Our Consumption Habits Could Be Key To Helping The U.S. Cultural Divide 

Download Audio
Our consumer habits can tell us about the current state of social class and cultural cohesion in the U.S. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Our consumer habits can tell us about the current state of social class and cultural cohesion in the U.S. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

There’s really no official definition for social class in the U.S.

Nearly 70% of Americans believe they’re part of the middle class, according to Pew Research. But there are varied measures for what defines the middle class: It’s impossible to talk about social class without acknowledging the big factors, such as race, to smaller things like the clothes we wear or to the coffee shops we frequent.

As income inequality grows, there is a new distinct class that is growing — the aspirational class. It’s a term Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor at the University of Southern California, coined in her book, “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.”

She says the aspirational class isn’t unified so much by money.

“We often think about class as something to do with socioeconomics,” Currid-Halkett says. “And while they tend to be better off than most Americans, the real relationship between the people in the aspirational class is their shared sense of social and cultural practices and norms.”

Whole Foods is a perfect example, she says. Everyone from wealthy people to college students shop there, all because they believe in the values behind the store.

“Maybe they shouldn't spend $5 on strawberries, but they were doing it because they were organic and they were local, and they cared about those values and it's those values that I think unify the aspirational class,” Currid-Halkett says.

Unlike in the past, people don’t use material goods to show their social position, she says. Rather, people define themselves by their consumption habits.

“We don't really do that as much today because material goods are so omnipresent that even if we thought about like knockoff culture, people can kind of fake that,” she says. “But what they can't fake is the time and the accrual of knowledge to make certain decisions about consumption.”

Interview Highlights 

On the idea that people use consumption to define themselves

“It plays out in two different ways. I was really inspired by [American economist and sociologist] Thorstein Veblen. And a lot of people don't know who he is, but they know the term conspicuous consumption, which is the use of material goods to show social position. And what I started thinking about when I was writing this book was the fact that it's not about fancy watches and shoes anymore in the way that it might have been in the 1980s and certainly in Veblen's time when we think about his famous silver spoons. In that, you could own a silver spoon, and it wasn't more useful than a spoon of a different metal, but you could own one, so that must mean you had enough money to.

“And so some examples of this are the upper middle class spends something like eight times more exercising than the lower income groups. And you see in the way of ... exercise classes, which are expensive, if you think about a yoga class or a pilates class. But also they have the time in the sense of flexibility. So I think that that's something if you really contrast, say, someone who's an hourly worker to even someone who has a very high-pressured job like a lawyer, but they still have some control over their schedule and the ability to take a lunch hour to go to the gym and there is a gym down the street from where they work. And so I think that that's a really good way of seeing it, not just in terms of expense as in it's expensive to exercise, but also in terms of day-to-day habits and time.”

On why it’s more difficult to define social class

“I think the problem with social class is that I think it is hard to pinpoint these days because it's not just about money anymore. And, if we think about the kid who graduates from Yale [University] or Princeton [University] with a poetry degree, he's not going to work on Wall Street, but he has a higher social class than that guy who worked so hard as a real estate broker and lives in New Jersey. And so it's very confusing. But I think what we really see now and I think this is actually why it's so hard, is that because culture and knowledge are so much a part of social class and position now, they take a long time to earn.”

On the relationship between class and race 

“The upper end of the socioeconomic totem pole has been historically white. And so there is this dominant hegemony around the practices of upper middle class white people. And I think … it makes people uncomfortable and minorities tended to be greater conspicuous consumers. And this is because when you are a minority, you feel you have to prove yourself more. And so you conspicuously consume to signal, I'm here, I fit in.

“Some sociologists talk about this notion of being a cultural omnivore, which is this idea that you do go to Whole Foods, but you love the taco stand down the street from you. And it's this sort of sense of like the different kinds of ethnic and cultural consumption habits you have. But again, I think it's a luxury to do that. And so do we return again to the fact that even if social class today is not simply about money, it has historical ties to upper middle class white people who have had money over time when other groups have not.”

On how social class influences politics 

“One person who interviewed me set it up with a hillbilly elegy. So this is one story of America, and then these are the coastal elites and their cultural practices which are alien to everyone other than themselves. So insular, and this is what's wrong with America. … If we could start understanding each other a little more instead of the conversation being about cultural divides, which exist, it may actually be more of a story of cultural cohesion. And to find those through lines and actually to see that you can live in Los Angeles and have more in common with someone who lives in small town Minnesota than you do maybe to someone who lives in the neighborhood adjacent to you. And that's a better picture and actually a more hopeful one, because no one's saying we don't have things to repair in this country. But what we might be able to say is there is an America as in one that is tied to one another.

“We don't seem to be talking to each other. And so that's about something that's not just money. That is about culture and that's about cultural cohesion. And I think to me, one of the most important things is to first, try to find what we might have in common and also find out how we can provide access to cultural capital. And that's something I think is missing now, is that I think a lot of social mobility depends on things that frankly start at age five. And so it's not as simple as ... education. It's about access to a diverse and enriched life. And that really actually is quite rarified today.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on March 13, 2020.

Headshot of Tonya Mosley

Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live