The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691183176
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,181,789
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California.

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The Sum of Small Things

A Theory of the Aspirational Class

By Elizabeth Currid-Halkett


Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16273-7


The Twenty-first-Century "Leisure" Class

A hand-wrought silver spoon, of a commercial value of some ten to twenty dollars, is not ordinarily more serviceable — in the first sense of the word — than a machine-made spoon of the same material. It may not even be more serviceable ... One of the chief uses, if not the chief use, of the costlier spoon is ignored; the hand-wrought spoon gratifies our taste, our sense of the beautiful ... the material of the hand-wrought spoon is some one hundred times more valuable than the baser metal, without very greatly excelling the latter in intrinsic beauty of grain or color, and without being in any appreciable degree superior in point of mechanical serviceability.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

In the 1920s, Muriel Bristol attended a summer's afternoon tea party in Cambridge, UK. A number of professors and their spouses were also in attendance. On this particular occasion, the host poured Bristol a cup of tea and poured in the milk thereafter. Bristol protested, explaining that she liked her "milk in first," as the tea tasted better that way. Despite skeptical resistance from those in attendance, Bristol insisted she could tell the difference. Ronald Alymer Fischer, one of those present, who would later go on to become "Sir Fischer" and the godfather of modern empirical statistics with his famous book The Design of Experiments, had an idea. Surely, if eight cups of tea were poured, four with "milk in first" and the other four with tea in first, and the lady identified them correctly then she would be proven right (her chances of merely guessing by chance would be 1 in 70). Fischer, like everyone else present, believed Bristol would likely fail the test. In other words, they believed Bristol's belief in her tea acumen was embedded in a false sense of aesthetics and taste rather than reality. As it turns out, Bristol correctly determined the order of tea and milk in each of the eight cups.

Fischer's experiment, which went on to transform statistics and modern science (it became the foundation for testing the "null hypothesis"), would not have been possible if not for the embedded status and its accompanying aesthetics in how one drinks one's tea. Milk in first or last has been a sign of status since the Victorian era, as the choice of one or the other implies one's class position.

In fact, the difference boils down to the materials from which one's dishware is made. In the Victorian era, materials used to make lesser-quality teacups would often crack if hot tea were poured into them. Pouring milk in first mitigated the chances of cracking one's cup. However, those with money could afford the fine china that could withstand the heat of tea, thus milk in later was a signal of one's elevated economic position. Even when the order of milk and tea was primarily a practical matter, it revealed class more than taste. After all, those owning fine china would put the milk in last to demonstrate this luxury. As the butler in the famous British drama of the same time period, Upstairs, Downstairs, remarked, "Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last."

Even in more contemporary times, when the quality of almost all dishware is strong enough to withstand hot tea, milk in first remained a sign of social class. The twentieth-century English novelist, Nancy Mitford, employed the term "M.I.F." to describe the lower classes, and the turn of phrase is still used satirically in popular media to describe the working classes or those without refined social skills. Today, the famous English tea purveyor Fortnum & Mason characterizes the choice as a "thorny question," devoting an entire essay on its website to how to drink tea.

How did such a prosaic choice of action, so subtle and ostensibly innocuous, become an amplified sign of class? Throughout time, matters of seeming practicality have evolved into symbols of status. In Victorian England, the displaying of medicines in the parlor was a sign that one could afford to see a doctor and buy medicine. In pre-Revolutionary Paris, the use of candles was rare and expensive, yet even when access to light (and later electricity) became more democratized, the lighting of candles at dinnertime remained a sign of taste and breeding. The same is true for the use of cloth napkins when paper napkins would do (and eliminate the hassle of laundering).

Everything we do has social meaning. Our childhood, family life, income bracket, and concurrent social circles teach us how to go about our lives and interact with the world in big and small ways. Through both behaviors and material goods, we disclose our socioeconomic position, whether we like it or not. As the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed in his book Distinction, status emerges from prosaic cultural forms and signs, and most fundamentally, from how we live.

Status has always consumed us. This observation has been made by many before me, and perhaps best by the great British anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas, and more recently by Daniel Miller in his book Consumption and Its Consequences. Often the things we acquire and how we use them demonstrate this status to the world. There are obvious big-ticket items — large homes in the right zip codes, sports cars, fine china, and expensive watches. Yet, even manners convey a certain upbringing or way of life — sending handwritten notes rather than email, the way we place our utensils upon finishing a meal, having fresh flowers delivered to our beloved and so forth. Almost all of these behaviors suggest social position and rely on the use of visible goods and the skills for how to employ them in a particular way. Or, as Douglas observed in her book The World of Goods, "The goods are both the hardware and the software, so to speak, of an information system ... Goods that minister to physical needs — food and drink — are no less carriers of meaning than ballet or poetry."

Similarly, our consumption of goods for status should not be taken lightly or merely as superficial posturing. Consumption is a part of how we define ourselves as individuals and vis-à-vis social groups (as members and outsiders and sometimes both at the same time). We need to see our consumption of goods as an intricate part of humanity's social system. Just as our work or family structure cultivates who we are, so does what we buy and the norms of behavior we learn. We must see consumption as appropriated to signal things much deeper than what is simply visible.


Perhaps no one captured and articulated the social significance of consumption better than the social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. Written in the late 1800s, Veblen's polemic treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class is the defining text that precisely expresses the relationship between material goods and status. At the peak of the Gilded Age, and in the wake of the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution, Veblen's work was very much a sign of the times he lived in. He became a leading thinker and popular critic during the Progressive Era, deriding profits and the consumption and wastefulness that came along with the wealth of capitalism. Veblen is most famous for his concept of "conspicuous consumption," the use of particular goods through which status is revealed. Veblen directed most of his critique toward the "leisure class," a wealthy and idle group who vainly and incessantly demonstrated their social and economic position through material goods, many of which were useless and nonfunctional items.

Veblen's theories were met with outrage — he vilified an entire stratum of society as useless and superficial and accused them of almost exclusively responding to social rank and cues. As H. L. Mencken rejoined, "Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one — or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven's Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists — or because I genuinely love music? Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to a charwoman because even a janitor can kiss a charwoman — or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better?"

The Theory of the Leisure Class scathingly critiqued the upper classes of society and challenged orthodox economic theories embedded in the idea that people spent to maximize utility of their money. Veblen confronted conventional notions of how we spend, arguing that emulation and imitation motivated consumer habits, much of which were irrational and wasteful. Veblen's famous example of leisure-class conspicuous consumption is the use of a hand-wrought silver spoon. While, of course, flatware made of other materials or machine-made would be perfectly acceptable and did not look any different from their pricey counterpart, the use of silver flatware would demonstrate to others a particular rank in society. Veblen also snidely observed the use of gratuitous canes (which implied a man did not need to use his hands for labor) and corsets which, as they were so constraining, meant a woman could not possibly work. Only those of the leisure class were able to acquire and actually use such goods. This particular critique is what made Veblen famous and infamous — and still relevant more than one hundred years later. The Theory of the Leisure Class remains one of the most important books on economic thought written in the past two centuries.

While Veblen is most known for his critique of conspicuous consumption, his study of status was far more complicated and in-depth than the conventional shorthand given to his theories. Veblen's overarching thesis is that the recognition of social division and stratification is central to understanding modern society. One's social position was more important than any value or usefulness a person gave to the world. Ironically, the demonstration of high social position (through consumption, leisure, and nonpecuniary practices) often manifested itself through the uselessness of objects and activity. Veblen also observed the phenomenon of "conspicuous leisure" — reading classics at Oxford, traveling abroad, participating in sports and doing nonfunctional things with one's time, and "conspicuous waste" — gratuitous service workers or help around the house. The ability to use time for something with no obvious productive purpose was an option only for the upper classes. The lack of one's own utility or the uselessness of one's goods was the most salient marker of status. In Veblen's worldview, the silver spoons and signaling of one's lack of use through canes or corsets suggested that appearance matters more than real happiness or comfort. Like Karl Marx, Veblen saw the economy as a dominant part of the social reality of his time. He believed that the economy provided the fundamental structural framework from which all of society emerged, formed, and interacted. Thus what we consumed, what we had the economic means to consume, and what others observed us consuming, determined our place in society.

One hundred years later, the term conspicuous consumption is still used to capture this particular type of economic and social behavior. But society and the economy have changed dramatically since Veblen's time and new forms of consumption and behavior have emerged to reveal social position. A century after Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, massive changes in technology and globalization have changed how we work, live, and consume. The Industrial Revolution and the sophistication of manufacturing both created a middle class and reduced the cost of material goods such that conspicuous consumption has become a mainstream behavior. Simultaneously, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite, grounded in meritocracy, the acquisition of knowledge and culture, and less clearly defined by their economic position. With this new group comes a new set of norms and values. They work longer hours and for the most part, their meritocracy and cultural values are prized over birthright. As modern capitalism opened the floodgates to material consumption, it has also brought about increasing inequality. But the distance across classes is not simply defined by the stuff people own. These changes have transformed the dynamics of work, leisure, how we consume, and how our consumption is linked to status. Despite the seeming "democratization of luxury," to quote Daniel Boorstin, the twenty-first century has brought greater socioeconomic inequality than ever before, further distancing the elites from the rest.

All of these various changes in society and the economy challenge and change the meaning and attainment of status and consumption in the twenty-first century. What does consumption look like today and how has it changed over the past several decades? How do our gender, race, profession, and where we live impact what we buy? If acquisition of material goods is now fairly accessible to all, how do wealthy elites maintain their status? And if Veblen stepped into the twenty-first century, what would he say? This book is about those changes and how they have impacted the way we spend money, the way we spend time, and how we reveal our status in big and small ways.

But first, let's look at how status has always been central to human civilization.


While conspicuous consumption may feel like a truly capitalist, post-Industrial Revolution spectacle, humans have been engaging in the status wars since the beginning of human civilization. Veblen believed that much of what he observed at the turn of the twentieth century emerged in prehistoric times.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill's study of ancient Roman society demonstrates that conspicuous consumption was alive and well prior to AD 79. The less well-off emulated the higher social class, many thousands of years before the arrival of flat screen TVs and cheap monthly car payments that obfuscate current class lines. In his archeological study of early Pompeii and Herculaneum homes, ranging in size and number of rooms, he finds that "the same status markers that are found in the grandest homes also occur, albeit more rarely, in quite small units." For example, Wallace-Hadrill points out that decoration, a very basic symbol of status, was displayed by the wealthy in their homes and imitated by the poor, even when they had little space or means to do so. Later, during the Roman Empire or the Imperial period, as Rome became wealthier and more powerful, the prevalence of decoration was greater and more democratic. The habits of the rich were imitated more consciously by aspirational plebeians. And yet, at the same time, Wallace-Hadrill observes that as the lower classes attained access to forms of decoration, the differences in quality between that which the elites and the less wealthy displayed became much greater, suggesting that the elites used rare materials or unusual methods as a way to establish their standing, as conspicuous goods on their own would no longer signify status. For example, mosaics were difficult to create, impossible to fake, and arduous to execute without the right skills and materials, and thus remained a rare marker of elite status. The use of glass windows such as bay windows and stained glass in Victorian England's upper-class houses also exemplifies the use of scarcity to reveal status. These upper-class homes drew their architectural aesthetics from England's grand estate mansions.

The use of decoration to suggest and imitate status continued throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. Under the Dutch Empire, two-thirds of Delft households possessed at least one painted canvas — a decoration that initially marked elite status and was then imitated by the less wealthy. In pre-Revolutionary France, the middle class emulated the aristocrats by using wallpaper designed to look like palace tapestries, stucco employed to mimic marble, and porcelain disguised as gold. One could even pretend to have a library by installing fake book spirals on the wall. Women imitated Marie Antoinette's hairstyle as an effort to be closer to royalty. Almost a century later, Victorian England's courtiers' silk stockings were quickly imitated by the working class in the form of worsted stockings — again, using cheaper materials but with the same effect.

Undoubtedly all of these examples demonstrate imitation in the aspirational sense — lesser quality versions of the elite's goods intended to communicate status. In these historical cases as in those of the current day, whether knockoff Louis Vuitton or fake wood floors, the difference is barely discernable to the naked eye. The observation of AD 79 remains the same as it was in Veblen's time and today: "Of course, there is a great gulf between the luxury of the elite houses and the simpler aspirations of the small," writes Wallace-Hadrill. "But what matters is to understand that they do not belong to different cultural universes." (Today, one can even get linoleum that mimics marble, not a far cry from stucco's purpose in pre-Revolutionary France.) In short, from the beginnings of documented human civilization, a desire to demonstrate status, or to imitate and assimilate with high social classes, is evident. Or, as Wallace-Hadrill remarked to me in an interview, "We can utterly confirm that conspicuous consumption occurred in pre-capitalist society. It's quite a quaint point of view to see it as capitalist."


Excerpted from The Sum of Small Things by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 The Twenty-first-Century "Leisure" Class 1

2 Conspicuous Consumption in the Twenty-first Century 24

3 Ballet Slippers and Yale Tuition: Inconspicuous Consumption and the New Elites 46

4 Motherhood as Conspicuous Leisure in the Twenty-first Century 78

5 Conspicuous Production 110

6 Landscapes of Consumption 148

7 "To Get Rich Is Glorious"? The State of Consumption and Class in America 182

Appendix 199

Notes 221

References 233

Index 247

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