Competing Through Consumption: Cultural Capital and Costly Signals
A response to The Logic of Stupid Poor People by Tressie McMillan Cottom
After reading ‘The Logic of Stupid Poor People’ I felt compelled to write a response. This is not so much a critique (although I do disagree with one or two points in Tressie’s post) as the presentation of what I hope is a complementary perspective. My personal and academic experiences, and even the body in which I have had these experiences, have given me a way of looking at the world that is different from Tressie’s, yet I have encountered and sometimes obsessed about the same issues of dress, mannerisms, patterns of consumption, and other signals of belonging or superiority that can determine access to certain social and material goods.
As someone with a background in behavioural and evolutionary anthropology, I am always suspicious of claims that people act rationally. That is to say, whilst their behaviours often lead to advantageous outcomes (how we measure these is an issue I won’t get into here, but wealth and status can often enough act as a good proxy for more direct measures such as offspring surviving to reproductive age), people’s reasons for carrying them out are more likely to be intuitive and emotional than reasoned and rational. I don’t doubt that a lot of people, including Tressie and her mother, do think about the specific impact that particular items they buy will have on ‘gatekeepers’ with whom they need to interact. Others, I think, buy expensive items firstly because they desire them, and beneath that to fight against feelings of inadequacy and inequality, as knee jerk expression of guilt, as an aspirational act aiming towards pride. Kanye West says it all in the song 'All Falls Down’ from ‘The College Dropout’:
“I’m so self conscious/ that’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches… we buy a lot of clothes but we don’t really need ‘em/ things we buy to cover up what’s inside/ ‘cause they made us hate ourself and love their wealth”.
‘The College Dropout’ expresses an alternative reaction to Tressie’s when faced with “aping the white male privileged life of the mind”, that of disillusionment. It is the realisation that your aspirations, and those your parents have for you, are not necessarily based on your own aims and desires, but on proving your worth to others (the white male and privileged) by demonstrating that you can pursue and achieve their goals and assimilate yourself into their model of society (c.f. gay people who oppose gay marriage).
Given the plethora of immediate motivations for buying (or proximate determinants for the expression of buying behaviour), it’s worth trying to find 'ultimate’ explanations for why our minds are set up to make apparently useless purchases that display wealth. There is a theory as to why animals often invest effort and energy on displays such as energetically leaping up and down in front of predators (“stotting”), growing large, colourful plumage, and making noisy mating calls. Zahavi’s 'handicap theory’ relies on the idea that these displays are acting as honest, costly signals of an animal’s ‘quality’ (however that is measured), since only individuals in the best health, with the strongest genes for their environment, can afford to use their hard-won energy on these sometimes risky displays (having a set of huge, colourful tail-feathers like a peacock makes you more obvious to predators and makes it harder to get away) instead of focussing that energy on staying alive.
The literature is mostly about males of various species procuring mating opportunities, or about females finding rich partners (so-called ‘hypergamy’), but when talking about humans there are several other potential outcomes. I’m thinking particularly in terms of Randolph Nesse’s version of social selection;, in which pro-social qualities evolve as people choose to have dealings with others who are trustworthy or good to cooperate with in other ways, and less social individuals die out because they miss out on the benefits of exchange and collective action.
Oxford’s Professor of Theoretical Biology Alan Grafen; has done the sums, and it seems that after a system of ‘costly signals’ has evolved, there is a diminishing marginal cost of making costly displays as your ‘quality’ increases, so that for the highest quality individuals, costly displays make little impact on their chances of survival, whereas for those lower down the risk of death is too great to justify costly signalling for the chance of a mating opportunity. My undergraduate supervisor used the example of taking a girl out to dinner at an expensive restaurant (perhaps a generational thing, since I can’t remember taking out anyone who didn’t want to go Dutch since I dated an American back in 2010). If you’re rich, you can afford to do it any day of the week; the native lobster with root vegetables and homardine sauce is an honest signal of your ability to provision your potential mate.
If you’re poor, on the other hand, you might be able to get away with it once or twice, but the relative cost is far too high for this to be a stable mating (or dating) strategy, and your ruse will soon be seen through. I could discuss this example at great length and point out all the other problems, but that would be a whole different article. The interesting part comes in when you look at the graph Grafen has produced to show the decreasing marginal cost of displays as individual quality increases: it is a (rather right skewed) U shape. What does this mean? My suggestion, which my supervisor at the time didn’t seem to like much, is that you end up with three strategies that display only two phenotypes (observable behaviours or physical traits). Those at the very bottom are of such low quality that if they conserve their energy for survival they will still lose out to those in the middle, as well as those signalling away almost effortlessly at the top. Their only option is to gamble everything on making what costly signals they can, hoping they’ll luck out and meet a sexy member of the opposite sex whilst looking at their best.
This could well explain why some very poor people spend money on clothes and accessories at the expense of what would normally be considered necessities, whereas the lower middle classes may be much less ostentatious in their purchases. Poor people perceive that their chances of success (in whatever field) are lower than those of the slightly less poor if they follow the beaten path, but, partly encouraged by high profile successes in the media, they also see that they can appear to be of much higher socio-economic-status at select occasions, and, being intelligent animals, can even choose which occasions are the best on which to take such risks. If you think about it, we all do this, saving our best clothes for special events where we might meet important people, or tailoring our outfits depending on who we are meeting on any particular day.
Risky behaviour is often found among the poorest, and is associated with realistic perceptions of the life prospects of people in deprived areas. For instance, murder rates associated with conflict over resources or status are highest in the areas of cities like Chicago where life expectancy is lowest (controlling for the effect of those murders themselves), which is generally interpreted as reflecting the need to take risks and make short term investments in an environment where you might not be around to reap the rewards of long term investments or enjoy that little bit of money set aside after years of frugality.
If you do want to gain acknowledgement and access by buying, expensive is not enough. In fact buying garish expensive items is counteractive, and is probably the reason people like Errol Louis tweet in horror at the thought of poor people buying $2500 handbags. It’s not quite the same, but something of the feeling is captured in TS Eliot’s attitude towards “a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire”: the established classes are less offended or frightened by the fact that the nouveau riche are rich than by the fact that they do not enact ‘rich’ in the established way. They threaten the identity of the old rich by creating a new ‘rich’ identity through consumer choices. The nouveau riche can do this because they have the funds and power to fly in the face of the old rich. For the poor(er), however, the threat represented by their consumption of expensive goods is more likely to result in conflicts with ‘gatekeepers’ that they will lose.
The ‘gatekeepers’ themselves are not necessarily aware of what they are doing, or what they are really judging when they make what they may think are purely aesthetic judgements, such as whether or not it is acceptable to wear a cotton tank-top instead of a silk ‘shell’ (is that an American term? I thought they were called slips, or does that only refer to an under-dress, not an undershirt? Evidently I too would have failed the job interview, were I this woman) under a blouse. On this point, I suspect that the offending interviewee whom Tressie talks about was just as likely to be ignorant of this particular fashion rule as to be unable to afford it. It all comes back to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital;: the privileged classes are brought up to share various values and to speak a certain language, replete with references to a common ‘culture’, a common education, common experiences, and common places of activity including shops, restaurants and educational establishments. This shared frame of reference, embodied as ‘habitus’ in even the smallest gestures and choices, means that two people can tell very quickly that they are in some sense of the same sort, and that there is at least a space for communication between them. One can quite literally say to the other “I know where you’re coming from”.
A concrete example might be useful here, so here is an analysis of an incident in which I was forced to confront my own snobbery. I remember once experiencing a strong spike of anger on seeing a boy wearing a black tie at a black-tie event. It was confusing, and I soon afterwards felt like a bit of a knob, but on seeing the offending article I felt challenged. I felt that it was an act of aggression, a decision to flout the accepted rules of dress and to critique the exclusiveness of the event and the arbitrary social rules we were all agreeing to, thereby implicitly indicating that we occupied the same sort of world, could operate on the same level, had a certain shared set of experiences and identity. By turning up in a black tie and swanning around as if nothing was wrong, he drew back the curtain in front of the projectionist and revealed that the dress code was not a universal law of nature, just a semi-arbitrary formality, the relic of those long gone times when the observance of social niceties could prevent the outbreak of war or mitigate the risk of being challenged to a duel. Of course, he had just not known. How dare I be offended by this guy who just didn’t usually go to these sorts of parties? Then again, had he never seen people wearing dinner suits in a film, or on television? Why didn’t he google it? Didn’t he think it was weird that the invite had asked him to wear a particular colour of tie usually reserved for funerals? Who gives a fuck? Me, obviously, although I should add that at some point during the evening the two of us had a very interesting conversation about films or something whilst knocking down an obscene number of absinthe based cocktails. My questionable reaction was at least easily overcome.
This example relates to a very specific manner of dress appropriate to a very specific set of situations, but the principle is widely applicable: if you attempt to dress in a style that is not your own, your ignorance will be obvious, and your attempt may be interpreted as an affront because you appear to be either ‘faking’, parodying, or subverting a mode of dress that forms part of somebody’s identity. Worse, you may simply highlight the differences in experience between yourself and the particular gatekeeper you need to convince of your worth. As Tressie noted, it is possible to be presentable in cheap clothes like those from Kmart, but this is a capitulation, not an attempt to appear as an equal. It is submission to a manner of dress that you do not really own or understand. There is little worse looking than a cheap suit, especially one that is worn wrong. Without the right knowledge, or intuition based on experience, the wearer of a suit doesn’t know why he is wearing these particular items of clothing, except that it is required of him (or her, although I think men seem to suffer worse with this particular problem). Therefore he doesn’t look good in it, doesn’t pick the right cut or style, and looks unnatural and uncomfortable.
Clothing worn like this, usually for work, looks like a costume. It speaks of resentment – the wearer is fulfilling the bare minimum requirement in order to be accepted by those for whom this mode of dress feels more natural, and by doing so implies that he is only dressing under duress, that he is not fully invested in the same type of society as that of the suit-wearers, and is using a disguise in order to gain access to their resources in a utilitarian, temporary fashion. One of the most obvious (and unfair) examples of this attitude (or perceived attitude) is the wearing of those strange hybrid shoe/trainer things that usually have rubber soles and soft leather uppers. Although hideous, I imagine they are comfortable, and for those working borderline manual jobs as temps in office services etc (where I have mostly encountered this sort of thing) they are probably an extremely practical choice. The thing is, it looks like you’d rather be wearing trainers, as if you don’t really want to wear shoes at all, don’t see the point, but have to make some effort in that direction in order to be “presentable”.
But fitting in isn’t the only reason for dressing expensively. Spending what seems like an inappropriate amount on luxury items can be a way to say that you don’t want to be limited by day to day concerns. It can act as a rebellion against your own poverty and against being bogged down in the banalities of survival. It can also be a bold prediction of future success. I’ve certainly tended to spend this way, always on some level budgeting (or rather failing to do so) based on the anticipation of future earnings rather than on my current liquidity. In this way spending may be aspirational, an expression of your hopes rather than a reflection of your situation. This is not necessarily a foolish attempt to count chickens before they’ve hatched. By dressing the part, others may assume or acknowledge that you are the part, you can make contacts and friends with the right connexions or experience to help you get there. In a simpler expression of Tressie’s job interview scenarios: if you turn up to a job interview dressed as a professional earning x thousand a year, it’s easier for the interviewer to see you as a professional earning x thousand a year.
But somehow I’ve got back on to ‘pretending’. Pretending is a lot easier now than it used to be. You can look up all the correct ways of dressing and behaving on the internet, although uncritical surfing can lead to the wholesale adoption of antiquated or overly fastidious codes of dress (particularly amongst Americans) so that in the end you start looking askance at other people who don’t realise that their ties have the ‘wrong’ sort of knot or who combine green umbrellas with black shoes. For many, however, pretending isn’t a viable option. It’s obvious, for instance, if your accent and your clothing don’t match (on the topic of which, how has Tressie’s mother ended up speaking Queen’s English when coming from the rural South of the USA?). Actually I take that back, thinking of Essex boys in three-pieces (too smart?) who shouted and threw 50s at me when I worked on the bar at the Royal Ascot, or Sir Alan Sugar, in certain fields a working class accent fits perfectly with the standard status symbols of the old rich.
Perhaps the difficulty only applies if you’re not white, especially if you speak what is currently being called polylingual urban vernacular speech, in which case pretence or “aping” is assumed, and the only way to option is to display status using your own symbols (and here I run the risk of talking about ‘bling’ from a position of relative ignorance) or to “ma[k]e their language our own” by subverting traditional styles and items into forms that can express a different sort of identity. Think Ozwald Boateng, anticipating the (most recent) transformation of the suit from a sober symbol of conformity to a loud, proud ejaculation of personal style and eccentricity by over a decade. Either of these tactics constitutes a threat to ‘gatekeepers’ and those who live behind their gates, although there are well worn practices (as generations of avant garde artists have discovered) that result in the eventual assimilation of the outré into the establishment. In the first instance, an alternative set of values is created, and goals are achieved through a different pathway than that of education and employment (the path eventually chosen by Kanye). This offers a directly conflicting set of goals, roles and role models, challenging the model of virtue endorsed by the establishment. You end up with a group whose status symbols may be essential within the circles in which they move, and may help them to access certain privileges and even fabulous wealth, whilst at the same time barring them from other sorts of privileges that lie in the hands of another group, one that does not recognise this set of costly signals of worth as valid. The result is mutual suspicion and misunderstanding across a social divide. ‘Gatekeepers’ are scared because they see something they do not understand: evidence of wealth and success, but in an inappropriate medium, invested, for example, in articles of clothing that were once (and still are?) associated with poverty, such as sneakers and snapback caps.
Can the gap be bridged? At first I was inclined to think so, considering the adoption of ‘black’ styles by affluent white student, graduate and entrepreneur types (I don’t think I mean ‘hipsters’, some elements are far from niche tastes among white people). But then I wondered whether this was another sort of ‘pretending’, the wearing of a costume which could quickly be thrown away, like the ponytail of Tressie’s imaginary ageing hippie (c.f. genderqueer people who are against men who do ‘drag’ for fun). Worse, it can be a kind of style occupation, following the pattern of urban gentrification, in which ‘genuine’ poor people have to up sticks to less central, cheaper parts of town as art students &c move in to live the bohemian life (a sad fact, given that these are the members of the privileged classes who are potentially the most sympathetic to the very people they marginalise by trying to copy). Thus, marginalised groups can be chased off of their own cultural territory. This happens all the time in music, with innovation particularly in black music arising as artists try to make sounds that will not appeal to the current mainstream. The journey of grime music from council estates and basement raves into the British pop music charts is a textbook example of this process.
I wanted to end with a prediction, or some suggestions as to how the situation could be improved, but in the end I’ve come up with nothing. Addressing social and economic inequality would, as always, be welcome, but telling people to be thrifty in a world where wealth and luxury are so visible and so strongly idolised is unbelievably patronising. It betrays a naïve understanding of how wealth, privilege, and self-worth are accrued, and a tacit complicity in the restriction of aspirations to a limited model of personal and economic development.