Sociologists have written a lot about “economic, social, and cultural capital.” One sociologist suggests adding a new category: “erotic capital“:
Even some academics are waxing poetic about the hidden value of sexual prowess. Sociologist and London School of Economics professor Catherine Hakim, author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, believes that “erotic capital” is the fourth human asset, in addition to economic, social and cultural capital.
She defines it broadly as physical and social attractiveness, and says that flirting is one manifestation. “Charisma often includes flirting, when appropriate,” Hakim says, “and these days even CEOs are expected to display charisma.”
While the rest of this post is about “flirting gone wrong,” I wonder how other sociologists would view the idea of “erotic capital.” People have some control over their looks, particularly if they have money (which often enables better health care), but it is also predetermined. Additionally, there is pressure to conform to culturally-specific standards of beauty. All of us are socialized into particular patterns of attractiveness which could range from being well-mannered to flirtatious and dressy to roguish.
There are quite a few studies that discuss the effects of being attractive. I don’t recall Goffman’s dramaturgical work mentioning much about “physical or social attractiveness.” While such studies did account for power dynamics, certainly attractiveness plays some role in interaction. Can attractiveness be enough to overcome deficits in other areas of capital or would it be in fourth place in terms of importance about the types of capital?
One frustrating aspect of political coverage is the common emphasis on the appearance of politicians. This is particularly common in stories about female politicians: the story often has to start with a quick summary of how (appropriate or fashionable) they look. Perhaps this is to be expected in a culture that prizes attractiveness and youth. But this emphasis can cross gender lines. Just consider this summary of Mitch Daniels found in the third paragraph of a story in a recent edition of Newsweek:
If you’ve heard anything about Indiana’s very slight, very balding, very unimposing governor—and that’s a big if—it’s probably just the opposite: that he couldn’t possibly win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and that even if he did, his chances of defeating Obama in the general election would be close to nil. The reasons, they say, are many. At 5 feet 7 (in boots), Daniels is shorter than Obama’s 12-year-old daughter, Malia. His rather uninspiring demeanor—reticent, stiff, and slightly skittish, with darting eyes and long blanks between words—better suits a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, which he happens to be, than a leader of the free world. And his comb-over is borderline delusional. As conservative journalist Andrew Ferguson recently put it, “I see [Daniels] as he strides toward the middle of the stage to shake hands with Obama before the first debate and comes up to the president’s navel. Election over.”
There are lots of reasons you could disagree with Mitch Daniels – the story goes on to discuss some of these points. But what do his height, “uninspiring demeanor,” and hair have to do with his ability to govern?
The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look at how the attractiveness of professors affects their career. Some of the highlights of the article:
Research shows that attractive people do better in life. They are treated better by teachers, doctors, even strangers, and are more likely to be hired and promoted than those who are less attractive. But in academe, being hot has a downside: Professors who are considered too good-looking can be cast by their peers as lightweights, known less for their productivity than for their pulchritude…
Although research shows that students give better teaching evaluations to professors they think are attractive, good looks can also be a burden in the classroom.
An interesting factor to keep in mind when assessing student evaluations.