Just when you learn which fork to use, they go and change the game.

From today’s newspaper comes this article on the recent booming demand for luxury goods among those at the distant end of growing income gaps. Women who only a few years ago purchased shoes that cost hundreds of dollars are now spending thousands. A quote:

Louis Vuitton this spring pre-sold its limited number of $40,000-plus handbags made up of a patchwork of samples from different spring and summer collections. The bags cost only slightly less than the median household income of $46,326, as reported by the Census Bureau.

And a second quote:

“Whether it’s a handbag, shoe or watch, the price of keeping up has gone up,”

One of the gurus of social class theory, Pierre Bourdieu, says that we’ll never eliminate class differences by simply teaching those at the bottom the rules of the game of those above because those who already enjoy the comfort, deference, and power of life further up the ladder have a vested interest in protecting their positions.

If too many people can figure out how to play by their rules (or, horrors, can begin to afford those $500 handbags), you can just much move the bar a bit further up.

Too many people getting college degrees? Start requiring graduate degrees for even routine jobs. Too many kids now doing as well as your kid in first grade? Start intensifying pressures to learn Japanese and calculus in your kid’s kindergarten. Too many people in off-the-rack clothes in your wine shop now? Find even more obscure vineyards and vintages so that you’re still set apart.

It’s about maintaining distinctions. That’s what Bourdieu says about the significance of different “rules of the game” between classes.

Those who suggest that we can eliminate poverty by teaching kids the “rules” of the middle class are imagining the middle class standing with open arms, just waiting to welcome all of those newcomers who will compete with their kids for college admission, jobs, political power, and privileges that are now theirs alone.

That’s what social class is about: Not just static rules of behavior among different groups, but about the power of some folks to set the rules and then to change them so that others have little hope of ever reaching them.

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One thought on “Just when you learn which fork to use, they go and change the game.

  1. Jeanne July 17, 2008 / 5:18 pm

    This is beyond breathtaking. I’ve got to read Bourdieu.

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