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.

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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.

 

Middle class: key words

A

Activism * Aesthetics * After school * Anxiety * Anti-corruption * Apple * Art * Aspiration

B

Balance* “Beautiful people” (Oameni frumoși) * Bloc of flats * Bio *Branded goods

C

Capital (Cultural, Economic, Social) * Capitalism * Charity * Class (Class Relations, Low Class, Upper Class, Working Class, Class positioning, Condition, Consciousness) * Choice * Civic engagement * Colectiv * Comfort * Communism * Consumerism * Conformism *Corporation * CriticAtac * Crisis * Culture (Highbrow Culture) * Cultural Consumption

D

Debt * Decency * Democracy * Design *DNA (National Anticorruption Directorate) * Donation * Downshifting

E

Ecology *Education * Environmental concerns

F

Fashion * ‘Cosy Flat’ * Fine Fabrics * Foodie * Foreign languages*Freedom

G

Gadget * Gated Community

H

Healthy * Health insurance * Home-making * House (Casă pe pământ) * House ownership * Hipster

I

Income * Independence* Individualism * Installment * Insurance * Ikea 
* IT-ist

L

Liberalism * Lifestyle * Loan

M

Materials (Fine, Natural, Texture, Composition, Colour, Fabric, Quality) * Middle Class (The Middle, Identity Category, Homogeneity, Heterogeneity) * Meritocracy * Minimalism * Mobility * Modest * Modern * Morality * Moral integrity * (Multi-national) Corporation

N

Nature* Neo-liberalism * Needs

O

Organic Food

Q

Quality

R

Recycling * Respectability * Responsibility 
* Residential Area *Rights

P

Parenting (Intensive Parenting) * Personal Development * Politics * Post-communism * Power * Privilege * Private Education * Professional trajectory * Private Property * Proper conduct * Protest

S

Second-hand Clothes * Swap Shop

T

Thrift * Time (Quality Time, Time for one’s self) * Tourism (Cultural Tourism)

 

V

Volunteerism

W

Wellgroomed

Z

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Excerpts from interviews/Fragmente de interviu

Middle class – Definitions/Clasa de mijloc – definiții

Key words: inexistent social category, financial capital, cultural capital, independence, comfort, honesty, corporatist

Cuvinte cheie: categorie socială inexistentă, capital financiar, capital cultural, independență, confort, onestitate, corporatist

[S., 30 years old, M, geographer

interviewed by Ștefan Lipan]

S.: Middle class? What does middle class means? Wait a second, is this good or not? What do you think?

Ș. L.: I am interested in what YOU think.

S: Well, it means to have a car, to have money, to have a job, to be educated, to stand on your feet sort of. Wait a second, I don’t think having a car belongs to this category…everyone buys a car. And I know a bloke who used to sleep in a huge BMW

[S., 30 ani, B, geograf

interviu realizat de Ștefan Lipan]

S.: Clasa de mijloc? Ce înseamnă asta ? Stai așa, e bine sau nu ? Tu ce crezi ?

Ș. L.: Păi mă interesează ce crezi tu.

S.: Păi înseamnă să ai masină, să ai bani, să ai un job, să ai o educație, să fii pe picioarele tale oarecum. Stai așa, mașina nu cred că intra în categoria asta…că toată lumea își ia masină. Știu pe unu care dormea în ditai BMW-ul…

[S., 30 years old, F, specialist IT

interviewed by Ștefan Lipan]

Ș. L.: What do you understand by middle class?

S.: What middle class? Cut the crap! We don’t have something like this. We have the poor, the people who barely drag out a miserable existence and spend the money they don’t have, and the rich.

Ș. L.: Well, then those who spend the money they don’t have are a sort of middle class?

S.: Perhaps, but it’s just in their heads.

[S., 30 ani, F, specialist IT

interviu realizat de Ștefan Lipan]

Ș. L.: Ce înțelegi prin clasă de mijloc?

S.: Ce clasă de mijloc? Termină cu prostiile astea! Noi n-avem așa ceva. Avem săraci, oameni care abia se târâie, și cheltuie banii pe care nu îi au, și bogati.

Ș. L.: Păi atunci aștia care cheltuie banii pe care nu ii au ar fi un fel de clasă de mijloc ?

S.: Poate, dar e doar în capul lor.

[A.D., 29 years old, F, photographer

interviewed by Monica Stroe]

M.S.: What do you understand by middle class?

A.D.: Middle class is this area wherein there are people who make their money honestly. They make enough money to reach a certain level of comfort. This allows them to occasionally break free from the centrifuge. This allows them not to always be the mouse which keeps running in the centrifuge. I think for some this breaking free of the centrifuge materialises in a holiday, while for others means a hobby… cakes, photography, one more school, some more courses…in other words, accumulation of cultural capital. […] In my opinion, most middle class people are corporatists. It is true that there are also free lancers, entrepreneurs or hipsters, but I think the corporatists form the base. And because they work in corporations and because their sources of income don’t depend on combinations, don’t depend on collaborations with the state, they don’t really care about this thing. Well, yes, for me, I get my money from there, and chose to spend them in a way or another. And then the way I chose to spend them, you know? I think that a corporatist job allows you to be more independent with regard to the decisions you make, you know? the corporatists are the middle class, those people whose job titles I can hardly read, from junior account manager to financial expert on I don’t know what, PR and communication…In brief, I think those who work in corporations form the middle class, or almost there, so to speak, because there are also secretaries in the corporations, or this sort of position, who entered this centrifuge but don’t have the money to keep the pace. I think there are many people in this category of middle class who took loans, they are paying their debts. If you were to divide your money on a pie-chart, most of them will be used to cover the installments or, as it is our case, the rent.

[A.D., 29 ani, F, fotografă

interviu realizat de Monica Stroe]

M.S.: Ce înțelegi prin clasă de mijloc?

A.D.: [C]lasa de mijloc este zona asta în care sunt oameni care își fac banii cinstit. Suficienți bani încât să ajungă la un nivel de confort care să le permită din când în când să mai iasă și din centrifuga asta de șoricel care aleargă și atât. Cred că pentru unii [ieşitul din centrifugă] s-ar concretiza într-o vacanță, pentru alții poate s-ar concretiza într-un hobby, care poate să fie făcut prăjituri, sau poate să fie fotografie, sau poate o școală în plus, sau niște cursuri în plus, sau… știi, niște capital cultural, mă gândesc. […] Pentru mine, majoritatea oamenilor din middle class sunt corporatiști. Că mai sunt freelancer, că mai sunt antreprenori, că mai sunt printre ei și hipsteri, și așa, dar cred că baza este cea a oamenilor care lucrează în corporații. Și pentru că lucrează în corporații și pentru că sursele lor de finanțare nu depind de combinații, nu depind de lucrul cu statul român, nu prea le pasă de chestia asta. Adică da, pentru mine, de acolo îmi vin banii, și eu aleg să-i cheltuiesc, într-un fel sau altul. Și apoi și felul ăsta în care aleg să-i cheltui, știi? Adică, cred că lucrul la o corporație te face să fii mai independent din punct de vedere al deciziilor pe care le iei, știi? […] [Din clasa de mijloc fac parte] o dată tot ce înseamnă corporație, și corporațiile au în fișa postului, sau denumiri din astea pe care eu le citesc greu. De la junior account manager, pe nu știu ce, până la expert financiar pe nu știu ce, PR și comunicare … deci cred că oamenii care lucrează în corporații sunt oamenii care sunt parte din clasa de mijloc, sau oricum, almost there, să zicem, dacă te gândeşti și oamenii care sunt secretari sau secretare, sau chestii de astea, care cumva au intrat deja în centrifuga asta dar cumva nu-i ajută banii să ţină pasul. […] Cred că sunt foarte mulți oameni care au rate, și credite, cred că, dacă ar trebui să împarți salariul, într-o plăcintă de aia [pie-chart, n.a.], cred că o mare parte din plăcintă ar fi a ratelor și a creditelor, care, mă rog, pentru alții cum suntem noi, se traduc în chirie, de exemplu, sau chirii.

[G.M., 40 years old, M, graduate studies (non-practicing dentist), entrepreneur, volunteer, carpenter,
interviewed by Magdalena Crăciun]

M.C.: Where can you hear discussions about the middle class?

G.M.: Well, you don’t hear! Here in Romania people don’t talk about class, they rather mention graduate studies, this sort of things….On the news, you don’t hear about class, you can only hear about rich people….What in England, for example, is called the upper class, here are those who boast about having money… There are also the nouveau riches, who suddenly got the money, but are not sure if they have class [i.e. education] [laughs] People don’t talk, but if you go out on the street you can see the differently classed people. If you go out at 6 a.m., you will see the buses crammed full with rather poor people, you can understand this by their garments, they dress in black and brown and their coats were brought from Europa [a Bucharest open-air market] These garments don’t show dirt. […] And then at about 8 – 9 a.m. comes the wave of cars, one or two people in each car, they were suits and go to work, their jobs being probably better paid than those of the people who have to wake up at dawn or who commute from nearby villages to Bucharest.

[G.M., 40 ani, B, studii superioare (stomatologie), antreprenor, voluntar, tâmplar
interviu realizat de Magdalena Crăciun]

M.C.: Unde poti auzi vorbindu-se despre clasă?

G.M. Păi nu auzi! Aici în România nu aud să se vorbeasca de clasă, aici mai degrabă auzi de studii superioare, chestii din astea … La știri nu auzi de clasă, auzi numai de oameni cu bani … Ceea ce în Anglia, de pildă, se cheamă upper class, aici sunt ăștia care se laudă cu banii… Sunt și ăștia care au bani peste noapte și nu stiu dacă au clasă [râde].  [..] Nu se vorbește, dar dacă te duci pe stradă, îi vezi. Dacă te duci la 6 dimineața, o să vezi autobuzele pline de oameni care sunt mai amărâți, se vede după haine, se îmbracă în negru și maro și au paltoanele cumpărate la Europa… Sunt haine care țin la murdărie. [..] După aia vine valul de mașini de pe la 8, 9 [..], în care sunt oameni care stau câte unul sau câte doi în mașină, sunt la costum și se duc la job, un job probabil mai bine plătit decât al celor care trebuie să se trezească dimineața sau vin din satele de lângă București.

[S.M. 45 years old, M, graduate studies (economy), entrepreneur,

interviewed by Magdalena Crăciun]

M.C.: This is a research about the middle class in Romania…My first question is: what are in your opinion the defining characteristics of the middle class?

S.M.: I think we could define…well, I have never thought about this until now…but I think we can define a middle class person as being the individual who has secured his existence. This person can satisfy the needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he has got everything he needs and, more importantly, he has an extra income. With this extra he can afford to invest, make, help…each person according to what one thinks and depending on what one believes in . [..] Class exists. Let’s be clear on this. Except that you need some basic criteria to be able to identify it. The problem starts here. [..] One of the reasons why the middle class in Romania is still not a stable category, a precise form or a certain level, is the fact that we no longer have moral guidelines. I mean this: when you talk about middle class, this is not only about money and properties. It is also about the way in which you use something, about the goal… how shall I put it?…it is also about the ethics of the social use of these means […] I think there are at least two categories in the middle class. There is that common category, let me call it like this. These people have a normal dimension, healthy, I mean they don’t have a house worth millions, only boorish tasteless people have such houses. They have decent houses. It is actually a problem to own a house that it is well beyond your needs, a maintenance problem first of all. I think we reach that point when a middle class family needs to own a house that suits its needs, with the additional elements such as guest rooms and a large living room in which to host various events. […] Then there is the other category… I am not sure how to name them, maybe hypocrites? People who incessantly want to be at the top, want to be in vogue. Their houses are over-decorated, their cars are far beyond their needs…

[S.M. 45 ani, B, studii superioare (ASE), antreprenor

interviu realizat de Magdalena Crăciun]

M.C.: Este o cercetare despre clasa de mijloc din România… Prima întrebare este care credeți că sunt caracteristicile definitorii pentru clasa de mijloc?

S.M.: Cred ca am putea defini, adică nu m-am gandit până acum la asta, dar cred că am putea defini un membru al clasei de mijloc ca fiind un om care are asigurate veniturile de exisțentă, are baza piramidei lui Maslow asigurată, are tot ce îi trebuie, și mai are și ceva disponibil. Cu acel ceva își poate permite fie să investească, să creeze, să ajute… fiecare în funcție de ce crede și de în ce crede. [..] Ea există. Clasa există, ca să fim înțeleși. Clasa există. Numai că a te referi la ea sau a vorbi despre ea, trebuie să ai niste repere pe baza căreia sa o poti identifica. Aici apar problemele. [..] Unul dintre motivele pentru care clasa de mijloc din România încă nu se stabilizează sub nici o formă și la nici un nivel este că noi nu mai avem repere morale. Adică, când te referi la clasă de mijloc, nu este vorba numai de bani și de proprietăți. Este vorba și de modul în care utilizezi, de scopul, de… cum sa-i spun?… de etica utilizării sociale a acestor mijloace. [..] Cred că există cel puțin două categorii în clasa de mijloc. Există categoria aia de bun simț aș numi-o eu. Oameni care au o dimensiune normală, firească, adică nu au casă de neam prost, de mii și milioane… cum și-a făcut Videanu la Snagov… Au o casă de bun simț. Pentru că a avea o casă cu mult peste necesitățile pe care le ai este o problemă, o prob de intreținere în primul rând. Cred că suntem în punctul în care o familie din clasa de mijloc ar trebui să aibă o casă pe măsura nevoilor sale, plus ceva de oaspeți, un living mai mare în care să își poată permite să facă un eveniment. [..] O altă categorie sunt cei … pe care nu știu cum să îi numesc exact… ipocriți poate, cei care vor să fie în top în permanență, vor sa fie în vogă. Sunt cei care au o casă decorată excesiv, care au o mașină cu mult peste nevoile lor…

[I. R., 27 years old, F, PhD candidate, teaching assistant,

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: Who belongs to the middle class?

I.R.: The educated and the moneyed…and those who …are opened to the world, opportunities, in their free time take classes in personal development or spend time on Facebook and try to change the world, exchange and change opinions, express their opinions and world-views. They also have the desire to surpass themselves, progress. They somehow feel that their place is not there, that they can do better and that they have to work hard to achieve this. For example, some of my university colleagues came by car to uni and said that their mums clean their houses, that they did not know how to use a washing machine, that they never had to or that they’ve just got back from their trips to Vienna, Venice and I don’t know where. But, on the other hand, they were very entrepreneurial, I think this is the word. They were encouraged to start their own business, have initiatives, look for better things.

[I. R., 27 de ani, F, doctorandă și asistentă universitară

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Cine face parte din clasa de mijloc?

I.R.: Cei cu studii și cu bani… și cei care… au o deschidere la lume, la oportunități, în timpul liber se duc la cursuri de dezvoltare personală sau stau pe Facebook și încearcă de acolo să schimbe lumea, să schimbe opinii, să spună ce gândesc, cum e lumea în ochii lor. Au și dorința de a face mai mult, de a progresa, simt cumva că locul lor nu e acolo, că pot mai mult și că trebuie să muncească pentru asta, să depună efort. De exemplu, eu aveam printre colegi pe la facultate și persoane care veneau cu mașina personală la școală și ziceau că le face mama curat că ele nu vor, că nu știu să pornească o mașină de spălat, că nu au avut niciodată nevoie sau că s-au întors din vacanță de la Viena, Veneția și mai știu eu unde. Dar, pe de altă parte erau foarte… întreprinzătoare, cred că ăsta e cuvântul. Erau încurajate să își deschidă propria afacere, să aibă inițiativă, să caute ceva mai bun.

Middle class belonging

Key words: utilisable identity category, irrelevant identity category, rarely used identity category

Apartenență la clasa de mijloc

Cuvinte cheie:categorie identitară utilizabilă, categorie identitară irelevantă,categorie identitară nefolosită uzual

[S., 30 years old, M, geographer

interviewed by  Ștefan Lipan]

S: I exceeded my condition [upward social mobility], that’s for sure. But I don’t know where I’ve arrived. I am not longer there, but I am not sure if I belong to the middle class or not. I mean sometimes, when I look around me, I ask myself if I don’t earn too much and I tell myself that I had huge luck.

[S., 30 de ani, B, geograf

interviu realizat de Ștefan Lipan]

S.: Eu mi-am depășit condiția, cu siguranță. Dar nu știu unde am ajuns. Nu mai sunt acolo, dar nu știu dacă sunt acum clasa de mijloc sau nu. Adică uneori mă întreb dacă nu cumva câștig prea mult și că am fost prea norocos, când mă uit în jurul meu.

[B.R., 37 years old, F, jurist,

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: If you don’t define yourself as belonging to the middle class, what does it distinguishes you from a middle class person?

B.R.: [long pause]…I don’t think I have an image of the middle class people and, if we were to thick some objective criteria, I probably have some of them, but subjectively I don’t picture myself as automatically empathising [with middle class people]. Ah, well, I would like…and it would be wishful thinking to have someone include me into a box…and to consider one extreme, the uneducated and poor, people who can be easily manipulated, because they don’t think with their own heads, and the other extreme those who became rich…and then this part of middle class, well, yes, I would probably be there. Look, until now, I have never imagined myself as belonging to the middle class…

[B.R. , 37 de ani, F, juristă

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Ce credeți că v-ar diferenția de ceea ce vedeți ca fiind clasa de mijloc, dacă nu vă definiți ca făcând parte din această clasă?

B.R.: [pauză lungă]… nu cred că am așa o conștiință a apartenenților categoriei și probabil că dacă e să bifăm niște criterii obiective, probabil că pe unele dintre ele le bifez, dar în plan subiectiv, nu mă văd empatizând automat. A, că mi-ar plăcea… și ar fi whishful thinking dacă ar fi să mă pună cineva într-o căsuță… și definim extrema needucată și săracă, oamenii ușor de manipulat politic, pentru că nu gândesc cu propria minte, bucata asta de MC și extrema de îmbogățiți, da, probabil că, prin forța împrejurărilor, aș fi pe aici pe undeva. Uite, până acum, că m-ai întrebat, nu m-am proiectat ca făcând parte din…

[O. R., 38 years old, F, nurse,

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: Where there any moments or situations in which you defined yourself in terms of class?

O.R.: No, never, this is what I wanted to say. I have never thought about this. Now that you’ve told me, you’ve asked me, but I’ve never thought about this. I’ve never raised this problem. I mean, when I was a student I could hardly afford a packet of biscuits, such were things, I did not work…and then things came somehow by themselves…

A.S.: But why do you think that you don’t use the term of class?

O.R.: I don’t find it relevant. I mean, why would I want to know about a friend, for example, what does this person have? No, as long as I like you as a person, I am not interested in what you’ve got in your house, what you put on the table, what…That’s why I am saying I don’t find this relevant. You don’t choose your friends by their class. We have friends from the lower class as well, but we don’t make this difference. Indeed, when we go on holiday we don’t tell them “hey, we go to Turkey, will you join us?” No, because it would be embarrassing. But if we go to the mountains, we call them, “hey, join us, we rented a place”. I mean this: they can afford a million, but not ten millions.

[O. R., 38 de ani, F, asistentă medicală,

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Au fost momente/situații în care te-ai definit în termeni din ăștia de clasă?

O.R.: Nu, niciodată, asta vroiam să zic că nu m-am gândit niciodată. Acum că mi-ai spus, că m-ai întrebat, dar nu m-am gândit niciodată. Nu mi-am pus niciodată problema asta. Adică, vorba aia, când am fost studentă, nu aveam bani nici de o eugenie, că asta era, dacă nu lucram și nu… dar după-aia, toate au venit de la sine.

A.S.: Dar de ce crezi că nu folosești termenii ăștia de clasă?

O.R.: Nu mi se pare relevant. Adică, de ce aș vrea eu să știu, de exemplu, de un prieten, mă refer, na, uite, ca tine, de ce aș vrea să știu eu ce ai tu? Nu, atât timp cât mie îmi place de tine ca și persoană așa, nu mă interesează ce ai în casă, ce pui pe masă, ce… Nu, asta zic, nu mi se pare relevant așa. Prietenii ți-i alegi nu după clasa din care fac parte. Adică noi avem prieteni și din clasa de jos, să zic, dar nu facem diferența asta. Într-adevăr, când plecăm în vacanță nu le zicem, „băi, mergem în Turcia, mergeți și voi?” Nu, pentru că ar fi jenant, știi. Dar dacă mergem la munte, îi sunăm și „hai că am închiriat, veniți și voi”. Adică, un milion au, dar n-au 10, știi.

Middle class: social representation of the lifestyle

Keywords: minimalism, responsibility, status consumption, uniqueness, individualisation, functionality

Clasa de mijloc : reprezentare sociala asupra stilului de viață 

Cuvinte cheie: minimalism, responsabilitate, consum de status, unicitate, individualizare, functionalitate

[A.D., 29 years old, F, photographer

interviewed by Monica Stroe]

A.D.: In the same way as with food, I think in this case too there is a sort of minimalism in decoration. I think people don’t want to have crowded spaces, in the same way they don’t want to have crammed fridges, let’s say. I think minimalism is fashionable, people want dressing rooms, they want very simple rugs, in one colour, you don’t see those flowery Persian rugs anymore, or heavily patterned rugs…Most of the walls are white, probably because there is this felt need for light and space and especially in the small houses the need to hide and cover up [..] Now special attention is paid to the pipes, they are hidden away, covered up, I mean there is this need for order.

[A.D., 29 ani, F, fotografă

interviu realizat de Monica Stroe]

A.D.: Ca și la mâncare, cred că și aicea există un minimalism de ăsta, știi, în amenajare. Cred că oamenii își doresc să nu aibă spații foarte încărcate, la fel cum își doresc să aibă, nu știu, frigidere foarte îmbâcsite. Cred că se merge pe chestia asta de minimalism, de dressing-uri, de exemplu, care să mascheze, de covoare foarte simple, de o singură culoare, nu vezi covoarele astea persane, sau cu foarte multe imprimeuri […] mai toți pereții sunt albi, probabil că nevoia asta de lumină și spațiu, și așa, chiar și în casele foarte mici, ăăă, nevoia asta de a ascunde și de a masca. […] Acuma e foarte multă grijă pentru chestia asta de a integra țevile, de a pune mască acolo, adică cumva o nevoie din asta de ordine.

[I. R., 27 years old, F, PhD candidate, teaching assistant,

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: What do middle class people eat? Is there something typical?

I.R.: I think they eat everything, from sarmale [cabbage rolls] to sushi, but the point is that everything they eat they do it consciously because they choose to. These are the people who read the labels, pay attention to details and even if they walk into a McDonalds for example they don’t do it because food is cheaper in there, but because they want to feel in the ‘hood’ [ghetto] [laughs]. Somewhat food is a little manifesto, for themselves I mean,  middle class people are not the type to while away their time on the streets, they go somewhere because they want to go there

[I. R., 27 de ani, F, doctorandă și asistentă universitară

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Ce mănâncă cei din clasa de mijloc? Ar fi ceva tipic?

I.R.: Cred că mănâncă orice, de la sarmale la sushi, dar ideea e că orice ar mânca o fac conștient, pentru că vor. Ei sunt din ăia care citesc etichetele, sunt atenți la detalii și chiar dacă intră de exemplu într-un McDonalds nu o fac că e mai ieftin acolo, ci pentru că vor să se simtă „in the hood” (râde). Cumva mâncarea e un manifest mic, pentru ei înșiși, adică, cei din clasa de mijloc nu sunt d-ăștia să-i bată vântul pe stradă, se duc unde se duc pentru că vor.

[B.R. , 37 years old, F, jurist

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: What would the house of middle class people typically look like?

B.R.: …how is it decorated? There are–the kind of people I think about, and if the fiction that they are representatives for the middle class works–persons who appreciate the things that have a story. There are collectors, not in an excessive way or in order to accumulate, as a type of investment, but because a painting has a story, a mirror, a little cup, a frame is far more personal that the mass produced things you can find at IKEA. And maybe this is something good–I am now focusing on the three families that I consider middle class–this preoccupation with personalising things and finding a story.

[B.R. , 37 de ani, F, juristă

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Cum ar fi decorată casa tipică în care locuiesc cei din clasa de mijloc?

B.R. …cum e decorată casa? Sunt – persoanele pe care le am eu în cap, și dacă funcționează ficțiunea că sunt reprezentativi pentru middle-class – persoane care apreciază de asemenea lucrurile care au o poveste. Sunt oameni care colecționează, nu în mod excesiv și în scop de acumulare, de investiție, dar pentru că un tablou are o poveste, o oglindă, o ceșcuță, o ramă de fotografie e mult mai personală decât ce găsești pe bandă rulantă la IKEA. Și poate că și asta e o trăsătură bună, spot în toate cele trei familii pe care le am cap, preocuparea asta de a personaliza lucrurile și a găsi povestea.

[O.R., 38 years old, F, nurse,

interviewed by Alin Savu]

A.S.: Let’s go back a bit to the middle class family. You said they have their own house. Where do they typically live and how does their house look like?

O.R.: I assume there is this differentiation between neighbourhoods in Bucharest as well, if you live towards the north of the capital or the south. If you live in Ferentari, you don’t qualify automatically. It is the same with the car. You might have a car, although it is not the same nowadays, you might have an Audi, but if it is 20 years old, it doesn’t count anymore. Nevertheless I consider middle class people to be modest. If it were to compare someone from the middle class and someone clearly superior, the one from the upper class will have I don’t know how many leather couches and solid oak furniture, beech or whatever, custom-made…the other will have…the furniture will be simpler and functional, to be able to use it, and not keep it as a museum piece. This person’s furniture will be made out of PAL. I mean they are the same, I see the same functionality in a wardrobe made out of PAL, in which I can store things, and one made out of acacia wood or whatever. The latter seems a museum piece to me, al right, it is beautiful, I like it, but it would make me feel like I am visiting a museum, let’s be careful, let’s not seat on the couch, let’s be careful not to spill something on it…No! Let the thing be functional, useful. Everything you have must be functional.

[O. R., 38 de ani, F, asistentă medicală,

interviu realizat de Alin Savu]

A.S.: Să ne întoarcem puțin la familia de clasă de mijloc. Ai zis că ar avea casa lor. Unde ar locui și cum ar arăta casa lor?

O.R.: Bănuiesc că există și în București percepția asta pe cartiere, dacă stai mai spre nord sau mai spre sud. Că dacă stai în Ferentari, automat nu te califici. Și cu mașina, deși acum nu mai e chiar așa, dar e că degeaba ai tu audi dacă e la mâna a doua de acum 20 de ani. Totuși eu îi văd ca pe niște oameni modești, că dacă e să fac comparație între unul din clasa de mijloc și unul net superior, ăla din clasa superioară va avea nu știu canapele de piele și așa…și mobilă de stejar, de fag, de ce-o mai fi ea, comandată de…așa, iar celălalt va avea, va fi simplă și care este utilă, deci să se poată folosi de ea fără să fie un obiect de muzeu. Va avea mobilă de pal…nu știu. Adică sunt aceleași, eu văd aceeași utilitate la un dulap care e de pal și pot să-mi depozitez în el ceva față de un dulap de lemn de accacia sau eu mai știu ce, care mi se pare, nu știu, o piesă de…arată bine, într-adevăr, îmi place, dar m-aș simți ca la muzeu, știi, să nu cumva să stau pe canapea, să n-o deranjez, să nu pătez, să nu…Nu! Să fie folosibil, util. Tot ce ai să fie util.

Wearing middle classness No. 1: Natural fibres

 

Magdalena Craciun

Liechty (2012) points out that ethnographers and historians of middle classness often experience ‘déjà vu moments’: in the particular case they study, they may recognise discourses, aspirations, preoccupations and problems that similarly classed people from other spaces and times have as well.

This post is meant to be the first in a series that foregrounds such commonalities, which we also notice while revisiting the anthropological record and putting our ethnographic data in a comparative perspective.

Natural fibres

In my conversations about clothing and middle classness, a preference for natural fibres (cotton, wool, linen, silk) was mentioned as being typical of middle class consumption.

Some of my interlocutors self-defined themselves, upon reflection, as belonging to the middle class; others did not identify themselves in terms of class, but stated that they lived ‘comfortably’ and ‘did not have to worry about the next day’; yet others considered themselves to be ‘poor’.

Their explanations of this preference indicate that natural fibres index:

  • social status (garments made from natural fibres are presumed to be more expensive and, thus, unaffordable or unavailable to the ‘poor people’)
  • comfort (garments made from natural fibres are known to be more wearable, a previous tactile experience being activated in these comments)
  • self-esteem (garments made from natural fibres are known to be more expensive and more wearable and, thus, become a means to indulge oneself)
  • responsibility (garments made from natural fibres are known to be central to sustainable fashion and, thus, their consumption represents a means to include oneself in this domain of responsibility and citizenship)

This capacity to index social status, comfort, self-esteem and responsibility makes natural fibres a type of materiality that can be used in projects of class distinction.

A relationship between middle classness and garments made from natural fibres is also discussed in Schneider (1994) (the study documents the elaboration of this relationship in the United States, at a time when the commercialisation of ‘man-made’ fibres brought significant profits and threatened to financially dwarf companies that traded in natural fibres and garments made from natural fibres) and Gurova (2015) (the study reports, but does not elaborate on, a similar (declared) preference for natural fibres among middle class people in Moscow).

 

Liechty, Mark. 2012. “Middle-Class Déjà Vu: Conditions of Possibility, from Victorian England to Contemporary Kathmandu”. In Heiman, R, C. Freeman and M. Liechty. The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press. Pp. 271-299.

Gurova, Olga. 2015. Fashion and the consumer revolution in contemporary Russia. London: Routledge.

Schneider, Jane. 1994. ‘In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions’. Anthropology Today 10 (4): 2-10.

 

An opportunity for self-reflection

 

Magdalena Craciun

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.

 

 

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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.