Consumer Society Essay

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The notion of ”consumer society emerged after World War II. It was used to suggest that the society which we live in is a late variant of capitalism characterized by the primacy of consumption over production. It also suggests that our societies produce one type of human being as its norm, the ”consumer. While the link between consumption and identity is crucial in contemporary societies, even in so-called ”tribal societies people use objects as an important source of

identity and a means of social relations, to distinguish themselves or mark alliances; even in these societies one can find forms of conspicuous consumption which mostly serve to reinforce social hierarchies. Still our societies seem to be different in that material culture has grown enormously, it has become ever more differentiated, and is increasingly produced and consumed via market-mediated social relationships. In subsistence economies, production and consumption were not specialized and separated spheres of action, held together by an equally specialized sphere of exchange: the fundamental cultural dichotomy on which social order rested was that of sacred/profane rather than of production/consumption. Because of the disentanglement of production and consumption we find ourselves confronted with objects whose meaning is beyond our everyday life and yet we are mobilized as ”consumers to use these objects in meaningful ways.

Analytically we may speak of ”consumer society whenever consumption has become more visible as a relatively specialized sphere of action — with its places, institutions, professions, and narratives. Consumer culture thus produces consumers, but does so in a variety of ways. Both market actors (advertising executives, marketing experts, shop-assistants) as well as political actors contribute to this. Historically we may speak of ”consumer society as a historical type of society in which the satisfaction of daily need is accomplished through the acquisition and use of ”commodities : goods which are produced for exchange and are on sale on the market (Sassatelli 2007). From a long-term perspective, global commodity flows and knowledge flows, and in particular colonial goods and materialistic values, have played an important role in the development of consumer culture in the west. More recently, figures such as cultural intermediaries have acquired power and have become agents of change, promoting new styles of consumption which potentially cut across traditional social divisions and mix hedonism and asceticism.

Contemporary western consumer cultures are characterized by mass design and the aestheticization of ordinary objects. They are also characterized by marked standardization of the consumer experience, through strategies of ”thematization not only in theme-parks, but also in a general thematic organization of restaurants, shops, and spaces within shopping centers (Gottdiener 1997). There is an increased global visibility of consumer culture and of the political investment of the consumer: witness to this is the crucial intercultural function of global brands which provide a contested terrain for social mobilization and protest as well as dispersed, ordinary and perhaps banal forms of cosmopolitism; the cultural and political dynamism generated by consumption in societies in transition from communist to capitalist systems; or the cultural contestation which has followed the political replacement of the notion of citizen with that of consumer to promote the privatization of services. Contemporary studies of consumption across the globe take into consideration globalization dynamics which are often understood under the rubric of McDonaldization and Americanization (Ritzer and Ryan 2004). Still, the diverse local and national cultures play an important role in metabolizing mass-marketed consumer goods, global commodities and global or US chains as much as various national and local culture construct particular visions of the USA, US consumer lifestyles and business procedures.


  1. Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. Sage, London.
  2. Gottdiener, M. (1997) The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions and Commercial Spaces.  Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
  3. Ritzer, G. & Ryan, M. (2004) Americanisation, McDonaldisation, and globalisation. In: Campbell, N, Davies, J. & McKay, G. (eds.), Issues in Americanisation and Culture. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 41—60.
  4. Sassatelli, R. (2007) Consumer Culture: History, Theory, Politics. Sage, London.
  5. Baudrillard, J. (1998) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Sage, Lonodn.

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