Uneasy Street: Privilege, Ambivalence and Moral Worth Among Wealthy and Affluent New Yorkers

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 09:00
Location: Hörsaal 4C KS (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Rachel SHERMAN, New School for Social Research, USA
While scholars have long investigated “the psychic landscape of social class,” in Diane Reay’s words, among working-class people, the emotional dimensions of inequality have rarely been studied among the wealthy. This paper draws on 50 in-depth interviews with wealthy and affluent New York parents in their 30s and 40s about their lifestyle choices, to explore how these advantaged respondents (from inheritors of millions to hedge fund financiers) feel about their privilege. The paper engages theoretically with questions about the cultural and sentimental foundations of legitimate inequality under capitalism, particularly how habitus and subjectivity relate to resource distribution and consumption.

In contrast to common representations of wealthy people as advantage-seeking, conspicuous consumers, these respondents express ambivalence about their social advantages, describing emotions such as shame, guilt, and fear. Responding to negative stereotypes of rich people, they struggle to occupy their wealth in morally worthy ways: by working hard, consuming reasonably, appreciating what they have, and raising children who are not “entitled.” They also try to discipline their ambivalent emotions, often by avoiding talking about their material and experiential privilege. (Some say talking about money is “more private than sex”). Ultimately, I argue, their quest to inhabit privilege appropriately responds to and reproduces a dominant idea about inequality in the US: that legitimate privilege is about how you feel and what you do, not how much you have. That is, entitlement is legitimate based on behavior and affect, not on distribution.