Consumption, Culture of

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"Culture of consumption" is a phrase used to describe any society in which the acquisition of material goods is viewed as a major defining feature of daily life. It is also a theoretical framework for analyzing the impact of such acquisition—and related activities such as advertising—on human social, political and spiritual life.

The phrase originated with the publication in 1983 of "The Culture of Consumption," a collection of essays edited by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, and marked a shift away from the narrower concept of "consumer culture," a term with largely economic implications.

In their essays, the various contributors analyzed different aspects of the culture of consumption and the "commodification" of society—that is, the transformation of virtually everything, from objects to experiences to feelings, into a commodity or brand that can be bought or sold. The sweep of the study across history, literary criticism, sociology, politics and science inspired others to look to the role of commodification in shaping society.

Psychological rootlessness

The contributors to the book regarded the modern condition as a psychological rootlessness brought on by the erosion of a moral creed and the destructive effect of the market on traditional values. Into this void, according to those writers, stepped the entrepreneurs of mass-market amusements and the advertisers, which offered visceral, if illusory, sensations under the banner of "real life."

One contributor, Jean-Christophe Agnew, held that in this ethereal, rootless world in which advertising had become an all-pervasive language, consumers adopted a strategy of "acquisitive cognition"—branded commodities were acquired not simply through the act of purchasing them but also by gaining a deep-seated knowledge of their real and imagined qualities.

Those who sought therapeutic release from the vacuousness of life in the industrial age found that this approach failed, however. The strategy of acquisitive cognition could not provide a solid foundation for living; it simply reproduced the dynamic of change and uncertainty because the attributes of the objects acquired were not fixed-advertisers continually reinvented their products.

Much of the scholarship that developed in the late 1970s and the '80s focused on the emergence of a culture of consumption in the last two decades of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century. This scholarship did not see the culture of consumption as imposed on society; rather, various scholars traced shifts in the American economy and society during these decades.

They pointed to the development of new technologies and new modes of transportation and communication that resulted in the large-scale industrial production of goods and an accompanying loss of craft skills; they noted the emergence of national markets and advertising as well as the growth of urban centers whose populations had sufficient income to participate in a new leisure culture-a culture of consumption.

"User practices

Another category of studies focused on how consumers use the goods they purchase. In these works, there was a deliberate attempt to see the buying public as an "audience" engaged in something other than mindless consumption. These scholars saw Americans as engaged with a commodified culture; nonetheless, they viewed the public as actively resisting the pervasive emptiness of consumption by grounding themselves in "user practices"—that is, using the objects of the culture to give meaning to life.

In a sense these studies sought to investigate the "culture" of the culture of consumption rather than consumption per se as a social system. Such studies thus focused more on the psychological and symbolic use of goods than on the processes and ideologies involved in their production and distribution.

"The Culture of Consumption" suggested that the commodification of American culture began earlier than the 1920s, the period generally accepted as the decade of modernity. Contributors argued that beginning around 1880, the market entered into areas of life that previously had been untouched and that, from this time on, existing modes of using goods and services began to be redefined.

Other efforts to analyze the concept of consumption have traced the origins of a consumer ethos to the early 17th century and earlier. Colin Campbell, professor of sociology at the University of York in England, argued that the same forces that gave capitalism life also provided the basis for a culture of consumption. British historian Neil McKendrick found the marketing of Wedgwood pottery to be indicative of consumerism during England's industrial revolution. Harvard University academic Simon Schama delineated the rich pleasure the Dutch middle class in the 17th century derived from the commodities in their lives.

In 1994, Mr. Lears published "Fables of Abundance," a work that set American advertising in the broader context of efforts to respond to the nation's material plenitude. He presented advertising as walking a line between its sideshow-like origins and the professionalization of the industry, part of the movement toward managerial efficiency in the early 20th century. He even suggested that advertising offered transformative experiences akin to earlier notions of religious redemption.

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