The Rich and Their “Wirtschaftswunder”

Isabell Stamm, Georg Walther, and Eva-Maria Gajek

This pilot project examines the upward mobility of high-wealth families from a social class perspective from the 1950s to the present. In doing so, it explores the markers that delineate a change in economic class position and the social status position of such families. How and when does it become clear that these families climbed to the top of the wealth distribution and have become part of an upper social class – the coded capital class, as it is called in this project? Since social advancement often takes place regionally, the study focuses on the city of Essen, which is particularly characterized by social inequality. Essen is not only among the cities with the highest poverty rate in Germany but also the place of residence and/or work of many of the country’s richest families. Based on the trajectories of seven of these families (including Aldi-Nord and Deichmann), the project shows that five markers of upward mobility are common across time: exponential growth and the coding of capital (economic class position), spatial segregation to specific neighborhoods, awards and offices, and conspicuous contact with front-rank politicians (social status position). This study aims to contribute to theorizing class boundaries and how they are crossed at the upper end of the social stratification. Further, as a pilot study it serves to inform a larger project on how the wealthy capture urban space.

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