Social Class and Citizenship
The past two decades have marked a shift in the ways in which anthropologists and social scientists have investigated and written about social class. Recent publications in Cultural Anthropology show that one approach for talking about social class appears to be a focus on consumer and citizenship rights in an era characterized by an increasing privatization at the economic and institutional level. A number of authors also investigate class-based distinctions through the lens of politics, space, and consumer practices.
Interestingly, while the term class often no longer appears as an explicit category in these essays, authors continue to use categories of race and gender. What might this indicate or suggest about current and future concerns in the discipline of anthropology?
This theme page highlights some of the shared thoughts and concerns of Cultural Anthropology authors who have explored issues of social class and citizenship in their work. While the articles span a wide range of topics and locations, they are linked by a shared concern about social justice and inequality, and a focus on how social inequalities are being reproduced through a range of activities and discourses.
Does the Working Class Have a Culture in the Anthropological Sense?
Douglas E. Foley
Cultural Anthropology May 1989, Vol. 4, No. 2: 137-162.
Douglas Foley's (1989) essay "Does the Working Class Have a Culture in the Anthropological Sense?" provides an overview of the intellectual history of research on social class. Discussing the contributions of Paul Willis, E.P. Thompson, and Jürgen Habermas, Foley suggests that Erving Goffman's work on performance may offer useful perspectives on how members of the working class reproduce class identities through speech events (158), and outlines new approaches for empirical studies of working class culture.
Cultural Anthropology published this essay shortly before the publication of Douglas Foley's monograph, Learning Capitalist Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990). A second edition of this book was published in May 2010. Doug Foley writes:
"The new edition of Learning Capitalist Culture (LCC) includes a new epilogue that highlights the thirty-five year impact of the Chicano civil rights movement. North Town has experienced many progressive changes, yet its capitalist culture is also producing new forms of commodification. I wanted the 2nd edition of LCC to be even more reflexive and transparent than the first, hence a new theory chapter elaborates more fully LCC's class theory roots. A new methods chapter discusses the politics of white anthropologists researching people of color. Hopefully, the new edition will help future anthropologists produce even better cultural studies of power, inequality, and exploitation."
Cover image designed by Gregory Foley.
OTHER RELEVANT LINKS:
"The Future of America's Working Class" by Joel Kotkin in New Geography (06/01/2010).
The "Class Matters" Forum of The New York Times:
"Empty cradles" and the quiet revolution: Demographic discourse and cultural struggles of gender, race, and class in Italy
Elizabeth E. Krause
Cultural Anthropology November 2001, Vol. 16, No. 4: 576-611.
Elizabeth Krause's (2001) essay investigates the politics of talk from a slightly different angle, but, like Lukose, with a focus on gender and class relations. She investigates how Italian national discourses about low national reproduction rates frame Italian women's birthrates as a national problem. Her analysis reveals that this discourse presents Italian women's decreasing birthrates as a threat to national survival, drawing on nationalist and class discourses (591-595). She demonstrates that demographic research on birthrates ignores the lived realities of working women, and frames their lowered birthrates as a rather than as what she identified as a “revolution, though often silently so, against patriarchy and the patriarchal structures of power that hierarchically ordered social relations for centuries” (588).
Photo by Elizabeth Krause
In her article about student politics at colleges in the Indian state of Kerala, Ritty Lukose (2005) investigates the creation of a political public sphere among college students that is partly characterized by an exclusion of women.
She examines how political activists employ a discourse of consumerism and consumer rights to promote their political agenda (507), and, in so doing, define citizenship win terms of having access to educational spaces: “In an era of neoliberalization, contestations over whether education is a public good or a private commodity are transforming conceptions of the public, citizenship, and democracy” (519). Like Lipsitz, Lukose focuses on the spatialization of politics, investigating how neoliberal understandings of citizenship favor middle-class notions of political talk.
Photo by David H. Wells
Learning from New Orleans: The Social Warrant of Hostile Privatism and Competitive Consumer Citizenship
Cultural Anthropology August 2006, Vol. 21, No. 3: 451- 468.August 2006, Vol. 21, No. 3: 451- 468.
George Lipsitz's (2006) essay investigates the “racialization of space and the spacialization of race” (462) in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans through the lens of economic policies promoted by the George W. Bush administration. The author investigates a new understanding of citizenship that defines citizenship in terms of consumption rather than democratic participation.
Lipsitz identifies this understanding as a social warrant, a "widely shared and generally understood definition of what is permitted and forbidden in society” (454). According to Lipsitz, such shared understandings "do not exist in a vacuum. They come from a culture and a set of social relations that make them seem natural, necessary, and available,” (454) thus naturalizing existing race- and class-based hierarchies.
Photos by Leela Viswanathan
SEE ALSO CA's Virtual Issue on Business Cultures
Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico
Cultural Anthropology Aug. 2008, Vol. 23, No. 3: 429-452.
In his (2008) essay, Peter S. Cahn argues that while anthropologists who are critical of neoliberalism frequently conduct research on resistance against neoliberalism, scholars also need to investigate why there has been such widespread acceptance of and belief in an economic system by groups of people who do not benefit from it themselves. His case study of the entrepreneurial trajectory of a direct seller of Omnilife health products provides important insights into why members of middle class might quite literally “buy” into neoliberalism despite the fact that their investments in the neoliberal market fail to pay off.
Image credit: http://www.bacan.com/clasificados/adpics
A number of essays in Cultural Anthropology's Coke Complex Issue also investigate the issues of consumer rights and globalization.
Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highland Chiapas
Cultural Anthropology Nov 2007, Vol. 22, No. 4: pp. 621-639.
The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India
Cultural Anthropology Nov 2007, Vol. 22, No. 4: 640-658.
Pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi: Consumerism, Brand Image, and Public Interest in a Globalizing India
Cultural Anthropology Nov 2007, Vol. 22, No. 4: 659-684.
Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity
Cultural Anthropology Nov 2007, Vol. 22, No. 4: 685-706.
The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation
Robert J. Foster
Cultural Anthropology Nov 2007, Vol. 22, No. 4: 707-731.