You Are What You Buy? Author and Scholar Elizabeth Currid-Halkett,The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, in Conversation with MacArthur Fellow and Cultural Scholar Josh Kun

Thursday, June 1st at 7:00 p.m.

Author and Prof. of Urban and Regional Planning at USC, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett takes a fascinating in-depth excursion into a new angle on the economics of class with her third book  The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. She pulls together convincing data demonstrating that today’s elites are spending less on flashy material goods and investing more in “subtle expenditures,” to communicate their status. Here to discuss with her this blue state of affairs and how it reverberates across our polarized society, is the brilliant Josh Kun, MacArthur Fellow, journalist, essayist and curator. Come partake of this consuming subject in this reading, talk and signing.

SumofSmallThingsIn today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, they care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast. They use their purchasing power to hire nannies and housekeepers, to cultivate their children’s growth, and to practice yoga and Pilates. In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett dubs this segment of society “the aspirational class” and discusses how, through deft decisions about education, health, parenting, and retirement, the aspirational class reproduces wealth and upward mobility, deepening the ever-wider class divide. 

Currid-Halkett considers how much has changed since the 1899 publication of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. In that inflammatory classic, which coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen described upper-class frivolities: men who used walking sticks for show, and women who bought silver flatware despite the effectiveness of cheaper aluminum utensils. Now, Currid-Halkett argues, the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism. With a rich narrative and extensive interviews and research, The Sum of Small Things illustrates how cultural capital leads to lifestyle shifts and what this forecasts, not just for the aspirational class but for everyone.

Read  Elizabeth Currid-Hackett’s NY TImes article about the data she uncovered on  new buying habits.

“…Crackles with original insights about consumer goods and the individuals who choose them..Fast-paced, well-told, and unfailingly interesting, this book is an intellectual treat across the board.”–Harvey Molotch, author of Against Security

currid-halkett_8173-webElizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Warhol Economy and Starstruck . Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, New Yorker, and Wall Street Journal. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two sons.


JoshKunJosh Kun is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  His research focuses on the arts and politics of cultural connection, with an emphasis on popular music, the cultures of globalization, the US-Mexico border, Los Angeles, and Jewish-American musical history.  He also works as a journalist, essayist, and curator. He is author and an editor of several books, including Audiotopia: Music, Race and America, To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City , and Black and Brown: Los Angeles Beyond Conflict and Coalition.