Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bourdieu and Bouncers (16 June 2010)

TMN linked to this article about recent research by sociologist Lauren Rivera, who worked in a New York City nightclub that preys on the status conscious. She earned the trust of the doormen there and interviewed them about how they decide to let people in.
“Bouncers are status judges who make hundreds of status decisions every night. They do it by having hundreds of patrons line up and on the basis of very little information, they size up who will be an esteemed customer,” Rivera says.
Basically, she was investigating how status can be conveyed and interpreted in an instant, and what sort of skills are required for both signalers and decoders. Also, to what degree are those skills consciously and reflexively deployed, and to what degree are they simply internalized, an automatic way of interacting with the world -- assimilated into the habitus.

The article foregrounds this finding:
Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter.
If you are recognizably famous or connected to someone who is, you get in. You generally don't get in, apparently, if you are (a) not white or (b) not a woman. Not exactly a startling discovery.

More interesting is Rivera's report that bouncers look down on bribes, suggesting that they are invested in their ability to accurately assess something more nebulous than raw wealth -- that they are proud of being able to distinguish souls of gold from souls of bronze. This suggests that they have a nonfinancial stake in making the sort of social and cultural capital that gets you into clubs nonconvertible. The value of those capitals lies in their inability to be priced and sold -- they are not commensurable. They serve as a kind of stringently controlled currency of which the bouncers of all people are the de facto central bankers.

It may be that status is always trying to wash itself of the taint of the money or the primitive accumulation, as Marxists call it, to which it is ultimately traceable. People with status want to close off the route they took to acquire it, protect their place on the perch, so always there is the effort to make status ineffable, a matter of subtle distinctions and elusive signifiers of style. Status must obfuscate its origins; it must seem inevitable and inborn, a matter of blood. But in order to maintain that illusion, would-be aristocrats need to hire gatekeepers, like these club bouncers -- in other words, you still need muscle, an authority that arbitrates what is stylish and what isn't, and enforces the distinction so you don't have to dirty your own hands. The effortlessness, the sprezzatura of the stylish is enabled by minions.

Conspicuous consumption is only a clumsy first step toward a different sort of command over social resources, one which can mobilize large pools of labor devoted to nothing more than protecting your status. An entire bureaucracy of status workers are made necessary by the need to keep social and cultural capital distinct from money, comprising not just bouncers but designers and editors and trend spotters (the ideological bouncers) as well as the more traditional types of servants, the personal assistants and the groomers and so forth.

Status laundering calls for a delicate balance. This bureaucracy must be ceded enough power (or cultural capital) to make status distinctions credible, real, efficacious, but it can't have enough power to acquire too much status for its own ranks. The bouncers can't get the idea to let themselves into the club.

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