This review first ran in the Aug. 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class
Princeton University Press
When’s a tomato more than just a tomato?
When it’s an organic, open-pollinated, locally grown heirloom tomato that you bought at the co-op while pedaling home to your condo from a downtown microbrewery on a SoBi bike.
Lucky for us, you faithfully chronicle your virtuous life on social media to remind us of your membership in the aspirational class.
You’re part of a well-educated, city-dwelling tribe who aspire to be better humans in all aspects of your lives. The aspirational class defines and differentiates itself by what they buy and how they spend their time.
“They distance themselves from conventional material goods not because they are uncomfortable with wealth but rather because material goods are no longer a clear signal of social position or a good conduit to reveal cultural capital or knowledge,” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of The Sum of Small Things and a public policy professor at the University of Southern California.
“For the aspirational class, it is members’ eagerness to acquire knowledge and to use this information to form socially and environmentally conscious values that sets them apart from everyone else. They are very busy demonstrating and signifying the unique ways in which their time is being used doing things that are fundamentally different from everyone else.”
This explains why the aspirational class lines up out the doors at Intelligentsia, a specialty coffee shop with a handful of stores in the United States. The anti-Starbucks sells small cups of $5 fresh roasted coffee free of syrups, whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Instead of fair trade, Intelligentsia practices direct trade with farmers from around the world who handpick coffee cherries. The beans are then roasted on vintage machines from the 1940s and 50s. The company says it’s not out to change the world, just a small corner of it.
Intelligentsia checks all the boxes for an aspirational class who want transparency with everything they buy.
“This transparency doesn’t simply add value – it is the value – of many cultural goods,” says Currid-Halkett. “We will eat the smaller, sadder apples from the farmers’ market because we met the farmer and we know he didn’t put nasty chemicals on his fruit. We will spend three times more on a linen shirt because we know it was picked up from a small shop somewhere on the Amalfi Coast and we met the store owner who personally made the voyage and met the tailor (and his children). We will slather on the organic coconut oil instead of Retin-A and eat in restaurants that charge $20 for mac and cheese because they list the originating dairy farm in chalk on a rustic sign in the front.”
The problem with the aspirational class beyond being more than a little pretentious is their obliviousness to socio-economic limitations. Yes, your enlightened purchases are saving the planet and make you a better person. But not everyone can afford a $5 cup of direct trade coffee, a linen shirt imported from Italy or a $20 bowl of mac n’ cheese.
Currid-Halkett warns against a “cultural and moral superiority directed toward those who don’t participate in these behaviors and an assumption that this lack of participation is always a choice. The aspirational class my not be the 0.01 per cent but they live in an entirely different and more privileged cultural universe than almost everyone else. Their decisions and investments, which are increasingly inconspicuous, reproduce wealth and upward mobility in a way that leaves out the middle class in detrimental ways.”
And Currid-Halkett cautions that relentlessly striving to be a better human doesn’t necessarily translate to leading a better life.
“The aspirational class consumer gestalt reflects a frenzy and status-consciousness that not only leaves many out, but also stresses us out. In all our consuming – conspicuous and inconspicuous – we may be missing out on living our lives, entirely.”
@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.