by Henryk Domański (Author)
©2015 Monographs 167 Pages


Prestige examines whether social prestige is still an important axis of the stratification hierarchy. It appears that prestige has lost some of the close connection with social position it had in estates societies. Prestige distribution patterns have changed and individualized gradations emerged, while agreement in the occupational prestige in Poland is lower than in the West and still declining. However, low consensus in occupational prestige rankings does not entail a disintegration of respect norms as such: personal prestige is still a relevant factor in designing life strategies and people do care about respect. This volume presents empirical evidence that all social classes recognize the motivational, integrative and satisfying functions of prestige.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: What is Prestige?
  • Synthesis and Exchange: Two Basic Properties
  • How does Prestige Differ from Other Social Relations?
  • Differences Between Prestige and Other Norms: Empirical Illustrations
  • Changing Grounds of Autonomy
  • Chapter II: Prestige: Sources and Varieties
  • Personal, Positional, Situational and Institutional Prestige
  • Two Illustrations
  • The Monopoly on Honour in Feudalism
  • The Duel: A Matter of Honour
  • Sacrum: The First Cause of Prestige that Sociology has not Explored
  • Chapter III: Status Societies and Contract Societies
  • Fundamental Change
  • The Uses of Elitism
  • The Various Shades of Prestige, or Postmodernism
  • From Status Societies to Contract Societies
  • Chapter IV: The Content and Impact of Prestige Norms in Poland
  • The Global Hierarchy
  • Prestige as a Recompense
  • Decrease in Evaluative Consensus
  • Causes of Disintegration
  • Prestige Fairs
  • Temporary Anomie and Evaluation Patterns
  • Chapter V: How do Poles Define Prestige?
  • Prestige as Defined by Farmers, Workers and the Intelligentsia
  • Definitions of Prestige
  • Personal Prestige
  • Contexts of Personal Prestige
  • Prestige of Position
  • Something We Do Not Talk About: Conventional Prestige
  • Occasional Prestige
  • A Synthetic Dimension: Multiple Criteria
  • Chapter VI: The Subjective Relevance of Prestige
  • Prestige vs. Wealth, Education and Power
  • Do People Care about Prestige?
  • Diminishing Others’ Prestige
  • Superiority and Inferiority
  • The Relevance of Prestige: Conclusion
  • Chapter VII: Functions of Prestige
  • Criteria of Prestige
  • Proper Positions
  • Access to Positions
  • Personal Qualities
  • The Hierarchy of Merits
  • Prestige vs. Individual Needs
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names


In my analysis of prestige I will focus on three issues, which tend to be rather neglected. I will seek to shed new light on them.

First of all, we should ask what prestige – called also deference, respect, esteem, reverence, honour or social status – in fact is. Prestige is a value which is, on the one hand, given to other people and, on the other hand, received. Prestige weighs on people’s minds when they choose how to act and behave, though obviously not everybody cares about prestige in equal measure. The most important factor in prestige is hierarchy, which we will look into in more detail below. Prestige divides people into those who matter a lot and those who matter far less, as do affluence, education and/or power, the only difference being that prestige is an expression of consciousness rather than an objectively existing dimension. This encyclopaedic account could be supplemented with an observation that prestige is, typically, a synthetic gauge, which cumulates many different evaluations – personal qualities, social roles and positions – into a single gradation. The more people rely on the notion of prestige in making important decisions in everyday life, the greater role prestige plays. The impact of prestige on the shape of the macro-structures was fairly early recognised and addressed by Max Weber, who regarded prestige as another basic dimension of inequality alongside power and class divisions identified with economic status.

Well, if Max Weber explored prestige, how can we speak of the issue being “rather neglected”? Surely, Max Weber’s attention and “rather neglected” do not seem to belong together? And yet, the accounts of prestige have been grievously one-sided so far. They have focused on the prestige that people enjoy due to their occupation, office or other components of their summary social position. But such issues as psychological gratifications obtained for personal attributes or momentary acts of prestige exchange in particular situations have been given scant attention so far. In this book, I will examine them, drawing on the research I carried out in 1998. Certainly, prestige was not invented by sociologists. I will show that it is meaningfully woven into behaviours and life orientations of people who stem from various social strata, even though, admittedly, they only rarely realise it.

The two remaining issues pertain to the dynamics of contemporary societies. One of them concerns the ubiquitous and frequently theorised problem of the transition from traditional, status-based systems to contract-based market societies. Both in European feudalism and in Eastern despotisms, hierarchies of ← 7 | 8 → prestige were of far greater significance than in contemporary societies because formalised deference for the elites was a foundation of their stability and order. Since today’s societies are regulated by an entirely different set of principles, differences of prestige tend to become diluted, if not fully obliterated.

The facts are indisputable. What remains for us to do is to enquire whether or not in losing its relevance for the macro-structures, prestige is concurrently becoming less important to people who make them up. It may well be that despite the decreasing integrative influence of prestige on social structures, people need prestige as much as they once did, be it for the sake of self-esteem or a need for superiority. I will look into this possibility as a complement to the hypothesis of status being replaced by contract. In my modification, the hypothesis now is: prestige as a dimension of stratification in estate societies has lost its centrality but only in its ritualistic function. It is no longer an emphatic dimension of the hierarchy and is not as tightly bound up with social position as it used to. Still, it remains a relevant factor in designing strategies for life and people care about manifestations of respect. This is evidenced in accounts of the respondents interviewed on questions of prestige within the study mentioned above. The respondents’ opinions will be presented at length in the second section of the book.

The third issue involves prospects for the formation of new social classes in Poland. For the last two hundred years, the middle classes in Western societies have been distinguished by their achievement orientations and normative pursuit of the success symbols. However, in Poland the development of orientations to success was forestalled for a number of decades. Now, as the rules of the capitalist contract are trickling down into everyday life, such orientations stand a chance of expanding. Expectedly, the hierarchy of prestige should become one of the sites where new values are consolidated. And yet it seems that no such process is underway. The findings that I will present imply that the prestige norms do not add up to a single coherent hierarchy, which could consistently regulate behaviours and disseminate desired models and patterns across society. Such is the main insight derived from comparisons of congruence of prestige values in Poland over recent years. The data suggest a dilution of patterns of prestige distribution rather than their crystallisation into one dimension, which heralds a potentially poignant decline of integration of fundamental values and norms. We will discuss this question in more detail in the following.

These three issues are by no means a complete list of valid questions to be raised concerning prestige. Under communism, one of peculiarities of prestige was that it provided compensation for unfulfilled aspirations to decent consumption and living standard. Dismal living conditions severely circumscribed ← 8 | 9 → status-orientations, with people who could afford more due to their education, qualifications and occupational positions being anyway unable to get much.

A question thus offers itself: How does prestige change when the barriers have been dismantled and abiding by the compensation idea seems to be nothing else but an excuse for passivity in life? In this respect, the intelligentsia is the most complex case. The category is undergoing a steady stratification of its own, and in the process, a typical intellectual – a gracious recipient of prestige, assuming snobbish, petty-bourgeois postures – is being ousted by a professional whose prestige is grounded on self-discipline, skills and perseverance in pursuing occupational success. This is another hypothesis to be examined, but I will not investigate it in a rigorous framework, offering instead just a handful of reflections as they occur to an observer of social developments.

The issues I signal are currently central and most up to date. I present outcomes of research on the aspects of prestige which call for more attention than has been devoted to them so far. Some of my conclusions may admittedly sound speculative, and it is up to the reader to assess their accuracy and relevance. Prestige manifests itself in so many various ways that no sociological study of the problem can lay claim to completeness. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

Chapter I: What is Prestige?

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
contract societies social prestige Estate societies social stratification
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 167 pp., 8 tables

Biographical notes

Henryk Domański (Author)

Henryk Domański is Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Head of the Department of Social Structure and Head of the Department of Studies on Methods and Techniques of Sociological Research. His main interests are social stratification and mobility, labour market segmentation, inequality of sex and methodology of social research.


Title: Prestige
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169 pages