Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Imagined 'Consumer Democracy' and Elite (Re)production in Yemen

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Imagined 'Consumer Democracy' and Elite (Re)production in Yemen

Article excerpt

Bourdieu's Distinction (1986), a seminal analysis of the political economy of taste, provided a new impetus for rethinking material culture and indeed 'culture' within anthropology. Culture, that contentious domain of historically fashioned and socially situated practices, came to be perceived in terms of 'objectification' (Miller 1995a: 143). (1) Under the influence of Weber, and especially of Veblen and Elias, (2) Bourdieu developed a theory of consumption as social distinction. In Distinction Bourdieu, analysing the complexity of tastes and strategies of social reproduction among different French social classes, defines taste as 'the practical operator of the transmutation of things into distinct and distinctive signs ... [which] raises the differences inscribed in the physical order of bodies to the symbolic order of significant distinctions. It transforms objectively classified practices, in which a class condition signifies itself (through taste), into classifying practices, that is, into a symbolic expression of class position' (1986: 174-5). Among Kabyle great families, too, conspicuous consumption is the most visible aspect of displays of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1994: 175).

Bourdieu's study has received considerable acclaim (e.g. Appadurai 1986: 32; Miller 1995c; 266) and provoked much commentary and comparative analysis in subsequent studies of consumption. For example, Wilk (1995) notes that in the absence of an established class system, as in Belize, consumer preferences are not necessarily linked to wealth and education. Focusing on Yemen, I shall take my cue from Fine (1995: 140), who points out that the manner and extent to which consumption reflects social hierarchies should not be tied to any one particular scheme for classification. Besides income, age, gender, marital status, region of domicile, and other factors may influence consumer choice. This article explores the objectification of different moral projects within the old elite of northern Yemen. In the aftermath of the 1962 revolution that elite has had to redefine its social location in relation to an amorphous new elite much more at ease with conspicuous wealth display and consumption. According to Chartier (in Breen 1993: 250), cultural consumption renders possible reappropriation, redirection, defiance, or resistance. In Yemen these processes, which characterize the accommodation of rural and urban old elites to post-revolutionary Yemeni society, focus on the reinterpretation of orthodox religious texts (3) as well as on the enjoyment of consumer goods and services. The article examines why members of a particular social category who come from different regional backgrounds acquire, or refrain from acquiring, certain artefacts, and how through consumption they convey particular images of themselves. (4) With reference to Bourdieu's Distinction, it raises questions about the extent to which material conditions, the central means by which to sustain distinctions in taste, are bound up with moral valuations of objects which are often coupled with political outlooks.

New cultures of consumption

Veblen, writing during a period which marked the transition to the era of mass consumption in Europe, argues in The theory of the leisure class (1970 [1898]) that for those blessed with fortune it is conspicuous consumption and wealth display rather than the ownership of wealth per se that corroborate status. The class of people he had in mind were the nouveaux riches rather than the old aristocracy, which had inherited wealth over the centuries. A century later, a similar phenomenon could be observed in Yemen. Mass consumption has occurred only in recent decades and only on a limited scale because of economic deprivation and because the last rulers of the Zaydi Imamate, which never came under European suzerainty, followed a puritanical life-style. (5) The supreme leaders, the Imams, were held responsible for the country's lack of prosperity by reason of their resistance to economic development. …

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