Conference: Ethnographies of Class in Central and Eastern Europe

International Conference: Ethnographies of Class in Central and Eastern Europe 

Venue: SNSPA, Expoziției Blvd. no. 30A, Bucharest

Date: 28- 29 September 2017

Programme: Ethnographies of Class -Conference Programme

Book of Abstracts

Katarzyna Dębska (University of Warsaw)

Family (hi)story as an asset or a burden? Ways of referring to the past by representatives of Polish middle class

Family (hi)story as it is remembered and transferred through generations may be an asset in terms of social and cultural capital – if it is a story of success and glory that individuals are proud of. On the other hand, it may be perceived as a burden – if an individual recognizes it as embarrassing. An example of the latter is that peasant origin of many representatives of Polish middle class is often hidden and blurred. In contrast there are individuals who are able to overcome class domination and present their family (hi)story as a part of a broader social and economic history – not as a story of individual success or failure. In my presentation I will present examples and strategies of using the family (hi)story by representatives of Polish middle class in creating one’s biographical narration. My presentation is based on analysis of interviews (biographical and in-depth ones) and literature.

Alina Branda (Babes-Bolyai University)

Migration Experiences and Biographical Restructuring. On Threshold and Transformations

My paper aims to focus on concepts and processes such as class, economic transformation, biographical restructuring through analyzing the ways they are related to or derived from various migration experiences I have collected in different places of Transylvania, and also in London and Milan. How do “irregular” migration experiences trigger biographical restructuring, to what extents do they contribute to a new self perception of those engaged in the process of migration, producing it? How does the feeling of belonging to a certain group/community operate in this specific context? Is the concept of class of help when approaching this topic, which are its limits? What kind of transformations of the individuals/groups involved in migration are triggered by the phenomenon itself? These are all research questions I am going to address in the paper, and a few others derive from a quite rich empirical material. As far as appropriate conceptual/analytical frames are employed to shape and reflect fieldwork data.

Leyla Safta-Zecheria (Central European University)

Seeking social rights with clinical means

The present paper looks at two instances of the mental health system in Romania, where subsistence is sought with clinical means leading to on the one side the securing of one’s livelihood and the freedom from the productivist regime of neoliberal Romania and on the other hand the un-freedom of reproducing oppressive logics that lead to one’s subordination and potential confinement. Based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork in and around previous and existing psychiatric hospitals and centers for recovery and rehabilitation, interviews and informal conversations with patients, inmates and staff, as well as archival research and media analysis, the present paper looks at the way in which clinical categories have and are being subverted to ensure subsistence and the oppressive logics that this process implies in an open clinical, as well as an asylum-like setting.

Ciprian Tudor (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Middle-classness, Que Pasa? Fantasies of belonging in a Bucharest bar.

My presentation highlights the intersection between the lifestyle/cultural/musical consumption of a Bucharest micro-community, and the political and economic self-identification of this very community as part of the middle class. The group of people I am referring to has coalesced around an alt-rock bar in the center of Bucharest, drawing together, for some 12 years, a number of people who absorbed the anarchic and/or leftist message of alternative rock music, while carrying on with their lives of young and middle aged professionals (as photographers, graphic designers, advertising professionals, musicians, businessmen) and dreaming of belonging or professing to belong to the nascent Romanian middle class. The meeting between a liberal individualism and the passion for a rock music, which was critical of the established system, has witnessed the emergence of an oxymoronic micro-community, yet one that is extremely relevant for the genesis of a new Romanian middle class imaginary after the year 2000. The result of over ten years of participatory observation, my thesis is that this micro-community has unexpectedly combined the fantasy of middle-classness with a rebellion against the established system, which was often predicated upon an anti-middle-class cultural consumption and lifestyle. My research suggests that we can identify a social sub-species among the Romanian urban population, consisting of people who are vocally opposing the capitalist and consumerist society, and yet, who fit right in – both socially and economically – the neoliberal and corporatist order that became part of Romanian society after the EU accession.

Liviu Chelcea (University of Bucharest)

Water gifts in restaurants in the United States

Most restaurants in the US practice some form of water hospitality – giving out for free tap water to their patrons. Although this may seem a trivial issue, there are enough arguments to believe that the issue is, in fact, anything but trivial. Richard Wilk, an anthropologist who wrote extensively on bottled water, claimed that ‘the whole complex issue of the role of the state in modern capitalism is contained in every bottle of water.’ Why not, then, see each jug of water handed out in restaurants as condensing complex cultural, political, economic, and labor issues? Tap water gifts speak to a number of key issues in anthropology such as exchange, hospitality, and purity and pollution. Such mundane behavior is also relevant to some major issues in urban studies and urban political ecology: urban commons, the right to the city, and infrastructures.

Norbert Petrovici (Babes-Bolyai University)

Consuming the city: coffee shops and class in the city of Cluj

Coffee shops have been a ubiquitous presence in Central and Eastern European spaces for more than a century, and in the last decades we witness a real explosion of their presence in major urban centres. Cluj is no exception to this trend, in the last three decades the cafes become the main type of consumption place across the city. Any pubs, bodegas, or popular classes leisure places slowly disappeared from the city centre, and, in fact, are disappearing from the whole city. Cluj has become in the last two decades a command and control centre for a outsource manufacturing and a destination for business process outsourcing, regional service coordination, and knowledge process outsourcing. A new stratum of well off employees appeared with a taste for the city centre. The paper follows the history of cafes and pubs in Cluj in the last 30 years, from the perspective of the labour histories of their users.

Andrei Vlăducu (The Research Institute of The University of Bucharest)

Avoiding the Homeless in a Social Welfare Institution

This research examines a new form of Foucauldian technology observed in the interaction between the street-level bureaucrats from a social welfare institution and the homeless people in neoliberal/post socialist Romania. Using ethnographic results, I advance the concept of “avoiding technologies” – a series of practices used by social workers to deal with homeless people. These technologies are manifested through several processes, including the design of the legibility process or the manner in which the social workers’ personal knowledge is used towards avoiding the homeless. The sources of these technologies can be found at the intersection between the official workings of the institution and the social workers’ discretion. The result is an institution that functions using a double coordinate (formally-informally). Formally, it has an obligation to deal with homeless problems, while informally it tries to avoid them by making the homeless invisible. This results in a whole group of persons (homeless people who usually are the recipients of welfare programs) being absent from the state’s radar.

Bogdan Iancu (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

“Apartments with a view” and picket fences (rom: “case pe pământ”): material projects and housing aspirations of the middle class in Bucharest

As in other major Eastern European cities, Bucharest is experiencing a diffusion of gated communities of various degrees of permeability. Among the effects of this evolution are the privatization of public spaces, large-scale social segregation, generating specific geographies, sites of stark new social contrasts (Bodnar 2007, Hirt 2012). The middle-class pioneers of these privatopias and ecotopias (Harvey 2000) have recently diminished their privileged class status due to the densification of housing through the influx of lower-middle-class residents that put pressure on collective infrastructures and bring with them behaviors considered undesirable At the same time, the will for autonomy and proximity to nature have also translated into specific middle-class’ housing aspirations, e.g., owning a detached family house with picket fences (Romanian: “casă pe pâmânt”) either in Bucharest’s old working-class neighbourhoods or in the city’s (mostly rural) outskirts. Employing ethnographic data, the goal of this paper is to examine how socialist-era flats along with post-socialist gated communities and houses with picket fences have become pillars – as “respectable material standards” (Patico 2008) – of middle-class’ identities and aspirations. I will also discuss situations when aspirations conflict with reality by looking at cases when the new owners realize that their houses are located in areas with an extremely poor infrastructure and/or that the costs of utilities are much higher than initially advertised and/or that easy access to (good) kindergartens and schools is severely limited or other unpredictable dead-ends.

Cătălin Berescu

Desperate, but cute. An introduction to the „Tiny House” movement

We are all Americans nowadays, more or less, except for those who are not at all, and who are definitely not middle-class. But if you are middle class anywhere in the world your standards and strategies have a lot in common with the American dream, at least in what regards housing. As hugely contentious this hypothesis might sound and as hard it looks to gather evidence for it, it should be of interest to take a look at a particular alternative to the typical suburban mansion that gained a lot of traction in recent years: the Tiny House movement. In short, this is a housing solution that requires a household to downsize to an (usually) mobile home that has in between 12m2-40m2. Taking a glimpse into the future of housing is only possible through individual histories that I collected during my recent research in the US.

Monica Stroe (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Foodies in Bucharest: taste, authenticity and class

The current research aims to investigate the role of food as a material boundary of class. I seek to describe a segment of Bucharest’s middle class who engages with food in a manifest relation of self-representation and for whom food consumption doubles as a form of knowledge acquisition and creative leisure. My research interest is centred on how taste is shaped in the case of the foodie segment of the middle class and on the local geography of spaces of consumption that cater for these tastes. The presentation zooms in on the processes of appropriation of lower class tastes and practices in contemporary Bucharest – rustic repertoires, street-food, fast-food, peripheral venues, rough textures, cooking from scratch, informal trade and even foraging – in an attempt to shape a foodie consumer portfolio informed by aspirations to minimalism and authenticity.

Maria Emanovskaya (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales/University of Tours, L’Equipe Alimentation (LEA))

Food Consumption in Contemporary Russia : Eating Your Way to Middle-Class ?

Food consumption is a part of everyday life having seen multiple changes since the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the latest evolutions is the rise of popular interest in gastronomy, which also happens to be a place where class formation is vigorously renegotiated. Thus, our paper analyses three food related conflicts widely discussed in the media. The first one deals with the ways vegetarianism is presented either as a progressive or as a dangerous way of eating depending on whether the magazine is oriented towards middle-class readers or not. The second describes a conflict about use of urban space in a posh restaurant district, a common problem for a lot of cities but treated in particularly violent terms in Moscow. The last one analyses how a TV show exploiting the persistent lack of trust in food safety is turned to a class based conflict. Finally, we question the positive image of middle-classness in contemporary Russia.

Maria Cristache (Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Justus Liebig University, Giessen)

Values and Temporalities of the Middle Class in Postsocialist Romania

The changing characteristics and practices of the middle class in Central and Eastern Europe are often reflected in postsocialist studies of consumption and material culture. The purpose of this paper is to look at changes in middle class consumption practices and in discourses related to temporality in postsocialist Romania. I raise the question of how analyzing processes of valuation of domestic objects and the temporality of the domestic space helps understand the changing middle class identification in postsocialism. I follow the trajectory of porcelain and crystal objects produced and acquired during socialism, focusing on how the value of these objects has been assessed by the middle class throughout the decades and on the interaction between this type of material culture and discourses and practices related to time. These observations point to a transformation of the middle class from a group engaged in “civilized consumption” that endlessly extended the life of their household objects into a category that relates to the domestic space via notions of functionality and time saving strategies indicating an aspiration to a “Western” standard of living.

Magda Szcześniak (Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw)

Norms of Visibility. Visual Fantasies of Middle-classness in Poland during the Post-Socialist Transition

The post-socialist transition in Poland is marked by a discursive domination of the middle class—hailed as the crucial actor in the process of transitioning from a centrally planned economy to the free market. Simultaneously, despite its ascendancy in the public debate and popular culture, the middle class was more a class in the making than a group with a stable identity, goals and interests. As this presentation will argue, a crucial tool used in the process of constituting and producing a “mature,” Western-style middle class were images and new visual genres which proliferated in the post-1989 public sphere. Images and visual codes allowed the budding middle class to communicate their status, recognize other members of this new social group and distinguish middle class members from the working classes. The presentation will analyse both images from the new “capitalist realist” visual genres (promoting the rise of individualism and other middle class values) as well as visual mechanisms of distinction, which served to separate the “truly modern” members of the middle class from those who have failed to absorb the dominant codes of “middle-classness”.

Andreea Berechet (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Middle-class fantasies/Dreaming of the middle-class

The thesis I am bringing forth today/tonight deals with the different ways in which such fantasies have been shaped by tv programmes in the last two decades. I am particularly going to focus on highly rated tv entertainment shows, talent shows, as well as reality shows which I worked on. More specifically, I am relying on my two-decade experience (from 1993 to 2015) as a TV producer and researcher with the main private TV station, ProTv). I am going to combine this research with a cinematographic analysis/review focusing on Radu Jude’s film: The Happiest Girl In The World (2009). Its plot centers round a teenage girl who travels to Bucharest with her parents to claim the prize she won on a soft drink promotion: a feature in a TV commercial. The problem though, is that the Romanian middle class does not quite exist as such yet, however, it has always been packaged by the media as a status goal that could be easily reached by ordinary people. In this context, talent shows provide a quick run up the social ladder, the main purpose being to find the right candidates who usually need to find themselves on a lower socio-economic level, low enough so that the final transformation can be revealed as truly dramatic.

Raluca Nagy (University of Sussex), Andrei Mihail (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration), Mădălina Muscă (Université Lyon 2)

My Capital Rocks!

Looking at the Romanian reality TV show “Bravo, ai stil!” (“My Style Rocks!”, 2016-), this paper shows how personal style can be a pretext for unlimited possibilities of consumption by intensifying the continuous transformation of the self into a subject of success. By defining the current interpretation of ‘good style’, the show is an overview of Romanian society and its adjustment to the values of an emergent prosperous class. During the show, the dynamic of identification with this ‘nouveau middle’ class translates into what a young stylish woman should not be. This neoliberal process of continuous improvement highlights the personal success or failure in an agency context. Style, even though essential, is far from being the only criterium being judged in the show; the main premise of the show is, in reality, “My Capital Rocks!”: the conjuncture of economic and cultural capital in building the contestants’ style represents the ideal and desirable situation, appreciated by both the jury and the public.

Alexandra Dincă (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Visual self-representation of the middle-class families in Bucharest

The paper explores the means of visual self-representation of the Romanian middle-class through photography and its uses. Working as a commercial and family photographer for the middle and upper-middle class in the last six years I have observed, through semi-structured interviews, informal conversations and visual tools, the ways of self-representation and preferences of families with children. These families choose to hire a professional photographer to portray them, and guide her in doing so, their motivation involving arguments such as “quality memories”, “improving appearance on social media ”, and “providing our children with the kind of visual history we never had”.

Ștefan Lipan (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Caring about institutionalised children, becoming #oamenifrumoși (beautifulhumans) in Romania

This presentation focuses on specialists and volunteers who organise charitable acts and events for „children in need” (they are institutionalised children in Bucharest in the case of the ethnographic research the paper draws upon). They self-identify as „beautiful humans” and define what they do as being „terrific things”. They consider the „children in need” to be a dependent vulnerable category that „deserves” to be taken care of. The assumption, often made explicit by these specialists and volunteers, is that this type of care is altruistic. In other words, nothing is expected in return for these acts and events and for the material and immaterial gifts they make possible. The presentation argues that this form of care is not exactly altruistic, that something is given in return. The charitable acts and events bring their contribution to the formation of the middle class in a particular way. Through this work, the middle class consolidates its positioning as „the moral middle” of the society. Charitable acts and events enable their organisers as well as observers to avoid using the notion of class in their reflections upon this kind of work and the larger society. Moreover, by calling themselves „beautiful humans”, they avoid identifying themselves in class terms. In this context the adjective „beautiful” has ethical rather than aesthetic connotations. Although they structurally belong to the middle class, these people identify themselves in ethical rather than class terms. They emphasise their desire and capacity to do good and rarely, if ever, publicly discuss their engagement in charitable acts and events as something that their privileged position allows them to do.

Magdalena Crăciun (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Sartorial manifestoes and class distinction in Bucharest

This presentation draws upon conversations about wardrobes that I had in Bucharest with women who identify themselves as belonging to the middle class. More precisely, it focuses on the commonalities between these different relationships to garments and, furthermore, on what these commonalities reveal about the conceptualisation and materialisation of the „middle” as well as the formulation and expression of intra- and inter-class distinctions through clothing. My interlocutors prefer quality to quantity and natural to man-made fibres. They like to combine ordinary pieces with not-so-ordinary items, in terms of price, fabric and style. Nevertheless, they create outfits that are not dull or ostentatious, and that do not have the impoverished look of the lower class, the standard look of the corporate middle class, or the flamboyant look of the upper class. They are thrifty shoppers and search for shopping opportunities in a variety of spaces, from clothing manufacturing shops, outlets and second hand shops to malls and designers’ boutiques. However, their thriftiness is not only a financial practice, but also an ethical choice, from whom they as well as others can benefit (e.g. being a smart consumer who understands the value of clothes; supporting local designers; avoiding the fast fashion clothes because they are the products of a polluting and exploitative industry; or considering the consumption of second hand clothes an environmentally responsible practice). The presentation brings thus to the foreground the aesthetico-ethical „middle” that women who structurally belong to and who identify themselves as belonging to the middle class strive to construct and inhabit, materially and ideationally.

Alin Savu (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

Extracurriculars and the fragility of the Romanian middle class

Investment in an ‘education with an edge’ in the form of extracurriculars is a recent phenomenon in urban post-socialist Romania. Despite the considerable range of offerings, they are priced rather prohibitively. Nevertheless, parents make efforts to send their children to extracurricular courses and activities from an early age, and have high expectations regarding their benefits for the adults-to-be. The intensity with which this phenomenon is being pursued challenges the common understanding of investment in extracurriculars as a typical strategy of middle-class reproduction. In a post-socialist society, where the middle class is both a politically idealised category at the societal level and an aspirational category at the individual level, this investment is meant to enable the concomitant production and reproduction of middle classness. An ethnographic investigation of its lived experience from the peculiar angle of children’s participation in extracurriculars throws light on the ongoing process of class formation under post-socialist neoliberal conditions of possibility, and taps into a sense of the fragility of class positioning.

Elena Trifan (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

The paper analyzes the evolution of the phenomenon of personal development in Bucharest over a period of six years and comments upon its causes and its consequences on a personal and social level. Personal development is an instrument by which citizens are governed in advanced capitalism (Rimke 2000, Rose 1996, etc.). Personal development has become an important goal in the construction of the new subjectivities of the middle classes. The meaning the mantra „You are the most important person in your life!” aims to convey is “You are the only person in charge of your life”. According to personal development discourses, the individual is the only one who can interfere with his/her own existence. It opposes blaming other entities (e.g., system, friends) for success of failure or building expectations that other entities will provide solution for one’s problems. Furthermore, personal development purports to provide tools through which individuals can overcome their problems and achieve their goals. These tools are built mainly on the concept of personal transformation, which covers a comprehensive range of potential practices, from changing social or professional relationships to changing language, emotions and thoughts.

Crăița Curteanu (Central European University)

Becoming part of the middle class in Romania: a story of car consumption

Becoming middle class is a trip that starts in a borrowed car and ends in an SUV. Car ownership among SUV owners is a story of gradually learning how to be a worthy member of the middle class. Drawing on interviews conducted during February and March 2013, I argue that SUV ownership tells a story of middle class making among Romanian small entrepreneurs. My interviewees speak of the cars they owned in a way that mirror their life paths: each of the newer and better cars they gradually bought is equivalent to one step up towards their current state of prosperity. And the purchase of each car was calculated in ways that were supposed to reflect their class mobility at each respective point. Employing Goffman’s (1961) concept of “moral careers”, I show how the car ownership trajectories rendered by the SUV owners I interviewed illustrate the process of learning and adaptation to standards inspired by their aspirational picture of how Western Europeans live. Becoming a legitimate SUV owners entails drawing the boundaries between who “worthy” and “unworthy” to own an SUV, and is defined through a series of contrasts such as the ones between proper and improper SUV use, as well as moral and immoral strategies of spending money.

Răzvan Papasima (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)

From Start-Up to Class Up. Constructing a new middle class in post-socialist Romania

The capitalist accumulation system is based on the idea that the market is rewarding those who correctly identify its needs. It is for this reason that the entrepreneurship and start-up businesses have turned in the recent years from buzz-words to state policies, with the aim to create a middle class that generates prosperity and economic stability. At an individual level, these policies are built on the idea that risk is a condition for achieving personal success, turning it into a knowledge dispositif (Foucault 1977). According to Eder (1992), the class can be seen as an empirical category of people at risk. In this article, I show how policies based values such as self-help and personal effort have the role of contributing to the continuous building and reproduction of a middle class and at the same time how they are functioning as a legitimation of capitalism and a reaffirmation of its openness as a socio-economic system.

Călin Cotoi (University of Bucharest)

Communism and the emergence of the discourse on social classes in fin-de-siècle Romania

After the defeat of the 1848 revolution, the exiled revolutionaries created a discourse that represented them as well versed in the themes of (left wing) social progress but unwilling to endorse a real social revolution in their homelands. As they returned from exile and become part of the liberal political elite a discursive “empty slot of communism” was created that balanced the promises of social progress on which the project of social modernity was based: social classes and their conflicts were not part of this. The local discourse on social classes emerged only when another group of émigrés, coming from the revolutionary underground of Russia, moved in Romania after 1874 and tried to really occupy the discursive place of “communism”. Social classes and the alleged proletarian condition of the peasantry became part of an attempted dialogue with the national and liberal project.

Florin Poenaru (Central European University)

Is petite bourgeoisie a class? Does it even exist?

The paper explores historically and analytically the concept of petite bourgeoisie and makes a case for a reloaded version of it as being useful to account for contemporary class configurations in Romania and beyond. The concept has been highly contested and even dismissed both within and outside Marxist traditions. Poulantzas reconstruction of a ”new petite bourgeoisie” was explicitly politically charged in order to account for the relationship with fascism both in the interwar period and later in Greece during the military dictatorship. Bourdieu’s use of the term had none of these dimensions and functioned instead as a contradistinction to the established and recognizable bourgeoisie. Relaying on this double legacy, more recently Cihan Tugal developed the concept of a “new new petite bourgeoisie” represented the backbone of the global wave of protests following the 2008 meltdown. These protests, Tugal argues, represented the not only the expression of a class ethos and crisis but its very articulation. A similar case can be made about the Romanian protests of the last half a decade (2012-2017), which the paper indeed does. However, what remains crucially at stake in the debate is the nature of the petite bourgeoisie itself? Is it a class in itself? Does it really exist? How does it relate to the more generally accepted notion, though no less contested, category of the middle class? My argument is double. First, I suggest that what characterizes the petite bourgeoisie is precisely its contradictory and shifting relationship with labor and capital. Secondly, at a more general level, I propose that the way capitalism functions today (that is in the last half a century) leads to the ever creation and expansion of the petite bourgeoisie. Inevitably, the paper engages a wider debate about class both as a theoretical category and as a social reality and points to ways in which anthropology of class is essential for grasping social realities.

Jeremy Morris (Aarhus University)

An agenda for research directions in class and work in the postsocialist world

This paper reviews the scholarly treatment of work and class in post-socialist states. It traces how the class discourses under socialism led to a relative lack of meaningful working-class studies in the post-socialist academy. It offers as an agenda for future research three points of departure: 1) greater confrontation of the one-sided discourse on class in these societies and the academy itself (a class blindness of research). 2) The value in studying postsocialist societies both comparatively to Global North and South, and as an intermediate positioning for worker exploitation and responses in global capitalism. 3) To achieve the first two agenda items a more grounded methodological approach proceeding from the lived experience of class and work is proposed.



Open versus enclosed balconies as a disruption of taste and class

Bogdan Iancu


The frequent option for an open balcony or terrace, full of flowers and leisure furniture marks a radical shift from the local middle class’ options of the mid 2000s. The enthusiasm for double-glazed windows at the time gave rise to a mass phenomenon of enclosure of balconies and loggias. In most cases when somebody was buying an apartment, the first step of its renovation was beginning (and sometimes ended as well) with the fitting of double glazed windows (Iancu 2011). A similar step was taken for closing the balcony, a common practice in socialist Romania. After 2005, double-glazed windows had become such a valued social status indicator, that they entered pop culture by means of a music hit of those times: “Termopane, termopane!” of artist Florin Chilian.

Once this era ended, these balconies become recently part of a wider universe of domestic material culture which the members of the middle class start to leave behind, sometimes as an explicit statement to part with the materialities associated with post-socialist transition (considered to be domestic improvements motivated by necessity) but also stimulated by the offer of Ikea and other home improvement stores.

The open balcony becomes, in some cases, a metaphor for an absent garden. One of my interlocutors has developed a whole greening project focused on his balcony, which included its paving with waterproof deck and pots of flowers and herbs. Simultaneously, the balcony becomes a refuge for smokers trying to protect their children from second-hand smoke.

On such balconies/terraces, the storage spaces are absent or diminished in size in favour of new items signalling leisure-time activities as a similar phenomenon described by Fehervary (2012) for a Hungarian city. Objects are stored in garages or improvised closets and pantries. The neighbours who shift away from this type of representation are severely criticised on the residential Facebook groups through rituals of public shaming rebuking the “inappropriate” (to read: as in the socialist period or as – as one of the inhabitants posted) use of balcony – “in a ghetto”).

Far from suggesting that the decision to abandon socialist apartment buildings for the new buildings with open terraces is the only driver for residential change, affirmations of my interlocutors do indicate that the double-glazed enclosed balcony has ceased to embody the “respectable material standards” (Patico 2008) of middle-class identities and aspirations, making more and more obvious the symbolic dichotomy between the socialist apartment building and the new residential ensembles.

References: Fehervary, K. (2012), “Postsocialist Middle Classes and the New “Family House” in Hungary”, in R. Heiman, C. Freeman and M. Liechty (eds), The global middle classes: theorizing through ethnography. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. Pp. 117-144

Iancu, B. (2011), “The Golden Age of Termopane. The Social Life of Post‐Socialist Windows”, Martor, 16, pp. 19‐33.

Patico J. (2008), Consumption and Social Change in a Post-Soviet Middle Class. Stanford, CA and Washington, DC: Stanford University and Woodrow Wilson Center Press.


Fundraising & the middle-class in Romania (2)

Ștefan Lipan

The majority of people I have spoken and worked with from the NGO sector identified themselves as being middle-class. They used the same discourse of democracy, rights, legality and personal responsibility as the Romanian 2017 protesters described by Deoanca in his piece on the middle-class aspirations for moral governance and virtuous citizenship (Deoanca, 2017).

However, besides the above mentioned tropes, another one kept showing up in their discourse. This was the usage of emotions like compassion, sincerity, warmth, friendliness. As one of the fundraising experts I encountered mentioned in his speech addressed to future fundraisers: “Communication with the donors is the key ingredient. Several things are of utmost importance here: not to be boring, avoidance of jargon, frequent meetings, a warm, friendly tone, passion, deliver the sentiment of utility, and most importantly: Emotion! Emotion should always be present!”

Among the principles of fundraising mentioned by yet another I-have-raised-impressive-amounts-of-money fundraiser (sorry for my ironic tone but, funny enough, many of whom I’ve met took every occasion they had to remind people of how successful they were in raising funds) were: “people give in order to receive something in return, raising funds is a transaction, we sell, common sense (bun simt), truth, trust, integrity, transparency, and last but the most important: empathy!”

Returning to the above mentioned study on the Romanian philanthropic behaviour, we find here a list of the main reasons for which the persons interviewed donated to an NGO. Among them we find ideas similar with the ones from my interviews with people who identified themselves as being middle-class: because they have the resources (18,3%), they are contributing to a change (11,7%), I trust the organization (5,4%). But the first reason that 23,3% of the persons questioned answered was pity. This would be the religious equivalent of compassion.

Another important aspect in the “donor hunting” business (as one of the fundraisers named it) is the beautification of it. It has to look nice, it has to feel good, it has to be pleasing. This idea was present not only in the huge fundraising events like the Hope Concert1 organized by the Hope and Homes for Children Foundation each year, but also in the tiniest of details. As one of the leading fundraisers told us in a training session with the organization I was working with: “I think that what will help us very much with the fundraising would be an infographic. That means to explain through images, on a single page, why do you need the money for. Whether you put children, young people, how many hours, how many volunteers you should put them in a nice, beautiful way in a graphic form. This is because when you send an email from a recommendation: Hi, look at who we are! You send them a powerpoint with 5 slides, the infographic, and the sponsorship contract as a draft. These are the instruments that we use and work with…because nobody has the the time to read them, trust me. You can send them whatever document you might think is relevant…they will not read it. But a nice, beautiful infographic, because it is a visual communication and we are bombarded with this type of communication every day, it helps us very much. This should be the essence. This will be opened first, and if you put the whole project nicely in one page, he will understand from one look why you need 10000 Euros. The powerpoint presentation should be a bit more detailed, with some nice photos but the main tool is the infographic. It has been used by many other companies and it is very useful.”

So we see that aspects of aesthetics are clearly taken into consideration at many levels of the process of raising funds for the institutionalized children. Moreover, the aesthetics are linked with moral aspects through the importance given to moral sentiments like compassion.

Fundraising & the middle-class in Romania (1)

Ștefan Lipan

During my fieldwork within an NGO working with institutionalized children, one issue of great importance for the staff was that of gathering funds from various sources. Whether through various projects funded by the state or through donations, this issue occupied much of the time of the organization. Thus, within the organization, I have taken part in multiple meetings about this matter, I participated at webminars (an online seminar) on fundraising organized for NGO’s, and I discussed with professionals in the business. I say business because this is the form that raising funds has taken in the last decade. For some people it has become a full time job and many NGO’s, especially the big ones, employ people for the job of fundraiser. A quantitative study from 2016 which used a national representative sample shows that in Romania, 63% of the adult population has made at least one donation in the last year to different categories (ARC, 2016). In comparison to previous years1, there was a significant growth in donations for the NGO sector. In the urban population there are approximately 4,8 million donors of which 1,7 millions donated to an NGO. The most important categories supported through donations were health, charity and volunteering, social services and social development. The study also shows that through the law that permits redirecting 2% of the income tax to NGO’s or religious cults, in 2015, 143.400.000 lei (approx. 32 million Euros) were donated to NGO’s.

So yes, it’s big business. One of the speakers at a webminar on fundraising explained fundraising for us in a particular way: “We will present today a set of tools and mechanism of fundraising which can help you engage the members of the community in the game of charity. Philanthropy has its origin in the inter-human relationships of care and help of the poor, and it is a type of behaviour and a belief which manifests itself through the faith in people’s kindness. People who engage in philanthropy are willing to give a part of their time and resources in an altruistic way to help the needy. Thus, fundraising, is the ‘science’ of successfully convince others that your organization’s activity has meaning and is necessary within the community.”

By taking part in the process of searching and engaging with donors, by playing the “game of charity” as the above mentioned speaker described fundraising, I was able to gain other insights regarding the middle-class aesthetics of care. More precisely, the usage of moral sentiments and of beautification as the tools for engaging people to donate their time and resources for various social causes.

1 The study was also done in 2008 and 2003.

Reflections on class & middle-class in Romania (3)

Ștefan Lipan

So how are we to understand the middle-class in Romania? Can we even speak of a middle-class in Romania? If we look only at people’s incomes, then the answer would be no. At least not one consistent with the dream of the middle class – that large middle part of the economy, those who have enough resources to generate development and growth (Oancea 2011). A statistical study using the 2011 Living Conditions Survey found that the persons “who, in ascending order of the annual gross incomes, can be found in the middle part of the income distribution and represent a third of the total number of persons” (Ioniţă & Vasile 2015) have annual gross incomes between 6121 lei – 13360 lei (~1400 to 3100 euro/year, ~100 to 260 euro/month). In relative terms (in relationship to other categories) and according only to the gross income, this would be the Romanian middle-class. Almost 60% of which is made out of pensioners. Almost 60% of which are women. A look at the distribution of salaries in Romania in 2015 shows that the number of persons with monthly gross incomes between the national median salary of 530 euro and 1100 euro is about 580.000 (Mihai 2015). That means monthly net incomes between 380 and 780 Euros (considering the value of the current taxes in Romania). That amounts for about 3% of the total population. If you also add up the persons who earn between the minimum gross wage (the value in 2015 was 975 lei ~220 Euros) and the medium one, that makes about 15% percent of the population.

Meanwhile, one research in Romania shows that 80% of the population situates itself somewhere in the middle (CCSB 2012). Not too rich, but not too poor either. Middle-class. Aspiring to be middle-class. In a column for the cultural magazine Dilema Veche, Mihailescu (2013) reads a peasant’s moral principle in the Romanians’ widespread tendency to position themselves as middle class. This is the ideal of moderation that explains why in the Romanian rural world being very poor and very rich are equally disapproved social positions. Moreover, Mihailescu points out the ‘status inconsistency’ (i.e. a person might possess social and cultural but not economic capital and the other way around) that might limit the formation of a socially coherent middle class ( see also Stoica 2004)⁠.

The ideas presented so far express the difficulty in conceptualizing the ‘middle-class’ in Romania, a difficulty also discussed and approached in other anthropological studies of the middle-class around the globe (Donner 2017)⁠. In this context of conceptual vagueness, I propose following a phenomenon ascribed to the global middle-class (Heiman et al. 2012) – charity work, engaging in compassionate acts – in order to bring a more nuanced understanding of the middle-class practices. This is also linked with the idea that in Romania middle-class is more of an aspirational category.

Reflections on class & middle-class in Romania (2)

Ștefan Lipan

Class, however, has been used in different Romanian sociological approaches (Marginean 2011, 2015; Vasile 2008; Tufis 2010; Ioniţă & 2015), but mostly from the point of view of stratification which divides society into groups with different roles, and often conceals issues like the unequal power relations between these groups (Ost 2015a). After the year 2000, critical class research has seen some signs of revival (Ban 2015) coming from scholars based at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj (e.g. Petrovici 2012; Simionca 2012; Inglot et al. 2012) and from different left-oriented groups based in Bucharest (e.g. Their influence, however, is still very limited, especially when you consider the way people talk about the middle-class.

The topic of middle-class in Romania has been much more visible within the public sphere. As with other countries in Eastern Europe (Crowley 2015; Saar & Helemäe 2015; Ost 2015b; Boyadjieva & Kabakchieva 2015; Drahokoupil 2015; Fabo 2015)⁠, the middle class has been glorified (Chelcea & Druta 2016; Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley 1998) as the class that will save society, the class that breaks with the communist past and is the carrier of democracy and modernity (Vasile 2008)⁠. Or, as another Romanian sociologist puts it: the modern society is mostly a projection of the middle-class, of its values and ways of life (Marginean 2004)⁠.

As Buchowski (2008: 49) has pointed out, “the new middle class [in Eastern Europe] is a concept influenced by teleological ideas of “transformation,” and it plays an ideological role in the building of the new liberal political and ideological order”.

When talking about the transition to market-based economy in the years after the communist fall, the first democratically elected president of Romania, Ion Iliescu states that “the objective companion of such a change in economy is, in the social sphere, the creation and strengthening of the middle-class, which is not just a simple request, but a mandatory condition for the functioning of an advanced market-based economy” (Iliescu 2011)⁠. Also, the current president of the Social-Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, in his 2016 national day wishes for his Facebook followers states that “the national day is the day in which Romanians hope for the better, hope to be a part of the middle-class, in their own country, and not leave the country in search for higher salaries” (Dragnea 2016).⁠ Different generations, same talk about the middle-class. Dallas and Dynasty, with their stories of success and wealth didn’t just air in Romania. We actually built a replica of the famous Dallas ranch near Bucharest (Pasti 2006)⁠.

What characterized the term middle-class in the first years after the communist fall and still does today is its ‘vagueness’ (Ost 2015a)⁠. ‘Corporatists’, entrepreneurs, creatives, public employees, teachers, medics, engineers, architects, sales representatives – all entered the category of middle-class (Urse 2004, Larionescu et al. 2006). It’s almost as Beethoven’s Ode to joy, a perfect ideological container, as Žižek (2003) calls it, used irrespectively by the Nazis, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, in China during the cultural Revolution and now as the EU’s anthem. But the rhetoric of ‘middle-class’ meant, in political terms, that the state should focus its attention (read funds) towards the market, towards the middle-class which is best suited to handle these resources. It also meant a rupture from the ‘uncivilized’ lower classes, those who have failed the market test, those who vampire the free market and the state with their dependence. As Chelcea & Iancu show, the labor of parcagii (self-appointed parking attendants in Bucharest, often identified as being part of the low class) becomes “the perfect alibi for middle classes’ discourses about the undeserving poor who steal the city from its “hard-working” middle-class owners.” (Chelcea & Iancu 2015)⁠.

Reflections on class & middle-class in Romania (1)

Ștefan Lipan


“Class” in Romania is rarely heard in everyday conversations. Eyebrows rise and heads tilt back a little when we ask the question: ​ do you consider yourself to be middle-class? Usually, the answers I received from my interlocutors suggest that ‘class’ is not a category of reference in describing​ ​ one​ ​ self​ ​ or​ ​ when​ ​ trying​ ​ to​ ​ talk​ ​ about​ ​ one’s​ ​ social​ ​ context:

“Am I middle-class? What class? Who cares? Maybe I am. I must be. I guess I am. Am I? Class is such an old term, I haven’t thought about it since high-school.” ​ [excerpts from the interviews]

As in most of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe (Saar, E. & Helemäe, J. 2015; Crowley, S., 2015; Ost 2015; Gagyi & Éber 2015; Kramberger & Stanojević 2015), in Romania, class talk has been seen as the discourse of the ‘enemy’, a category which reminded of the ‘old’ regime, not suited for the new, modern one (Ost 2015a). In academia too, one of the main sources from which such a perspective might gain value within the larger population and bring attention to structural inequalities, speaking of ‘class’ in the 1990s smelled (obviously bad) of “communism” (Ban 2015). It became part of the repertoire of the so-called zombie socialism (Chelcea & Druta 2016), kept alive, among other ideas, to act as an “ideological antioxidant” (Žižek 2001) i.e. to put a sock in the mouths of those who challenged the new, neoliberal world-view.

This lack of a class lens which would bring up issues like exploitation and inequality (Kalb 2015) has had important political and real life implications. It has allowed the winners of capitalism (Stoica 2004, Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley, 1998) to silence social justice claims (Poenaru 2013; Simionca 2012) coming from those unfitted or unwilling to conform (Verdery 2003) to the categories imposed by neoliberal capitalism (Cernat 2006). I do not assume an obvious, logical, causal relation between the lack of class talk and the economic situation of Romanian citizens today, but the EU’s 2014 statistics show that Romania has the second highest rate of people at-risk-of poverty and social exclusion, more than 40% to be more precise (Eurostat 2016).

In Romania, class has been replaced by a discourse of ‘normality’, of democracy, and transition (Pasti 2006) and its absence from public discourse has allowed for the flourishing of nationalist views (Verdery 1993)⁠. The idea of normality has become so pervasive in everyday talk that most out-of-the-norm expressions (whether political, gender related, religious or just adopting a different type of diet) are hastily labelled as ‘not-normal’. Usually without any argumentation. Because ‘this is the way things are’. “This discourse of normality constituted an ideological claim that there was nothing much to do except adapt, in individual ways, to the new order” (Ost 2015a). Focus on other issues as the economic system or nationalistic praises influences people to consider the system as being natural or right, something to be endured (Carrier 2015)⁠. As the latest meme circulating on social media spells: What can you do? There’s nothing you can do! (Csf? Ncsf!)


Carrier, J. G. (2015), “The concept of class”, in Carrier, J. G., Kalb D. (eds.), Anthropologies of Class Power, Practice and Inequality, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 28-40.

Cernat, L. (2006), Europeanization, Varieties of Capitalism and Economic Performance in Central and Eastern Europe, Hampshire & New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Chelcea, L., Druţǎ, O. (2016), “Zombie socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe”, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 57( 4-5), pp. 521-544.

Crowley, S. (2015), “Russia: The Re-emergence of Class in the Wake of the First “Classless” Society”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 698 –710.

Eyal, G., Szelényi, I., Townsley, E. (2001), Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe, New York, Verso Books.

Eurostat (2016), People at risk of poverty or social exclusion, available at:

Gagyi, Á., Éber, M. Á. (2015), “Class and Social Structure in Hungarian Sociology”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 598–609.

Kalb, D. (2015), “Introduction: class and the new anthropological holism”, in Carrier, J. G., Kalb D. (eds.), Anthropologies of Class Power, Practice and Inequality, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-27.

Kramberger, A., Stanojević, M. (2015), “Class Concepts and Stratification Research in Slovenia”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 651–662.

Ost, D. (2015) “Stuck in the Past and the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 610–624.

Ost D. (2015a), “Class after Communism: Introduction to the Special Issue”, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 29(3), pp. 543 –564.

Pasti, V. (2006), Noul capitalism romanesc, Iasi, Polirom.

Poenaru, F. (2013), History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-communist Romania, PhD Diss., Budapest, Central European University.

Saar,​ ​ E.,​ ​ Helemäe,​ ​ J.​ ​ (2015),​ ​ “Estonia:​ ​ Visible​ ​ Inequalities,​ ​ Silenced​ ​ Class​ ​ Relations”,​ ​ East European ​ ​ Politics ​ ​ and ​ ​ Societies ​ ​ and ​ ​ Cultures ​, 29(3),​ ​ pp.​ ​ 565​ ​ –576.

Simionca, A. (2012), “Neoliberal Managerialism, anti-Communist Dogma and the Critical Employee in Contemporary Romania”, Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai, Sociologia, 57(1), pp. 125–49.

Stoica, C. A. (2004), “From Good Communists to Even Better Capitalists? Entrepreneurial Pathways in Post-Socialist Romania”, East European Politics and Societies, 18(2), pp. 236–277.

Verdery, K. (1993), “Nationalism and National Sentiment in Post-socialist Romania”, Slavic Review, 52(2), pp. 179–203.

Žižek, S. (2001), Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion, London, Verso.


Classing the bargains

Magdalena Crăciun


During my research, I took part in conversations about clothing among middle-class women (either self-identified as middle class or structurally positioned in the „middle”) that started, like most conversations about garments begin, with an admirative comment about a certain piece and the taste it betrays. However, less expectedly, in these cases the first reaction to the comment was to literally indicate the „very good price” the wearer paid for it in a second hand clothes shop, a flea market, a yard sale, an outlet or a clothing factory’s shop. The ensuing animated conversations alternated between discussions of the piece of garment, its fabric, cut and style, and exchanges of information about the particular place in which the item was bought and about other places in Bucharest, other Romanian towns and abroad, the list including „well-stocked” second-hand clothes chains such as Monda and Humana in Bucharest and the factories’ shops in the provincial town of Focșani next to „fabulous” outlets such as MiniPrix in Bucharest and TK Maxx in various European cities. The admired piece was sometime discussed in relation to the other elements of the outfit and the collection of clothes the wearer possessed. In these instances too, exchanges about style and fashion accompanied remarks about price and quality.

In one such case, a woman proudly informed her interlocutors that her outfit was entirely assembled from second-hand pieces and costed less than the food she had just served, only to be lectured on the „art” of hunting for „fancy”, „quirk” and „vintage” items in second-hand clothes shops and of combining expensive items with bargains without compromising on style and quality. The lecturer pointed out that this „art” differentiated the savvy from the poor consumer, and stylish consumption from „mere” consumption. And in another case, a woman found the story about the „time consuming but interesting work” of a friend, who scoured these types of shops, found the „treasures” that the poor ignored, curated outfits and sold them online for a markup to „people with taste but no time”, as the appropriate end for a conversation that started from a garment bought at a „very good price”.

These last examples make more evident what all these conversations have in common, namely the material and symbolic marking of class boundaries. The poor buys discounted products and second-hand clothes because this is all they can afford. The middle-class woman is a discerning consumer, whose cultural capital (taste) allows her to engage in the „art” of finding clothes in low profile places and to do the „interesting work” of selecting valuable items and curating outfits.

Bourdieu (1986) argues that every individual occupies a position within the social structure by virtue of the social, economic and cultural capital that he/she possesses. To some extent, these forms of capital evolve from one another. However, none of them is completely reducible to any other. In other words, a limited budget does not translate into a shabby wardrobe. Also the acquisition of luxury (non-necessary) items as a „treat” is a common practice across classes.

Moreover, Bourdieu (1984) emphasizes that people possess a „know-how” of class (and this is valid even for a place like Romania where they are less willing to talk about class and reflect on class differences, but eager to share their appreciative or derogatory comments about their and the others’ taste). Consequently, they decide, for example, on what to wear and judge other people’s dress. In Bourdieu’s (1984: 6) words, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”. Taste does not simply reflect a class position, it actively and effectively makes class distinction.

In addition, Donner (2017: 8) notes that „the experience of being middle-class is fractured and contradictory, outwardly, because it requires control over certain kinds of capital, notably education, but may imply lack of other kinds, notably finance.” To recast the bargain hunting as an „art” and „interesting work” is to try to ease the subjective feeling and structural experience of living through these fractures and contradictions.

In brief, class is „the structuring absence” (Skeggs 1997) in these conversations. The bargains are classed.


Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) „The Forms of Capital”, în Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J. Richardson (ed). Westport, CT: Greenwood. Pp. 241-58.

Donner, H. (2017). „The anthropology of the middle class across the globe”, Anthropology of this Century 18, accesat 13 septembrie 2017

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of Class and Gender. London: Sage.