Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (3)

Alin Savu

Now that some broad strokes of the middle class family in Bucharest are laid down, I will talk about children’s perspective on their experience. Using operationalized drawings and family journals for recording routines and practices of the middle-class family from a child’s perspective I managed to create a broader picture out of snippets from the daily life of ten children from Bucharest. Watching thus the routines of these children, one of the most poignant feature of their experience is what Helga Zeiher (2003) has coined as insularisation – children are basically carried around in cars from one side of the town to the other, between islands designed for specific activities.

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays she gets home at around 7.30 and these are complicated days because of the road. At 3 o’clock I go and pick her up from school, I take her to the language centre, we arrive at 4, she stays there for an hour and a half and then I pick her up again to go home.”(Maria, mother, 34)

Looking briefly at how the story is told by this mother one can observe how the child becomes in this context a precious object, carried around, picked up from and left in places, taken here and there by the concerned and caring parent. More to the point, this care, along with social aspirations contribute to a peculiar experience of childhood:

– “Besides school and extracurricular activities, how much time are you left with?

– Quite little…being that most of the other time we spend in the car…I’m left with very little. For example, this morning I left home at 7.30 and I will probably go back at about 8.30pm. And…I take a shower, I eat and go to sleep.” (Carina, 10)

Being on the road a good part of the day, the car becomes as much of a space as well as a vehicle. Intimacy, transition and passivity would be the three words that capture the essence of this newly repurposed space:

“He likes it when we are in the car, we just talk – that’s the time when we talk about anything. He chooses the subject.” (Cristina, mother, 37).

When she leaves the language centre, she changes in the sports gear in the car. She already gets into the sports spirit”(Maria, mother, 34).

“I don’t really like it in the car. I can’t do anything with the belt on and my father always asks me about school stuff!” (Iulian, 9).

Insularisation is basically a matter of fragmentation of the time and space children spend their day in. This also brings about a lack of synchronicity with children in their neighbourhood and thus the geography of friendship is changed. Most of the children’s friends come from these extracurricular institutions which in this sense become places of sociability – but it is worth noting that it is not that these institutions encourage children to make friends better than the spaces in the neighbourhood, it is the fact that they have a schedule and bring the same people regularly in the same place that makes those relations possible.

 – “Do you have friends or colleagues around the house to play with?  

– No, I don’t have colleagues around the house. Either I go to them, or they come to me”(Daniel, 10)

“She doesn’t go out around the block, but there’s a park nearby. There are some who have grandparents that pick them up from school. They come home, do their homework, sleep for an hour or two and they can go out, but they go out when Carina comes from the after[school], when she needs to eat, shower, prepare her bag for the next day, do some math…and so on.”(Alexandru, father, 41)

It is not that children are only passive actors and subjects of their parents’ projects and aspirations for their future. While some of the initiative comes indeed from the adults, children rapidly adapt to the offered environment and push themselves the boundaries forward. Corsaro (2001) underlines that children are active agents in shaping their experience of childhood, but even more concrete than that, as Gary Cross (2009) points out, they become agents of consumption under peer pressure, aggressive advertising or by virtue of their already formed friendship relations they would like to entertain:

“This thing with the chess, we took it up in school because it was trendy – every child in school was playing chess. They would play some whenever they got the chance. He didn’t know chess so it contributed to a sort of a social pressure” (Bianca, mother, 36).

“There’s also somebody who annoys me – Edi and Robert. They annoy me because they’re friends and they can play the piano, but I can’t and in a way I am jealous” (Ionut, 8)

“Some of the things my kids do are not necessarily the things I would have wanted for them, so it was not about us, but they are for sure inspired by the models of other children – my friend knows how to, therefore I must do so too.” (Camelia, mother 35)

Putting all these pieces of information together, the image of the middle-class in Bucharest seems to be dominated at once by competition and uncertainty, a context in which personalised education is seen as the solution to both problems – give your child a head start in the competition and ensure at least inclusion with the others in the middle class, maybe even upwards social mobility. However, from the children’s view point, middle-class childhood as an experience is fragmented, often isolated from the city in a considerable amount and from the family for the most part of the day. Proximity to home is not what determines friendship, but synchronicity of schedules and parents’ income and aspirations. Moreover, while the middle-class family tries to be in control of the child through certified institutions that boast on springing the child to great intellectual heights, children themselves become agents of consumption, pressing on their parents’ choices to impose their own, and pointing out the fine line between labour and consumption. To put it simply, opportunity is sometimes the best form of exploitation.

Bibliography (1,2,3)

  1. BOURDIEU, Pierre, (1986), Distinction, London, Routledge.
  2. CORSARO, William, (2001), We’re friends, right? Inside Kids’ Culture, Joseph Henry Press, Washington DC.
  3. CORSARO, William, (2011), The Sociology of Childhood, Fine Forge Press,.
  4. CROSS, Gary, (2009), Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, Harvard University Press.
  5. ELKIND, David, [1981] 2001, The Hurried Child: Growing up too fast too soon, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing,.
  6. JENKS, Chris, (1996), Key Ideas, London, Routledge,.
  7. KJØRHOLT, Anne Trine și QVORTRUP, Jens (Eds.), (2012), The Modern Child and the Flexible Labour Market Early Childhood Education and Care, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. VINCENT, Carol & BALL, Stephen J., (2006), Childcare, Choice and Class Practices. Middle Class Parents and Their Children, London, Routledge,.
  9. ZEIHER, Helga, (2003), „Shaping daily life in urban environments”, în Pia CHRISTENSEN și Margaret O’BRIEN, Children in the City. Home Neighbourhood and Community, Taylor & Francis e-Library, pp 66-82.
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Questioning compassion & middle-class. (1)

Stefan Lipan Daniel

My particular project builds on different researches that have argued that, historically, there is a strong link between the formation of the middle classes, charity work and the cultivation of the sentiment of compassion (Sznaider 1998; Berlant 2004; Moore 2008; Redfield & Bornstein 2011)⁠. Middle classed persons claimed moral authority over the working class and endeavoured both to teach them what the good life means and how to better their lives. In the process, they also constructed themselves as occupying a better position in the social structure, living better lives, being the backbone of society and being capable of and willing to foster social change.

Keeping this in mind, I think a few words about compassion will further clarify why I find this path of inquiry a fruitful one. When questioning compassion we eventually realize that there is “nothing simple about compassion apart from the desire for it to be taken as simple, as a true expression of human attachment and recognition” (Berlant 2004)⁠. Is it an ‘natural’, universal human trait (Schopenhauer 1915)⁠, or is it one that should be cultivated (Pinson et al. 2010)⁠? Is it a social and aesthetic technology of belonging or an organic emotion? Different historical periods, different understandings of what this sentiment means. In our so-called modernity, compassion is put in the terms of ‘rights’ of others (Weil 1970)⁠, as a concern with the suffering of others, accompanied by the urge to help (Sznaider 1998)⁠, or as a disposition, or way-of-being that is most fundamentally other-regarding – always interpersonal. (Williams 2008)⁠. 

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But who are these ‘others’? And what is their suffering? The spectacle of which(Sontag 2003)⁠ we are exposed to on 24h ‘breaking news’, ‘reality’ showing media? And who are these ‘we’ who, as Virginia Woolf would argue, if not pained by pictures of suffering, if not moved to abolish the causes of this havoc, would be considered ‘moral monsters’ ? A question to which she adds the following lines, saying that ‘we are not monsters, we are members of the educated class’(Woolf 1938)⁠.

Taking into consideration these questions and those related to the performance of compassion I started asking people who identified themselves as being middle class about their or similarly classed people’s involvement in such ‘compassionate acts’ and about the objects they give, if they do. Questions like who deserves compassion, to whom I give, how do I give it, what do I give, were also posed by other members of our team to people of different backgrounds. Interlocutors came from very different backgrounds, with very different life trajectories. Nevertheless, most of the interlocutors are young, between 20 and 40 years old.

I will present some of the early findings in a future post. Stay tuned 🙂

Bibliography:

Berlant, L. ed., 2004. Compassion. The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, New York: Routledge.

Moore, S.E.H., 2008. Ribbon Culture. Charity, Compassion and Public Awareness, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinson, H., Arnot, M. & Candappa, M., 2010. Education, Asylum and the “Non-Citizen” Child. The Politics of Compassion and Belonging, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Redfield, P. & Bornstein, E., 2011. An Introduction to the Anthropology of Humanitarianism. In P. Redfield & E. Bornstein, eds. Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Schopenhauer, A., 1915. The Basis of Morality Second., London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding the pain of others, New York: Picador.

Sznaider, N., 1998. The sociology of compassion: A study in the sociology of morals. Cultural Values, 2(1), pp.117–139.

Weil, S., 1970. First and Last Notebooks, London: Oxford University Press.

Williams, C.R., 2008. Compassion, Suffering and the Self: A Moral Psychology of Social Justice. Current Sociology, 56(1), pp.5–24.

Woolf, V., 1938. Three Guineas, Mariner Books.

Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (2)

Alin Savu

As I was pointing out in the previous post, the next section of this paper series presents the case of families from Bucharest enrolling their children into extracurricular activities (such as various sports, arts and crafts, foreign languages, etc.), as part of their strategies of class reproduction or upward social mobility. I discuss how the Bucharest middle-class is imagined through the choices related to extracurricular activities and the role parents think they play for (the future of) their children.

In approaching the subject of parents’ choices and their relevance for the construction of the middle class in Bucharest, a good starting point is the idea of personalising education with the help of extracurricular activities – while these may not be necessarily seen as the way to performance, they certainly represent, as my interlocutors reckon, “an adjuvant to what the school cannot offer them […] they generate auxiliary competences” (Camelia, mother 35)  or “they help her develop those activities which the school generally leaves on the second place” (Paul, 42, father). Therefore, the purpose is to accessorise, to improve a path dependent system of education offering the children something better than the average.

This is consistent with the plethora of advertising these educational institutions target at the parents suggesting there is a constant competition not only among adults, but between their children, the future citizens. Thus “give your child a head start”, “open up a world of opportunities” and “our teachers are trained in modern methods and have a vast experience” resonate with the parents’ sense of the future and the idea of prestige emanating from the institution: “We had some moments last year when she was saying that she does enough English at school. Why must she go to the English Centre? And I told her what the difference was and, beyond this, the certificates that she would obtain there would really help her in the future.” (Andreea, mother, 40)

On the other side of this page, the said competition is felt to segregate, to divide children on the count of their abilities, their accumulated cultural capital that may create some kind of closed groups. Therefore, parents encourage children into taking up various classes like horseback riding, cricket, tennis or arts in order to facilitate their integration within groups of other children, or for the future adults to be able to be together: “She will be able to participate for example in a trip where people would do sports because she does sports too, and she likes it. Or, she will be able to speak about something on a certain occasion because…you know…she will feel included and not excluded and she will be up to date with the others…she will know how to be with the others.” (Maria, mother, 34)

Integration/inclusion, friendship, “socialisation” in the sense of sociability – these are also recurrent themes in parents’ discourse relative to extracurricular activities and I will return to them in the second part of the presentation, from another perspective. For now I will only talk about parents’ view of the city as a dangerous, uncontrollable, childless and child unfriendly place, as opposed to the space ensured by the extracurricular activities – organised, supervised, safe and friendly in such a way that children can become friends there. Moreover, the prohibitive price of these extracurricular activities at once defines a certain pool of families that are able to participate and thus ensures that the friends children make belong mainly to same social strata. The outside is unsafe, undefined, full of dangerous objects and beings: They need to be under supervision all the time, we can’t…We meet with more children in the park and they play with their parents there […] because there are all kinds of dangers in the street, you can’t find a place to play!” (Ioana, mother, 32) “If I know them here [at home] and that they’re safe, I trust them, I have no problem. For example, I sent her to camp and I have no problem with her going on a camp in an organised environment where I know that…you know?”(Maria, mother, 34)

While these arguments might seem valid at least in some parts of Bucharest, there is also the other side of coin, where parents discuss work and the waste of time. Middle-class children “do not just run around the block or play on the computer all day long”(Alexandru, father, 41), they need something useful to fill their time with – especially if it is safe, properly organised, and with a measurable outcome – “She’s 13 and she can read Harry Potter, the original, so she’s absolutely independent now, but she’s like this because she’s been doing English for 6 years now. The teacher told us she would get here. It’s not such an extraordinary surprise” (Diana, mother, 38). The downside that some of the parents feel is that work time for them ends up being mirrored by the time their children spend in extracurricular institutions: “She’s always alone, that’s it! When she finishes school hours, there’s nobody to pick her up at 12 o’clock – we are alone, my wife works, I work, no grandparents around, there’s nobody around, so she goes to an afterschool. But it’s the same problem, she’s not with us!”(Alexandru, father, 41)

A “house with picket fences” and other forms of escape of the middle class

Bogdan Iancu

In a conversation with Vlad Odobescu for Scena9 in which I elaborated on the research agenda of our project, I also mentioned Vama Veche hit – “Vreau sa ajung la radio” . Launched ten years ago, this is one of the few local works of popular culture in which the defining characteristics of the middle class are presented (the notable exceptions are Radu Muntean’s films Boogie și Marți după Crăciun ). The song, I explained in this conversation, speaks about the next dream, which crystallizes once the credit card made possible the older dreams (e.g. espresso machine, flat screen TV). This is the dream of escaping from the city and living an autonomous life in the proximity of nature. This is the dream of a “house with picket fences”, an expression that a TV commercial made famous in Romania). The song calls this a dream that got smashed in thousands of installments. In the recent years, articles about how these housing aspirations and projects can be undermined have started to appear (one example can be found here.

To return to the post-material dreams, the character that the song speaks about is not a kid who wants to get to the radio, as we may believe, but an adult who wants to escape from the routine, a while colour worker who dreams of a creative job, next to his girlfriend who wants to become an actress. We encountered these representations of cultural capital during our research as well, however in an actualized form, from attending courses in humanities and cultural studies that different foundations and universities offer to taking tango lessons and enrolling in training programs in traditional crafts (pottery, sculpture, gastronomy). This inventory has recently been supplemented with investments in forms of economy (sporting) of experience: subscriptions to flourishing riding centers or the passion for yachting. I will discuss  the “escapes” that tourism provides during the holiday season in a future blog post.

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Livin’ la vida…Deutsch! Children’s Extracurricular Activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class (1)

Alin Savu

Living la vida Deutsch! “Hm…I don’t remember the song sounding this way!” I think to myself as I pass by a girl and her grandmother carrying a violin case. The girl, about 10 years old, has a cheap blue back-pack marked with the logo of a German language centre in Bucharest and a cursive line underneath spelling the words “Living la vida…Deutsch!” Her grandmother is asking the girl about her day: “was it 10 or 11 when you were playing? What about the violin lesson…?”

Losing their discussion in the distance, I come to think about the experience of childhood, how it evolves over time and how it differs along the various strata of our society. Thus begins my fieldwork into children’s time, their extracurricular activities and the Bucharest Middle-Class.

The consumption of extracurricular activities has been interpreted in various theoretical keys over time and over different fields of expertise. In the 80s, David Elkind talks about the hurried child[1] whose childhood is under the pressure of high expectations from parents enrolling them in extracurricular activities in order to reach those expectations. More recently, Anne Trine Kjorholt  and Jens Qvortrup discuss the increasing number of institutions offering extracurricular activities as being intertwined with the neo-liberal transformations of the labour market – increasing its flexibility and the demand for more women to work.[2] In what regards class and social reproduction and mobility, Carol Vincent and Stephen Ball have approached the subject of children’s extracurricular activities as a strategy of making-up the new middle-class in an age were social reproduction appears uncertain. They also discuss the issue of children as agents of consumption and how this process is highly classed.[3]

Drawing upon all these theoretical considerations, with focus on the latter, in the next parts I will present the case of Bucharest families enrolling their children into extracurricular activities (such as various sports, arts and crafts, foreign languages, etc.) offering snippets from the daily lives of children involved in this process and fragments from interviews with them and their parents, thus opening to discussion the constructions and practices of the Bucharest middle-class.

[1] David ELKIND – The Hurried Child: Growing up too fast too soon, Cambridge, MA:Perseus Publishing, 1981
[2] Anne Trine KJORHOLT & Jens QVORTRUP (Eds.) – The Modern Child and the Flexible Labour Market. Early Childhood Education and Care, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
[3] Carol VINCENT & Stephen J. BALL – Childcare, Choice and Class Practices. Middle Class Parents and Their Children, London, Routledge, 2006.

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.

 

 

______________________________________________________

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.