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The Importance of Status in Culture

The Impact of Status on Poverty Culture I remember an old traveler complaining to me once in the jungles of Peru about how he could not believe it when the people there would build concrete houses to live in. Apparently, after 20 years of world travel, jungle people living in concrete houses had not yet made it [...]

The Impact of Status on Poverty Culture

I remember an old traveler complaining to me once in the jungles of Peru about how he could not believe it when the people there would build concrete houses to live in. Apparently, after 20 years of world travel, jungle people living in concrete houses had not yet made it into his paradigm of what is appropriate for the climate. He wailed about how concrete houses were hotter than those made of local materials, about how they were ugly, dark, expensive, and offered no advantages over the other cooler and more efficient homes constructed for from bamboo, wood, sticks, beams, and planks, with roofs woven from palapa leaves.

I sat and listened. I was a new traveler, maybe 20 years old. I listened to a lot of people in those days. I began repeating this rant about concrete houses in the tropics, I called these concrete houses made from imported materials status symbols, though I did not recognize then the value of such symbolism.

American flag on a pickup truck in El Salvador

Concrete houses in Guatemala jungle

“The house made of wood in the front is just my kitchen, my home is behind it. It is made of concrete,” a Maya friend spoke to me in the jungles of Guatemala. He wanted to be sure that I did not think his home was made of sticks and plank boards like all of the other houses of the local people on the Rio Tatin, he wanted to be sure that I knew that his house was constructed from concrete.

“Wasn’t it more expensive to make your home from concrete?” I asked knowing the response.

“Yes, of course,” my friend nodded.

Of the indigenous homes on the river, his was the only one that I have observed that was made from concrete. Many elites from Guatemala City have concrete summer homes along the Rio Dulce, but the local people tend to still live in homes constructed from local materials — which seem to have a surprisingly long lifetime. Except for my friend, who seemed proud of his home, it truly meant something that it was not made from jungle fodder, that it was made from the prime building material of the modern age: concrete cinder blocks and rebar.

His home seemed to be a show of his status — as a young man working one of the better available jobs on the river — of which he seemed proud.

El Salvador + Remittances = Status Symbols

El Salvador is suppose to be the second poorest country in the Americas, falling right above Haiti. I walked down the streets there and saw more $20,000 pickup trucks than perhaps anywhere in the Americas south of Mexico. I have been told repeatedly in El Salvador that, “nobody works here,” but most people here seem well fed, and how does so many people afford their expensive goodies if nobody is working?

I took all the stories of poverty in El Salvador to mean that the people there were living hand to mouth. Upon further inquiry, it became clear that many of these people were receiving remittances from family members in the USA, and were not living hand to mouth, but, rather, hand to store.

These remittances sent home from Salvadorans working abroad act as an invisible hand providing the people of a country with proper sustenance and, for many, the ability to buy status symbols — pickup trucks, televisions, furniture sets, cell phones etc . . .

The amount of money in remittances sent to El Salvador from the USA equals the Salvadoran government’s annual budget, but little of this money stays in the hands of the people who receive it for very long. “It is a problem here,” I was told, “all of the money that is sent here is quickly spent. None of it is saved.”

New furniture and large screen televisions abound. The money comes in, the money goes out — El Salvador culture may be the ultimate economic stimulus plan.

Many agriculturalist come up from Latin America and work their bodies into the ground — often times living in emotional and physical discomfort — so they can make money to support their families at home. I grew up around migrant workers, I’ve worked with them as well. Many that I have talked to pride themselves on what they enabled their families to buy back in their home countries. In this way, their status is raised in their community, and many seem to find a sense of value in themselves that they are able to provide for their people. Their toil is viewed as accomplishment — not measured in what they have, but in what they give — and they are respected for it.

“Typically, an older brother can tell the younger ones what to do,” a friend told me in El Salvador, “but if a younger brother makes it to the USA and is able to send money home to support the family he becomes the head of the household.”

In Africa, money is for buying cellphones

“In Africa, money is for buying cellphones,” my friend Andy Hobotraveler.com once told me. I remember a photo on his site of a hotel cleaning boy in Burkina Faso — one of the poorest countries in the world — who was walking around with a rag of a t-shirt, ratty shorts, no shoes, a bucket and mop in his hand. He also had a cellphone from which he was listening to pop music. This photo was taken a number of years ago, and was then an anomaly, but now scenes like these are not uncommon throughout the world.

Migration to capital city to buy status symbols

I was working at a lodge in the jungles of Guatemala last year and one of my coworkers — a young local, indigenous guy — told me how he went to Guatemala City to work for a while. Many of the kids do from where he is from, which is one of the poorest regions of the country. While working in the capital he saved up his paychecks every month just to purchase a very expensive smart phone.

Almost without saying, one of the first times he flashed this new status symbol out in the streets of Guatemala City he got a knife to his throat and an ultimatum: “Your phone or your life.” As such, his status symbol was passed on to another.

Very, very rarely do people steal food or other necessities. Unless expensive, fine, expensive, or rare, food is not a status symbol, and is therefore if of little appeal.

What does status represent?

Status, as is symbolized through possessions, is nearly as essential as food, water, and shelter. Once the bare essentials for life are satisfied, there is a global deference towards gaining symbols of status rather than bettering these basic essentials. This is the same in the rural backwaters and inner-city ghettos of the USA as it is in Guatemala, El Salvador, and India. Status symbols mean something deep in poor places, they are not frivolous purchases, but well planned social navigation aids.

The power to purchase expensive items shows success in poor communities, and the recognition of success is often showered with respect. To accomplish what most people in a community try but cannot do often implies that a person has underlying abilities which enabled them to be successful. The poor, in a general sense, struggle for money, so coming from such a social setting and gaining wealth shows a major accomplishment. Humans automatically order our communities with a ranking system that adhere to each member’s abilities, and rank is awarded with respect.

A status symbol in and of itself is not a thing of value, but what that status symbol says about the owner is.

Status is determined in different ways in different social sectors, in different classes, but it is always the same game. I am a traveler, and therefore my community finds little status in possessions. Rather, we dole out status on the basis of our travel records, our knowledge, and experience. If we are webmasters, then its success is part of our respect granting algorithms. It is normal for humans to devise ranking systems for various activities, and the better you are the more respect you earn in the social sectors that value such skills and knowledge.

I am sure that I would not be shit if plunged into a community of lawyers, but put me with a bunch of travelers and I will claim my rightful place in the group. Chuck a lawyer in with us and we will shoot him down to the bottom rung rather quickly. Status of individuals change in accordance to social setting. A successful drug dealer from some American ghetto may use gold teeth, jewelry, and cars as a way of showing his rank, but send him out to the rural Midwest and his status symbols all of a sudden lose meaning.

The benefit of status symbols

[adsense]The idea that other people look up to you is an essential part of building a strong self-concept. The struggle to better this concept often wins out over common sense, logic, clever planning for the future, and is sometimes very counterintuitive and even detrimental.  The struggle to feel good about yourself often provides the impetus for people to work hard, toil, and strive to be better than what you are today.

Humans are tribal, pack animals, and inherently rank and file everyone in our groups away into their proper position. Elevating position within the group — or feeling like you do so — is an essential part of being human. Remove status from the game and you also take away the impetus behind the will to succeed or the drive to accomplish great feats or, often, the will to improve your lot in life. Where there is no signs of status there is no drive to improve on your condition. Socialism, one of the greatest human experiments showed this clearly, told everyone that they were fine and needed nothing more, and thus creating the largest mass of under-motivated people the world perhaps ever known. “Nothing worked under the Communists,” I was told over and over again when traveling through the old Soviet bloc.

Status symbols are not frivolous objects to disregard as being impertinent, they are often the essential motivating elements which drive people to better their lives in relation to their community. The drive for status symbols is strong, the urge to mark a higher social position for yourself drives deep into the heart of our biological ensemble. Humans look for visual signs to classify our surroundings, and placing the people around us is no different. To have a concrete house my friend in Guatemala worked hard at a hotel, for a cell phone a young Maya man went to toil in the capital city,  to provide their families with basic necessities, higher education, and status symbols thousands of foreign workers slave away in the lowest sectors of US employment. If the people of the world only shot as far as basic sustenance, if the carrot of obtaining status symbols was not always dangling before our  faces, if there was no respect to be gained from completing great feats, doing better than your neighbor, in showing off your accomplishments, then what would be the point of trying?

[traveldeals]

I feel fulfilled in my days because I feel as if I am building something daily that I am respected for, I feel as if I am cultivating my status within my particular community. People are often mocked for chasing status, but I feel that this is one of the driving points of success. For success is often nothing more than the feeling that people respect you in a certain community for excelling in a certain field. Status symbols tell people that you have gained a certain level success, a higher place in your community, and that you should be respected as such.

Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Economics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3424 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

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  • the candy trail ... Travel Adventures | Michael Robert Powell June 5, 2011, 6:55 am

    I will be purchasing the entire planet, next week … deal sealed; off course I expect some resistance to my grand scheme. But I figure I have enough shiny copper-one-cent coins banked to get there and will finally rule the world – by 2350 (assuming global beer stocks haven’t been exhausted) but if they do, then I concede defeat that I am a loser … sob; shriek.

    Til then … in search of societal status … the candy trail … seeking acclaim, since drugs were illegal

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    • Wade Shepard June 5, 2011, 8:56 pm

      Go for it, the mere attempt would get my respect haha. But I must say that already have top dog status within our traveling community — Mr.Century Club, two decades of travel haha.

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  • Jenna Makowski June 6, 2011, 8:49 am

    I love the perspective that you establish in this article – the idea of bringing certain paradigms (or, stereotypes) that we may have about a certain place or culture (what we think or assume it SHOULD be) into a dialogue with what is. And then using those disparities to come to a deeper understanding of place. I think that concrete houses reveal more about these communities than bamboo ones ever will – as long as you ask the right questions.

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    • Wade Shepard June 6, 2011, 9:00 am

      This is truly an absolutely clutch perspective to have while traveling in the “postmodern” world. If you have this perspective then everywhere you go becomes alive with subtle intrigue and wonderment. It is only when cultures borrow and take elements from other cultures that they grow. This has always been the case, and evidence for this stretches back as far as the earliest archaeological times. The “cultural imperialism” theory is completely defunct as far as I have observed: cultures that adapt and take influences from other cultures are those that tend to have the power to survive and grow.

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      • Jenna Makowski June 6, 2011, 9:23 am

        I completely agree. One thing I’ve found really interesting in my own travels is how, sometimes, particular “groups” within cultures (tourism boards, for example) want to give the impression of being attached to some (vague) concept of an unchanging tradition from the past (often partially, or even completely, fabricated in this “postmodern” world). As an example, just this morning, walking through the town square in Wroclaw, Poland, I encountered an outdoor bar (part of a larger outdoor festival) being manned by two women dressed in colorful “folk” costumes (flowered aprons and rings of flowers in the hair). And the tourists were snapping photos as if they were going to disappear tomorrow. While the rest of the city passed through the same center, wearing everything from tank tops to new-agey hippie skirts to cut-offs from H&M. How is it that this vast majority is somehow labeled as “less Polish” than those two barmaids in the costumes behind the bar? Yet, this image is granted so much importance; it’s somehow labeled as more “authentic”.

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        • Wade Shepard June 6, 2011, 10:10 am

          It is funny how the true authentic is often missed in searches for the “authentic.” Tourism sells a mock up front of a place, plants an expectation in people’s heads that they are after some silly tour brochure image of a place. I must find it a little ironic when travelers go looking for the “real” of a place and find it in local people in costume to have tourists take their photos. The authentic is now found, as Rolf Potts put it well, in the “random mundane.” It is an exciting world when you strip off your tourism blinders and start finding the subtle intricateness of cultures being mashed together.

          No tourism office is going to put up posters of India that has men in Nike shoes and women in casual business blouses; no travel agent is going to sell a place by saying that the people live in high rise apartments and watch Friends on DVD; you will not see Maya women in traditional dress chatting on cell phones on the Travel Channel, but these visions are the reality of our world. All too often, the paradigm of the authentic is a self fulfilling prophecy in many of the tourism circuits of the world. Foot binding is returning to parts of China, Burmese women are once again elongating their necks with gold rings, and Tibetans are ditching their grey slacks and sports jacket for the fur coats and boots that their grandparents once wore in the name of tourism. There is an industry behind giving tourists what they expect to see . . The traveler quickly learns to give up searching for exotic fairy tale lands and to accept places and people for what they are. It is this “isness” of a place that is the intrigue . . .

          I just wrote that in an article appearing in the first issue of Vagabond Explorer, and it falls right into what we are talking about.

          The example of Poland excellent.

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