In the wake of the release of his new book Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe talks about his “sociological approach to writing”:
On his sociological approach to writing
“This attention to status … started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn’t have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, ‘Hey, here’s the key. Here’s the key to understanding life and all its forms.’ And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you’re by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching … It’s only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.”
If you have read any of Wolfe’s novels, you know his characters are constantly worried about status: what do people think of me? In The Bonfire of the Vanities , Sherman McCoy starts at the top of the world as a bond trader but the story traces his path to the bottom as he loses his job, his family, and, most importantly, his previous status as “Master of the Universe.” On the other side, the title character in I Am Charlotte Simmons comes from a more humble background and has to learn how to negotiate within an elite university.
Weber built upon Marx’s ideas about the means and modes of production by adding the dimension of status. Marx argues social class was determined by economic factors; you either had access to and control of economic resources or not. But Weber suggested status, or prestige, was also tied up with economic resources. Thus, one might be high status but relatively lower on the economic ladder or vice versa. An example of this in today’s society would be a measure of occupational prestige where Americans are asked to rate different occupations on a prestige scale from 1-100. Here is one such table from Harris Interactive in 2009:
Firefighters don’t make the most money nor do nurses but both are considered more prestigious, probably because they involve caring for people. In contrast, look at the bottom of the list: occupations where the actors may be perceived as looking more for money or their own interests are considered less prestigious.
If you want to read more on the connection between Tom Wolfe, sociology, and the concept of status, Joel Best wrote an interesting 2001 piece titled “‘Status! Yes!’: Tom Wolfe as a Sociological Thinker. I also wonder if there isn’t a hint of Goffman in Wolfe’s work as well. What he describes above also could play out through the concept of impression management and the constant need to change our behavior to fit the changing social situations.