Status Symbols: The GPS of Social Navigation


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Francisco and Julio asked me if I would buy them shoes when I visited the states last month. The requests are always the same….shoes and cell phones. Walking the sandy paths throughout the island, my curiosity got the best of me when I encountered dozens of wandering soles mixed with bastura (trash) resembling an unappetizing salad of discarded status symbols. I began to think about how we come to value different things. Is there a hierarchy of bling bling? Are shoes and cell phones the essential elements motivating young Latinos to improve their lives and create a higher social position in their communities?

When I taught high school in the states, I was often chagrined when the students paid more attention to things…iPods, iPhones, brand name clothing and footwear, instead of their academic studies. It was hard to fault them.  I, too am fascinated by expensive and sophisticated bling bling. I find it amazing and puzzling that two divergent cultures of young people place high value on similar things. What happens when different cultures with different values desire the same things?

While I don’t have specific answers to why, I do believe that it is important to create connections among the things that we value in divergent societies. If the youth in the states and Latin cultures both value shoes and cell phones, collectively we may be able to come up with some answers about human beings and things. The answers may inspire us to work toward unity, instead of division and teach us that collectively, we should encourage positive international relationships among all countries, all races, and all political ideologies.

Status, as defined by possessions, is nearly as essential as food, water, and shelter. Once our basic needs are met, we spend our money acquiring symbols of status..bling bling to enhance a better position, the GPS of social navigation. My teenage neighbor, Julio, lives in a shack with a dirt floor, 3 light bulbs, and no running water, except for a hose attached to a city water line. Yet, fancy name brand tennis shoes represent success to him, and along with success, comes respect. In turn, respect means that others will look up to him, and thus his fancy tennis shoes increase his self-esteem providing the impetus to work harder and the drive to improve his lot in life.

The wandering soles along the sandy paths inspired me to search for ways to increase unity in our troubled world. Maybe shoes and cell phones will be the connecting force that will unite the young people throughout the world. We are all wandering souls, searching for ways to improve our lives,  increase our self-esteem, and better our positions through the hierarchy of bling bling. Can shoes and cell phones be the connection to save our world? Who knows, but it is worth investigating the connections.

As a post script: Ron and I had a philosophical debate about my article. He feels that using status symbols to connect the youth of the world is shallow and deceptive. I disagree. I say, take what you can get to emphasize our similarities. We all have possessions we use as status symbols. The problem is in denying that we elevate our positions in society through the use of possessions.

Ron wants me to answer the questions I asked. For example, why do two divergent cultures value shoes and cell phones? Is it a status symbol only for the poor in both cultures? Instead, I chose to take a different direction in my post. I stated that I don’t have specific answers…it would involve more research. Instead, I decided to emphasize the connections and the relationships among the youth in two cultures and the hierarchy of the things they value the most….namely shoes and cell phones.

“Why don’t you emphasize the importance of a good education to increase their self-esteem and improve their positions in life?” Ron asked. “Get real, Ron!” I replied.” I’ve been a teacher for 30 years. If you had the choice of receiving an A+ on a test or a new iPhone, which would you chose?”  “Point taken,” he replied.

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9 thoughts on “Status Symbols: The GPS of Social Navigation

  1. love your agile and thoughtful brain Deb,,,,,,but I am still of the mind that the inner stuff is far more of value than the outer stuff! If one is measured by stuff like cell phones and shoes, then the kids in schools are clearly uneven and so judged by having or having not! Economics is not even across the board and many are subjected to forms of abuse and derision because they do not have.
    Yep! I am in favor of uniforms in schools. However I always appreciate reading you and you know that.

  2. I too am with Ron on this one. Self esteem is increased by achievement. Not much of guessing game to learn texting in comparison to learning languages or sciences or even basic skills like carpentry or welding. Its that moment when one says ” I did it” that an incremental upping of self-esteem occurs. When humans do this they care less and less for status symbols or the clever manipulation of Madison avenue. Values are chosen and one has to work to keep them. Status symbols and buying to impress is a clear indication that the opinion of others matter more than self estimation. I had stuff – it came and went but the lasting achiement of the A plus never goes away. When educational values are prized above ownership of Stuff then surely we all benefit. Once I was in New York city and it struck me that just about every store provided stuff for the body and I had a hard time seeing stores that were for the Mind.! So sad to think folks will near die without their Iphones, Nikes and Hermes. Lets not forget al those folks who chucked themselves out of windows at the Big Crash of ’29 when they lost their stuff? Not much self-esteem there!

    • But, status symbols are an important attribute of every culture. These symbolic “things” remind us of our culture, its rules, and beliefs. These “things” are used to indicate our positions within our society. This includes, clothing, footwear, office decor, etc. Status symbols provide a signal to others to help them use the correct behavior in the hierarchy. Status symbols sort of lock in the user to prescribed behaviors that are appropriate for their position and status in a society. For example, I was an elementary teacher for many years. I wore ‘teacher clothes’, those gaudy Christmas sweaters with the little balls that lit up, matching socks, and flashy earrings. I dressed up for all the holidays because that’s what teachers do. I decorated my classroom with all the cute artwork of the kids, and posters with all kinds of positive thoughts. I stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance because my students expected that behavior of me, even though I secretly didn’t pledge my allegiance to one country only. When I taught high school and worked with juvenile delinquents, my dress and behavior changed to fit the culture within my classroom. I had to learn to use a tough love approach, and I no longer wore the cute little teacher dresses. Actually, I felt more like myself when teaching high school. I remember having a long discussion with a troubled boy who wanted to drop out of school. He was court ordered to stay in school because he had just been released from a residential treatment facility. That day after school, Ron and I took our Harley out for a ride. I was all decked out in my leather jacket, chaps, boots, and tattoo showing. While I was shopping in the grocery store, Ron was on the Harley waiting for me to return. Two young guys approached him and they admired our Harley. When I walked out of the grocery store, one of the guys said to Ron, “Is that your chick? She looks cool.” As I got closer, I recognized my troubled student I had talked to in class that day. “Mrs. Goehring?????”, he asked with huge bulging eyes and a shocked look on his face.” That kid never dropped out of school and graduated two years later. :-) So, yes, I believe that status symbols are an important aspect of all cultures. They don’t have to signify a denial of our cultural beliefs. They are a part of our beliefs.
      As far as self-esteem, it may be increased by achievement, but several studies have been done concluding the importance of wealth in contributing to a degree of an individual’s social acceptance. My understanding of the studies shows that money can buy a higher self esteem because it buys status symbols associated with a hierarchy of class acceptance into society…the ‘right’ house, the ‘right’ shoes, the ‘right cell phones. “Having these items may increase their popularity or social status, which has been shown to have a positive effect on children’s self-esteem” (Walker and Greene 1986). “Research has shown that positive self-esteem can lead to higher academic achievement” (Liu, Kaplan, and Risser 1992; Sterbin and Rakow 1996).
      I want you to know that I am more in agreement with you, than not. I’m in a mood to play devil’s advocate today. It really keeps me on my toes and stimulates me to think outside of the box. I enjoy a good debate. I think I’m gaining a clearer picture of why cell phones and shoes are so important to the younger generations in many cultures. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

  3. Hi Deb,
    I’ve wondered the same in terms of status …. I walk into a McDonalds and observed the Hispanics working there with iphones and I’ve always wondered how do they afford it? Do they really need an iphone? Would a cheaper phone with the same specifications not suffice? Does having an Iphone give them a certain status? When I was in high school I had a teacher who told me that she saw a lot of Asians shopping at name brand stores because of status. I wondered if it was true… I had a co worker who had brought LV handbags which are very expensive and out of her pay grade but she had to buy them. Are we in a society that puts more value in material things regardless of where we are? As teens they want to fit in and as adults there are no difference. I’ve known people who earns substanial amounts yet they do not have any savings due to where they spend and how they spend their money to impress people. What people wear and what they use mainly cell phones portray their ability to do so. When asked why they have an iphone … answers such as it has a lot of apps or lots of people have it (wanting to fit in) were given. Does status have to be what people possess or what they accomplish? symbollically do we really need the cell phones or the brand name sneakers to acheive statud amongst our society…depends.
    Thank you

    • Good questions, Cassie! This conversation thrills me. I think status symbols are tangible items people possess to help them fit into society and their culture. Status symbols are only one attribute of culture. Why do kings and queens wear crowns? It is symbolic of their status and position of authority in their society. Why do police officers have badges? Again, as a symbol of their rank and position of authority in society. I believe we all have symbols we use to show our positions and our hierarchy in our cultures. I don’t understand why we vilify these status symbols. That’s why cell phones and shoes are very symbolic in a teen and young adult culture. We all just want to belong, to fit into society, and to be accepted. If these symbols help increase a person’s self-esteem, which leads to higher achievement and a better position in life, is it so wrong? Thanks for your insight and your honest observations. I only wish I had the answers to many of your insightful questions. But, you’ve made me think…and that’s a good thing. :-)

  4. I have to agree with Ron here – I think if our young learn to only value “things”, they are lost. It’s much more than just shoes and cell phones – – anything that’s the “next best thing” is coveted by the young, no matter where they live. However, I really believe It’s a sad state of affairs when they learn to only value possessions, and not value such things as family, friendship, honesty, compassion, hard work, a sense of community, education, etc. These “possessions” like shoes and cellphones will soon wear out, get lost or discarded; the things I mentioned above last a lifetime. And as for the cell phones – – the ONLY reason I have one (the most basic model made – no pics, videos, music, etc.) is that Cody worries about my travels throughout the Delta doing community development projects, so he bought me one. He still gets upset, as it is seldom charged, and I usually forget to carry it – ha! The internet is as far as I go for “progress”; I refuse to give up my privacy with a cell phone that can ring and disturb me whenever and wherever I am. That’s why it’s usually turned OFF. Just my thoughts – – – – to each his/her own, eh?

    • Good points, Charlotte. But values such as honesty, compassion, and hard work, are cultural values. Status symbols are very different. These are materialistic symbols of the social class in which individuals want to be categorized or classified. Status symbols can be good or bad, depending on one’s cultural values. For example, Julio wants a pair of brand name tennis shoes. Why? Because he thinks that the tennis shoes will increase his rank or status among his friends. Maybe, and it’s all a guessing game to me, that Julio values friendship and loyalty, and he thinks that these new shoes will enable him to get more respect and loyalty from people he wants as friends. So, the status symbol of shoes represents the cultural values of friendship and loyalty to him, which is a good thing. Another example, still a guessing game, Francisco wants an iPhone to increase his rank or status in the workplace. He values hard work and diligence, which can be symbolized by the iPhone. But, status symbols can be easily misinterpreted and used for the wrong reasons. For example, buying things you can’t afford..when you sacrifice basic needs or decent cultural values and replace them with the materialistic possessions for the status you will receive…that is, in my opinion, greedy and dishonest.

      The thing with status symbols is that they are culturally acceptable in all societies and used as a means of ranking not only one’s social class, but in a way, one’s cultural values. You can’t get in trouble with the law for wearing a pair of expensive Nikes as a status symbol for your position within the society, but you can go to jail for stealing a pair of Nikes. That’s why status symbols are, in a way, much safer than demonstrating one’s lack of the cultural value of honesty. Does this make sense? I’m beginning to wonder myself…lol I think that’s why I chose to write about common status symbols among different cultures, instead of why these status symbols are common among different cultures. I think cultural values play a big part in determining which status symbols are important to an individual or group of people. I just haven’t figured out the “why” part, yet.

  5. How about a relationship with God as a common thread to increase self-esteem and improve their positions in life? I really enjoy your blog. My wife and I live in Granada and hope to visit the island soon. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Darrell,
      There are many ways to bridge the gap to increase self-esteem and improve our positions in life. I’ll admit that my suggestion of uniting the youth through their common status symbols of cell phones and shoes is probably a very weak link.:-) But, then again, quien sabe? I am more curious as to why we choose the status symbols we do, to represent our cultural values or lack of cultural values. What cultural values are represented through the status symbols of shoes and cell phones? Many questions…no answers. Thanks for leaving a comment and please look us up when you come to Ometepe Island.

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