Chicago Ethnography Conference 2014: elite parties, youth empowerment, and lots of economic relational work

by Carla Ilten

The Organizational Dynamics course we are currently working through at UIC has introduced me to a mind-blowing range of theories around value, both economic and social, and relationality. Not surprisingly, this is the lens through which I saw just about everything I encountered at the 16th Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference that was held at Northwestern University this past Saturday, March 15.

In the first keynote, Nina Eliasoph talked about “Rendering Invisible Dilemmas Visible.” In her ethnographic study of organizations whose goal it is to empower disadvantaged youth, she discovered that actors had to juggle different values and identities depending on whom they faced. The dilemma was particularly salient for the needy, to-be-empowered youth who had to perform both categories at the same time: when funding was applied for, youth were presented as needy. When awards were received for engagement, youth were (and requested to be) presented as empowered. The simultaneity of “problem” and “solution” was solved through the earmarking of monies (funding versus awards) as well as through the relational (identity) work of the involved youth. The teenagers oscillated between object and subject status in this relation with the environment: either as objects of the organizations’ work, or as empowered, entrepreneurial agents in volunteering.

The second keynote was fascinatingly entertaining – Ashley Mears picked her empirical field wisely and apparently had quite a bit of fun while analyzing elite “bottle parties” all over the world. The theoretical fruits of studying the performance circuits that underlie the organization of those parties are no less exciting. In what she calls a “relational approach to ownership,” Mears shows how “Party Girls” not only have bodily capital, as the Bourdieusian sociology would have it, but circulate as bodily (partily?) capital enjoyed by super-rich men in the process of elite conspicuous consumption. Girl capital is administered by a group of intermediaries, who also translate the exchange from monetary (the club-intermediary link) to in-kind (the intermediary-Girl link). This translation helps actors maintain the precarious boundary between this specific form of performance – let’s call it party work – from taboo sex work. Scrumptious dinners, drinks and fun are acceptable compensation for supplying feminine decoration, whereas hard cold money would defile the actors in the exchange. Again, actors walk the tightrope of objectification as well: Party Girls are circulated as embodied capital for someone else’s profit, but in order to be legitimate, the whole operation requires Girls to perform as voluntarily partying subjects.

Trades involving bodies require much relational work and the drawing of boundaries through distinct practices. Whether needy youth become the capital of an empowerment organization, or model-like girls the capital of elite parties, a great deal of fine tuning is required to navigate the morality of these economic exchanges.

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