consumption, sociology of

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consumption, sociology of An as yet ill-defined and extremely diverse field of sociology that developed rapidly during the 1980s. Its substantive focus is the material culture (especially the mass culture) of advanced capitalist societies. The essays collected together in Per Otnes ( ed.) , The Sociology of Consumption (1988)
or Stephen Edgell et al. ( eds.) , Consumption Matters (1996)
are a good illustration of the diversity of the field.

Proponents of the sociology of consumption tend to argue that it provides an alternative focus for much of the work carried out in the tradition of urban sociology, a new approach to the analysis of social inequality and political alignments, and (sometimes) the basis for a wholesale revolution in sociological thinking. Their general complaint is that sociology has been dominated by the nineteenth-century concerns of the classical theorists—alienation, bureaucracy, social class, the division of labour, and other characteristics of early industrial capitalism—all of which emphasize production as the source of social meaning and the basis of social order or conflict. By contrast, if one takes seriously the late capitalist phenomenon of mass consumption, then (to quote the critique by H. F. Moorhouse) ‘it should no longer be possible for analysts to operate with a notion of an alienation based on paid labour pervading all contemporary life, nor should it be possible to privilege the factory, office, shop or mine as the crucial site of human experience and self understanding, though this is continually done in a lot of sociological and most Marxist theorizing’ (see ‘American Automobiles and Workers’ Dreams', Sociological Review, 1983
). In short, sociologists have produced too many studies of what it is like to work for Ford, and too few of what it means to own, drive, or customize a Ford.

This self-conscious attempt to challenge some of the basic assumptions of sociology has encouraged studies of topics as diverse as those of leisure, fashion, niche marketing, tourism, and the heritage industry. Many of these are less original than is claimed, since they tend to echo themes such as commodity fetishism, materialism, structural differentiation, inequality, privatism, and individualism, all of which were familiar to the classical theorists themselves. The interpretation of the symbolic significance of cultural artefacts (such as automobiles) does tend, however, to draw heavily on more recent structuralist and post-structuralist writings by authors such as Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean Baudrillard. There are substantial overlaps here with the more diffuse and increasingly fashionable concerns addressed by students of cultural studies (see, for example, Paul du Gay et al. , Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, 1996

In so far as the very diverse literature has a central unifying theme then this is provided by the common contention that consumption shapes social relations and social meanings in no less authentic a manner than does production; or, as Daniel Miller puts it, the sociology of consumption ‘translates the object from … being a symbol of estrangement and price value to being an artefact invested with particular inseparable connotations’ (Material Culture and Mass Consumption, 1987).

Discussion in Britain—and to a lesser extent some other European countries—has tended to focus on the particular claim that there is a major and novel consumption cleavage in advanced capitalist societies, between a majority of people who provide for their consumption requirements through the market, and a minority who remain reliant on (increasingly inadequate) state provision. This cleavage is argued to be as important (possibly more so) as earlier divisions such as social class, and is said to influence political attitudes, material life-chances, and cultural identities in parallel fashion. Critics have replied by insisting that the individual's position in the realm of consumption is still importantly influenced by his or her position in the labour-market—and is therefore reducible to the more traditional cleavages associated with production. This, in turn, has provoked the counterclaim that state intervention in provisions such as housing, education, health, and transport introduces a dimension of inequality not directly affected by relations of production. However, it can be argued that even if this were the case, dependence on state provision is itself a factor of weakness in the labour-market. Critics have also argued that the realm of consumption, once divorced from relations of production, does not of itself generate social inequality. The counter-claim would seem to be strongest in relation to housing, where the growth of owner-occupation and the long-term rise in the value of property has encouraged realization of substantial amounts of capital, mainly through the sale of houses inherited from an older generation. This is not, however, an argument which can be generalized to other areas of consumption. See also EMBOURGEOISEMENT; INFORMAL ECONOMY; LEISURE CLASS; POPULAR CULTURE.