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Intervention Conférence SASE New York

"Consumption, Elites and Power : the role of Philanthropy in Social Stratification and Projection"

Consumption, Elites and Power :
the Role of Philanthropy in Social Stratification and Projection
Nicolas Duvoux & Anne Monier

At a time of rising inequalities, Thorstein Veblen’s analysis of elites’ consumption and lifestyle can help us understand how the rise in income and wealth inequalities has changed the role of consumption and status in social stratification. Among these changes, the development of philanthropy is nowadays playing an increasing role, as it goes along with the rise of new fortunes who become philanthropists or even megaphilanthropists, the circulation of capital, and the appropriation of major issues (poverty, health, culture etc.) by private actors. Philanthropy, as part of elites’ consumption, has an impact on wealth inequalities, but also on the way class is constructed and narrated.

Our analysis is based on crossing perspectives on elites, through two empirical research that were conducted in France and in the United States, with qualitative methods : interviews, observations, document analysis. The first survey was led by Nicolas Duvoux on philanthropists of foundations in France (2015-2017) ; the second one was done by Anne Monier on American donors to French cultural institutions, through the American Friends groups (2011-2014). A last collective research, that is being developed nowadays by Nicolas Duvoux and Anne Monier, will be showcased : it looks into donors’ plaques in French cultural institutions.

Our paper aims to understand how philanthropy is part of elites’ status, transmission and projection in the future and to show that philanthropy allows us to think about elites’ consumption not only as a present practice but also as a strategy for the future. A first part of our paper will examine how philanthropy contributes to elites’ status, giving donors a “social cachet”, differently in France and in the United States. The second part will show that philanthropy is a way for elites to project themselves into the future, by transferring their heritage to their descendants. The third part will analyze how elites project themselves into the future way further than their descendants, by the donors’ plaques, that gives them, with these objects, a form of eternity.

Keywords : Philanthropy ; Elites ; Inequalities ; Class ; Status

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