Keeping up appearances
Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what we might now call ‘erotic capital’?
The term ‘erotic capital’ was coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’. But it was developed much further by LSE Senior Research Fellow Catherine Hakim in her article of earlier this year, ‘Erotic Capital’. In this she suggests that erotic capital stands alongside human capital and social capital as an asset that can be used by people wishing to establish themselves in life or in a career. It consists of elements such as beauty, sexual attractiveness, social skills, liveliness, presentation and sexuality. Hakim argues that it has become more and more important in the labour market and in society more generally, and that women tend to be better at using it. And now, in the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, she suggests that those who make an effort with their appearance and their manner enjoy an edge also in academic life.
The latter suggestion may at first seem hard to believe. Academics, particularly in this part of the world, have long nurtured a reputation for flaunting a somewhat disheveled version of the style of two decades ago. The caricature of the professor is of someone in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches. But if being like that is making a point, what is that point? Is it that the cerebral doesn’t go with visual style?
In the end, the point is that we cannot influence anything if we cannot communicate, and communication is in part about presentation and appearance. To be effective, we need to make an impression. And if we want to make an impression, we need to address all those aspects that make other people notice us.
There is probably a little bit of me that also feels, just a tiny bit, that the force of my argument should be delivered by my argument, and not by my looks or my manner. But in reality I know that’s nonsense. After all, there’s a reason why I bought an Apple iPhone rather than the countless other mobile phone options, and that reason is strongly tied up with design and appearance. And it would never occur to me to suggest that putting forward an idea in an articulate manner is somehow cheapening it, and that it would show more integrity if I expressed my intellectual views in the most boring manner possible. So if my verbal presentation style matters, then why not other aspects of style? This was brought home to me recently when a group of students complained to me about the general sartorial style of lecturers – they felt that it seemed to make the point that the lecturers themselves didn’t value the significance of what they did and whom they were doing it for.
I guess that some will balk at the idea of ‘erotic’ capital, fearing that it stands somewhere close to exploitation. The argument for erotic capital might be that those – male and female – who have harnessed erotic capital (like, say, Madonna) have often done so in an emancipated way.
Let us just say that I find this argument interesting and am open to it. However, I suspect that it will take longer for Catherine Hakim to persuade the academy in these parts: the majority of the comments made by readers of the THE article are hostile. I think they are wrong, on the whole.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.