Definition of Consumerist Culture

An anxious line of consumers waiting to purchase the first Apple Watch and a smiling man who has purchased one symbolize aspects of consumerist culture.
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If culture is understood by sociologists as composed of the commonly understood symbols, language, values, beliefs, and norms of a society, then a consumerist culture is one in which all of those things are shaped by consumerism; an attribute of a society of consumers. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, a consumerist culture values transience and mobility rather than duration and stability, and the newness of things and reinvention of oneself over endurance. It is a hurried culture that expects immediacy and has no use for delays, and one that values individualism and temporary communities over deep, meaningful, and lasting connection to others.

Bauman's Consumerist Culture

In Consuming Life, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman explains that a consumerist culture, departing from the previous productivist culture, values transience over the duration, newness and reinvention, and the ability to acquire things immediately. Unlike a society of producers, in which people’s lives were defined by what they made, the production of things took time and effort, and people were more likely to delay satisfaction until some point in the future, consumerist culture is a “nowist” culture that values immediate or quickly acquired satisfaction.

The expected fast pace of consumerist culture is accompanied by a permanent state of busyness and a near-permanent sense of emergency or urgency. For instance, the emergency of being on-trend with fashion, hairstyles, or mobile electronics are pressing ones in a consumerist culture. Thus, it is defined by turnover and waste in the ongoing quest for new goods and experiences. Per Bauman, consumerist culture is “first and foremost, about being on the move.”

The values, norms, and language of a consumerist culture are distinctive. Bauman explains, "Responsibility now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘you owe this to yourself’, ‘you deserve it’, as the traders in ‘relief from responsibility’ put it), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, those moves serving the interests and satisfying the desires of the self.” This signals a set of ethical principles within a consumerist culture that differ from those of periods that preceded the society of consumers. Troublingly, Bauman argues, these trends also signal the vanishing of the generalized “Other” “as object of ethical responsibility and moral concern."

With its extreme focus on the self, “[t]he consumerist culture is marked by a constant pressure to be someone else.” Because we use the symbols of this culture—consumer goods—to understand and express ourselves and our identities, this dissatisfaction we feel with goods as they lose their luster of newness translates into dissatisfaction with ourselves. Bauman writes,

[c]onsumer markets [...] breed dissatisfaction with the products used by consumers to satisfy their needs -- and they also cultivate constant disaffection with the acquired identity and the set of needs by which such an identity is defined. Changing identity, discarding the past and seeking new beginnings, struggling to be born again -- these are promoted by that culture as a duty disguised as a privilege.

Here Bauman points to the belief, characteristic of consumerist culture, that though we often frame it as a set of important choices we make, we are actually obligated to consume in order to craft and express our identities. Further, because of the emergency of being on-trend, or even ahead of the pack, we are constantly on the lookout for new ways to revise ourselves through consumer purchases. In order for this behavior to have any social and cultural value, we must make our consumer choices “publicly recognizable.”

Connected to the ongoing quest for the new in goods and in ourselves, another characteristic of consumerist culture is what Bauman calls “the disabling of the past.” Through a new purchase, we can be born again, move on, or start over with immediacy and ease. Within this culture, time is conceived of and experienced as fragmented, or “pointillist” — experiences and phases of life are easily left behind for something else.

Similarly, our expectation for a community and our experience of it is fragmented, fleeting, and unstable. Within a consumerist culture, we are members of “cloakroom communities,” which “one feels one joins simply by being where others are present, or by sporting badges or other tokens of shared intentions, style or taste.” These are “fixed-term” communities that allow for a momentary experience of the community only, facilitated by shared consumer practices and symbols. Thus, consumerist culture is one marked by “weak ties” rather than strong ones.

This concept developed by Bauman matters to sociologists because we are interested in the implications of the values, norms, and behaviors that we take for granted as a society, some of which are positive, but many of which are negative.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Consumerist Culture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). Definition of Consumerist Culture. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Definition of Consumerist Culture." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).