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

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  561 ratings  ·  73 reviews
How the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite, and how their consumer habits affect us all

In today's world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet,
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published May 23rd 2017 by Princeton University Press
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Jun 13, 2017 rated it liked it
If you're interested in the interplay between consumption and status, you'll like (three stars) this book. The problem, though, is that while the author provides some interesting information (and is thus worth picking up for the references alone), I found myself confused about the ultimate normative argument and dubious about some of the descriptive claims. Here are some of my lingering questions/comments:

- What is her normative evaluation of the aspirational class? On one hand, she seems to
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics, favorites
What surprises me the least about this book is that the author resides in Los Angeles. Having grown up in L.A., I can state with confidence: there is no better mecca of the aspirational class.

Inexplicably wracked with guilt and rather depressed by this work—much as I was discouraged by that article in The Atlantic that I read over the summer, The Birth of the New American Aristocracy. To quote Rihanna in Run this Town (2009), "Life's a game, but it's not fair." I will leave this completely
Jan 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, econ
A solid and entertaining look at one of my favorite intersections: economics and animal behavior, as demonstrated by class hierarchies and irrational consumption.

The main thesis of the book is that, in this crazy post-modern, post-industrial, declining West, we're experiencing increasing class stratification via new (zany!) forms of conspicuous consumption (the finest breastfeeding accessories!) coupled with inequality-exacerbating "inconspicuous" consumption (the finest tutors, the finest
Peter Mcloughlin
In the spirit of Veblen's the theory of the Leisure class the author writes on the aspiring class which is congruent with Brooks "Bobos" from Bobos in paradise. These are striving highly educated affluent people. The kind of people described in Frank's "Listen Liberal" as the liberal class. They are the top ten percent of the income distribution and unlike Veblen's rich they partake in inconspicuous consumption. Consumption that you can't immediately spot as an outsider but has tell-tale ...more
The members of today’s aspirational class fully embrace their culture omnivore status through many different forms of cultural capital and totemic objects. They pride themselves on going to hole-in-the-wall ethic restaurants instead of Applebee’s, buying local farmers’ eggs, and wearing TOMS shoes because these signifiers of cultural capital reveal social and environmental consciousness, surely acquired in the pages of the New Yorker and at the elite universities they attended.

Building upon
Ericka Clouther
Oh, this made me laugh. I know these people, some of them live in my house. Not sure what we're supposed to do about it though.
Melissa Stacy
I picked up the 2017 nonfiction book, "The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class," by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, when I realized that the current publishing world of fiction favors a certain type of story, and literary agents won't touch anything else. As a fiction writer, this is a major problem for me, to say nothing of the impact of the situation on the general public.

So I read "Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That
This is an academic, university press book. Once past the first few chapters laying out the theory and research, I found Currid-Halkett's book to be utterly fascinating. This is a look at how class has changed in the US, especially post-recession and how there's no longer an easily identifiable upper, middle, and lower class because consumption of indiscreet goods has decreased while indiscreet goods and activities have increased. Why is it that ballet slippers Essie -- retail $8 -- is THE nail ...more
Rachel Blakeman
Aug 06, 2017 rated it liked it
For being just a hair under 200 pages, this book read really slowly. In sum, it felt like the same information over and over again packaged in a slightly different way that got kind of boring quickly.There was a difference in the writing of different chapters. The second chapter felt like an academic journal submission. The nail polish chapter kept making the same point over and over. The best, most engaging chapter was about motherhood. If only the whole book was as good as that one. I would ...more
Catherine Read
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Essential Reading

The aspirational class members make decisions and establish norms that have far more pernicious outcomes for society than did previous leisure-class consumerism. Rather than buying silver spoons and going on long holidays, their investments in education, health, retirement, and parenting ensure the reproduction of status (and often wealth too) for their offspring in a way that no material good can. Through this reproduction of cultural capital and its trappings we see the
Jun 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, 2017
Răzvan Molea
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Language has also always been a means to show social position—like manners, it takes time to acquire and practice particular word choices and turns of phrase. To quote the late social critic Paul Fussell, “Regardless of the money you’ve inherited … the place you live, the way you look … the time you eat dinner, the stuff you buy from mail-order catalogs … your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things.”6 Fussell goes on to discuss the “pseudoelegant style” of the middle ...more
Feb 13, 2018 rated it liked it
I gave this 3/5 stars, even though almost everything in this review is negative, because this is one of those books that got under my skin and which I keep thinking about in relation to stuff in the day to day. So, yes, I want you to read it if only because I want to argue about it with people.

That said, almost every page had me mentally raising objections, and what-about-Xs. On the whole I a) wasn't entirely sure what case Dr. Currid-Halkett was making and b) am almost sure that it wasn't made
Christophe Van
Oct 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book describes important phenomena about recent changes in consumer culture and status reproduction, but it is not very tightly argued or documented. The book presents some interesting examples and factoids, but the logic is often overly loose and the evidence typically less than compelling.

The first four chapters of the book are basically a re-hash of Bourdieu, Americanized and brought up to date. It is not as witty as Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks, nor as deep as Money, Morals &
Oct 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
“Rather than simply conspicuous consumption, the dominant cultural elite prefers to engage in conspicuous production, conspicuous leisure, and inconspicuous consumption, all of which produce much greater class stratification effects than acquisition of material goods.”
Ramnath Iyer
A theory with rather lofty aspirations!

120 years ago, economist Thorstein Veblen published his “Theory of the Leisure Class”, a critique of conspicuous consumption and the upper classes that organized the social system in a way that enabled them to indulge in leisure activities while the majority of people worked to earn a basic living. The way they lived and the things they consumed led to the term “Veblen” goods, something familiar to all students of economics as products whose demand go up
Leslie Nyen
Dec 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
I’m a bit in two minds about this book.
It’s about the changing nature of wealth and status, and I find it’s main thesis - that it’s now less about conspicuous consumption and more about what you know, where you go, and other social codes - quite obvious, and not new. After all, this was the theme for many of Evelyn Waugh's novels in the 1930s and 40s. Maybe what has been true in the UK for a long time is now becoming the norm in the US?
What was more interesting to me was the growth of ‘
Apr 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
There are a few overwrought passages that seemed to go on forever (ahem, massive boring breastfeeding passage) and all the examples seem very gendered (geared to women), but several good points and overall an interesting presentation of interesting observations.
Melody Riggs
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I heard about this book on Hidden Brain and was intrigued. I found parts of it were maybe a little too academic, if that makes sense, but on the whole, she makes some interesting points on what distinguishes the middle class from the aspirational class from the wealthy elites.
Kamolika Das
Jul 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I'd rate certain chapters - especially the chapter on parenting - a clear 5 stars. Others were a bit less compelling, but overall a worthwhile read. It feels like a more intellectual and interesting version of Refinery 29's Money Diaries or The Billfold.
Nov 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i feel outed. we think we’re above conspicuous consumption, but what we do continues in its spirit. it just took a different shape, & we continue to perpetuate inequality just the same in this new mold. what do we do? how can we be better?
Marissa Alexander
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Best book I've read all year
Dec 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Very interesting book, especially if you're interested in social-economical developments in the modern world in relation to class, but its mostly interesting for the information or even pure statistics and does not bring a very interesting narrative or even normative argument as some other reviewers note (although a narrative or at least 'non-academic writing' is definitely attempted but just not so successfully).
Athan Tolis
Oct 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
I’m not clear there’s a deeper message that goes with this book

The basic theme is that traditional conspicuous consumption has given its way to

1. “Inconspicuous consumption” on expensive “moats” from the riff-raff that only the rich can spot each other engaging in, with examples ranging from clear nail polish to Ivy League education and better healthcare.

2. “Conspicuous leisure” the poor cannot not dream of if they are to hold on to their less flexible jobs (example: breastfeeding, hitting the
May 06, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2018
Almost gave up on this halfway through. The first few chapters are painfully dry, consisting of one table after another outlining Americans' spending in different categories over time, split by income level. The prose here is mostly descriptive, without much insight.

I decided to hang on until the chapter on motherhood as consumption, and at that point things turned much more interesting: the motherhood chapter and then the chapter on conspicuous production gave me new ways to think about and
Alex Gostev
Oct 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
It feels like personal reflections of the author with analysis of the data that proceeds into the formulation of what the modern elite is and why.

The book consists of:
- The research itself;
- Research analysis;
- History of elites;
- Several cases of how the modern elite shows up;
- Explainer of inconspicuous consumption and conspicuous production.

The historical part is incredible, the same goes for inconspicuous consumption formulation. Though some points are questionable at least. The fact that
Dec 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is at best an attempt to reconcile current economic data with traditional concepts of social class. It is informative, and one can see the amount of data collected by the author and her team. However, it is very descriptive (and a bit repetitive towards the end) and I expect with the amount of data and effort spent to collect them that there would be a bit more analysis, eg what factors have contributed to the rise of the aspirational class and how has globalisation and the like ...more
Jun 22, 2017 rated it liked it
The Banana Republic chinos I wear, Mini Cooper car I drive and Trader Joe's yogurt granola I eat all signal where I grew up, how I was educated, and what types people I hang around.

And these are merely the outward items I buy and collect around me. These doesn't include all the other social signifiers like This American Life podcast I listen to, Getty Museum jazz night I attend, and "The Sum of Small Things" book that I read.

I wonder what a social anthropologist would categorize me and my
Dec 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Some interesting insights, but as someone living in Europe a lot of the topics were less relevant. Makes me feel sorry for people (rich and poor) raising kids in the US who have to worry so much about expensive health care and education.
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