What Does Consumerism Mean?

A Sociological Definition

People lining up for a sale symbolize the definition of consumerism, that it is a world view that shapes our values, behavior, and identity.
Shoppers queue outside Selfridges ahead of the Boxing Day sales on December 26, 2015 in London, England. Boxing Day is one of the busiest days for retail outlets in Britain, with thousands taking advantage of the post-Christmas sale prices. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While consumption is an act that people engage in, sociologists understand consumerism to be a characteristic of society and a powerful ideology that frames our world view, values, relationships, identities, and behavior. Consumerism drives us to consume and to seek happiness and fulfillment through consumption, serving as a necessary counterpart to a capitalist society that prioritizes mass production and unending growth in sales.

Consumerism According to Sociology

British sociologist Colin Campbell, in the book Elusive Consumption, defined consumerism as a social condition that occurs when consumption is “especially important if not actually central” to most people’s lives and even “the very purpose of existence.” When this occurs, we are bound together in society by how we channel our wants, needs, desires, longings, and pursuit of emotional fulfillment into consumption of goods and services.

Similarly, American sociologist Robert G. Dunn, in Identifying Consumption: Subject and Objects in Consumer Society, described consumerism as “an ideology that seductively binds people to [the] system” of mass production. He argues that this ideology turns consumption “from a means to an end,” so that acquiring goods becomes the basis of our identity and sense of self. As such, “[a]t its extreme, consumerism reduces consumption to a therapeutic program of compensation for life’s ills, even a road to personal salvation.”

However, it is Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who offers the most insight on this phenomenon. In his book, Consuming Life, Bauman wrote,

We may say that ‘consumerism’ is a type of social arrangement that results from recycling mundane, permanent and so to speak ‘regime-neutral’ human wants, desires and longings into the principal propelling force of society, a force that coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of human individuals, as well as playing a major role in the processes of individual and group self-policies.

What Bauman means is that consumerism exists when our wants, desires, and longings for consumer goods drive what happens in society, and when they are primarily responsible for shaping the entire social system in which we exist. They, channeled through consumption, are inspired by and reproduce the dominant worldview, values, and culture of society.

Under consumerism, our consumption habits define how we understand ourselves, how we affiliate with others, and overall, the extent to which we fit in with and are valued by society at large. Because our social and economic value is largely defined by our consumer practices, consumerism -- as an ideology -- becomes the lens through which we see and understand the world, what is possible for us, and how we might go about achieving what we want. According to Bauman, consumerism “manipulat[es] the probabilities of individual choices and conduct.”

Echoing Marx’s theory of the alienation of workers within a capitalist system, Bauman argues that individual desire and longing becomes a social force separate from us that operates on its own. It then becomes the force that propels and reproduces norms, social relations, and the overall social structure of society.

Consumerism shapes our wants, desires, and longings in such a way that we want not simply to acquire goods because they are useful, but more so, because of what they say about us. We want the newest and the best in order to fit in with, and even outshine, other consumers. Because of this, Bauman wrote that we experience an “ever increasing volume and intensity of desire.” In a society of consumers, consumerism is fueled by planned obsolescence and premised not only on the acquisition of goods, but also on their disposal. Consumerism both functions upon and reproduces an insatiability of desires and needs.

The cruel trick is that a society of consumers thrives on the inability of the system of mass production and consumption to meet our desires and needs. While the system promises to deliver, it does so only for brief periods of time.

Rather than cultivating happiness, consumerism is fueled by and cultivates fear -- fear of not fitting in, of not having the right stuff, of not being the right kind of person. Consumerism is defined by perpetual non-satisfaction.