Overview: Status hierarchies are everywhere, and a basic vocabulary for analysis can go a long way. On this page, I’ll run through a few key terms and track the status currency and hierarchy of my own transition from 6th to 7th grade. I often ask students to do the same thing, which is an easy introduction to a complex topic.
Status: A measure of a person or group’s access to community resources. These include voice, recognition, and the ability to make decisions.
Status Ladder/Status Hierarchy: The power structure of a community. Our attempts to accurately outline levels of power inevitably oversimplifies the complex and fluid nature of human relationships. However, communities largely agree to certain tiers of status, and these tiers are key pillars of culture, identity, and conflict.
Flat Hierarchy: A hierarchy in which there is little distance between levels and thus little difference in status amongst community members. Resources are widely distributed, and the bottom is not that far from the top. Low-status individuals are not outcasts, and high-status individuals are not ultra-elite.
Vertical Hierarchy: A hierarchy in which the levels are far away from one another and resources are disproportionately given to the people at the top. Both low-status and high-status individuals are effectively untouchable by those in the middle.
Status Currency: The variables that determine an individual’s ranking within a community. For example, we might argue that the status currency of the American class system is composed of wealth, education, pedigree, influence, and professional freedom. Alternatively, the status currency of a terrifying prison might include the ability to procure illegal items, the ability to influence the guards, and the willingness to stab someone.
Social Mobility – The ability to move up or down a status ladder. If pedigree or race is a substantial component of status currency, social mobility will be limited.
Social Climbers – Individuals who are devoted to gathering status currency and moving up the status hierarchy, often at the sacrifice of their other values.
Social Elitists – Individuals at or near the top of the status hierarchy who defend their lofty positions by undermining any threats to the status quo.
Social Reformers – Individuals who work to change the status hierarchy and shift the status currency to allow for more social mobility and more equitable distribution of resources.
I went to sixth grade at Liberty Elementary school in Boise, Idaho. We had our popular kids and our oddballs, but realistically, everyone could join in during games of kickball and football at recess, and no one thought to audibly groan when new groups were announced for a class project. The kids who loved sports were friends with the kids who liked computers. Our hierarchy was relatively flat. This didn’t mean that popularity didn’t exist. It did, and it seemed glorious and wonderful, but in practice, it didn’t change a person’s daily routine or basic interactions.
Unfortunately, I will have to limit my analysis to the boys in my class. I assume that things were generally similar for the girls, but to be honest, I had very little exposure to their social lives. Our worlds hadn’t yet crashed together. For us, status currency was composed of the following:
1. Athletic ability (Luckily, kickball has a quick learning curve)
3. Sense of humor
4. Nintendo game collection
5. Nintendo ability (Had you beat Mike Tyson?)
6. Knowledge of the NBA (With a preference for the Bulls and Michael Jordan)
7. Fashion novelty (Hyper-Color and Bart Simpson t-shirts were big hits)
8. Access to food (The more Oreos in your bag, the more your tablemates were interested in you)
9. Card collection (Again, NBA ruled the day, though NFL cards were big too)
10. Inclusiveness (Who is invited to pizza party? Everyone! Hooray!)
11. Romantic success with girls (Meaning you had “gone out” with one, which often didn’t involve talking to them or acknowledging them, publicly or privately)
With the exception of athletic ability, all of these variables were pretty openly accessible to all of us. Cards and t-shirts were cheap. Nintendo games weren’t, but you could always rent them from Albertson’s and invite people over. All in all, I remember my sixth grade year fondly. It was a safe world. We were all known, by the teachers, by the custodian, and by each other’s parents. Thus, I was woefully unprepared for our graduation to EastJunior High, where the status currency experienced a tectonic shift, and I fell through a crack into the boiling lava.
Liberty Elementary was a block from my house. It has a massive field and two fun playgrounds. It was a small school in a small neighborhood. In stark, terrifying contrast, East Junior High was ten miles from my house, which meant that I had to be at the bus stop at 7 a.m. and ride with ninth graders who had the bodies and personalities of silver-backed gorillas. The 7th grade class was a combination of at least five elementary schools, which gave us a population of about six hundred students. There were massive hallways, a labyrinth of outbuildings and portables, and a general sense of chaos and enormity. I don’t think I ever saw anyone carry a bazooka or lead a hyena on a leash, but it would have fit the ambiance. We were on a trimester system, which meant that teachers didn’t always learn everyone’s name before you were shuffled off to the next module, and the coaches were as likely as the bullies to make fun of you. And if this bitter stew were not already adequately seasoned, throw in the the awkwardness and ugliness of puberty.
We, the innocent of Liberty Elementary, were presented with a new status ladder and new variables of status currency, which included:
1. Athletic ability
2. Perceived toughness (Whether the popular kids were actually deadly with their fists, it’s tough to say, but no one was willing to find out)
3, Willingness to take physical risks (From the mild risks of jumping off the bridge over the irrigation canal to the serious risks of drugs and alcohol)
4. Willingness to take behavioral risks (Including being rude to teachers, stealing books out of lockers, swearing in the hallway, etc. ad nauseum)
5. Fashion (With a major emphasis on expense. Nike Airs were big, as were NFL jackets. A popular kid once pointed out that a reviled outcast was the only person, besides myself, who had fake Tevas)
6. Romantic success with girls (Meaning varying degrees of sexual activity)
7. Exclusivity (The phalanx of the clique had emerged and conquered)
Some of my friends from Liberty were able to adapt to this new social code. Given the importance of exclusivity, they cut all ties to those of us who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt. They became social elitists, and we cast our eyes down as they passed us in the hallway. Despite the fact that the hierarchy was acutely vertical, social mobility was high. After all, you only needed to beat someone with a chair or punch a teacher to become respected. So of course, the worst among us were the social climbers, who clung to the elites like lampreys and attacked any of the little fish that strayed too close. These were the bullies, and they brutally enforced the hierarchy by humiliating (usually verbally, but sometimes physically) the underclasses. There was one or two girls who occasionally played the role of social reformer. They would write nice notes to the outcasts boys, perhaps out of pity, and they occasionally got after the bullies for their cruelty. I remember those girls as tireless heroes, and I will be forever grateful for their efforts, but their impact was otherwise small. After bouncing around from group to group, I landed amongst a group of boys who spent the lunch period playing some version of football. Our leader was known as “Wart.” I think he knew my name, but I can’t be sure. The anonymity of our group was one of its more attractive features.
I left East Junior High after 8th grade to go to Catholic high school. The status hierarchy there was flatter and the status currency more benign. While I hated Junior High with a white-hot passion, I appreciate what I learned there. Raw ambition and fear dominated the social culture, and I witnessed a lot of ugliness. It has underscored the importance of identifying and analyzing the factors of status. Because I understand the mechanisms involved, I can forgive everyone their youthful foolishness. I teach these terms directly to students now, and many have later told me that they helped them build a more supportive culture. I like to think that if I had known these terms as a 7th grader, I would have had, at the very least, an intellectual shield to protect my fledgling ego.