The American economist Thorstein Veblen first introduced the term conspicuous consumption in his work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). The theoretical starting point for discussing the term is the evolution of hierarchical structures in societies, which produce more than is required for subsistence. An unproductive leisure class emerges that accumulates wealth and secures status that is not enjoyed by the laboring class. Conspicuous consumption is the vehicle by which members of the leisure class convey their position of wealth and status to other members of society. Veblen maintained it is not enough to be wealthy; to have status individuals must display their position of wealth via consumption.
In its most traditional guise, leisure is the main focus of conspicuous consumption. The old aristocracy spent much of the social calendar hunting, fishing, horse racing, and whatever else was of interest. As societies became more atomized, however, and capitalist enterprise became the main source of wealth, consumer goods became the main vehicle for social signaling.
Economists have used conspicuous consumption as an explanation of growth in consumer spending. For Veblen it was the main driving force behind the consumer boom that started in the 1890s. In 1982, the historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb argued that it provided the birth of the consumer society itself at the time of the Industrial Revolution. This view has been contested by historians and scholars, who point out that most of the growth in consumption during the Industrial Revolution was in items such as domestic coal, for which there was no social cachet.
This separation between goods that confer status and goods that are more basic, or less visible, is usually employed in economics. Often a utility function that individuals maximize (the mathematical equation relating consumption to utility) is decomposed into two parts representing social and private utility. Under this neoclassical approach, an opportunity for welfare-improving taxation is afforded by individuals choosing wasteful conspicuous consumption. This approach has also been used to explain why indicators of happiness are stagnating in developed countries, since individuals are failing to achieve their status objectives.
Sociologists have emphasized the power of social structure on the consumption of all commodities. In his Social Structures of the Economy (2005), the leading theorist of consumption, Pierre Bourdieu, said, “While economics is about how people make choices, sociology is about how they don’t have any choice to make” (p. 1). Instead of consciously choosing to engage in conspicuous consumption according to rational calculation, individuals are driven by cultural forces beyond their control. In the French housing market, for example, the desire to own a house takes on mythical proportions. People force themselves to go into large debt in order to meet a societal ideal.
Bourdieu’s emphasis on the unconscious formation of social identities also offers a more subtle interpretation of conspicuous consumption than its usual crude association with overt displays of status. During the postwar period the rich have become less overt in distinguishing their consumption from the expenditure power of the rising middle classes. Bourdieu’s work offers a framework in which the consumption patterns of the rich appear to be based on their cultural capital, made to appear natural as part of the unequal structure of power.
SEE ALSO Class, Leisure; Consumption; Malthus, Thomas Robert; Relative Income Hypothesis; Veblen, Thorstein
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2005. The Social Structures of the Economy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb. 1982. The Birth of Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. London: Europa.
Veblen, Thorstein. 1994. The Theory of the Leisure Class. In The Collected Works of Thorstein Veblen. Vol. 1. London: Routledge. (Orig. pub. 1899).
Andrew B. Trigg