Philanthropy And Elite Social Stratification In America

4099 words - 16 pages

Philanthropy and Elite Social Stratification in America

I. Introduction

When describing social stratification in America, the essential variables are economic. This rule is valid for a high percentage of Americans; but looking only at economic stratification especially misses the point when it comes to the gap between the Old Money social elite and the New Money elite. As Francine Ostrower puts it, "the social elite is an elite of status. It is characterized by solidarity within the group, social exclusivity and a distinctive cultural identity…[they are] a core within the larger elite" (1995:12). I will examine one way that this status distinction is preserved: through the upper-class system of philanthropy, the giving of money to causes both charitable and non-charitable. I will argue that philanthropy’s role is in part to distinguish the social elite from other elites, and that this system is maintained through a particular social mechanism that can be modeled using game theory.

II. The marks of the social elite: a differentiation hypothesis

The type of stratification between old money and new money is qualitatively different from the stratification that characterizes most of American society. What makes this difference possible? One factor is the small number of families and people that compose the old money elite: "Old Money society…is a round of people, places and things that is different from other people’s rounds" (Aldrich 53, italics mine). In a group small enough to have face and name recognition, one can base status judgments on personal knowledge about lineage and breeding, and not have to rely on the conspicuous status symbols that New Money sometimes employs. They could not rely on those symbols, even if they wished to; economic competition with New Money would by definition be a losing battle for Old Money.

Old Money elites can only maintain their status as the dominant clique by differentiating themselves according to mutually accepted, non-monetary criteria. Not any sort of differentiation will do; it must be a type that agrees with widely admired values. One such value is charity; strength, intelligence, and wealth are others.

Differentiation is supported by mutual recognition. Social elites are connected by a highly interconnected social network, which helps them identify each other. In cases where that is impossible, and because of social elites’ manifest need to know the addresses of each other’s summer homes, a periodical called the Social Register is published. This publication makes possible the standard sociological method of identifying social elites, used in many famous studies such as C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment. Sometimes, the net is slightly wider: in Ostrower’s studies of philanthropists, "a donor is classified as a member of the social elite if he or she is listed in the Social Register, or is a member of an elite club, or is a graduate of...

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