Nouveaux Riches translates literally to “new rich,” and it refers to individuals or families who have recently risen to higher economic standing but have not gained full social acceptance by members of the established upper class or elite. While the nouveaux riches do possess substantial economic wealth, they are regarded as lacking the prerequisite cultural skills and dispositions to fully become members of society’s elite. To signify their membership in elite status groups, the nouveaux riches may mimic the cultural consumption of the established upper class; however, these efforts are often not entirely successful. Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction (1984) describes the new bourgeoisie as possessing a similarly large degree of economic capital but less cultural capital relative to the old bourgeoisie.
The Industrial Revolution played an important role in the rise of the nouveaux riches, notably through the expansion of a highly educated, urban middle class with considerable time and resources for leisure activities. These upwardly mobile, wealthy individuals then worked to legitimize their elite status by adopting the styles and tastes of the established upper class.
For much of British history, for example, “old money” has been gentrified and titled, with large estates and hereditary seats in the House of Lords. The nouveaux riches mimicked the old aristocracy to an extent by buying estates and sending their children to the same elite boarding schools. However, they also developed their own, often indulgent, sense of style that was in contrast to the more refined sensibilities of the established elite (Crook 1999). In his critical analysis of the late-nineteenth-century American upper classes, Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class ( 1932) finds that the nouveaux riches worked to emulate European aristocratic families by engaging in “conspicuous consumption.” However, they were considered by “old money” to lack taste, manners, and discretion:
Many a gentleman of the old school has been provoked to remark regretfully upon the under-bred manners and bearing of even the better classes in the modern industrial communities; and the decay of the ceremonial code … among the industrial classes proper has become one of the chief enormities of latter-day civilization in the eyes of all persons of delicate sensibilities. (p. 46)
More recently, in the former Soviet republics a class of nouveaux riches emerged, largely composed of former Communist Party bureaucrats who made fortunes during the transition to market capitalism and privatization (Brucan 1998, pp. 69–94).
While in previous eras the nouveaux riches were considered to demonstrate a distinctive set of artistic tastes, attitudes toward culture, political views, and the like, it appears that many of these differences have reduced over time. As Max Weber in Economy and Society ( 1968) describes, while status groups do often draw on cultural attributes to achieve social closure and advance their own interests, ultimately “at some point economic conditions become causally important and often decisive” (p. 341). Over time, the common economic conditions and shared class interests of the new and old rich may serve to overcome social differences and create a unified elite class.
SEE ALSO Aristocracy; Bourdieu, Pierre; Class, Leisure; Culture, Low and High; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Elites; Gentility; Industrialization; Stratification; Upward Mobility; Veblen, Thorstein; Weber, Max
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Brucan, Silviu. 1998. Social Change in Russia and Eastern Europe: From Party Hacks to Nouveaux Riches. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Crook, J. Mordaunt. 1999. The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches: Style and Status in Victorian and Edwardian Architecture. London: Trafalgar Square Publishing.
Lamont, Michèle. 1992. Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Veblen, Thorstein.  1932. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Vanguard Press, 1932.
Weber, Max.  1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Clays Wittich. 3 vols. New York: Bedminster.
Nathan D. Martin