Associate Professor of Sociology, Mount Holyoke College

Conceptions of Art Ownership as a Form of Wealth Accumulation Among the Black Middle-Class

Qualitative Sociology (2010) 33:333348

Abstract: While there is a rich sociological tradition of analyzing the consumption of middle-class blacks, theory and research have overwhelmingly conceptualized middle-class blacks as conspicuous consumers. This paper develops an alternative theoretical approach to black middle-class consumption. Using the case of art ownership, I elaborate how middle-class blacks understand consumption as a practice that maintains and reinforces their class position by building wealth. Drawing on 103 in-depth interviews with black middle-class consumers of visual art, I illustrate how middle-class blacks view art as an economic asset and consider investment potential when they purchase art. I also document how middle-class blacks view art as a source of wealth that can be transferred across generations. Theory which accounts for black middle-class consumption from the perspective of wealth building is critical given long-standing arguments that middle-class blacks are a group whose frivolous and status-driven consumption jeopardizes their accumulation of wealth. The theoretical approach outlined in this paper illustrates how middle-class blacks approach consumption with an eye to solidifying their economic position.