Prestige refers to a person’s standing or estimation in the eyes of others. Having prestige means to be honored and respected. To understand the concept of prestige, it is useful to contrast it with other similar concepts related to the broader category of power, which refers to an individual’s relative capacity to influence other people’s outcomes in general.
How can prestige be differentiated from dominance, for example? Certainly, those with the power to dominate others can enjoy a kind of prestige. But definitions of prestige emphasize that we acquire prestige though our achievements, expertise, and admirable characteristics and behavior. This gives the prestigious person power, but it is usually a power to influence others through the positive emotions and attitudes elicited from them. We admire, respect, and even feel awe toward prestigious people, and these feelings are a major source of their power to influence us. In contrast, we are more likely to fear someone who is dominant.
The power inherent in the prestigious person has an earned, unforced quality. If we follow the lead of people with prestige, there is sense in which they well and truly merit their power. The honor and respect that they inspire draws us in willingly, sometimes enthusiastically. Words such as charisma and hero fit in extraordinary cases of prestige. Thus, while prestige breeds imitation and emulation, dominance creates distance and the begrudging of advantage. Prestige promotes the loving gaze; dominance, the furtive glance. Prestige produces the desire for an autograph; dominance creates resentment and unease.
Ethnographic studies show that there are also differences in how the prestigious and the dominant person behave. Despite the legitimate foundations of prestige, it does not appear to cause grandstanding and arrogance in the possessor. Rather, one sees confidence blended with self-deprecation and gratitude. Dominance, on the other had, involves swagger, implied threat at the very least, and the accentuating of superiority. Also, because prestige is earned rather than forced, the orientation of prestigious people is toward an understanding of those around them, the ones who award them prestige. Dominant people are alert to threats that forebode the taking away of their superiority and power.
All the differences between prestige and dominance hardly imply that these distinct sources of power cannot travel together. An army recruit can fear his sergeant and also respect him for the hard-earned medals. The sergeant may have no intention of striking fear in the recruit but may do so nonetheless because the capacity for punishment is inherent in the position. But that aspect of influence that flows from those hard-earned medals is different from the power that flows from holding the position itself.
It is worth emphasizing that prestige is linked to emotions, both in the person enjoying prestige and the person witnessing it in others. In evolutionary terms, these are rank-related emotions. Ranking on various characteristics is associated with access to resources that in turn lead to greater survival and reproductive success. It feels good to rank highly because one can enjoy the prestige that can come with high ranking (e.g., pride) and, correspondingly, it feels bad (e.g., shame) to have low rank. Thus, few of us are immune to the appeal of status and prestige. Most people seek the satisfactions of having prestige. And, presumably, one reason that prestigious individuals can create positive emotions in us is that they inspire us to do better ourselves.
An example of a domain in which the concept of prestige has intriguing explanatory power and where one finds considerable research focus is in marketing. This seems largely the result of the imitative, emulative potential in observing someone imbued with prestige who is also linked to products through marketing. This strategy makes good evolutionary sense, as modeling and learning from people admired for their achievements and remarkable qualities are likely to be a highly efficient way of operating. Although a typical feature of things that lead to prestige is that they are real and earned, consumer products simply linked to prestigious individuals can serve as proxies for the achievement of these features. These indicators, of course, may or may not correlate with actual characteristics in the particular case. The “status symbol” of an expensive car also driven by the rich and famous can mean actual wealth or credit card debt. The acquiring of status indicators is seductive, as it enables the apparent though often illusory achieving of prestige through short cuts. The use of the allure of prestige to affect consumers’ behavior is time-honored and is the source of an often-repeated phrase, “conspicuous consumption,” coined over a century ago by social scientist Thorstein Veblen.
It is tempting to see prestige in human groups as homologous to dominance processes in nonhumans, in which rank seems very much determined by physical power, fighting ability, and the like. However, rank in human groups is more associated with the possession of skills, expertise, and socially valued attributes. Although dominance resulting from physical power is far from irrelevant, depending on the particular culture, the ability to hold the attention of others because of earned qualities and admired attributes—the kind of things that produce prestige—is more of what leads to high rank. When Henry Kissinger noted that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, he was not referring to the benefits, for example, of being a professional wrestler such as Gorgeous George but rather of having things relating to prestige more broadly defined. Interestingly, even Gorgeous George was a role model for Muhammad Ali, who learned some of the secrets of showmanship from this flamboyant wrestler. But Ali did not see defeating others in the boxing ring as an end in itself. He claimed that his boxing success was means to a broader goal of positive change in the world. He wanted to be a hero and inspiration for others—which indeed he was.
SEE ALSO Ali, Muhammad (USA); Conspicuous Consumption; Culture; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Elites; Emotion; Ethnography; Gaze, The; Hierarchy; Kissinger, Henry; Power; Shame; Social Comparison; Social Dominance Orientation; Social Influence; Veblen, Thorstein
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pres·tige / presˈtēzh; -ˈtēj/ • n. widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality: he experienced a tremendous increase in prestige following his victory. ∎ [as adj.] denoting something that arouses such respect or admiration: prestige wines. ORIGIN: mid 17th cent. (in the sense ‘illusion, conjuring trick’): from French, literally ‘illusion, glamour,’ from late Latin praestigium ‘illusion,’ from Latin praestigiae (plural) ‘conjuring tricks.’ The transference of meaning occurred by way of the sense ‘dazzling influence, glamour,’ at first depreciatory.