A status symbol is a perceived visible, external denotation of one's social position and perceived indicator of economic or social status. Many luxury goods are often considered status symbols. Status symbol is also a sociological term – as part of social and sociological symbolic interactionism – relating to how individuals and groups interact and interpret various cultural symbols.
Status symbols by region and time
What is considered a status symbol will differ among countries and cultural regions, based on their economic and technological development. As with other symbols, status symbols may change in value or meaning over time. For example, before the invention of the printing press, possession of a large collection of books was considered a status symbol. In later centuries, books (and literacy) became more common among average citizens, so a private library became less-rarefied as a status symbol. Another common status symbol of the European medieval past was heraldry, a display of one's family name and history. In some past cultures of East Asia, pearls and jade were major status symbols, reserved exclusively for royalty. A state decoration can show that the wearer has heroic or official status, and diverse visual markers of marital status are widely used.
Status symbols also indicate the cultural values of a society or a subculture. For example, in a commercial society, having money or wealth and things that can be bought by wealth, such as cars, houses, or fine clothing, are considered status symbols. In a society that values honor or bravery, a battle scar would be more of a status symbol. In academic circles, a long list of publications and a securely tenured position at a prestigious university or research institute are a mark of high status.
The condition of one's body can be a status symbol. In times past, when most workers did physical labor outdoors under the sun and often had little food, being pale and fat was a status symbol, indicating wealth and prosperity (through having more than enough food and not having to do manual labor). Now that workers usually do less-physical work indoors and find little time for exercise, being tanned and thin is often a status symbol in modern cultures. Ancient Central American Maya cultures artificially induced crosseyedness and flattened the foreheads of high-born infants as a permanent, lifetime sign of noble status. In the 21st century, multiple piercings, tattoos, and other body modifications are highly valued among certain subcultures in Western societies.
Possessions typically perceived as status symbols may include a mansion or penthouse apartment, a trophy wife, haute couture fashionable clothes, jewelry, or a luxury vehicle. A sizeable collection of high-priced artworks or antiques may be displayed, sometimes in multiple seasonally occupied residences located around the world. Privately owned aircraft and luxury yachts are movable status symbols that can be taken from one glamorous location to another; the jet set refers to wealthy individuals who travel by private jet and frequent fashionable resorts.
Status symbols are also used by persons of much more modest means. In the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall, possession of American-style blue jeans or rock music recordings (even pirated or bootlegged copies) was an important status symbol among rebellious teenagers. In the 1990s, foreign cigarettes in China, where a pack of Marlboro could cost one day's salary for some workers, were seen as a status symbol. Cellphone usage had been considered a status symbol (for example in Turkey in the early 1990s), but is less distinctive today, because of the spread of inexpensive cellphones. Nonetheless Apple products such as iPod or iPhone are common status symbols among modern teenagers.
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