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Sociologist Thorsten Veblen, author of the book The Theory of the Leisure Class, coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe the action of going out of your way to spend more money on goods than they are worth. Conspicuous consumers spend money ostentatiously on expensive things to gain the envy and admiration of others. They believe impressing other people this way improves their social standing and reputation.

Veblen wrote that many people buy luxury products for what they symbolize to their betters, peers, and lessers

He said the purchase of luxury products has three outcomes

  • The Bandwagon Effect. Demand for a product increases because others are buying the product. Today we see this effect among social media lemmings.
  • The Snob Effect. Demand for a product decreases because too many are buying. By the time most people are aware of a fashion, the leaders have moved on to the next thing.
  • The Veblen Effect. Counterintuitively for many of us, sometimes demand for a product increases because it has a higher price.

Veblen went on to say “Inherent in all three effects is the idea that luxury products need to be visible to others and recognizable as high-priced goods that confer status on those who can afford to buy them.”

Keeping up with the Joneses

Not long after the publication of Veblen’s book, a new comic strip appeared in the New York Globe. The title, Keep Up With The Joneses, referred to the tendency of some people to judge their social standing by comparing it with the neighbors’.

Keep Up With The Joneses made fun of social climbers, people desperately wanting others to think of them as higher on the ladder of success than they really are. The comic featured the adventures of a family vainly trying to keep up with their well-to-do neighbors, the Joneses. The strip was so popular that the term passed into general usage. This idiom now refers to how some status-seeking people buy things they cannot afford in an effort to convince others that they’re more wealthy, sophisticated, or popular than they really are.

Status

Our status is our position or rank relative to others. Our social status is how much prestige we have and how much admiration and respect we get from others. Social climbers and status seekers desperately want others to think of them as having a higher status than they do.

Status seekers

The wealthy display their status with clothes, handbags, shoes, wristwatches, sunglasses, luggage, and more because makers of these items use easily recognizable logos and designs. The thinking here is that mere mortals are not capable of recognizing quality, but they can be shown what it is with a label and/or design. The more expensive the product, the greater the importance of instant recognition, hence the logos and proprietary designs.

Many societies categorize and rank people according to their socioeconomic status (SES)

Our socioeconomic status is measured by a composite score that is determined mostly by our education, occupation, and income. On the top tier are the educated and wealthy people who hold prestigious positions. When societies rank people from high to low, that’s social stratification.

The military is a stratified society

 One’s rank is clearly displayed by the insignia that are worn for all to see. There are a dozen tiers for enlisted personnel, most of them some form of private, corporal, or sergeant. There are eleven tiers for officers, from lieutenant to general. The same hierarchy holds true for issuing and obeying orders. Military personnel are required to obey every order they’re given from someone with a higher rank. They can order around only those beneath their own rank.

The Brits have a stratified society

Theirs is most obvious at the very high end where titles, not military insignia, indicate one’s rank. At the top are the kings and queens, of course. Princes and princesses are next, followed by dukes and duchesses, marquesses and marchionesses, earls and countesses, viscounts and viscountesses, baron sand baronesses and lords and ladies. The ranks make a big difference to them, but they all consider themselves royals, and they all dress up and attended parties at the embassies.

The caste system is a stratified society

In the caste system, one’s social status can never change, which is why there are no Joneses to keep up with in India. The origin of India’s caste system is the Hindu practice of categorizing people by their occupations. Over time, the categorizing became hereditary. This way of segmenting divides society into groups based upon a person’s birth, like the Brits, but with an occupational variable thrown in. 

Hindu priests, warriors, and academics are at the top of the hierarchy

Beneath them are farmers, merchants, and artisans. Commoners, servants, and peasants are next, with only one group below them: the untouchables. Considered by others to be less than human, these unfortunate people are doomed to do the foulest jobs, generation after generation. Because they are considered unclean and impure by birth, untouchables are limited to performing such tasks as cleaning toilets, removing animal carcasses, and handing dead humans.

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Bonus

The industry preference for marketing luxury goods is to make the logo as prominent as possible. People who study such things say publicly visible goods generate the most awareness and word-of-mouth.

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