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Cultural Values and the Judgment of Others

An excellent example of paper 2 by John Simpkin - Fall 2010

Instructor note: Of particular worth in this discussion is John's highlighting that material comfort is visible and therefore has significant influence on other's judgments of us. This is demonstrative of original and integrative application of concepts.

"Whatever the human mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve!" So said Napoleon Hill, author of "Think and Grow Rich" which, although printed in 1937, remains a hugely popular book. This one phrase sums up ideal culture and most of the U.S. values identified by sociologist Robin Williams (1), including achievement and success, individualism, activity and work, efficiency and practicality, science and technology, progress, and material comfort. Achievement and success because, as Hill implies, achievement is what bridges our work to our rewards. Once a person reaches his or her goals, rewards (often material) will follow. Individualism is necessary because what we conceive and believe must be our own, and no one else's. If others are involved in our achievements, they must be viewed as helpers or underlings, not getting any credit for our ideas. Activity and work are what are necessary for our ideas to become achievements. Even if an achievement only required minimal work, it is good for one's image to brag about the work that was involved. Efficiency can show one's innovation, and may be also be used to explain how something was carried out with less work involved. Science and technology reflect our desire to either invent new things or to utilize the latest inventions. Progress is tied to this, in that every idea should be bigger and better than its predecessor. Sometimes this is actual progress, such as a car with better gas mileage than last year's model. But we also praise people whose ideas achieve the same results as their predecessors but in what is claimed to be a better way. (We can only wonder how much better Gillette's next razor will be than their latest, top of the line model). Material comfort represents the rewards for our achievements. Once we have achieved something, then we deserve to reap the benefits.

This last value, material comfort, is to many the most important because it is the value that others most envy. Some values, such as equality, are difficult to display (it looks self-righteous if you walk around talking about how you are more involved in equal rights than other people). Other values, such as individualism, are appreciated, but not necessarily envied. And while your boss might recognize you for your innovation, your neighbors certainly can't tell unless it eventually leads to some sort of material reward at work. Material comfort implies that you also possess the other American values.

The legitimate ways of achieving success are known as institutionalized means (1). Some people in society do not have the access to these. Others do not have the desire or patience to prosper through institutional means. So what happens when people who fall into either of these categories wish to display material means--in other words, some illusion of success? One option, of course, is through deviancy. Henslin describes people who desire to obtain the goals of society but use illegitimate means to obtain them as innovators. This includes drug dealers and thieves.

But what about people who want to show off success but don't have the ability, the desire, or the patience to do so through hard work, and the inner control not to do so through illegitimate means? The answer is easy: borrow!

In the past three decades, household credit card debt has grown over five times as fast as median household income (2). By 2004 numbers (before the current recession), 43% of American families spent more than they earned, and the average household that was in credit card debt owed approximately $8,000. Roughly half of all Americans did not pay off their cards every month (3). How has borrowing become such a part of American culture?

Borrowing as a means of acquiring material comforts is a result in part in a shift in our material culture. In the past several decades members of American society have seen a need to own more things, especially more expensive objects. For example, the number of TVs in a household has increased from an average of less than one per house in 1959 (4) to 2.24 per house in 2007 (5). We carry around iPods, cell phones, and other items worth hundreds of dollars that we feel we cannot live without in today's world.

Our non-material culture may also reflect our need to acquire things we cannot afford. As part of our values, members of our society feel the need to show off their purchasing power. We tend to envy what others own, even if we won't always admit it. Borrowing from a bank allows us to obtain goods we cannot afford without our peers knowing that we couldn't afford them. We can display that new big-screen television by the window for all to see, and nobody needs to know that we'll be getting a bill in the mail for it next month.

The ability to spend more than we have has been around for a long time, but the numbers show that until recently we must have been able to restrain ourselves from too much excess. How has our restraint been lifted? An answer can be found by looking at agents of socialization. As mentioned above, we want to show off to our peers. Another agent is the mass media. We are bombarded with commercials for cars and furniture with low-interest financing. Credit card advertisements show credit usage as a normal way of life, with people looking proud of their purchases. We are offered rewards for purchasing more--ironic, since we haven't really achieved anything by making large purchases. Wealthy celebrities tell us that they are using cards too, and invite us to live like them. As we see more and more of these images, it becomes ingrained in our minds that this is part of life now. Everyone is doing it, even if we are embarrassed to talk about it.

Youths are also influenced by the media, and another agent of socialization for them is their parents. Banks can take advantage of this by encouraging parents to get credit cards for their children. Parents are convinced that they are helping their children adjust to adult life, but youths may think that they are getting permission from their parents to go out and buy things they normally couldn't afford.
There is a large gap between white and African American households in regards to credit card debt. Like white Americans, the borrowing is mostly to pay for material status symbols. Credit card debt as a percentage on income was 8.5 compared to 5.7 for white Americans, using 2004 numbers. Since incomes are typically lower for African Americans, it becomes even harder for them to pay their debts, furthering the gap between races (6).

In contrast, 90% of Japanese households pay off their credit cards and other revolving debt every month. Why such a difference? Different interest rates and lending practices by banks are certainly a factor, but societal differences are a large motivator, too. Modern Japanese society values material wealth almost as highly as American society does, but they view personal debt as a shameful practice. To them, it is better to live humbly than to be indebted. When someone pays by credit card in Japan, they must inform the sales clerk if the amount borrowed will be paid for in one installment, or if they will have to pay it off over time. This is a public admission of purchasing something they cannot afford (7).
It is clear that American cultural values have played a role in our excessive borrowing. While any motivational speaker can tell a group of people that they should live within their means, it takes more than that to fix the problem. Recent financial regulations have made it harder for people to go into debt, and somewhat easier for those in debt to repay it (2). This is a step in the right direction. It is equally important for us to be exposed to the dangers of borrowing. Parents can help their children set a budget instead of just handing them a credit card. Television stations should be encouraged to play public service announcements about financial responsibility. Lenders should tell customers up front how long it will take to repay their debt based on their current income. Our values won't change overnight, but perhaps in time we may learn from our mistakes. Perhaps one day, conceiving, believing, and achieving a life free of unnecessary debt will as important as other American values.

1. Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology A down-to-Earth Approach, Eighth Edition. Allyn and Bacon: Boston MA, 2009
2. US Federal Reserve website. http://www.federalreserve.gov
3. http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/SavingandDebt/P70581.asp
4. Jordan, Winthrop. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell, 1996.
5. Herr, Norman. Television & Health . Sourcebook for Teaching Science, 20 May 2007.
6. Aissatou Sidime "Credit use strangles wealth: African American debt is increasing faster than income". Black Enterprise, 2004.
7. Mann, Ronald J. Credit Cards and Debit Cards in the United States and Japan. Monetary and Economic Studies, January 2002.