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'A very expensive ordinary life': Consumption, symbolic boundaries and moral legitimacy among New York elites

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Abstract

Scholarship on elites, including on their consumption, tends to focus primarily on social closure and the pursuit of social advantage. Research has therefore not investigated the meanings and morality of elites' lifestyle choices, particularly from the perspective of the wealthy themselves. Yet understanding this lived experience is critical to understanding the cultural dimensions of inequality. This article draws primarily on in-depth interviews with 50 affluent New Yorkers to analyze their spending practices, discourses and conflicts. My respondents worked hard to frame their consumer choices as meeting reasonable, 'normal' needs, representing their consumption as basic, family-oriented and prudent, and drawing explicit symbolic boundaries against ostentation, materialism and excess. I argue that these discourses illuminate their struggles to feel morally worthy of privilege, and expand our understanding of a cultural vocabulary of legitimate entitlement in the USA, to include consumption as well as hard work. Furthermore, these discourses illuminate symbolic boundaries that are incongruous with social boundaries, as they appeal to middle-class symbolism. By theorizing consumption discourse as a site of legitimation as well as exclusion for elites, the article highlights another mechanism by which extreme inequality is made acceptable. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press and the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics. All rights reserved.

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... Sociologists have exposed how the symbolic boundary between social groups furnishes ideas about who belongs in elite settings, contributing to restricted access to these environments and the opportunities and resources they offer (Lamont, 1992(Lamont, , 2000Rivera, 2012). The symbolic boundary that demarcates elite standing in society juggles multiple demands, serving not only as a site of exclusion, but also of justification and legitimation of elite entitlement that shields those at the top from potential threats (Sherman, 2017(Sherman, , 2018. Management scholars have noted a similar function of the symbolic boundary between market categories, showing how a well-defined symbolic boundary conveys a new category's superiority over an incumbent (Weber et al., 2008) and contributes to its positioning by shaping social valuations and access to resources (Grodal, 2018;Hsu & Grodal, 2021). ...
... With mounting evidence that the symbolic boundary demarcating an elite category may be a temporary and somewhat tenuous settlement (Pedeliento et al., 2020) vulnerable to disruption and change, questions of endurance loom large. Threats to a symbolic boundary can undermine the status distinction of an elite category because they contest the meanings that distinguish it from others (Grodal, 2018;Wry et al., 2011) and can delegitimate the category and thus dilute its exclusivity (Hsu & Grodal, 2021;Lamont & Fournier, 1992;Sherman, 2018). ...
... In line with this work, we observe how heightened tensions between expressions of exclusivity and consonance coincide with increased social critique of an elite category and encroachment by non-elite competitors, giving rise to periodic symbolic boundary disruption. However, we find that for decades preceding disruption, those same elements can be held in productive balance to forge a potent symbolic boundary settlement by setting a category apart as elite and also justifying this distinction (e.g., Sherman, 2017Sherman, , 2018. ...
... Other analysts take a different tack, arguing that omnivorousness does indicate a meaningful cultural shift, but one reflecting a wider "meritocratic turn" among elites who are increasingly keen to distance themselves from ascribed advantage and instead play up their "ordinariness" and "normality"-particularly in public settings (Jarness and Friedman 2017;Khan 2012a;Savage, Bagnall, and Longhurst 2001;Sherman 2018). Hahl, Zuckerman, and Kim (2017), for example, focus on the distinctive appeal of lowbrow tastes for elite omnivores. ...
... In particular, they are activities widely perceived to be prosocial, pursued for intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, and not associated with the highbrow aesthetics synonymous with Bourdieusian processes of (mis)recognition. We thus argue that elites' increasing proclivity to register these everyday recreations in public represents another means through which they seek to establish their authenticity, normality, and ordinariness (Savage et al. 2015;Sherman 2018), and ward off moral suspicions that their highbrow or aristocratic tastes may position them as snobbish, status-seeking, and aloof. 40 We would thus summarize the contemporary mode of "ordinary elite distinction" in the following way. ...
... Yet we would speculate that these patterns may be plausibly connected. Put simply, as elites have pulled away economically from other social groups, there is evidence that they have become increasingly insecure about their moral legitimacy, and increasingly sensitive to public concern that they are only motivated by extrinsic rewards (Hecht 2017;Sherman 2018). In this context, the connotations of ordinariness that accompany practices such as spending time with family, friends, and pets may act as an effective means to shore up moral legitimacy and signal authenticity in an era of rising inequality. ...
Article
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How do elites signal their superior social position via the consumption of culture? We address this question by drawing on 120 years of “recreations” data ( N = 71,393) contained within Who’s Who, a unique catalogue of the British elite. Our results reveal three historical phases of elite cultural distinction: first, a mode of aristocratic practice forged around the leisure possibilities afforded by landed estates, which waned significantly in the late-nineteenth century; second, a highbrow mode dominated by the fine arts, which increased sharply in the early-twentieth century before gently receding in the most recent birth cohorts; and, third, a contemporary mode characterized by the blending of highbrow pursuits with everyday forms of cultural participation, such as spending time with family, friends, and pets. These shifts reveal changes not only in the contents of elite culture but also in the nature of elite distinction, in particular, (1) how the applicability of emulation and (mis)recognition theories has changed over time, and (2) the emergence of a contemporary mode that publicly emphasizes everyday cultural practice (to accentuate ordinariness, authenticity, and cultural connection) while retaining many tastes that continue to be (mis)recognized as legitimate.
... Second, these findings tell us a great deal about the public performance of elite lifestyles, their various enunciations online and their implications for the reproduction and normalization of inequality in our cultural and economic landscape. Understanding these enunciations is critical at a time in which inequality is rapidly worsening and in which elites hold a startingly disproportionate share of all wealth (Serafini & Maguire, 2019;Sherman 2018). ...
... While envy has typically been conceived in negative terms (Hughes, 2007), aspiration is widely celebrated as a natural emotional response in reply to the lives and lifestyles we see, but do not yet share. Indeed, aspiration is often couched within broader conversations surrounding upward mobility, meritocracy or the virtue of hard work and success (Schor, 1998;Serafini & Maguire, 2019), eclipsing concerns related to the moral legitimacy of wealth inequality and the social distance separating the haves and have nots (Kantola & Kuusela, 2019;Sayer, 2005Sayer, , 2016Sherman, 2018). Questions surrounding these emotions and the boundaries and inequalities they surround are seldomly asked of the very wealthy and are instead posed to low and middle-income consumers. ...
... Questions surrounding these emotions and the boundaries and inequalities they surround are seldomly asked of the very wealthy and are instead posed to low and middle-income consumers. Though not without its merit, this approach has side-stepped opportunities to study "power and inequality from above" (Khan, 2012, p. 362;Sherman, 2018), and thus limited our understanding of the ways in which elites construct their lives and lifestyles, naturalize their privilege and reproduce inequality. ...
Article
YouTube videos document the purchase and “unboxing” of status goods, highlighting the intense emotional fervor that follows. Commenters respond with praise while expressing envy for the goods on their person. Taken together, online videos and the comments that attend them raise a number of questions about how we evaluate fashion purchases and the boundaries and inequalities these purchases bring to light. Using a sample of 10 widely viewed online videos and over 2,700 public comments in reply to these, I provide an analysis of boundary work in a context of extreme privilege. I do this with a critical eye towards the ways in which commenters leverage envy and aspiration to both bridge boundaries and draw distinctions online.
... The income share of the top 1% of the population has been used by academics, international organizations and social movements to measure, study and mobilize against rising inequality (Atkinson et al., 2011;Piketty, 2014;Oxfam, 2014;OECD, 2015). At the same time, however, studies have also highlighted that many citizens legitimate income differences as meritocratically deserved (Sachweh, 2012;Mijs, 2021) and that 'elites' use the argument of meritocracy to justify their advantage, claiming that it is based on their hard work and talent (Khan, 2011(Khan, , 2012aSherman, 2017aSherman, , 2018Kantola and Kuusela, 2018;Schimpfö ssl, 2018;Kuusela, 2020). Nevertheless, we need to advance our understanding of the cultural processes McCall et al., 2014) ...
... Pupils in elite boarding schools in the USA are expected to be smart and work hard (Gaztambide-Ferná ndez, 2009) and they learn to explain their privilege as a result of their hard work and talent (Khan, 2011). Furthermore, wealthy New Yorkers, including 'stay-at-home mothers' and inheritors, legitimate their privilege by stressing their work ethic in addition to their reasonable consumption choices (Sherman, 2017b(Sherman, , 2018. Russian art collectors talk about the hard work they have put into their passion (Schimpfö ssl, 2018), Finnish top earners view their rewards as meritocratically deserved (Kuusela, 2020) and Finnish entrepreneurs see themselves as hardworking risk takers even though their lifestyles are leisurely and may include lengthy sabbaticals (Kantola and Kuusela, 2018). ...
... My findings are based on the analysis of 30 in-depth interviews with top income earners in the UK, the majority of who work in the finance industry in London. Interviews are suitable for researching lived experiences and understanding the micro-level practices that make up cultural processes (Lamont and Swidler, 2014;Sherman, 2018). The interview data are particularly valuable for studying how top income earners understand inequality and their own incomes because, as Pugh (2013, p. 50) has argued, interviews elicit cultural information including what counts as 'honorable' in participants' social setting. ...
Article
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Though the literature on perceptions of inequality and studies of ‘elites’ have identified the importance of meritocratic beliefs in legitimating inequality, little is known about the role of pay setting processes in sustaining ideals of meritocracy. Drawing on 30 in-depth interviews with UK-based top income earners working mainly in finance, I analyse how top income earners perceive economic inequality. My study highlights the crucial role of performance pay for perceptions that top incomes are meritocratically deserved. Participants expressed the view that performance pay, an increasingly prevalent pay-setting practice, ensures that top incomes reflect a share of economic ‘value created’ for shareholders, clients or investors. Focusing on narrow, economic criteria of evaluation perceived as objective, the majority of respondents (‘performance pay meritocrats’) justified any income difference as deserved if it reflects economic contribution. Meanwhile, a minority of respondents (‘social reflexivists’) applied broader evaluative criteria including distributive justice and social contributions.
... 1 Examples of these advancements include analyses of the historical antecedents of large-scale taste formation (e.g., Lena 2019), how elite tastes have shifted over time (Friedman and Reeves 2020), the relationship between taste and networks (Lewis and Kaufman 2018), and new articulations of the relationship between taste and social status (e.g., Bennett et al. 2009;Skiles 2016a, 2016b). Similarly, studies of taste discourses-how individuals explain and justify their aesthetic appreciations or cultural consumption preferences (e.g., Jarness and Friedman 2017;Johnston and Baumann 2009;Sherman 2018)-are collectively offering a way to understand the complex patterns we see in classed tastes. Our reading of this literature is that scholars are moving beyond an analysis of high-status taste as being for either narrowly defined consecrated culture or omnivorous openness to a range of objects and forms. ...
... Recently, variations on the configuration of inclusive and exclusive tastes among those of higher status have been found across a range of domains, including Israeli weddings (Kaplan 2013), Singaporean street food (Tam 2017), German wine consumption (Rössel, Schenk, and Eppler 2018;Rössel and Pape 2016), the U.S. sharing economy (Schor et al. 2016), and the general discourse around consumer goods in both the United States (Sherman 2018) and the Netherlands (van den Haak and Wilterdink 2019). Echoes of this type of balanced tasting can also be found in Friedman's (2014) study of comedy fans, in which those of higher status don't shy away from liking a generally unconsecrated cultural form like comedy but distinguish themselves among comedy fans by only liking a subset of comparatively "artistic" and high-status comics. ...
... It holds the view shared by Thomas Piketty (2014) and others that in order to work toward a reduction in economic inequality we need to better understand the historical and social conditions that lead to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Specifically, it joins the growing body of literature interested in what has come to be termed the 'elite' with the understanding that crucial to the success of this 1 project is the necessary examination of the social and cultural relations of those implicated in the reproduction of inequalities (Abbink & Salverda, 2013;Dorling, 2014;Gilbert & Sklair, 2018;Glucksberg, 2018;Green, 2013;Harrington, 2016;Ho, 2009;Holmqvist, 2017;Khan, 2011;Kuusela, 2018;Mcgoey & Thiel, 2018;Roberts, 2019;Salverda, 2010;Savage, 2014;Savage, M., & Holmwood, J., 2014;Savage, M., & Williams, K., 2008;Sherman, 2018). ...
Thesis
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This paper joins the growing body of literature that is interested in what has come to be referred to as the 'elite' in its attempt to understand the social and cultural relations of those implicated in the unequal distribution of wealth in society. Drawing on the findings of a discourse analysis of financial investment publications and the theoretical conceptualisation of practice theory I lay out four thematic frameworks through which this system of values and ideas is disseminated, embodied and reproduced. By connecting the findings of this research with existing ethnographic studies of elites and David Graeber's anthropological theory of value I examine the intrinsic meaning of these practices. I argue that these discourses become reproduced through the embodiment of rhetorical devices that project the need to i) construct social identity around affluent displays of wealth, ii) take risks and embody a 'culture of smartness', iiI) prepare for the future and preserve one's longevity, and iv) seek finality through these practices. As such I determine that the intrinsic value of material wealth accumulation is a system of deeply embedded social and cultural processes through which individuals attempt to create meaning in social life.
... Our other group consisted of 30 participants who were either (self-)employed or employers in the City of London, and whose income placed them within the top 1% of the UK distribution. 2 The rich participants were recruited through a combination of convenience sampling, direct "cold call" approaches and snowballing; a mixed strategy is common with such "hard to reach" groups (Neely, 2018;Sherman, 2018). Participants in this sample had very high levels of wealth: two-thirds had wealth higher than £1.4 m (placing them within the top 1% of households; Hills & Bastagli, 2013); seven participants had a net worth of at least £50 million, of whom five had fortunes greater than £100 million, and three indicated that they featured on the Sunday Times Rich List. ...
Article
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In the literatures on the lived experience of poverty and richness temporal dimensions are underappreciated. Comparing qualitative interviews with those at opposite ends of the income and wealth distributions in the UK, we examine a temporal contrast: while “poor” participants experience money as flows of income which focus orientation to the present and constrain orientation to the future, “rich” participants experience money not only as flows of income, but also in the form of a stock of wealth which facilitates long‐term orientations. Highlighting the enduring nature of wealth and the comparative short‐termism of income, we argue that the way in which capital and income relates to individuals' orientations to the future is important for understanding how economic inequality is experienced. Put differently, the form which economic resources take matters for one's ability to plan and control the future. This insight contributes to our understanding of the experience of being economically advantaged or disadvantaged, with implications for (social) policy.
... We do not want to assume, however, that the outcomes of this labor always function as capital -for example that all tastes constitute (or express) cultural capital -or that the goal of social action is always to increase distinction (see Daloz, 2013;Sayer, 2005). Indeed, the ambivalence we describe below about class position complicates this kind of assumption, as does the ambivalence across the sample as a whole about consumption (Sherman, 2018). ...
... Solo cuatro entrevistadas no ejercen su profesión actualmente. Este perfil de participantes es coherente con trabajos previos que plantean que la pertenencia a la élite está dada por distintos roles, considerando que existen enormes inequidades de género en las posiciones de poder (pnud, 2020) y que el acceso a herencias familiares o la existencia de un cónyuge en posiciones de poder puede dar espacio a ocupaciones más tradicionales o de menor remuneración (Sherman, 2018). Asimismo, puesto que las mujeres ocupan un rol determinante en los procesos de crianza (Madrid, 2017;Reay, 2004), este tipo de muestra permitió aproximarse en profundidad a las dinámicas familiares y al proceso de elección escolar, un ámbito de decisiones que, por el exclusivo tipo de colegios seleccionado para este trabajo, es crucial para alcanzar posiciones de élite. ...
Article
Este artículo aborda la construcción y reproducción de privilegios en la mirada de hombres y mujeres de élite en Santiago de Chile. Basándose en 24 entrevistas semiestructuradas realizadas a madres y padres de cinco prestigiosos colegios, se presentan tres dimensiones del privilegio que configuran distintas actitudes hacia la riqueza: remisión al pasado familiar, aprovechamiento de oportunidades, y actitud de naturalidad. Así entendido, el privilegio incide en la selección de un determinado establecimiento educativo, aunque este adquiere distintas comprensiones en cada uno. El artículo releva la importancia de la construcción de privilegios como clave para expandir la investigación sobre las élites y la reproducción de desigualdades. / This paper deals with the process of construction and reproduction of privilege as seen by elite members in Santiago de Chile. Based on 24 semi-structured interviews with school parents of five prestigious high-schools, we present three dimensions of privilege, which specify different attitudes towards wealth: reference to family history, taking advantage of opportunities, and an attitude of ease. Thus, we show the influence of privilege on school choice, though schools understand it in different ways. This paper asserts the importance of privilege creation as a crucial process to expand elite research and the ways inequality is reproduced.
... It is important to note that all of the work noted above, on how people understand their own lives in relation to inequality, suggests people are unlikely to foreground structural explanations for their lives and rather tell individual, biographical, stories (cf Savage, 2015). Indeed, the individual 'middling' biographical narrative is common even with those at the very top of the social scale (Sherman, 2018). What is notable about our interviewees is the distance between their 'inequality talk' about the CCIs, and their understandings of their own lives and careers. ...
Article
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Cultural Studies has drawn attention to the way that cultural and creative industries are marked by significant inequalities. This article explores how these inequalities are maintained, through fieldwork with senior men making decisions in cultural and creative industries. Drawing on 32 interviews with senior men across a range of cultural and creative industry occupations, conducted as part of a larger (N = 237) project, the analysis shows that misrecognition and outright rejection of inequalities are now not the norm. Rather, ‘inequality talk’ and the recognition of structural barriers for marginalised groups is a dominant discourse. However, individual careers are still explained by gentlemanly tropes and the idea of luck, rather than by reference to structural inequalities. The distance between the discourse of career luck and ‘inequality talk’ helps to explain the persistence of exclusions from the workforce for those who are not white, middle class origin, men. This has important implications for inequalities in cultural production and consumption, and in turn for wider social inequality.
... The findings indicate that Finnish top earners have a strong tendency to either ignore or approve the existing economic inequalities to justify their own economic position. The results, thus, lend further support to recent studies that have described how the affluent legitimize their privileges as they find themselves in need of new forms of justification (Hecht, 2017;Sherman, 2018). Beyond presenting a significant case study with rare qualitative data, the article offers new perspectives on the cultural processes behind growing inequalities and advances the nascent discussion on elite forms of legitimation with three substantive observations. ...
Article
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The article explores the attitudes and perceptions of those at the top of the income scale toward economic inequalities. Through a qualitativecase study, it presents how a group of top 0.1% of earners in Finland—one of the most equal countries in the world—perceive and legitimize economic disparities in an era of rising inequalities. By drawing together studies of economic inequality with the sociology of elites, the article analyzes the cultural repertoires through which the top earners make sense of inequality. As its key finding, it introduces the concept of hyperopia of wealth to describe the discursive blindness that the wealthy respondents have toward the structural conditions of economic disparities. The results indicate that top earners have a tendency to either ignore or approve the existing inequalities while disregarding the role of the wealthy and wealth in the dynamics. This blindness is named as hyperopia of wealth, analogous to a condition in which one cannot see things that are close clearly.
... Furthermore, symbolic boundaries exist at the intersubjective level and are conceptual distinctions made by social actors' unfolding in group memberships through the feeling of similarity (Lamont & Molnár, 2002). The differential access to resources or opportunities can be explained through symbolic boundaries between and among social groups, which are shaped by gender, age, economic status and ethnicity (Sherman, 2018;Wessendorf, 2020). ...
Article
This study explores how children perceive social boundaries in rural Pakistan. It discusses that children develop and navigate their social relationships through their perception of social boundaries, which are shaped by kinship and sociospatial organisation in rural areas. Children's perception of social boundaries is also mediated through the intersectionality of their age and social group affiliation. An ethnographic case study of a village in Southern Punjab, Pakistan, is presented here. It uses a quantifiable photo‐elicitation technique and social mapping to analyse children's everyday mobilities and intersectionality in the cultural context of rural Pakistan to illustrate their perception of social boundaries.
... Any missteps in terms of 'deviant behavior', including voicing concerns about any negative aspects of the culture and social context, will therefore likely not only risk an individual's standing in such a world; but the status of the community itself. Essentially, consecration is about maintaining exclusivity for a select group of people, much in the same way as selective, and non-meritocratic admission criteria operate at elite schools (see Karabel, 2005;Stevens, 2009); and they contribute to making extreme social and economic inequality seem acceptable, by offering elites a sense of entitlement (see Sherman, 2018). As a result, the risk of desecration is something that constantly needs to be taken seriously by members of elite communities. ...
Article
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In this article I report observations from an ethnographic study of a Swedish economic elite community, including interviews with residents and service staff, and participant observations in various social contexts stretching over a period of five years that can contribute to an understanding of how elite communities respond to potential social deviance among its members, such as feelings of insufficiency and stress, thus trying to avoid any ‘desecration’ of their social and cultural capital. Specifically, I examine how the practices through which desecration is avoided, for example the exclusion of unwanted members, interplay in the further consecration of the communities, thus maintaining and strengthening elites’ status and standing, Studying the problems and difficulties experienced by elites in their neighborhood settings, and how they try to manage them, is potentially an important step forward to better analyze and understand the way powerful groups in contemporary society maintain and strengthen their privileges and power.
... upper-middle class, college-degree holders), often confounding the concept of elites with that of class (e.g. Khan 2010;Sherman 2018). Second, elites are generally perceived as being either selfishly interested in in-group reproduction or unaware of their own privilege and role in social exclusion (e.g. ...
... With this aim, we turn to observe how the super-rich modify the social dimension of a space and place themselves in it (Barbera et al., 2016;Hay & Muller, 2012). This is a promising way to address the super-rich lifestyle and the externalities for the society it produces (Serafini & Smith Maguire, 2019;Sherman, 2018 ...
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What is the sociological understanding of the super-rich? To address this question, we propose and further elaborate three interconnected lines of investigation. After highlighting some plausible criteria for identifying the super-rich, we deal first with the generative and reproductive mechanisms underpinning the huge wealth concentration emerging over the last decades. Second, we dissect the nexus between the super-rich and places, i.e., how the super-rich shape the spaces to implement their housing strategies, consumption patterns, and lifestyle. By doing so, we will also show how the super-rich transform spaces into social arenas in which they stand out through an original form of distinction made up of recognition and invisibility. Third, we will focus on the dynamics and the behaviours that help the super-rich gain social acceptance. This three-step analysis allows us to pinpoint in the conclusions some regressive outcomes in economic, social, and political terms fostered by the increasing concentration of private wealth.
... The social norms that regulate economic affairs also pertain to high-income households. On the basis of empirical studies, Lamont (1992) and Sherman (2018) show that the wealthiest income groups in the USA and France signal a distance to financial and economic affairs, treating them essentially as issues of marginal interest. Sherman (2018) even claims that representatives of high net worth households in New York City downplay their level of consumption and instead actively fashion a credible, generic middle-class identity for themselves, just like anyone else leading a "normal life," but perhaps avoiding some of the hardships of less fortunate familiesa modest social position that can be justified in the face of criticism. ...
Purpose Indie developers are part of the creative fringe of the video game industry, fashioning an identity for themselves as a community committed to the development of video games as a cultural expression and art form. In playing this role, money-making is ambiguous inasmuch as economic return is honorable if such interests remain unarticulated and execute minimal influence on the development work process, while the possibility of producing a successful commercial video game is simultaneously one of the primary motivations for new industry entrants. The paper aims to discuss this issue. Design/methodology/approach The paper reports on the empirical material drawn from a study of indie video game developers in Sweden, a leading country for video game development. Findings To reconcile tensions between video game development in terms of being both cultural/and artistic production and business activity, easily compromising the perceived authenticity of the subject in the eyes of audiences (e.g. hardcore gamers), indie developers distinguish between monetary motives ex ante and compensation ex post the release of the game. Indie developers thus emphasize the metonymic function of money as this not only indicates economic value and currency but also denotes a number of business practices that indie developers have otherwise avoided in their career planning as they believe these practices would restrain their creativity and skills. Originality/value The study contributes to the scholarship on video game development, the literature on creative industries, and the economic sociology literature examining the social meaning of money and how social norms and values are manifested in professional ideologies and practices.
... Elites' detachment from everyday life, long cultivated as a status symbol (Veblen 1945;DiMaggio 1982b;Levine 1988), is now considered a liability. Recent research shows contemporary elites feel the need to appear ordinary, open, and able to engage in any context (Khan 2011;Sherman 2018;Friedman and Reeves 2020). This finding echoes the literature on cultural omnivorousness, which from the start argued that broad cultural tastes spanning many genres can help those with prestigious tastes avoid accusations of elitism (Peterson and Kern 1996;Peterson 1997). ...
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How do elite cultural tastes—which both skew towards consecrated, “highbrow” culture and are particularly wide-ranging—produce advantage during social interactions? Prior research argues that cultural omnivorousness helps high-status individuals avoid accusations of elitism or inauthenticity. Another line of research highlights how shared cultural tastes can spark social connection. We bring these two literatures together to show that wide-ranging tastes help highbrows be more desirable to potential collaborators through cultural matching. Aggregating data on 466 participants across six experiments, we find that highbrows are considered higher status but not more desirable as work partners. Highbrows benefit from broad cultural tastes to the extent they emphasize tastes shared with potential partners: participants rated highbrow partners as both higher status and more desirable if they shared similar cultural tastes. This suggests elites are motivated to be flexible in their self-presentation to reap benefits their cultural tastes offer during social interactions.
... A promising path to this end may be to frame questions of distinction and openness in terms of what Lamont (1992Lamont ( , 2000 has called symbolic boundary work (for more recent contributions, see Friedman and Kuipers 2013;Jarness and Friedman 2017;Michael 2015;Sherman 2018;Skjøtt-Larsen 2012). A crucial methodological point raised by Lamont is that whether and how people classify and judge others' way of life (or, conversely, whether and how they are tolerant and open) cannot be inferred from their tastes and attitudes; this can and should be assessed more directly by mapping whether and how subjective classifications, evaluations and judgements are expressed by social actors (Lamont 1992: 1-14). ...
... En la realidad chilena, definida por altas y persistentes desigualdades, la ocupación de cargos selectivos de alto prestigio en grandes empresas ubica a aquellos individuos en una posición ostensiblemente distanciada del resto de la sociedad, tanto en términos de ingreso como del ejercicio de influencia en decisiones relevantes para el país (Atria et al., 2017). Aunque el tiempo de ocupación de una posición, el rubro de la empresa u otras características pueden hacer variar el nivel de control o acceso a recursos, el foco en cargos de alto prestigio y nivel económico permite una aproximación a un grupo cuyas cuotas de poder divergen marcadamente del resto de la sociedad -independientemente de que decida ejercerloy cuya cercanía a beneficios y privilegios sociales es mucho más cercana que a sus perjuicios -independientemente de que sus comportamientos y patrones de consumo reflejen o no tal condición (Sherman, 2018)-. Este trabajo se concentra en individuos que detentan altas posiciones empresariales en los ámbitos financiero y tributario. ...
Article
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Resumen Este artículo aborda los fenómenos de construcción y persistencia de las élites desde una perspectiva de prácticas sociales, enfocándose específicamente en los procesos de distinción, justificación y reproducción. Con base en 53 entrevistas en profundidad a miembros de la élite económica en Santiago de Chile, se analizan distintas prácticas simbólicas, relacionales e institucionales asociadas a este grupo, favoreciendo la conservación de posiciones, privilegios y centralidad en el contexto de profundas transformaciones sociales y económicas en el país. Partiendo de estos hallazgos, el desarrollo económico chileno se muestra impulsado por prácticas apoyadas en procesos adscriptivos y no meritocráticos de asignación de posiciones y recursos. Palabras clave: reproducción de las élites; mérito; prácticas sociales; desigualdad; Chile. Abstract This article aims at understanding the issue of elite construction and persistence, focusing on processes of distinction, justification and reproduction, adopting a social practices’ perspective. Based on 53 in-depth interviews with members of the economic elite in Santiago de Chile, this paper describes and analyzes relational and institutional practices displayed by members of the elite, which allow them to preserve their positions, privilege, and centrality, despite the deep and steady transformations that Chilean society and economy have experienced recently. In Chile, economic institutions and dynamics show the persistence of ascriptive logics rather than meritocratic ones at the time of distributing valuable resources and positions. Keywords: elite reproduction; merit; social practices; inequality; Chile.
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Vilfredo Pareto’s legacy is uncertain; while his reputation in economics is secure, references to Pareto in contemporary sociology are few and fleeting. Sociologists and members of the public who are aware of Pareto’s non-economic work likely associate the Italian polymath with a single zoological image: the lions and the foxes. This phrase has found some currency in political sociology but has also recently been employed in the popular press to explain contemporary social and political change. Yet such references are often only vaguely connected to Pareto’s larger intellectual project. This article situates Pareto’s imagery of lions and foxes in relationship to his larger work in order to transform this popular-but-vague image into useable sociological concepts. These concepts are then used to interpret contemporary political changes. Several arguments about Pareto’s work are made in the course of this discussion: that Pareto was a cultural sociologist, that a culturalist understanding of religion played a central part in his explanations of social change, and that his theory of elites should supplement existing elite theory.
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There is increasing emphasis on understanding economic advantage alongside disadvantage – on studying both ‘poverty’ and ‘riches’. This trend prompts and requires new ethical reflection. I argue that in qualitative interview research, a clearer distinction needs to be drawn between ethical commitments to individual research participants, and the group(s) to which they belong. This distinction is often elided in ethics guidelines and when researchers discuss their own work. Attending to the distinction highlights a symmetrical ethical dilemma: researchers studying disadvantage are often motivated to further the interests of the wider group to which their participants belong, yet the study itself risks eliciting or exacerbating negative experiences or identities amongst participants themselves. Conversely, the process of studying advantage frequently bolsters the positive identities or experiences of individual study participants, even as the research findings challenge or subvert the interests of their group.
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Research on elites experienced a resurgence in sociology over a decade ago, but this work was largely gender neutral. Recently, a body of work on elite women and gender dynamics in elite families emerged and is growing rapidly. We propose here that gendered processes are critical for understanding the reproduction of elite privilege and inequality and highlight three subjects that dominate contemporary literature in this area. First, we address who counts as an elite and gender differences in pathways to the elite. Second, we discuss elite family dynamics and the mechanisms that create traditional gender divisions of labor in elite households. Third, we underscore the significant power that elites have and discuss gender differences in the sources of power. We conclude by identifying areas for future directions, including honing empirical and theoretical understandings of the complex relationship between gender and rising class inequality.
Article
In cultural markets, where value is highly uncertain, intermediaries and consumers select products by using status signals, including public metrics and informal recommendations. However, certain intermediaries and consumers risk their statuses and access to informal recommendations if they appear to rely on these status signals. Drawing upon the case of contemporary art collectors in New York City, I reveal that collectors work to maintain their statuses while utilizing status signals through performances of ‘aesthetic confidence’. In these performances, they claim a willingness to choose artworks based on their independent and good taste. Collectors flexibly cite multiple and sometimes opposing qualities of their purchases and interactions as evidence of aesthetic confidence. Higher status collectors reinforce status hierarchies through their privileged access to resources for displaying aesthetic confidence and their policing of lower status collectors’ claims. Performances of aesthetic confidence are both influenced by status and necessary for displaying status.
Article
Zusammenfassung Der Beitrag schlägt eine Aktualisierung der sozialfigurativen Beschreibung des homo ethnographicus vor. Ethnograf_innen werden seit Chicago School Gründungstagen als grenzgängerische Außenseiterfiguren porträtiert. Ausgehend von der Annahme enger Verwobenheit figurativsoziologischer und zeitdiagnostischer Beschreibungen gilt es – so die These der Autorin –, angesichts tiefgreifender Restrukturierungen in der gegenwärtigen US-amerikanischen Ethnografielandschaft die Figur der Ethnograf_innen neu zu charakterisieren. Dies geschieht auf empirischer Grundlage mittels „ big story “-Analysen biografischer Selbstthematisierungen Ethnografierender. Zentrales Ergebnis sind die Erzählmuster: Wege der Berufung und Wege der Wahl . Die darin vorgenommenen Subjektentwürfe weisen Homologien mit den sozialtheoretischen Grundorientierungen der Ethnograf_innen auf, die in deren Feldbeschreibungen wirksam sind. Ausgehend von diesen empirischen Einblicken, der Beobachtung sozialtheoretischer Ausdifferenzierung und daraus resultierenden Re-Positionierungsleistungen wird abschließend die Rekonzeptualisierung des homo ethnographicus als etablierter Außenseiter formuliert.
Article
Wealthy people can afford full-time domestic staff at home to be served every day. Some of them spend huge amount of money in domestic service. Working for the rich, domestic workers thus receive wages, gifts and compensations in kind. They can potentially improve their standard of living. Why do super-rich pay so much for their household staff? Following the intuition of Paul Segal about inequality as entitlement over labor, I argue that money as entitlement over labor rests on what I call the ‘golden’ exploitation of the workforce. Substantial rewards do not call into question the exploitative relationship. High value gifts and high salary support exploitation even in situations where it is most likely to be undermined. The case of the ‘super-rich’ domesticity illustrates a hidden production of social inequalities: money compensates for the unlimited drudgery of the employees.
Article
In the credential society, a sharp growth of the number of awards and prizes indicate an interest in assuming the authority to define quality, and to identify extraordinary accomplishments within certain jurisdictional domain. This ambition is associated not the least with ex ante awards, awards granted on basis of plans and documents that stipulate forthcoming material contributions, or other projected accomplishments. Drawing on actor network theory, the role of ex ante awards in the field of urban development is examined. Despite being epistemologically fragile entities, ex ante awards are organizationally significant as they operate as actants that provide a variety of benefits for equally award-winning agents and award-giving organizations, but also for the specific industry sector more generally. The article reports empirical data from two urban development projects in a major Swedish city, eventually receiving ex ante awards. Both projects were associated with desirable urban development qualities, boundary–spanning interests and objectives, and a recognition of shared social norms, and the awards given arguably served to strengthen the relationships between the actors included in the project work, at the same time as award-giving organizations advance their authority to define quality. The study contributes to the scholarly literature on awards by presenting an integrated analytical framework that shed light on the direct and indirect effects of formal awards. Awards and prizes are devices that enable control in credential societies, yet being undertheorized to date, and more research that examines how awards and prizes generate a variety of outcomes is welcome.
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This paper undertakes an intersectional analysis of the ways in which socio-economically elite higher education students in Chile reproduce privilege through everyday practices of whiteness and beauty. Drawing on qualitative data from interviews and observations with 20 privileged students at an elite Chilean university, the paper identifies and discusses the students’ ambiguous racial identifications and the racialized, classed and gendered ways in which privilege was enacted through practices of ‘beauty’ as a ‘natural’ embodied distinction. We discuss how ideals and practices of beauty were a ‘double edged sword’ for elite female students, conferring advantage while also denying academic authenticity. We argue that Chilean elite performances of whiteness offer an added layer of complexity to existing literature, problematising and decentring performances of whiteness from white bodies. We conclude by suggesting that an intersectional lens offers a useful way to understand and address the re/production of inequalities in Chilean elite universities.
Thesis
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Increasingly, Canadian young adults delay their moves from the family home or return to live with parents after a period away. Though research has identified some of the economic, developmental, cultural, and interpersonal factors related to this practice, virtually no researchers have interpreted the meanings and experiences of parent adult-child relationships in this context. The aim of this qualitative research was to examine how young adults living at home experience and construct their parent-child relationships. Data was collected through semi-structured and life history interviews with 15 Canadian young adults (ages 23 to 33). Drawing on phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions, meanings of experience were reconstructed by relating part-whole relationships at several levels: between textual segments and broader categories and themes; between individual participants and the sample as a whole; between the data and concepts borrowed from moral anthropology, moral philosophy, and cultural psychology; and between the current findings and the state of knowledge on coresidence. Findings describe how participants experience and construct their relationships to their parents through diverse “styles of relatedness”: caregiving and receiving, the transmission and reception of authority, tyranny and subjection, collective negotiation, caregiving within the family system, common household civility, and companionate friendship. Participants’ experiences within and across these styles of relatedness clustered into three worlds of the family: 1) A balanced and robust family world, 2) An imbalanced and delicate family world, and 3) A frozen family world. These worlds varied by their incorporation of diverse styles of relatedness, their depths of mutual understanding, and their balance of joint involvement (according to the young adults). Based on these findings, I draw four conclusions. First, I claim that coresiders’ experiences of the parent-child bond cannot be adequately represented by a single world of experience. Second, I argue that an eclectic repertoire of styles of relatedness supports young adults’ meaningful belonging in the parental home, fulfilling multiple functions that complement, supplement, and counterbalance one another. Third, I claim that to live a good life with their parents, coresident young adults require not only the abstract knowledge of styles of relatedness, but also the competence to discern when, where, and how these styles ought to be performed. Fourth, I show that young adults constitute themselves as capable persons by cultivating and performing a repertoire of styles of relatedness – ideally undertaking this work alongside their parents in a joint project of moral becoming (Mattingly, 2014; Ricoeur, 1990/1992).
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This seminar will focus on recent research in cultural sociology and sociology more broadly. It will consider topics such as: How does culture contribute to inequality? Where does cultural change come from? How do groups gain recognition? How is the public sphere structured? It will also consider cultural processes and sociological explanations by focusing on new developments in microsociology, the sociology of morality, and evaluation.
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Recent research on parenting and social class has identified cultivation strategies that focus on expanding children’s skills and advantages, but such work has not looked specifically at parenting among elites. Drawing on 50 in-depth interviews, this article investigates the childrearing strategies and discourses of wealthy and affluent parents living in and around New York City. Concerned about raising “entitled” children, elite parents employ strategies of constraint (on behavioral and material entitlements) and exposure (to less advantaged social others) to produce morally “good people.” However, these strategies stand in tension with another significant parental concern: the expansion of both children’s selfhood and their opportunities. Ultimately, though not quite intentionally, parents cultivate an appropriate habitus of privilege, rather than significantly limit their children’s material or experiential advantages. Parents’ discourses about constituting not-entitled subjects are important for two reasons. One, they illuminate the struggles of liberal elites to be morally worthy in an environment marked by extreme inequality, challenging assumptions about the instrumentality of their action. Two, they reveal the affective and behavioral bases of legitimate entitlement more generally: what matters is how people act and how they feel, not what they have.
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This article concerns an insufficiently studied link in cultural class analysis, namely that between class-structured lifestyle differences and social closure. It employs a modified version of Michèle Lamont’s promising, yet under-theorised approach to the study of symbolic boundaries – the conceptual distinctions made by social actors in categorising people, practices, tastes, attitudes and manners in everyday life. Drawing on 46 qualitative interviews with people from the city of Stavanger, Norway, the analysis focuses particularly on a horizontal boundary-drawing dynamic between middle-class interviewees. It is argued that entanglements of different types of status judgements work both to construct and reinforce social boundaries between class fractions. The findings draw attention to what Pierre Bourdieu has termed the capital composition principle of social differentiation. Though fundamental to Bourdieu’s model of the social space, such systematic intra-class divisions have seldom been discussed in detail in contemporary cultural-stratification research.
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This paper provides a framework for understanding the ways in which social processes produce social inequality. Specifically, we focus on a particular type of social process that has received limited attention in the literature and in which inter-subjective meaning-making is central: cultural processes. Much of the literature on inequality has focused on the actions of dominant actors and institutions in gaining access to material and non-material resources, or on how ecological effects cause unequal access to material resources. In contrast, we focus on processes that contribute to the production (and reproduction) of inequality through the routine and taken-for-granted actions of both dominant and subordinate actors. We highlight two types of cultural processes: identification and rationalization. We describe and illustrate four processes that we consider to be significant analytical exemplars of these two types of cultural processes: racialization and stigmatization (for identification) and standardization and evaluation (for rationalization). We argue that attention to such cultural processes is critical and complementary to current explanations of social inequality.
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This article examines the cultivation of transnational connections, cosmopolitanism and global class consciousness among members of elite social clubs in Paris. Drawing from interviews with members, it compares how – according to their respective characteristics – various social clubs promote different kinds of bourgeois cosmopolitanism, while rejecting the more recent internationalism of upper-middle-class service clubs such as the Rotary. Each club's peculiar ethos, practice and representations of social capital are related to the features of competing clubs through relations of mutual symbolic distinction; for example, some clubs emphasize the ‘genuineness’ of links while stigmatizing others for the accent they put on utility. The varied forms of cosmopolitanism that they promote partly replicate these logics of distinction, eliciting struggles over the authenticity or inauthenticity of transnational connections. Yet, clubs also oppose each other according to the unequal emphasis that they place on international ties per se, which creates a competing axiology within the symbolic economy of social capital accumulation.
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Against the background of recent methodological debates pitting ethnography against interviewing, this paper offers a defense of the latter and argues for methodological pluralism and pragmatism and against methodological tribalism. Drawing on our own work and on other sources, we discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of interviewing. We argue that concern over whether attitudes correspond to behavior is an overly narrow and misguided question. Instead we offer that we should instead consider what interviewing and other data gathering techniques are best suited for. In our own work, we suggest, we have used somewhat unusual interviewing techniques to reveal how institutional systems and the construction of social categories, boundaries, and status hierarchies organize social experience. We also point to new methodological challenges, particularly concerning the incorporation of historical and institutional dimensions into interview-based studies. We finally describe fruitful directions for future research, which may result in methodological advances while bringing together the strengths of various data collection techniques.
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In recent years, the concept of boundaries has been at the center of influential research agendas in anthropology, history, political science, social psychology, and sociology. This article surveys some of these developments while describing the value added provided by the concept, particularly concerning the study of relational processes. It discusses literatures on (a) social and collective identity; (b) class, ethnic/racial, and gender/sex inequality; (c) professions, knowledge, and science; and (d) communities, national identities, and spatial boundaries. It points to similar processes at work across a range of institutions and social locations. It also suggests paths for further developments, focusing on the relationship between social and symbolic boundaries, cultural mechanisms for the production of boundaries, difference and hybridity, and cultural membership and group classifications.
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The concept of cultural capital has been increasingly used in American sociology to study the impact of cultural reproduction on social reproduction. However, much confusion surrounds this concept. In this essay, we disentangle Bourdieu and Passeron's original work on cultural capital, specifying the theoretical roles cultural capital plays in their model, and the various types of high status signals they are concerned with. We expand on their work by proposing a new definition of cultural capital which focuses on cultural and social exclusion. We note a number of theoretical ambiguities and gaps in the original model, as well as specific methodological problems. In the second section, we shift our attention to the American literature on cultural capital. We discuss its assumptions and compare it with the original work. We also propose a research agenda which focuses on social and cultural selection and decouples cultural capital from the French context in which it was originally conceived to take into consideration the distinctive features of American culture. This agenda consists in 1) assessing the relevance of the concept of legitimate culture in the U.S.; 2) documenting the distinctive American repertoire of high status cultural signals; and 3) analyzing how cultural capital is turned into profits in America.
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Although some sociologists still connect cultural preferences with social class, others argue that postindustrial societies are no longer class-based societies and that contemporary cultural consumption patterns do not simply reflect class positions. This article addresses several theories that characterize the association between class and cultural consumption in contemporary society. It goes on to analyze the effect of class position on highbrow cultural consumption — using both leisure activities and cultural tastes — in Italy, Sweden, West Germany, Israel, and the U.S. It asks whether differences in cultural consumption, given other salient cleavages such as race/ethnicity, gender, and religious observance, are associated with class. Results show that class correlates with highbrow cultural consumption in different ways in the cases studied. The dividing line for consuming highbrow culture is located at the top of the class structure in Israel, the U.S., and Sweden; it is located at the bottom of the class structure in Italy and West Germany. Gender, race, and religious observance are important in conditioning culture consumption, but they do not fully mediate the association between class and cultural tastes.
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Emotional and psychic responses to class and class inequalities are routinely relegated to the realm of individual psychology if they are addressed at all. All too often in sociological research such psychic responses are individualized, pushed out of the wider social picture. However, in this article, I argue that there is a powerful dynamic between emotions, the psyche and class inequalities that is as much about the makings of class as it is about its consequences. In contemporary British society social class is not only etched into our culture, it is still deeply etched into our psyches, despite class awareness and class consciousness being seen as ‘a thing of the past’. In the article I draw on educational case studies to demonstrate some of the ways in which affective aspects of class – feelings of ambivalence, inferiority and superiority, visceral aversions, recognition, abjection and the markings of taste constitute a psychic economy of social class. This psychic economy, despite being largely ignored in both everyday commonsense understandings and academic theories, contributes powerfully to the ways we are, feel and act.
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This paper uses data gathered from an ESRC funded research project on social networks, social capital and lifestyle to provide an account of contemporary class identities derived from 178 in-depth interviews carried out in the Manchester area between 1997 and 1999. We use this data to unpack the ambivalent nature of contemporary class identities. We argue that despite the diversity of the sample, a number of common elements characterize people’s attitudes to class. People are more hesitant in placing themselves in classes than they are about talking class as a social and political issue. Most people wish to see themselves as ‘outside’ classes. Even so, class is a marker by which people relate their life histories, and most people are aware of class terminology. The major division in our sample is between those with the cultural capital to play reflexively with ideas of class, and those who lack these resources and feel threatened by the implications of relating class to their own personal identities. This latter group are mainly concerned to establish their own ‘ordinariness’, which we read as a defensive device to avoid the politics of being labelled in class terms. Both middle-class and working-class identities can be used to establish ordinariness. We argue that sociologists should not assume that there is any necessary significance in how respondents define their class identity in surveys. We use these findings to take forward debates deriving from Bourdieu regarding class identity.
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This study examines one of the most debated questions in the sociology of culture: Does Pierre Bourdieu's theory relating levels of cultural capital to consumption patterns apply to the contemporary United States? First, I summarize the innovative characteristics of Bourdieu's theory in relation to the Warnerian tradition of social class research. Next, I critique American appropriations of Bourdieu's theory of tastes and suggest that, in the contemporary United States, the theory should be reformulated to focus on consumption practices rather than consumption objects and on mass rather than high culture. Using this reformulation, I conduct an interpretive empirical study to investigate whether differences in cultural capital resources structure patterns of taste in a mideastern American county. Analyzing a series of ethnographic interviews, I describe six dimensions of taste that distinguish informants with high versus low cultural capital resources: material versus formal aesthetics, referential versus critical interpretations, materialism versus idealism, local versus cosmopolitan tastes, communal versus individualist forms of consumer subjectivity, and autotelic Versus self-actualizing leisure. These findings suggest that consumption continues to serve as a potent site for the reproduction of social class.
Book
This major new contribution to the study of consumption examines how dominant groups express and display their sense of superiority through material and aesthetic attributes, demonstrating that differences from one society to another, and across historical periods, challenge current understandings of elite distinction.
Article
‘Symbolic Boundaries’ are the lines that include and define some people, groups, and things while excluding others. These distinctions can be expressed through normative interdictions (taboos), cultural attitudes and practices, and patterns of likes and dislikes. They play an important role in the creation of inequality and the exercise of power. The term ‘symbolic boundaries’ also refers to the internal distinctions of classification systems and to temporal, spatial, and visual cognitive distinctions in particular. This article focuses on boundaries within and between groups. It discusses the history, current research, and future challenges of work on this topic.
Article
Why do workers participate in their own exploitation? This article moves beyond the situational production of consent that has dominated studies of the labor process and outlines the relational production of labor’s surplus value. Using a case of unpaid women who perform valuable work for VIP nightclubs, I present ethnographic data on the VIP party circuit from New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and Cannes, as well as 84 interviews with party organizers and guests. Party promoters, mostly male brokers, appropriate surplus value from women in four stages: recruitment, mobilization, performance, and control. Relational work between promoters and women, cemented by gifts and strategic intimacies, frames women’s labor as leisure and friendship, and boundary work legitimizes women’s work as distinct from sexual labor. When boundaries, media, and meanings of relationships do not appropriately align, as in relational mismatches, women experience the VIP party less as leisure and more as work, and they are less likely to participate. My findings embed the labor process in a relational infrastructure and hold insights for explaining why people work for free in culture and technology sectors of the post-Fordist economy.
Book
Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families, Unequal Childhoods explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are the frenetic families managing their children's hectic schedules of "leisure" activities; and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security. Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process of "concerted cultivation" designed to draw out children's talents and skills, while working-class and poor families rely on "the accomplishment of natural growth," in which a child's development unfolds spontaneously—as long as basic comfort, food, and shelter are provided. Each of these approaches to childrearing brings its own benefits and its own drawbacks. In identifying and analyzing differences between the two, Lareau demonstrates the power, and limits, of social class in shaping the lives of America's children. The first edition of Unequal Childhoods was an instant classic, portraying in riveting detail the unexpected ways in which social class influences parenting in white and African American families. A decade later, Annette Lareau has revisited the same families and interviewed the original subjects to examine the impact of social class in the transition to adulthood.
Book
As one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation, St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, has long been the exclusive domain of America's wealthiest sons. But times have changed. Today, a new elite of boys and girls is being molded at St. Paul's, one that reflects the hope of openness but also the persistence of inequality. In Privilege, Shamus Khan returns to his alma mater to provide an inside look at an institution that has been the private realm of the elite for the past 150 years. He shows that St. Paul's students continue to learn what they always have--how to embody privilege. Yet, while students once leveraged the trappings of upper-class entitlement, family connections, and high culture, current St. Paul's students learn to succeed in a more diverse environment. To be the future leaders of a more democratic world, they must be at ease with everything from highbrow art to everyday life--from Beowulf to Jaws--and view hierarchies as ladders to scale. Through deft portrayals of the relationships among students, faculty, and staff, Khan shows how members of the new elite face the opening of society while still preserving the advantages that allow them to rule.
Article
The cultural elite are believed to be under siege due to significant changes in the ‘workings’ of cultural capital. Despite such changes, there is very little information about the class subjectivities of the ‘cultural elite’ themselves. The present article seeks to contribute to this shortcoming by taking advantage of in-depth qualitative interviews with individuals possessing great levels of cultural capital in a highly egalitarian country, Norway. This study shows that while the interviewees experience lack of recognition and honour from ‘the people’, they are far from passively descending. The main demarcation to other groups seems not to be cultural taste, but instead the orientation towards culture, broadly defined. While egalitarian sentiments are voiced, this does not hinder cultural elite awareness, but rather dampens how this can be expressed in public – merged into a form of elitist egalitarianism.
Article
This article presents culture as a vehicle of labor market sorting. Providing a case study of hiring in elite professional service firms, I investigate the often suggested but heretofore empirically unexamined hypothesis that cultural similarities between employers and job candidates matter for employers' hiring decisions. Drawing from 120 interviews with employers as well as participant observation of a hiring committee, I argue that hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting; it is also a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms. Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles. Concerns about shared culture were highly salient to employers and often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity. I unpack the interpersonal processes through which cultural similarities affected candidate evaluation in elite firms and provide the first empirical demonstration that shared culture-particularly in the form of lifestyle markers-matters for employer hiring. I conclude by discussing the implications for scholarship on culture, inequality, and labor markets.
Article
A framework is proposed to analyze the relationships between social structure, patterns of artistic consumption and production, and the ways in which artistic genres are classified. This framework helps to integrate findings of consumption surveys and to explain the emergence of new artistic genres as a form of ritual classification. Societies' artistic classification systems vary along four dimensions: differentiation, hierarchy, universality, and boundary strength. These dimensions are affected by formal characteristics of social structure, the organization of educational systems, and internal relations among cultural dimensions. The dynamics of ritual classification are mediated according to whether artistic production is carried out through commercial, professional, or bureaucratic means.
Article
This article examines the methodological implications of the fact that what people say is often a poor predictor of what they do. We argue that many interview and survey researchers routinely conflate self-reports with behavior and assume a consistency between attitudes and action. We call this erroneous inference of situated behavior from verbal accounts the attitudinal fallacy. Though interviewing and ethnography are often lumped together as "qualitative methods," by juxtaposing studies of "culture in action" based on verbal accounts with ethnographic investigations, we show that the latter routinely attempts to explain the "attitude-behavior problem" while the former regularly ignores it. Because meaning and action are collectively negotiated and context-dependent, we contend that self-reports of attitudes and behaviors are of limited value in explaining what people actually do because they are overly individualistic and abstracted from lived experience.
Article
I provide quantitative evidence of a cultural phenomenon. Using data on musical dislikes from the 1993 General Social Survey, I link literatures on taste, racism, and democratic liberalism by showing that people use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike. Contrary to Bourdieu's (1984) prediction, musical exclusiveness decreases with education. Also, political tolerance is associated with musical tolerance, even controlling for educational attainment, and racism increases the probability of disliking genres whose fans are disproportionately non-White. Tolerant musical taste, however, is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness: Those genres whose fans have the least education - gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal - are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant. Broad familiarity with music genres is also significantly related to education. I suggest, therefore, that cultural tolerance constitutes multicultural capital as it is unevenly distributed in the population and evidences class-based exclusion.
Article
This article evaluates the claims of a small but active group of culture scholars who have used theoretical models of bifurcated consciousness to allege important methodological implications for research in culture. These scholars, whom I dub ‘cognitive culturalists’, have dismissed the utility of in-depth interviewing to access the visceral, causally powerful level of ‘practical consciousness’. I argue these scholars are misguided in their diagnosis of a problem (interviews can only access people's after-the-fact rationalizations), and their vision of a solution (culture scholars need to access the ‘snap judgments’ that map onto the subterranean level of practical consciousness). I contend these flaws are tied to a limited understanding of the kind of information available in interviews, particularly the in-depth interview subjected to interpretive analysis. Using data from a recent book project on commitment, I elaborate on four kinds of information harbored in interviews: the honorable, the schematic, the visceral and meta-feelings. I rely on these forms of data to argue for scholars to expect, and to use analytically – rather than strive to ‘solve’ theoretically – the contradictory cultural accounts that our research subjects evince. Furthermore, I demonstrate how interpretive interviewing allows researchers access to an emotional landscape that brings a broader, social dimension to individual motivation.
Article
This article describes the relationship between saying and doing. It argues that focusing on the discrepancy between participants’ accounts and their actions is one of the greatest analytical strengths of ethnography. We make this case by drawing upon an ethnography of an elite boarding school. We also reflect on the way that two ethnographers worked together to better understand the social significance of accounts that are incongruent with situated behavior. We conclude by arguing that qualitative researchers must be more sensitive to the different kinds of claims that can be made with interview versus observational data.
Article
Comparative research suggests that in some settings the conspicuous flaunting of one's assets is expected, while "unconspicuousness" is likely to be interpreted in terms of diffidence or lack of wherewithal. Conversely, in other contexts, distinction may require studied understatement, and an excessive concern with display of rank would eventually undermine one's reputation. Yet, social theorists have often tended to see only one side of the coin. The purpose of this article is to highlight complexity and propose various hypotheses for dealing with significant variations in elite behaviour, with a view to developing non-dogmatic interpretations of the logics underpinning conspicuousness and unconspicuousness.
Book
The world's super-rich, made up of just 11 million people, have access to about US$42.0 trillion of wealth. These are people who each have a spare million of "liquid" wealth. Their wealth is roughly equal to two thirds of global GDP. They own most of everything. As the editor of this books states ". . . library shelves and the pages of journals remain largely devoid of geographical work on the super-rich - a startling lacuna this volume sets out to fill". The super-rich now own most of the planet. During the last year their share fell slightly. Times may be changing. Now is the time to begin to study the super-rich in detail, especially if you are worried about where all the wealth has gone.
Article
There can be little doubt that the wealthiest Americans exert more political influence than the less affluent do. But there has been little systematic evidence about precisely what sorts of public policies the wealthy want government to pursue, or how the policy preferences of wealthy Americans resemble or differ from the preferences of ordinary citizens. Data from our recently completed SESA pilot study indicate that the top 1% or so of U.S. wealth-holders differ rather sharply from the American public over a number of important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. The more rarified, top 1/10th of 1% or so of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) appear on the average to hold still more conservative views – views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for an empirical puzzle: much public policy in the United States appears to deviate markedly from what the average U.S. citizen wants government to do. We discuss the implications of our findings for democratic theory.
Article
This article analyses the expectations and experiences of a group of Canadian working-class, first-generation university students. I outline the structural disadvantages, in terms of economic, social, and cultural capital, these young people encounter. Rather than viewing working-class status exclusively as a barrier, I show how these students draw on their working-class backgrounds to construct uniquely working-class moral advantages, such as those associated with a strong work ethic, maturity, responsibility, and real-life experiences, to overcome structural disadvantages.Their narratives of moral class advantages, however, lack class consciousness.They can be interpreted as individualistic strategies that draw on collective values. Ultimately, these working-class students hope to transcend their class position. Drawing on working-class moralities supports their claim for recognition as educated middle-class subjects, but with moral dispositions rooted in their social background and upbringing.
Article
In the luxury hotel, unequal entitlements between workers and guests - both to human attention and labor and to social and material resources generally - are prominent. Participant observation in two hotels shows that one of the myriad ways interactive workers respond to their subordinate position is to establish themselves as superior to others. They use comparative strategies of self to situate themselves as privileged on a range of symbolic hierarchies, including those of competence, authority, status, need, morality, intelligence, and cultural capital. Comparative ethnographic data on these judgments shows that they are not fixed categories in people’s heads but rather contradictory, context-dependent orientations. The article further argues that even as they establish workers as symbolically superior, these strategies also constitute some people as legitimately entitled to workers’ labor, thereby normalizing inequality between workers and guests.
Article
In the past twenty-five years, the literature on consumption has gained analytic power by positioning itself against the consumer critics of the twentieth century (Veblen, Adorno and Horkheimer, Galbraith, Baudrillard), arguing that these accounts were totalizing, theorized consumers as too passive, and simplified motives. The literature moved to micro-level, interpretive studies that are often depoliticized and lack a critical approach to the subject matter. The author argues that developments such as the emergence of a global production system, ecological degradation, and new findings on well-being warrant a reengagement with the critical tradition and macro-level critiques. This article considers three traditions—Veblenian accounts of status seeking, the Frankfurt School, and Galbraith and the economic approach to consumer demand— arguing that the flaws of these models are not necessarily fatal and that the debate about producer versus consumer sovereignty should be revisited in light of the changing political power of transnational corporations.
Article
Bourdieu's analysis of class and culture errs in neglecting two important aspects of social structure: social networks and class relations at work. He expects high-status culture to be useful in class because it is correlated with class, but culture used at work includes both genres related to class (used in domination) and genres unrelated to class (used in coordination). High-status culture is correlated with class but excluded, not used, in the competitive private sector. The most widely useful cultural resource is cultural variety, and social network variety is a better source of cultural variety than is class itself.
Article
Recent work on class cultures and self-identities, in particular Savage, Bagnall and Longhurst (2001), demonstrates respondents’ reluctance to use class in personal terms even while using it to explain wider social conditions. They call this ‘class ambivalence’, or ‘defensiveness’. A new study demonstrates that this crucially depends on how data are collected and interpreted. It proposes an alternative frame of reference which recognizes that respondents operate with an incoherent model of class relations. If we escape from excessively formal theories of social class, we will find more people using what theymean by class, in a consistent rather than ambivalent way. Inarticulateness about complex concepts like class does not mean a lack of salience.
Article
Class affects not only our material wealth but our access to relationships and practices which we have reason to value, including the esteem or respect of others and hence our sense of self-worth. it determines the kind of people we become and our chances of living a fulfilling life. Applying concepts from moral philosophy and social theory to empirical studies of class, this accessible study demonstrates how people are valued in a context of the lottery of birth class, or forces having little to do with moral qualities or other merits.
Article
People's subjective images of class and class conflict reflect a mixture of both materialist forces and the vivid subjective images of equality and consensus among family, friends, and coworkers. These reference group processes distort perceptions of class: They make most people think they are middle class, thereby weakening the link between objective class and subjective perceptions of class and class conflict, fostering consensual rather than conflictual views of class relations, and attenuating the links between class and politics, particularly in Central European nations. Maximum-likelihood analyses of large, representative national samples from six Western democracies support the argument.
Article
Much existing work in the sociology of culture implicitly assumes actor motivations of status and domination. Yet this theoretical consensus attends only glancingly to the flip side of such behavior: those moments when people deploy culture, not only in a mobility project, but to connect. Based on a three-year ethnography of children's consumer culture in three diverse communities, I find that children often use consumer culture to belong—both to connect to others, and to achieve visibility in their social worlds. I contend that children's common desires make inequality, particularly in their access to consumer goods, a challenge to the accomplishment of the connection for which they strive. Using insights from Erving Goffman and Randall Collins, I find children use processes of facework to navigate the problems arising from their differences from others, including those stemming from discrepancies in commodity possession. Out of five facework processes that I identify, I elaborate upon two that seem to challenge the notion that children seek sameness. Children's goals for consumer culture also differed from those of (particularly affluent) adults. I suggest scholars need to reconsider their theoretical emphasis on exclusion over inclusion, and document the circumstances under which each is particularly salient.
Article
Appreciation of fine arts became a mark of high status in the late nineteenth century as part of an attempt to distinguish "highbrowed" Anglo Saxons from the new "lowbrowed" immigrants, whose popular entertainments were said to corrupt morals and thus were to be shunned (Levine 1988; DiMaggio 1991). In recent years, however, many high-status persons are far from being snobs and are eclectic, even "omnivorous," in their tastes (Peterson and Simkus 1992). This suggests a qualitative shift in the basis for marking elite status - from snobbish exclusion to omnivorous appropriation. Using comparable 1982 and 1992 surveys, we test for this hypothesized change in tastes. We confirm that highbrows are more omnivorous than others and that they have become increasingly omnivorous over time. Regression analyses reveal that increasing "omnivorousness " is due both to cohort replacement and to changes over the 1980s among highbrows of all ages. We speculate that this shift from snob to omnivore relates to status-group politics influenced by changes in social structure, values, art-world dynamics, and generational conflict.
Article
Elites are those with vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource. We can understand this as a position that a social actor occupies, or we can imagine such resources as a possession of an actor. The study of elites is the study of power and inequality, from above. It involves looking at the distribution of social resources, which can include economic, social, cultural, political, or knowledge capital. It also means exploring the role of institutions such as schools, families, and clubs in how such resources are organized and distributed. Over the past decade, particularly as social power and economic rewards have become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, elite sociology has experienced a revival. Empirical observations of these phenomena point to the changing character of American inequality.
Article
This essay critically examines the North American sociological literature that has developed in response to Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction, his tour-de-force study of consumer taste and social reproduction. I argue that theoretical and empirical challenges often misread Bourdieu, recasting the theory as a variant of Lloyd Warner's social class theory. I use this evaluation to reformulate the theory to reflect socio-historical circumstances particular to the contemporary United States. In an interpretive study of cultural capital and patterns of taste motivated by this reformulation, briefly summarized here, I find six dimensions of taste that vary across cultural capital resources. Finally, I consider the implications of this interpretation of Bourdieu's theory for survey research concerned with patterns of taste and social reproduction.
Article
Although the classed dimensions of ‘taste’ have, following Bourdieu, been widely discussed, expressions of disgust at perceived violations of taste have been less frequently considered in relation to class. This paper considers various expressions of disgust at white working-class existence and explores what they might tell us about middle-class identities and identifications. I argue that the narratives of decline and of lack present in such representations can be seen in terms of a long-standing middle-class project of distinguishing itself. Drawing on Bourdieu's critique of Kantian aesthetics, I argue that the ownership of ‘taste’ is understood as reflecting true humanity, and as conferring uniqueness. Ironically, however, this uniqueness is only achieved through an incorporation of collective, classed understandings. The paper calls for a problematization of a normative and normalized middle-class location that is, I argue, given added legitimacy by a perceived decline in the significance of class itself. [A]n account of class, rank or social hierarchy must be thin indeed unless accompanied by an account of the passions and sentiments that sustain it (William Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, p. 245). Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat (Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 479). What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect (Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, p. 118).
Article
Drawing on participant observation and interviews, this paper analyzes the paid labor of lifestyle production. In particular, I look at jobs in the lifestyle management industry that involve making consumption-related aesthetic choices with and for clients. This is taste work, and workers are taste brokers, who mediate between clients and markets, between clients and other people, and between clients and their own desires. Taste brokers shape not only clients’ consumption decisions but also their class performances and dispositions. I argue that taste brokers also reproduce legitimate social differences in three ways: by fostering distinctions between “good” and “bad” taste; by reinforcing the association between particular tastes and particular class positions; and by casting women as both better at and responsible for making aesthetic decisions. KeywordsClass–Dispositions–Taste–Lifestyle management–Gender
Article
We analyze the patterns of response to a range of items fielded in the Culture Module of the 2002 General Social Survey. Our aim is to determine how social status – as distinct from social class, education, or income – is associated with styles of cultural consumption and to assess the magnitude of such associations relative to other factors. To this end, we are guided by three broad views of the relationship between social stratification and culture: the homology argument, the individualization argument, and the omnivore–univore thesis. Latent class analysis reveals that contemporary cultural consumers cluster into a small number of recognizable patterns. The patterns that emerge are more consistent with the omnivore–univore thesis than they are with the alternatives. Multinomial logistic regression establishes that these styles of consumption have strong roots in the stratification system, but in social status rather than in social class. Social status is found to be central to the distinction between those who are active cultural consumers (i.e., “omnivores” or “paucivores”) and those who are comparatively inactive, and to be especially relevant to the definition of omnivore and “inactive” styles.
Article
This paper takes stock of the most recent scholarship on symbolic boundaries and how these interact with social boundaries—more durable and institutionalized social differences. Our primary goal is to raise awareness of a growing body of empirical work, and to highlight key mechanisms which they address, among them: the strategic management of collective identities, cultural classification, the construction of authenticity, moral boundary maintenance, and genre-crossing. We introduce the articles included in this issue and discuss how ethno-racial boundaries intersect with class, immigration, and nationhood. We also describe new work on aesthetic boundaries, as well as recent efforts pertaining to gender, sexuality, the workplace, and religion. We close with a discussion of promising research on health, risk, and policy. We hope to demonstrate some of the intellectual rewards of interdisciplinary engagement, and encourage others to more systematically contribute to analyzing fundamental boundary processes.
Flights of Indulgence (or How the Very Wealthy Fly): The Aeromobile Patterns and Practices of the Super-rich
  • Budd
A Relational Analysis of Top Incomes and Wealth: Economic Evaluation, Relative (Dis)advantage and the Service to Capital.
  • Hecht