Iedereen een winnaar?

Joel Best’s Everyone’s A Winner – Life in our Congratulatory Culture sounded interesting but turned out to be a disappointment. I have already blogged on the topic of prize proliferation. This book is an expanded version of the same idea: the multiplication of awards in current American culture.

I was hoping for some sociological insights in this subject but the entire book revolves around a couple of ideas: (1) status is a resource as scarce and as valuable as other forms of capital (wealth and power) but, according to Best, one that has been neglected by sociology’s focus on income and wealth stratification based on class or race (I disagree). (2) The multiplication of social worlds creates the multiplication for recognition within the group, but also outside the group.

What causes such multiplication of social world? For Best, a diversification of society along with the recognition of past discrimination and exclusions: as once-marginalized group see their exclusion somewhat lessened, they create their own social worlds (groups and organizations) and forms of recognition that had long been denied them. Within these social worlds, awards and prizes are granted as forms of acquiring status. And, as Best claims, this is something easier done than changing the inequalities of wealth and power.

This was a first problem I had with Best’s thesis: on the one hand, Best claims status to be a scarce resource, but within the same page, he claims that we live in a time of status abundance and status affluence (see page 12). Which is it? Leaving that aside, Best identifies three trends that led to status affluence in the post-War period:

“This [post-War] economic affluence, in turn, fostered three enduring trends that continue to support status affluence: first, people could afford to join – and could choose among – a growing number of social worlds; second, they also had more resources – more money but also more leisure time and better information – to support these choices; and, third, those choices could be justified in multiple ways. These developments – more status-generating groups, more resources to support the groups’ activities, and more ways to justify awarding status – created the conditions that allow status influence to flourish.” (14)

Such justifications may be opening doors for the recipients of awards and prizes, to inspire accomplishment and/or to increase self-esteem.

Quite a bit of the book is dedicated to a description of the different ways in which the congratulatory culture has spread throughout American culture, from school graduation and stickers, to the increased numbers of medals awarded in the military to a widening definition of heroism, to the proliferation of rankings and ratings of everything and anything.

So what is the significance of this congratulatory culture? For Best, too much analysis of status has focused on individuals even if (especially when) it has been misguided (the mythical benefits of high self-esteem). The true significance of status is in social esteem: status is how groups promote their values and celebrate their accomplishments. And that’s it.

Here is what I think is missing (not completely necessarily but glossed over or just mentioned in passing and not developed) is the fact status affluence occurs in a time of growing inequalities. Are these two trends correlated? I think so. As Best himself mentions, it is relatively easy to grant status. It is a lot harder to change the stratification structure. So, is status inflation the mirror image of lack of social mobility? After all, to give a worker an “employee of the month” badge is a lot easier than a pay raise and health benefits. So, when the access to upward mobility is blocked on the wealth and power side, why not try the  status side.

It is also true that the expansion of awards corresponds to the inclusion of once-more-marginalized categories. For instance, in France, the main literary prize if the Prix Goncourt. But later, as only men seem to get it, the Prix Femina was created to be awarded to women writers.

And when Best describes the ever-more inclusive definition of heroism to include not just “classical” heroes, he forgets to mention that our traditional definition of hero is basically the “superhero”, a white man, usually a warrior, earning his title in combat, war or any exclusively masculine pursuit. The expansion of our definition of heroism means inclusion of traits other than this hyper-masculine version.

I think status is important especially in the context of liquid, individualized, risk society. When there is no more “salvation by society” (See Bauman, Beck and Sennett), one has to construct one’s own biography and accumulating prizes and awards is a major way of doing so. How does one protect oneself from risks attached to precarization if not by beefing up one’s resume with a myriad of prizes, titles and awards. And one better starts early with those kindergarden certificates and bumper stickers that parents proudly stick on the back of their SUVs.

As I mentioned above, I found the book a bit light on content and disappointing. I am used to Best’s debunking analysis on the popular uses of statistics, so I was expecting more and better.

Bestel hier Everyone’s a winner

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