The Sociology of Consumption and Lifestyle

Don Slater. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.

Consumption has a profound but often problematic and unrecognized place in the social sciences over the modern period. Until perhaps the past two decades, it was less an area for substantive research than a barometer of ethical and political positions on the cultural quality and social health of modern society. For the broad tradition of liberalism, core values resided in the figure of the consumer as a self-defining agent who chooses, and whose autonomous and rational choice is exemplified in market behaviour—the sovereign consumer. For the various critical traditions within social analysis, consumer culture—as opposed to consumption per se—has tended to stand for the domination of the capitalist commodity form and industrial processes over culture (both in the restricted artistic sense and the broader sense of lived meaningful social life) and for the harnessing of autonomous social subjects to the logic of modern rationality at the level of their needs and wants. Consumer culture has tended to indicate the dominance of commercial culture over the public sphere, a world awash with advertising, brands and commodities.

At the same time that consumption indicated the cultural and social price that was being paid for capitalist modernization, it was regarded as too trivial to investigate in its own right. There were various reasons for this. In the broadest sense, social analysis has generally displayed a ‘productivist’ bias: production is generally assumed to be socially, ethically and methodologically primary, as source of value, as providing the underlying structure of distribution of both goods and incomes and as historically prior to modern consumption (as in the idea that an industrial revolution preceded commercial or consumer ones). Hence, consumption is often seen as a derived or secondary phenomenon, with a low explanatory value. Secondly, the academic study of consumption was tainted by the charges of triviality levelled against its object of study. If consumers and consumer culture are debased, trivial and largely feminine, surely the ambitious academic should stick to serious matters? Finally, sociology fell between various disciplinary stools in relation to consumption: economics concerned itself with only the formal rationality of decision-making, regarding the substantive content of consumption decisions to be irrelevant in understanding economic life; the latter was delegated to a range of disciplines, but largely dominated by psychology and by survey approaches that could measure consumer demand for more practical marketing application. It was not clear what a sociological approach to specific consumption practices would be, or could add, at either the theoretical or practical level.

This long tradition of regarding consumption or consumer culture as morally suspect and analytically secondary has been largely reversed over the past two decades, although many of the issues raised by critiques of consumer culture are still very much in researchers’ minds. The starting point of most contemporary work however—particularly in consumption studies outside the United States—is that consumption is a central site of social reproduction whose structure is crucial in understanding processes such as identity construction, social agency and key social relationships. Moreover, it is understood as involving creative and oppositional practices, rather than simply acting as a site of subjugation, and this requires a less moralistic and dismissive approach to the everyday life of modern social actors. It seems vital to approach consumption through the understandings and aims of those who carry it out rather than through positions derived from theoretical critiques of capitalist modernity. One can do this not as a liberal economist, for whom the consumer’s preferences are by definition always correct and unchallengeable, but rather as a critical social analyst, for whom the consumption of ordinary people is a valid starting point from which to map the networks of power and process in which they are enmeshed.

The shift is partly a move from critiques of consumer culture to the study of consumption. To clarify these terms: ‘consumption’ is a general, or even universal term in social analysis. All ongoing social life requires material and symbolic resources in order to reproduce social relations, processes and identities. Consumption in this sense is never purely material or simply tied to basic or natural needs. Eating a meal, for example, always involves socially specific structures of consumption: different cultures have different notions of what is edible and inedible (let alone what is desirable or appropriate to specific consumption occasions); how to prepare these goods, and who is to prepare them; and how food consumption in one household distinguishes it from others while identifying it with others within a culture. In a modern household, the difference between family meals with home-cooked food on the one hand, and ‘grazing’ on prepared foods, individually and at different times, on the other, will not only say a lot about the different lifestyles and identities in these households but will also play a considerable part in reproducing them as different kinds of families.

Consumption, then, is a general category of social analysis, but one that has been quite underdeveloped within sociology (as opposed to anthropology). Instead, sociology has, until recently, been largely concerned with ‘consumer culture,’ or ‘consumer society’: the specific organization of consumption that increasingly characterized the West over the modern period and which has been to some extent globalized with the spread of Western capitalism. First, in consumer culture goods and services are predominantly accessed as commodities, purchased in markets, rather than produced for immediate consumption within households or local communities. The material and symbolic means of social reproduction therefore largely emerge from, and are thought to be dominated by, industrial processes (for example, mass production) and commercial processes such as marketing and advertising which give commodities (and their purchase through shopping) particular shapes and meanings in relation to the competitive aims of private firms. The central issue immediately becomes power: to what extent are consumers and their social reproduction dominated by the moments of production and market competition. Secondly, ‘consumer culture’ usually presumes that market-based values and identities have become central to social reproduction. The idea of being a ‘consumer’ is a specifically modern one in which individual and collective identities are bound up with making choices between marketed goods, and with constructing lifestyles from knowledge of the public commercial meanings and uses of commodities. Not only are modern subjects able to think of themselves primarily as consumers (as opposed to workers or citizens), and to understand consumption as a primary site for their identities, but the language and values of consumption as market choice seem to predominate in other social spheres. For example, after many years of neoliberal political projects, claims to collective provision (such as the welfare state) have become hard to sustain in comparison to market-derived models of consumer sovereignty.

Insofar as sociology emerged historically as the study of the modern society in which it was born it is not surprising that its focus has been on a critical engagement with consumer culture. It is equally obvious, however, that modern consumption is not simply reducible to the modern structures of consumer culture. Developments in the field have largely waited on serious attention to consumption as a core process in its own right. This attention has finally emerged from a number of different strands, which we will approach throughout the rest of this chapter by exploring some of the key themes in contemporary sociology of consumption.

The Consumer as Social Agent

Critical traditions in sociology have largely regarded consumption in terms of the reduction of individuals’ agency, or of the authenticity and autonomy of that agency. One can identify two interrelated strands, the Romantic and the critical (Slater, 1997a). Romanticism was concerned from its birth with asserting the ideal, the spiritual and the authentic in human experience against the materialistic, the industrial and manufactured, the rational and—ultimately—the modern. Consumer culture appeared as a commercially manufactured culture, imposed by rationalizing forces over authentic cultures and identities, and promoting an over-investment in the material world. Rousseau states the theme clearly at the start: modern ‘society’ (by which he means aristocratic and salon society as much as ‘the social’) imposes external rules and demands on the individual—such as fashion, emulation and etiquette—alienating him [sic] from himself, and pressuring him to find himself not in what he ‘is’ but merely in what he ‘has.’ Lifestyle, enacted through consumption rituals, is a profound form of social tyranny. While Rousseau represents those who sought the countervailing authenticity of the self in the individual, it has been equally common to locate it in the supposedly organic and authentic cultures of the premodern, or in those vestiges of these cultures which have lasted into the modern age as authentic ‘values.’ Even Marx relays this Romanticism into the critical tradition, constantly assuming a premodern world that was organized transparently in terms of use values rather than exchange values: the premodern may have been impoverished and oppressive but it was not alienated, in that people produced directly in relation to their own clear needs and ways of life. F.R. Leavis (Leavis and Thompson, 1933) had the most profound impact on approaches to consumption by arguing along these lines: he envisaged an ‘organic’ premodern life in which culture is lived and embedded in ways of doing and making, and in which language and experience are consequently true to themselves. In industrial society, true culture retreats to the rarified, but protected, realm of artistic culture, which preserves the values that have disappeared from the life that is actually lived under modern conditions. The latter is dominated by a manufactured culture, commercial meanings, cheap thrills and materialistic impulses that are tied to the imperatives of mass manufacture.

Leavis’s Romanticism is not far from much critical social theory. Adorno might argue that all that separates them is a developed theory of capitalism, Leavis’s tendency to blame the masses rather than the culture industries and an undialectical notion of culture. Critical theory—from Lukacs through Adorno—builds its account of consumer culture instead on Marx’s analysis of the mystifications—fetishism or reification—that arise from the commodity form and the separation of production and consumption through the intervention of market relations. This produces the dominance of exchange value over use value, whereby object relations (both needs and goods and their meanings) are hitched to the logic of profit and competition rather than the autonomous logic of human development. Human needs and ways of life become positively functional to capitalist reproduction: for example, in Adorno, leisure and consumption—particularly cultural consumption—are reconstructed as ‘recuperation, as means to ensure that bodies recover enough of their energies to go back to (alienated) work the next day, and that minds are politically docile, identifying their needs and gratifications with what capitalism can profitably produce. Consumer culture as a whole is an engine for sublimating any glimmers of critical consciousness into commodity desires or—as Lowenthal famously put it—mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse,’ neurotically miring individuals ever more unconsciously in the conditions that oppress them in the first place. In Lukacs’s terms, individuals develop a ‘contemplative attitude’ to social conditions, an idea later developed by the Situationists as the ‘society of the Spectacle’: we powerlessly and passively watch the world as if we were viewing a film (or advertisement) in which we cannot intervene.

Marcuse (1964, 1973 [1955]) offers probably the most sustained version of this argument in terms of consumer culture: industrial society has reached a level of productivity that would allow us, collectively, to stop working for survival and instead devote our energies to pleasurable self-development. However, the capitalist form of this industrial rationality would, of course, collapse if people did not consume ever more. The maintenance of the system therefore requires intensified ‘surplus repression’—the production of the greater number of needs and wants that the system itself needs and wants. This production of unnecessary needs has to be built upon the individual’s real instinctual basis (for example, the advertising association of sexual satisfactions with objects like cars and drinks), but by that very process mystifies the individual’s relationship to their real needs, which are the main source of their ability to oppose the system which mystifies them.

Both Romanticism and critical theory, then, if by different routes, arrive at the loss of authentic agency in consumer culture. The individual is alienated from themself to the extent of not knowing what they really need or feel; and without the capacity for critical reflection that comes from acting in relation to the real sources of the self, which both traditions understand in terms of non-alienated social relations. In its cruder forms, the loss of agency is characterized simply in terms of manipulation and persuasion: advertising, marketing and the self-presentation of consumer society as opulent and materially satisfying simply replace real agency with desires more functional to capitalism.

Although this has been the dominant line of thought, there are others. One crucial theme cuts across both liberal and critical traditions: the idea that an expanding commercial and material world expands the scope of human development. This theme is already clear in Enlightenment thought, particularly in David Hume and Adam Smith, for whom the wider social networks that arise from commercial society (best exemplified in the expanded division of labour and in trade), bring people into wider social intercourse, or ‘commerce’ in its widest sense, exposing them to the fact of social difference, to experience of other ways of life and to being evaluated by other people (Hirschman, 1977). Both drew on traditions of moral psychology in direct opposition to Rousseau’s: the scrutiny of ‘society’ and the experience of alternative lifestyles through a civil life are not alienating but speak to the very foundation of moral action. This is to be found in our empathy, in that our ability to be moral and social depends on our capacity to see ourselves through the eyes of others. (Compare Colin Campbell’s (1989) related but different account of the relation between romanticism and consumer culture which stresses the capacity for ‘imaginative longing’ that unintentionally arises from the romantic sensibility.)

In Marx and Simmel—working through a Hegelian analysis of subject-object relations through processes of objectification (Miller, 1987)—the expanding world of use values (Marx) or objective culture (Simmel) produced by industrial modernity provides for the (potential) development of the human who is ‘rich in needs’ (Marx) or for the increasing refinement and sophistication of subjective culture (Simmel). The problem for both Marx and Simmel is that the dialectical expansion of human capacities that should naturally arise from this situation is distorted. Marx points his finger at forms of alienation and exploitation which sunder individuals from the products of their labour either subjectively or materially. Simmel (1950) is pessimistic about the capacity of subjectivities to assimilate the profusion of modern things, a problem glimpsed through the prevalent condition of neuraesthenia in modern urban life which individuals defensively counter through a ‘blasé attitude.’ In both authors there is also the idea that the development of objective culture is attached to the drives of capitalist competition and the mystifications of the market place, rather than to the autonomous needs of self-developing individuals.

Although this theme was developed through material culture studies mainly within anthropology (see below), the re-assertion of agency in sociological treatments of consumption has largely come through another source—cultural studies. There are at least two bases for this re-assertion. First, cultural studies began with a revaluation of popular culture, including consumer culture. Whatever the worries about it, lived culture was to be treated—more anthropologically—as the actual ground on which social identities and relations were formed and lived out, and as a battlefield for social agency rather than a mausoleum for fallen agents. Responding to the many subcultures and political movements from the 1960s onwards which sought to fashion solidarities and lifestyles out of their engagements with the popular (above all in music and drugs), cultural studies particularly focused on the spectacular subcultures of contemporary youth, which turned consumer culture into resources for the expression of social conflict and negotiation. The mod’s dandy-esque obsession with Italian design can be read as an idiom for negotiating their mobility from industrial proletariat to white-collar lower middle classness; the punk’s safety pins and bin-liner clothes become an active appropriation, inversion and critique of the promises (‘No future’) of consumer capitalism (Hebdige, 1979,1988).

Unintentionally, cultural studies tended to find agency only in such spectacular inversions; those which could readily be understood as culturally—or even politically—oppositional. Its opinion of the mundane consumption of ordinary people was not far off that of earlier cultural critics: not worth looking at. It was later moves into feminism (McRobbie, 1989, 1991, 1999) and postmodernism (Fiske, 1989) that focused attention on the creativity and negotiation that goes on in all engagements with consumer culture, including those that are excluded from subcultural memberships. The most measured statement of this approach was produced by Willis (1990), for whom all consumption requires symbolic labour and creativity in order actually to place any objects within our lives; agency is a precondition for consumption rather than a property of more critical or political consumers.

Secondly, agency was reasserted within the tradition of semiotics and structuralism, which proposed that all social objects could be treated as signs that derive their meaning from their relationship to other signs within social codes of meanings. This at first produced highly deterministic—structuralist—accounts of advertising, some of which were closely aligned with structuralist Marxism (e.g., Williamson, 1978). Experience of advertisements (or ‘interpellation’ by them) constructs subjectivities (or ‘subject positions’) that are ideologically appropriate to capitalist reproduction. The remnants of this position are still evident in Baudrillard’s (1981, 1990, 1998 [1970]) work, in which ‘the Code’ (a kind of social instantiation of semiotic methodology) dominates—and later obliterates or replaces—social life; any involvement with meaningful social material—even attempted opposition—is absorbed by the Code, which gives it its meaning in the first place. The only available form of agency—apart from the possible implosion of the system under its own weight—is a kind of nihilism in which consumers, by passively absorbing everything it throws at them, somehow turn the power of the system against itself.

However, it was in fact semiotics itself that cracked under its own weight, or rather its structuralist variant imploded and transfigured into poststructuralisms for which the central assumption was the indeterminacy of signs and their meanings. Far from being able to solidify into stable Codes, meaning appears as an ongoing process, and one in which specific social subjects are able to realize possibilities for contradiction, opposition or even invention within the order of signs. Just what kind of agency this allows is still a matter of endless argument, with great warnings as to the dangers of falling back into the ‘humanism,’ as it used to be called, of both romantic and critical theory.

A completely different approach to consumption and agency comes out of the later Foucault, developed under the idea of ‘governmentality’ (Barry et al., 1996; Miller and Rose, 1997; Rose, 1991, 1992, 1999). Whereas liberals, critical theorists and—latterly—post-moderns debate the actual degree of agency involved in contemporary consumption, governmentality approaches have been concerned with the discourses and practices of agency through which we have been led to understand and construct ourselves. The point is not whether consumers are or are not free or sovereign but the extent to which they have been incited to understand themselves through notions of freedom, choice and autonomy or enterprise. This analytical tactic makes considerable sense in relation to the neoliberal context it sought to critique (Rose, 1999). Neoliberalism explicitly waged a cultural and institutional revolution against what it saw as the passive clientelism of the welfare state by conceptualizing and enacting policies that assumed a self-motivating, choosing and ‘responsibilized’ individual, a version of subjectivity that drew substantially on the model of the consumer. Hence, for example in education and health care—spheres previously to be protected from commercial relations—individuals were to be addressed and acted upon as consumers choosing through quasi-market mechanisms, rather than as political citizens exercising collective rights.

Identity, Status, and Distinction

Second only to sociology of consumption’s concern with agency has been its obsession with the substantive content of that agency: identity. The reasons for this are possibly best expressed, and exemplified, by Giddens’s (1991, 1992) accounts of post-traditional society, if in far too general terms. One can crudely contrast the confused pluralism of contemporary society with traditional societies which—if not organic—involved stable status orders that ascribed enduring social positions to people; that supported enduring forms of knowledge and authority; and that involved far less experience of other ways of life mediated to localities through travel, mass media or globalized networks. This traditional world is often characterized through the importance of sumptuary law, in which the most detailed of consumption practices were forcefully and juridically regulated in relation to specific ascribed—and largely inescapable—social statuses and identities.

The post-traditional (in Giddens; ‘postmodern’ in most other accounts) condition involves a breakdown of stable and unitary collective orders: our experience is one of incessant pluralism; of methodical doubting of all knowledge and authorities, and constant competition between them; of increasing mediation of experience to us through new means of communication and globalization. This is associated with a turn to the individual—rather than collective orders—as necessarily the only agency responsible for itself. Giddens sums this up in the formula that ‘We have no choice but to choose,’ if only because nothing is either ascribed or stable. It is the individual who must both choose and contain all the different choices within what Giddens calls the ‘reflexive narrative of the self’ or project of the self, a continual effort to establish self-coherence by connecting past, present and future within a consistent narrative of who one is. In the exemplary arena of choice—consumer culture itself—the result appears to be high levels of anxiety over who we are and what our lives, or lifestyles, should look like. How can we possibly know what is right or wrong in our consumption decisions, and even if we could will that decision still be right tomorrow or across all the different people with whom we interact? The picture that emerges from Giddens is of a kind of permanent identity crisis that is both fed and assuaged by the mechanisms of consumer culture. For example, on the one hand, advertising and marketing offer us images of lifestyles that depict standardized representations of what our choices could add up to. This is akin to Leiss, Kline and Jhally’s (1986) description of advertising as providing ‘maps of modernity.’ All very reassuring except that the same lifestyle depictions compete with thousands of others in the marketplace and mediascape; and that they are constantly renovated according to the rhythms of fashion and style change which exacerbate the very condition they were supposed to solve.

A crucial assumption here is that our consumption choices are indeed profoundly consequential for our identities. Figures like Giddens (1991) and Featherstone (1991) argue that we seem to be capable of choice in almost every aspect of life so that whatever we wear, own or do appears to be an expression of our choosing, and thus implicates our ethical and social identity. In a world of accessible cosmetic surgery and inescapable dietary and other bodily regimes, the fact of having a long nose, small breasts or big belly can be read as a deliberate and active decision not to mould oneself to other body ideals. To appear overweight or unfashionably dressed can therefore be treated as a direct judgement on one’s self, with direct implications for social status and membership (Finkelstein, 1991). While this is evidently a real and significant strand of contemporary social life—and one that is very explicitly voiced in people’s discourses (Miller, 1998) and in public media—there is doubt about whether this leads to such pervasive anxiety for everyone (Warde, 1994a, 1994b; Warde and Martens, 2000), or whether all consumer decisions have the same implications for identity (my choice of loft insulation or soap powder may not provoke the same existential doubt as my clothes or the foods I serve at a dinner party as opposed to a quick sandwich at work—Gronow and Warde, 2001; Shove, 2003). Moreover, there is a tendency to persist in a Veblen style of analysis, in which goods appear simply as markers of status distinction, as status symbols that mark out relative social position, a formulation that ignores the much more complex—and practical—existence that consumed objects lead within our lives.

From Giddens one can move in two apparently opposite directions. On the one hand, Giddens’s reference point is the attempt to stabilize the self under conditions of modern choice. Postmodern, and some poststructural, thinkers have largely treated the maintenance or mythology of the stable self as precisely the most oppressive and normalizing aspect of a disciplinary modernity. The potential opened up by contemporary consumer culture is precisely the possibility of play and irony without commitment or an imperative to cohesion. For example, in contrast to Veblen’s status-seeking conspicuous consumers, the (post)modern consumer is more like someone attending a fancy dress party, able to don and doff identities at whim, or to play with them tactically (de Certeau, 1984; Fiske, 1989) in a mobile and fluid game with the system of consumption. For example, both Maffesoli (1996) and Bauman (1990) stress the emergence of neotribalism: in contrast to older class and status orders that had a social structural foundation, contemporary consumers are dealing with fluid social groupings, with low commitment, low entry and exit costs, and membership or identification largely based on shared lifestyle expressions. For example, ‘consumption communities’ might temporarily bind people on the basis of simply flashing your lights as you pass someone driving the same make of car as you.

On the other hand, Bourdieu (1984) does not point us to the dissolution of social structures in the game of consumption but rather to the greater subtlety and strategic character of their operation. Choices are not matters of mere whim or confusion but emanate from structures of taste which are solidified at the level of the person, and indeed the body (habitus), which represent collective social dispositions that can be analysed in terms of class and other social structures, and which are fought over in substantial social conflicts that are consequential for economic and social careers. When Bourdieu argues that ‘taste classifies the classifier’ he is asserting (like Giddens or Veblen) that our consumption choices are indeed read as personal choices that socially identify us. However, stating this in terms of classifications emphasizes that tastes are structured (if I buy this kind of watch I might well buy, or aspire to this kind of house, holiday, dress, partner, music and so on). These structures emerge from class experiences (for example, the habitus is a set of dispositions that arise from collective experiences of possibilities and constraints), are deeply and largely unconsciously internalized, and are highly determinative of one’s possible social memberships and therefore of the social networks that one is capable of operating within. In the most obvious example, the possession of that ingrained cultural capital that allows one to naturally choose the right fork at a formal dinner, banter about good wines, express appropriate opinions about opera or sports cars and so on ensures one a seat at the kind of upper middle class table (literally and figuratively) on which much else depends: knowledge of and access to economic opportunities, social support, ‘connections’ and so on. Identity here is not a matter of narrative coherence but of appropriate consumption as essential to the social reproduction of real social networks.

At the same time, Bourdieu is equally concerned with the way in which such structures of taste and lifestyle can act as the medium for changes in the entire structure of status and power. Featherstone (1991), for example, develops Bourdieu’s account of the rise of the new middle classes whose fortunes are largely bound up with cultural and interpersonal skills, whether they work in advertising, the media or in new universities and schools. They are characterized as upwardly socially mobile, often largely self-taught and hence uncomfortable with the older cultural capital of the existing bourgeoisie. At the same time, their livelihood is bound up with the newer cultural capital of popular and commercial culture. They therefore have every reason to go into battle over the ‘hierarchy of hierarchies’—that is, over the relative merits of different competing structures of taste—and to attempt to denigrate the value of traditional consumption and lifestyle, while asserting a more postmodern revaluation of popular culture, and of ironic and highly reflexive orientations to cultural consumption.

Finally, it is clear that while these arguments about identity address issues of power they do not adequately take into account inequality in its more conventional sense. Bauman (1990), for example, attempted to distinguish between the ‘seduced’ (those who are able to be troubled by the need to pursue identity through consumption) and the ‘repressed’ (those who by their poverty, and welfare clientage, are excluded from the whole game). While this captures the sense of insult at being left out of the party, it seems again to confuse the study of consumer culture with the study of consumption: the repressed may be left out of the latter but it is unwise—and even more insulting—to treat them as somehow ‘without culture,’ or possessing a culture structured entirely by their exclusion from contemporary consumption games. Bourdieu veers close to the same position in arguing that the working classes are distinguished by a ‘taste for necessity,’ a notion which—improperly used—makes their consumption appear to be driven by pure need and functionality, rather than meaningfully structured like anyone else’s.

Materiality and Signification

All of these arguments depend on a fundamental premise that needs to be examined: the idea that goods are meaningful, rather than simply physical items that functionally satisfy specific requirements or needs. This is a long-established position. On the one hand, it derives from semiotics, in which it was argued that social objects (like linguistic ones) could be analysed as signs within systems of signs. Methodologically, this involves bracketing their objective reference or correspondence to an objective order of things and instead focusing on how they are meaningfully related to other objects as signs. Barthes (1986) made the major step in Mythologies by analysing objects such as wines, landscapes and wrestling matches not in terms of their physical properties but rather in terms of meaningful oppositions between wines, national landscapes and other sports. His really enduring move was to treat these oppositions and the systems within which they are organized as profoundly ideological. That is to say, for example, that representations of wines can be used to signify and reproduce versions of nationhood (Frenchness, Spanishness, etc.) and indeed to act as central supports for the entire ideology of nationhood and national identity.

On the other hand, an important related route to a similar position derives from anthropology, and particularly from Mary Douglas (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979). Her account also divides consumption goods from their physicality and functionality, arguing that they should be instead (or additionally) understood as means of communication, and the exchange of both objects and knowledge of objects as complex and necessary information systems within any society. The consumption of goods, and the exchange of knowledge (names) of goods, marks out social occasions and categories (you must have turkey at Christmas, you must have white wine with fish). While Douglas’s account, unlike Barthes’s, locates the meaning of goods in actual social practices and events rather than in sign systems and ideologies, it none the less also separates—methodologically and analytically—the meanings of things from their practical use and properties.

This separation has been problematic in quite various ways. First, and most crudely, there is a long running tendency to assume that goods should be functional and useful, rather than meaningful, and that this meaningfulness is largely the product of capitalist mystification. (Douglas would not argue this, but Barthes actually maintains—rather like Bourdieu—that working class consumption is closer to necessity and therefore less bound up with the meaning of things than with getting enough things.) This obviously flies in the face of the need to treat all consumption as culturally organized, hence as bearing meanings that are inseparable from their practical use. This line of thought has been well represented by the tradition of material culture studies within anthropology. Communities objectify all manner of social relations, beliefs and desires in their categorizations of things, which come to act as idioms not only for the expression of a social order but for its enactment and reproduction. Consequently, the meanings of goods are essentially implicated in the most mundane uses of them, and not merely in their use to mark out social differences or to reproduce ideological structures. As Douglas herself put it, ‘The choice between pounding and grinding (coffee) is … a choice between two different views of the human condition …’ (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979: 74).

In contrast, sociology has been haunted by a subterranean naturalism that complements its obsession with meanings and sign, continuing to distinguish between goods as material and goods as meaningful, or signifying. This is often complemented by a distinction between basic needs (such as for food, clothing and shelter which must be met by material things) and wants, luxuries or more cultural needs (which are not necessary for physical survival and which relate more to the meanings of things, or to desires of the mind rather than the body). Moreover, this distinction often serves as a critical standard, on the assumption that material needs are both more objective and more fundamental, whereas wants are personal, subjective and dispensable. Hence a common line of critique is that consumer culture is inauthentic and perverse in that it elaborates new needs and wants that are imaginary or inessential (for example, through advertising). This, however, seems to confuse the issue of power over consumption meanings within consumer culture with the ineradicably cultural organization of consumption in all societies (Slater, 1997b). It also obviously leaves the impossible problem of distinguishing approved Culture (which is not a matter of physical needs but defines us as ‘civilized’) from inauthentic commercial culture.

One direct consequence of the meaning/function distinction has been a methodological focus on ‘reading’ objects and their public representations in advertising and design (e.g. Goldman and Papson, 1995, 1998; Wernick, 1991). This was clearly an important move, and a necessary departure from treating goods as purely functional and instrumental objects. However, it has too rarely been pursued into observation of the actual lifeworlds of consumers, into a fully ethnographic understanding of what people do with things. A good example is the study of shopping. Under the emerging impact of postmodernism from the mid-1980s onwards, sociologists challenged the idea of shopping as a functional activity in which consumers accessed satisfiers for known needs, and attempted to do so in an efficient manner (Shields, 1992). Shopping instead constituted an important social form, and one which was increasingly strategic for modern life and economy. Shopping was (increasingly) akin to leisure, providing spaces and activities for hedonism, fantasy, sociality and social identity. It was a playground of semiosis, in which browsing not only the shop windows but also the passing crowds (in the manner of a flâneur) had become the central activity, and the shopper was to be understood as a consumer of signs rather than things. The shopping spaces themselves were to be analysed largely through readings (Gottdiener, 1995; Jameson, 1984).

The case was overstated rather than wrong. More sophisticated geographies (Harvey, 1989; Zukin, 1991) were able to place this shopping-as-leisure within social battles over urban space, involving retail and finance capital, urban governance and competing class-based ways of life (in Zukin’s terminology, the ‘vernacular’). Ethnographies of shopping (Chin, 2001; Miller et al, 1998) indicated how these hedonistic spaces fit into the different class, gender and ethnic lives of their users. Finally, Miller’s (1998) ethnographies of shopping indicated that postmodern discourses of hedonism and identity-centred consumption were articulated by many shoppers but bore little relationship to either the meanings or practices evidenced in their actual shopping. This was largely shopping carried out by women and focused on provisioning their families, and was therefore largely concerned with understanding and negotiating the needs of others as a basis for caring for them and sustaining intimate relationships.

There is another crucial sense in which the focus on the meanings of goods has come to dominate consumption studies, and this involves historical arguments about transformations within capitalism. In these arguments, it is claimed that consumer capitalism has in some sense become more cultural,’ or that cultural processes and their institutionalization have become ever more central in the operation of contemporary capitalist society. For example, early Fordist capitalism relayed the economies of scale of mass production organization into a complementary structure of mass consumption based on standardization of goods, large-scale and relatively undifferentiated national and global markets and a mapping of consumers in terms of highly aggregated demographics. This is often captured in Henry Ford’s offer that the consumer could have any colour of car as long as it was black. This mode of organization reached its limits in saturated consumer markets and huge capital investments by the 1970s, and encountered new opportunities in more flexible technologies and marketing strategies, particularly over the 1980s. The ideal of post-Fordism is not mass production for mass consumption but rather flexible small batch production of goods that are customized to respond to specific consumer niche markets. These are not defined by demographics but rather by lifestyles and lifestyle imagery with a cultural rather than social structural logic. Hence, the commanding discourses within consumer-oriented firms are increasingly marketing discourses that seek to orient all aspects of corporate activity to building brands, designs and commercial meanings that fit into shifting consumer lifestyles. The brand has become the major contemporary symbol of these developments, particularly in the work of anti-globalization campaigners such as Naomi Klein (2000). Firms like Nike do not directly own factories and production systems but rather organize vast networks of subcontracting and retail distribution which are knit together through their ownership of brand imagery and a logo that constitutes their real commercial value.

As noted above, Baudrillard’s later work similarly depicts a world in which semiotic codes have become the genetic material’ that generates social (hyper)realities. However, the same kind of argument has been given a new lease of life through concepts of information society, network society (Castells, 1996), new economy, ‘economies of signs and space’ (Lash and Urry, 1994) and ‘linguistic capitalism’ (Poster, 2001). Each of these terms points to the centrality of a broad range of actual quite heterogeneous cultural capitals that now provide the sources of value and organization within commercial life. While it is clear that these terms reference real aspects of corporations’ self-understanding, as well as the emergence of new business organizations such as consultancies (Thrift, 2000), it is unclear either that they capture actual changes in economic process or that they provide a good conceptual basis for understanding changes in the organization or experience of consumption (Slater, 2002 a and b).

Finally, it is important to point to new perspectives emerging from quite a different direction. Science and technology studies, and particularly actor-network theory, have tried to treat the materiality of the object as continuous with its meanings and uses within networks of social action (Barry and Slater, 2002). This has led, for example, to Callon’s (1998, 1999, 2002) treatment of consumer goods as inscribed within socio-technical apparatuses that involve the participation of a broad range of heterogeneous social agencies.

Cross-Cultural Consumption and Globalization

One area of research that exemplifies many of the issues so far discussed concerns the spread of consumer culture, and of specific commodities, across the globe. This is hardly a new theme. Hume and Smith staked many of their hopes for the civilizing and pacifying potentials of market capitalism on the global inter-dependencies that would arise from trade and the division of labour (Durkheim had similar hopes, contingent on the emergence of a sustainable moral framework for this activity). Marx saw capitalism, on the other hand, as both intrinsically globalizing in its search for new markets for labour, raw materials and consumption, and as corrosive of any of the social orders that it encountered: commodification was an irresistible force. The last century of consumption studies largely took the latter view, and generally in the form of the Americanization thesis, arguing that the economic, media and military force of American capitalism was able to spread both specific commercial gains and a general consumerist ideology (Sklair, 1991, 1994). Naomi Klein and the general campaign against globalization fit within this kind of approach. Similarly, Ritzer’s (1993,1999,2001) McDonaldization thesis argues that American capitalism has produced the increasing dominance of a specific form of rationalization, best exemplified in McDonald’s, which incorporates consumers globally within an efficient and standardized consumer experience.

Modifications of this position have come from many directions, in particular through an appreciation of the great complexity of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990,1995), regional (rather than simply American) commercial power and resistances (Miller, 2001; Wilk, 2001). However, there has also been a more radical, ethnographic challenge to the idea of globalization as commercial domination. Studies of cross-cultural consumption have emphasized the way in which commercial forces are locally mediated, often involving radical reinterpretations or alternative uses of globally marketed goods: actual consumption practices cannot be simply read off of an analysis of producers’ intentions and practices (Haugerud et al., 2000; Howes, 1996a). Some of these examples tend to the exotic and the exceptional (‘On the third Thursday of every month Tzotzil elders (Mexico) meet to ceremonially drink Pepsi and Poch—an alcoholic beverage—and thereby enter into communion with God’ (Howes, 1996b)-this gives an important insight into local appropriations of the goods but might not constitute a very telling argument against the undeniably global spread of this drink). Others give an understanding of the important diversity that exists within the apparent picture of uniform global consumer culture: for example, McDonald’s may well produce a highly uniform rationality in its business organization but its consumers use it differently in different places (Alfino et al., 1998; Robison and Goodman, 1996). In the process of their local assimilation, goods are ‘hybridized’ or ‘creolized,’ merging with local meanings to form new ones which are neither local nor simply global. Moreover, sociology’s discovery of local mediation of global goods is matched by the corporate world’s discovery of ‘glocalization,’ a shift from attempting to achieve universal and uniform global brands to a recognition of the need to understand, manage and capitalize on local differences (Kline, 1995).

The crucial issue may well be understanding the specific uses of cross-cultural consumption rather than simply demonstrating the fact of difference as opposed to homogenization. Wilk (1995), for example, looks at the way in which local cultures may operate dual and complexly interweaved sets of values in their consumption: inhabitants of Belize are clear that their standards of female beauty differ from those inscribed in beauty contests or in children’s dolls, yet they are also highly aware of the ‘structure of common differences’ in which they have to operate—the global structures of value differences through which they must negotiate their relationship to the rest of the world. Similarly, Miller’s (1994, 1995) studies of Trinidad emphasize the ways in which Trinidadians use consumer goods and practices in order to consume global capitalism and modernity in their own terms.


It is probably not surprising that favoured methodologies in consumption studies have fluctuated with the problematics of the day and the aims in mind. It is notable that not only in contemporary sociology of consumption, but also increasingly in business studies and corporate practice, there is a major shift towards ethnographic approaches or at least towards richer qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews. This is in tune with many of the issues outlined above: ethnography attempts to situate consumer goods within the entire way of life and its cultural and social organization, stressing the active agency of social groups in assimilating objects into their meanings and practices. Ethnography therefore tries not to read actual consumption practices from public representations such as advertising or from corporate organization. Moreover, it stresses social relationships rather than individual preferences or subjectivities. Finally, ethnography is concerned with the specific local character of consumption and with difference rather than with consumer culture as a site of uniformity.

It could be argued that sociology of consumption has only come into its own in the past two decades but that the terms on which it was constructed are now about to change again. The focus on cultural diversity, agency and local practice that gave it space to develop were articulated against older intellectual frameworks that were centrally concerned with power, structure and political economy. It is possible that we are more than ready for a more nuanced return to these older issues and more critical intentions. Postmodern celebrations of the consumer carnival are now well past their sell-by date, while research into ‘cultural economy’ (du Gay and Pryke, 2002), chains of provision (Fine and Leopold, 1990) and marketing apparatuses (Callon, 2002) are more commonly on the shelf. This would seem to point to a well-established and now central new sub-discipline within sociology.