The Sociology of Consumption

How Sociologists Approach and Study Consumption in Today's World

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). The Sociology of Consumption. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292 (accessed October 20, 2017).
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The sociology of consumption is a subfield of sociology formally recognized by the American Sociological Association as the Section on Consumers and Consumption. Within this subfield, sociologists see consumption as central to daily life, identity, and social order in contemporary societies in ways that far exceed rational economic principles of supply and demand.

Due to its centrality to social life, sociologists recognize fundamental and consequential relationships between consumption and economic and political systems, and to 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 about far more than a simple act of purchase, and 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. 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 within the sociology of consumption include and are not limited to:

  • 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;
  • And, 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’s writings on the symbolic, cultural meaning of material objects in a religious context has 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 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, American Historical Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of “conspicuous consumption” has been greatly influential to how sociologists study the display of wealth and status.

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 take seriously 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.

Notable Contemporary Scholars and Their Work

  • Zygmunt Bauman: Polish sociologists 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 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 Culture and the Journal of Consumer Research.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). The Sociology of Consumption. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of Consumption." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-of-consumption-3026292 (accessed October 20, 2017).