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An Anthropology of the Luxury Life?

Social scientists are starting to place the lives of the wealthy under the same microscope formerly trained on primitive tribes in Borneo.

Blogging Our Great Divide
October 20, 2016

by Sam Pizzigati

Do we need to cut Donald Trump some slack?

The man, yes, may be as narcissistic as they come. And he certainly appears to be a serial sexual predator. Mix in racism and xenophobia and you have a distinctly unsavory character.

But did Donald Trump actually choose this character? Or does Trump’s repulsive behavior reflect his environment, that cocoon of grand fortune and privilege that has enveloped him every day of his life? In other words, could wealth have warped Donald Trump?

An interesting question. All sorts of philosophers have down through the centuries contemplated the negative impact that grand fortune can have on our psyches, as have all the world’s great religious traditions. But what does the research actually tell us about growing up rich?

Not much, turns out. We have social science studies galore about the impact of growing up — and living — in poverty. But we have, by comparison, precious little serious scholarship about the dynamics of life amid great wealth. We have generations of research about the social dynamics within primitive tribes. We have no comparable field studies of tribal life amid the mega-millionaire canyons of Manhattan.

So we really don’t know, from a sophisticated research perspective, how much damage a life lived in luxury can or cannot do. Social scientists just don’t have all that much to tell us.

Not yet, at least. But things are changing.

The colossal concentration of America’s wealth over recent decades has some serious researchers starting to look more closely at the impact of affluence on behavior. Their experiments and field observations are revealing a variety of troubling trends. Upper-crust life, as University of California-Irvine psychologist Paul Piff puts it, may be breeding “increased entitlement and narcissism.”

Some social scientists are now embedding themselves in communities of privilege and, in the process, putting the wealthy under the same microscope formerly trained on primitive tribes in Borneo.

One such investigator, the British geographer Emma Spence, has spent the bulk of the last six years crewing on super yachts all around the world, “exploring the relational geographies of super-rich mobility between sea, super yacht, and shore.”

Spence’s research concentrates on the tension the rich feel “between the privacy that yachts and the sea afford” and the “desire to see and be seen.” Her work is helping us understand how the awesomely affluent use yachting to project their privilege.

Another similarly minded researcher, the University of Rochester anthropologist John Lewis Osburg, has put his focus on China’s new rich. Osburg has tracked top execs on their night-time prowls through the city of Chengdu, detailing “the complex code of behavior that governs businessmen as they go about banqueting, drinking, gambling, bribing, exchanging gifts, and obtaining sexual services.”

None of this growing body of research on the wealthy may, of course, end up explaining Donald Trump. But we’ll never create a more decent new world unless we first understand every corner of our old one.

Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow Sam Pizzigati co-edits His most recent book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900–1970. Follow him on Twitter @Too_Much_Online.

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