The intersection of Chinese bridal couples asking for cash, Facebook, and protests

This could be a poster story for globalization: on Facebook, a Hong Kong bride asked for money from wedding attendees and this has attracted protestors to the wedding.

That’s the prospect facing one Hong Kong couple, who infuriated hundreds after the bride’s Nov. 2 Facebook post went viral.

“I’m not opening a charity….If you really only want to give me a HK$500 [US$65] cash gift, then don’t bother coming to my wedding,” she wrote earlier this month, according to an article Thursday in the Wall Street Journal China.

The bride’s identity and wedding venue were identified by social media users, and a protest was organized via Facebook. Nearly 1,000 have claimed they will attend.

A spokesperson for the hotel where the wedding will be held said they plan on honoring their contract with the couple.

Though giving newlyweds cash is a traditional Chinese custom, sociologist Ting Kwok-fai told The Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong weddings have grown increasingly extravagant in recent years. Engaged couples feel pressured to minimize the cost of the affair, he said, and in this case, the bride may be seeking to recoup some of the costs of the wedding.

Multiple social forces are coming together here in a new kind of way: traditional social norms, new technology and interaction on Facebook, and more public concerns about inequality and conspicuous consumption. This reminds me of the classic 1929 work of the Chicago School of sociology titled The Gold Coast and the Slum. While studying neighborhoods just north of the Loop in Chicago, Zorbaugh discussed the social interaction between some of the wealthiest Chicagoans and some of the poorest Chicagoans. While the two groups certainly knew about each other through walking in or passing through neighborhoods or reading news in the newspaper, there was little direct social interaction. For example, some of the wealthy socialite women tried to start aid groups to help these nearby poor neighborhoods but could not get much participation from the poor neighborhoods.

Today, some of these barriers are reduced because of Facebook and other technology. Again, there is likely not a whole of physical social interaction between those with a lot of money and those without. In Hong Kong, you can walk down Nathan Road in Kowloon and find the some of the world’s most exclusive brands. If you turn off the road several blocks to the west, you are among nondescript apartment complexes with little glitter or glamour. Yet, these new technologies allow for more awareness and more reactions which could then coalesce around social action. The socialite wedding announcement in the prestigious newspaper 50 years ago that would have drawn less attention has now turned into Facebook-announced weddings that can quickly become very public.

Social class, meritocracy, and the latest Royal wedding

Amidst all of the furor, one commentator explores the possible consequences of the marriage of the Eton-schooled Prince William and the middle-class Kate Middleton:

The Daily Telegraph published one of the more entertaining pieces about the intended wedding. Toby Young gave the new parents-in-law, Charles and Camilla, hints on how to behave at a middle-class dinner party (“bring a bottle of wine”). But Toby Young’s father was the renowned sociologist Michael Young. I doubt if he would have been amused by young Toby’s class-ridden article.

In a classic book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, back in 1958, Young père invented a new word. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, “meritocracy” is the only concept by a British sociologist to enter the English language since Darwin’s camp-follower, Herbert Spencer, back in the 19th century, thought of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

Young didn’t welcome the prospect of an all-powerful meritocracy. He feared it would leave behind a disaffected, leaderless working class. He hoped for a revolt against the triumphant meritocrats. He never reckoned that Eton would help to man the barricades.

Could any sociologist have invented an apter surname for the bride-to-be than “Middleton”, with its undertones of Middle England and middle class? Till now, meritocracy has, in practice, surged ahead. Kate’s parents, Michael and Carole, are entrepreneurial examples. Politically, the marker was Tony Blair’s invention of New (ie Middle Class) Labour…

The upshot, as in the United States, is that an ever increasing proportion of the population will hold some kind of degree. Partly because of this, most Americans now think of themselves as “middle class”. In Britain, a sizeable segment still think of themselves as “working class”, because their fathers, or even grandfathers, were working class. But this curious nostalgia is fast fading.

The physical evidence of meritocracy is all around the commuter-land fringes of every town and city in Britain. In Berkshire, where Kate Middleton and David Cameron grew up, estates of “executive homes” have spread like Japanese knotweed. They are sneered at by those who can afford a bit more, just as the interwar pebbledash semis were sneered at. That’s how Britain is. Class obsesses the British, and especially the English, in the same way that race obsesses Americans.

Chalk one up for British sociology: the coining of the word “meritocracy.”

This commentary comes close to asking a question that I have always wondered about: what would society have to look like before it could truly be called meritocratic? This commentator suggests meritocracy has helped many people in England move up to the middle class but ultimately, Prince William from Eton, the symbol of upper-class England, will carry the day. Does a society need to be mostly middle-class? Do most of the citizens have to feel that they have an opportunity to make their way up the class ladder (which seems to be the thought in America)? Does it mean that a majority or a large number pursue and achieve a college education? Does it mean the reduction of blue-collar jobs and a rise in white-collar and professional positions?

This seems difficult to sort out. America likes to think it is meritocratic even as many people have fewer opportunities to move up. Perhaps we could settle on suggesting that America, at least in ideology, is more meritocratic than England?

“Sociological conversion” to faith

As a side note to the Chelsea Clinton wedding, some people have wondered whether this means Chelsea is joining the Jewish faith. In the midst of this wondering, David Breakstone of the Jerusalem Post speaks to a sociologist and introduces me to a new term:

“Many non-Jewish spouses are going through sociological conversions rather than rabbinical conversions,” Prof. Steven Cohen, eminent sociologist of American Jewry and personal friend, tells me in another article on the subject that appeared in this paper. “They’re becoming in effect members of the Jewish community without official rabbinical instruction or authorization. Sociological conversions may be the biggest denomination of converts today.”

This term apparently means that people can become Jewish without adopting Judaism. As one writer at Haaretz.com says, “In the Israeli reality, it is no longer true that the only way to join the Jewish people is to adopt the Jewish religion.”

It would seem these “sociological conversions” could have a large impact on what is means to be Jewish in the future.

Being left off the guest list for the Clinton wedding

The New York Times talks to some people left off the guest list for the Chelsea Clinton wedding. Those left off the list may want to be at the wedding to wish Chelsea well (and several do say this toward the bottom of the article) but there is another dynamic at work:

After all, Washington is a town that revolves around power and access to power, and Ms. Clinton’s wedding has inadvertently provided the chattering class with an imprecise — and, many say, inaccurate — measure of where they stand in Clintonworld.

This is a reminder that much of the adult world revolves around acquiring and defending one’s social status.