What Does Consumerism Mean?

A Sociological Definition

People lining up to make purchases under a flashy "SALE" sign
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While consumption is an activity people engage in, sociologists understand consumerism to be a powerful ideology characteristic of Western society that frames our worldview, values, relationships, identities, and behavior. Consumer culture drives us to seek happiness and fulfillment through mindless consumption and serves as a necessary component of capitalist society, which demands mass production and unending sales growth.

Sociological Definitions

Definitions of consumerism vary. Some sociologists consider it a social condition where consumption is “especially important if not actually central” to someone's life, or even “the very purpose of existence.” This understanding binds society together to channel our wants, needs, longings, and pursuit of emotional fulfillment into the consumption of material goods and services.

Sociologists will similarly describe consumerism as a way of life, “an ideology that seductively binds people to [the] system” of mass production, turning consumption “from a means to an end.” As such, acquiring goods becomes the basis of our identity and sense of self. “At its extreme, consumerism reduces consumption to a therapeutic program of compensation for life’s ills, even a road to personal salvation.”

Echoing Karl Marx’s theory of the alienation of workers within a capitalist system, consumerist urges become a social force separate from the individual and operating independently. Products and brands become the force that propels and reproduces norms, social relations, and the general structure of society. Consumerism exists when the consumer goods we desire drive what happens in society or even shape our entire social system. The dominant worldview, values, and culture are inspired by disposable and empty consumption.

"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.
(Bauman, "Consuming Life")

Psychological Effects

Consumerist tendencies define how we understand ourselves, how we affiliate with others, and the overall extent to which we fit in with and are valued by society at large. Because individual social and economic values are defined and validated by spending practices, consumerism becomes the ideological lens through which we experience the world, what is possible for us, and our options for achieving goals. Consumerism manipulates "the probabilities of individual choices and conduct.”

Consumerism shapes us in such a way that we want to acquire material goods not because they are useful, but because of what they say about us. We want the newest and the best to fit in with or outshine others. Thus, we experience an “ever-increasing volume and intensity of desire.” In a society of consumers, joy and status are fueled by planned obsolescence, premised on acquiring goods and disposing of them. Consumerism both depends on and reproduces an insatiability of desires and needs.

The cruel trick is that a society of consumers thrives on the inability to ever consume enough, on the ultimate failure of the mass-produced system to satisfy anyone. While it promises to deliver, the system only briefly does so. Rather than cultivating happiness, consumerism cultivates fear—fear of not fitting in, of not possessing the proper things, of not signifying the right persona or social status. Consumerism is defined by perpetual dissatisfaction.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Consuming Life. Polity, 2008.
  • Campbell, Colin. “I Shop Therefore I Know That I Am: The Metaphysical Basis of Modern Consumerism.” Elusive Consumption, edited by Karin M. Ekström and Helene Brembeck, Berg, 2004, pp. 27-44.
  • Dunn, Robert G. Identifying Consumption: Subjects and Objects in Consumer Society. Temple University, 2008.
  • Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Edited by Lawrence Hugh Simon, Hackett, 1994.