Reviews Archive

The Sociological Review has been publishing book reviews for over 100 years. In 2018, we expanded our reviewing and moved it from the print journal onto our website. This compendium is an archive of reviews published in 2018-19. It includes 43 reviews of monographs, edited collections, film and photography that open out possibilities for both thinking sociologically and thinking differently. We take the ‘review’ of The Sociological Review to connote a process of critical engagement rather than a more or less comprehensive survey, and this is reflected in both the selection of work and the style of reviews, which range from concise to long-form reviews and review essays that bring together two or three publications. At the same time, this compendium offers a snapshot of the discipline and highlights some of the most exciting work being produced today. Click on the image to download the compendium.

Writing a Review

We welcome proposals for book reviews in connection with our themes, reviews of books written in non-English languages, and reviews of sociological fiction and film. To suggest a title for review please get in touch with our reviews editor at: Don’t forget to say why you want to review the selected title and how it connects to your own work and expertise. Our reviews are usually around 1,000 words and are published online.

Book Review: Very Important People

Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit (2020) by Ashley Mears, published by Princeton University Press.

Ashley Mears is an associate professor of sociology at Boston University and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She researches and teaches courses on gender, culture, and economic life.  In addition to Very Important People, she is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press 2011).  Her articles appear in American Sociological ReviewPoetics, and Social Forces, and she has written for The New York TimesThe Economist, and ELLE.  She received her Ph.D. from New York University in 2009.

Review by Sam Pryke, 8th April 2021.

It’s unlikely many readers of this journal will have stood at the private tables of the global party elite where an average bottle of champagne is $1500.  Very few people have, that’s the point – and in saying this I’m immediately struck that a disdainful attitude towards this set of people, might simultaneously be construed as envy, no matter how faint.  The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are central to this world.  Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, spent the period 2011-13 living within this party circuit.  Anybody who wants to take a glimpse of its typical participants can do so here.  Mears was herself a model from high school through to postgrad years at New York University.  The experiences were part of the background to her 2011 book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.  For Very Important People, Mears used her continuing ability to pass for a model to enter and study the elite world of exclusive night clubs, beautiful women, charismatic promoters and obscenely wealthy clients.  The result is a substantial ethnography based on numerous nights of participant observation at VIP tables and on the dancefloors of clubs in the US (principally NYC) and select European destinations, villas in Miami and St Tropez and parties in the mansions of the Hamptons; and approximately 100 interviews with key participants: ‘the girls’, the promoters and the clients.  The result is what ethnography aims for: in-depth insight into a niche of society that without such research would remain largely hidden. 

The context to the particular variant of club culture in question is, on the one hand, a global elite, a billionaire class grouping of heterosexual men, willing to spend literally millions of dollars on a single night out – ‘the 0.0001 percent: Saudi princes, Russian oligarchs and run of the mill tech and finance giants’.  On the other, the urban transformation of, in the case of New York, the once meatpacking areas of Manhattan into clubs and bars that are through architecture and organisation geared to taking money from them.  Added to this, and this point isn’t made directly in the book, is an economically vulnerable pool of aspiring models, many from Eastern Europe and Latin America.  These ‘girls’, as they are universally called, carefully identified and selected by promoters for their looks and height (a ‘velvet racism’), are key to the image of the client, ensconced at his private table within the club.  The clubs pay the promoters for their female procurement. 

The role of the girls is to be seen and dance, not to provide conversational company.  They are very rarely directly paid as that would tarnish their aesthetic function.  Rather, through the promoters they get free entry to the clubs, restaurant meals beforehand, as much champagne as they can drink, transport and sometimes organised and subsidised accommodation.  Further, they acquire friendships within a mutually select status group and, in some cases, networked connections to pursue intended careers.  Though flirting and physical contact are integral to the role, the girls are not expected to have sex with clients and, according to Mears, seldom do so.  Their function is to provide sexiness, not sex.  Other categories of females, ‘party’ and ‘bottle girls’, lower down the pecking order have a reputation for paid sex.  Above all, the girls get to experience the fantastic fun of club nights, something that Mears refers to, drawing on Durkheim, as ‘collective effervesce’.  The conjunction of music, lights, stimulants and a packed moving crowd to an electronic beat may be carefully constructed rather than spontaneous, but it does give the participants an incredible high.  

Mears extends analysis of the underlying meaning of contemporary elite partying to ‘the potlatch’, a subject of interest to anthropologists from Franz Boas in the nineteenth century.  The original potlatch was a ritualised gift giving event of Native Americans in which standing was derived by the largesse of the tribal elders.  Here, the seemingly limitless fizz and flow of champagne is related to the status derived from ‘wealth destruction’, an analogue of neoliberal capitalism.  For this concept to have been convincing, it should have been made in relation to contemporary considerations of consumption, specifically the sociology of financialisation.  The same would apply to Mears’s references to Veblen’s famous model of conspicuous consumption, made in his dissection of the American bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century.  Her remarks are in themselves interesting but could have been set within a wider scan of the sociology of elites.

The most controversial issue in the book is that of exploitation.  On the one hand, Mears is clear about the systematic sexism and manipulation within the club scene.  The girls are expendable, only viable in the flush of youth and rarely considered marriage material by the men who bask in their presence.  In fact, the ‘physical capital’ of the girls is of greater value to the men who surround themselves with it, than the actual women.  At the same time, as in much good sociological research, there is an intrigue in how the fieldwork findings cut against the theoretical projections.  For instance, Mears says of a model called Katia, ‘It’s possible she liked partying, plain and simple, and this was the best way to get what she wanted’.  She doesn’t go as far as to say that the agency and self-awareness of the girls negate the trafficking traits, but suggests that the reality of the relationships cannot be neatly pigeon-holed.  The issues are complicated because the principal relationship of the girls is not with the wealthy clients, but the promoters.  The promoters are adamant that they are not ‘pimps’ and relate to the girls at the level of mutual self-interest, come friendship.  This could be dismissed as self-serving drivel, but Mears stresses that their dreams of making it big like the clients they serve rarely come to anything.  Many are immigrants and men of colour of modest backgrounds who, after drifting and/or dropping out of college, use their charisma and connections to make a living within a world they know well.  Whilst Mears captures the limitations of their lives, she doesn’t simultaneously follow through on the likely failures of at least some of the young women involved.  I wondered about a Katia ten years on, back in Ukraine with only a cocaine habit and fading beauty. 

I thought some of these issues could have been mediated through a stronger reflection on autobiography and methodology in Very Important People.  This could have been situated by Mears within the rich history of American ethnography.  I wasn’t entirely clear if aspects of the research could be placed within the, now controversial and little practised, tradition of covert participant observation.  There is a passage in the book where she uses a frankly ‘catty’ tone in describing a Russian model she briefly shared a villa with in Miami.  Some reflection on the familiar pitfall of ‘going native’, or perhaps in her case reverting to the mindset of her modelling years, would have added a reflexive dimension to discussion.  Such criticisms aside, this is a fine book that will be of interest to students and teachers alike.  A final thought is that whilst the super-rich will undoubtedly find ways of entertaining themselves, for the time being, the elite party world is history.

Sam Pryke teaches, amongst other things, qualitative methods at Wolverhampton University.  His research and publications over 25 years have mainly been on nations and nationalism. He tweets @0151Sam64.

Book Review: Austerity, Women, and the Role of the State

Austerity, Women, and the Role of the State: Lived Experiences of the Crisis (2020) by Vicki Dabrowski, published by Bristol University Press.

Vicki Dabrowski is Associate Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. Her research interests include gender, class inequality and the role of the state. She is a Website Review Editor for the journals Theory, Culture and Society and Body and Society. She tweets @vdabrowski.

Review by Daisy May Barker, 8th April 2021.

Reflecting on the past decade of austerity in the United Kingdom, it is crucial to ask ourselves, how has such a dangerous, divisive, and deadly formation of austere politics and neoliberal governance gained legitimacy? What is the impact of punitive cuts, the disembowelment of the welfare state, and precarious employment on different individuals in society? These questions are more pertinent than ever as the Covid-19 pandemic illuminates and exacerbates the necro politics of inequalities. 

Within Austerity, Women and the Role of the State, Vicki Dabrowski centralises these questions, and makes a vital contribution to the burgeoning field of feminist scholarship on austerity, as a gendered political project. Particularly, via focusing on women’s lived experiences of this crisis, Dabrowski invites us to bear witness to the disproportionate, yet different, ways her participants have been impacted not only by Austere fiscal policies, cuts, and reform, but its associated moral and political discourses. Through the lens of difference, Dabrowski offers a compelling account of how women’s ability to live, navigate through, and imagine their futures in the context of austerity is intersectionally shaped by class, ‘race’, age, ability, geographical location, motherhood, and relationships. Thus, this monograph succeeds its central aim of analysing the symbiotic relationship between the role of the state in legitimising austerity, and women’s radically different everyday experiences. Its remarkable theoretical, and methodological contributions could not be more timely, as many researchers, like myself, are grappling with how to document and analyse the ‘collision’ of the crises of austerity, and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the multifarious ways this is impacting women. 

To achieve such a nuanced account of the uneven gendered impacts of austerity grounded in lived experiences, Dabrowski draws on a complimentary and comprehensive variety of qualitative methods, including: interviews with 61 women, two group discussions, observations, and political discourse analysis. Dabrowski’s empirical data is enriched by not only a large and diverse sample of participants, but her decision to spread her fieldwork across three different sites: Leeds, London, and Brighton. Per the academic conventions of adaptation from thesis to monograph, I was saddened to see the methodology included in the introduction rather than its own chapter. Whilst Dabrowski provides an excellent snapshot of her critical engagement with her fieldwork (2014 -2015), her honest articulation of “how the messiness of the research process mirrors the messiness of the concept of austerity” (2020:17) is enthralling, and warrants fuller exploration. I hope to see her original insights on the practical and ethical complexities of researching lived experiences of a crisis expanded on in a journal article in the near future, as uncovering these concealed aspects of research is necessary now more than ever!

The most significant feature of this monograph is its exemplary use of historical and theoretical frameworks to analyse its empirical data. The first chapter situates the current political project of austerity “within historical legacies that structure, reproduce and legitimise material and symbolic violence” (2020:21) and concisely analyses the austere [state] history of the U.K. from 1930-2015. Thus, Dabrowski sophisticatedly illustrates how in times of crisis, the state has repeatedly typified working-class, BAME women as “a solution, blamed or labelled as the problem…in the interests of capital” (2020:21). This amplifies how austerity is a recycled gendered project. Additionally, Dabrowski constructs a vigorous theoretical framework to further analyse the legitimisation of austerity by the state, and utilizes Bourdieu’s theorisation of ‘capitals’, to falsify Austere rhetoric that “we are all in this together”. Her elucidation of Bourdieu’s concepts alongside the analogy of ‘weathering the storm’ in subsequent chapters, to consider how her participants lived experiences of austerity was shaped by their access to social, economic, cultural, and educational capitals, is accessible, yet nuanced. How the robust historical and theoretical frameworks enable closer reading of the empirical chapters is a testament to Dabrowski’s writing; although often implicit, it is obvious when the ghost of these gendered, classed, and racialised austere archetypes haunted her participants lives. For example, the classed contours of the ‘thrifty housewife’, synonymous with the gendered labour of ‘cutting back’ and ‘mend and make do’ is amplified through Cherry’s testimony of the calculations she does to make her foodbank parcels last, shrouded in stigma and shame. Particularly, her genealogical analysis of austerity has majorly inspired a strand of my PhD research, which situates the collapse of the political economy of social reproduction due to the Covid-19 pandemic within a longer history of its reconfiguration in periods of crisis, to understand the disproportionate impact this has on women. 

The rich empirical data is dynamically organised into five chapters, and voices the radically different, and often harrowing, lived experiences of austerity. This includes how some women live in austerity, whilst others live with it, the different forms of gendered labour involved in navigating through austerity, talking about, and back to austere discourses, and how austerity pervades discussions of both feminism and the future. Dabrowski’s ability to seamlessly weave together micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis within these chapters is intellectual artistry. Personally, the most fascinating thread across these chapters is the gendered shift of ‘personal’ and ‘parental responsibility’ from the state, to women, in which single mothers are disproportionately burdened and blamed for the weight of this ‘individual’ responsibility for life making and rearing. I found myself constantly extending the participants’ narratives, to the current crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, and wondering how they are weathering this storm. I found myself particularly worrying about Heather, Marta, Lauren, and Cherry, and their access to the vital resources and facilities they need, during ‘lockdown’ periods which saw many of the institutions they relied on shut, or at limited capacity. This is something that Dabrowski has also critically engaged with, in an article for ‘Transforming Society’, which extends her arguments from this monograph around ‘parental responsibility’ to analyse the stigmatisation, and consequent contestation, surrounding the extended provisioning of free school meals. Thus, identifying toxic parallels between the politics of the crisis of austerity and the Covid-19 pandemic: the individualisation of rampant inequalities. 

Austerity, Women and the Role of the State is an essential read for academics, activists, and those who have been subjected to the violence of austerity. As Vicki Dabrowski concludes, “those of us who have access to the bigger picture and comprehend the inner working of capitalism…need to question, challenge and resist the delegitimisation of those who have no value for capital” (2020:160), and this is more urgent than ever, in the current crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Daisy May Barker is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Lancaster University, whose research interests are gender, labour, social reproduction, crisis, responsibility, and capitalism. She is in the first year of her PhD research that considers how women are disproportionately, yet differently, impacted by the collapse of the political economy of social reproduction due to the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. She regularly tweets about her research @_daisymaybarker.

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