Sociologist Lauren Rivera knows what it takes to get behind the velvet rope. She recommends, “Know someone. Or know someone who knows someone. If you’re a guy, bring attractive women—ideally younger women in designer clothes. Don’t go with other dudes. And doormen are well versed in trendiness, so wear Coach, Prada, Gucci—but don’t show up in a nice suit with DSW shoes.” No, Rivera doesn’t write an advice column for the rich and the restless. But the Kellogg School of Management professor did infiltrate the scene to expose how people evaluate status in a glimpse. Specifically, she wanted to know how the meaty doormen positioned outside exclusive clubs—bouncers in nightlife language—determine who enters.

Sociologists have been studying the dynamics of power relations in social life for decades. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu saw that society was not only stratified by wealth, but also by symbols of status—the valued estimation of one’s honor and worth. Status distinctions between people can create sustaining inequalities by excluding those deemed as lower status from positions of prestige. Through surveys and experiments, sociologists have identified cues people use to evaluate status. The cues include one’s social class, social circles, displays of wealth, gender, race, accent, and taste in food and art. Through interviews, one study in 1992 found that Americans consider strong moral character a sign of high status, whereas the French are more apt to deem museum attendance a telling signal.

Yet the qualities people think they look for may not be what they actually react to at the office, at dinner parties, or on the street. Therefore, answers to a sociologist’s interview questions may not reflect real life. Furthermore, when a job, date, or club access is at stake, the terms one uses to judge competence or worthiness may change. “The laboratory is a great place to parse out variables, but in real life, status is complex and the way people draw distinctions is different in a natural setting,” says Rivera, an assistant professor in Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. “I wanted to look at how peoples’ beliefs [about status] influenced how they distributed actual rewards.”

While lingering in line at an exclusive big city nightclub, Rivera realized that the perfect situation for studying status distinction was before her.

The Perfect Set-up
While lingering in line at an exclusive big city nightclub, Rivera realized that the perfect situation for studying status distinction was before her. Soon after, she applied to work at a different nightclub, one deemed nearly impossible to enter. The clientele were labeled as “A-list,” “jet-setter,” and “wealthy svelte” by the press. Cristal champagne typically sells by the bottle for $600, and some customers buy three in a night. She accepted a job as a “coat-check girl” and occasionally took shifts as the “cigarette girl” who stands near the front of the club selling cigarettes to smoking customers. This job allowed her to cast side-ways glances at bouncers as they evaluated expectant club-goers. Once she earned the bouncers’ confidence and promised to protect their identity, she began the interviews. “Bouncers are status judges who make hundreds of status decisions every night. They do it by having hundreds of patrons line up and on the basis of very little information, they size up who will be an esteemed customer,” Rivera says.

Through conversations and observations, she found that bouncers ran through a hierarchical list of qualities to determine in seconds who would enhance the image of the club and encourage high spending. Social networks mattered more than social class, or anything else for that matter. Celebrities and other recognized elites slipped through the door. And people related to or befriended by this “in crowd” often made the cut, too. Wealth is considered to be one of the strongest indicators of status, yet bouncers frowned upon bribes even though bribes are obvious displays of money. “New Faces,” as the bouncers called unrecognized club-goers, were selected on the basis of gender, dress, race, and nationality. Sometimes the final call boiled down to details as minor as the type of watch that adorned a man’s wrist.

Bouncers weighed each cue differently. Social network mattered most, gender followed. For example, a young woman in jeans stood a higher chance of entrance than a well-dressed man. And an elegantly dressed black man stood little chance of getting in unless he knew someone special.

The fact that women ranked higher than men in the pecking order testifies to the idea that judgments of status depend on context. “In a law firm, women might be considered less competent because of societal stereotypes. In fact, social psychologists talk about how women are generally perceived to have lower status than men; however, in this context they have a higher monetary or symbolic value than men. It does show how much context matters, and how no trait is absolutely high or low status but rather hinges on the meaning people ascribe to that trait,” Rivera notes.

Unfortunately, the meaning ascribed to race in the nightclub setting was related to perceptions of safety. The bouncers (many of whom are Black or Latino) claimed that letting Black or Latino Americans in might jeopardize safety at the club. However, Rivera says she saw fights between white customers frequently. “That’s what happens when crowds of people, alcohol, possibly cocaine, and loud music mix.” A connection between African Americans and violence was not explored in this study. Nonetheless, African and Latino Americans were turned away. “In the Obama age, we tend to assume that overt racial discrimination is less common,” says Rivera. “But it was surprising how much overt racial discrimination took place and how upfront bouncers were about racial exclusion.” The enforced dress code reflected this bias. Loose clothes associated with hip-hop culture were forbidden. Rivera quoted one bouncer as saying, “You can have a thousand dollar sweat suit on…but that’s not what we want.”

Still other details tipped the balance. For example, Latin Americans born in South America stood a much higher chance of entrance than U.S.-born Latinos. The bouncers said they assumed that Latin Americans were safer than American Latinos, and because they had the money and connections to work abroad, they should have money to spend. White men with no connections were often allowed in if they came draped with a few good-looking women. And, Rivera noted, that one aggressive drunk was routinely permitted entrance because he was a well-connected customer.

Divisive Decisions
Like all status cues, those used by bouncers serve to divide people. Status distinctions determine who gets what, and as such, they create inequalities. At a nightclub, the distinction between Prada and Levi’s can determine who hobnobs with the upper echelon. But in other contexts, an equally superficial distinction may, for example, determine who gains acceptance at a yacht club or Harvard. Various studies have found that people marked as low status are given fewer opportunities, encouraged less, evaluated more harshly, and often perform worse over time as a result of their frustration. In her manuscript Rivera writes, “Status distinctions between actors, which may initially occur on the basis of minor or even trivial distinctions, rapidly create powerful and durable systems of inequality.” They maintain the status quo.

“This study probably won’t change business at nightclubs,” Rivera observes. “But it might call more attention to how nuanced and complicated social status is.”