The Sociology of Consumption

Women shopping together for jewelry

Peathegee Inc / Getty Images

From the sociological perspective, consumption is central to daily life, identity, and social order in contemporary societies in ways that far exceed rational economic principles of supply and demand. Sociologists who study consumption address questions such as how consumption patterns are related to our identities, the values that are reflected in advertisements, and ethical issues related to consumer behavior.

Key Takeaways: The Sociology of Consumption

  • Sociologists who study consumption look at how what we buy relates to our values, emotions, and identities.
  • This area of study has its theoretical roots in the ideas of Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber.
  • The sociology of consumption is an active area of research studied by sociologists around the world.

Consumption's Wide-Ranging Influence

The sociology of consumption is about far more than a simple act of purchase. It includes the range of emotions, values, thoughts, identities, and behaviors that circulate the purchase of goods and services, and how we use them by ourselves and with others. Due to its centrality to social life, sociologists recognize fundamental and consequential relationships between consumption and economic and political systems. Sociologists also study the relationship between consumption and social categorization, group membership, identity, stratification, and social status. Consumption is thus intersected with issues of power and inequality, is central to social processes of meaning-making, situated within the sociological debate surrounding structure and agency, and a phenomenon that connects the micro-interactions of everyday life to larger-scale social patterns and trends.

The sociology of consumption is a subfield of sociology formally recognized by the American Sociological Association as the Section on Consumers and Consumption. This subfield of sociology is active throughout North America, Latin America, Britain and the European continent, Australia, and Israel, and is growing in China and India.

Research Topics on Consumption

  • How people interact at sites of consumption, like shopping malls, streets, and downtown districts
  • The relationship between individual and group identities and consumer goods and spaces
  • How lifestyles are composed, expressed, and slotted into hierarchies through consumer practices and identities
  • Processes of gentrification, in which consumer values, practices, and spaces play a central role in reconfiguring the racial and class demographics of neighborhoods, towns, and cities
  • The values and ideas embedded in advertising, marketing, and product packaging
  • Individual and group relationships to brands
  • Ethical issues tied to and often expressed through consumption, including environmental sustainability, the rights and dignity of workers, and economic inequality
  • Consumer activism and citizenship, as well as anti-consumer activism and lifestyles

Theoretical Influences

The three “founding fathers” of modern sociology laid the theoretical foundation for the sociology of consumption. Karl Marx provided the still widely and effectively used concept of “commodity fetishism,” which suggests that the social relations of labor are obscured by consumer goods that carry other kinds of symbolic value for their users. This concept is often used in studies of consumer consciousness and identity.

Émile Durkheim: Cultural Meaning of Material Objects

Émile Durkheim’s writings on the symbolic, cultural meaning of material objects in a religious context have proved valuable to the sociology of consumption, as it informs studies of how identity is connected to consumption, and how consumer goods play an important role in traditions and rituals around the world.

Max Weber: Consumer Goods' Growing Importance

Max Weber pointed to the centrality of consumer goods when he wrote about the growing importance of them to social life in the 19th century, and provided what would become a useful comparison to today’s society of consumers, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A contemporary of the founding fathers, Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of “conspicuous consumption” has been greatly influential to how sociologists study the display of wealth and status.

European Theorists: Consumption and the Human Condition

European critical theorists active in the mid-twentieth century also provided valuable perspectives to the sociology of consumption. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s essay on “The Culture Industry” offered an important theoretical lens for understanding the ideological, political, and economic implications of mass production and mass consumption. Herbert Marcuse delved deeply into this in his book One-Dimensional Man, in which he describes Western societies as awash in consumer solutions that are meant to solve one’s problems, and as such, provide market solutions for what are actually political, cultural, and social problems. Additionally, American sociologist David Riesman’s landmark book, The Lonely Crowd, set the foundation for how sociologists would study how people seek validation and community through consumption, by looking to and molding themselves in the image of those immediately around them.

More recently, sociologists have embraced French social theorist Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about the symbolic currency of consumer goods and his claim that seeing consumption as a universal of the human condition obscures the class politics behind it. Similarly, Pierre Bourdieu’s research and theorizing of the differentiation between consumer goods, and how these both reflect and reproduce cultural, class, and educational differences and hierarchies, is a cornerstone of today’s sociology of consumption.

Additional References

  • Zygmunt Bauman: Polish sociologist who has written prolifically about consumerism and the society of consumers, including the books Consuming Life; Work, Consumerism and the New Poor; and Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?
  • Robert G. Dunn: American social theorist who has written an important book of consumer theory titled Identifying Consumption: Subjects and Objects in Consumer Society.
  • Mike Featherstone: British sociologist who wrote the influential Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, and who writes prolifically about lifestyle, globalization, and aesthetics.
  • Laura T. Raynolds: Professor of sociology and director of the Center for Fair and Alternative Trade at Colorado State University. She has published numerous articles and books about fair trade systems and practices, including the volume Fair Trade: The Challenges of Transforming Globalization.
  • George Ritzer: Author of widely influential books, The McDonaldization of Society and Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Continuity and Change in the Cathedrals of Consumption.
  • Juliet Schor: Economist and sociologist who has written a series of widely cited books on the cycle of working and spending in American society, including The Overspent American, The Overworked American, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.
  • Sharon Zukin: Urban and public sociologist who is widely published, and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Spaces, and the important journal article, “Consuming Authenticity: From Outposts of Difference to Means of Exclusion.”
  • New research findings from the sociology of consumption are regularly published in the  Journal of Consumer Cultureand the Journal of Consumer Research.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo, Jul. 18, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, July 18). The Sociology of Consumption. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).