• Tackling the Anxieties of Affluence

  • Rachel Sherman
    Rachel Sherman, associate professor of sociology

    Sociologist Rachel Sherman quickly observed a common trait among the wealthy and affluent subjects of her latest book, Uneasy Street: the Anxieties of Affluence.

    They hated getting specific about money. It is, in the words of one interviewee, “more private than sex.”

    In part, Sherman-Associate Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research-attributes this reluctance to her subjects' often-ambivalent relationship to wealth. The 50 New York parents she interviewed over the course of this multi-year study all belong to the top five percent of earners, meaning that they bring in more than $250,000 per year, and the majority are in the top one or two percent. Some benefited from substantial inheritances, which in several cases in excess of $10 million. Sherman chose to focus on people in their 40's and 50's who were embarking upon home renovation projects, given that such undertakings provide occasions for intentioned thinking about consumption and lifestyle choices.

    The project has roots in Sherman's longtime interest in structures of inequality in the United States and in the evolution of her thinking over the course of two previous ethnographic projects.

    It was during her dissertation research on luxury hotels that Sherman identified a similar ambivalence about wealth among hotel guests, who were adamant that it was important to treat workers well. “I wouldn't have talked about it this way then,” she said of the hotel guests she interviewed, “but I think they wanted to be morally worthy of their privilege.” That study-which Sherman developed into her 2007 book Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels-focused primarily on hotel workers rather than guests. Yet, Sherman recalls, “Even then, the larger question of what it means to have money in a socially acceptable way was interesting to me.”

    A subsequent project, on the “lifestyle management” industry, focused on people whose job it is to facilitate clients' consumption. Participant observation and interviews allowed her to see behind the scenes of lifestyle production, as she helped personal concierges do errands, oversee renovations, and even buy gifts on behalf of their clients.

    In Uneasy Street, the questions of how wealthy people choose lifestyles and manage privilege become central to an exploration of inequality conducted from the point of view of consumers themselves. Based on her interviews, Sherman argues that the very desire to inhabit wealth in the “right way”-for example, by working hard, avoiding ostentatious consumption, donating money, volunteering time in the community, and raising unentitled children-serves to reinforce structures of inequality.

    Take, again, the fact that wealthy individuals feel driven to hide the details of their wealth. “That in itself is a social norm that has to be thought about,” explained Sherman, “precisely because it allows us not to think about income inequality. If we imagine that money is not something that's polite to talk about-that it's crass or gauche to do so-then the facts of the unequal distribution of wealth can remain below the surface.” Likewise, she said, “the social norm of being respectful to others regardless of their background-as hotel guests were to workers-helps class difference recede into the background.”

    In the American context, the prevailing notion of a behemoth middle class that encompasses an enormous swath of the population also elides inequality. Several of Sherman's subjects referred to themselves as part of the “middle” or “upper-middle” class despite the fact that the majority earned at least eight times the median annual income for New York City, which hovers near $50 thousand.

    Sometimes this resistance to defining themselves as affluent comes from feeling conflicted about it. And some of her subjects, even despite enormous personal assets, feel precarious in their financial situation. But readers should squelch (or at least try to better understand) their impulse to roll their eyes. Instead, Sherman pointed out, “This is what happens when you have a society that doesn't protect anybody-where you are completely on your own vis-à-vis your healthcare, your housing, or your retirement.”

    She clarified that wealthy and affluent individuals “don't actually want to live in the distributional middle.” That is, they don't want the standard of living that the median income would afford. “But they want to be symbolically in the middle,” she said, “which, I argue, means to be hardworking, reasonably consuming, and giving back to society.” She finds, for example, that individuals who can more easily tie their wealth to earned income feel less conflicted, while wealthy inheritors or unpaid stay-at-home spouses of high earners have to work harder to feel like they are working hard.

    But people in all these categories think about their lifestyle choices as meeting basic needs, such as housing and education, eschewing “over-the-top” consumption. Sherman notes that the “Protestant Ethic,” foundational to Americans' ideas about moral worth, “mandates disciplined consumption as well as hard work.” In doing so, it stipulates rules both for how one should work and how one should reap the rewards of that work.

    The problem arises when society sanctions these kinds of “good” acts and affects with respect to wealth, while casting judgment on “bad” behaviors. “It seems counterintuitive,” Sherman said, “but our judgment of wealthy people as out of touch, materialistic, greedy, lazy, snobby-any of the millions of negative things that we say about them-actually legitimates inequality.” Put differently, it becomes acceptable for individuals to be rich and to ignore the underlying implications of inequality, as long as they inhabit their privilege correctly.

    In Sherman's view, it is less productive to judge the feelings of wealthy individuals, if such judgment comes at the expense of a capacity to analyze structures that facilitate wealth disparities.

    This argument demands more work on the part of readers, even as Sherman said that conducting this research demanded an unexpected kind of labor on her part. In the former case, Uneasy Street turns analysis on readers themselves, asking them to consider the social conventions that impel them variously to judge or sympathize with certain kinds of wealthy individuals. In the latter, as Sherman crafted this argument, she describes the energy necessary to resist the adoption of a voyeuristic or judgmental posture with respect to her subjects. Partly for that reason, she notes, this was the most difficult research she has ever undertaken.

    It bears mentioning that one of the pleasures of Uneasy Street-and one of its most intellectually generous aspects-is the degree to which Sherman is willing to admit the difficulty of freeing herself from the very structural conventions that she describes and suggests that we all must subvert.

    Uneasy Street does not contend that rich people are deserving or undeserving of our sympathy, scorn, sarcasm, or envy. Rather, Sherman argues that a better understanding of the affects and actions of the wealthy, and the social responses that they elicit, should inform our discussion about the ways that these cultural processes perpetuate inequality.

    Or as Sherman put it, “Our focus should be on judging inequality itself rather than the people who benefit from inequality.”

    To be clear, this emphasis should not stop us from thinking about the way that wealth inflects individual behavior or ethics. “I don't want to be saying that there's no such thing as individual accountability,” Sherman said. “But we need a different kind of conversation about distribution of resources that has a different moral aspect. That conversation has to be about what's a morally legitimate way for people to live, and not about whether individuals at the top of the income distribution are worthy of the money that they have.”

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