Friday, January 1, 2021

Book: Very Important People by Ashley Mears

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

This is an academic ethnography of high end parties. The author is a former model (her first book is an ethnography of high fashion modeling) turned sociology professor, now tenured at Boston University. She used connections to promoters from her modeling days to set up the participant observations that underlie the book. She also did numerous formal interviews with "girls", promoters, and clients. 

The book provides an inside look at an industry / sub-culture that I would never otherwise have learned about. The author is smart, and impressively well-read both inside and outside sociology. The book is clearly academic but wears its scholarship fairly lightly without losing substance. I particularly appreciated the author's empathy for all the players in the nightly drama she describes. It would be easy to judge pretty much everyone involved on many dimensions but instead she does her best to understand why the promoters promote, the clients conspicuously consume, and the "girls" show up to the clubs with the promoters despite only indirect, though nonetheless very real, compensation. 

One minor negative is that the text bears the burden of a bit of Marxian jargon about "exploitation", which the author (not surprisingly) struggles unsuccessfully to integrate with her (clearly evidenced) understanding of the role of non-pecuniary compensation in this world. I would have liked a bit more discussion about supply and demand too. I expect that the supply of attractive young women interested in free dinners and free parties at high end clubs in NYC is pretty large relative to the demand, and that this fact has implications for how the surplus gets divided among the "girls", the promoters, the clients, and the club owners.. Not unrelated: the author should read about the diamond-water paradox. 

I don't think I would have read this book without the enthusiastic recommendation it received from Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution. His conversation with the author is well worth a listen / watch, though it is more a complement to the book than a substitute for it. One highlight: Tyler gently, and somewhat indirectly, gets the author to admit that no one is really being exploited in the party economy.

One puzzle: why no picture of the author on the inside back of the dust jacket?

Definitely recommended if the subject sounds interesting to you.

I ordered this one from Seminary Coop bookstore, which I hope will still be around when next I find myself in Hyde Park in person. You can order it there too

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