Commentary Magazine


The Status Seekers, by Vance Packard

Popular Sociology
The Status Seekers.
by Vance Packard.
McKay. 376 pp. $4.50.

 

By now both social scientists and ordinary book critics have had their say about Vance Packard’s latest exercise in popular sociology. In general, lay reviewers have been favorable; sociologists have been critical.

In Partisan Review Lewis Coser convicted Mr. Packard of numerous sins, among them False Knowingness, Homogenization of Facts, Fake Precision, and Stimulus and Reward. Thus, locutions like “political sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia University” are partly identifications, but mainly hints of special knowledge on the part of the author. (Mr. Packard does love authorities. I was entertained to find myself quoted as “Economist Lekachman,” especially since the quotation was a commonplace which in no way depended on any economic expertise I might possess.) In his readiness to draw large inferences, Mr. Packard indeed homogenizes the facts. The care he displays in putting dollar tags on each status symbol imparts spurious precision to subtle phenomena. Finally, Mr. Packard loves alternately to alarm and reassure his readers. Think, he cries, of all the “hidden barriers” which threaten you and your child. But, soothes the author, if we reflect a little we can amend our attitudes and improve our practices. (Save to remind his readers that he also wrote The Hidden Persuaders, this talk of hidden barriers must have no purpose other than making the flesh creep. Social, racial, and religious barriers are real enough, but what Negro or Jew finds them hidden?)

But Mr. Coser is mild in comparison to S. M. Lipset, writing in the Reporter. Although Mr. Packard admires and quotes Mr. Lipset, the latter fails to return the compliment. Mr. Lipset summarizes the book’s four major theses as claims that Americans are more worried than they used to be about their social status; that it has become more difficult to move from one social class to another since 1940 than it was before then; that, as a result, the lower classes feel more deprived than ever despite a larger supply of material possessions; and that anxious Americans try to allay their fears by frantic conformity to the mores of their own group. On each count, declares Mr. Lipset, either the author is wrong or his case is unproven. How can the lower classes feel more deprived if, as the evidence tends to show, their jobs please them more now than in 1946? Is our class structure increasingly rigid? Actually, the social origins of business leaders have altered rather little in the last one hundred and fifty years; opportunity throughout our history has been distributed according to social class. Do the Dutch, the Danes, and the English make it easier than we do to move from one class to another? Mr. Lipset offers his own conclusion that the comparative rates of social mobility are about the same in the four countries.

How does college education influence our class structure? Mr. Packard makes much of the fact that a college degree is the ticket of admission to the competition for power and affluence in American society. But surely the relevant question is:does a working-class boy find it easier to get a college education now than to rise from errand boy to corporate executive years ago? As Lipset points out, 30 per cent of college students now are of working-class origin. The percentage is bound to rise with soaring enrollments.

I see no reason to challenge the adverse verdicts of Mr. Coser and Mr. Lipset. The Status Seekers is shoddy social science, in spite of Mr. Packard’s efforts to consult the best sources.

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Yet, in spite of everything that has been said, Mr. Packard has written a continuously interesting book. I write this in full awareness that the style is too breezy, the details blended with the precision of a formula, and the moralizing tedious. (A representative homily:“I think we could feel better about the democratic process as it is practiced in the United States if voters in general would start looking beyond personalities and predispositions, and make searching analyses of the core issues involved and the commitments of the candidates.”) Nevertheless, the book conveys all the entertainment of good, relaxed gossip. Partly because we are curious, partly because we are apprehensive, we like to know what the neighbors are up to. If we now tend to live much more among our own kind—teachers among teachers, engineers among engineers, advertising men among advertising men, and so on—our curiosity may be all the more intense.

What kind of houses do Poles dislike? Why do affluent Jews avoid colonial reproductions? While the answers ate not earth-shaking, they are fun to read. Poles dislike exposed beams in their new homes because the beams remind them of the barns in the old country. Since no one believes in a Jew’s colonial ancestors, he might as well invest in modern design. The curiosity is healthy and the fact that so many of Mr. Packard’s fellow Americans share it, suggests a certain sympathy between classes.

Mr. Packard embodies other American traits. Just because he has little sense of the past, he is easily shocked by the present. Although his indignation at social injustice has its, naive side, it is possible that too much information about comparative mobility rates diverts the attention from social to statistical problems. His feeling that there is a gap between what is and what ought to be, is clearest in his discussion of the ideal of cross-class friendship. Mr. Packard himself—according to his own status indicators—belongs in either the top class, the affluent, or the next class, the semi-affluent. He deplores the fact that people of his class ignore the people in the three lower classes and confine their friendships to members of their own social set. Speaking pityingly of one of Oscar Butz’s snobbish Princeton seniors, he says: “He will never know the exhilaration and fascination of having as friends such colorful and often wonderfully articulate folks as clam diggers, house movers, volunteer fire chiefs, antique salesmen, mental-hospital nurses, bill collectors, farmers, marriage brokers, zoo keepers, divorce lawyers, airline hostesses, rare-bird collectors, and house detectives.” Here is a pleasant expression of a standard bit of American folklore—everybody has an interesting tale to tell.

But reality will intrude. Here is Mr. Packard in a darker mood: “In modern America, where especially at the consuming level the masses have to a large extent become the dictators of taste, we have to endure the horrors of our roadside architecture and billboards; our endless TV gun-slinging; our raw, unkempt, blatantly commercialized cities . . . our faceless suburban slums-to-be; our ever-maudlin soap operas.” Here is the true upper-class voice—or one of them—speaking. If the masses are vessels of trivial taste, then why should a person of culture curry their favor? Aren’t they simply less interesting and less amusing than one’s own friends? Perhaps unfairly, I suspect Mr. Packard of feeling that he ought to find his clam diggers and volunteer fire chiefs fascinating, but really prefers other writers, artists, and professional folk. In this feeling, he probably represents the anxieties of a good many successful Americans.

No doubt this book is bad popular sociology because it misrepresents its underlying materials, but professional sociologists need not be astonished that Mr. Packard has filled a void. Americans are fascinated by sociology. In some form or other, their demands will be met. Therefore, if social investigators want responsible versions of their findings to be read by publics wider than their colleagues, they had better write them. It is a sign of the need that the most readable sociological book by a professional I have encountered recently is C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination. In large part it is an attack on the opaque abstraction and trivial empiricism which mar so much sociological writing. Responsible social students need seriously to undertake the job of writing responsible popular sociology.

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