Conference Paper

The Elite Potlatch: Gifts, Girls, and Distinction Among the Global VIP

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As income and wealth concentration reach historic highs, sociological research on inequality has begun to focus on the social and cultural lives of the world’s “one percent.” This article presents rare ethnographic data on spending behaviors among the increasingly global elite and documents how the nouveau riche convert their economic capital into symbolic and social capital. Central to such conversions are gift giving rituals and exchanges of women. Based on two years of observations at high-end nightclubs in the global VIP leisure circuit, as well as 70 interviews with club organizers and guests, I document how gift giving is a central condition of conspicuous consumption among nightclub patrons, who distinguish amongst themselves through the display of beautiful women and the display, wasting, and gifting of high-priced bottles of alcohol in ritualized potlatches. I develop the concept of girl capital to describe women as a resource for status-seeking men. Club promoters work to accumulate and mobilize girl capital through the circulation of gifts, perks, favors and intimacies to establish reciprocity; thus, free goods sustain relationships between paid brokers (men) and unpaid women, thus masking the labor behind conspicuous leisure and framing economic relationships as friendships. Additionally, women are themselves circulated as gifts among men, largely through their symbolic presence on display. Thus this article documents two levels through which gifting practices sustain structural gender inequalities and uphold a traffic in women system: gifts to recruit women and women as gifts. This article also demonstrates how gifting practices are fundamental to stratification among elites. Lastly, this article genders elite space by revealing the logics of gendered worth within a contemporary high-society arena, one which recognizes and rewards economic capital for men but bodily capital for women.

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Social theories of giving have often been shaped by anthropological accounts that present it as a form of pre-market reciprocal exchange, yet this exchangist discourse obscures important contemporary giving practices. This article discusses two types of giving that confound the exchangist model: (1) sharing practices within the family; and (2) free gifts to strangers. Once we reject understandings of giving derived from analyses of non-modern economies, it is possible to see that the gift economy is not a rare survival but rather is a central element of contemporary society and indeed the contemporary economy. The task for social theory is not to anachronize giving but to make sense of the variety and complexity of actual contemporary giving practices. This article offers the categories of free and positional gifts as a contribution to this analysis.
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