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)⁠. 


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 🙂


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 (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.

Teeth as class code

Monica Stroe / Bogdan Iancu

In the last decade, a series of studies pointed to a direct relation between smile and professional success, where smile acts as a social currency (Shore and Heerey 2011). Starting from the recent debates about the economic value of the smile we focus on something more concrete and mundane: the teeth’s expressive potential for social stratification. According to Malcolm Gladwell (2014), the writer and social scientist, “teeth are becoming the new benchmark of inequality” and will define status and hamper upward mobility. He argues that “the teeth thing and the obesity problem are the same: they are symptoms of the same set of inferences that are being drawn”.

A growing presence of adults displaying braces and of aesthetic dentistry services indicate a growing investment in teeth as positional object in Bucharest and other large Romanian cities. The short piece raises some points of discussion about the modes in which teeth – a body part with expressive value – are invested with commodity status as pointed by Fehervary (2015) in the Hungarian case. The following is based on the first interviews of the exploratory research on middle classness in Bucharest.

“The first thing you do when you realize that you are part of the upper middle class: you fix all your teeth! I was joking with my wife about what it’s like to have a treasure of porcelain and gold in your mouth!”* (Marius – 45, H&S Senior Manager). Marius highlights the importance of dentition in the process of encoding the social mobility, especially as – according to his statement – he lived a childhood characterised by dentition problems due to poor eating. The gradual dissolution of dentistry cabinets from the public healthcare system post 1989 meant that a significant part of the population was in fact denied free access to dentistry services covered by regular public health insurance. Consequently properly maintained and aesthetically pleasing teeth have come to represent a marker of access to costlier medical services.

A Bucharest dentist self-identifying as middle class himself describes the class-bound dental practices of his clients, by using a striking metaphor: “Dentists can read perfectly how well-off a person is just by looking at their teeth. A person’s mouth is like a [plane’s] black box” (Andrei, 31, dentist). He goes on to suggest that – even if no social class is spared from tooth decay, those in the middle class are more incentivised to fix the problems.

Fehervary (2015) argues that: “Innovations in dental technology provided affordances for transformational practices that have become normative for middle class embodiment” but she stresses that “commodified teeth has not been accompanied by the newfound appreciation for the selling smile”. Which seems to be valid (at least for now) for the Romanian case.

*dental alloys having porcelain and higher noble metal may cost about 200 €.