The Dominance/Prestige distinction was already part of the literature. Will Storr seems to have come up with Propriety as the third form of status himself: though he is strangely modest about it. But once the distinction is made, it is clear enough. In his work on Middle Eastern kin groups, Philip Carl Salzmann makes the point that women in such kin groups can lose honour but cannot gain it. That is the dynamic of Propriety rather than Prestige.

Storr argues that the post-medieval breakout in science and technology in Europe was possible due to prestige from discovery providing a status path not confined by the conformities of propriety. If you want to see propriety trumping discovery-prestige, then Shirtgate, when a rocket scientist who had led a team that had landed a probe on a comet was publicly humiliated over his shirt, is such a moment.

We are dealing with the fuzzy boundaries one sees so often in social dynamics. Imposing a new norm of propriety like that through public mobbing. Clearly, it is invoking propriety but is it not also a dominance play? Propriety gets “bite” from the sanctions implied in social norms. When is that about order and group-cohesion and when dominance and to what degree?

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Jan 1, 2023Liked by Arnold Kling

As a hard nosed scientist, the "Follow the Science" statement gives me mixed feelings. Science, using the scientific method, is about the only way of possibly knowing what is valid and not nonsense. However, when this term is used by activists and non-STEM people who can't even read the original scientific journal articles in the areas in which they opine, I feel very apprehensive. Authors of those articles use the language of STEM, failing to understand that the language of Science and STEM is, in fact, mathematics. The meaning of the term Follow the Science can only be considered a nonsensical rhetorical power grab when they don't actually comprehend the science itself.

I have watched area after area in non-STEM areas drift into non-reproducible nonsense, but never anticipated the intrusion of non-scientific notions into science itself. Yet now DEI statements are becoming required for all faculty in academia, and selections of faculty and grant awards have become based upon DEI not on merit. I fear I am witnessing Academia dying in the West. Meanwhile the papers I am reading and reviewing coming out of China are top flight research in STEM areas. Even their English language has improved dramatically in the last decade (initially it was sometimes hard to figure out what they were saying).

The Chinese government effectively eliminated a whole generation of scientists working outside of weapons research (they were still doing top flight weapons research), as I discovered when I was using Chinese papers as references on my Ph.D. Thesis. In 1984, when I visited China as a member of a group of aquaculture experts sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Science, there were new students and a few old scientists, who had been removed from science for years, literally working in the rice fields planting and harvesting. In the field of aquaculture they were merely copying the mistakes that were made elsewhere. Now, having thrown off the yoke of Mao, China now dominates aquaculture in the world, and the quality of their science is excellent.

Mao's Cultural Revolution rejected old mandarin merit-based systems which had served the country well for hundreds of years in favor of "holistic systems", where selection was based upon professed beliefs rather than on accumulations of knowledge. The "Revolution" failed dismally, at the cost of tens of millions of lives. After some 10 years, cooler, brighter, less doctrinaire heads prevailed, and China returned to meritocracy and competence and stopped ignoring the correlations between supply and demand. They seem to fully understand the implications of their cultural revolution, so they probably won't do that again for at least a few generations.

Our question is whether we will end our current "cultural revolution" before or after it destroys our ability to compete in what has increasingly become a merit-based global reality. We are witnessing our equivalent of China's cultural revolution, believing if we purify the thought of the people, we will all achieve a successful wealthy existence without essentially having to earn it. It sounds good -- noble, even -- but it's too bad it doesn't work in the real world. What works in the real world is merit-based, non-political science with a capital "S", as in S. T. E. M.

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Jan 1, 2023Liked by Arnold Kling

Re: "The status contest has lost the plot of focusing on earned prestige."

Let me elaborate on Arnold's pithy observation.

I've never met a person who doesn't care about status. I've never met a person who cares only about status.

In a healthy society, professionals -- physicians, nurses, lawyers, soldiers, priests, engineers, scientists, scholars, teachers, accountants, athletes, performance artists, etc. -- aim at competence and excellence in their fields. Professionals care about standards (professional norms), output, and peer judgment. Professionals understand that any prestige is a by-product. They keep prestige in perspective. In a healthy society.

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Thank you very much for the clear and thoughtful comments on my piece. The proactive/reactive aggression distinction, and its implications in human evolution, comes from Richard Wrangham. The tripartite dominance-prestige-propriety division of status, with a slight re-labelling, comes from Will Storr (The Status Game). Taking such concepts, synthesising them and applying them to what we see around us is what I am about.

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In my view, the primary way that social justice gains power is using social anxiety. Social anxiety is the feminine-typical method of control that involves using fear of being outcast from the group as a pressure, usually to conform to some set of implicit behavior. The stereotypical socially anxious mood is "if you're friends with that person, we're enemies with you" (always seeking the cover of the group of course).

Social anxiety motivates SJ's true believers to take legal/business/physical actions and is also the element of control exerted by the institutions that have propagated it the most (academia and legacy media). It seems strange to me that Warby would introduce a new category of hierarchy and have it contain this new method of action which doesn't seem to fit well within either dominance or prestige.

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Re: The title and subtitle of Arnold's post.

Are dominance, prestige, and propriety alike "Ways of obtaining conformity"?

My intuitions:

Dominance imposes outward compliance.

Prestige invites emulation (by insiders) and deference (by outsiders). Some people seek prestige in order in hope of earning admiration. And some people seek prestige in order to provoke envy.

Propriety induces conformity (if people internalize the norm), and imposes compliance (if people, who don't internalize the norm, fear ostracism).

Lorenzo Warby indicates that propriety and dominance overlap in part. Maybe dominance is a merely a special case of propriety; a case in which "norm entrepreneurs" (social justice warriors) bully non-believers into outward compliance.

Compare Robert C. Ellickson, "The Market for Norms" (2001):


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Thanks for an incredibly thoughtful companion piece to Lorenzo's essay, Arnold.

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Maybe dominance is the failure mode of prestige and propriety. The latter 2 presuppose cohesive space for a cultural OODA loop to play out, a feedback mechanism for utility gain, for measuring and recalibrating prestige and propriety. Today's overwhelming information environment and culture war dynamics have gotten inside our OODA loop, causing disorientation and a default to dominance tactics. Kind of a variation on Martin Gurri's Revolt of the Public.

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China has been a prestige hierarchy for 1500 years: its officials are the nation's leading intellects and engineers.

These days, the top 10% of Chinese graduates, one million youngsters, compete for 27,000 jobs that will raise their families' social status for generations. The prestige, not the job, is heritable.

The cutoff for landing a job is an IQ of 140, sufficient for a PhD in theoretical physics.

Politically promising types are sent to poor villages on the edge of fly-infested deserts, to test their leadership and ingenuity. They get their first promotion when they've raised local incomes by an audited 50%.

Xi ran the entire curses honoris in his own year and did brilliantly at each stage. But if he died tomorrow, a dozen guys can finish what he started – on time and on budget.

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When you suggest that norm-following "creates a high-trust, high-accountability society" you omit "potentially stagnant".

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Much of Lorenzo's best chimp comparison work is from the last of his great references, Wrangham, who expanded that work into the most important book I read in 2022 :

The Goodness Paradox:The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (2019) [now I see Roger & Lorenzo noted this in earlier comments.]

The reactive and proactive violence tendencies of humans is why we have our social problems but also why we are so civilized & advanced. I'm convinced humans have evolutionarily self-domesticated - see the increasingly known domestication of Arctic foxes in Siberia.

In my own case, domestication was increased thru courtship and marriage and child-rearing, with the ideal of Love for my wife: both Lust AND Commitment. Both sys 1 & sys 2 thinking (Kahneman.) (While relations with women are beyond this essay's scope, they are crucial to our current meme- & cultural norm evolution.)

Lorenzo of Oz has long been an esteemed commenter on some other blogs I read, tho not much for the last year. I'm glad he's on substack (already following him!).

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> I think of prestige hierarchies as good and dominance hierarchies as bad.

This is the expected preference of someone who spends their time writing and thinking, in pursuit of prestige rather than dominance. It's unfortunate that thinking about hierarchies is automatically pro-prestige, and those who prefer dominance tend not to explain or defend those preferences. Makes it very hard to understand why both exist and probably are necessary.

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