by Vance Packard: Longmans. 21s.
this book, another sociological critique of America’s middle class by one of its members, is not as well done as some of its predecessors—Mills’ White Collar, for example, or Whyte’s Organisation Man. For one thing, although Packard, a journalist rather than sociologist, writes with the characteristic liveliness of his profession (sample chapter heading—‘Snob Appeal = Today’s Home Sweet Home’), it is actually, for long stretches, rather dull. The central chapters are largely built out of lists of anecdotes and quotations. Secondly, despite the imposing list of sociologists and social investigations which Packard proudly cites (“Political sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia University has summed up . . . .”, “The Institute for Sex Research has found that . . . .”, and so on), he does not himself evaluate the evidence very critically. A quote from a former antique dealer in Newtown, Connecticut, a builder in Detroit, or a housewife in Dallas, is treated as proof that things are as bad as they say they are. Scholarly evidence which runs counter to Packard’s argument, like that of Bendix and Lipset on mobility into business leadership, is ignored.
So it would be a mistake to think that The Status Seekers is an ‘objective’ appraisal of modern America. It is not, and things are nothing like as black as Packard paints them. But the important thing is that the trends he describes are real enough—you can already see many of them here in Britain—and in his opening and closing chapters, where he separates out the different threads of social change, he is perceptive and convincing.
About the general argument, too, there can be no doubt. Packard’s opening question is whether prosperity ushers in the classless society. In a society where, despite great differences in income and wealth, there is little real poverty; where there are cars and refrigerators, washing machines and television sets, cine cameras and garbage disposers in profusion; where the ‘mass media’ feed millions of homes at all social levels; where large-scale production makes it increasingly difficult to ‘place’ someone by his or her clothes —in such a society do snobbishness and status distinctions decline?
The answer, of course, is No. As prosperity increases, it apparently becomes more, not less, important for people to mark themselves off as superior to their fellows. As a result, according to Packard, two related things are happening. First, people are striving for status more anxiously than ever. Second, social and ethnic differences are increasingly being stressed, class lines sharpening, the barriers to social mobility rising. The first trend is plain enough, though, as I say, not to the extent Packard suggests. The truth about the second seems more complicated; I would say that class is taking new forms, that there are new rigidities, in American society.
What seems to me important about all this is not whether in detail Packard is right or wrong, but that some of the trends he describes are paralleled here. Let me list four of the main ones.
1. The Rise of Advertising. In America advertising and salesmanship stand at the pinnacle of business, offering the highest financial rewards. They are, surely, reaching a similar supremacy in Britain—the manipulation of sales is becoming more important than the manipulation of production. Along with this goes the growing influence of advertising on people’s lives. We do not know how much, in fact, people are affected by what they see or read in advertisements, and it would be foolish to imagine, as Packard seems to, that they swallow them whole. And yet the pressure is intensifying and British advertising following American in seeking more and more to exploit and intensify status anxiety—from ‘Blue Band, the luxury margarine for your new refrigerator’ to ‘Top People read The Times’.