The Middle Classes: A Global Perspective

Advanced Seminar

March 28–April 3, 2009

The Middle Classes: A Global PerspectiveThe Middle Classes: A Global PerspectiveAdvanced Seminar Co-Chaired by Rachel Heiman, Assistant Professor, Bachelor’s Program and Department of Social Sciences, The New School for Social Research and Aihwa Ong, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.The Middle Classes: A Global PerspectiveAdvanced Seminar Co-Chaired by Rachel Heiman, Assistant Professor, Bachelor’s Program and Department of Social Sciences, The New School for Social Research and Aihwa Ong, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

“The time is ripe for a seminar in which anthropologists can come together not only to think deeply about the effects of global economic shifts on the middle classes but also to interrogate our understanding of what constitutes a ‘middle class’—and class politics more broadly—in this pivotal historical moment,” wrote co-chairs Rachel Heiman and Aihwa Ong two years ago in their proposal. Little could they, or SAR, have foreseen that the gathering would take place only months after the September 2008 meltdown of the US financial sector. “We have no idea just how salient advanced seminars may be when their time comes around, but occasionally the timing is remarkable,” commented SAR president James Brooks when he introduced the co-chairs at their colloquium.

The seminar brought together scholars who were researching the middle classes in a range of nation-states including Nepal, Hungary, Egypt, Austria, China, Barbados, Mexico, and the United States. “The goal of our discussion was to explore global economic changes through the lens of the middle classes and to engage universal theories by way of ethnographies of everyday life,” said Heiman. Key questions guiding the seminar were, How does close attention to the middle classes broaden our understanding of globalization? What are the politics and ethics of becoming middle class? And how can anthropological approaches to class and contemporary conditions uniquely contribute to debates about these phenomena?

“Anthropology’s great asset has always been its engagement not only with Marxian analyses but also with Weberian, Gramscian, Foucauldian, and other approaches to class in which issues of status, consumption, citizenship, meaning-making, and modes of discipline are just as critical to understanding the ways that people influence the economic order of things. How do people ‘make do’ amid often volatile conditions?” Heiman said. “The final point from all these papers,” added co-chair Ong, “is that there is a tremendous split in middle-class subjects’ sense of themselves in terms of who they are and their actual material circumstances, and in their ability to stabilize the conditions to achieve a kind of social reproduction.” Not surprisingly, the discussions that week often turned to aspiration, anxiety, and frustration—emotional states prevalent in most seminar participants’ field sites.

The participants reflected on the unprecedented aspects of current economic conditions and agreed that a radical shrinking of the global middle classes is likely, Heiman said. “We joked that perhaps we’re doing old-school ‘salvage’ anthropology, documenting dying cultures in their last breath.”

This advanced seminar was generously supported by the President’s Council of SAR.

Rachel Heiman, Chair Assistant Professor, Bachelor’s Program and Department of Social Sciences, The New School for Social Research
Aihwa Ong, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
Krisztina Fehervary Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan Materiality and Class-Fashioning: The Salience of the "Family House" in Postsocialist Hungary
Carla Freeman Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Emory University Remaking Middle-Class Respectability: Entrepreneurship and Marriage in a Neoliberal Caribbean
Cindi Katz Professor, Environmental Psychology, City University of New York Just Managing: Middle Class Parenthood in Insecure Times
Mark Liechty Associate Professor, Departments of Anthropology and History, University of Illinois, Chicago What is “The Middle Class?”: Theorizing the Middle Class in Time and Space
Gyanendra Pandey Professor, Department of History, Emory University A Subaltern Middle Class in Autobiography and Memoir
Hai Ren Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Arizona Living Dangerously: The Question of the “Middle Class” in Neoliberal China
Samuli Schielke Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Germany Imaginary Cosmopolitans? Engaging the World in Provincial Egypt
Rihan Yeh Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago A Middle-Class Public on Mexico’s Northern Frontier

Sponsored by SAR President’s Council

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