a keyboard.

    First, it *is* notable that 1/4 of Welsh men have a Y chromosome from a group of 20 men in the Dark Ages. This does mean those men had high status -- and, importantly, that they passed their status down to their male descendants, at least for a few generations. In that sense the genetics claim makes sense and supports the point.

    The bogus part is the "1/4 of Welsh men descended from" these unpleasant characters. The first sign that it's bogus is "men". The proportion of Welsh women descended from them *must* be about the same, so the story is clearly getting something wrong. And, as I said above, what they're getting wrong is counting only pure male-line descent.

    There are two reasons for counting pure male-line descent. The semi-good reason is that it's fairly easy. (Most of) the Y-chromosome doesn't undergo recombination, and so is inherited in a single chunk with only rare point mutations. Variants of the Y chromosome can be traced back through time like surnames (only without the problem of what geneticists politely refer to as 'Mendelian anomalies'). Other parts of the genome recombine between maternal and paternal copies, so it's messier.

    The bad reason is that you get better stories. If you trace both parents back, by the time you get 1500 years, you have at least quadrillions of ancestors. There has to be a lot of overlap, but in somewhere the size of Wales there still isn't much room to avoid having these guys in your ancestry.

    By the time you get to, say, 5000 years ago this is true for the whole human species: we all have the same set of ancestors.