Ashley Mears: Girl Capital in the Consolidation of Class among Elites: A Relational Approach to Ownership

​In the wake of Bourdieu, the capital concept has proliferated in studies of culture and stratification, usually depicting personal advantages within given fields.  But this approach sidesteps issues of ownership:  how might the value of cultural captial diffuse unevenly through fields?  Based on fieldwork in the VIP party circuit from New York to Cannes, I document the appropriation of women’s bodily capital by men, who use women as a symbolic resource I term ‘girl capital’ to generate money, status, and social ties.  Relational work between promoters and women, cemented by gifts and strategic intimacies, frames women’s labor as leisure and friendship, while boundary work legitimizes the circulation of women as distinct from sexual labor.  This system of traffic in women facilitates class consolidation among men in the global elite, while reproducing gender inequality at the top of the social class hierarchy.  This article shifts the analysis of capital away from personal advantages and onto the social relations that make capitals convertible, bringing ownership back into the study of culture and class.

Ashley Mears is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University.  Her research, at the intersection of cultural and economic sociology and gender studies, documents processes of valuation and evaluation, with a focus on how cultural logics of worth shape social inequalities.  She received her Ph.D. from New York University and was a visiting fellow at the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge.  Her first book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press, 2011), examines the backstage production of the ‘look’ in New York and London fashion markets.  Her research appears in Ethnography, Theory & Society, and Social Forces, and she has written for The New York Times and The Week.