How Do Sociologists Define Consumption?

There's Much More than Meets the Eye

A woman eats a burger, demonstrating the act of consumption. To sociologists, there's much more to consumption than the simple act of taking in or using up resources.
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In sociology, consumption is about so much more than just taking in or using up resources. Humans consume to survive, of course, but in today's world, we also consume to entertain and amuse ourselves, and as a way to share time and experiences with others. We consume not only material goods but also services, experiences, information, and cultural products like art, music, film, and television. In fact, from the sociological perspective, consumption today is a central organizing principle of social life.

It shapes our everyday lives, our values, expectations and practices, our relationships with others, our individual and group identities, and our overall experience in the world.

Consumption According to Sociologists

Sociologists recognize that many aspects of our daily lives are structured by consumption. In fact, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in the book Consuming Life that Western societies are not longer organized around the act of production, but instead, around consumption. This transition began in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, after which most production jobs were moved overseas, and our economy shifted to retail and the provision of services and information.

As a consequence, most of us spend our days consuming rather than producing goods. On any given day, one might travel to work by bus, train, or car; work in an office that requires electricity, gas, oil, water, paper, and a host of consumer electronics and digital goods; purchase a tea, coffee, or soda; go out to a restaurant for lunch or dinner; pick up dry cleaning; purchase health and hygiene products at a drug store; use purchased groceries to prepare dinner, and then spend the evening watching television, enjoying social media, or reading a book.

All of these are forms of consumption.

Because consumption is so central to how we live our lives, it has taken on great importance in the relationships we forge with others. We often organize visits with others around the act of consuming, whether that be sitting down to eat a home cooked meal as a family, taking in a movie with a date, or meeting friends for a shopping excursion at the mall.

In addition, we often use consumer goods to express our feelings for others through the practice of gift-giving, or notably, in the act of proposing marriage with an expensive piece of jewelry.

Consumption is also a central aspect of the celebration of both secular and religious holidays, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. It has even become a political expression, like when we buy ethically produced or sourced goods, or engage in a buycott or a boycott of a certain product or brand.

Sociologists also see consumption as an important part of the process of forming and expressing both individual and group identities. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, sociologist Dick Hebdige observed that identity is often expressed through fashion choices, which allows us to classify people as hipsters or emo, for example. This happens because we choose consumer goods that we feel say something about who we are. Our consumer choices are often meant to reflect our values and lifestyle, and in doing so, send visual signals to others about the kind of person we are.

Because we associate certain values, identities, and lifestyles with consumer goods, sociologists recognize that some troubling implications follow the centrality of consumption in social life.

We often make assumptions, without even realizing it, about a person’s character, social standing, values, and beliefs, or even their intelligence, based on how we interpret their consumer practices. Because of this, consumption can serve processes of exclusion and marginalization in society and can lead to conflict across lines of class, race or ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and religion.

So, from the sociological perspective, there's much more to consumption than meets the eye. In fact, there's so much to study about consumption that there's a whole subfield dedicated to it: the sociology of consumption.