Friday, January 29, 2016

Social Class in Emerging Economies

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

Emerging economies is the code word for 'used to be poor and is now doing better'.  This is a very classed idea that can apply to people, regions, or entire nations.  The very idea of ranking or creating categories for world economies is based on many consumer factors which makes first world and third world rankings a proxy for social class.  These emerging economies are the G20 developing nations, not the G-20 major economies.  However, to think that social class is about money is the same as thinking that ethnicity is about skin color.  On the third hand,  much of social class in emerging economies is about money.

Social class is a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige.  Please note that this is a sociological definition of class and my personal preference is for a psychological definition of class since class is a psychological construct.  This sociological definition works well here however. 

What counts as prestige in emerging economies like Russia?  The nature of prestige deserves investigation.  Bourdieu wrote about economic, cultural, and social capital in Forms of Capital.  I have written about academic capital on campus.  Others have written about leadership capital, spiritual capital, and a myriad other forms of capital and that is great.  In parts of the world the intelligentsia is a real group, a collection of people with large amounts of cultural capital.  In some cultures it is expected that members of the intelligentsia have little economic capital, for example the starving artist/poet/novelist or whatnot.  Even in Soviet dominated economies the intelligentsia were real.  This is always a small group of people.  I make this point to illustrate cultural and economic capital as part of the world of social class.  Social capital is not who you know, but who knows you.  Social capital is the collections of people who can get together for mutual benefit.

In emerging economies economic capital and social capital change rapidly for some people as they accumulate economic wealth quickly and make new wealthy friends.  The emerging oligarchs, upper-middle class, and middle class members of emerging economies gain economic and social capital, as they emerge from poverty.  Money and friends become the markers of prestige, money and friends become sources of power, and social class becomes about money and friends, about economic and social capital.

Consumer goods are a demonstration of economic capital, and social gatherings are a demonstration of social capital.  Consumer goods and social gatherings become critical in emerging economies as people seek to establish their place in the prestige hierarchy. The visibility of money and friends is required, by many, to demonstrate high prestige.  While there are many varieties of every social class I am writing here about one type only, and in emerging economies this type is the majority.  The reader should think about the psychological and interpersonal mechanisms at play here in publicly seeking a place in the hierarchy of prestige.

High value and high prestige consumer goods, especially wearable goods and accessories, is the easiest way to show off your money, to demonstrate your accumulation of economic capital to others and establish your place in the hierarchy of prestige within your culture.  Houses, apartments, and living space is a second way to show off your money.  Transportation, from luxury cars, to limos, to private airplanes, is another way to show off your money.

Large and glittering parties attended by the right people is common among the wealthy.  Media coverage is the clue that the party is about the demonstration of economic and social capital.  The right people are those with economic and social capital, people who can band together to get more money and friends.  Having a member of the intelligentsia at a party adds a bonus, as long as the guest star is not critical of the current hierarchy.  The tame intelligentsia guest star shows, or appears to show, that the party host has cultural capital.  Tame, or tamed by funding, members of the intelligentsia, typically conservative and non-controversial people, are a staple on some invitation lists.  The idea of personified cultural capital as a commodity for parties, like catering, is troubling on many levels, but that is a different tale.

So what is the role of cultural capital in emerging economies?  Great question.  I would assume that different types of knowledge emerge as prestige as economies grow and as people get more money.  Art, music, food, and experiences are often seen as luxury goods, therefore the domain of those who can afford luxury.  Experiences, like the Disney (r) vacation, are evidence of economic capital, and within a certain group evidence of cultural capital. Cultural capital, in a more global view, is about knowledge of luxury goods, proper (read high prestige) etiquette, fashion (read expensive designer fashion) and the ability to appreciate goods, services, and experiences appropriately.  More arcane cultural capital or knowledge, like history, psychology, sociology, economics, and the content of a good liberal arts undergraduate education will, I hope, emerge in time as prestige cultural capital.  On the other hand the history of anti-intellectualism that is in evidence among people in developed nations tells me that I am a dreamer.  I can only wonder at how many newly economically and socially wealthy people have a disdain for formal education.  After all, they got rich without a lot of education and cultural capital.

It should not pass the reader's notice that this same analysis applies to individuals and families who have moved upward in social class by accumulating economic wealth even in wealthy economies like Japan, Korea, UK, US, Australia, and most of the Eurozone.  The metaphor for social class prestige among many poor people is money, and the trappings of that prestige are obviously labeled fashions and consumer goods.

What does this have to do with social class on campus?  What would a college education be all about in a newly emerging economy that valued money and connections?  What would be valued in an education; immediate reward and skill or long term reward and learning to learn?  For some parents in developing economies a US education for their children is a statement of prestige.  Educational attainment becomes a prestige commodity that can be purchased.  Is a college education a commodity to be purchased or is a degree something that must be earned?

tl;dr - people in emerging economies use money and connections as markers for social class prestige.

As I track readership on this blog I note an increasing number of readers from 'emerging economies' like Russia, China, India, Philippines, and Singapore, in addition to readers from developed economies in Korea, Japan, Canada, the UK, Australia, and Germany.  The data is from weekly and monthly summaries of page views provided by Blogger.  Most page views on this blog come from Google searches, so in some ways finding and reading this blog is an indicator of interest in social class, or social class on campus at least, around the world.  During one week in January 2016 30% of page views were from Russia.  That made me quite curious.  I know that page views track school calendars, so perhaps social class was the topic that week in Russian schools.