Conversations: Ashley Mears Talks about the Ethnography of Desire

vip imageAshley Mears, Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University, has gone where few sociologists have gone: First, the world of high fashion and runway modeling, and now the world of VIP clubs, which often traffic in women. Combining multiple strands of social science theory, her 2011 book, Pricing Beauty (University of California Press), has won multiple prizes. Her recent article in the American Sociological Review, “Working for Free in the VIP,” asks why women workers participate in their own commercial exploitation. Here we sit down with Ashley and ask some “back stage” questions about the course and conduct of her fieldwork.

Steve: Your book, Pricing Beauty, addresses three distinct but overlapping bodies of knowledge (so to speak) –the sociology of economic institutions, of gender, and of work. Wasn’t it a daunting prospect to try to speak to three areas of study, al this while you were a graduate student? Any thoughts about managing one’s ambitions while also addressing broad intellectual challenges?

Ashley: Don’t forget field theory and the sociology of culture! To me, each of these literatures is a tool to be mobilized to solve empirical problems. My work has always been driven by puzzles and phenomena I encounter in the world. I was drawn to the study of fashion modeling from my own past experiences working as a model in Atlanta, where as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I grappled with controlling my body, specifically my weight, and I found some solace in reading feminist deconstructions of beauty and the body. I took a Sociology of Work course in my senior year, reading ethnographies of the workplace from Hochschild to Burawoy, and it propelled me to switch majors from journalism to sociology. I was thinking then that I began thinking there should be an ethnography of the fashion modeling world I was observing.

So I arrived in grad school firmly anchored in gender studies, and I was also gratefully retired from the fashion industry, at the “old” age of 23. But when the opportunity came to sign up at a modeling agency and again work as a model, this time specifically as an ethnographic project, I started puzzling over things that gender literature could not answer: what compelled so many young people to take these “bad jobs” and accept poor working conditions? What was driving extreme wage inequality such that some models are paid astronomically high sums, while most are barely scraping by? And how to explain the different labor market opportunities both among models working in high fashion and catalogue, and between men and women? My gender lens could only take me so far. I ended up taking the train from NYU to Princeton once a week to take Viviana Zelizer’s seminar, and there I found another set of tools in economic sociology, which got me thinking comparatively about labor markets in sports and culture industries, which led to framing the project around the construction of value in a cultural production field. If Pricing Beauty is an ambitious book for its multiple intellectual threads, this is an accident of blindly stumbling around multiple sociology canons and departments in search of good theoretical tools.

Steve: You explain, when pressed, that you’ve had a little experience in the world of modeling. How did this experience clue you into the culture you set about studying initially? Has it helped in your more recent study?

Ashley: It’s true, your point about being pressed. It has always been my professional strategy to identify with academia over the catwalk. Now that I have tenure I feel less concerned about being typecast, and of course most of us at least implicitly draw from personal experience and convictions when we formulate our objects of study. It was in the context of being a model that I discovered sociology. By that point, I had learned the ins and outs of the catalogue market of Atlanta, and I had also spent my summers working in Tokyo, Milan, and even a semester in New York. Each place shaped the work differently, and required different rules to master – this was my entrée to field theory, little known at the time.

In the same way that being identified as a model can be a liability in academia, it is what got me in the door to studying the VIP club scene. In the years following the great recession, and well after I had moved from New York to Boston, I continued to receive text message invitations to VIP nightclubs sent by the club promoters, men whom I had met during my previous fieldwork. Then I found out some of the amounts of money spent on bottle service in the clubs, another case of astronomically high sums, and it was happening during a moment of global austerity and Occupy Wall Street. I wanted to understand how such spending happens, so I followed the thing closely and around the world as promoters let me sit with them at their tables in the clubs in New York, Miami, and Cannes. I simply could not do this kind of ethnography if I didn’t look the way I do. But it’s not just a matter of access. My prior experience in fashion modeling was a lesson in glamour, in that even knowing the structural conditions that made modeling a “bad job,” I really wanted to succeed at it. It has a seductive pull, one that can be similarly felt by girls included at the VIP parties, and for which we are willing to accept all kinds of exploitation.

Steve: What was the intellectual trail and “aha” connections that led you from your book to your current study?

Ashley: Free stuff: the variegated payments in the fashion modeling market drew my attention to the social significance of freebies. Models frequently receive “comps,” or complimentary goods, such as free hair cuts, juices, gym memberships, and also at nightclubs, where they are treated for free, meanwhile customers pay huge prices to party. My friend and collaborator Noah McClain was thinking about this back in grad school specifically about paper clips, which begin as major industrial commodities and end up as giveaways. (Neither of us has ever purchased paper clips. We just have them). We considered varieties of transactions involving zero-priced goods, from corporate perks to free condiments at fast food restaurants. Drawing on Mauss and gift exchange, we argue that free stuff is a missing category of class and social privilege – free things flow more readily and in greater abundance to those who least need it. This was my intellectual bridge, because free stuff, as part of gift exchange and relational work, holds together the VIP club economy.

Steve: What is it like to conduct fieldwork in such exclusive, world class party settings. Any thoughts of consolation for those of us who muck around in filthy factories?

Ashley: Let me offer some professional consolation: you are taken more seriously as scholars. We could then come to see how the world-class party is also a kind of filthy factory. It is a different type of muck, but it is no less physically or emotionally taxing.

Steve: There’s a tragic side to much of your work, despite all the glamor. For example, what happens to the women in your study as they begin to age out of their luxurious circumstances? Are they aware of the short shelf life they surely have? Do they simply suspend all notions of the future, or do they have some vague conception of how things will work out for them?

Ashley: The women in the VIP are ubiquitously called girls, because there are no women. This is not just about age, as I was a 32-year-old girl, about ten years older than most of them, but still in the social position that girl denotes: economically dependent, in-between childhood and adulthood, concerned with frivolity and consumption, not production or reproduction. Girls in the VIP, like those in fashion models, are aware of the short shelf life of bodily capital more so as they approach their mid-twenties, when they are among the oldest girls at the promoters’ table. There are both push and pull factors in their exit. Girls turn into women; they get jobs, partners, paychecks, the kinds of things that you can’t pull off while regularly being at a club until 3 a.m.

Girls are seen as women; promoters stop inviting them out, and eventually, the doorman will tell her that the night is for a “private party only.” Neither of these are necessarily tragic if we imagine girls have goals and dreams beyond being decoration for men. Many of them are using the nightlife for their own pleasures and interests—for their love of music, friendships, for sex, for the pleasure of being an object of desire, and specifically to occupy a space of objectification. Kimberley Hoang documents similar strategic pursuits of pleasure and autonomy among hostess workers in Ho Chi Minh City, which she frames around the concept of desire. Laura Hamilton documents a similar dynamic she calls “gender strategy” among college women who participate in risky frat parties. We could just call this agency, and not be so surprised women that have it.

Steve: Any thoughts about the study of beauty as a social phenomenon? Scholarly developments that can build on third wave feminism and move beyond Naomi Wolf?

Ashley: Now is a great time for the study of beauty in sociology. Bourdieu’s framework of embodied cultural capital as a resource, or “bodily capital,” has picked up a lot of traction and is useful for identifying rewards and struggles in, for instance, the sexual field, and the labor market. Like all capitals, the value of the body is field-specific, so one central task is in figuring out which fields value which kinds of looks and why. Another important inquiry considers the importance of the body in conveying status over and above categories of social difference central in sociology like race; Ellis Monk is doing this work by fusing the sociology of cognition with Bourdieu. And then there is the shift towards aesthetic labor, which has brought the body back into the foreground in studies of service work and the post-industrial economy.

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