Tuesday 9 September 2008

The School of Life

I popped into The School of Life on Marchmont Street in London on Saturday morning. It is such a good idea, I really hope they have some success. I was lucky enough to meet Alain De Botton while I was there, he told me he is currently working on a book about work. He and a photographer are following six people through their working life. He didn't indicate when it would be out, but I expect it will be next year.
I really enjoyed De Botton's book on what it means to travel 'The Art of Travel', in it he explores the reasons why people travel, how travel is marketed and ties in how art has impacted on our travel experiences. Given the need for us to lessen the environmental impacts of our travel and holidays (two often very different things) we all need to understand why we travel and so on. However it is the book and the documentary in which he looked at Status Anxiety that I want to discuss here, both were highly influential in the early stages of my PhD.
Status anxiety is greater in some than others. I would propose that in the modern consumer culture it can be relieved in two ways. Firstly it can be relieved within an individual’s own cultural domain (their workplace/social circle etc) by building our identities and respect from others through what we do. Marmot, in his book 'Status Syndrome' (2005) analyses himself as an academic and observes how his happiness is affected by how one of his academic papers is received, whether or not he gets a research grant, whether he is invited to a meeting, elected to a professional body or simply whether his ideas are taken seriously. This is just one example; it is possible to think of many other cultural domains and how identity and respect is built within them. Outside of an individual’s chosen cultural domain it may be harder to construct identity and gain the respect of others. Marmot (2005) for example also observes how his salary acts as an opinion former amongst others. One would suspect that Marmot would be more interested in the respect and identity he receives as a result of his academic work, rather than his salary.
In a consumer culture, characterised as being a hugely diverse collection of dynamic cultural domains, respect is sought, and social status fought for, among a hugely diverse range of individuals with their own identities within their own cultural spheres. It would be almost impossible to understand the intricate details of all of these different cultural spheres. Because of this, it is hard for an individual to translate their identity within their chosen cultural sphere into an identity in a wider cultural setting. The result of this is that commodities are used as signs to communicate identity (a prime example being status symbols such as cars, clothes and organic food?!). Financial position and material wealth have become the ways in which individuals create their identities within a wider culture and put themselves up for social comparison. Marmot, perhaps, is fortunate to have the intellect and opportunity to form his identity and gain respect through his academic work. Others are not so lucky. Marmot (2005) points out, referring to Thomas Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Classes (1899, that it is our concern with our relative position in society (our social status), which leads to conspicuous consumption driven by the sign-commodity relationship. As the power of commodities as communicators has increased, so too has conspicuous consumption and a desire for material growth. Although it may not be true for all, in a consumer culture, individuals create their identity through their consumption.

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