Consumption Intensified

The Politics of Middle-Class Daily Life in Brazil

Consumption Intensified

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 8 b&w photos, 1 map, 1 figure Published: February 2002

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Latin American Studies > Brazil

Consumption Intensified examines how self-identified middle class Brazilians in São Paulo redefined their class during Brazil’s economic crisis of 1981–1994. With inflation soaring to an astounding 2700 percent, their consumption practices intensified, not only in relation to the national crisis but also to the expanding global consumer culture. Drawing on her observations of everyday practices and on representations of the middle class in popular culture, anthropologist Maureen O’Dougherty explores both the logic and incoherence of middle- to upper-middle-class Brazilian life.
With the supports of middle-class living threatened—job security, quality education, home ownership, savings, ease of consumption—the means and meaning of “middle class” were thrown into question. The sector thus redefined itself through both class- and race-based claims of moral and cultural superiority and through privileged consumption, a definition the media underscored by continually addressing middle-class Brazilians as consumers—or rather, as consumers denied. In these times, adults became more flexible in employment, and put stakes in their children’s expensive private education. They engaged in elaborate comparison shopping, stockpiling of goods, and financial strategizing. Ongoing desire for distinction and “first- world” modernity prompted these Brazilians to buy foreign goods through contraband, thereby defying state protectionist policy. Discontented with the constraints of the national economy, they welcomed neoliberalism.
By uncovering connections between culture and politics, O’Dougherty complicates understandings of the middle class as a social group and category. Illuminating the intricate relation between identity and local and global consumption, her work will be welcomed by students and scholars in anthropology and Latin American studies, and those interested in consumption, popular culture, politics, and globalization.


“O'Dougherty examines how patterns of consumption shaped daily practices and notions of class and identity among Brazilians who self-identify as members of the middle-class.... She vividly and effectively documents the complexities of maintaining one's household under inflationary conditions and the different coping mechanisms developed in response to the crisis.” — Cristina Mehrtens, Luso-Brazilian Review

"Consumption Intensified is a much-needed and intelligent contribution to the ethnography of the middle class, particularly in Brazil." — Angela Torresan , American Ethnologist

"[A] highly readable account that addresses an important debate about the nature of the middle class in capitalist societies and analyzes the processes that shape its behavior. . . . Consumption Intensified is a valuable book that makes an important contribution toward conceptualizing the middle class and understanding how notions of middle classness are continually redefined amidst the economic turmoil of vulnerable Third World countries." — Lesley Gill , American Anthropologist

"[A] remarkably interesting study, that captures about as well as anything I have read the social-psychological-political impact of the inflationary crises of the late 1980s and early 1990s. . . . Her questions are interesting ones. . . . [A]n important, smart, timely, and readable portrait of a class whose political power—or at least its power to disrupt—may never have been greater than at the present." — David S. Parker , The Americas

"[A] welcome addition to a growing trend in anthropology that examines sub-groups that have not traditionally been studied." — Brian Wampler , Latin American Research Review

"[A]n important account of the politics of middle-class daily life in Brazil, enriched with many interesting stories based on interviews." — Michael A. Morris , Perspectives on Political Science

"Firmly grounded in a long-term, firsthand experience of Brazilian middle-class life and actively engaging theoretical understandings of class identity and class boundaries, Maureen O'Dougherty's Consumption Intensified explores the intertwining of the material and symbolic realities of these processes. . . . This is a theoretically dense, rich ethnographic text. It exemplifies the benefits of the cross-fertilization of political economic and postmodern analyses." — Nathalie Lebon, American Journal of Sociology

"O’Dougherty vividly captures the unease of middle-class professionals seeking to justify jobs that in a stable world would be considered beneath them. . . . [A] bright and engaging work. . . . [T]he book . . . deliver[s] a compassionate analysis of the creativity, idealism, and frustrations of O’Dougherty’s upwardly mobile informants in an era of crisis." — Anne Hanley , Business History Review

"O’Dougherty’s work [is] invaluable . . . [and] compelling. . . . This is an excellent book, not only for the anthropological value of the study, but for its unorthodox research goal and its well-founded methodological approach. It is well written and well referenced, and the translation of Brazilian idiomatic expression is impeccable. The book well serves the student interested in social and political phenomena in a modern, ebullient society. As it should also be of great interest to Brazilianists and Brazilians, I hope it will be translated into Portuguese. The latter may view this work as an in-depth critical look at their social soul as O’Dougherty has unraveled it rather emphatically, yet with dispassionate objectivity." — Oswaldo Pereira , Journal of Anthropological Research

"The author's anthropologically inflected close reading . . . offers insightful analyses about how those in the middle class define their identity through everyday practices and discourses." — James N. Green , Journal of Social History

"The book sparkles with insights. By focusing on consumption, O’Dougherty sheds light on a still-understudied topic in the Latin American literature. She does an excellent job. . . . [T]he book is a welcome one. I know of no other study that offers as sharp an image of middle-class life under inflation. With luck others will be inspired by O’Dougherty’s brave decision to trespass on a terrain that has largely been left to the economists. More important, it treats a neglected and much-derided group with sensitivity and human empathy, a feat in itself." — Brian Owensby , Hispanic American Historical Review

“Consumption Intensified is an important and long overdue critical study of an under-examined sector in the literature examining the global significance of middle class life. Employing a range of disciplinary tools from economics to ethnography, O’Doughtery produces an insightful theorization not only of the contentious practices of self-differentiation among the Brazilian middle class, but also contributes to a larger understanding of the implications of capitalist modernity in acts of social categorization on a global scale.” — Richard A. Blint & Michael Birenbaum Quintero , Anthropological Quarterly

“An outstanding book. . . . The first extensive treatment in English of the problems of Brazilian modernity and consumerism.” — Richard Wilk, Indiana University

“This fascinating and important book is based on a solid foundation of fieldwork and research. O’Dougherty introduces new paradigms and new approaches, and not just for Brazilianists.” — Timothy Burke, Swarthmore College


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Maureen O’Dougherty is a Research Fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations



1. The Dream Class is Over: Home Ownership, Consumption, and (Re)definitions of Middle-Class Identity

2. Shopping Nightmares, Banking Games, Government Packages: Local Shopping During Inflation

3. The Discrete Sales of the Middle Class: Gender and Generation in a Globalizing Economy

4. The International in Daily Life: Of Debutantes and Disney

5. International Bargain Shopping and the Making of Modernity

6. Delivering the Crisis: The Media and the Middle Class through the Collor Years

7. The Middle Class versus the Nation: Discourses of Region/Race and Morality

8. Deliverance: An End to Inflation and the Promise of Neoliberalism



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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2894-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2879-7