cover image The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-691-16273-7

Currid-Halkett (Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity) updates sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class to explore the motivations of the contemporary “aspirational” class. Rather than the conspicuous consumption of the post-WWII U.S., Currid-Halkett argues that this class favors “inconspicuous” consumption of goods that make their lives easier, such as childcare and housekeeping services, or set them apart as well-educated and socially conscious, such as New York Times subscriptions and “artisanal goods.” Consequently, members of the aspirational class develop an inflated sense of self that allows them to “ignore the growing inequality all around them.” Their ability to invest in expensive healthcare and education sets them up for success in a way the dying middle class cannot afford. It is these economic differences, rather than flashy purchases, that create “the new division between the rich and the rest.” The material can be rather dense, as Currid-Halkett analyzes economic data that breaks down spending habits by income, age, race, and education level, and her focus on urban centers leaves out vast quantities of the population. She insists, condescendingly and improbably, that “no one in West Virginia or Pennsylvania is even considering” buying an expensive cup of coffee. Still, there is a lot to learn here about the contemporary face of income inequality.[em] (June) [/em]