negotiating social hierarchies

Over the Martin Luther King Day holiday I started reading what I thought were two unrelated books: a novel by Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America, and Shamus Khan’s new book about elites in a prestigious boarding school, Privilege. By the end of the week I realized that the two books have fairly similar themes. Parrot and Olivier, which is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville’s visit to America, and Privilege are both about how people negotiate social hierarchies, figuring out how to maximize the potential of their role in that hierarchy and, if they’re lucky, to move up that hierarchy. Of course, the point of a hierarchy is that the positions at the top are limited in number and difficult to attain. Thus, people who start at the top find it easier to reproduce those positions than people at the bottom are able to move up.  In some systems, like the old French aristocracy, upward mobility was nearly impossible, but in other systems, like present day U.S., moving up the ladder depends in part on your ability to master the nuanced rules of the game at each successive level.

Shamus’s book deserves a post of its own. I’ll comment more on it later, but for now let me just say that it’s a really great read. Somebody forgot to tell Shamus that sociology is supposed to be dryly written.

Parrot and Olivier isn’t quite as good as I hoped. If you’re a fan of Tocqueville, you might be disappointed like I was by Carey’s frivolous depiction of him. I didn’t recognize the brilliant intellectual in his Tocqueville embodied in the character Olivier de Garmont. But the novel is superb in other ways, most notably in its ability to juxtapose Tocqueville’s world of French aristocracy with the new meritocratic class system of America.

Carey uses Tocqueville’s servant, Parrot – born a poor, working class Englishman and servant to the rich – , to illustrate how changes in the social hierarchy didn’t just affect the fortunes of the privileged elite from Europe but also those of a lower caste, whose lives were bound to the caretaking of the elite. Parrot realizes, after some length of time in the United States, that his old skills and knowledge about how to serve the needs of privileged aristocrats did not serve him well in the U.S.  The new social order upset the rules for achievement for not only the elite, like Olivier, but also for the old poor. In a touching scene from the book Parrot realizes that his peers from France, who like Parrot had served aristocrats their entire lives, had ingeniously reinvented themselves as  European artists. He, however, was still caught up in the old role of master/servant that bound him to Olivier.

[W]hen I sat in the Bull Inn on Greenwich Street and saw Eckerd lock his door, I suddenly comprehended that the entire house was occupied by people who had occupations suited for the present age. They lived in the New World, and what an awful shock it was to finally understand.  I was abandoned to this New World, but I was a habitual servant to a dying breed. I might be on my grandes vacances, but I was of no damn use. I had no art, no trade. I had traveled all my life to arrive here, but here was an abyss. I was beached on the corner of King and Greenwich, a creature with no purpose in the world (288).

Olivier, in contrast, realizes that despite being of a “dying breed,” he can cash in some of his symbolic capital as a French aristocrat to gain a great deal of influence. But cashing in that capital puts him on the outside of the American hierarchy. He’s respected and adored for his Old World connections, but as much as he’d like to blend in with the new elite, he can’t.  As much as he tries to fit in, he’s always a French aristocrat. The kind of cultural capital he possesses puts distance between him and the American elite. Similarly, for all their wealth and success, a successful American businessman’s family can’t just buy their way into French aristocracy. The forms of capital most valuable to each elite class were not commensurable (birthright for the French, wealth for the Americans).

Parrot and Olivier isn’t a perfect novel or even a very good historical account of Tocqueville. But the book is a wonderful literary telling of the cultural underbelly of social hierarchies and inequality.

Written by brayden king

January 26, 2011 at 1:51 am

Posted in brayden, culture

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Jensen, ah0y. ah0y said: Over the Martin Luther King Day holiday I started reading what I thought were two unrelated books: a novel by Pe… […]


  2. I’m looking forward to reading a post about Shamus’s book. I also enjoyed it, and found it to be a really stimulating read, and I’ve been waiting for one of the official bloggers to take it on. How much it will sting the Scatterplotters if you beat them to it…


    Jenn Lena

    January 26, 2011 at 3:19 am

  3. Glad you enjoyed it, Brayden! I worked a lot on the writing. I used to employ a far more turgid prose. But I fundamentally transformed my writing when I undertook this project. My aim was to write something that sociologists would find interesting, but whose audience would not be limited to our people. I basically thought of it as something that could be put on intro syllabuses.

    Anyway, happy to do a pseudo “author meets critics” session on here, if you decide on a longer post. After reading Carey I was also struck by the similarities. And I really wanted his text to be better than it was. But as you well identified, it’s themes really resonated.


    Shamus Khan

    January 26, 2011 at 11:57 am

  4. Actually, what I would most like to read about from you, Shamus, would be how you learned to write more engagingly.



    January 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm

  5. […] negotiating social hierarchies […]


  6. […] Brayden is correct. Shamus’ book is good. And I can’t wait to see what Brayden, and other orgheads, have to say about it. If you haven’t been following the story, Shamus Khan is a sociologist at Columbia, a sociology blogger, and has written a book on St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school. Shamus is a graduate of St. Paul’s and later came back to do research on it through ethnographic methods. He became a teacher and resident at the school for a year. Privilege is his analysis of what exactly happens at these elite boarding schools. […]


  7. How I learned to write:

    1.) I read Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. It changed both how I thought about writing, and how I wrote.

    2.) I re-write, re-write, re-write. Maybe there are people out there who are natural writers; people who have lovely sentences flow from their fingertips. I’m not one of them. And I realized that writing for me, is not the process of putting words on the page, it’s in working and reworking and reworking and reworking. That doesn’t mean cutting and pasting. It means rewriting every sentence again and again and again until it reads in a way that is clear. So I would guess I rewrote every sentence in that book many many times (50-100?).

    3.) I worked with a professional editor. This is a dirty secret that many people don’t admit, because I think in some instances the editors actually WRITE the text. But in my case, he provided incredible useful feedback on what was clear, and wasn’t, in my argument, and how some pieces might fruitfully be put together to make the narrative cleaner. He also really pushed me on my jargon, basically getting rid of it. I didn’t know how to write a book — this was my first time. And my editor had worked on 100s of books. It cost me money to hire a personal editor. But it was worth every penny.

    4.) I made a commitment to writing. It was a high priority for me. I feel that in ethnography, a lot of the analysis IS the writing. It’s a part of our craft that matters deeply to our work.


    Shamus Khan

    January 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm

  8. […] posts on Shamus Khan’s Privilege can be found here and here. I’ll say it again – this is a wonderfully written […]


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