Kellogg Insight: Sizing up the nightlife
Lauren Rivera on status distinctions in the club scene
By Amy Maxmen
While lingering in line outside an exclusive Manhattan nightclub, Lauren Rivera discovered the perfect setting for studying status distinction.
As she watched the doormen — “bouncers,” in club parlance — decide who could or couldn’t enter the club, she wondered: How do people evaluate status in a glimpse?
To conduct her research, Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations, set her sights on a nightclub deemed nearly impossible to enter, where the clientele was labeled by the press as “A-list,” “jet-setter” and “wealthy svelte” and bottles of Cristal champagne sold for $600. With the approval of the club’s managers, Rivera worked as a “coat-check girl” and occasionally took shifts selling cigarettes to customers near the front entrance to the club. The unpaid job allowed her to cast sideways glances at bouncers as they evaluated hopeful club-goers.
Through interviews and observations, Rivera 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. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door, along with people related to or befriended by this “in crowd.”
While wealth can be a strong indicator of status, bouncers frowned upon bribes. “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, followed by gender. 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.
The fact that women ranked higher than men in the pecking order testifies to the idea that judgments of status depend on context.
“In a law firm, women might be considered less competent because of societal stereotypes,” notes Rivera. “In fact, social psychologists talk about how women are generally perceived to have lower status than men; however, in this context they have a higher monetary or symbolic value than men. It does show how much context matters, and how no trait is absolutely high or low status but rather hinges on the meaning people ascribe to that trait.”
Unfortunately, the meaning ascribed to race in the nightclub setting was related to perceptions of safety. The bouncers (many of whom were themselves African-American or Latino) claimed that letting African- or Latino-Americans in might jeopardize club safety. However, Rivera says she more frequently observed fights between white customers.
A connection between African-Americans and violence was not explored in this study. Nonetheless, African- and Latino-Americans were turned away.
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 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. 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.“This study probably won’t change business at nightclubs,” Rivera observes. “But it might call more attention to how nuanced and complicated social status is.”