What makes rich people different from the rest of us?

Hi there! I recently listened to a podcast on NPR hidden brain on social class and how the wealthy upper-class differentiates themselves from the middle class through their consumption habits. (Please see the link attached)

https://www.npr.org/2017/12/18/571181050/never-go-to-vegas-and-other-unspoken-rules-of-being-an-a-lister

Aside from doing math, questions about sociology also interest me and this podcast left my head spinning so I wanted to jot down some thoughts.

The gist of this podcast episode is that Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a talented researcher at USC, believes that the wealthy upper-class practice what she calls inconspicuous consumption. Meaning in the past wealthy people would demonstrate their social standing by practicing so called conspicuous consumption e.g. buying really expensive items such as cars are TVs. However in the present day, when cars and TVs are affordable to everybody, wealthy people differentiate themselves by showing discernment and how they spend their time and money. For example wealthy people might invest in private educations, have 401 K’s, do yoga, and buy organic foods. These would all be examples of what the Elizabeth refers to as inconspicuous consumption.

The idea of social stratification and questions of social mobility i.e. How does one maneuver their way into the Upper Crust of society, are relevant to so many people. For example the great American novel, The Great Gatsby, discusses this theme and it’s also why songs like Drake’s “Started from the bottom now we’re here” are super popular. (Please see the following video on social Mobility from one of my favorite YouTube channels Crash Course: Social Mobility)

This podcast was incredibly fun to listen to but I feel it’s important to mention that this researcher works in in the USC School of public policy and does not come from a background of sociology. Therefore I wanted to dig into this idea a little more and in my excitement I emailed a sociology professor I took an intro level course with 4 to 5 years ago. This email was completely out of the blue, but very kindly Professor Joeseph Conti (UW -Madison) offered me references for more reading on this topic.

What follows is a combination of my own opinions and what I surmised from some of these readings. I want to emphasize that these are not professional opinions, but rather my own (so please take everything with a grain of salt 😉 ).

Apparently, in 1979 french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, already had the idea that the wealthy distinguish themselves from middle class by demonstrating “taste”. Meaning, that around that time, instead of buying buckets of gaudy jewelry, the upper class Society would distinguish themselves by demonstrating appreciation of Fine Arts such as attending operas or collecting art as well as demonstrating knowledge in these areas. Bourdieu’s breakthrough book on this, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” generated a lot of interest in the sociology community but since the time of writing an influx of many additional papers have been written on the topic of “taste” to add nuances to Bourdieu’s theory.

Just one example as recent as 2002, is Richard Peterson’s Roll Over Beethoven, There’s a New way to be Cool. In this article Peterson argues that in the 21st century the upper class no longer demonstrates their socioeconomic status through snobbish tastes exclusive to Fine Arts, but instead they demonstrate appreciation of a wide range of topics. The idea is that someone from high class should be able to enjoy a trip to the ballet as much as they enjoy a sporting event or they will practice a musical instrument as much as they play a contact sport. Peterson gives an explanation for this shift toward diversifying interests but one side not that I really liked is his comment that what is associated with high class or low class changes over time. For example Jazz used to be considered a low class music a long time ago but now it’s considered a very high-class form of music. Certain works of art like the Mona Lisa used to be held in high esteem but these days you can find cheap prints of the Mona Lisa anywhere making it not as high class anymore.

At this time of writing, I see a similar thing happening with rap music and sneaker collecting. Both are getting elevated to a point where they are being appreciated even by middle and upper class society.

For me the big takeaway is that if I am someone who wants to fit in with upper class Society then I should be aware of the “tastes” upper class and middle-class society and I should demonstrate a knowledgeable appreciation in a diverse collection of these “tastes”.

Note to self: For further reading please look at the Google Scholar summaries and critiques of Bourdieu

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