We think we know a status symbol when we see one. A Rolex watch, a foreign car, opera tickets—we think of status as it relates to the trappings of the upper classes. But what about the jobs we have and the recognition we strive for? In his new book, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (Viking, Sept. 6), W. David Marx explores the inextricable relationship between status and culture: how our desire for status shapes our choices and what we value, which in turn affects our behaviors and what become cultural norms. In a starred review, a critic for Kirkus called the book “essential for anyone desiring a deeper understanding of status inequity.” Marx spoke to us via Zoom from Tokyo, where he lives. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your idea for this book come about?

I have been thinking about the question What is culture? for about 20 years now, and it’s such an ambiguous term. I was very frustrated with trying to analyze culture: what it is, where it comes from, and why it changes so often. I kept coming back to the concept of status, and, in understanding status, it really neatly organized things like taste, authenticity, identity, class, subcultures and countercultures, art, fashion, history. All of these things became part of the same macro phenomenon once you understood how status works. I really wanted to sit down and put all this information together into one book, because these things tend to be all over the place.

Is it generally more taboo to discuss status in the workplace or with friends and family?

Inside of a status group, such as within a company, in some ways status is very clear, because people have certain positions or titles. That being said, [it] creates a lot of conflict, because people want to make sure that their contributions are matched by those titles. In terms of talking about your status inside of a company, it’s so clear-cut that it’s less taboo, but it creates quite a bit of anxiety in that people constantly look at the people above them on this hierarchy and believe that those people are unfairly there and [that] they should be there instead. It’s a driving force of envy as well.

You write that the jobs of the creative class, to use Richard Florida’s term, earn more status benefits from these jobs than financial rewards.

Certainly, it’s a big critique of journalism and of editorial roles in particular that you often have to start as an unpaid intern—I worked as an unpaid intern for a couple months in New York when I was getting my start. There’s the question of who has the economic safety to take these positions, and that creates disproportionate advantages for people who are already wealthy and creates disparities that increase as you move up. But also, the people who are attracted to those positions seek some form of status, whether it’s the cultural capital of being in the know or being close to celebrities and tastemakers. Those are the benefits of those roles, along with having a job that lets you have personal creative expression rather than just doing tasks.

That being said, what’s interesting about the way that the economy has developed in the last 20 years or so is that some of those positions are better paid than people’s parents’ positions in serious upper-middle-class professions. You could be a graphic designer today and make way more money than your own parent who was an accountant or something like that. I think what’s been interesting about the creative class is that, sure, they do not have as much economic capital as people working in finance, but their general status position in society has risen because of this combination of pretty good economic capital, strong educational backgrounds, and the occupational capital that comes with proximity to art and celebrity.

Are there jobs or careers that have experienced a drastic change in the status associated with them in recent years?

The creative class has seen a huge rise over the last 30 years or so, especially when you add in tech as a kind of an auxiliary to that. So those industries are on the rise, and they’re extremely urban, extremely coastal. On the other side, there are the people whom Patrick Wyman calls the “American gentry”—people who, in places like Iowa or Oklahoma, own a fast-food franchise or a car dealership and have very high incomes relative to the average income of these places. They see themselves as very high status in those worlds. But there’s a lot of resentment when they turn on the TV and what is considered to be a high-status position tends to be coastal, creative-class, or finance positions. That conflict [over] what counts as high status is actually one of the things that’s really splitting America, because there isn’t broad agreement between these groups about who should be afforded respect and esteem. The rise of these positions has not simply changed the nature of the economy and society and how money is distributed, but also how esteem is distributed.

What about the rise of the influencer?

This is a new world in which we can quantify status unlike ever before. When you look at two influencers and you say, Who is more of an influencer? you simply can compare follower counts: This person has 3 million, this person has 2 million. Now, you can probably say, Well, they have the right 2 million and they have the wrong 3 million, but it’s very quantifiable. At the same time, this position may still not be quite as high status as becoming famous for something that people see as a worthwhile accomplishment or exclusive skill or strong contribution to society. It’s almost like the influencers have all the forms of status—the quantifiable, huge audience following them, influence benefits from companies—but they don’t quite have the esteem and respect in doing the activity. There’s something I talk about in the book called status integrity, which is that in every status group, in order to function, people need to believe that the people above them have status for good reason, and there’s punishing of people when they tried to claim more status that they deserve. Social media influencers are interesting because they create questions of status integrity.

What is one thing that each individual can do to help combat status inequity?

The first thing to do is to understand how status manifests in how we treat each other. You have a role in treating other people in certain ways. The hierarchies that we [have] in society are created, they’re not natural, and you perpetuate those hierarchies in how you treat people. If you understand all these issues from a status lens, you can think more about the way you treat people [and] how that manifests in creating and replicating hierarchy.

Nina Palattella is the editorial assistant.