Norm-Breaking in Elite Cultures

January 8, 2018 
Posted by Jay Livingston

A couple of recent items had me wishing that we had more ethnographies of the wealthy and powerful.*

First it was the Republican leaders’ obsequiousness to Trump after they’d passed the tax bill – what journalist Martin Schram called “a gushing word-bath of praise.”
  • Paul Ryan: “Something this big, something this generational, something this profound could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.”
  • Mitch McConnell: “Mr. President … this has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment for the Trump administration.”
This despite Trump having insulted them on Twitter (“Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan.” “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done.”)

Trump has forced cabinet members and other White House staff to similarly grovel. I wondered how these leaders, public and important men, could fawn like this. Don’t they know what they look like? Don’t they know how others see them?

My sociological spider sense tells me to think about them the way we think about any small-group culture. American sociology, since its early days, has shown how groups develop a set of ideas about what they do, especially when what they do is seen by others as strange or wrong. Howie Becker’s essays on marijuana-using musicians in the 1940s may be the best known example.

Maybe these politicians create a culture that frames this fawning as “political efficacy” or something like that rather than as what it seems to outsiders – brown-nosing. Maybe someone has already written an ethnography of Washington insiders. If so, I’m not aware of it.

A week later, Vanity Fair splashed an article about Silicon Valley sex parties.

The quote in the title is misleading. It’s a moral statement  – about what’s right and wrong (though not precisely in those terms). The full sentence takes the sociological perspective. It’s not that something is right or wrong but that how it looks depends on whether you are inside or outside.

“Anyone else who is on the outside would be looking at this and saying, Oh my God, this is so fucked up,” one female entrepreneur told me. “But the people in it have a very different perception about what’s going on.”

It raises the same question implicit in Becker’s Outsiders and all those other studies of deviance in groups: How do you insulate yourself from the perceptions of others?

The author of the article, Emily Chang, gives a couple of examples of the ways that these men neutralize mainstream norms. For example, they see their sexual morality and behavior as “disruptive” and as “changing paradigms.” Both of these buzzwords carry a very positive charge these days, especially in the tech and business world. “Disruptive” companies “change paradigms” and along the way make a ton of money.** Also carried over from the start-up world to the world of sex parties is an anti-regulation ideology. These men see themselves as libertarians, not libertines.

Unfortunately, Chang is doing journalism, not ethnography. She does not show us the conversations that reinforce the ideas that neutralize conventional perceptions and judgments. One man she talks to has reached the interesting view that although it’s the men who organize the parties and supply the women with Ecstasy and other drugs, “it’s women who are taking advantage of him and his tribe, preying on them for their money.” My hunch is that the “tribe” of men help reinforce this idea. But the picture we get from Chang is that they have come by this ideology separately.

Many of the men offer another idea as both explanation and justification – that they are making up for all the sex they didn’t have when they were younger. Even one of the women Chang talks to agrees.. “Ava” is an entrepreneur, and while apparently she is not a regular at sex parties, she has dated several of these newly wealthy men. Her evaluation of the catching-up hypothesis is less charitable than that of the men, and it is based on more conventional views of adult relationships.

They say, “I’m still catching up. I lost my virginity when I was 25,”  And I’ll say, “Well, you’re 33 now, are we all caught up yet?” In any other context, [these fancy dates] would be romantic, but instead it’s charged because no one would fuck them in high school. . . . I honestly think what they want is a do-over because women wouldn’t bone them until now.


* There is surely a market for these books, and they have the potential to cross over from academia to the trade lists. Rachel Sherman carved a 2300-word essay from her book Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence that ran on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section (here ). It got over 3000 comments.

** A famous quote from Steve Jobs succinctly combined the ideas disruption and paradigm shift long before those terms became fashionable. Jobs was trying to convince John Sculley, CEO of Pepsico, to come to Apple as a marketing executive. Said Jobs, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Sculley went to Apple. According to Wikipedia, he “continues to speak and write about disruptive marketing strategies.” 

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