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.

 

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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. criticatac.ro). 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!)

References:

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: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/People_at_risk_of_poverty_or_social_exclusion.

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.

References:

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 http://aotcpress.com/articles/anthropology-middle-class-globe/

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