Research Methods in Social Anthropology

  • 11 Pages
  • Published On: 17-06-2024

Introduction

The purpose of ethnographic research is two-fold. First, it gives the researcher a glimpse into the lives of the people that he/she is studying. Second, it provides a greater understanding of the social and cultural elements of the different communities in society. For the researcher to gain such knowledge, it is imperative for them to immerse themselves in the lives of the people or the culture that they are studying. Primary interaction with the culture that one is researching is important. The basis of such interaction formed my interaction with the subjects of my study. In the research, I aimed to learn about the behaviors, lifestyles and patterns of affluent students in Regent University. I sought to study what some may call “the rich kids of London” with specific emphasis on those that attend Regent University. Regent University was selected because it has a reputation of being home to some of the wealthiest students in London. The research aimed to uncover the various influences of the wealthy students and understand what it is that shaped them into the individuals that they are.

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Coming into the research, I promised myself that I would not view the well-off students through the various stereotypes that are said to characterize them. The main stereotype revolving around the well-to-do students is that they show off their affluence so that they can get influence within their circles and other groups too. The versions of driving expensive cars and wearing very expensive clothes in populated areas such as Knightsbridge. In the course of the study, it was soon realized that while some of them were the embodiment of the “rich kid” stereotype, there are many others that do not embody that stereotype. I surmised that the reason that such a stereotype has gained traction in popular culture is due to social media. Moreover, the rich kids that “flaunt” their wealth are the ones that are most seen. It was very interesting to note that some that stay in the background come from the wealthiest families in London and it is just that they have chosen not to flaunt the wealth. It is with these factors in mind that I chose to carry out research to understand the wealthy kids that attend Regent University and the types of lives that they live as well as understand the various factors and influences that go into living such a life.

Research Context

The research was carried out in an urban setting specifically in Regent University. My main aim was to explore the rich kid stereotype that is being continually perpetuated in the media and in various social contexts. The obvious inclusion criteria of the individuals involved in the study are that they had to have come from prosperous families. One tends to agree that affluent people live in a “different” society. The reason that there is such an overt difference boils down to the resources that they have. As such, it is expected that the progeny of such people will live different lives from those that do not come from wealthy backgrounds. In the course of my research, I realized that the majority of the individuals comprised of children of parents with white collar jobs or some who were businessmen and/or businesswomen entrepreneurs. In the course of my interaction with the students, they were aware of the privilege that had been bestowed upon them by the lives that they lived. Some took that privilege and wore it like a crown due to a desire for the recognition that came with it. On the other hand, other prosperous students were very modest and I could not tell that they came from affluent backgrounds until I interacted with them. For the ones that wore their privilege modestly, I could tell that they came from opulent backgrounds, but that is because they were attending Regent University. Even if I knew nothing about them, I would have assumed that they are rich as a matter of association.

The acknowledgment of their privilege was very interesting, and while it humbled some, it led others to act out knowing that they have the power and the opportunity to do so. For them, they were surrounded by what I can only term as a “money bubble.” What I mean by that is that they were and are so cocooned by wealth that that is a reflection of their reality. To set the setting for Regent University, the word that comes to mind when looking at the university is the word magnificent. The architectural style of the building is very old and seems to be informed by religion which is not surprising given that the university is built around the Christian faith. The different faculty buildings are magnificent and very eye-catching. It is this design that gives the university an air of wealth and money. The campus has very ambient and tranquil surroundings and it’s a walk away from central London and all that it has to offer. The campus seats next to the Marylebone campus which sits in a historic area that is known for its up-market boutiques, cafes and design shops. I could argue that it is these magnificent designs that have led the university to attract the children of some of the wealthiest individuals in London or that the wealthiest individuals in London have contributed into buildings which has, in turn, continued to attract the children of some of the wealthiest individuals. Therefore, the more the children of the well-to-do people attend the university, the more the university continues to attract more affluent people. In a sense, it is a series of causative actions. Given that there are very many individuals from well-heeled families in Regent University, it made sense for it to form the basis of the research setting.

The key areas that we met with my interlocutors however were places such as Toy Roof and Sketch bar amongst other areas. The reason why the such areas and others were selected is that my interlocutors were more relaxed and easier to converse with, because the stress of falling behind in school work had been left behind and was a distant memory of 4 pm. Since my interlocutors were more relaxed in that setting; conversation flowed naturally and it gravitated towards the various pressures that come with being a rich kid. Some of the pressures experienced are some that other people would not term as pressure. One individual stated that “I don’t like when I am unable to take Uber lux due to traffic which forces me to travel with the rest of the people on public transport.” Such statements and others that were made show that the interlocutors believed that they were different from other people. It was from these interactions alike that important information was collected for the purposes of the essay.

Methodology

The bulk of my information was collected through informal and formal interviews as well as observations. The interviews allowed me to ask direct questions about the life experiences that the individuals have, and the observation helped me to collect information on their various interactions with each other. At the beginning of the study, I met a man who comes from a very wealthy family. For the sakes of anonymity, I shall call him Jake. Majority of the interview snippets shall come from Jake. That is not to mean that it is only Jake whom I interviewed. During the course of the study, I met and interacted with various interlocutors whom I interviewed. I got to learn a lot about the lavish lifestyles that almost all of them live. The difference lies in the fact that some of them live the lifestyle in an overt manner that has led to the cultivation of the “rich kid” stereotype while some of them live the lifestyle in a more contained manner. Given that the ones that are in a public limelight are the ones that live the overt lifestyle, all of them are generalized under one category. The generalization makes sense since there are many that seek to understand the lives they live and the best way to do that is by putting them within a box that fits their behavior and attributing that behavior to all that fit the criteria.

It was really interesting to note that questions about financial capital were not answered. Some who were interviewed formally or informally considered it rude for someone to ask how much their parents earned or to ask how much they received as allowances. As such, all questions regarding financial wealth were not asked. The questions and answers revolved around the lifestyles that they live and the manner through which interaction occurs between each other. Moreover, the questions gravitated around some of the influences that come with belonging to an affluent family and how that affects the manner of interacting with their peers. The informal interviews between me and some of them, as well as the random meetings had with their peers, provided a wealth of information. One cannot script an informal meeting which makes events unfold in a very straight forward manner. In a formal interview, some individuals were very poised which gave the illusion that they were simply “acting” because they were in a formal setting. However, informal interactions were very useful due to the relaxed mood which allowed the conversations to unfold organically. The camaraderie in informal situations led to genuine and candid responses that are relevant to this study.

Categorization of Wealthy Individuals in Society

There are three things that are afforded by wealth, and that is power, opportunity, and choices. A quote attributed to Aristotle states, “Money is a guarantee that we may have what we want in the future. Though we need nothing at the moment it ensures the possibility of satisfying a new desire when it arises.” Affluent folks have the power since they usually own the factors of production and they ‘own’ the subordinates that work for them or under them (Marx and Engels, 1886). Opportunity comes in the sense that well-to-do persons have advantages that those without wealth will never have. The choice lies in the fact of having the financial means and the connections to get better things in life. That means that one can get a better education, healthcare, services, and many other factors. By extension, their children tend to experience the same advantages that are afforded by means and power. Some of the parents have stated that the reason for working hard is so that one can be able to provide for their children and afford them better opportunities in life. Some have been well-off for generations, so the only truth they know is having a lot of money. I believe based on what I observed that society’s conception of affluence revolves around two emotions and that is envy and jealousy. The first emotion ‘envy’, causes one to wish for the power and resources that rich families obtained. There is a belief that with power and resources that wealthy individuals have, one would be able to do better for themselves. That belief is accurate because who would not want to have material wealth and the various advantages that it affords in the form of opportunity and choices. For example, when one has money they can choose where to go on holiday or choose to stay at home; choose to eat out at a fancy restaurant or choose to make a home cooked meal at home; one has the best choices in healthcare since they can afford some of the best doctors and professionals. When one does not have money, they will simply stay home due to lack of choice, make a home cooked, and if and when sickness is experienced, they can only go to public hospitals simply they have no choice. Money gives one opportunity and choices.

The second emotion, jealousy, is the one that leads to despising well-to-do people. In some sense, there is a feeling that since one cannot attain such levels, then the next best thing is to hate those that have attained those levels. It is easy to be jealous given that there are very many affluent families and their progeny who have an aloofness about them in relation to people not considered to be as wealthy as them. The aloofness was also noticed in the course of the study. Some students tended to talk to me with what I can only term as indifference. I assumed that it is because I do not appear to be as well-to-do as them and at the same time it may be because I was intruding on their personal space. In a sense, the wealth seemed to create a bubble door which enclosed them, with the key to unlock it being wealth. If one did not meet the required wealth standards, then one could not be invited into the inner sanctum of the elite life. For example, during one of my interactions with a participant whom I will call Kelly, I pointed to a group of other individuals and said, “Why don’t you invite them for a smoke?” I chose that particular group because based on the manner of their dressing and the manner which they carried themselves one could surmise that they did not come from as wealthy families. When I made such a suggestion, Kelly said; “Oh no, no way, let them be with their game, they discuss pointless stuff all the time, and they will just waste our time.” While she did not use any overt abusive term, her refusal created an illusion in which any student who did not overtly meet particular wealth qualifications was not allowed into the group. It was very interesting to note as well as not surprising for reasons that shall be expounded below.

Data and Analysis

Social Class and Privilege

In conversation with Jake whose parents are wealthy white-collar workers in some of the top business firms in London as bank managers, he told me that the good thing about wealth is the social class and the privilege that comes with being rich. He stated:

Jake’s response is intriguing since it shows a key thing that is afforded by coming from an affluent family is that one does not have to worry about money. Some of the parents of the children who go to Regent University contribute significant amounts for the development of the school. In a sense, while the intent of the contribution is not to carry favor with the school for the sake of their children, that is the effect that is generated. No one would want to risk the offspring of moguls that are giving them resources for development of the university which in a sense gives the children some protection when they are in school. With Jake pointing out that he has never had to worry about money I soon saw a similar pattern to the realities of all the well-to-do individuals that I talked to in the school. Kelly stated:

Kelly reinforces the idea that the key privilege that comes with being from an affluent family is that one does not have to worry about money. As Jake stated being from a well-off family helps one answer the question of what one would do if they did not have to worry about money? The question is meant to show people that the main reason why people go to school and then eventually transition into the workplace is so that they can get money. However, for children from wealthy families, there is no need for such goals, since they receive a considerable income from their parents every month and for some of them every week. Since the wealthy students do not have to worry or stress about money, they can spend their time in any way, and direct their efforts into any chosen endeavor. The interesting thing to note is that the privilege that the affluent students experience is something that they were born into rather than something earned for themselves. In a sense, they are wealthy by virtue of their parents, and if their parents were taken out of the equation, their advantages will diminish significantly.

Isolation Effect of Wealth

Kelly and Jake and many other individuals from well-heeled families that I interviewed and observed are aware of their advantages. From a very young age, they have seen that they were “different” from other individuals. They never took the bus or rode the train to school and were usually dropped off at school by their parents or by the drivers that their parents had hired. The material difference experienced from childhood has had different effects on them. For some, it has made them aloof in the sense that they rarely want to interact with those that are outside their peer wealth group and for others, they are using the wealth and advantages that they have to help out in less fortunate communities. The key difference in the different conceptions of wealth seemed to be parenting. While this is not a report on parenting it is prudent to touch on it a bit. The students that seemed to be a bit aloof learned it from their parents. They stated that as far as they have known their parents, they have never seen them socially interact with individuals outside their elite peer group. Jake stated:

Jake’s description made sense because it gave me an insight that I had not thought about before and that is about the isolation that comes with wealth. It is said that “heavy is the head that wears the crown” and in modern pop culture it is said, “it is lonely at the top.” Usually, those two quotes tend to relate to leadership and the fact that leadership is usually very challenging. In this case, the two quotes shall be appropriated in relation to the isolation effect that comes with wealth. Since they are at the top of the wealth chain isolation is experienced from those that are not as wealthy as them (Higley and Pakulski, 2012). If one does not meet a particular prosperity standard, one cannot join the group (Eckhardt, 2015). That is the same in Regent University since the well-heeled kids all spend time with each other and rarely spend time with other people that are not as wealthy as them. Therefore, wealth isolates them from other people, and they can only interact with each other, almost shaping the boundaries of the money bubble they live in, from the inside outwards.

Max’s Party

A major highlight in the study was part of the preparation and process for one of my interlocutor’s, whom I shall name Max, 21st birthday event. Being part of the preparation process gave me key insider insights that I would not have otherwise gotten from mere observation. Moreover, I got to ask questions that I would not have been able to ask if I was merely observing the planning process. Max chose to throw the party in one of the most lavish bars in the city, The May Fair Bar. When I asked Max why he chose that place he stated:

It was interesting to note that the main reason that Max was throwing the party was so that he could make people say that they have attended the ‘best party of the year’. Moreover, after some digging, it turned out that Peter’s party which is the party that he was referring to took place last year in November. It is interesting that Max wanted to compare himself to that party and see if he measured up. Some of the interlocutors that I talked to remember Peter’s party still and said that it is the party that people throwing parties should strive to beat. Some of the interlocutors said that it would be very challenging to beat Peter’s party since Peter is acknowledged to be amongst the top five wealthiest individuals in their group. When I asked Max whom he was inviting he stated:

Being part of Max’s planning for the party was very interesting, and it opened up a whole world of cultural competitiveness that I was previously unaware of. There seems to be a constant drive to one-up a fellow friend or an acquaintance which helps in gaining greater status or some form of temporary respect in the “bubble world”. In a sense, there is clout competition between them and it seems that the one with the most clout is the one that controls or influences the group. Also, being part of Max’s planning group revealed the pressure that comes with living the luxurious life and the existence of pedigrees within the group. The key defining factor of pedigree within the group revolved clearly around money. The wealthier the family that an individual came from, the more respect that they had from their peers. The other factors that defined pedigree is the type of industry that one’s parents worked in and also the cities in which their families had villas and various vacation homes. For example, if one’s parents owned their own company that is raking in millions of pounds per year, it was seen as more luxurious as individuals whose parents were simply managers or CEOs for businesses they did not own. In terms of cities, owning luxury homes in Milan, Barcelona, Hawaii and any other exotic destination was more appealing than simply owning a home in the country side. The job titles and the location of the luxury summer homes was an indicator of the amount of wealth that one’s family had. Wealth has isolated them from other from the ‘other’, and it seems that within that isolated group, further isolation exists based on wealth pedigree levels. There seems to be a constant struggle for clout and influence within the group. The constant struggle is defined by the very thing that brought them together, and that is affluence. At the same time, there is a constant desire for novelty, and that has influenced the desire to one-up each other. When one has done something, novel or done something that catches the attention of the group, they are aware that they now carry heavier influence with the group. At the same time however, they are aware that the power and the influence carried within the group can end as fast as they have attained it, since someone is always trying to do something grander and greater than them. I wondered how far trying to one-up each other will go since one can only move to other grand levels for only so long before it becomes unfeasible and untenable for them. However, it was very interesting to see that just like people from lower financial backgrounds; they also struggle to cement their status greater than the next individual.

Evaluation

I acknowledge that collecting information in the field was not easy. My position in the field site at times has been uneasy, I have listened to various conversations of which my views clash and have been forced to observe and not intervene in maintaining the balance of play. My status of wealth has also been questioned numerous times which has made me uneasy at times. Discussing my family’s prosperity in detail with fellow peers is not something I embraced like that of my interlocutors. If I were as well-to-do as some of them and was able to prove it, it is possible that I may have gotten more access into the “inner sanctum” and gotten a more comprehensive view of their interactions. With more research, I feel the characteristics of the residents of ‘bubble world’ can become clearer, and common trends will start to appear as well as it’s do’s and don’ts that define one’s place. However, I’m left wondering if my interlocutors really displayed an authentic embodiment or if it was more of a continuous act of the self to play the role of a constantly publicized status. Does social media and film dictate these students on how one with wealth should act and view their surroundings? Are external influences and factors the driving force in creating the ‘bubble world’ and is it the embodiment of these external influences that design the culture and barriers to entry. Given more research time and more resources, I would be able to push my understanding of the ‘bubble world’ further.

Conclusion

In my research, I have explored the ‘bubble world’ that children from wealthy families live in. Wealth is the basis of the interaction of the individuals in those circles. They have been born into privilege, and they are aware of the privilege that they have been born into. The wealth and resources gives them more opportunities and choices than people who do not come from privileged backgrounds. The prosperity has isolated them from other people without means, which gives them a sense of aloofness in their interactions with those that are not as wealthy as them. That is informed by the fact that since they were little children, they have only seen their parents interact with well-to-do individuals and thus have only been exposed with other individuals similar to their situation. As such, there is an isolation that comes with the wealth as well as advantages, and they are aware of it. Additionally, there is an ever-existing competition between them for power and influence. There is pedigree within their elite circles, with the individuals who come from the wealthiest families having the most influence with particularly industries playing a role as well. Furthermore, one can gain status and acclaim by throwing lavish parties and doing something novel that will earn them the awe of their peers. However, they are always aware that they can lose their position as fast as they gain it; thus, they tend to revel in the attention when they receive. I surmise that they live in ‘Bubble World’ whose gates and walls are built and guarded by parental wealth. If one wants to join their ranks, they must come from wealthy families. Otherwise, no man, women, boy or girl may enter the world permanently.

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References

  • Eckhardt, G.M., Belk, R.W. and Wilson, J.A., 2015. The rise of inconspicuous consumption. Journal of Marketing Management, 31(7-8), pp.807-826.
  • Higley, J. and Pakulski, J., 2012. Pareto’s theory of elite cycles: A reconsideration and application. Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries, pp.111-30.
  • Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1886. The Manifesto of the Communists. International Publishing Co.: New York.

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