The anthropology of the middle class across the globe
In the last two decades anthropology has seen a surge in studies that focus on practices and ideologies associated with what may be described as a global middle class, or the global middle classes. We have learned about the rise of lavish weddings, interior design consultations, fashion shows, and entrepreneurial activities of various kinds. The wide-ranging institutions seemingly beloved to middle-class citizens across the globe – be it marriage, the nuclear family, education, multinational employment, etc. – are reflected in media discourses and increasingly in scholarly work, highlighting the lifestyles of those who are relatively affluent inside and beyond academia. But whilst practices ranging from the celebration of Valentine’s Day in India to private clinics providing in vitro fertilization in Egypt, or from “eating out” in urban China to investing in an apartment in Istanbul may be seen as recognizable markers of a shared global middle-class culture, the topic of the middle class remains problematic in anthropology. Interestingly, while more and more communities and individuals around the world adopt the discourse and practices of being ‘middle-class’, anthropologists continue to struggle with work addressed both to class in general and to the middle class in particular.
But if class has remained a contested notion for anthropologists and other social scientists (Waquant 1992, Kalb 2015), the ethnography of middle-class lifestyles is booming. Even where class per se is not acknowledged as the focus of analysis, a whole host of issues related to middle-class life are being explored. As such it seems appropriate to find some common denominators in the analysis of the middle class, especially where claims of being middle-class (or not) and aspirations of becoming middle-class are shared amongst those with whom we do research. Not only are terms of identification intimately linked to questions of identity, we can also learn a lot from looking more closely at what ethnographies of the middle class contribute to the wider analysis of social inequality around the world. At a time when middle-class lifestyles are actively encouraged both by nation states and international institutions (including corporations), when politicians are pushed to support the ‘squeezed middle’, and when class is used by many to describe who they are or hope to become, it seems necessary to investigate the links between middle class self-identification and the institutional factors that help to shape this, and anthropology is surely well equipped to do so.
From the mid-90s onwards, there has been a proliferation of ethnographic studies that explicitly focus on emerging, or ‘new’ local, national and regional groups of relatively affluent people. The rise of developing economies and the increasing commodification of global cultures have brought the middle class back into mainstream debates and classrooms. Whether changing consumption patterns, questions of urban restructuring, the privatization of healthcare and education, the financialisation of everyday life or transnational circuits of affluence are the research focus, the resulting ethnographies all share a conviction that class is not only relevant, but that looking at the experience of the middle class can provide important theoretical insights. What are, then, the most interesting aspects of such studies, and how might work on the middle class contribute to the analysis of class more generally?
One of the earlier examples of the revived interest in an ethnographic exploration of the middle class is the programmatically entitled Reproducing Class: Education, Neoliberalism, and the Rise of the New Middle Class in Istanbul by Henry Rutz and Errol M. Balkan. Located firmly within a wider context of global processes of urban restructuring and neoliberal policies, it is set in Istanbul, and as such combines an analysis of local discourses on upward mobility amongst migrants from rural areas with the effects of metropolitan urbanisation. The subjects are basically people who, marked as rustic, were earlier excluded from status-enhancing jobs and schools but are now seeking admission to exactly those sites. Set against the background of urban regeneration and an increasingly polarized national politics, the study shows how the cultural capital offered by education becomes a major issue for parents and children. Here as elsewhere, education and certificates are shown to be a mainstay of claims towards a new class-based identity, challenging the hegemony of earlier professional middle-class city-dwellers. Parents, teachers, and children became engaged in the status game that the pursuit of education in urbanizing contexts represents across the globe. And with privatization diversifying an existing educational landscape, families agonized over which school to choose in order to produce appropriately middle-class subjects and futures.
However, as recent ethnography shows, valuing education can turn out to be a double-edged sword. Whilst meritocracy, hard work and personal development are emphasized by parents and teachers in all middle-class contexts studied, the true cost of education for those from less affluent backgrounds and other newcomers, be this defined geographically, financially or culturally, is often only discovered in hindsight. The promise of personal success and family mobility amongst parents fiercely invested in their quest for middle-class status makes schooling and graduate certificates a persuasive path. The disillusion and insecurity of outcome such investment may entail is, however, a pervasive theme of ethnography which focuses on places with high rates of graduate unemployment. As the work of Samuli Schielke in Egypt (2015) and Craig Jeffrey in small town India (2010) shows, the much coveted pursuit of education can be a hindrance rather than a bonus for young men from lower middle-class or farming backgrounds. Without the right connections, ‘first generation’ graduates are often trapped between their newly acquired status as potential white collar workers, and the lack of respectable jobs. For young men and women of this kind, life is spent in a liminal state of extended adolescence, which can make educational institutions a hotbed of political activity and (as the Arab spring showed) even lead young people to join radical movements. What such studies aptly demonstrate is how the study of the middle class can provide insights into political processes closely related to broader processes of stratification and class formation. They also suggest that the new and emerging middle classes are exposed to and acutely aware of sites of stagnation, and that precarity, based on under- and unemployment, insecurity due to debt, lack of access to property and finally failed lifecycle expectations weigh heavily on middle-class minds and politics. Clearly, institutions such as schools and universities are much more than the sum of their parts, and whilst a certificate may not yield a respectable job, no potentially employable, respectable person can be made without education. This explains the enduring link between the study of upward mobility and of education, as illustrated by Ortner’s work on New Jersey high school graduates from 1958 (Ortner 2003).
Education and its importance, the actual reproduction of privilege and structural constraints all feature in earlier studies of middle-class families, which were often concerned with schooling and social mobility, whether in the US, the UK or in India. However, new ethnography explicitly focuses on the embeddedness of education, and its contested status in middle class lives across the globe. Certainly, Rutz and Balkan’s ethnography testifies to the special status that education has for the so-called ‘new middle class’ – a term increasingly used in accounts from non-Western countries. The ‘new’ in the phrase does usually signal the emergence of a broader middle-class in places where previously only a small section of the population, usually closely linked to government employment, had identified as such. As this and other ethnographies suggest, different sections of the middle-class may have had very different histories, something that implies variations in the forms of capital and networks they command, in political and religious affiliation, and in the details of their lifestyles. Whilst the ‘new’ in the terminology may indicate the shift from very small, and select groups of professionals and civil servants towards a much larger section of society in many contexts, it may also point towards the middle class as a project, as Leela Fernandes has suggested (Fernandes 2006). She argues, first, that the notion that middleclassness is global may be actively promoted by those who identify with it. Second, she suggests that the idea of a new middle-class does in many contexts indicate a shift away from earlier, less consumption driven, lifestyles and values. In other words, that a kind of newly rich middle-class with different aspirations has emerged and dominates new consumer cultures. Lastly, she asserts that the middle class is constituted through a specific form of cultural politics as referenced in the term ‘new’ middle class. Drawing on research in urban India, she shows how the lifestyle associated with the middle class has become the main driver on a national political level but crucially is also deeply embedded locally. Her point regarding the hegemonic politics of middle-class interests is reflected in ethnographies concerned with phenomena like urban restructuring, financialization, or economic globalization worldwide. As the example of urban change and the role of the middle class in these processes illustrates, the impact it has is also not limited to metropolitan areas, a region, or a specific historical formation. Rather, the idea of the middle-class, the lifestyles promoted, and the values embraced link metropolitan spaces, Special Economic Zones, rural land grabs, and national economic policies with the consolidation of capital in the hands of the newly affluent across such spaces. What makes the difference between older ideas about class and the new realities emerging in an age of neoliberal reform is the predominance of middle-class interests in policy-making. Where, as Fernandes shows, the project of the middle class rests on the way it sells aspiration and inclusion, such dreams of upward mobility are embraced by planners, politicians, and the media as well as a host of more local players (Fernandes 2006). What has changed is therefore not so much how the middle constitutes itself, or merely the numbers involved, but the explicit effort to promote a hegemonic politics which fits well with ideologies focused on the market as arbitrator of relationships with politics, the state, and community as well as the self and identity. The latter are addressed in a host of new ethnographies, which analyse consumption and the family as sites for middleclassness, linking everyday practices to the remaking of landscapes and the social relations they enable.
A number of contemporary observers have linked ideas about being middle class to the wider complex often described in terms of consumer lifestyles. In such widespread discourses consumption figures as a novel experience, which challenges older ideas of morality, especially those associated with gender and inter-generational hierarchies. It appears in local accounts that whilst many communities embrace the good life, it is pursued through practices that are seen as problematic. Whilst neither consumption nor commodities are wholly a middle-class preserve, the pressures that come with middle-class lifestyles may invite serious criticism. Liechty (2003), amongst others, has addressed this issue in his work on Kathmandu’s newcomers to the world of commodity consumption. Because his interlocutors situated themselves above the poor but below the rich, i.e. in the middle, consumption practices associated with either the poor or the rich had to be deemed problematic. As Liechty shows, however, fashion – to give one example – can be interpreted as problematic but also as a site for self-making, necessary competition and the deployment of global codes. Keeping up with the neighbours whilst remaining respectable becomes a matter of constant negotiation. Similarly, eating out and shopping may allow participation in desirable public spaces, but these prime sites for becoming and remaining ‘suitably middle class’ are marked by moral ambiguity (Liechty 2003).
In this as in other contexts, the problematic status of consumption and the pressures of consumerism are endlessly discussed as having effects on family life, on the idea of community, and on personal development. Thus, van Wessel’s Indian interlocutors state that keeping up with their neighbours is a burden, and often outweighs the pleasures of new status-enhancing consumer practices (van Wessel 2004). The all-encompassing experience of consumer society and the way it restructures family relations is also addressed in a study by Jones, whose Malaysian subjects see the reworking of female respectability (Jones 2012) as a threat. In her study, women in upwardly mobile families are on the one hand expected to undertake economic activities to enable consumption, but need to carefully balance the potentially disruptive effect of taking a public role by adopting explicitly respectable Muslim dress codes. Beyond femininity, Zhang’s (2012) suburban interlocutors in China engage with new middle-class leisure pursuits like playing golf while avoiding what is deemed excessive or boastful at the same time.
If middle-class lives are increasingly played out in segregated spaces, ethnography tells us that gated communities and apartment living may actually exaggerate the need to engage in competitive practices. Here, new circuits of social control and self-surveillance emerge, often interlinked with transnational relationships. Ethnographies also demonstrate that whilst consumption is experienced as an integral part of becoming and being middle-class, the notion of all-encompassing consumer identities is abhorred and the moral dilemmas that are attached mark middle-class lifestyles with the disease of the day: ‘anxiety’. Not only are the problems and work involved in the management of boundaries (reputation and respectability are central) and inevitable relations with those ‘below’ a source of worry, but keeping up involves resources which lock multiple generations in a steely embrace across time and space. Equally importantly, middleclassness implies selective connections: as the ethnography of a small, emerging middle-class public in Papua New Guinea by Gewertz and Errington (1999) showed, kinship bonds are of particular importance, and related ‘traditional’ practices may cause embarrassment whilst enabling middleclassness in the first place. Such links may be given up, dependents forgotten, and menial work outsourced, but whom to socialize with and what practices to take up to cultivate middle-class personhood becomes all important and requires careful consideration, skills and day-to-day management as well as long-term planning.
Ethnographies show that contrary to the ideology of the gated community, entanglement rather than clear boundaries mark middle-class lifestyles. In many contexts dependence on the working class for services brings the latter’s non-desirable traits into the home and management of servants’ presence is a constant concern in middle-class families. This is for example well documented in the case of South Asia (Adam and Dickey 2000) but also the probably less obvious space of the Western middle-class home (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2004). On the one hand a marker of high status, domestic workers (including cleaners, nannies, drivers and care workers) challenge the assumed homogeneity of the family home, in particular where childcare, so central to the reproduction of class, is involved. Bringing up a suitably middle-class person may depend on the laboring poor, but their presence in the home is disruptive. And whilst employing a carer for a child or a relative may add to status, fears about loss of control and emotional bonding may be experienced. It appears that class boundaries are particularly difficult to maintain where the welfare of dependents, children or the elderly, and hands on as well as affective labour, are interwoven.
A different challenge is evoked in discourses about ‘the rich’, often fueled by media representations of celebrity lifestyles. Whilst ethnography shows not only how specific and local notions of difference can be, and that much emulation and appropriation of such lifestyles marks newcomers’ approaches to the middle class, middle-class citizens are often at pains to distinguish themselves by referencing the values promoted amongst these ‘others’ as negative.
Whether talking about the problems of having to deal with servants in the home, or the exploits of wealthy B-list celebrities, the primary importance of a shared public discourse on respectability achieved through the embrace of moral norms governs a large part of middle-class representations in the media. It also comes out clearly in middle-class political engagement, for example in the rise of parties promoting religious values or anti-corruption drives. Politics of the middle class often draw on notions of ‘fat cats’ and the ‘nouveau riches’, whilst at home mothers may reprimand their children, who admire the affluent lifestyles of football stars and pop singers. However, not to be conflated with serious debates on redistribution, such publicly shared sentiments are more often than not centered around middle-class values, cast in terms of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘hard work’ as well as ‘rights’ and cultural distinctions articulated in terms of ‘taste’. Such discussions are reflected in the way public morality and censorship usually tie in with ‘moral panics’, for example about women’s consumer behaviours or appropriate sexualities as in the case Herdt’s discussion of gay marriage legislation and beyond (Herdt 2009; Jones 2012). These debates show how diverse the middle class is, but also how ‘race’, ethnicity, religious belonging and ‘sexual orientation’ all intersect to reproduce such lifestyles, economic and political positions, and subjectivities which feed into debates around social norms.
Moral panics (or publicly represented shared anxieties) are, however, not limited to the explicitly political arena. They may play out in the most intimate settings, as Allison’s work on Japanese middle-class mothers and their intervention in their children’s consumption of comics shows (Allison 2000). This draws attention to ethnographies that foreground the middle-class home as the main site for socialization, and its everyday practices as a major concern. Anthropologists have a long-standing interest in how specific ideologies, and in particular hierarchy and inequality become part of patterns of behavior and thought, internalized and embodied. In the context of class-identity such distinctive practices include language styles, dress codes, comportment, but also gender and racial stereotypes and class-based differences in taste and style, which even young children learn from kin, friends, and neighbours. Thus, conduct in the family and the private sphere represents a typically middle-class concern as it relates directly to public debates about respectability, achievement and upward mobility. Freeman’s study of changing marital and family relations amongst the emerging black middle-class in Barbados is a case in point. Not only do upwardly mobile female entrepreneurs expect their children to be brought up differently, with a focus on grades and ‘enriching’ hobbies, but conjugality becomes a central concern for such high achievers (Freeman 2014). Domestic life, earlier the preserve of women and children, is now also the main site for the realization of coupledom, and contrary to earlier styles of black masculinity, such middle-class men are as invested in the family project as their wives. Whilst the orientation towards the home is a main marker of emerging middle-class identities historically and sociologically, anthropologists have shown how family, home, private/public distinctions are crucial for the enactment of intimate relationships. Looking at parenting in the US, Katz shows, for example, how the neoliberal restructuring of the American economy has led to a renewed investment in the domestic sphere as a site of control and imagined futures. The implication of children and parenting practices in market relations, ironically often attributed to the urban poor, emerges as an important part of middle-class strategies in uncertain times. Here, as in middle-class families across the globe, for example in India (Donner 2008), the mostly maternal labour of ‘love’, affective and material care work performed at home, are employed to make children into perfect white collar workers, a future investment for their parents. Ethnography reveals how these new subjects rely on the market entering the most intimate relationships, including that between parents and children through for example the effort employed to find the perfect school (Sancho 2015), debates on home improvement (Fehervary 2013), and complex negotiations over new consumer practices, for example related to food (Jing 2000). Such studies show that by now the vocabulary of the market, of ‘choice’, ‘quality time’, and of ‘achieving the potential’ plays an important role in mediating between family, school and state policies. As Deborah James’s work on new Black South African middle-class aspirations shows, this kind of language has been adopted by a variety of institutions engaged in producing middle-class persons, including advertising, banks, and religious institutions often in the context of gender relations and kin work. Whilst such neoliberal discourses may be applied by the state to all citizens alike, the opportunities created can on the whole only, or at least more fully, be realized by middle-class persons, and these children have become what Katz (2012) calls in her work on American middle-class childhoods ‘accumulation strategies’. Hidden behind the excessive concern about children and their well-being are practices which hamper this very aim so obviously that even committed middle-class parents are usually aware of the contradiction. Most prominent is an unhealthy obsession with certificates gained through the competitive practice of school exams, as per above, but less obvious are the constant surveillance and control of children’s time and the excessive management of their activities and emotions. Seeing children as potential to be realized and as a shared project is certainly a common marker of middle-class mentalities, and as Freeman and others have suggested, this potential for investment shapes marital strategies, conjugal values and expectations, as well as inter-generational relationships (Freeman 2012; Donner 2008). In many instances ethnography demonstrates how whole families are united, often across two generations, in the attempt to create environments within which the home gains in importance precisely because futures are meant to be realized through children and their upbringing.
How did we get here? A culturally specific discourse on the family, and on reforms and modernity flourishing in Europe and the US was exported from the Western world to the colonies in the 19th century, and developed into an important marker of middle-class identity in a wide range of places. Both Europe and its colonies became obsessed with the public/private distinction that makes middle-class worlds, with women increasingly associated with domestic activities, and their roles as mothers and wives, in many contexts. As recent ethnographies on middle-class home-making as place-making demonstrate, these have become lasting preoccupations. They are also not singular to this section of stratified societies, which makes the preoccupation with distinctive class-specific practices and boundaries even more profound. For those whose dwellings are mostly dedicated to status-enhancing consumption practices, domesticity becomes a science of self-knowledge and a route to belonging. The dilemmas involved in keeping a home and making a leap upwards are painfully obvious in the case of newcomers to the world of home buying and domestic improvement, for example Hungarian newcomers to the middle class, who navigate historically charged notions of domestic space ranging from socialism to an increasingly privatized suburban life built on its remains (Fehervary 2013). In this setting, the layout and content of homes, whether one inhabits a newly built, or a refurbished former village house, references distinct sets of historical narratives. Here practices associated with the old bourgeoisie, whose inner-city flats were stuffed with old furniture, are set against the vision of the newly-built, properly modern home for a rising middle-class. In these homes, a range of social relations come together, as surburbia bears the mark of former village life, where inhabitants relied on do-it-yourself help and subsistence production under the communist regime. Make-do-and-mend, self-help and clunky furniture all signify a past to be left behind. The new, prefab homes furnished with catalogue objects are signifiers of new professional lives.
Talk about homes, and talk about home improvement and homeownership, speaks about middle-class past imaginations and kinship, but also broader state policies. The wish to own a home and the act of purchasing a home may indicate social relations far beyond the actual dwelling, including ideal work places, ethics related to the community and relationships with the state. This is particularly relevant where the middle-class household is not solely constituted in the home, but may be sustained by migratory patterns and remittances provided across time and space by absent family members. In the case of internal migration described by James, and in the case of transnational migrants studied by Gallo, middle-class status depends centrally on the ability to leave older residential patterns and dependencies behind, and to create new households from scratch (James 2014). How middle-class homes are sites for the negotiation of complex market relations is also the theme of Jones’s discussion of women’s employment and the renewal of patriarchy in Indonesia. Here we see common anxieties about accumulation and consumer society managed within a framework of state-imposed ideas about religious/ethnic citizenship. In practice, women in employment counterbalance their engagement with the public sphere by adopting explicitly pious Islamic practices, for example dress codes. As elsewhere the ethnography suggests that middle-class anxieties stem from the transfer between different spheres: home, state, economy, fashion, Islam, etc. (Jones 2012). Furthermore, Jones suggests that the media can serve as a platform for balancing competing discourses about what it means to be middle-class. Contrary to commonsensical ideas, media representations do therefore not merely reflect and promote middle-class lifestyles, values and moralities, they constitute the project of being middle-class as achievable for all by minimizing attention to structural constraints. TV in particular invites all sections of the population to engage with upward mobility, whether through soap operas focusing on family fortunes or the didactics of make-over shows. More often than not, other realities are marked as deficient, transgressive, and in need of reform, as the current wave of fly-on-the-wall welfare benefits shows in the UK suggests. But less obviously, TV has wholeheartedly embraced the neoliberal mantra of self-improvement and aspiration, which allows market-logics to penetrate even our most intimate relationships. As advice, expertise, and self-knowledge are propagated and streamed into living rooms across the globe, often middle-class lifestyles are depicted as interwoven with nationalist and developmentalist discourses also in the form of ‘mere’ commodity consumption. As Mazzarella argues in the case of India, advertisements for commodities produced by multinationals blur middle-class consumption with a new brand of nationalism, in effect rebranding citizenship for a new era of middle-class hegemony (Mazzarella 2003).
This works in tandem with state-led campaigns to enhance and enable consumer spending as a national goal and investments in the consuming middle class as being in the national interest. It is under these conditions that middle-class subjectivities and culture become hegemonic, influential beyond a specific group, powerful even where they are mocked or cannot be fully realized. In this context it is important to re-emphasize that the experience of being middle-class is fractured and contradictory, outwardly, because it requires control over certain kinds of capital, notably education, but may imply lack of other kinds, notably finance. This problematic space of contradiction has become more prominent with the rise of consumerism and the demand for money it implies, where debt has become a modality of being middle-class. In many instances the middle class has been particularly hard hit in the current financial crises, as families and individuals amassed debts they cannot pay back, and therefore find themselves in a downward spiral. Recent work on the anthropology of financialization and class formation (Peebles 2010; Graeber 2014) also shows the wider social impact of finance and its industries on middle-class lives. Narratives of hard work and merit, achievement, and the material trappings link debtors and creditors but as James’s study (2015) shows, the experience of becoming a middle-class consumer citizen comes at a cost: family and kin relationships change with upward mobility and debts incurred, new forms of affective labour have to be employed to remain part of informal credit networks, and subjects are differently enabled to realise middleclassness, depending on gender, marital status and age. More recently, work on the US has shown how such neoliberal entanglements also produce a specific suburban negotiation of the increasing precariousness of middle-class lives. As Heiman points out in her study of middle-class flight from New York to New Jersey, ethnography is well positioned to bring out how specific anxieties about heterogeneity haunt even (or probably especially) white suburbia (Heiman 2015). These entanglements that make middle-class life, for example the role of children as future assets, or the reliance on a relatively narrow ideal job profile, have become burdensome where economic crisis is writ large. This was probably first ethnographically charted in some detail in work on the US and Japan, for example Newman’s account of the downwardly mobile citizens to whom financial services were often sold as privileges before revealing their darker side. These include bank accounts, credit cards and mortgages (Newman 1999). Where discussions of the ‘new’ middle classes started out with a focus on upwardly mobile communities and their relevance in today’s globalized world, we have recently seen more work on failed mobility, the risks and ruptures in middle-class imaginaries and experiences. Studies of failed expectations, of precarity and entanglement in future-speculation which may or may not pay off, exemplifies how being middle-class is on the one hand a subjective state, and on the other hand only ever a temporary promise. They also show that what constitutes middleclassness is historically variable and ever emerging, as shifts in wider structures like labor and housing markets, citizenship status and transnational migration or displacement shatter carefully crafted narratives of social and spatial distancing. All of these are pointers towards larger structural transformations that middle-class ethnography allows us to bring into focus, as it combines attention to folk models of the economy with an analysis of its de facto workings through people’s experiences.
At this point, then, one can ask the bigger question: why study the middle class? One of the main contributions of anthropology to debates on class is the nuanced contextualization and the challenge ethnography poses to a one-size-fits-all approach to class analysis. Ethnography has shown that how and where class formation occurs, how class differences are perpetuated and maintained, and how conflict is articulated, may differ. Thus, firstly, ethnography, our main tool, presents accounts of localized realities, discusses legitimizing and naturalizing ideologies and dissent, and focuses on the everyday practices and experiences of unequal power relations. The fact that such ethnographic accounts facilitate theorizing is aptly demonstrated by the edited volume published by Heiman et al (2012). In ethnographies, a genre that conveys a sense of structural constraints through accounts of personal experiences and social relations, thoughts, meanings, narratives, etc., we can trace how middleclassness as way of life informs institutions like the family, churches, corporations and workplaces, but also the media, governance, and policies as well as ideas about citizenship. Almost inevitably being middle-class is closely related to earlier forms of unequal status, which feed into the way it is marked and reproduces power relations, in particular through racialized or hierarchical idioms like caste. Within a comparative framework, such localized accounts of status and its transformation can be related to the adoption of specific kinds of global forms (the nuclear family, coupledom, the single child, or specific professions), and the way these are appropriated in various settings. Related discourses, for example on romantic love, intensive parenting, healthy diets, mortgages, degrees, holidays, state religion, electoral politics, etc., all feed into class-based practices, many of them intersecting with gender and ethnic identity. Furthermore, ethics, gender relations, and the changing worlds of labour, processes of gentrification and cultural globalization are all addressed in ethnographies of middle-class lives. Thus, debates over interior design in newly middle-class Hungarian suburbs and studies of entrepreneurial couples in the Caribbean contribute detail and substance to an analysis of neoliberal ideologies and their reality, which are reshaping our most intimate spaces, with middle-class ideals about the self at the heart of such debates. Ethnography has also shown that middle-class homes are not only conduits of new meanings related to personhood, self-improvement and discipline, but are also sites of neoliberalism’s full realization. As families and individuals struggle to maintain the boundaries between older values and socialities, they become ever more deeply entangled with worldwide economies of value and prospected futures. These determine everyday practices and institutional constellations shared by middle classes worldwide, and produce a never-ending project with fuzzy boundaries. Shared is also the promise of permeability and inclusion, which have become major selling points and make this a hegemonic project. These are reproduced through a variety of sites, notably the media, which show an obsessive concern with morality as a closer look at talk shows and soap operas around the world shows. All of these productions take distinct middle-class versions of specific social forms as their point of departure: debates around marriage, sexuality, property, education and changing labour markets are dominated by middle-class experts and middle-class values. Here, in front of our eyes, respectability and upward mobility are linked to aspirational lifestyles, and micro-practices woven into the larger tapestry of a class-based society. Work on the middle class therefore firstly complements what we know about the way class as a social relationship is constituted in relation to ‘others’. Secondly, it allows us to provide detailed evidence of how institutions considered neutral or even beneficial and empowering have very different effects depending on the setting within which they function. Third, looking forward, those doing research on a wide range of current anthropological topics – including gender, the family, schooling, labour relations and post-industrial politics – would enhance, in my view, the significance of their studies if they took class more seriously as a category of analysis. To put this differently: a whole range of ethnographies are essentially concerned with middle-class values and settings, and this implicit agenda needs to be explicitly theorized alongside other factors. Lastly, the ethnography of the middle-class provides nuanced evidence of the processual nature of class formation. Class identities are always in the making and the ‘middle class’ is equally a site of belonging and a site of aspiration. Both are productive modes, relevant to the vast majority of the world’s population as urbanization and economic and cultural integration progress. Where a pupil in Istanbul goes to school matters not only to her and her family, but reflects ideas about the good life, the economy, the state, religion, Turkey and the world which materialize in the form of a neoliberal cityscape but also find expression in the minute detail of every day life. Similarly, what kinds of jobs not so young men in Egypt from humble backgrounds can expect to secure positions them within a marriage market, determines where and how they dwell, and shapes their understanding of inter-generational relations as well as state-sponsored versions of modernity. Being middle-class is therefore a personal project, capturing the hearts and minds of many, even where it may not be fully realized, and a wider political project, with implications for increasing numbers of people around the globe.
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