During the first stage of this research project on what it means to be middle class in Bucharest, we decided to conduct a series of interviews to explore what this notion means and how people discuss it in relation to their lives, their social milieu and the recent history (we included questions such as ‘what are, in your opinion, the defining characteristics of middle classness?’, ‘is middle class a homogenous category?’ ‘was there a middle class before 1989?’ ‘are there any significant changes/moments in the post-1989 development of the middle class?’, ‘who belongs to the middle class?’ ‘have you ever thought of yourself as belonging to a certain class?’).
In this post, I focus not on the data we collected through these exploratory interviews, but on a few puzzling reactions to the invitation to take part in this research.
A friend of mine mediated my encounter with M. S., an investment banker in his late thirties. M. S. admitted that he found surprising and, simultaneously, amusing this request to take part in a research about the middle class in Bucharest. His first reaction was: ‘why me?’. His second thought was: ‘do I really belong to the middle class?”. During the first minutes of our encounter, he emphasised that he has never thought of himself in these terms and has never discussed this issue with his friends and family members. At the end of the interview, I asked M.S. to put me in contact with someone else whom he found appropriate for this research.
And so I met A.N., his neighbour, an IT-ist in his late thirties. During the first minutes of our encounter, A.N. told me that he started laughing when M.S. invited him to take part in a research about the middle class in Bucharest. Then a few questions came to his mind: “is this something good? Is it something bad? Do I really belong to the middle class? But if I don’t belong to the middle class, then who does?” This reasoning made him accept the invitation. However, he also pointed out that he has never thought of himself in these terms. Upon reflection, towards the end of our meeting, he suggested that belonging to middle class could be a topic of discussion for people in their twenties. Those like him (i.e. people in their thirties) talked about the practicalities of adult life and the responsibilities that come with parenting. ‘You just live. You don’t think about life. The whole idea is to live comfortably’, he concluded. I for one wanted to know why he laughed when M.S. approached him. It turned out that the laugh was a way of hiding the pleasant surprise of being characterised as belonging to the middle class (the way he translated the invitation to take part in a research about the middle class). At the end of the interview, I asked A.N. to put me in contact with someone else whom he found appropriate for this research.
And so I met C.D., a co-worker, an IT-ist in his early forties. He informed me that his friend A.N. advised him to accept to be interviewed because, and he quoted him, ‘if we are not middle class, then who is? For the sake of a scientific project, you too have to talk to her’. A.N. and C.D. had a good laugh too. Upon reflection, C.D. thought his friend was right, although he has rarely, if ever, thought of himself in these terms. Whilst hearing this story, the question that stood on the tip of my tongue was: ‘do you consider yourself as belonging to the middle class?’. I did ask it. C.D. replied pensively: ‘I do not know. I thought about this after A. told me about this interview. I thought of my neighbour. He lives next door, a house like mine, he earns more than I do probably, but he parks the guests’ cars at a five stars hotel. He knows this cannot last forever. I got this from our conversations. But is he middle class or not? If nothing happens to my head, I can only go up [i.e. upward social mobility]’ The interview was a search for an answer to this question. C.D. kept talking about friends and acquaintances during the interview, trying to place them, and implicitly himself, in a particular class position.
To an extent, any interview is an opportunity for self-reflection and self-presentation. Unexpectedly, for some of my interlocutors, this interview became a first occasion to think about themselves in terms of class.
The national surveys that indicate that a large number of Romanians consider themselves as belonging to the middle class do not record such moments of reflection…
We built this project on the intuition that the middle class in post-socialist Romania is a category in the making or, in Li Zhang’s (2008: 24) felicitous words, a ‘process of happening’. The way these three interlocutors reacted to an invitation to take part in a research about the middle class brings to the foreground one facet of this process, namely the quotidian use/lack of use of class as a category of self-identification. The configurations of biographical trajectories, social conditions and historical changes behind this use/lack of use are yet to be ethnographically explored and the distinctions between class as a critical concept and class as lived experience are yet to be analytically discerned.
Zhang, Li. 2008. “Private Homes, Distinct Lifestyles: Performing a New Middle Class.” In Privatizing China: Socialism From Afar. Li Zhang and Aihwa Ong (eds). Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Pp. 23-40.