The most talked-about book in the U.S. last week was an erudite volume of 24 chapters and 376 pages called The Status Seekers. Its author, Vance Packard (whose previous bestseller was The Hidden Persuaders), submits that since World War II American society has become as stratified as a parfait.
Packard's U.S.A. is a land in which we the people live at five different class levels and are increasingly concerned about maintaining the status symbols of our particular class or, just as likely, trying to climb into the class above.
In the course of setting forth this idea, Packard may have invented a sociological parlor game that could in itself increase the sale of his book. It might be called What's Your Status?—the point being to determine precisely where you belong: with the Real Upper Class, the Semi-Upper Class, the Limited-Success Class, the plain old Working Class, or the bottom of Real Hard Cases. Packard examines the status ratings of some 300 occupations, and finds architects and federal judges ranking highest. (Sportsmen, athletes and sportswriters, incidentally, aren't even listed.) Anyway, American life emerges as a general scramble, people climbing all over each other to get into the status above or to avoid the one below, or merely suffering from the universal social traffic jam. Shorter hours, increased prosperity, more leisure have only increased the pressure. Packard's conclusion: "Status seekers are altering our society by their preoccupation, in the midst of plenty, with acquiring evidences of status."
Meanwhile, Author Packard himself last week was relaxing in a big white house (high status) which he paints himself (indeterminate status) on a hilltop in New Canaan, Conn. (pretty high status), surrounded by his wife and three children, occasionally walking his Weimaraner, Misty, and doing a lot of bird watching in the blossoming woods. All of this, he says, probably places him with the Semi-Upper Class. Still, he loves to sail his boat in the turbulent waters near his other house on Wasque Point off Martha's Vineyard (high status), but he spoils the status effect by his passion for clam-digging.
"I don't know why there is so little written on status and sport," Packard observed thoughtfully to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED man. "I originally intended to include a chapter on the whole subject in The Status Seekers. But I found there were no complete or reliable studies, no sociological findings to provide a point of departure, and gave it up. I found some interesting sidelights only. For example, I don't believe there is any status sport that involves close bodily contact. Tennis, golf, sailing, crew are traditional upper-class sports. And there seems to be a relation between high-prestige sports and real estate. Golf and polo require fairly substantial investments in land preparation. In England, Rugby, which is played on a green field, has a higher status than soccer, which requires nothing but a ball."
Isn't it possible, he was asked, that despite the snobbery associated with some sports, status and sport are contradictory terms?
"Could be something in that," said Packard, who played football in high school and who bluefishes with an amateur's passion. "But there is very little authoritative sociological literature on the subject," he added warningly, thumbing through an old copy of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.
Veblen, it turned out, considered sport a sign of arrested moral development. Robert and Helen Lynd, whose classic studies on Middletown are landmarks in American sociological writing, barely mention sport in the 1,154 pages of their masterpieces. Broadly speaking, there is almost nothing on sport in this whole branch of letters.
As Author Packard returned to bird watching and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S student returned to sport, the question remained unanswered: How important is that omission? The motives that the sociologists, including benevolent Author Packard, ascribe to human beings are generally pretty bitter and mean ones—envy, ambition, a crude desire for display, or a cruel desire to humiliate, on one hand, or anxiety, uncertainty. fear or panic at the loss of status on the other. Doubtless there are as many people who want to achieve status by sport as in any other way. But by sport's very nature, we submit, it is impossible for its followers to be concerned only with status. Some skill is necessary. At least there must be an objective appreciation of excellence. And at best there may be a complete forgetfulness of self, of class, status, elegant or inelegant surroundings, in the joy of life and the spontaneous exhilaration of effort that sometimes comes with sport and which sociologists cannot measure. Call it the pursuit of happiness and excellence, terms older than sociology.
VANCE PACKARD WATCHES BIRDS, TOO