Currid-Halkett’s new book addresses rise of ‘aspirational class,’ widening class divide

June 15, 2017

In Price Q&A, Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett discusses her scope of research and the impact she hopes to make through her latest work.

Photo by Andrew Brown

In today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption — like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, carrying NPR tote bags and listening to the Serial podcast. They use their purchasing power to hire nannies and housekeepers, and practice yoga.

Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning at USC Price

In The Sum of Small Things (Princeton University Press, 2017), USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett dubs this segment of society “the aspirational class” and discusses how, through deft decisions about education, health, parenting, and retirement, the aspirational class reproduces wealth and upward mobility, deepening the ever-wider class divide.

Exploring the rise of the aspirational class, Currid-Halkett considers how much has changed since the 1899 publication of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and the coining of his famous term “conspicuous consumption.” Now, Currid-Halkett argues, the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to subtler expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. And these transformations influence how we all make choices.

The Sum of Small Things – using a rich narrative and extensive interviews and research – illustrates how cultural capital leads to lifestyle shifts and what this forecasts, not just for the aspirational class but for everyone.

Already, the book has received wide media attention nationally and internationally, including news outlets such as Time magazine, Southern California Public Radio KPCC-FM, Quartz, Nature, The Financial Times, the Times of London.

Q: How does this latest book relate to, or perhaps further, your research?

I have always been interested in culture and the physical manifestation of culture and how we assign value to culture. Most obviously, how do we value a piece of artwork? Why is a Rothko worth tens of millions of dollars more than another talented artist? In most of my work I’ve focused on the production of culture – art, Hollywood, celebrity. In my new book, I am interested in how we consume goods – many of which possess aesthetic and cultural meaning. I am interest in how and why we chose to consume those goods and what they are meant to signify about us, whether artisanal coffee or choices around parenting. Even if these things have material value, many of them operate as symbols of identity and become class markers.

So in many ways, my new book, while broader in scope than my previous books, addresses the other side of culture – not the production process but the consumption process and how we signify identity and status through these choices.

Q: Do you plan on using any topics from your book to enrich the courses you teach?

Absolutely! I am teaching an art focused class this fall, and I’d like to deal with the concepts of status and signifying in this class. Much of my study of Veblen and related scholars will inform the class discussion. While not all of culture is art by any means, art is a form of culture that is consumed. Studying how we make larger decisions around consumption helps us understand the process of valuation of many different goods.

Q: What impact do you ultimately hope this book makes?

My goal is always to think about the world in a slightly different way, and hope that my ideas are in big or small ways interesting and helpful to others. With this book, I hope to not just acknowledge a new force in today’s society but also unpack its origin, our choices and motivations in how we consume, and the implications of these decisions.

Many of our decisions around grocery shopping, parenting, where we buy our clothes are somewhat unconscious or at least not articulated fully. With my book, I hope to challenge the reader to think more closely about why they chose to consume what they do and what these choices implicitly signify. The fact that consumption choices are so stratified means that things we think are unconscious are often loaded with socioeconomic, demographic and geographical implications.

I just feel it’s important we don’t take these signifiers for granted, particularly as such consumption practices whether eating organic or paying for college tuition contribute to growing socioeconomic inequality.

Q: What prompted the idea behind your book?

I have always been intrigued and intellectually fascinated by Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and his study of class, status and its signifiers. His ideas help us understand the value of all sorts of taste-driven goods, whether art, music or, as was his famous example, silver spoons. His term “conspicuous consumption” is a mainstream term to describe how material goods reveal social position.

But so much has changed since his book, which was published in 1899 – mass production, the vast overproduction of material goods, the rise of an educated elite and many other economic and social forces. So I have always wondered if Veblen would apply today, and if so, how? It turns out that while we do still covet material goods, many of the goods and services that suggest status are inconspicuous – paying for education, eating free range eggs, enrolling one’s child in piano lessons.

Also, our elite is not defined by “leisure” as in Veblen’s time – today’s elite is educated, ostensibly meritocratic and working very hard. Yet, inequality has never been more profound. Thus studying the meaning of material goods and how this meaning has changed and how today’s consumption patterns reflect these changes seemed like a fascinating research project. Truthfully, it’s been an even more exciting and rewarding process than I had anticipated. I’ve learned so much and have loved writing this book.