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The term conspicuous consumption entered the sociological lexicon via Thorstein Veblen s biting analysis of the spending patterns of the rich and nouveau riches in the late nineteenth century. The Theory of the Leisure Class (1994 ) is an account of how these groups spent enormous energy and money constructing an ostentatious style of life. They built and decorated ornate homes, adorned their persons with clothing and jewelry, designed elaborate carriages, and employed large numbers of servants dressed in expensive uniforms. Throughout, the principles of waste, luxury, and ornamentation ruled the choices they made. The motive that animated their efforts was the desire for social esteem, which itself was dependent on the possession of wealth. But having money was not enough. It must be put “in evidence,” or become conspicuous.
The theory of conspicuous consumption is the centerpiece of Veblen s larger analysis of class society and its relation to styles of life and work. Veblen believed that the desire to attain status, or social esteem, eventually became the dominant motive in individuals decisions about work and consumption, even eclipsing biological or physical pressures to consume. In a status system based on wealth, the credibility and verifiability of individuals claims to status become a significant issue. Particularly before the era of paper money, wealth was not easily transportable, and ensuring its safety also militated against public display of money itself. Therefore, proxy measures of wealth-holding developed, chief among them the ability to forgo productive labor, and the ability to consume luxuriously, or what Veblen termed conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. For both leisure and consumption, public visibility is central. The need to put spending ”in evidence is because public display solves the informational problems associated with wealth-based status competitions. Thus, the role of public visibility, or what Veblen calls conspicuousness, becomes central to the operation of the system.
One feature of Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption is that agents are deeply intentional in their spending decisions, making choices for the purpose of maximizing their social status. Consumption is neither personally expressive, nor impulsive. Consumption is valued for what others make of it, rather than for intrinsic product benefits or functions.
The theory of conspicuous consumption also predicts that people will tend to spend more heavily on socially visible goods, in contrast to products that are used in private. Appearance goods such as dress, footwear, and jewelry have traditionally been central to status competitions. So too have vehicles, from carriages to SUVs and BMWs. The third item in the trio of status display is the home, where ornamentation, size, and materials all figure centrally in the social value of a dwelling.
- Campbell, C. (1994) Conspicuous confusion? A critique of Veblen s theory of conspicuous consumption. Sociological Theory 12 (2): 34—47.
- Schor, J. B. (1998) The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. Basic Books, New York.
- Veblen, T. (1994)  The Theory of the Leisure Class. Penguin, New York.