Selected recent texts and publications.
Re-Valueing the Self (Sharon (MIT) and Vasquez)
Workforce Development Policies (co-author)
The Dilemma of Ruminating
Finding Work in America
The Problem with Medical Entertainment
Making Medical Decisions
The distribution of wealth and income in American society has become increasingly polarized. Some scholars attribute this polarization to the historically unprecedented concentration of wealth at the marginal top of the economic spectrum, ascribing responsibility to the fundamental structure of America’s economic system (Cowen, 2013; Deaton, 2013; Saez, 2013; Stiglitz, 2013; Wolff, 2012; Wolff and Leone, 2002). Proponents of this viewpoint argue, among other things, that free-market enterprise in the United States has allowed corporations to maintain powerful influence in society, from larger social and global power to the structure and maintenance of everyday life. A small percentage of individuals in high-finance, ranging from shareholders, executives, and the like, monetarily benefit from this corporate influence. Sociological attention has been provided to the dynamics of a contemporary social-economic system, as economic systems influence the social dynamics among members of society. Observations of contemporary social relations within American society suggests that socioeconomic location aids in the process of making sense and meaning of one’s position among the greater society. Thus, understanding changes in class structure may provide insight not only into the dynamics between and within members of different socioeconomic locations, but also the perception of one’s self within society.
In light of this, the polarizing change in wealth and income distribution has also been witnessed in parallel to a dramatic quantitative reduction in middle-income earners. Curiously, this reduction has led to the broadening of lay categorical boundaries and definitions that circumscribe traditional middle-class categorization, as many Americans perceive themselves as being of the middle class aside from being within the respective income range (Gallup, 2012). Considering these findings, a more nuanced sociological perspective may provide insight into how contemporary class differences embody cultural and symbolic dimensions.
Middle class America may have become a symbolic social location more than an empirical one, and contemporary observations may support this claim. One such example may be normative spending habits, which are exponentially maintained regardless of these facts. The advent of credit lines have allowed individuals below the middle-income class to participate in middle- and upper-middle class activities, loaning their admission. Normative spending practices, such as annual purchasing binges, property ownership, and other such advanced contemporary consumerist behaviors. These kinds of activities ‘on loan’ may aid in the perception of being a traditional middle class American. Respectively, individuals may perceive to feel social pressures to participate in the spending norms of a society that promotes consumerism, in turn perpetuating their involvement in such activities. While scholars have written about class-related spending habits (i.e., Veblen, 1899), credit lines have emerged as tools for presenting higher social status among individuals who do not have the means to participate in American economic life events. As such, the items for which individuals purchase may correspond dramatically to symbolizing one’s perceived social status. In light of the polarized wealth and income distribution of contemporary American society, this paper is concerned with the symbolic nature of representing one’s social position through the purchasing of goods. Utilizing fashion as a tool for understanding class- and status in society, broader insight into contemporary American social relations may unfold.
The next section aids in contextualizing this analysis. Examining Weberian and Veblenian notions of money informs how the use of money holds larger social meaning. While Weber corresponded the use of money with an anxiety to accumulate and produce, Veblen argued that money directly relates to the desire to distinguish leisure and privileged individuals from the rest of society. Providing these two perspectives will then aid in understanding how economic action serves as an emblem of a larger social dynamic. Following their analyses, a more contemporary analysis on how society manages their their admission into the middle class and upper middle class is examined.
Money and Class Status: From Weber to Veblen
The meaning of money may have undergone transformation from factors relating to changes in economic activity and social relations. Such changes may be reflected in how money is obtained and used. Contemporary society bears witness to the most observable change with the advent of credit lines. In this section, the work of Veblen and Weber is discussed in order to contextualize the use of money in American society. While Weber perceived society’s expenditure of money to be that of prudence, he also observed the accumulation of wealth to be an important aspect of American economic sentiment. Weber saw these principles as being directly related to the reformist Protestant principles of worldly asceticism (frugality) and anxious production (wealth accumulation and productive labor). Veblen, on the other hand, was interested in the overt display of extravagance by the ‘leisure class,’ in addition to their abstinence from employment and productive activity. For Veblen, the leisure class sought to display their lifestyle as a means of distinction from the majority of society, and to be enveloped in work meant to display a facet of poverty. Examining these two perspectives will aid in understanding the use of money as it relates to status and socioeconomic relations in contemporary American society.
Weber (1904) noted that society’s relationship to money corresponded to the Protestant reformation, and was thus fundamental to influencing capitalist ideas. With the influence of Protestantism, society began to perceive money as an exponential enterprise. (Weber, 1904, pp. 48-49). According to Weber, while an economic actor is interested in the accumulation of wealth, he or she is also concerned with the cultural and moral values that involve the successful achievement of obtaining and maintaining this wealth. The display of extravagance was considered irrational, if not also distasteful (Weber, 1904, p. 50). Thus, one who is wealthy would please his or her god by maintaining prudence and a calculated method of spending his or her money. Emotional and intuitive spending would also mean one is enjoying money for material gain. For acting in this manner would suggest that the acquisition of wealth combined with pleasure-seeking activity is as naive as it is irrational (Weber, 1904, p. 53).
For Veblen, status seeking was at the root of human nature. Whereas Weber’s analysis of wealth accumulation had less to do with the social relations between members of society, Veblen perceived the accumulation of wealth to be a status-seeking endeavor. Further, he perceived the use of such accumulation to be an important tool for communicating to others one’s status among society. Veblen argued that the “pecuniary standard of living” (p. 102) came to rise once the industrial age became prominent in society. The monetary exchange system replaced trade and barter, which gave way to the potential for accumulating exchange power. Whereas trade and barter allowed individuals to exchange wealth for wealth, which benefited both actors involved in the interaction, the monetary exchange system allowed the leisure class to simply accumulate wealth. Because this exchange power was accumulative, it allowed the leisure class to reserve future exchange power, thus giving rise to the pecuniary standard of living and positively affirming class status. One who had a reserve of exchange power had the ability to consume conspicuously, live leisurely, and work less often. On the other end of this spectrum, those who did not have reserves of exchange power were required to work in order to live. This created class distinction for which placed the leisure class at a hierarchical economic, social and cultural advantage.
Where Weber perceived society’s accumulation of wealth to be met with ascetic principle--frugality--Veblen perceived it to be a tool for displaying wealth and creating class distinction. For Veblen, for the leisure class to live as the Weberian capitalist meant to live similarly to the impoverished, or the majority of society. Veblen, however, did not perceive all members of the upper class to also be members of the leisure class. One can be part of the upper class elite, having higher status than the majority of society, but seldom participate in leisure class activities. Thus, although Weber aids in conceptualizing qualities of the upper class, he is able to broaden his analysis to the majority of society. Members of the middle class may still have the same values regarding money, even if they do not possess the same stockpiles of wealth. Weber’s analysis is moreso a diffusion among society with no overt representation of a trickle-down effect. For Veblen, the effect is diffuse, but trickles down from upper class elites to the majority of society. Veblen institutionalized the uni-directional influence of the leisure class on the rest of society.
Though there are differences among both perspectives, one sweeping similarity between Veblen and Weber is that status permeates in the social and economic relations of industrial- and post-industrial society. Elsewhere, Weber has written on status, and attributes economic qualities to class, but argues that non-economic qualities are also present in status-seeking societies, such as honor and religion (Weber, 1922). For the purposes of this analysis, economic status is of most use. When examining Veblen and Weber, differences can be found in the application of status to spending practices. If individuals were strictly status-seeking (which Veblen may not reductively argue and support), it may not be in the pure form of class elitism. Some statuses may be witnessed culturally, as this paper discusses toward the latter end, but gathers little support. Nonetheless, much of the rationale behind spending practices involve qualities of communicating to others one’s social status within society. An individual may seek to display to others that he or she is present with contemporary society. An individual may seek to also express knowledge of the past, or their interpretation of the future. However, these embodiments of time and space also seek to communicate one’s economic status within society. Knowledge of representing the present means having the economical means in order to do so. Consumer goods that communicate a message require money. Thus, communication through spending behaviors are innately related to one’s class position. Further, communicating class status signals to others that one can participate in consumerist culture in order to communicate these messages; and a class-based society will fundamentally produce individuals who seek to communicate their class status. As such, if the higher the class means the higher the status, members of a class-based society will seek to communicate that they are of high class or of a close proximity to it.
However, an increasing amount of the population does not have access to these goods, but still maintain a desire to participate in a status-seeking culture. Contemporary American consumerism has witnessed historical growth due to the advent of credit lines. In order for individuals who do not fit within the empirical boundaries of middle- and upper middle class definitions to participate in the activities that circumscribe these class boundaries, they must actively place their purchases on loan. Such skeptics of this argument may suggest that activities of the middle- and upper class do not always require money, but indeed many activities--even actively involving one’s family in annual holidays--involve purchasing commercial goods by popular culture standards. Without being able to participate in standard middle class activities, one cannot admit themselves as being part of this symbolic social location. For it isn’t a socially recognized measure to be middle- or upper class without participating in the embodied cultural activities that define this social location. Thus, one must be able to participate in the events that aid in communicating to others their social status; and credit lines aid in doing so when income and savings are not sufficient.
Thus the expression of one’s position in society requires communication; and this communication requires a medium. Consumer goods have become the medium post-industrial society. The manufacturing of goods seeks to be of practical use, and of symbolic use. Utilizing one example of how a commercialized good can communicate social status to others, the next section examines the way in which members of society seek to communicate their social status through fashion. Utilizing both Weber and Veblen may provide insight into the meaning of money on one hand, but may further aid in understanding the manifest usages of money. Such usages are within consumerist behavior, the shifting ways in which individuals obtain and utilize money, the meaning of these goods for individuals, and such. It also may provide an understanding of how the use of money materializes status-seeking endeavors. The next section develops this further by examining fashion as it relates to status.
Capitalizing On Status: The fashion industry
The commercialization and global diffusion of goods has become a communicative mediator in society. Utilizing the work of Simmel, Blumer and McKendrick, this section examines how the fashion industry may serve as an illustration of how economic actions are complexly embedded in social relations. While the previous section provided some insight into the meaning and class-based usages of money during the industrial age, post-industrial uses of money for the purchasing of commercial goods are further complicated by changes to the monetary exchange system and changing class structure. This section discusses how fashion is emblematic of a status-seeking society.
Forms of representation have fundamentally transformed the social landscape, competing for justification of the mundane while further complicating social relations among members of society. Simmel argued that society struggles with an inescapable duality of life, for which he posited as heredity and variation (Simmel, 1971). Generalizability, or uniformity, which Simmel contended to be “inactive similarity,” is often witnessed in human universalities. Social beings are subject to the norms of livelihood: the need for simple biological requirements, such as food, sleep, socialization, and such. The characteristics of human life that are perceived as hereditary in Simmel’s case, are what inextricably bond individuals together. In so many words, an inescapable similarity. There is no effort on behalf of individuals to find these universals; however, with Simmel’s concept of variation, individuals seek distinctions that are peculiar among different aspects of human life. Change, specialization, and directive motion stands for the restless changes that consume civil existence. Thus, as society has constants that concern being inactively motionless and mundane, it also has peculiar distinctions that seek to promote the continuity of newness, differences, and unique characteristics. These distinctions are constructed by social relations, and are inextricably connected to the desire to differentiate.
Simmel hypothesized that this duality is embedded in human life. As such, the manifestations of these dualities can be witnessed in the social institutions that comprise of human activity. Though one can focus on the institutions of gender, family, religion, and such, characteristics of fashion serve to be an interesting examination of society that is often overlooked in the sociological literature (Blumer, 1968). Fashion, as it is, seeks to differentiate. For Simmel, fashion demonstrates society’s anxious desire to move forward. Fashion is the emblematic representation of society’s desire to challenge the constitution of hereditary, or inactive similarity. It attempts to do away with the mundane characteristics of human life, and challenges the assumption that life remains the same throughout time and space. Fashion, seeks to define the past and the future, but most importantly, it seeks to define the present. It desires the variation component of Simmel’s duality, attempting to find the unique variation among human life, while rejecting the inactive motion of human existence. As it relates to this analysis, fashion may especially be an insightful institution for understanding individuals’ desire to distinguish socioeconomic location in a hierarchical manner.
As a collective, fashion is a communicative medium that provides individuals a platform to express uniformity within their respective culture. A woman who lives in Saudi Arabia, may be more accustomed to wearing a hijab--or head scarf--in order to follow the normative dress of women in her culture. Similarly, men of British high-finance may be inclined to wear custom tailored suits. In these illustrations, fashion seeks to define a group of individuals. It functions to demonstrate to others that one is a member of a particular group. Thus, fashion not only serves to provide distinction, but also similarity. However, similarity of dress does not necessarily imply that one is following orthodox tradition. Simmel argued that fashion is also a manifested representation of social contents:
Whenever we imitate, we transfer not only the demand for creative activity, but also the responsibility for the action from ourselves to another. Thus the individual is freed from the worry of choosing and appears simply as a creature of the ground, as a vessel of the social contents... Thus we see that imitation in all the instances it is a productive factor represents one of the fundamental tendencies of our character, namely, that which contents itself with similarity, with uniformity, with the adaptation of the social to the general, and accentuates the constant element in change. Conversely, wherever prominence is given to change, wherever individual differentiation, independence, and relief from generality are sought, there limitation is the negative and obstructive principle (Simmel, 1971, p. 295).
In this respect, fashion serves to indicate to others knowledge of different traditions, trends, historical movements, and so on. Thus, it seeks to communicate knowledge of different social artifacts.
The rise in the commercialization of fashion may be useful for analyzing the phenomena fashion has produced. As McKendrick’s (1984) historical analysis of the rise of a what he called a “consumer society” suggested, without the widespread acceptance of fashion as a commercial item members of society would not seek it out as a medium of expression, distinction, and representation. Before the commercialization of fashion, clothing was based mainly on utility, and individuals did not purchase clothing at the rate for which is observable in contemporary society. This kind of widespread agreement on the social norm to purchase fashion created a society for which even those who seek to disregard it must keep up with it at a certain extent. To not keep up with relative fashion trends means to not keep up with society. Examples of this can be illustrated. Students have an annual purchasing of clothes in order to maintain similarity with their peers. Individuals on the job market purchase new clothes for interviews in order to convey to potential employers that they are of the time. The fast fashion industry--dominated by H&M, Zara, and Topshop--is a multibillion dollar industry that provides trending fashion at discounted prices for the public. Because fashion heavily involves representing the present, individuals who do not dress fashionably--to whatever extent that may be--are considered not only out of touch with popular fashion, but also with society as a whole.
Being out of touch with fashion means to also be out of touch with the broader and larger trends of society--government, law, and other forms of social life. Fashion has found a place in civil society for representing a kind of contemporary knowledge. It also indicates to others what beliefs, customs, and norms for which someone subscribes. A presidential candidate who wears garments from the 1980s indicates to the public that he or she is out of touch with ‘reality,’ or that he or she is not mentally concoct. After all, a presidential candidate wearing flare-legged jeans may confuse the public. Neon colored garments would be grounds for dismissal. Thus, although fashion may appear independent of other forms of knowledge and professionalism, it is considered imperative in many cases.
Returning to the previous example of a job seeker may further illustrate this point. Often, purchasing new clothing when searching for employment is considered important to landing the job. Looking the part is emphasized in self-help literatures for job seekers. Curiously, though the job seeker may not have an income to purchase new clothing, they perceive the purchasing of new clothes essential for seeking employment. Often the job seeker will purchase a new outfit for an interview, which they perceive as indicating to the potential employer that they are modern, and of the present time. In these instances, fashion has such a way of indicating to the wider public knowledge and embodiment of the present. Even when individuals may be astutely aware of the present conditions of society, if their dress does not reflect this to others by mainstream standards, they are unable to accurately communicate--thus market--themselves to the receiving audience.
Thus far, the analysis has presented illustrations in order to depict individuals’ desire to communicate knowledge of the present. In what follows, the desire to communicate knowledge of the present is mediated by way of social class dynamics. In the previous example of the job seeker, it was suggested that he or she who purchases new clothes for a job interview may seek to communicate to a potential employer that they are distinguishable from the majority of other job seekers who apply for this position. He or she is seeking to display that their values are attuned to others who dress in a similar fashion, and not with those who are in the same life transition such that they find themselves in. The values they seek to represent may resonate more with middle and upper middle class values. Identification with the other is perceived as being central to this interaction, thus the job seeker has the intent of attempting to communicate similar identity with the person who is in the position to employ them. This person is perceived as someone who has admission into the desired class that this individual may be transitioning into. This admission, temporarily, puts their admission on loan, with the aspiration of matriculating into this social location.
Similarly, a presidential candidate may be seeking to communicate that they hold power and prestige--an individual to be reckoned with by the national and global community, if you will. Dressing in professional attire may be an attempt to communicate membership into the social elites of society. Social elites, in turn, are the possessors of present knowledge. Thus, fashion may not be directly related to knowledge of the present social landscape, but is rather mediated by communication that offers being part of or having some admission into elite society. For instance, an individual who attends a cocktail party in garments that don’t resemble the upper class will be isolated from the rest of those attending. If the individual without the means of affording the attire, yet dressed in such a way that assumes they do, he or she will be more readily accepted into the social interactions at this party.
Another example of this is in the movie, Pretty Woman (1990). A telling scene from this movie is when Julia Roberts--a former prostitute--enters a Rodeo Drive boutique fashion store in her previous attire. She is rejected by the saleswomen, but returns to the store after a more accepting shopping trip, and then is able to hold the attention of the women the second time visiting the store. This movie scene depicts the communication of social status through fashion poignantly. Elite society is perceived to understand the present social landscape, which is embodied in fashion. ‘Looking the part’ means that one resembles a social elite, who is not only an individual who carries the knowledge of society, but has the power to shape it. In this regard, fashion participation is an integral part to mimicking social elitism.
Thus, although much support can be found for Simmel’s claims, he fails to emphasize the importance of class status and elitism in fashion as the potential origin for this kind of communicative expression. Veblen, in this respect, is able to provide complementary support for Simmel. Fashionable expression requires knowledge of previous fashion movements, which were often embodiments of the activity and culture of the leisure class. Individuals who communicate this knowledge are influenced by the pecuniary standard of living put forth by the leisure class, yet their admission to this class is null. Credit lines that allow individuals to mimic the lifestyle and knowledge of the social elite allow temporary relief from being isolated from everyday forms of power and prestige. Yet, this admission is temporary and on loan. Thus, fashion reinforces social elitism of the economically advantaged few by the majority. To return to Simmel’s concept of variation, which he attributed to social class dynamics among other status-seeking distinctions, the argument here is that much of these dynamics can be attributable to socioeconomic status-seeking distinctions, even when they are disguised as having other unrelated dimensions. The middle class has become particularly susceptible as they the past several decades has witnessed their decline into the lower-middle and lower classes. Consequently, occupying these middle and higher social location is embodied symbolically, and fashion aids in this endeavor.
Thus far this paper has introduced the concept of fashion as being a social institution for which suggests commonality among people, and anxious desire to create distinction. Following this I provided an analysis of how many forms of benign distinction are embedded in class relations. Next, the analysis turns to Blumer, who argued that power and fashion are not entirely dictated by social elites. Carefully drawing attention to how fashion can be related to other aspects of economic life--namely, the ability of the majority to spend without proper income--will be central to the analysis. This examination will allow the reader to consider how economic life is still heavily embedded within class relations, and the desire to emulate the elite.
Influence and Fashion: Can fashion elitism be bi-directional?
To be in fashion means to embody the moment. Traditionally, this may require borrowing from other time periods, social locations, genders, and cultures. Some might criticize an analysis that seeks to reduce fashion’s influence as being marked by social elites. One might suggest that a contemporary analysis of fashion ought to incorporate the significance of influence from lower-class individuals into couture fashion. This sections seeks to examine whether power can be shared in fashion among different class statuses. Evidence of this may be observed among society’s upper class elites who seek approval from their peers to be in fashion. According to Blumer, there are different forms of elitist competition. While one status elite may be competing to appear more fashionable than his or her peers, it does not follow that he or she is competing for standardized power by way of dress. For instance, if an individual is motivated to exude power through fashion, and is perceived by his or her peers to be fashionable, he or she may gain power and prestige over some peers, but lose power and prestige among others. In this respect, power has different forms, and attempts to be represented in different ways through dress. Another elite individual may seek power through their dress, but may intentionally disregard fashion, seeking to display no concern for fashion in order for a favorable gain in power.
Blumer suggested this to be a phenomenon among the status elite, but does little to develop this notion:
[T]he fashion-adopting actions of the elite take place in a context of competing models, each with its own source of prestige. Not all prestigeful persons are innovators- and innovators are not necessarily persons with the highest prestige. The elite, itself, is to select between models proposed by innovators; and their choice is not determined by the relative prestige of the innovators (Blumer, 281).
In this regard, social elites may have status, but without regard to fashion. In light of this, fashion does not necessarily benefit one’s class status, especially when one seeks to do away with stylistic characteristics that are attributable to fashion. In the above passage, Blumer also challenged the proposed emulative nature of fashion as it relates to class interactions. Innovators, as he named it, aren’t always members of the status elite. The emulative nature of fashion may not be based upon attempting to mimic the upper class elites, but rather defining and establishing a stylized, fashion-based identity for a marginalized group. Further, fashion trends often embody emulating certain professions or counter culture trends, as previously mentioned. For instance, a fashion house, such as Prada, may attempt to emulate punk rock culture, which has historically been absent from upper class elite style and fashion. A fashion house may also emulate labor workers.
However, though the style is borrowed, the cost of these items are exclusively for social elites who can afford the clothing. Further the position of these influences maintain marginal significance in society, and their presence is fleeting. Additionally, individuals who emulate lower class or marginalized populations may be perceived as fashionable, whereas the populations who inspire these fashions are not. Though, it may be argued that power is shared, when these lower class individuals matriculate into the upper class--which is very rarely--they embody the culture of social elites, instead of introducing the style of their background to the greater public. But what about stylized populations? The fashion industry provides cultural elitism for those who are considered to be at the forefront of fashion: stylized individuals. And as such, a stylized individual can be distinguished from a fashionable individual. However, if examining the fast-fashion industry’s influence on stylizing lower class individuals without economic power, observations might suggest that these individuals still hold little power regardless of their innovations. Among elites, dress embodies power. Without the requirement of being fashionable, individuals that belong to the status elites still maintain economic power. Thus, in these illustrations, there is little conviction that power is bi-directional through fashion. Even when examining the dandyism movement, or hip-hop style influence in couture fashion, there is little trace of bi-directional power sharing. In the case of hip-hop fashion, major fashion houses, such as KENZO and Comme des Garcons have not only been influenced by hip-hop style, but have made the clothing they produce inaccessible to those who have directly influenced their work. Their items are reserved for the social elites who can afford their goods, as their clothing comes at a very high premium.
Thus, fashionable prestige is not only about nowness, expression, and unique emblems. Blumer, however, is not convinced. He argued that fashion and class status are not mutually exclusive:
As history shows abundantly, in the competitive process fashion readily ignores persons with the highest prestige and, indeed, by-passes acknowledged “leaders” time after time. A further line of evidence is just as telling, namely, the interesting instances of failure to control the direction of fashion despite effective marshaling of the sources of prestige. An outstanding example was the effort in 1922 to check and reverse the trend toward shorter skirts which had started in 1919 to the dismay of clothing manufacturers (Blumer, 1969).
Support for Blumer’s argument may be found in the countless leading fashion trends for social elites that were not widely adapted by the public. Many rejected the fashion choices of the fashionable elite, such as the recent trend to banish fur from the runway. Blumer’s analysis, due to the time for which it was conceived, fails to account for the widespread use of credit lines for purchasing commercialized items for suggesting power and admission into higher social ranking. Lines of credit allow individuals to purchase at their will, providing from them the benefit of appearing to be a member of the conspicuously spending class. This kind of emulative spending, to use Veblen’s term, directly relates to class relations, and provides further support for the emulative nature of social class relations.
Through this brief analysis, an attempt to address bi-directional power sharing in fashion has been explored. Little support has been found; however, future directions in exploring the sociology of fashion and different kinds of social statuses ought to be addressed in future research.
Fashion is intended to act quickly. The fast nature of predicting the future and defining the present is the embodiment of fashion. McKendrick notes that fashion also aids in distinguishing those of the upper class from the majority of society because those who have the monetary and cultural access to the present and future aspects of fashion have exclusive access to these commercial goods. In turn, this maintains a social dynamic for which the middle- and lower class seeks to identify and mimic. While not only is the quickness of fashion an embodiment of fashion, so too is social status. Simmel argues that in order for a society to visually exemplify status distinction, the upper class must continually find ways to distinguish themselves from majority of society. But monetary expenditure is central to this exercise. Becoming a central aspect to many developed countries is the expenditure of money on fashionable items. Whether it is the purchase of the latest technology or vehicle, or even the set up of one’s home furnishings, the casual expenditure of money have become a central aspect of many westernized, developed cultures.
Simmel and Veblen have both argued that this institutionalization of casual spending arises from commercialization. Specifically, the commercialization of fashion has greatly aided in creating this social norm. Emulative spending is often witnessed among those of the middle and lower class in order to mimic the lifestyle of the leisure class. Emulative spending is often conducted with the ability of credit lines, and has become a normative characteristic of American culture. Lines of credit allow one to access additional money beyond their income and wealth in order to be able to spend money on commercial products. Emulative spending has particularly a curious dimension to it, as it allows the majority of society to appear similar to the upper class. However, as the middle class begins to lose it’s quantitative boundaries, pushing more individuals into the lower-middle and lower class, Americans utilize credit lines in order to participate in middle class activities. This indicates that the symbolic social location of individuals matters, even when the quantitative locations are compromised.
Arguably, emulative spending and credit lines have made social class less obvious in contemporary society. An individual who produces a salary at poverty line may be able to purchase luxury items through the means of credit. Although lines of credit allow individuals to have similar access to items limited to the upper class, distinction among class lines within American society has become less visualized. Purchasing items in order to maintain social normativity has become central to American society. Individuals who do not participate in middle class activities, which requires the purchasing of commercialized goods, are perceived as being unable to integrate fully into the social norms of middle America, minimally. While the foundations of consumerist norms has implications for the rise of the middle class, the past several decades indicate that income and wealth distribution within the United States has become tremendously polarized. In this regard, it appears that although the majority of Americans maintain spending practices, much of them are unable to participate in having luxury items without credit lines, let alone show for their class status. With a shrinking, if not barely visible middle class, the majority of Americans who are indeed by income standards are in the lower- or lower-middle class, will culturally consider themselves part of the middle class, not only due to their values, but also due to their spending practices and acquisition of good. Perhaps what our country needs is the greater visualization of social inequality.
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