Iconic Objects and the New Middle Class

Seminar by Professor Jeffrey Alexander (Yale)

Wed 18th October at 2-4 in EWF61

What’s striking about the now-global discourse of “middle class” is that it references people who would once have been described, not as middle, but as working class. They are called “workers” and described as “hard working” and “struggling,” whether or not they actually labor in manual occupations. The notion of buying things by choice rather than by necessity gets to the heart of the matter. To be in the new middle class is to be able to consume, and this ability, at least in the emerging economies, has definitely been on the increase. In his book Africa Rising, Vijay Mahajan discusses three Africas. Africa One is the small segment of earners who are on par with western earners. Africa Two is the middle class, and Africa Three earn less than $2/ day. Crucially, Africa Two is the largest: “In Africa Two, we are talking about 300 to 500 million people,” Mahajan writes. “They may not be rich, but collectively they have immense buying power.”  “The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development estimates that the global middle class comprised 1.8 billion people in 2009. By 2020, just 11 years later, it will have grown to 3.2 billion”. How can we conceptualize such an elusive, even counter-intuitive compound of relative poverty and discretionary wealth? Cultural sociology can provide some clarification. Clearly, the new middle class is not just an objective economic status, but also a symbolic structure, a sign. Its signifiers reference income and consumption, its signifieds are iconic objects. New middle class marks a position in the social structure that allows access to a certain conception of meaningful life, one whose contours are shaped by the sensations of contact with powerfully expressive, semiotically coded, market-produced objects.

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