There is a line of thought in Sociology called ‘Symbolic Interaction’. The idea is that people react to objects. Objects could be situations, maybe a form of speech or dialect, or actual objects. And the idea is that people both assign value to the objects, and the objects communicate value. Hence why folks want to wear a Rolex; it communicates something.
But diving deeper into other objects, we still find meaning. And sometimes that meaning, betrays the object’s applied intention, and it can sometimes make no rational sense at first glance.
For instance, let’s say you show up to a work interview. You have on your makeup. Perhaps you put on makeup because you want to look like you care about your appearance and the job. Well, according to this study, you are actually putting yourself at a disadvantage from future pay. From the Abstract: THE EFFECTS OF HAIR COLOR AND COSMETIC USE ON PERCEPTIONS OF A FEMALE’S ABILITY:
‘One hundred thirty six college students reviewed the identical professional resume of a female applicant for the position of a staff accountant… …The results demonstrated significant main effects of both hair color and cosmetic use. Specifically, the applicant was rated more capable and was assigned a higher salary both when depicted with brunette hair color and when depicted without cosmetics.’
Now, the first thing that should stick out above is college students. Meaning, is not an inherent encoding in an object. To believe a thing has an inherent meaning itself is to misunderstand the power of objects. Meanings are ascribed by groups. And each group has a meaning. For example: To a business man, the Rolex watch signifies success. To a business man with more knowledge of Horology, it may communicate that the Rolex wearer went to the mall and bought a watch, to attempt to look prestigious. And to me, it may mean the Rolex wearer has too much money in his pockets. This is all relative to the way we perceive meaning personally, and in our groups, and how our own ethics and standards of behavior weigh on this object. So meaning can be attempted to be encoded within a group, but successful decoding of encoded meaning depends completely on you having the same meter of meaning as the encoder, for said object.
Which brings us to the college students. College students are not generally hiring people. And though 27% of the group had experience hiring people 73% had none, so no experience with the successes and failures of hiring people with any particular characteristics. And also, they may be of a different generation, than the generation that may be hiring people. The median age was 24. Also, the group was comprised of 83 women, and 52 men, with 1 unreported. So to ignore these basic criteria of differentiation runs dangerously into the realm of believing that meaning can be hard coded into an object. The closest this can occur would be in a genuinely homogenous culture, a culture in which this study was not carried out in.
But for whatever reason, what this study does prove is, to these 136 college students; if they happen to have had the capability of hiring people, you’d want to be a brunette with no makeup.
But taking this study at face value: we can see a flip side of the theory of Symbolic Interaction. It may mean not that women that are brunettes with no makeup are thought to be deserving of more money, but that, in past experiences, the students in the study perceived them to be more valuable, perhaps based on past experience with higher paid women.
Now, past experience means past-tense, and past tense means days and years are slipping by. Accordingly, the students may be judging the characteristics of those whom have succeeded in the past, as the qualities that will indicate who will succeed in the future. As the study focuses on who should be paid more now, this is extremely problematic. And in this we see can see the reasons why social change is slow; perception of value based on object characteristics in the past can be confused with being an indicator of future success.
For example; protestant ethic. The protestant ethic rampant through America persuaded many people that a more pragmatic, and plain approach to life, would get them better results; ultimately, in the biblical sense, closer to God. Think of Mennonites and the Amish for the most blatant example of this. And in coincidence with this aesthetic aim towards simplicity, came an idea of harder work, as that was valued as being Godly.
So, let’s say the students encountered various women over time, whom were in higher paying positions, and they all tended towards no makeup. And these women had a very high degree of work ethic, because of their protestant faith. And lets say ethnically, because of the way society has biased itself to an extent with prejudices about beauty towards blondes, that these women tended to be brunettes. Well this would seem like a rational explanation for why the brunette with no makeup was going to make more money. But it has no bearing on actual meaning.
The actual meaning of brunette hair is nothing. The actual meaning of no makeup is nothing. The meanings are attached via past experience or tale of experience, and then, in some instances, become an indicator of a work ethic of a group of people, in a specific culture, in a specific time. But to mistake such a thing for actual indicator of value, would again, betray the indicators and confuse actual value or meaning with the object itself.
So what is the takeaway here? It is the ethic and philosophy behind the presenter of the object, not the object, that ultimately has the meaning. But, people may ascribe their own meaning to the things we surround ourselves with. And at some points, it may mean we are paid less money, or paid more, for no other reason than what they believe a characteristic of our presentation means to them.