There cannot be many topics more intriguing (or difficult) than social prestige. Somewhere in that loose concept lies an intersection at which social structure - with its complexities of hierarchy and function - is reinforced by custom, tradition, and ritual in a way that expresses much of the ethical and cultural system of a society. Careful measures of prestige, of who receives it and how it is assigned should simultaneously expose the iron scaffolding of power and the intricately woven velvet that covers and softens it in practice. And there is more, for a society's distribution of prestige can be a means of adapting to economic and social change, a reinforcement of or compensation for inequality that lessens some contradications and exacerbates others, that both justifies revolt and encourages acquiescence. The subject touches every aspect of social life, from the individual and the family to the state, from production to distribution, from ethics to achievement.
Prestige in 'traditional' societies
A classic example of prestige and its cultural expression is the potlatch of the Northwest Coast of North America. The potlatch attracted a great deal of attention from past generations of American anthropologists in part because it demonstrated a system of social organization and cultural value that contrasted with the U.S. culture. Indeed, this contrast was unsettling for many people in the United States and Europe, and was particularly frustrating for missionaries and others who hoped to convert Native Americans to a Western way of seeing the world.
At the core of the potlatch was the principle that one's prestige, and therefore one's social status, derives from generosity. Chiefs among groups like the Kwakiutl stored vast quantities of goods to give away at large feasts to which chiefs of neighboring and even quite distant groups were invited. These feast were the potlatches. At the potlatches, prestige was earned by the chief by giving more than he had received himself at the previous potlatches held by those in attendance. This demonstrated his great generosity. If guests were so overwhelmed that they could take no more while food and goods still remained, the extra would be thrown into the fire or tossed into the river. Attendees would then start to save in order to be able to host even grander feasts and give away even more presents in the future.
The system was based on a conception of wealth in which a chief's wealth was not measured by how much he kept to himself but by how much he gave away to other people. Prestige derived from this wealth. Giving away more than anyone was a tactic for attracting more respect and more power than anyone.
Another clear example of prestige playing a key role in society is the cargo system that has been so central to certain traditional cultures in Latin America. In Spanish, a 'cargo' is a charge. Two different senses of the word come together to give the word meaning in this context. A cargo is a burden that one must carry and care for. But it is also a position or office: a person with a cargo is in charge of something. In the cargo system, a person takes on a series of charges over a lifetime that grow in the importance and prestige of the office as well as the size of the burden that they represent.
A person might enter the cargo system in a role that demands very little and compensates the officeholder with very little prestige in return. But that person will take on a bigger job later on and will be rewarded with more prestige for his efforts. By the time a person reaches the highest levels of the cargo system - taking on financial and logistical responsibility for an entire town's patron saint festivities, for example - he is likely to be quite old and might well bankrupt himself in the process of completing his duties. But the great prestige that is derived from successfully taking on this charge is considered well worth the time, money and energy put into the job.
Prestige in 'modern' societies
Although the cases described above might seem very extreme in comparison to the role of prestige in modern societies, prestige continues to play a remarkably important role in societies today. Consider the reputation of prestigious universities: although such institutions are able to attract more financial resources and more well-known or influential faculty, they cannot do so only because of objective measures. Prestige continues to play an important role in how people view prominent universities. The process is cyclical. Large endowments and influential faculty bring a school prestige. In part because of this prestige, the schools attract more resources and more top-tier faculty. And because of their new resources and faculty, they gain even more prestige.
- Raymond Grew. 1981. Untitled Review. Journal of Social History 15(1):136-138.