Consumer Culture

Don Slater. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2005.

Consumer Culture In Classical Social Theory

Social theory has long debated the claim that consumption plays a uniquely central role in modern Western societies. The terms consumer culture and consumer society imply that modern social order can be defined by the place of consumption in both social action and social structure. At the same time, this characterization carries a potent moral and political charge: The labelling of modernity as a consumer culture is generally part of an overall critique, or apologia, for the current state of the social.

Consumption is, of course, essential to any social order: To reproduce themselves as identifiable ways of life and social structures, societies require material and symbolic resources that are used to sustain bodies, interactions, institutions, and organizations (Slater 1997). Hence, both historians and anthropologists have well-developed literatures on the material cultures and consumption structures of non-modern societies. To talk of a “consumer culture,” however, is generally to make a much stronger set of claims: that initially in the modern West (but now increasingly as a global phenomenon), consumption was separated out from other social processes to become an identifiably separate sphere with recognizable identities, institutions, and values. This is often closely identified with the development of market capitalism. For example, in Marx’s somewhat romanticized view, precapitalist society involved production of use-values directly for consumption by the immediate producers or by known others within small communities. The development of markets and the commodity form drives a wedge between production and consumption, as well as introducing a veil of mystification, so that workers produce commodities in exchange for wages that they will spend on consumption goods that they did not produce. Similarly, feminist scholars have focused on the related division between public and private spheres in modern life, which divides public social action (including paid work outside the home) from a private, primarily domestic, sphere of consumption.

In both cases, a sphere of consumption is formed that is closely identified with the reproduction of meaningful everyday lives and identities within modern society (as opposed to the alienated spheres of work and political action); and the figure of “the consumer” appears as an identifiable social role for the first time in history. In positive versions, generally elaborated within liberal and utilitarian thought, the consumer represents an archetypal modern social subject, one who is “free to choose” on the basis of knowing his or her own wants and desires. However irrational these may be, the consumer is able rationally to calculate their intensity (particularly in relation to market prices) and to act accordingly. The consumer therefore contains the substantive underpinnings of the formally rational social subject of modern society. Thus, conventional economics, like liberal political thought, treats the private desires of individuals as sacrosanct and beyond judgement by social analysts or political actors. Similarly, the measure of a good modern social system is its ability to respond transparently and without moral judgement or political direction to the expressed preferences of the sovereign consumer through mechanisms such as markets or elections.

This has been a minority view within modern social thought, however. For the most part, both the consumer and consumer culture have been held to represent a range of debasements and degradations that characterize the modern. First, the consumer is able to act entirely on the basis of their preferences to the extent that they have the money to finance them. From the eighteenth century onward, this marked a concern with the disintegration of traditional and collective forms of regulation, such as religion, status orders, and heredity, which previously tied consumption to stable social structures (for example, through sumptuary law). From that point onward, there is a continuous literature and debate on luxury and excessive consumption (that is, consumption beyond what had previously been appropriate to a given social status), as well as the fixation of modern subjects on material things and on money. For example, the figure of the “nouveau riche,” from Smollett through Veblen and on to Bourdieu, condenses wide contempt for social climbers whose new money allows them, under modern conditions of market freedom and status disorder, to buy whatever they can afford, without the inherited culture to exercise proper “taste.”

Indeed, the term culture is at the heart of critical invocations of “consumer culture.” The very idea of culture arises from the eighteenth century as a romantic appeal to the organic and “authentic” values of the premodern world we have lost within capitalist modernity, with reactionaries desiring a return to that past and radicals hoping to recover true culture in a future beyond capitalist rule by money. Modern consumer culture appears as a contradiction in terms from this point of view: Real culture can take the form only of values adhering to an organic way of life, whereas consumer culture contains merely false and manufactured values whose logic is given by market forces and social instability. An interesting example of this point of view is offered by Durkheim, for whom consumer culture is a pathological stage in the transition to the cult of the individual and to values appropriate to organic solidarity. For Durkheim, the incomplete formation of the modern individual has so far simply released social subjects from traditional regulation and an understanding of the limits of their desires. They now know no bounds. Consumer culture is therefore one example of the kind of sudden reversal of fortune (either positive or negative) that produces an anomic state, a condition without legitimate social or cultural order.

A second line of critique is predominantly, but not exclusively, Marxist, and focuses more on power (though it comes to similar conclusions about the inauthenticity of consumer culture). The supposed freedom of the individual as consumer is merely formal and hence part of the ideological self-representation of capitalism. This is because it is founded on several interconnected forms of alienation that make modern subjects both materially and cognitively unfree. For Marx, these forms of unfreedom stem directly from the commodity form, particularly the commodification of labour as labour power. Marx derives from Hegel a human essence that is grounded in the way humans knowingly transform nature in relation to their needs and, in so doing, increasingly refine an objective world through which they themselves can develop as a species. However, in market capitalism, this dialectic is broken, on one hand, into the sale of human’s self-making capacity as labour power in exchange for wages and, on the other hand, the purchase of apparently independent consumable objects, goods that have no conscious connection to the workers’human capacity of creative praxis. In practical terms, this happens under conditions of technical exploitation, such that workers individually receive a wage lower than the value they actually produce and such that collectively, as a class, they are unable to purchase the goods they have produced. Hence, consumer culture involves the production of poverty along with untold wealth.

In cognitive terms, the needs and subjectivity of the modern subject are developed according to the logic of exchange value and the need of capitalists to sell them what they can profitably produce, rather than what their own species evolution would demand. Marx is not a puritan or voluntary simplicity advocate, however. He allocates capitalism a heroic role in developing a historically unprecedented productive capacity to generate new use-values for his core ethical subject, the human who is “rich in needs” (i.e., one who is evolving ever more sophisticated needs in dialectical relation to an ever more refined object world; cf. Simmel’s subsequent theorization of a dialectic between objective and subjective culture; Simmel 1950). The problem for Marx is that capitalist exploitation actually reduces the bulk of the population to “animal needs,” while those who share in its profits develop false needs that dance to the tune of exchange value.

Subsequent Marxist and other critical perspectives have developed one or another of these themes. Most influential have probably been critiques of reification that develop from Lukács (with large borrowings from Weber and Simmel) through the Frankfurt school and on to Habermas. For Lukács, production and exchange under conditions of alienation have produced an object world that is thing-like and appears as if natural, rather than social or historical. Modern social subjects are reduced to a “contemplative attitude,” passively observing and accepting the structure of consumption and their relationship to it. Everyday life, centred on passive consumption, becomes increasingly meaningless and trivial, involving making merely banal choices that have already been structured by the system itself. Much as in later Situationist work on the “society of the spectacle,” adopted fairly wholesale in Baudrillard’s later work on the “silent majorities” of modern consumerism, being a consumer involves passive participation in capitalist self-representation that is entirely false and only partially believed in even by its participants. Moreover, in embracing the consumer role, modern social subjects generally have bargained away real possibilities for social power over their historical fate, giving up battles in the workplace over production and in the political sphere over power in exchange for the restricted or false power to choose between commodities within their private spheres.

The characterization of consumer culture as a set of false compensations for an actual loss of power and authenticity is even more strongly drawn in Frankfurt school theory. For Adorno and Horkheimer (1979), for example, consumption is part of a mass culture (and culture is dominated by the values and logics of the capitalist structure of consumption of exchange values). Cultural values are elaborated according to the need of the culture industries to produce exchange values with reliable hopes for mass sale. Consumer culture therefore does not simply involve selling cultural goods on the marketing place; it integrates the logic of exchange value at every point in their production and circulation. Consumers themselves are integrated into this logic on the basis of their alienation, in a process described by Lowenthal as “psychoanalysis in reverse”: Reduced by capitalist modernity to powerless disorganization, consumers are offered a range of false promises and temporary escapes from reality, but at a price—the need to work harder for more money to buy more escapism. In Marcuse’s (1964) account, for example, capitalism has already achieved its historic mission to develop the technical capacity to abolish the struggle for existence, but within relations of production that require an ongoing struggle for profit on an expanded scale. The system therefore needs modern subjects to continue to have needs for commodities and to continue to labour for wages. The maintenance of the system therefore requires intensified “surplus repression,” the production of the greater number of needs and wants that the system itself needs and wants. This production of unnecessary needs has to be built upon the individual’s real instinctual basis (e.g., the advertising association of sexual satisfactions with objects such as cars and drinks), but by that very process mystifies the individual’s relationship to their real needs, which are the main source of their ability to oppose the system that mystifies them.

Although derived from quite other branches of Marxism, French regulation theory and other theories of Fordism and post-Fordism play on a similar theme (Aglietta 1979). “Fordism,” for example, is an analysis of capitalist society from around 1880 to the 1970s as a historical compromise in which modern mass production required both subjects who are both docile workers (accepting the discipline of systematised and Taylorized large-scale manufacturing processes) and willing consumers (absorbing the ensuing high-volume, low-unit cost output of standardized goods). Fordism traded workplace meaning and control in exchange for higher wages (stabilized and backed by national collective bargaining between employers, government, and trade unions), providing that workers sought meaning entirely in the buildup of domestic capital through commodity consumption. The shift to post-Fordism ostensibly involves a move from mass consumption to segmented markets and customised, small-batch production, giving consumers a potentially more creative role, but one still functional to the needs of contemporary forms of production.

Throughout these approaches, the presence of consumer culture signals that the needs of the individual have been made functional to the continuation of capitalist modernity, politically, ideologically, and, above all, economically. Indeed, such approaches can easily be criticised as “productivist” or even economistic: Although consumption plays a central role in the reproduction of capitalist society, its structure, meaning, and dynamic are determined by the moment of production. Consumption is largely studied in terms of the control of producers over consumers, through advertising, design, retail technologies, and broader forms of ideological control. Indeed, the consumer is generally characterized as passive, mystified, inauthentic, and dominated, as a subjectivity to be critiqued and dismantled.

This view of consumer culture has changed radically over the past 20 years, coincidentally with both the rise of a major new research interest in consumption and with shifts from classical social theory (including Marxism) toward postmodern analyses in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, the more active construction of the consumer as real agency has survived the demise of postmodern theory. The sources of this new take on consumer culture are various, but central to the story is the rise of (particularly British) cultural studies. This emerging discipline aimed to treat popular culture as an important site and resource for negotiating social conflicts, above all, class and generational struggles (Hebdige 1979; Willis 1990). Rather than dismiss commercially produced culture as irremediably compromised, cultural studies demonstrated how youth and ethnic cultures used the materials at hand by reinterpreting, recycling, and subverting them. The punks’ safety pin jewellery and bin bag clothes turned mundane commodities into tools for mediating a range of social struggles. British cultural studies originally tried to pursue this line of argument through an expanded Marxism, first through structuralist Marxism, which gave greater value to ideological struggles, but at the cost of reducing social subjects to complete passivity. The next step was to use the work of Gramsci to produce far less deterministic theoretical accounts more in tune with the range of case study material that was being produced. By the mid-1980s, this line of development was completely overtaken by postmodern and poststructuralist thought. Some postmodernists, such as Baudrillard (and in a more modulated vein, Jameson), were very close to the reification theorists from whom they derived with a reading of consumer culture as pure symbolic manipulation of passive consumers (whose only “resistance” is to devour more), in which the hyperreality of consumption codes simulates and replaces the social in its entirety.

The main line of postmodern thought on consumption was, however, far more positive. Like subcultural consumption, even the most apparently mundane and conformist consumption might be read as unpredictable, open-ended, and capable of sustaining subversion and resistance. Starting from research into explicitly cultural consumption (how people read texts such as books, film, and TV), cultural studies made the point that texts (and objects) are contradictory and polysemic entities whose meanings are not necessarily going to be those that the producer desired or intended and that social subjects are also contradictory, open-ended, and underdetermined. No doubt this research agenda has led in some wrong-headed directions. First, it has overstated consumer creativity and agency and understated issues of power and inequality. At some points, it seemed hard to distinguish from liberal (or even from contemporary neoliberal) celebrations of the consumer marketplace as a playground of ironic, reflexive, sophisticated stylists, constructing pleasurable but unconstraining and disposable identities as they desired. The postmodern consumers in their shopping malls were like the old “sovereign consumers” with the addition of a trendy knowingness. Second, both the cultural studies and the postmodern turn tended to confuse social agency with subversion or rebellion. It now seems obvious that consumption requires agency: As anthropology continually shows, in order to consume, people need to make sense of needs, relationships, and objects and establish complex collective meanings and rituals that knit all three together. This requires active, and to some extent unpredictable, acts of interpretation and social negotiation. To expect all such consumption to be subversive as well as active is quite another matter. Indeed, the more radical point now seems to be that all consumption is a site of agency whether or not it also undermines received or imposed meanings. Hence, all consumption—even the most mundane and conformist—needs to be understood in relation to issues of power and constraint.

An important recent focus for exploring these issues has been provided by cross-cultural consumption. Earlier approaches to global consumption patterns increasingly assumed a homogenized market culture across the planet. Marx, for example, saw markets as inevitably dissolving local cultures, creating wage labour and commodity consumption wherever they penetrated. Mid-to late twentieth-century social theory assumed an intensified Americanization of the world, in which American media and commodities imposed both specific consumption patterns as well as a “culture-ideology of consumerism” that placed commodity choice at the centre of social life everywhere. This was strongly attacked, first, by media and cultural studies that emphasised the increasing complexity of global cultural flows (it is hard to sustain the idea of Americanization or a triumph of Hollywood in a South Asia completely dominated by “Bollywood” or a South America dominated by Brazilian and Mexican soap operas). Anthropologists such as Appadurai (1995) emphasised the importance of regional powers that might be uneven and contradictory with respect to the different components of global cultural flows, such as flows of people, media products, finance, ideology, and so on. Finally, recent globalisation studies have sought to evade an either/or choice between global hegemonies and local autonomy. Instead, the stress has been on the dialectics between local and global, which one would expect to work out differently in different places and different cultural sectors. Consumer culture, from this perspective, is not simply a structure that is imposed or resisted; instead, consumption appears as a terrain on which different social subjects and orders might work out their relations to both local and nonlocal social processes (Miller 1987). The vastly different meanings and uses to which local people might assimilate global products, such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, or global objects, such as the Internet, testify to something more than the fact that things are different in different places. They suggest that consumption mediates global processes.

Consumption, Meaning, and Identity

This survey of basic social theoretical positions on consumption has so far paid scant attention to one of the fundamental issues that has concerned them: questions of meaning and identity. A quite pervasive approach to consumer culture starts from the idea that consumption is, or should be, primarily about the satisfaction of needs and that needs, as a concept, point to requirements that are in some respect limited and objective: We can say that “we need food” in a way that we cannot claim to “need” caviar or champagne. The idea of “basic needs” makes an even stronger claim to goods that are existentially or morally necessary to “a human life” (Sen 1985). Needs contrasts with terms such as wants, desires, preferences, or luxuries: demands for objects that are more subjective or cultural and that are regarded as less essential in some respect. In crude terms, many accounts of consumer culture assume a historical narrative in which greater wealth or productive power has led society out of the realm of necessity toward a condition in which an unlimited or insatiable range of less serious desires for less essential objects has arisen. These desires cannot be adjudicated with respect to objective criteria of need, precisely as neoclassical economists have always argued (except if one invokes ecological limits or the impoverishment of some parts of society to feed the wants of other parts).

A central premise in this line of thought is that one can analytically separate objectively functional goods from goods whose utility is more related to their meaning or cultural value. This has always looked untenable from the point of view of anthropology: No society consumes in a purely functional way in relation to objective needs (indeed, this idea of function seems peculiar to Western modernity). No society, least of all the most nonmodern, eats “food” simply for caloric or other requirements; rather, their ideas of what is and is not food are developed within complex codes of meaning that generally connect food consumption to both social and cosmological order. As Mary Douglas once put it, “The choice between pounding and grinding [coffee] is…a choice between two different views of the human condition” (Douglas and Isherwood 1979:79). Douglas herself favoured provisionally dropping all analysis in terms of function in favour of treating goods entirely as information systems (though this seems equally misguided). Goods are used within social orders to mark out social categories, such as types of person and social status, temporal patterns and structures (daily meals or annual festivals), social occasions and rituals, social boundaries, and so on. Their use and exchange is therefore inseparable from their meaning within local cosmologies. Modern societies are no different in principle, though intensely complicated by the coexistence of plural and changing cosmologies and by the self-conscious and instrumental manipulation of consumption meanings by interested parties. A Christmas turkey in London marks familial relations and events just as surely as a peasant’s goose in rural France, but the same family might also celebrate Dhiwali with their neighbours and buy their turkey from a multinational grocer at the end of a complex chain of provision.

This kind of position has led in several directions. First, the appeal to basic needs has grounded a range of moral-political critiques of consumer culture. A classic example would be Baran and Sweezy’s (1977) neo-Marxist argument that we need to identify desires that are merely occasioned by the sales imperative arising from the commodity form; strip these away and one can return to rationally identifiable real needs. The same kinds of claims lay behind many ecological and voluntary simplicity arguments and equally ignore the fact that all societies, not just market-based ones, elaborate complex cultural systems of needs and wants.

Second, the division between real needs and culturally elaborated desires has formed the basis for arguments about consumption and social status. Most famously, Veblen’s ([1899] 1953) notions of status symbols and conspicuous leisure and consumption reduce consumption to the function of signifying status precisely by demonstrating the consumer’s wastefulness, their social distance from any useful labour that might serve to fulfil real needs. Such labour is assigned to women and subordinate males, who act upon an “instinct for workmanship” that is entirely addressed to the efficient, skillful production of utility. Veblen’s hilarious and overwrought satires constantly play upon the utter uselessness of all that goes by the name of culture or taste: It is not only a waste of time and resources, but that is precisely its sole function. Parallels are often drawn between the work of Veblen and Bourdieu in this regard. Bourdieu (1984) too considers the social organization of taste from the point of view of its role in status competition, in the mapping out of social “distinction.” Consumer tastes are organized in complex and hierarchical systems of categorization such that “taste classifies the classifier”: My own expression of consumer preferences identifies me in terms of my categorization of good and bad taste and distinguishes me in relation to the categorization that you express through your choices. The content of these cultural orders is secondary to their function of social distinction; indeed, cultural value can arise only from social competition over the “hierarchy of (cultural) hierarchies,” not from any substantive or inherent properties of cultural goods. Moreover, the social actor’s accumulation of “cultural capital” within these hierarchies is not the only mode of interconnected social competitions: Bourdieu is equally concerned with the relation between cultural distinction and social, economic, and other forms of competition.

Third, as noted, there is a pervasive assumption that modernity is characterised by its ever-increasingly symbolic or aestheticized character, by the elaboration of cultural desires rather than meeting of basic needs. Obviously, this can involve a pejorative or romanticized view of the nonmodern, as well as some rather grand social structural claims about the nature of the modern or postmodern. The idea that modern consumption involves an expanded realm of meaning and culture actually starts in earliest modernity. Both David Hume and Adam Smith, drawing on even earlier psychological accounts of the basis of moral sense in emulation and interpersonal sympathies, argued that increased “commerce” between people—economic, social, and political—would increase their moral sense and their cultural complexities, producing both more civilized and more peaceful people (Campbell 1989). Marx, as we have seen, placed the man (sic) who becomes “rich in needs” through an expanded landscape of social and natural interaction as the aim of species evolution, and Simmel later made a case for increased human refinement through an expanded objective world, typified in the complex and pluralistic sensorium of urban life. In all these cases, consumption meanings, as opposed to functional filling of basic needs, are positively aligned with progress. Simmel’s account, however, offers the most contemporarily resonant version: The expansion of objective culture and sensation is beyond the capacity of subjective culture, beyond the capacity of individuals to assimilate without incurring confusion or “neuraesthenia.” Individuals therefore oscillate between an overexcited state of stimulation and its opposite, the “blasé attitude,” a kind of self-defending blotting out, or “greying out” of all these sensations, so that they all seem in a banal sense to be “the same.” Similarly, Benjamin’s (1989) “flaneur” is not so much a consumer as a scientific observer of the panoply of objects and socialities of consumer culture: He is a scientist of consumption and the urban scene who goes “botanizing on the asphalt” rather than hectically indulging in consumption himself.

Anthony Giddens’s (1991) work develops a related diagnosis of consumer culture confusion. Today’s “posttraditional” society is marked by the loss of ascribed social status and identities and the increase of social pluralism, mediation, and an attitude of “methodical doubt.” Not only are old certainties lost, but in the new world, subjects are bombarded with images and direct experiences of diverse ways of life and of identities that could be adopted, while modern authorities such as science do not provide final answers, but rather ever-competing truth claims. To return to the example of food, modern eating involves the copresence of myriad ethnic food codes, diverse eating occasions with different and negotiable rules (“grazing” at home, business lunches, family gatherings, etc.), and a confusing welter of mediated food expertise (cooking programmes and editorials, health and diet experts, advocates of organic, vegetarian, or other food philosophies). At the same time, in the absence of ascribed and stable identities, the individual’s consumption is central to their identity construction: for example, their visible appearance is read as the outcome of their individually, freely adopted consumption choices, for which they are ethically responsible (if you are “fat,” it is because you have chosen a certain lifestyle; you could have acted differently through diet or exercise). Consumer culture is therefore something like permanent identity crisis, with a constant state of anxiety and risk attached and little possibility of establishing what is right or correct consumption because there is constant change and competition of lifestyles.

The claim that modern life has become increasingly “aestheticized,” awash with commercial signs and organized increasingly through a semiotic logic, has intensified over the past few decades. Early semiotics attempted to provide a general methodology that addressed the meaningful character of all social objects, their character as signs within language, like codes of meaning, including second-order, ideological organizations of meaning. This methodological argument gradually turned into a set of historical claims about the social transformation of capitalist society, largely through the work of Baudrillard. In his account, the semiotic order of meaning has historically shifted so that the use-value of goods no longer functions as a referent grounded in an objective order of things and needs. Sign-value, the position of goods within malleable codes of meaning, is now primary and socially precedes and directs both interactions with the material world and social relationships. Indeed, social bonds are now constructed through the order of signs (e.g., in the notion of “lifestyle”) rather than through objective structures such as class or gender. In this account, the division between objective needs and cultural wants positively obliterates the social itself.

The idea that symbolic processes, often focused around consumption and marketing, are now central to economic and social life is not peculiar to postmodernism. Theories of post-Fordism, as well as more recent accounts of the information economy, knowledge economy, network economy, or “linguistic capitalism” (see Mark Poster 2001, What’s the Matter with the Internet?) all presume an ever-intensifying “dematerialization” of both commodities and their production processes. The claim is that production is now dominated by knowledge and data, with a specific focus on design, product development, and marketing, and that the symbolic aspects of commodities are now central to their production, distribution, and consumption.

Although consumption and consumer culture have a long history within modern social theory, its place has been generally subordinate to grander issues, and its function has generally been ethical and political: Consumption has served as a barometer of sociocultural progress or degradation. The huge volume of literature on consumption produced over the past 20 years or so has been more substantive, more empirical, and more focused on consumption as an issue in its own right. While this has produced some larger social theoretical claims, particularly with regard to postmodernism and post-Fordism, it might well be a sign of the health and maturity of a subdiscipline that it has become less concerned with theory and more focused on middle-range and empirically grounded conceptualisations of contemporary social processes.