Espacios. Vol. 37 (Nº 01) Año 2016. Pág. 16

Social class and consumption: reflections and research agenda on brazilian middle class

Social class and consumption: reflections and research schedule on brazilian middle class

Custódio Genésio da COSTA FILHO 1; Sâmara Borges MACEDO 2; Aline Pereira Sales MOREL 3; Daniel Carvalho de REZENDE 4

Recibido: 25/08/15 • Aprobado: 12/10/2015


1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework

3. Analysis Model and Research Agenda

4. Conclusion



The rapid growth in economic and political terms of emerging countries built a new consumption class estimated at 1.2 billion people, it is the middle class. However, there are few studies focusing on the status consumption adhering to the reality of developing countries, among them Brazil. In this context, this theoretical essay aimed to do a literature review about the concept of social class and the impact of social class on the consumption behavior and also propose a theoretical framework and a research agenda for a more complete study of the Brazilian middle class on the marketing view.
Keywords: Social classes. Middle class. Consumption.


O crescimento acelerado em termos econômicos e políticos de países emergentes construiu uma nova classe de consumo estimada em 1,2 bilhão de pessoas, trata-se da nova classe média. Porém, há poucos estudos enfocando o consumo de status aderentes à realidade dos países emergentes, dentre eles, o Brasil. Nesse contexto, este ensaio teórico objetivou fazer uma revisão bibliográfica sobre os conceitos de classe social e o impacto da classe social no comportamento de consumo e, também, propor um framework teórico e uma agenda de pesquisa para nortear estudos mais completos sobre a classe média brasileira do ponto de vista do marketing.
Palavras-Chave: Classes sociais. Classe média. Consumo.

1. Introduction

The rapid growth of countries like China, India and Brazil in economic and political terms in the international context and the huge social rise of much of its population in recent years put the middle class at the center of economic, business, political and social interests.

It can be said that a new consumption class emerges in these countries, which is estimated at 1.2 billion people (MYERS and KENT, 2004). In Brazil, the middle class already represents 58% of the population (108 million people), with 44.3% of national consumption, which is the highest share among economic classes (SERASA EXPERIAN, 2014; BRAZIL, 2012). And the purchasing power of that class is growing, allowing the consumption focused on lifestyle (related to the cultural capital) and involving goods and services related to greater comfort so as to the lifestyle and status (USTUNER and HOLT, 2009).

Considering that the consumption has the function to construct, enhance and express identities, it can be used both to generate inclusion as well as to increase exclusion, it is, "goods are neutral, their uses are social, can be used as fences or like bridges" (DOUGLAS and ISHERWOOD, 2004, p. 36; HOLT, 1997).

However, the concept and the classification of social class are far from clear. Its operation is made through a wide variety of schemes, according to characteristics of each country and following theoretical perspectives or political and economic interests. Another problem is related to the predominance of studies examining the consumption increase of this emerging class, only taking into account the access to services and consumption goods predominantly functional (refrigerators, health insurance, etc.). Changes in consumption linked to social needs (symbolic consumption), that aimed the belonging to a group or differentiation of other groups (status consumption), have a lack of marketing research. Furthermore, compared to the more developed countries, the Brazilian social structure indicates important details that should be exploited in creating a status consumption model.

In this context, this theoretical essay aims to do a literature review about the concept of social class and the impact of social class on the consumption behavior and propose a theoretical framework and a research agenda for a more complete study of the Brazilian middle class from a marketing view. It is noteworthy that, according to Meneghetti (2011, p. 321) on an "essay the guidance is given not by the search for answers and true statements, but by the questions that guide the subjects for deeper reflections". Thus, throughout the text we sought to organize data, analyze them and point out questions and possibilities to the object under study.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1 Social class and status consumption

A group of authors stated that we must assess the class position not only in terms of income, employment or basic consumption, but also in relation to the cultural and symbolic factors such as lifestyle and status consumption patterns (GIDDENS, 2005).

The relation between consumption and symbolism has been the subject of important studies in the field of sociology and anthropology of consumption. The theory of status consumption has its origin traced to Veblen (1899) and Simmel (1904), who coined the term trickle-down consumption. The focus of these authors is the symbolic consumption, and the fact that the status symbols of the high class also become a desire object of lower classes.

For Veblen (1899), the consumption is not a reflex of production, but a social activity articulated by symbols and meanings. Its main contribution to the consumption theory was to overcome the utilitarian vision and elevate it to a status of social, collective, symbolic and cultural order. Thus, the goods carry themselves a communicator function (DOUGLAS and ISHERWOOD, 2004) and are responsible for weaving social relations.

Another theoretical current comes from the studies of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (especially Distinction, 1984), who revitalized the analysis of status consumption through a multidimensional model. By bringing the concept of cultural capital to explain why people consume certain products and adopt certain styles of consumption, the culture has come to represent an important factor in determining the social class and the purchasing behavior. Thus, the author frames his status consumption theory in three basic constructs: cultural capital, habitus and social field.

For Bourdieu, social life can be conceived as a multidimensional game of status in which people make use of three types of resources (economic, social and cultural capital). The cultural capital consists of a set of distinctive and rare tastes, skills, knowledge and practices (BOURDIEU, 1984). The ways in which cultural capital is used as a source of value and distinction vary according to the context. So, it can be transformed into social and economic capital. The cultural capital is accumulated and reproduced mainly by the educational system. Families with high educational level, interacting with other families of the same social level, that study in prestigious colleges and universities make that the cultural elites are incorporated in the ways of thinking, feeling and acting symbolically distinctive and this process is called habitus (BOURDIEU, 1984; HOLT, 1998).

The concept of habitus refers to the importance of cultural heritage as a manner of perpetuating differences. Through shared routines and habits since a young age, in addition to education access, the differences of class and cultural capital are reproduced from generation to generation, making more difficult the interclass mobility.

The third concept of Bourdieu's class sociology is the concept of social field. The social field is the space in which occur the relations between individuals, groups and social structures, with a dynamic that obeys its own laws, mobilized by disputes that occur inside it, in order to be successful in the relations established between its components (BOURDIEU, 1984). Nowadays, for example, the middle classes have sought exotic and unusual options as a differentiation way into new fields, such as travel to exotic destinations, green consumption, alternative sports and social movements (TAPP and WARREN, 2010).

It is clear, therefore, how the concepts and criteria have evolved over time in an attempt by scholars to adapt the tools developed by other researchers, so that they approximate the most of their reality and context. However, one should consider that, because of the peculiarities of each locality, some adjustments must also be made for the best adjustment of the tools to the characteristics of each country or continent. Furthermore, the categorization of groups as low, middle or high class presents several methodological challenges and approach possibilities, as will be shown in the next section related to the middle class concept.

2.2 Class stratification criteria

The ideas of Marx and Weber form the basis of sociological analyzes of class and stratification. For Marx, a class is a group of people who are in a similar relationship with the means of production or ways in which they draw out their livelihood. The major distinction is between the working class and the capitalist class (GIDDENS, 2005). But for Weber, social stratification is not simply a matter of class, but also status. Thus, status signs and symbols such as housing, how to dress and occupation, which constitute the individual's lifestyle, characterize their position in society (WEBER, 1978; GIDDENS, 2005).

Social class, for Wright (1997), is a form of social division caused by the unequal distribution of powers and rights over productive resources of society. The typology of this author is based on the function of ownership of capital assets, of differentiated control of qualifying assets and the relationship with the exercise of authority within production. This type of classification is primarily based on employment status to define the class structure.

Considering the occupation, Goldthorpe (2000) developed a class system with 11 positions in three layers: a service class (with two categories), the middle class (six categories) and the working class (three categories). However, the class schemes based on occupancy have several limitations, for failing to reflect the importance of wealth and property ownership and positioning of inactive.

Warner, Meeker and Eells (1949), developed the Status Features Index, which determined a social class classification system for large cities, considering indicators such as occupation, source of income, type of home and housing area; weighted together and divided into social class groups.

Other works were developed in an attempt to prove the superiority of social class as a multidimensional concept of status, rather than one-dimensional analyzes based on income or occupation. Martineau (1958) developed a study demonstrating the superiority of social class over the income for providing the purchasing behavior. For him, the consumer's buying decision is closely related to the class in which it is located and also to its mobility.

Schaninger (1981), in turn, revealed the social class as a more appropriate tool to evaluate a variety of food items, soft drinks and wines. On the other hand, income proved to be a superior as measure in the case of acquiring larger equipment. In relation to the acquisition of products such as makeup, clothes and car, the superiority of income versus social class was diffuse, and suggested therefore a combination of social class and income.

On the other hand, Ncube and Shimeles (2012) proposed the use of assets or wealth status reported in Demographic and Health Research instead of income or consumption expenditure. To do so, it was defined as stratification criteria: water supply for the family, housing conditions and possession of long-lasting goods.

2.3 The middle class: classification criteria worldwide

The definition of classes around the world took place in several ways and in each study, the authors chose the stratification criteria that was more appropriate to the studied context, as can be seen in Table 1.

Martineau (1958) developed a classification criteria from an adaptation of Status Features Index , created by Warner, Meeker and Eells (1949), in which were considered the following dimensions: occupation (weight 5), income sources (weight 4) and housing type (weight 3). And more, the author presented ten different psychological characteristics of individuals belonging to the middle class in relation to individuals from the lower classes.

Table 1. Main criteria for the classification and characteristics of the middle class in a global level



Warner, Meeker and Eells (1949)

Status Features Index, Indicators: occupation, income sources, housing type and housing area.

Martineau (1958)

Dimension: occupation (weight 5), income sources (weight 4) and housing type (weight 3).

Goldthorpe (2000)

Are employees from the service industry to healthcare professionals, with educational credentials or technical qualification.

Birdsall et al. (2000)

Families with per capita income between 75% and 125% in each country.

Milanovic and Yitzhaki (2002)

People with average income between the values of Brazil and Italy.

Bhalla (2007)

The middle class can not be considered poor or rich.

Banerjee and Duflo (2008)

Families who have a daily charge from US$2 to US$10.

Ravallion (2009)

Those living above the poverty line in developing countries, but they are poor by the standards of rich countries.

Source: created by the authors (2015)

In Goldthorpe's view (2000), the middle class encompasses a spectrum of people working in many different occupations: from service providers to teachers and professionals of medical area. By merit of their educational credentials or technical qualifications, the members of the middle class occupy positions that give them advantages over manual workers. But there is no internal cohesion in the middle class, which has a considerable diversity of occupations, status, stability and opportunities.

For Birdsall et al. (2000, p. 3), the middle class consists of a group which is exactly in the average income of each country, it is, "families with per capita income in the range of 75-125 percent of the average per capita income" in each country. In turn, Milanovic and Yitzhaki (2002) chose to divide the world into three groups: the rich, the middle class and the poor; and, interestingly, the middle class were determined as those who had average income between the values ​​of Brazil and Italy. Banerjee and Duflo (2008) conducted a survey about the middle class in 13 countries: Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania and East Timor. The families considered middle class were the ones that had a daily charge between US$2 and US$10.

For Ravallion (2009, p. 446), the middle class in developing countries is made up of "those living above the poverty line in developing countries, but that remain poor considering the standards of rich countries". For Bhalla (2007, p. 97), simply, the middle class is a class that "can not be considered poor, but it is not rich". This demonstrates the diversity of methodologies, but also the lack of criteria and a clear definition of the middle class.

2.4. Stratification and social classes in Brazil: analytical criteria

Several socioeconomic classification criteria are used in Brazil. The vast majority of them were developed by government agencies or opinion poll institutes. One of the most traditional methods is the Criterion of Brazil Economic Classification (CCEB), developed by the Brazilian Association of Research Companies (ABEP). It uses a survey of household characteristics for social classification and differentiation into "economic classes" (A, B1, B2, C1, C2, D-E). In the methodology are awarded points depending on each household characteristic (number of bathrooms, domestic servants, cars, computers, dishwasher, refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, DVDs, microwave, motorcycles and clothes dryers), public services received in residence (piped water and paved street) and education level of household chief (ABEP, 2014).

The methodology of the Social Policy Center of Getúlio Vargas Foundation (CPS- FGV), considers the monthly income per person (per capita) of various sources of income (labor, rent, retirement, social programs, etc.), consumption goods (long-lasting, car, house, etc.) and production assets (education, internet, working papers, etc.). The evaluation and stratification of the population (in classes A, B, C, D and E) were taken from the database of the National Survey of Domicile Samples conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (PNAD-IBGE).

The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) uses a methodology which is based on the minimum wage (in real) received by the family and also divides the population into five social or income classes: A, B, C, D and E. The Data Popular Research Institute has also developed a classification with five social classes (A, B, C, D and E), based on income, however, it is treated as per capita income or average household income (MEIRELLES, 2011). Their income levels are not very dissonant from those defined by the criteria adopted by the Secretary of Strategic Subjetcs of the Presidency of the Republic (SAE-PR). However, the SAE-PR makes two classifications, one that takes three levels of classes (low, medium and high) and another sub-classification into eight new levels, where the lower class is subdivided into "extremely poor, poor and vulnerable"; the middle class is subdivided into "low, middle and upper middle class"; and the upper class is divided into two other slices, "the low and the high-class" (BRAZIL, 2012).

But the criterion proposed by Santos (2005) is centered on the occupation of the family chief and consider the average incomes of the various professional categories listed by the author. Santos (2005) was based on the work of Wright and Goldthorpe and proposed a classification that includes the following class categories: capitalists and farmers, self-employed specialists (doctors, lawyers, etc.), expert employees, managers, small employers, supervisors, nonagricultural own accounts, workers, elementary workers, precarious own accounts, domestic workers and agricultural own accounts. In this classification, although not clearly explained by the author, in terms of status the middle class would encompass people from the self-employed specialists to supervisors.

Finally, Souza (2009 and 2010), inspired by Bourdieu's theory, proposes a classification with the following social classes: the popular classes (divided into "scum" and "fighters") and classes of privileges (comprising the middle and upper classes). For this author, the popular class has genesis, reproduction and future probably similar (and not only income), its members have none or little preconditions for the incorporation of cultural capital necessary to work in the competitive market (qualified). In the other hand, the middle class consists of those who succeeded in incorporating rare and sophisticated capital culture; and the upper class, beyond the cultural capital, is the holder of the economic capital. Thus, the classes of privilege, disposing of capital (cultural, economic and social), gain self-confidence, appreciation and social recognition, language skills, etc. These resources are essential to the maintenance and to the distinction of their status and social levels. However, Souza (2013, p. 56-67) recognizes the limitations of his works and the importance of quantitative studies to complement them. Hence, it is possible to realize the classification criteria tangle that lack a unanimous methodology, which can be seen in Table 2.

Table 2. Main authors and institutions and their classes classifications in Brazil




A, B1, B2, C1, C2, D-E.


A, B, C, D and E


A, B, C, D and E.

Data Popular Institute

A, B, C, D and E.


Low, middle and high classes. subdivided into extremely poor, poor and vulnerable, low middle class, middle class, upper middle class, low high class and the upper high class.

Santos (2005)

Capitalists and farmers, self-employed specialists, expert employees, managers, small employers, supervisors, nonagricultural own accounts, workers, elementary workers, precarious own accounts, domestic workers and agricultural own accounts.

Souza (2009, 2010)

Popular classes (divided into "scum" and "fighters") and classes of privileges (comprising the middle and upper classes).

Source: created by the authors (2015)

2.5. The Brazilian middle class

In economic terms, there are several characterizations of the middle class. For Neri (2010, p.07), the middle class refers to the class C defined by various classification criteria. This author states: "we baptized [Class C] in previous research of the new Brazilian middle class". Therefore, despite the criticism that with these terms several authors transfigured the "middle-class concept in average of classes" (BARTELT, 2013, p.115; ABDALA, 2014), throughout this paper the class C refers to the middle class and vice versa (and its main features are summarized in Table 3). Following this reasoning, the middle class is characterized by a household income between R$ 1,126.00 and R$ 4,854.00 according to the criterion of CPS-FGV; or families with per capita income between R$ 291.00 and R$ 1,019.00 per month according to SAE-PR criteria; or even, with an average household income of R$ 2,295.00, according to the Data Popular Institute.

Table 3. Main characteristics of the Brazilian middle class


Characteristics of the Brazilian Middle Class

Criteria of Economic Classification

Household income between R$1,126.00 and R$4,854.00 (CPS-FGV); or

Monthly per capita income between R$291.00 and R$1,019.00 (SAE-PR); or

Average household income of R$2,295.00 (Data Popular Institute).


In 2010 the middle class already accounted for 100 million people (IBOPE, 2011).

In 2012 they were 104 million people, or 53% of the population (SAE-PR).

In 2014 they are 108 million people, or 58% of the population (SERASA EXPERIAN, 2014).


Between 2002 and 2012 (BRAZIL, 2012):

• Classes A and B turned from 13% to 20% of the population.

• Class C increased from 38% to 53% of the population.

• Classes D and E fell from 49% to 28% of the population.

Growth location

According to Neri (2010) as the geographical location:

• Higher relative growth in the countryside and largest absolute growth in non-metropolitan urban areas.

• Higher relative contribution of the Northeast region and higher absolute contribution of the Southeast region.

Growth Propellers

The main driver factors (NERI, 2010):

• Increase of labor income.

• Social programs.

• Social security benefits and other incomes.

Participation on Consumption

Between 2001 and 2011 (BRAZIL, 2012):

• The upper class share fell from 58.5% to 39.9% of the domestic consumption.

• The middle class share has risen from 25.8% to 44.3% of the domestic consumption.

Consumption and Lacks

• Most consumed items (Meirelles, 2011): in the home, services, food, health, beauty, transportation, clothing, education, entertainment and travel.

• Most desired items (IBOPE, 2011): wash machines, computer, cell phone, microwave, TV, refrigerator, automobiles and real estate properties.

• Deficiencies (SAE-PR): private educational institutions and private health insurances.

Growth socio-demography

For Meirelles (2011) the largest contributions came from: Young, Black and Women.

So­cial Mobility

Between 2001 and 2011 there was (BRAZIL, 2012):

• Increase of 37 million people (eight million from the natural growth of the population and 29 million from the ascension of the lower classes).

• Net increase of 15% of the middle class (6% of ascension for the upper classes and entrance of 21% from the lower classes).

Social Mobility Propellers

The main driver factors (SAE-PR):

• Labor productivity gains.

• Income Transfers.

• Demographic aspects.

• Access to work.


For Neri (2010), the average education in years increased from 4.98 in 1992 to 7.27 in 2009, contributing to the increase in formal employment and income.

Internal Segmentation

The Traditional Middle Class X New Middle Class (Meirelles, 2011):

• Consumption: the Traditional Middle Class (always consumed) seeks exclusivity, differentiation and hedonic consumption. The New Middle Class (passed to consume now) seeks inclusion, belonging, advantages and practical reasons.

• Aesthetic references (standard of beauty): the Traditional Middle Class values "thinness". New Middle Class prefers "lush curves".

Media and communication

For Meirelles (2011) the communication must involve certain realism (avoid fanciful and distant daily situations) combined with dream (achievable through commitment and luck).

Source: created by the authors (2015)

For IBOPE (2011), the middle class represented more than 100 million Brazilians, it means, more than half of the population in 2010. This is also supported by SAE-PR (BRAZIL, 2012, p.07), for whom "in the past 10 years, 37 million people entered the middle class - which changed from 38% of the population in 2002 to 53% in 2012" and reached 104 million people in 2012. A research held jointly by Serasa Experian and the Data Popular Institute ensures that this social class reached 58% of the population in 2014, it is, 108 million people (SERASA EXPERIAN, 2014).

With respect to other classes, there was, proportionally, a greater growth in the upper classes (A and B) and classes D and E were reduced, it means that the "misery continues its downward trend falling almost 45.5%" since 2003 (NERI, 2010, p.37). Thus, between 2002 and 2012, the classes A and B increased its participation from 13% to 20%, reaching 40 million people, and the lower class (D and E) fell from 49% to 28%, remaining with 55 million people (BRAZIL, 2012).

In terms of geographical location, the highest relative growth of the middle class took place in the countryside and the largest absolute growth occurred in non-metropolitan urban areas. And the greatest relative contribution to the growth of the middle class came from the Northeast (with a 50% increase in this class), and in absolute terms the largest contribution was from the Southeast, which contributed with an increase of 41% (NERI, 2010 ).

Regard to economic growth, for Neri (2010, p.10) from 2003 to 2009, the growth rate of GDP per capita has averaged 2.88% and the household income (indicated by PNAD) was of 4.71% ; it simultaneously to a reduction on income inequality, where the income of the richest grew 1.49% per year, while the income of the poor grew 6.79% annually. On the other hand, for Franco et al. (2011), there were no significant improvements on income distribution in Latin America.

The Brazilian middle class has assumed significant importance in the economic scenario, this due to the increase of 228.3% of their spending on goods and services between 2001 and 2011. Hence, in the same period, the middle class has expanded from 25.8% to 44.3% its share in national consumption, surpassing the upper class, which dropped from 58.5% to 39.9% its representativeness (BRAZIL, 2012).

Meirelles (2011) adds that, in the family budget of the middle class, the higher expenses were, in sequence, with the home, services, food and beverage, health and beauty, transportation, clothing, education, entertainment and travel. It is noteworthy that the variety and quality of products and services have been pointedly sought. According to IBOPE (2011), the most desired items by the middle class were: washing machine, computer, cellphone, microwave, TV and refrigerator, as well as automobiles and real estate properties (always desired but acquired when possible). Food and physical activity, although very consumed, are not exactly the focus of the middle class, unlike the makeup products. However, the middle class still lacks certain services, according to SAE-PR only 14% of seats in private educational institutions and 24% of private health insurances are accessed by the middle class (BRAZIL, 2012).

In terms of socio-demographic composition within the middle class the largest contributions were from women, young people and blacks. According to Meirelles (2011), these segments increased their participation, mainly because of its income increases. It is noteworthy that women are more educated than men and, when compared with women of the upper class, they are leading more families, contribute more to household income, manage more the household budget and decide the most part of family's expenses (they influence 69% of the purchases of cars and motorcycles, 77% of clothing purchases and 86% of food shopping).

Regarding to growth and social mobility, from 2001 to 2011 the Brazilian middle class grew by 37 million people, of whom eight million are the result of the natural growth of the population and the remaining 29 million are due to the entrance of new people in the middle class (BRAZIL, 2012). So, there was ascension of 21% of population from low class for the middle class; on the other hand, there was a reduction of 6% of the middle class to the high class, resulting in a net increase of 15% of the middle class (which went from 38% to 53% of the population from 2001 to 2011).

Social mobility is mainly due to the growth of per capita income, which, between 2003 and 2009 grew in real terms, from R$478 to R$630 per month (leveraged mainly by income from work, social programs and social security benefits). According to SAE-PR, the factors that promoted the rise of the middle class were: labor productivity gains (increase in average compensation of employees), income transfers (via public policies: Programa Bolsa Família – Family Program, Benefício de Prestação Continuada - Continuous Allowance Benefit, and the Previdência Rural - Rural Social Security), demographic factors (an increase of adults towards children) and access to work (BRAZIL, 2012).

About to the media and entertainment industry, the middle class is the one that most watch TV (soap operas and comedy shows) and worships celebrities, as well prefers the musical styles: sertanejo, samba, pagode, forró, gospel, axé and funk. Although the significant increase in purchasing in shopping malls, the middle class is still the one that purchases more in street stores (IBOPE, 2011).

The improvement on the population's level of education is another important aspect. For Neri (2010, p.63), from 2003 to 2009, the 20% poorest people achieved a per capita income growth of 7.95% per annum and, in this growth, 65.3% were due to the increase in years of schooling, what contributed to increase formal job. It is noteworthy that the average of education in years increased from 4.98 in 1992 to 7.27 in 2009. The author also points out that "the most important determinant of inequality and poverty in the country is education" because 47.67% of population from classes A and B attend or have attended college, while in class E this percentage is 2.44%.

Despite the internal segmentation of the Brazilian middle class, according to Meirelles (2011), there are distinctions between the traditional and the new middle class (consisting of the new entrants in this class). The traditional, that ever consumed, seeks exclusivity, differentiation and consume the intangible (hedonic); On the other hand, new entrants on middle class, which began to consume now, seek inclusion, belonging, advantages and practical reasons. There are also differences in aesthetic references, for example, to the traditional middle class the standard of female beauty values ​​"thinness", while for the new middle class the preference is for "lush curves". Therefore, communication with the new middle class should be different, mainly because of the cognitive dissonance involving cultural, educational, economic and linguistic formation. Thus, communication should involve "a certain realism" (avoid fanciful and distant daily situations) combined with dream (which can be achieved through commitment and luck).

3. Analysis Model and Research Agenda

The framework shown in Figure 1 seeks to show the different dimensions and interests of studies involving the consumption in the Brazilian middle class. In all present aspects reside doubts, lack of consensus or specific findings to the Brazilian reality. That is, there arise timely issues for research. This framework has as its core the Brazilian middle class. Thus, the studies and analyzes will be ordered as follows: first the contents of the general criteria of class classification, then the influences and relations established between middle class and other classes (low, high and international) and, finally, issues relating specifically to the Brazilian middle class.

Figure 1. Framework of consumption analysis in the Brazilian middle class

Source: created by the authors (2015)

3.1 Criteria of Social Classes Classification

Related to the social class classification criteria, studies about economic or social classes in general, divided them into three levels: low class, middle class and upper class. Most of the classifications use one-dimensional criteria, that is, consider a single ranking factor (income, or occupation, etc.), which facilitates the search and analysis process (for example, in cases of comprehensive assessments of public policies). But as these one-dimensional criteria are inaccurate, emerged multidimensional criteria (combining different ranking factors), which, although more complex and laborious, are more suitable for specific situations (as example, for consumer market niches evaluations, etc.).

The classification methodologies more widely known and applied are based on income, employment and basic consumption. However, they are strongly criticized for sideline other important attributes in the class distinction. Costa (2013, p.50) warns that: "think of measuring living conditions taking income as the main variable is always a reductionist bet that leaves out all other necessary variables to have a more consistent and clear vision of society". Also limited are the classifications based on consumption, because of the fact that consumers buy things that previously had no access does not modify their cultural patterns nor the social structure.

Other criticisms are related to the fact that these classifications do not support a continuity of its occupants throughout their generations, since, for Costa (2013, p.49), social mobility occurs via multidimensional changes in the labor market (with the creation of better quality jobs and with the cultural elevation and employees qualification) and in the political environment (allowing security in labor relations and expansion of democratic practices in society), sustained for generations. In this sense, and in a direct critic of the classification criteria of the SAE-PR, this author warns that "spend a month with a per capita income of R$290.00 does not authorize any analysis to conclude that this person has a life pattern of middle class"; for her, "it is necessary to add in analyses the protective capacity of the family, the comfort accumulation now available containing the work of several generations (social inheritance) and the access to public services". It is clear, therefore, the big difficult to establish a criterion globally accepted and that can be applied to all countries and markets.

3.2 The Brazilian middle class and other social classes

Analyzing the relationship between the Brazilian middle class and other social classes (Brazilian low and high classes and the international middle class) and, with regard to the relationship between consumption and status, two major theoretical perspectives can be identified. A current of theoretical studies defends the theory of Veblen and Simmel, and extend it to the international arena. The so-called global trickle down models focus on the analysis of the search for status in developing countries through imitation of lifestyle and consumption of goods from developed countries. The interclass emulation becomes an intercultural and international emulation (USTUNER and HOLT, 2009). In this sense, and considering the status references, in general, the literature understands that the national high class and the international middle class heavily influence on the Brazilian middle class.

But here also reside controversy because, in the field of analysis about class consumption in developing countries, Bourdieu's ideas of an interclass distinctive national cultural consumption oppose to the vision of an international status model with origin on Veblen, due to the domination of some cultures over others. Defending another theoretical current, Bourdieu reestablished the fundamental and constructive role of culture in social inequity at a time when deterministic economic studies predominated (LE ROUX et al., 2008). However, the design of a nationally bounded society can not be applied today, when relations between culture and society have transnational characteristics (BENNETT et al., 2009). In addition, the possibility of social mobility has been increasingly recognized, requiring a review of the basic principles established by Bourdieu.

In this sense, studies in Brazil (O'DOUGHERTY, 2002), Zimbabwe (BELK, 2000) and India (CHAUDHURI and MAJUMDAR, 2006) demonstrated the symbolic influence of the so-called first-world products (or industrialized world) in the middle class consumption of the studied countries. In addition, localization processes (also called indigenization or globalization), where commodities related to developed world (also called West World) are subjected to a collective reinterpretation and adaptation of use that make them have local significance, are part of incorporation mechanism for symbols of the first world in building the social status of developing economies.

On the other hand, one has to consider the trickle up, which is the influence on consumption behavior of the lower classes (TRIGG, 2001). In other words, what are the influences coming from the lower class to the Brazilian middle class, in many fields such as: music, cuisine,  etc.? As well, are there influences coming from the internal segmentation of the Brazilian middle class (involving the new middle class and the traditional middle class)?

3.3 Specificities of the Brazilian middle class

Specifically evaluating the Brazilian middle class, the big question that arises revolves around the new middle class, heralded by research institutes, government and by some authors (SERASA EXPERIAN, 2014; BRAZIL, 2012; NERI, 2010). On the other hand, this thesis that emerged a new middle class is very criticized by several other authors, who believe that the new members of the middle class can be considered as new consumers or as income strata (ABDALA, 2014; SOUZA, 2013; COSTA, 2013; BARTELT, 2013). After all, the term "new" does mean a new social class or is it simply a advertising resource that highlights a set of new consumers?

Considering the existence of a new middle class or a new stratum of income, O'Dougherty (1998) found in his studies that the "traditional" middle class formulates a stereotypical image of the "other" middle class. The first attempts to distinguish from the second by keeping a cultural standard in their social and cultural projects. As well as the traditional middle class mocks the new middle class for their lack of projects and poverty of values, it is, the futility of their consumption and the poverty of their taste. But the big difference of the current situation to the O'Dougherty research context in the 1990s, is that the income increase in large portion of the lower classes had a much larger scale in terms of the number of people and in the degree progression, and it occurred in a context of better cultural access via new media and with significant increase in access to higher education, both in the public system and in the private system. This is a situation that also deserves to be researched and updated.

Considering the concept of habitus of Bourdieu, in a study of middle-class women in Turkey, Ustuner and Holt (2009) got results that show an own dynamics of cultural capital accumulation leading to a review of the concept of habitus. Therefore, specific studies should be conducted in developing countries in order to verify how the external incorporation and class differentiation processes operate in different contexts.

In this sense, Souza (2004) analyzes the habitus in Brazilian society, proposing to split it on two levels: primary habitus and secondary habitus. The primary habitus is related directly to citizenship (health, housing, sanitation and even food). In French society, the welfare state and the own constitution of society would nullify this primary habitus. The secondary habitus refers to the taste discerning mechanisms and, consequently, class differentiation according to the original concept of Bourdieu. Thus, the economic rise of the marginalized Brazilians (allowing access to university, acquisition of consumption goods and access to better housing conditions) could be diminishing the importance of primary habitus? What about the secondary habitus, does it still operate as a mechanism of differentiation and reproduction of cultural capital and its advantages? And also: would the cultural products that confer status in this context be exclusively national or are they part of an international emulation engine?

Similarly to Friedland et al. (2007), Holt (1998) and Bennett et al. (2009), it is believed that the importance of high culture in terms of art is less important in Brazil, as in the US and England, than in France  in the 1960's. However, even in a mass culture the access to products is higher and the distinction seems to operate more in practices that require engagement such as cooking, sports, etc.; and even if the cultural appropriation today is much easier because of the Internet and the mass media advance, making the so-called "high culture" not as inaccessible as before, these assumptions also need supporting studies.

On the other hand, most research focus on the importance of economic/social class to access better material conditions in terms of access to health and functional consumption goods (GOLDTHORPE and MARSHALL, 1992). The sales boom of mobile phones, home appliances, cars and own home show that, at first, functional products are the most pursued with the increase of income and consumption potential. But the most desired products by the new middle class are airplane travels, flat screen TV, laptop, broadband internet and private school for the children. Hence, could some of these items indicate a concern with the acquisition of cultural capital and its reproduction for future generations? In addition, could greater access to universities impact socio-cultural mobility and not only economic mobility?

Finally, according to Santos (2005), the Brazilian sociology has been inefficiently engaged in the empirical investigation of socioeconomic divisions present in Brazil. This is particularly worst once the specificity of the class structure in Brazil resides in a large socioeconomic heterogeneity and exclusion. Likewise, Ravallion (2009) highlighted the importance of studying the middle class due to the evolution that the class had over the years and how it differs between countries.

Furthermore, although there is much academic interest and some information about the new middle class, there is little specific and extensive knowledge about their "interests, visions, perceptions, values, attitudes, fears and desires". And know these aspects of the growing middle class will contribute to public policies and with private companies' strategies because, until now, the government was concerned about the lower classes and companies with the elite (opinion maker). But now, it is essential "to understand the heart, the mind and the pocket" of this class that grow the most in Brazil and worldwide (BRAZIL, 2012, p.07 and 46).

4. Conclusion

Meneghetti (2011, p. 321) applies the idea that a theoretical essay do not need to have "conclusions through definitive statements", because "the reflections during the text entice readers to draw their own conclusions". But here are some considerations, although over the text we sought to list the questions with their respective data and theoretical basis.

As shown in the framework (Figure 4), there are many gaps to be filled on the new Brazilian middle class. We sought through this conceptual framework make clear the opportunities for different studies covering issues about classification criteria, influences from other classes, consumption behavior, etc. In any of these areas, the research could bring extremely relevant contributions to the understanding of this universe.

It can be realized that there is profusion of classification criteria for social classes, from those who consider a single factor to those who use multiple dimensions analysis, but none of them are consensual and applicable globally. Even more, are growing the currents advocating a classification that goes beyond socioeconomic criteria, but the analysis methodologies of symbolic and status consumption are still surrounded by great complexity and antagonism. The same goes for the understanding of the different consumption behaviors from the different influences existing between social, cultural and economic capital.

Researches involving socioeconomic factors (income, employment, education, basic consumption, etc.) are predominantly of quantitative nature, on the other hand, to assess the cultural and symbolic factors and the status consumption are most widely used qualitative research. In this sense, is also missing studies that join the various research methodologies and evaluate the various factors of classification and analysis of consumption behavior.

Thus, the middle class is still not unveiled abroad and especially in Brazil. And as all economic classes' classifications point to a gigantic Brazilian middle class, studies that seek internal divisions and differences within this class are essential, such as attempting to verify the existence of a new middle class and understand the differences between the supposed new middle class and the traditional middle class. On the other hand, would be of great importance to know the influences on the middle class consumption mentioned by Veblen and Bourdieu through the trickle-down and trickle-up concepts, it is, what are the influences arising from Brazilian and international upper classes? As well as, what influences do come from the Brazilian lower classes? And how are these influences processed and what is the intensity related to the "new" and "traditional" Brazilian middle class? These are some of the questions that certainly challenge the researchers, in order to better understand the remarkable Brazilian middle class.


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1. Universidade Federal de Viçosa – Florestal/MG, Brasil. Email:
2. Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia de Minas Gerais – Formiga/MG, Brasil. Email:
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Vol. 37 (Nº 01) Año 2016


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