How Nightclub Bouncers Use Status Cues To Gatekeep Exclusive VIP Clubs
Excerpt (via Lauren Rivera @ Kellogg)
Sociologists have been studying the dynamics of power relations in social life for decades. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu saw that society was not only stratified by wealth, but also by symbols of status—the valued estimation of one’s honor and worth. Status distinctions between people can create sustaining inequalities by excluding those deemed as lower status from positions of prestige. Through surveys and experiments, sociologists have identified cues people use to evaluate status. The cues include one’s social class, social circles, displays of wealth, gender, race, accent, and taste in food and art. Through interviews, one study in 1992 found that Americans consider strong moral character a sign of high status, whereas the French are more apt to deem museum attendance a telling signal.
“Bouncers are status judges who make hundreds of status decisions every night. They do it by having hundreds of patrons line up and on the basis of very little information, they size up who will be an esteemed customer,” Rivera says.
Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too. Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist.
Bouncers weighed each cue differently. Social network mattered most, gender followed. For example, a young woman in jeans stood a higher chance of entrance than a well-dressed man. And an elegantly dressed black man stood little chance of getting in unless he knew someone special.
Like all status cues, those used by bouncers serve to divide people. Status distinctions determine who gets what, and as such, they create inequalities. At a nightclub, the distinction between Prada and Levi’s can determine who hobnobs with the upper echelon. But in other contexts, an equally superficial distinction may, for example, determine who gains acceptance at a yacht club or Harvard. Various studies have found that people marked as low status are given fewer opportunities, encouraged less, evaluated more harshly, and often perform worse over time as a result of their frustration. In her manuscript Rivera writes, “Status distinctions between actors, which may initially occur on the basis of minor or even trivial distinctions, rapidly create powerful and durable systems of inequality.” They maintain the status quo.