Journal Article

‘A very expensive ordinary life’: consumption, symbolic boundaries and moral legitimacy among New York elites

Rachel Sherman

in Socio-Economic Review

Volume 16, issue 2, pages 411-433
Published in print April 2018 | ISSN: 1475-1461
Published online April 2018 | e-ISSN: 1475-147X | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ser/mwy011
‘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.

Keywords: class; culture; consumers; inequality; moral norms; wealth; Z1 cultural economics

Journal Article.  12755 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy ; Corporate Social Responsibility ; Welfare Economics ; Political Economy ; Economic Sociology

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