Consume This! Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times

Hello all, and welcome to September. As the current Chair of the Consumers and Consumption section and in keeping with tradition, I’m delighted to contribute the September Consume This! essay. In this issue, I expand upon an article I recently completed on media representations of the nouveaux riches, taking a tour through the theme of vulgarity and the work of Norbert Elias to consider the connections between consumption and civility.

I had the pleasure of presenting some of this research at our section’s mini conference, ‘Consuming In, and Consumed By, A Trump Economy,’ held August 10th at University of Rutgers-Camden. It was great to have so many people engaging in the event and at the ASA sessions in the days after, and to see so much fantastic evidence of the vibrancy of the section and our research.

A few of the many themes that particularly caught my attention: the discourses within and through which consumption unfolds, including craft, authenticity, risk, and nationalism; the lived experiences of the cultural production of consumption (from those working in marijuana dispensaries and craft breweries, to home stagers, museum curators and fundraisers, and artisanal food producers); the contested performances of elite connoisseurship; and the multifarious ways in which consumption is bound up with the experience and reproduction of inequality.

— Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)



Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times

By Jennifer Smith Maguire

Over the past few months, I have been thinking about the connections between civility and consumption, prompted by writing an article for a Cultural Politics special issue on ‘Questioning the Super-Rich.’ Meanwhile, over the past few years, it has been difficult not to contemplate the fragility of civility in contemporary society, if only by virtue of its conspicuous absence in the practices and politics of the current President of the United States. As a Canadian living in the UK, I’ve had the relative luxury of observing his vulgarity with some psychological and geographical distance, but this has been little consolation given the global repercussions of his actions, and the parallels that are unfolding elsewhere, including on my doorstep here in Brexit-land.

When it comes to issues of civility and vulgarity, my go-to sociologist is Norbert Elias.[1] His work was an attempt to understand both how human interdependencies—from interpersonal interactions up to societal figurations—are contingent on the gradual development of forms of self-restraint (the ‘civilizing process’), and how the emergent forms of behaviour are then used as symbolic resources in prestige claims and social differentiation (the discourse of civility). Elias readily noted that civility and civilization are tricky concepts, their ascriptive and evaluative usage closely linked to the history of colonialism and the legitimation of dominance. Thus, to study civility is both to consider the long-term social development of humans, and to unpick the links between power, discourse and stratification.

In the article, I examine how a discourse of civility shapes media representations of the nouveaux riches, as articulated by and for the Western professional middle class over the past five years. How is that discourse implicated in the macro organizational dynamics of making and remaking symbolic boundaries around and within the upper middle class? This, in a period marked by (among other distinguishing features) an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few and changes in the geo-political balance of power. These global dynamics were palpable in the media sample, which consisted of discussions of the new rich emanating almost entirely from (some) emerging economies, and disproportionately from China and Hong Kong, despite the continuing concentration of global ultra-high-net-worth individuals in the United States and Western Europe.

Despite my focus on contemporary media, the interconnections between civility and consumption go back much farther in time. Social conventions and moral panics related to consumption have long focused on issues of respectability and refinement. Across time and space, middle class respectability has been fashioned through consumption goods and practices in opposition to the ‘profligate’ and ‘morally suspect’ ways of the working class and upper class.[2] More broadly, concerns with respectability have been nested within the very long-term development of civilized codes of conduct (associated with foresight and deferred gratification, elaborated forms of manners and etiquette, values of politeness and prudence, and affective self-control).

Elias traced the development of these codes from the Middle Ages, first within the European upper classes and then spreading from the 19th century onwards ‘across the rising lower classes of Western society and over the various classes in the colonies.’[3] Over time, established groups (those with greater capacity to claim group status and ascribe inferior positions to ‘outsiders’) have repeatedly colonized outsiders via these codes of conduct (imposed by the established; emulated by the outsiders), and then, finding their position of dominance subject to unwanted challenges, have sought to consolidate barriers between groups through more elaborated codes of conduct, legitimating dominance through the badge of civility and naturalizing others’ oppression through the epithet of vulgarity.

Unsurprisingly, few of the media representations in my sample framed nouveau riche consumption as ‘civilized’; such positive framings were largely restricted to instances that complied with established repertoires of elite cultural capital. Whereas, a full three-quarters of the sample framed nouveau riche consumption as vulgar: in some way lacking in decorum, refinement or self-control, or otherwise consisting of morally and/or aesthetically illegitimate behaviour. A recurrent trope in this regard were stories of ‘vulgarians’. In addition to the stories in my media sample of the new rich behaving badly at art auctions, fashion shows and horse races, consider the following vulgarian case in point: a Chinese ‘tycoon’ shopping with his robot maids.

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Chinese news and content site Toutiao reported in 2016 on the scene,[4] describing the man as ostentatious and ‘tuhao’. The term tuhao exploded in 2013 on Chinese social media (over 100 million references in September and October alone[5]), used for describing those with new money who lacked sophistication. The man was thus represented as (perhaps) knowing what to consume (in this case, expensive jewelry and luxury goods) but not how to consume. This was repeated across my media sample, with the new rich depicted as spoiled by their new money and despoiling the established cultural fields into which stumbled.

More perniciously, vulgarity resonated through the lexicon of adjectives that trickled through the sample: acquisitive, rapacious, voracious, unscrupulous, excessive, extravagant, garish, gaudy. It was beyond either my aims or data to consider the lived experience of media reception, but I can attest to the cringing delights in reading such language—not unlike the pleasure/pain of eating a ‘Toxic Waste’ sweet (‘extreme’ sour candies, highly recommended by my children). Each framing of vulgarity is offered to the reader as a sour bonbon, to be sucked and savoured for visceral sensations of self-affirmation. One’s ‘good sense’ and ‘decency’ are potentially confirmed via juxtaposition, if not with the ostentatiousness of the tuhao, then with the incivility of intolerant snobbishness, colonial condescension and racism that courses through the media reports.

Ultimately, the argument I put forward in the article is that representations of the nouveaux riches serve as anchors for a range of established group ambivalences and anxieties associated with transformations in capitalism and shifting global hierarchies. Such representations are implicated in the cultural constitution of a global upper middle class, through the circulation of a transnational discourse of civility and through the policing of symbolic boundaries between established and outsider groups. I suggest how ascriptions of vulgarity to nouveau riche consumption, in conjunction with other framings and tropes related to civility and order, work to construct a framework of ‘civilized stratification’ that places different groups in relative positions of worth, while simultaneously naturalizing and legitimating that hierarchization in ways that do not jar against a culture of liberalism and cosmopolitan tolerance.

It would be remiss of me not to at least briefly turn, in closing, to the more overarching theme in Elias’s work of the civilizing process, at this particular moment in our time ‘when demagoguery and nativism, like sea levels, are everywhere on the rise’ and ‘cosmopolitanism is an endangered value.’[6] Elias reminded us that the discourse of civility is the descendant of the long, slow and uneven civilizing process, by which humans have developed modes of self-restraint in combination with forms of external restraints that allow them to live in increasingly complex, interdependent relationships and figurations. He noted that the process has been so long and slow that people have tended to forget that it is a process, and instead adopt a position of certainty that their modes of behaviour are not only best, but also securely, inherently, genetically theirs: an assumption—a fallacy—that ‘once civilized, always civilized.’[7]

However, civility is not a trait that once selected through evolution will necessarily persist, like bipedalism. Humans are entirely capable of decivilizing and regressing to barbarism, at times quite rapidly and deeply. Indeed, for Elias (whose mother died in Auschwitz), the Holocaust was evidence of the precariousness of the forms of internal self-restraint that humans had developed. What is important, therefore, is to understand the conditions under which the thin ‘veneer’ of civilization cracks. To that end, Elias offered the following:

The armour of civilized conduct would crumble very rapidly if, through a change in society, the degree of insecurity that existed earlier were to break in upon us again, and if danger became as incalculable as once it was.[8]

There are manifold current conditions under which the degrees and forms of insecurity have increased—including for those who work, write, teach, research and experience everyday life from positions of relative privilege, as I do. Developments within finance, banking, high tech industries and celebrity culture—and more generally the financialization of capitalism—have generated new tiers of wealth, exacerbating the income and education gaps between the wealthiest and the rest.

The occupational prospects, rewards and autonomy of the middle class have been sharply reconfigured through neo-liberalism and globalization: the expanded demand for services has pulled their occupations into increasingly managerial and bureaucratic structures (including in academia), and intensifying off-shoring of professional services has placed them in competition with emerging economies’ middle classes. Compounding these sources of insecurity are the existential threats posed by record temperatures, extreme weather and environmental crises, by failed, failing and rising states, and by the flouting of the rules of civilized—if not also legal—conduct by leaders of ‘enduring’ states.

It is therefore unlikely that Elias would be surprised at the current intensification of vulgarity, and not only because he thought of us as ‘late barbarians.’ [9] In an effort to quash the dual sense of depression and dread that has been percolating over the past few years, I try to bear in mind the importance Elias saw in education, as a key means to ward against regressions to barbarism, and to help ourselves and others see through ‘the lies, the propaganda tricks and the deliberate use of falsehoods.’[10] Now, more than ever, the world needs reality congruent knowledge, sociological imaginations, crap detectors,[11] and a firm commitment to civility as a form of good citizenship that is tolerant, respectful, and inclusive in its pursuit of collective futures.

Jennifer Smith Maguire is Associate Professor of Cultural Production and Consumption in the University of Leicester School of Business, and the chair of the American Sociological Association Consumers and Consumption section. Her article, ‘Media Representations of the Nouveaux Riches and the Cultural Constitution of the Global Middle Class,’ will appear in March 2019 in a special issue of Cultural Politics (vol. 15, no. 1) that she has co-edited with Paula Serafini.

Featured Image Credit: @consumerlife; Michelle Weinberger


[1] See especially Elias’s essay ‘The Breakdown of Civilization’ (published in J Goudsblom & S Mennell (eds) The Norbert Elias Reader, 1998, Oxford: Blackwell), and S Mennell ‘Civilization and Decivilization’ in Norbert Elias: An Introduction (1992, Oxford: Blackwell). Also useful: extensions of the theory of the civilizing process in contemporary, particularly American, contexts: S Mennell The American Civilizing Process (2007, Cambridge: Polity); essays in C. Buschendorf, A. Franke and J. Voelz (eds), Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes (2011, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars). Indispensable: N Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners ([1939] 1978, Oxford: Blackwell); N Elias, State Formation & Civilization ([1939] 1982, Oxford: Blackwell), and the more recent edition N Elias, On the Process of Civilisation ([1939] 2012, Dublin: University of College Dublin Press).

[2] For example, see the case studies in R Heiman, C Freeman and M Liechty (eds), The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography (2012, Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press).

[3] On the Process of Civilisation (ibid, p. 470).

[4] MA Russon. 2016. ‘Chinese tycoon goes gold shopping with eight humanoid female robots to showcase wealth.’

[5] BBC Trending. 2013. ‘Tuhao and the Rise of Chinese Bling’

[6] R Mead. 2018. The Return of the Native. The New Yorker (20 August, p.26).

[7] The Breakdown of Civilization (ibid, p. 119).

[8] The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners (ibid, p. 307).

[9] In R van Krieken. Norbert Elias (1998, London: Routledge, p. 9).

[10] The Breakdown of Civilization (ibid, p. 121).

[11] N Elias. What is Sociology ([1970] 1978, London: Hutchinson); CW Mills. The Sociological Imagination ([1959] 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press); N Postman & C Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969, New York: Dell Publishing).



One response to “Consume This! Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times”

  1. Smith Maguire, Jennifer B. (Dr.) Avatar
    Smith Maguire, Jennifer B. (Dr.)

    Hi Carla
    When you get a chance, can you please tweet it and I’ll retweet? Thanks!
    Cheers, Jen

    From: Consumers & Consumption
    Reply-To: Consumers & Consumption
    Date: Monday, 3 September 2018 at 23:04
    To: Jennifer Smith
    Subject: [New post] Consume This: Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times

    carlaalexa93 posted: “”

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