Everyone's a Winner: Life in Our Congratulatory Culture

Best, Joel
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
9780520267169 (hb)
pp. ix + 199

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Cover of book Everyone's a winner in a society that creates countless categories of achievement in many aspects of our lives. Joel Best presents a look at the way in which prize proliferation is affecting our society. Best examines the way we honour students, everyday heroes, and how many have become obsessed with ranking and rating. In doing this he discusses the concepts of status abundance and prize proliferation with regard to several aspects of American society. The book will appeal to sociologists as well as to a much wider audience.

Best initially calls on the reader to consider the vast array of awards and trophies that we might see in our own neighborhoods, highlighting the abundance and ambiguity of awards for all manner of achievements. He then takes the time to offer serious examination of prize proliferation within American society. Best, whose work is firmly based in social constructionism, looks at the consequences of such eagerness in awarding trophies and prizes for sometimes-ambiguous achievements.

Best draws attention to the positions of optimists and pessimists surrounding the prize proliferation debate. The first two chapters clearly introduce the concepts of status abundance and prize proliferation through use of some humorous examples. Chapters three, four, and five discuss the locations at which Best can see these phenomena having most impact namely: educational awards and achievements; everyday heroes and the rewarding of acts of courage; and in wider society where Best suggests there is an increasing desire to rate and rank things from Universities to local takeaway food restaurants. On the one hand, an optimist may argue that it is a healthy way to support a structured process of awarding achievement in order to foster inclusivity (especially in a schoolyard environment) and bolster a sense of self-satisfaction. One could investigate this position further by looking at the advantages and disadvantages of heightened levels of self-efficacy amongst school students as they graduate into their working lives. On the other hand, pessimists of prize proliferation may argue that if 'everybody is a winner' it becomes harder to discern between the ever increasing number of avenues toward achievement when making decisions from which movie to rent from the video store to who is best suited to high level corporate positions. Further investigation might look at the potential for devaluing awards that currently hold quite high esteem.

It follows that when high levels of prestige are crucial, especially for an organization's bottom line or for individuals' career advancement, then there is risk of behavior aimed at gaming the system - a consequence that Best recognizes as an increasingly serious problem especially within academia. The inclusion of academia in this examination is a positive step in avoiding potential hypocrisy given the locale of this text. Best does manage to avoid overtly attacking rather than highlighting negative consequences.

It is difficult to pinpoint Best's position on many of the observations within this book - at best one might suggest the author is harboring some minor distaste surrounding the abundance of 'honor roll' bumper stickers within his community. It would be accurate to suggest that the author is clearly aiming for impartiality, highlighting this phenomena and the broader debate about the consequences. Despite a degree of cynicism towards the ever-increasing number of awards on offer and opportunities for gaming the system, Best concludes that status abundance and prize proliferation serve a valuable purpose in response to a social need for creating meaning in the objects and people around us.

Sociologists interested in celebratory culture will undoubtedly note the need for further sociological investigation into how the idea of prize proliferation and status abundance directly affects schools, the military, and academia individually. Further, it would be an interesting project to pay serious attention to other western societies outside of the United States. This text will appeal mostly to students of sociology who want an enjoyable introduction to cultural sociology. The enjoyable and easy to read writing style will provide a good opportunity for newcomers to link sociological concepts with their own 'real-world' observation.

Tristan Kennedy
Flinders University of South Australia