Theories of Consumption

George Ritzer, Douglas Goodman, Wendy Wiedenhoft. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

No serious theory of contemporary society can ignore the importance of consumption. For proof of its significance, we need look no further than the Internet, which has become emblematic of modern society. Although the Internet was originally developed for the scientific/military/industrial complex, its role in production has been eclipsed by its role in consumption. It has been estimated that consumers spent $38-$40 billion on the Internet in 1999 and companies devoted to consumption are the darlings of high-tech investors (Ivey, 1999). The boom in computer-and Internet-related industries played a key role in the unprecedented boom in the American economy and stock market (and those of many other developed nations), which enjoyed breathtaking gains in 1999. This, in turn, fueled a consumer revolution in the United States and other nations; an orgy of consumption unsurpassed in world history. The form and future of the Internet, or of modern society as a whole, cannot be grasped without understanding the forces of consumption that drive it.

However, the significance of consumption seems to have eluded the view of most social theorists (especially those in the United States), who remain wedded to the idea that production in its traditional sense remains the single most fundamental human activity. Nevertheless, there are finally signs of growing theoretical and empirical interest in the study of consumption. This work on consumption has now progressed far enough so that we can offer an overview of its development. We can even suggest an approach that integrates these theoretical developments into the beginnings of a theory of consumption that will be so necessary to understanding what is likely to transpire in the twenty-first century.

This chapter is divided into two parts. In the first section, we look at the historical development of theories about consumption. Because of social theorists’ productivist bias, consumption has been greatly undertheorized, especially by the classical theorists. Further undermining the utility of classical theories is the fact that when consumption was addressed, theorists generally operated with a negative predilection. In spite of this, there are still useful ideas about consumption to be derived from the classical theories, and their reinterpretation has provided the beginning of some of the most important approaches to consumption. In some cases, the negative view of consumption has been replaced by a similarly one-sided celebration.

In the second section, we suggest that there is a need for more balanced theorizing of consumption that addresses both its positive and negative aspects. In addition, more balanced theories of consumptionneed to deal with a wider range of issues including consumers, the objects consumed, sites of consumption and the processes of consumption.

From Classical Criticism to Postmodern Celebration

Given the fact that they wrote mainly during the peak of the Industrial Revolution, it is little wonder that the classical theorists devoted most of their attention to the systems of production that were its most obvious feature. Accompanying the change in the mode of production was a large-scale social disruption leading ultimately to the subversion of the traditional way of life that had been based on agricultural production. Capitalism came to dominate the economy. Stable bureaucracies with predictable rules were established. Customary rights and obligations were replaced by rights revolving around private property. There were mass migrations to newly forming urban centers. New social classes emerged as serfs were transformed into wage laborers. And, as Marx ([1848] 1948) said, all that was solid melted into air.

As the old order based on traditions was replaced by economic individualism, there was a growing concern with how social order could be maintained. In response, a new view of social order emerged, most persuasively advocated by Adam Smith (1910), which tied it to production. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market economy created social order through the individual’s production practices. What appeared to be a threat to social order—the individual engaged in production for his own self-interests—promoted, according to Smith (1910: 423), social order ‘more effectively than when he really intends to promote it.’

If production contributed to the new social order, consumption appeared to many social thinkers of the day to threaten this order. For example, Weber ([1904] 1958) saw consumption as a threat to the capitalist Protestant ethics. Durkheim (1964) identified consumption with the society-threatening anomie that could be remedied by the functional interrelations of the divisions of labor found in production. Rosalind Williams (1982: 271) reports that almost all the social philosophers writing about the rise of mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France saw consumption as primarily an individual phenomenon that threatened social order. Even those who saw the potential for consumer solidarity, such as Charles Gide and Gabriel Tarde, noted the corrosive effect of the inherent individualism of consumption (Rosalind Williams, 1982: chs 7, 8).

Even today, it is common to view consumption as a threat to social order. The consumer’s pursuit of choice, pleasure and individual expression encourages individualistic and pluralistic values that are often seen as inimical to the collective norms of society. Consequently, the vast majority of classical, and much contemporary, social theory has either ignored or condemned consumption. However, even in classical works dominated by a concern for production, there were important insights into the nature of consumption and, as we will see, some of the best current theory began by expanding upon the suggestions of the classical theorists.

Marx and the Neo-Marxists

Certainly, the heart of Marx’s approach lies in production. There is no need to discuss in any detail Marx’s productivist concerns, but they include his view that labor and the production of objects (objectification) is central to species being, the labor theory of value, the ideological belief that capital has productive power, his criticisms of the division of labor in capitalism, and so on. Most generally, the focus of Marx’s analysis was the capitalist system of production and the fact that it was inherently an exploitative and alienating system.

It was in the Grundrisse that Marx ([1857-58] 1973: 83-94) discussed consumption directly and in any detail. Most of that discussion is concerned with establishing a threefold, dialectical relationship between consumption and production. First, consumption is always production and production is always consumption. That is, in producing objects, material and human energies are always consumed; while in consuming objects, some aspect of the consumer is produced. In a statement that could be the hallmark of contemporary studies in consumption, Marx ([1857-58] 1973: 91) writes that every kind of consumption ‘in one way or another produces human beings in some particular aspect.’

Second, production and consumption are mutually interdependent. Production creates the necessary object for consumption and consumption creates the motivation for production. Although they are dependent upon one another, Marx ([1857-58] 1973: 93) points out—in agreement with current notions of the autonomy of consumption—that consumption and production remain ‘external to one another.’

Finally, in completing themselves, production and consumption create each other. Production is completed through consumption which creates the need for further production. Conversely, consumption is only created as a material reality through production because the need that impels consumption only becomes concrete in relation to particular objects that have been produced. However, after having shown the complex relationship between consumption and production, Marx ([1857-58] 1973: 94) closes the section by declaring, without real argument, that ‘production is the real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment.’

However, while Marx was certainly preoccupied with production, he has had more influence on later theorizing about consumption than any other classical theorist. His influence is clearest in the widespread use of his concepts of commodity and commodity fetishism. Marx argued that commodities are much more than economists would have us believe. Commodities are not neutral objects that take on values from their market relations with other objects (or with money which abstractly represents other objects). The market relation between objects obscures the true value of the commodity which is derived from human labor. The capitalist market system makes the relation between objects appear to be more powerful and real than the actual relations between people. Just as Marx believed that certain tribal religions carved fetishes that represented Gods and then worshipped them as though they were more important and real than the people who made them, so we create commodities and markets and believe that they control our lives.

However, even when he discusses a concept like commodities, Marx is far more interested in how it relates to production than consumption. It is the capitalist mode of production that divorces human labor from the objects that human labor produces and results in exploitation, alienation and reification. Marx did not elaborate on how this process affects the sphere of consumption.

Marx operated with a framework that distinguished between true use values and the false characteristics of fetishized and alienated objects. This framework and distinction has defined the Marxist approach where the consumption of something that is functionally defined as useful is legitimated as a necessity, while all other consumption is associated with luxuries and seen as decadent. For example, in his criticism of commodity aesthetics, W.F. Haug (1986: 54) decries the strategy of promoting aesthetics over use value as ‘a highly effective strategy because it is attuned to the yearnings, and desires, of the people.’ The actual yearnings and desires of individuals are denounced in the name of a theoretically derived use value. The old morally laden dichotomy between luxury and necessity reappears here as aesthetics and use value. As Douglas Kellner (1989: 37) points out, ‘commodities have various uses, some defined by the system of political economy and some created by consumers or users.’ To label some uses as the true use values and to see others as decadent requires, at the very least, a theoretical defence that Haug never provides. Reducing fashion to an attempt to package humans as if they were commodities (Haug, 1986: 72), robs clothing of a legitimate social dimension. If Haug looks good in his Maoist uniform, that is no reason to condemn the rest of us as decadent.

There are other theoretical problems with the Marxist approach to consumption. The strictly Marxian concept of exploitation is closely tied to the production of surplus value and it is difficult to locate the source of surplus value and therefore exploitation in the realm of consumption. Neo-Marxist ideas of control (Braverman, 1974) seem to be extended more easily from workers to consumers. The revolution in advertising in the 1920s was based on the fact that capitalists had begun to realize that they could no longer leave consumers alone to make their own decisions (Ewen, 1976). Consumers, like workers, can be seen as controlled by capitalists with the objective of increasing the profits capitalists reap from their enterprises. Even here, there are theoretical difficulties. The line between persuasion and control is much more difficult to define in consumption than in production. Strategies to influence consumers must recognize a freedom of choice that has few analogies on the shop floor. Also, as in the other condemnations of consumption, the concept of control requires an explanation for the apparent pleasure of consumers, not only from consumption itself, but the pleasure that is found even in the very advertisements that seek to control consumers.

The critical theorists, in many ways, continued the Marxist critique that saw consumption primarily as an opportunity for greater control and manipulation. Their most famous contribution to this perspective is found in their discussion of the ‘culture industry’ (Horkheimer and Adorno, [1944] 1972). If art and music were once thought to be ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ objects of culture, we have come to recognize that not only these objects, but culture itself, has been commodified and reduced to the value of exchange. Thus, the cultural sphere has come to be dominated by the same instrumental rationality that dominates industrial production.

Horkheimer and Adorno describe the culture industry as organized around the Fordist model of mass production. Fordism led not only to homogeneous consumer goods but also to the standardization and commodification of prefabricated cultural products. Consumer goods and the mass culture that accompanies it can be seen from this viewpoint as a means of reproducing social order as well as class relations. As Marcuse (1964: 9) states, ‘the people recognize themselves in their commodities—social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.’ We all watch the latest sit-com, drink bottled water and wear running shoes. In mass culture, this is the basis of our equality. And, of course, we can all change the channels or change our brands. This is the basis of our freedom. Cable TV and superstores mean more choices among consumer goods, that is, more freedom. When this is what ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ mean, there is no reason to rebel against the culture industry much less to overthrow capitalism.

Traditional forms of culture, from high art to family organizations, retreat before the onslaught of a mass-produced, ersatz commodity culture. Without these traditions, the individual is left impoverished and defenceless against the unmediated power of the capitalist economy. Personal identity is no longer formed through the internalization of the family structure nor is it expanded and disrupted through encounters with the Utopian art projects. In the commodity culture, identity is derived from the commodity itself—you are what you purchase—and art no longer expands and disrupts, instead it soothes and distracts. The realm of consumption supplies an illusion of freedom and pleasure in exchange for the alienation necessary for capitalist production.

However, and in anticipation of more recent theoretical developments discussed below, the critical theorists recognized the novel character of consumption and they, more than any other neo-Marxists, attempted to explicitly account for the consumer’s experience of pleasure. Critical theorists, especially Marcuse (1955, 1964), were able to free themselves of the underlying assumption of many studies of consumption, that pleasure itself is morally suspect. In an interesting reversal, Marcuse diagnosed the problem of consumer society as not enough pleasure. Consumer culture in contemporary capitalism is not a place of an unbridled hedonism, but of rationalized, bureaucratically controlled pleasures. The repetitive, superficial pleasures of contemporary society distract us from the possibility for unalienated pleasure which would require a restructuring of society. It was certainly this theme that attracted the student revolutionaries of the 1960s. The promise of greater pleasure brought the United States closer to a revolution than any promise of fulfilling ‘authentic’ needs ever had. It is likely that this revolution failed because Marcuse’s promise of greater pleasure appeared less realistic than the pleasures promised by advertising and already found in consumption. While the latter forestalled a revolution in the United States, it could be argued that those same forces led to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Weber and a Neo-Weberian Approach

Weber (whose ideas were a second powerful input into critical theory) similarly focused on issues relating to production—especially rationalization in general, and bureaucratization in particular. While Weber did not do it, it is possible to relate his concepts to consumption. First, the much-emphasized asceticism of Calvinism and its role in the rise of capitalism involves a focus on the importance of an ethic that is opposed to consumption. Second, his inclusion of status groups based on lifestyles as a form of stratification is easily applied to consumption. Third, Weber’s thinking on bureaucracy is certainly relevant since so much of consumption is shaped by, and takes place in, bureaucratized structures. Finally, and ultimately most important, his theory of rationalization (which encompasses his thinking on bureaucratization) has come to be seen as applicable to many aspects of consumption, especially the settings in which consumption takes place.

Ritzer (1993, 1996, 1998, 2000) has developed the concept of ‘McDonaldization’ as a contemporary variant of Weber’s notion of (formal) rationalization (relatedly, see Bryman, 1999 on ‘Disneyization’). This term obviously indicates a shift from a focus on bureaucracies to the fast-food restaurant as the paradigm for the process of rationalization. This, of course, moves us out of the realm of production (and the state and its bureaucracy) and into the realm of consumption. Contemporary sites of consumption have been McDonaldized. That is, they have come to be characterized by an emphasis on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. More generally, we can say that vast areas of contemporary consumption are likely to be defined by these characteristics. While Ritzer acknowledges the positive aspects of McDonaldization, his greatest interest is in the irrationalities of these rational systems. Thus, he can be seen as continuing, at least in part, the classical propensity to be critical of consumption.


While there are many critical thrusts in Georg Simmel’s thinking on consumption, it is best to think of him as ambivalent about consumption, as he was about most aspects of modernity (Levine, 1985; and see Birgitta Nedelmann’s contribution to this volume). Take, for example, his analysis of the role of money in modernity. A money economy forces us to be more dependent upon people who are increasingly distant from us. On the other hand, ‘we are compensated for the great quantity of our dependencies by the indifference towards the respective persons and by our liberty to change them at will’ (Simmel, [1907] 1978: 298). Furthermore, consumers develop a cynical and blasé attitude because of the reduction of all human values to money terms. But these very characteristics allow for the development of individuality and the freedom to ‘unfold the core of our being with all its individual desires and feeling’ (Simmel, [1907] 1978: 298).

This same ambivalence is found in the ‘tragedy of culture.’ Simmel argues that there is a growing gap between, on the one hand, the objective culture of material and immaterial human productions that are available to people and, on the other hand, those cultural objects that people actually are able to use for self-development. On the favorable side, we have more products than ever before, but the tragedy is that objective culture grows exponentially while our capacity to understand, use and control those objects—what Simmel calls subjective culture—increases only minimally. As a result, people grow increasingly distant from their products and unable to control or even understand them. Individuals are overwhelmed by the ‘vast supplies of products … which call forth an artificial demand that is senseless from the perspective of the subject’s culture’ (Simmel, [1907] 1978: 43). There is certainly a similarity between the tragedy of culture and Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. However, Simmel’s point, in contradiction to Marx, is that the growth and even reification of objective culture is also a good thing providing individuals with more opportunities for the expression of freedom and individuality.

Simmel’s conception of the tragedy of culture is productivist in the sense that through their subjective culture people produce the bewildering array of objects that becomes objective culture and that comes to be beyond their control and even to exercise control over them. Nevertheless, the concept of the tragedy of culture is of great relevance to a sociology of consumption where the growth of commodities overwhelms our ability to use them and calls forth a diffuse and senseless desire for more. Instead of using this enormous array of commodities, we often seem to be used by them.


While the study of consumption was secondary in the work of many of the classical theorists, it played a significant part in the work of Thorstein Veblen and it is in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class ([1899] 1994), that a sociology of consumption has its real beginnings. Although production was a primary concern in most of Veblen’s writing, the Theory of the Leisure Class is known for its historical model of a change from conspicuous leisure (waste of time) to conspicuous consumption (waste of money). Veblen focused on people’s need to make invidious social distinctions through the display of consumer objects. The upper class uses ostentatious consumption to distinguish itself from those situated below it in the social hierarchy, while the lower classes attempt (and usually fail) to emulate those who rank above them. The drive to emulate initiates a ‘trickle down’ effect in which the upper class sets the tone for all consumption that takes place below it. However, once the lower classes successfully imitate the status objects of the upper class, the latter abandons the objects and selects new objects that, once more, distinguish it from those below.

While Veblen may be celebrated as one of the founders of a sociology of consumption, his productivist bias should not be ignored. We certainly see in his work the moral condemnation that has long characterized the sociological view of consumption. Veblen was critical of the consumption practices of the leisure class because of the value he placed on workmanship and production. Veblen viewed conspicuous consumption as wasteful and unproductive – thus, contributing little to society as a whole. However, his work also represents an important shift away from analysing commodities and towards understanding their meanings. Rather than focusing exclusively on commodities, Veblen theorized that class (and status) were important ‘objects’ of consumption. Thus, in consuming objects we are, in fact, consuming various class-linked meanings.

Although there is some ambivalence among classical theorists (and their followers), in the main they adopted a negative view of consumption. That view tends to ignore or explain away the pleasurable experiences of the consumer. There are several reasons why this is ultimately an unsatisfactory theoretical position. First, while the sociology of consumption should not pretend to an amoral positivism, it would be better to make consumption the object of moral investigations rather than of moral assumptions. Second, since consumption constitutes such a central, necessary and, for many, pleasurable process in everyday life, the moral tone of sociologists may come across as the ranting of elitist intellectuals about the ‘vulgar’ practices of the common people. Finally, standing up to the ineffectual moral condemnations of experts and intellectuals may be one of the factors that makes unbridled consumption so much fun. In response to the moral denouncements of consumption by many early social theorists, a new image of the consumer has emerged. Rather than being condemnatory, some theorists have attempted to redeem and even celebrate consumption.

Rewriting the Classical Tradition

Although there are still a number of approaches that view consumption negatively (among more recent examples are Frank, 1999; Schor, 1991, 1999), some contemporary theorists have attempted to redeem consumption through a re-interpretation of the sociological classics. For example, Colin Campbell (1987) seeks to correct Weber’s productivist bias through a historical analysis of hedonism’s role in the birth of modern capitalism. Campbell argues that Weber did not take his historical analysis of the spirit of capitalism far enough. Later developments revealed that, in addition to a rationalistic Calvinism, the Protestant movement also contained a Pietism that focused on an emotional hedonism. The latter led to a ‘romantic ethic’ that extolled the virtues of passion, subjective experience and imagination, which in turn supported a consumer culture that was as necessary to modern capitalism as any work ethic. Therefore the Weberian thesis that a Protestant ethic of frugality and self-denial is at the heart of capitalist development is one-sided. The development of modern capitalism required changes in both production and consumption. Early rational Calvinism contributed to the development of the productive side of modern Western capitalism while later Pietistic Calvinism contributed to the development of the consumption side.

Another example of a positive re-working of a classical critique can be found in Daniel Miller’s (1987) Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Here Miller picks up on Simmel’s theme of the tragedy of culture attempting to examine the impact of the increase in the production of material goods in modern society. Miller (1987: 1) is concerned foremost with the way in which ‘our culture has become to an increasing degree a material culture based on an object form.’ Tracing the concept of objectification from Hegel to Marx to Simmel, Miller develops a theory of objectification that cuts through the subject-object dualism of these classical theorists. Miller’s non-dualistic model of objectification stresses the way subjects-objects, society-culture are mutually constitutive. Thus, he sees material objects of mass consumption as necessary in the construction of society. Miller is extremely critical of reducing consumption to the commodity form, as do both economists and Marxists. Instead of creating alienation or fetishism, consumption creates conditions where objects are ‘so firmly integrated in the development of social relations and group identity as to be as clearly generative of society’ (1987: 204). Miller views consumption in a positive light, ‘as the continual struggle to appropriate goods and services made in alienating circumstances and transform them into inalienable culture’ (1987: 193). Mass consumption has laid a new kind of foundation for a process of democratization that can be extended to the realm of politics and knowledge.

However, the most influential reworking of a classical perspective has been the reinterpretations and critiques of Veblen’s approach. Even though he focused too narrowly on the message of class, the fact that Veblen recognized the ability of consumer objects to function as signs that convey social meanings has been enormously influential. The Theory of the Leisure Class seems to us now to describe a very circumscribed period which has long since been surpassed by a fashion system better understood by its subtlety of taste (Bourdieu, 1984) than by its overt waste. Both the ‘trickle down theory’ of consumer objects and the premise that emulation is the force steering modern consumption have come under criticism. A number of theorists (Blumberg, 1974; Field, 1970; Sproles, 1981) have pointed to the elite consumer objects, fashions, or styles that have originated from classes below it. Blues jeans, Doc Martens shoes, Harley Davidison motorcycles and jazz music are all objects of consumption that have ‘trickled up’ from marginal social groups.

Herbert Blumer (1969) argued that Veblen’s focus on class was too narrow to encompass the truly dynamic diffusion of consumer objects. Several contemporary social theorists (Baudrillard, [1970] 1998; [1973] 1993; Davis, 1992; Lipovetsky, [1987] 1994) have found that consumer objects, especially fashion, symbolize more than simply social class. Indeed, Featherstone (1991: 83) claims that ‘we are moving towards a society without fixed status groups in which the adoption of styles of life (manifest in choice of clothes, leisure activities, consumer goods, bodily dispositions) which are fixed to specific groups have been surpassed.’

Celebrating Consumption

The extensions and criticisms of Veblen along with new semiotic, post-structural and postmodern approaches opened the way for a more approving view of consumption and consumers. For example, Michel de Certeau (1984: 34) views consumers as ‘unrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist rationality.’ He argues that consumption represents the possibility of the subversion of capitalism, at least temporarily and locally. De Certeau focuses on the practices of everyday life, especially as they relate to consumption. His key point is that consumers are not simply controlled by marketing manipulations as Marxists, neo-Marxists and others would have us believe. Consumers are themselves active manipulators. Instead of meekly using consumer goods and services as intended, consumers use them in unique ways that suit their own needs and interests. Consumers engage in a kind of guerrilla warfare with capitalists by appropriating objects and transforming, twisting or undermining their dominant meanings. Consumption allows even the weakest members of society a space for resistance, although they are rarely allowed to threaten the system as a whole.

In reality, a rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production called ‘consumption’ and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products, but in an art of using those imposed on it. (de Certeau, 1984: 31)

Following a similar course is the work of Raymond Williams (1982), Paul Willis (1978), Dick Hebdige (1979), Richard Hoggart (1961), Stuart Hall (1996) and their associates at Birmingham University. They brought together structuralist and Gramscian Marxisms, cultural materialism and semiotics to focus on a concept of culture as irreducibly polysémie and tied to the conflicting and shifting meanings of everyday life. The Birmingham School studied the representations of class, gender and race in cultural texts, including radio, television, film, popular fiction and other forms of popular culture. They were among the first to focus on the way that oppositional subcultures consume these cultural products. Of most interest here was their analysis of the ways that different subcultures create their own style and identity out of consumer objects. For example, even something as mundane as mass-produced safety pins (Clark, 1976) or as class identified as Edwardian suits (Jefferson, 1976) could be taken up by skinheads and Teddy Boys respectively to signify non-conformity and rebellion.

Gilles Lipovetsky goes even further than de Certeau and the Birmingham School. For Lipovetsky, consumption and fashion (Simmel had also made an important contribution to our understanding of this issue) do not simply afford the opportunity for often futile resistance, instead they are the realms of individuality itself. Unlike many postmodernists, Lipovetsky sees individuality as a long-term and mostly positive trend in Western culture. Consumption, especially of fashion, is a reflection of this trend toward individuality, rather than any social hierarchy. Fashion is defined by its relatively unbridled pursuit of novelty, fantasy and subjective expression. And this freedom ‘inevitably accompanies the promotion of secular individualism and the end of the immutable preregulated universe of traditional forms of appearance’ (Lipovetsky, [1987] 1994: 27-8).

According to Lipovetsky, this frivolous play of fashion has prepared people for our present democratic form of government. The more that fashion dominates the personal realm, ‘the more stable, profoundly unified, and reconciled with their pluralist principles the democracies become’ (Lipovetsky, [1987] 1994: 7). And fashion can continue to have beneficial political effects in the post-industrial society. ‘An age that functions in terms of information, the seductive power of novelty, tolerance, and mobility of opinions is preparing us, if only we can take advantage of its strong points, for the challenges of the future’ (Lipovetsky, [1987] 1994: 8).

Perhaps the most extreme perspective in this context is that consumers are replacing workers as the group best able to threaten capitalism and its system of consumption. Consumers are celebrated as the group best able to deal with problems associated with consumerism; they are seen as being capable of much more than the kind of ‘guerilla warfare’ discussed by de Certeau. In other words, it is possible to think in terms of ‘dangerous consumers’ (Ritzer, 1999b). Part of the reason that this group can be dangerous is that, following Bauman (1997), they simply do not consume enough. Any drag on the ever-escalating level of consumption poses a threat to those who profit from a robust economy driven by consumerism.

However, the threats posed by the ‘dangerous consumer’ go beyond merely not consuming enough; dangerous consumers consume the wrong things. For example, because they lack adequate resources, such people consume a variety of public and welfare services that are a drain on the economy. Because they lack the resources but share the goals of a consumer society, they are more likely to engage in criminal activities and thereby to ‘consume’ the services of the police, the courts and the prisons. Further, when they consume in a more conventional sense, they are more likely to consume the ‘wrong’ commodities. They tend to consume the ‘wrong’ drugs, for example, crack instead of powder cocaine. Thus, dangerous consumers are so designated because both what they do, and what they do not, consume pose a threat to consumer society.

The broader implication is that those who consume too little (including Schor’s (1999) ‘downshifters’ and ‘simple livers’) can come together with those who consume the wrong things to overthrow consumer capitalism. However, it is important to recognize that even those who threaten consumer society are themselves consumers. No one is able to escape the imperatives of the consumer society, even those who are seen as threatening it. The fact that they are consumers, and mainly aspire to be bigger and better consumers of conventional goods and services, indicates that ultimately ‘dangerous’ consumers pose no real threat to consumer society. This complements Bauman’s (1997) argument that because consumption is inherently individualizing, it is far less likely to produce a revolutionary class than production which is a collective enterprise and thereby apt to produce collective opposition in the form of a revolutionary social class. At most, dangerous consumers will corrode consumer society, they are unlikely to overthrow it.

Four Topics in Theorizing Consumption

The celebrations of the consumer as a champion of democracy and as a subversive revolutionary against capitalism were necessary correctives to the pessimism of earlier social theorists. However, most contemporary studies of consumption (Bourdieu, 1984; Campbell, 1987; Featherstone, 1991; Miller, 1987, 1998; Slater, 1997) have tried to steer a middle course that reconciles the more pessimistic classical heritage with a recognition of the fact that consumption is not only indispensable in modernity, but also a domain in which people can express themselves positively.

These newer theories of consumption have not only balanced negatives and positives, but they have also dealt with a wider range of topics. Implicit in much of the current literature is a fourfold distinction among topics—subject, object, setting and process—which should prove useful in theorizing consumption. While they are usually discussed in isolation from one another, it is clear that none makes sense without the others. They are really inseparable components of a single, tightly integrated process. While it is unlikely that we will have one integrated theory of consumption, that should not dissuade us from theorizing connections among these elements. Individual thinkers may want to focus on one element, even on sub-dimensions of that element. Or the focus could be on the relationship between two or three of the elements. But whatever the particular choice, the theorist must always bear in mind that any specific focus is part of a broader whole.

Objects of Consumption

Before social theorists reflected on the individual behavior of consumers or the sites where, and processes through which, consumption occurs, most were primarily concerned with the objects of consumption. Early economists, such as Adam Smith, approached the study of objects of consumption with the concept of the commodity. It was Marx, however, who opened up the commodity to sociological analysis by revealing its social dimension. The commodity has both a material character that is able to satisfy human need and a social character through which the exploitative relations between people are expressed as relations between objects.

For both Smith and Marx, the commodity was seen primarily as part of the productive process. The important step that Veblen took was to place the commodity within the circuits of consumption. This opened up the object of consumption to a semiotic approach that looked at the object of consumption primarily as a locus of social meaning.

Semiotics has been an especially useful tool for analysing consumer objects as signs (Fiske, 1989; Gottdiener, 1995). When consumer objects are studied as signs, it appears that the object itself does not have intrinsic properties that make it meaningful, since the same objects can carry diverse and even contradictory social messages. According to semiotics, the meaning of the object is its difference from the meanings of other objects and is therefore derived from the system of objects as a whole.

Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Objects ([1968] 1996: 200) that ‘to become an object of consumption, an object must first become a sign.’ Thus, to understand consumption, we need to be able to read consumer goods as a series of signs—similar to a language—that requires interpretation. Consumer goods constitute a system of codes that work together so that no particular object can be understood in isolation from the system. But Baudrillard makes it clear that the sign here refers primarily to the flow of difference in the system itself. This would mean, for example, that Veblen’s conspicuous consumption only signifies high or low class as a secondary effect. The primary effect of consumption is simply difference and precisely what that difference is can be added later and changed when necessary. Baudrillard tells us that an object becomes an object of consumption when it is no longer determined by any of the following: (1) its place in the production cycle; (2) its functional use; or (3) its symbolic meaning. It is then that it is ‘liberated as a sign to be captured by the formal logic of fashion’ (Baudrillard, 1981: 67).

In the present-day context, objects of consumption do, in fact, seem to be increasingly autonomous from the conditions of their production, their functional use and their symbolic meaning. More kinds of objects are entering the whirl of fashion. Sex is exemplary of this. Sex can hardly be said to be defined in our society by the ability to produce or, indeed, reproduce (socially or biologically). Even this most central and necessary ‘production’ is now merely secondary to sex. Similarly, its social functions—for example, binding together the nuclear family – have waned. Furthermore, the symbolic meaning of sex, upon which the entire Freudian edifice is based, seems to be in flux. Sex has entered fashion as part of the system of consumer objects. Everything is sexualized even as sex no longer really means anything in particular. Sex in the system of consumption promises meaning, just as advertised meanings promise sex, but both function merely as lures whose effect is to entice more objects into the fashion system.

Taken to an extreme, consumer goods are seen entirely as signifiers that are completely divorced from any stable signified. If consumer goods are viewed as nothing more than signifiers, then these objects become freed from their signified component, thus emancipated from their obligation to designate (Baudrillard, 1983). One consequence of this emancipation is the reign of the spectacle, or what Debord ([1967] 1994: 15) describes as the ‘monopolization of the realm of appearances.’ From this perspective, the surface appearance of consumer objects matters much more than any deeper use value or exchange value that may be hidden.

However, Douglas and Isherwood ([1979] 1996: 49) argue that the semiotic approach must go beyond the idea that consumer objects are messages: ‘consumption goods are most definitely not mere messages; they constitute the very system itself … In being offered, accepted, or refused, they either reinforce or undermine existing boundaries. The goods are both the hardware and the software, so to speak, of an information system whose principal concern is to monitor its own performance.’

Grant McCracken (1990) contends that the metaphor of consumption as the manipulation of signs is more useful for the difference that is revealed between it and language than for their similarity. The materiality of consumer objects makes them both less flexible for communicating idiosyncratic meanings and more stable for passing on culturally central categories such as gender and class distinctions. One difference is that the communication system of language is comprised of rules that allow for novel combinations that, nevertheless, are able to communicate relatively precise meanings. McCracken argues that with consumer objects, there are no rules that allow novel combinations to communicate a meaning. For example, ‘the interpreter of clothing examines an outfit not for a new message but for an old one fixed by convention’ (McCracken, 1990: 66).

A second difference is that in language, a novel combination is not really reducible to the meaning of the individual elements, the words. Understanding in language must include a holistic approach. With consumer objects, however, novel combinations are usually reducible to a mixture of the meaning of individual objects (a yuppie car, a preppie jacket, intellectual’s glasses, etc.) whose overall meaning is, at best, an inventive disdain for communicating through objects and more usually interpreted simply as bad taste. Finally, a novel combination in language is able to communicate an unambiguous meaning that fits its novel context. In consumption, unambiguous meanings that fit the context can only come from the pre-fabricated meanings established by convention. Novel combinations don’t really fit any particular context and their meaning is indeterminate and mutable.

Therefore, the system of consumer objects that semiotics sees as relational differences and that Baudrillard sees as the whirl of fashion is better seen, according to McCracken (1990: 119), as a patterned relationship between consumer goods that he calls ‘Diderot unity’ which takes into account meaning, fashion and the materiality of consumer objects. Consumer goods work in harmony to create a consistent, meaningful whole. Buying a new pair of shoes creates a disharmony with an outfit that is old; thus, one must buy a new skirt, a new blouse and a new purse so all consumer objects can be unified.

The semiotic approach has provided important insights, but it is limited because it tends to neglect the material characteristics of the object of consumption. On the one hand, objects of consumption are the locus for powerful and diverse meanings that are open to both repressive manipulation and individual appropriation (Appadurai, 1986; Baudrillard, [1968] 1996; Douglas and Isherwood, [1979] 1996). On the other hand, objects of consumption deplete limited material resources; their use has environmental effects; they satisfy material human needs; and their materiality limits and modifies their use as signs (Cross, 1997). Although it is often useful to focus on one aspect or the other, the dual nature of objects of consumption as both social sign and material object cannot be forgotten.

Subjects of Consumption

Gabriel and Lang (1995) have shown that there is a wide range of types of consumers: victim, chooser, communicator, explorer, identity-seeker, hedonist, artist, rebel, activist, or citizen. This list is far from complete, but it does succeed in communicating the fact that there is great diversity among consumers.

From the standpoint of a system of objects, the individual, the subject of consumption, would be, at most, the necessary environment of the system and may often be reduced to merely an effect of the system of objects. Such an approach leads easily, if not inevitably, to the view of the consumer as a ‘judgemental dope’ (Garfmkel, 1967) who is manipulated by those who control the system of objects. It is likely, however, that the derivative status of the subject in analyses of consumption is attributable to little more than the theoretical preferences of certain analysts. The purely subjective experiences of the consumer—emotions, fantasies, hedonistic delights and private sensory experiences—seem, if anything, to be intensifying as a lived reality in consumer culture.

A purely object-centered approach, however, has never dominated the sociological approach to consumption and the reasons for this are not entirely scientific. What is most striking about the sociology of consumption is its unabashedly moral tone. Both the left and the right wings of sociology have collaborated to marginalize consumption (Miller, 1995: 2) and this often takes the tone of a moral condemnation of the hedonism that consumption is taken to incarnate.

Any discussion of morality, however, requires a conception of a subject who can be morally responsible. Therefore, those sociological theories that describe the progressive dominance of commodities are usually accompanied by a description of the subject’s progressive enslavement. Even if one sees the subject as a dupe, manipulated and enslaved by the commodity system, this only becomes a moral issue if the subject is, at heart, something other than a dupe, so that a system of consumption that treats him or her as a dupe is evil. Colin Campbell describes the pervasive moral dimension of sociology’s approach to the consumer:

This view sometimes places the blame on individuals for engaging in such practices, while at other times it exonerates them by arguing that consumers are typically coerced or manipulated into this form of behavior by others (usually manufacturers or advertisers). In either case, however, consumerism itself is judged to be bad, whether the source of the evil lies in individuals or in the organization of the society. (Campbell, 1998: 152)

Campbell (1998: 139) concludes that ‘the tendency to denigrate consumerism derives from the widespread acceptance of sociological theories that represent consumers as prompted by such reprehensible motives as greed, pride, or envy. These theories are largely unsubstantiated and fail to address the distinctive features of modern consumption …’

Due to this moralizing tone, the sociology of consumption has, as we have seen, tended to vacillate between the condemnation of consumption and its celebration. In terms of the subject of consumption, she/he is seen either as a judgemental dope or a revolutionary hero.

Although he provides an enormously useful perspective for studying the consumer, we see the same moral tone in the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s own reaction to modern consumers tends toward a mixture of the ‘intellectual doxa’ of moral condemnation and his own attacks on that aspect of the current intellectual doxa that glorifies populism (Bourdieu, 1993: 268). Nevertheless, a critique of his propensity to economic reductionism and a development of his analysis of the artistic and scientific sphere can provide a powerful approach to the consumer.

It is around the twin concepts of habitus and field that Bourdieu’s ideas can make the greatest contribution. Habitus is a system of enduring, primarily embodied, structuring structures created in response to objective conditions and acquired through socialization. Habitus are those mostly unconscious schemata that structure the way in which we acquire other cognitive structures. They reflect and tend to reproduce current social relations but have enough flexibility to be transposable to new relations. The most important feature of habitus is not that it controls the actor, but that it can be transcended through reflexivity. Without this, we would have just a clever reformulation of economic determinism. Since habitus exerts its strongest influence through deep, unconscious structures, reflexivity is able to escape its determinations. We can never be completely free of our habitus, but we can be free enough to interrupt the reproduction of class structures.

A field is a grouping in which each element in the group is subjectively defined in terms of its relations and oppositions to other elements. Any given field is, to varying degrees, autonomous from other social structures. For Bourdieu, autonomy develops on two levels: the subjective level of sociological reflexivity, discussed above; and the objective level of institutions that establish their own separate hierarchies of success. A field is analysed as an arena of conflict, struggle and competition for scarce resources and symbolic recognition related to the specific type of capital that governs success in the field. Although the definition of success in the field and, consequently, what counts as valued capital is related to overarching structures, it is not reducible to them. The field must be analysed in terms of its own internal dynamic processes and structuring principles.

Bourdieu’s twin concepts of habitus and field are meant to provide an analysis of culture that avoids, on the one hand, turning it into a ‘transcendent sphere, capable of developing in accordance to its own laws’ (Bourdieu, 1993: 33) and, on the other hand, reducing it to a mere reflection of the social (especially economic) order. This is a difficult balancing act and Bourdieu often leans toward the latter, especially in his analysis of the consumer. For example, creativity in consumption is analysed purely in terms of an economistic functionality. His focus is on how creativity is used to sell cultural products (Bourdieu, 1993) and is never seen as a value in and of itself. For example, he never considers that the point of consumption may be the creative appropriation by the consumer of the cultural product.

In Distinction (1984) Bourdieu relates habitus to taste. If there is no disputing taste, it is, according to Bourdieu, because taste has its foundation in these deep, underlying structures. Through the concept of habitus, Bourdieu is able to relate the apparently voluntaristic micropractices usually associated with taste to the macrostructures of capitalist classes. Most importantly, he does this without turning agents into dupes or seeing their subjective experience of freedom as illusory. Consumption can be seen, in this view, as conscious, strategic lifestyle choices made by the consumer against a backdrop of mostly unconscious tastes characteristic of a class habitus.

Bourdieu, however, never develops this approach to consumption, because he does not recognize an autonomous field in the sphere of consumption and there is no place in his scheme for consumer creativity. He has a tendency to view consumption as a reflection of the economic hierarchy and any subjective experience that contradicts that is seen as a type of false consciousness.

Featherstone (1991) has applied Bourdieu’s ideas in a less moralistic way in order to develop a richer and more complex conception of the consumer. First, Featherstone recognizes the autonomy of the field of consumption. Secondly, Featherstone carves out a place for individual creativity by relying on Bourdieu’s analysis of the petit bourgeois of cultural intermediaries who provide symbolic goods and services. Motivated by an embodied discomfort and lacking economic and cultural capital, this new petit bourgeois ‘adopts a learning mode of life … consciously educating himself in the field of taste, style, lifestyle’ (Featherstone, 1991: 91). Thus the consumer is able to appropriate creatively consumer objects rather than being controlled through them.

Rejecting a moralistic and reductionist approach allows us to look at the relation between the subjects and objects of consumption as a multidimensional process of self relatedness (Falk, 1994). This new approach assumes that consumption has the possibility of constructing a self as well as reflecting one.

Miller and Rose (1997) trace the changing approaches to the consumer in one influential marketing research center. Their study rules out an interpretation of marketing practices as either dominating or simply reflecting consumer’s choices. Instead they see marketing techniques as ‘mobilizing’ the consumer by investigating and creating complex connections between the subject’s psyche and the specific characteristics of consumer goods enmeshed in everyday consumption practices. In these studies, the consumer emerges as a highly problematic entity whose consumption activities are bound to an entire way of life. On the one hand, marketing cannot be understood as simply uncovering preexisting desires, but, on the other hand, neither is it the implantation of manufactured needs. Instead, marketing helps to construct the consumer by assembling the rituals of everyday life and connecting them to a commodity in order to give it meaning.

The recognition of the complex, multidimensional relations between subjects and the objects they consume has led to a focus on what has been called lifestyle shopping (Shields, 1992). In mainstream marketing, lifestyle refers to a method of market segmentation. In this newer analysis, it refers to a set of individual experiences and social practices—especially consumption practices—with meaningful interrelations. Lifestyle shopping, then, refers to a series of experimentations with modes of subjectivity, interpersonal relations and social community. What is being consumed are not objects so much as lifestyles with accompanying objects. Consumption is envisioned as a field in which the intentions and objectives of individual actors are both sustained and transformed by experimental manipulations of the system of objects. This field cannot be reduced to either the predefined intentions of the participating subjects or to the structural organization of the objects because both are at stake in lifestyle shopping.

That consumption is now a key process in the construction of self-identity has been recognized by a number of theorists (for example, Featherstone, 1991; Giddens, 1991). Bauman (1988) analyses the effect that this has on our experience of freedom. Bauman notes that historically freedom has faced two problems: that actual freedom requires access to scarce resources; and that the desire for freedom (from others) is compromised by an equally strong desire for social interaction. Bauman argues that the experience of freedom associated with consumption bypasses these two problems. First, since the realm of modern consumption is concerned more with lifestyles than goods, scarcity is less of a problem because ‘identities are not scarce goods’ (1988: 63). Secondly, those involved in lifestyle shopping can experiment with forms of community which can be slipped in and out of without compromising their individual freedom.

Bauman does not claim that this freedom is complete or entirely good. Freedom through consumption extends to more people than any other form of freedom ever has, but it has the disadvantage of making those to whom it does not extend virtually invisible as a political problem. Because freedom through consumption is depoliticized, it makes it appear that non-freedom is an inescapable side effect of the market. Sociology’s relative lack of attention to consumption is complicit with this. Since consumption is seen as frivolous and morally bankrupt, exclusion from the practices of freedom associated with it can hardly be taken as a serious problem.

Alan Warde (1994) points out a deficiency in Bauman’s analysis and other celebrations of the consumer. There is little evidence that intrepid consumers boldly experimenting with radically different brands of cereal, identities, hairstyles and lifestyles actually exist in significant numbers. While this is true, Warde misses the larger theoretical point. The stability of the consumer along with the complexity and dimensionality of the relationship between the consumer and the objects of consumption are now an empirical question in need of investigation rather than a theoretical assumption. Sociologists can no longer build a theory of consumption by assuming either rational or identity-shopping or status-driven consumers. Undoubtedly, there are rational consumers comparing quantity and quality in order to satisfy their essential needs. There are, also, many whose identity is defined primarily by their work or community traditions rather than their consumption. Similarly, there are those who steadfastly consume in order to fulfill a never-changing passion, whether it be status or greed or psychosocial pathologies. But the point is that none of these can serve as the assumption from which a study of consumers can begin. The prevalence of any given type of consumer in a particular social setting requires investigation. The lack of lifestyle shoppers is just as much in need of explanation as is their presence. At least for a theory of consumption, the subject of consumption is highly complex, problematic and unstable. If in practice the consumer is simple, self-evident and stable, this now requires explanation.

Sites of Consumption

While the analysis of objects and subjects of consumption has a rich history from which to draw new theories, the sites of consumption have been relatively neglected. That is not to say, however, that they have been totally ignored. Worth singling out in this domain is the work of a fellow traveler of the Critical School, Walter Benjamin (Buck-Morss, 1989). His concern for sites of consumption is illustrated by his interest in the Parisian arcades and the world exhibitions; he described the latter as ‘sites of pilgrimages to the commodity fetish’ (Benjamin, 1986: 151). While Marx and many of his early followers discussed the fetishism of commodities from the viewpoint of production and workers, Benjamin approached it from the other side—from consumption and consumers.

Central to Benjamin’s approach to consumption was the role played by technological change. For example, gas lighting was first used in a site of consumption. Similar technological developments were affecting other aspects of Western culture, such as the arrival of the photograph and the threat it posed to painting. The fact that photographs, unlike paintings, could be reproduced again and again threatened the mystical ‘aura’ of genius and uniqueness that surrounded the artistic object, at the same time that it made possible a great expansion in commodity trade. The mass production of large numbers of often identical cultural products lured more consumers into the new sites of consumption.

Technological changes not only made the new sites of consumption (and the goods they proffered) possible, they also helped to make them more fantastic. Benjamin often uses the term ‘phantasmagoria’ to describe the developments in France in the 1800s, including the new consumption settings. Art was brought together with technology to produce increasingly fantastic settings, or dream worlds, that were oriented to entertaining and amusing the consumer in order to increase consumption. Merchandise was enthroned in these settings and wrapped in an aura of entertainment. Produced, in the process, was a ‘phantasmagoria of capitalist culture’ (Benjamin, 1986: 153). This is an early stage in the long-term trend toward merging amusement and consumption; indeed making them virtually indistinguishable from one another.

The emergence of the new sites of consumption was linked by Benjamin to another locale, the private living space, which for the first time had come to stand as distinct from the place of work. Here, dwellers sought to create fantasy spaces of their own—‘phantasmagorias of the interior’ (Benjamin, 1986: 154). In order to do so, they were driven as consumers to the new sites of consumption in order to obtain what they needed to turn their living spaces into dream worlds, even if most lacked the resources to fully succeed in this.

The structures of concern to Benjamin (1986: 162), including the new sites of consumption, were viewed as ‘monuments of the bourgeoisie’ and from his perspective they are ‘ruins even before they have crumbled.’ Given the later history of consumer capitalism, and the explosive growth of such sites of consumption, they might better have been seen as the modest ancestors of the palaces of consumption that have supplanted, and far outdone, them.

Rosalind Williams’ (1982) historical study of social theory and consumption can be seen as linking Benjamin’s work with Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Like Benjamin, she stresses the role that these specific sites (world’s fairs, department stores) played in creating and fueling consumer desire, as well as in the generation of the consumer society. Williams looks at Paris during the same period examined by Benjamin. She argues that it was during this period that the French pioneered the twin pillars of modern consumer life—advertising and retail consumption settings. While the north of England had been the site and symbol of the Industrial Revolution, it was Paris that emerged as the modern capital of consumption. It was here that we had the first ‘planned environment of mass consumption’ (Rosalind Williams, 1982: 12).

The world expositions and department stores (for example, Bon Marché) of the period were dream worlds designed to inflame consumers’ interest in consumption, to entertain them and to provide settings and goods and services that could fulfill the needs of their imagination. They lured and seduced consumers with fantasies and, in that sense, functioned like the simultaneously developing movie industry. Both sought to market dreams, to offer a uniform experience based on powerful images and to induce passivity among consumers. The dream worlds offered hope and they made it accessible to the masses by offering large numbers of inexpensive imitations, as well as credit so that a lack of available resources would not stand in the way of consumption.

While Williams emphasized the romantic aspect of her dream worlds, the fact is that these settings were also bureaucratized and rationalized. This point is made by Michael Miller (1981). The early Bon Marché was a fusion of the emerging rationalized world with more traditional elements of French bourgeois culture; over the years it moved increasingly in the direction of becoming a rationalized, bureaucratized structure. That is, it encountered ‘an incessant push towards greater efficiency’ (Miller, 1981: 168). Among the rationalized elements of the store were its division into departments; its partitioning of Paris for the purposes of making deliveries; its files and statistics, records and data; its telephone lines, sliding chutes, conveyor belts, and escalators; and its ‘blanc,’ or great white sale, ‘the most organized week of the store’ (Miller, 1981: 71).

Taken together, the work of Williams and Miller indicate that the early French department store, like contemporary sites of consumption, was both enchanted and disenchanted (for more on this, see below). Perhaps the most general conclusion to be drawn from this discussion is that enchantment and disenchantment are not easily distinguished from one another; one does not necessarily preclude the other. There is a reciprocal relationship between them. Fantasies draw people into sites of consumption, and those fantasies can be rationalized in order to continue to draw people in and to reinforce their Weberian cage-like qualities. The cage quality of consumption sites can itself be a fantasy; the fantasy of being locked into one of those cages with ready access to all of its goods and services. As Colin Campbell (1987: 227) suggests, ‘Modern individuals inhabit not just an “iron cage” of economic necessity, but a castle of romantic dreams, striving through their conduct to turn the one into the other.’

Ritzer (1999a) offers a more contemporary effort to balance traditional concerns with the consumer, consumer objects and the process of consumption, with more attention to the sites of consumption (see, also Gottdiener, 1997 on the ‘theming’ of these sites). John Urry (1995: 1) has referred to these sites as ‘consuming places,’ or, ‘centres for consumption … the context within which goods and services are compared, evaluated purchased and used.’5 On the one hand, these sites are forced to rationalize and bureaucratize, especially if they seek to serve a large clientele and to operate in a number of different geographic settings. While this makes for effective operations, it has the tendency to be off-putting to consumers who may find the coldness and impersonality of these settings at variance with their desire to have them function as dream worlds. As a result, these rationalized settings are led into efforts to enchant, or re-enchant, themselves in order to attract and retain consumers. This is most often done by the creation of spectacles of various types (Debord, [1967] 1994). The spectacle of a mega-mall, a Las Vegas casino (Gottdiener et al., 1999), or Disney World (Bryman, 1995) serves to enchant these settings and to bring in large numbers of consumers.

However, the large numbers lead to an increased need to rationalize and bureaucratize the spectacle and the settings themselves. This, in turn, serves to alienate consumers and to lead to a new round of efforts to re-enchant these settings. This dialectic between rationalization and enchantment is seen by Ritzer within the context of the rise of what he calls ‘cathedrals of consumption.’ The idea of ‘cathedrals of consumption’ allows us to see these sites as enchanted settings that must always be careful to maintain enchantment as a way of continuing to lure large numbers of consumers. Much like religious cathedrals in the past, these sites of consumption have come to be the center of our lives, even if they cannot possibly fill the same spiritual role.

These are new versions of sites of consumption with a long history—county fairs, general stores, world’s fairs, department stores and supermarkets (Humphrey, 1998). Ritzer focuses on a wide range of new sites (‘means’) of consumption that came into existence in the United States in the decade, or two, after the end of the Second World War—enclosed shopping malls, mega-malls, discount malls, fast-food restaurants and other franchises and chains, superstores, cybermalls, the home shopping TV network, cruise ships, Disney World, Las Vegas-style casino-hotels, and so on. As huge organizations attracting hordes of consumers, these settings are particularly prone to bureaucratization and rationalization. Yet, these must lure large numbers of consumers and they do so by offering enchantment through a wide range of spectacles that dwarf those offered by earlier means of consumption.

While they have been described, at least in part, as dream worlds, the sites of consumption discussed thus far have been quite material – fast-food restaurants, department stores, cruise ships and the like. However, one of the most important trends is in the direction of the emergence of ‘dematerialized’ means of consumption (Ritzer, 1999c). Slater (1997: 193-5) has discussed dematerialization primarily in terms of consumer goods and the fact that more of them are non-material (that is, in the form of services), the idea that even material goods have more non-material elements (for example, advertising imagery, design and packaging elements), the fact that we are more likely to encounter goods in terms of representations of them, and the increasing relationship of such goods to non-material labor involving knowledge, science and so on. But just as consumer goods are increasingly dematerialized, so are the settings in which they can be obtained. Important new non-material means of consumption are to be found on television in the form of home shopping networks, infomercials and the like. However, the big growth area in the future is likely to be in the non-material sites to be found on the Internet, including cybermalls, cybershops (‘e-tailers’) of all types ( is a good example), online gambling, as well as online pornography. It is not likely that people will give up the joys of traveling to the more material means of consumption, but it is likely that more goods and services, especially of a non-material form, will be obtained through dematerialized means of consumption.

Of relevance here is Fredric Jameson’s work on ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism.’ For example, the idea of ‘late capitalism’ (drawn from Mandel) involves the view that we have witnessed ‘a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas’ (Jameson, 1984: 78). Clearly, the expansion of the consumer society has commodified many things not heretofore commodified and it has brought corn-modification into more and more areas of the world as well as into more realms of everyday life.

This is in line with Ritzer’s argument that many other settings are coming to emulate the new means of consumption. Included here would be baseball stadiums, universities, hospitals, museums and churches. Consumers, accustomed to the spectacles offered in mega-malls and casinos, are demanding the same kinds of things in other settings. In addition, the advent of home shopping television and cybermalls has brought commodification into the home to an unprecedented degree.

Processes of Consumption

Changes in the sites of consumption have produced complementary changes in the process of consumption. One of the most significant was related to the mid-nineteenth-century emergence of the department store. Before the dominance of the department store, shopping often meant entering a specialized small shop already having decided what to purchase and haggling over the price. As we all know, shopping now generally means something entirely different. Shopping can mean wandering through displays of objects, trying on goods (or trying on fantasies); it need not include an actual purchase. The practice of shopping encompasses experiences that exist at the periphery of consumption in the strictest sense. Shopping sites are full of those who would describe themselves as ‘window shopping,’ but who leave empty-handed (Friedberg, 1993).

One of the more interesting studies of the process of consumption is Daniel Miller’s A Theory of Shopping (1998). His ethnography of the shopping experiences of consumers in North London reveals three stages to consumption. The first stage is a vision of the pure shopping experience which exists primarily at the level of discourse and not of practice. This is a vision of pure waste and excess usually referred to as ‘real shopping’ or ‘power shopping.’ In this vision, hedonistic consumers irresponsibly plunder the world and exhaust resources, collaborating with capitalism in their own and the earth’s degradation. It is interesting to note the similarity between the mostly imaginary description of the pure shopping experience by Miller’s subjects and what most sociologists think is the actual practice of consumption.

In stage two, Miller found that the actual practice of consumption was, in fact, a negation of the image of pure shopping. In their actual practices, consumers exercised the strategies and skills of thrift. Shopping, in practice, was usually described as an opportunity for saving money rather than spending it. Thrift was a central element of shopping even for those who had absolutely no need to practice it. Of course, there are elements of the hedonistic first stage in actual shopping. Many shopping trips include an expensive treat; some vacation shopping features excessive expenditures, as does special event shopping such as in courtship. But for the bulk of shopping, the strategies, skills and expertise are devoted to saving rather than spending.

In the third stage, the processes of consumption are connected to the real and ideal social relationships that make up the shopper’s world. The typical and, especially at this stage, very gendered consumer, ‘buys this particular brand or flavour, in relation to her sense of not only what the individual wants, but her reasoning as to what would improve that individual. In practice the two may be compromised in the form of what she can get that wretched object of love to actually eat!’ (Miller, 1998: 108).

Miller (1998: 148) concludes that the primary ‘purpose behind shopping is not so much to buy the things that people want, but to strive to be in a relationship with subjects that want these things.’ Love and devotion play important roles in consumption for Miller (1998: 147), as he suggests that consumer objects can mediate our personal, even romantic, relationships with other people. Thus, the process of shopping helps to reproduce and maintain human relationships as well as the inequalities that they reflect.

The process of consumption has been transformed as a result of a variety of changes, including those in the other realms discussed in this section. For example, the development of cathedrals of consumption has greatly altered the process of consumption. Ritzer (1999a) has identified four such changes. First, instead of needing to go to many different settings, sites like shopping malls and mega-malls (as well as supermarkets and hypermarkets) have made for the possibility of ‘one-stop shopping.’ Second, many of the cathedrals of consumption (such as mega-malls, Disney World, cruise ships, Las Vegas and its hotel-casinos) have become ‘destinations’ in their own right and people go there as much to consume the sites as they do the goods and services offered by them. Third, instead of having employees do things for consumers, much of consumption now involves consumers doing many things for themselves, and for no pay. Examples include picking up our own groceries in the supermarket, serving as our own wait-persons in fast-food restaurants, pumping our own gasoline in contemporary filling stations, getting cash from ATMs and the like. Finally, the cathedrals of consumption have altered social relations so that consumers are more likely to interact with the sites and what they have to offer than they are with people who work in those sites or with fellow consumers.

Of course, the very newest means of consumption—home shopping television and e-commerce—are having an even more profound effect on the process of consumption. Obviously, an increasing amount of consumption is taking place in the home as the home is fast becoming a cathedral of consumption. Among other things, this is ‘no-stop’ shopping, consumers do even more tasks for no pay (for example, much of the work involved in ordering books from and even the writing of free online book reviews), and social relations are so altered that they become ‘virtually’ non-existent.

Changes in the ‘facilitating means of consumption,’ for example, the introduction of the credit card, have also altered the process of consumption (Ritzer, 1995). The credit card frees practices of consumption from the need for planning and responsibility before the act of consumption. For example, consuming when on vacation no longer requires bringing large amounts of money or making sure that a site will accept an out-of-town check. One does not even need to have access to the amount of money necessary for the purchase. Planning and responsibility are shifted to the post-purchase period when the consumer must plan how to handle the ‘easy monthly payments.’ The process empties the moment of consumption of the need for responsibility and allows debt to multiply as full responsibility is perpetually postponed. This is especially likely to happen because credit card companies encourage minimum payments and target immature consumers such as students.

More analysis of the process of shopping is needed. There is obviously more involved than simply purchasing necessities. A focus on the processes of consumption reminds us that the everyday practice of consumption is strongly shaped by historical trends and socioeconomic forces. Consumption is clearly not the transparent ahistorical process that we tend to assume.


Even with the current upturn in interest, consumption remains a minor subject in social theory. Yet, as we have said before, that must and will change. Theorists cannot afford to continue to remain so far out of touch with the new realities of the socioeconomic world.

Consumption has arguably come to define contemporary American society. This makes it somewhat puzzling that European theorists have been much more active in developing theories of consumption than Americans. American sociology continues to be dominated by a productivist bias—as evidenced by such specialties as industrial sociology, sociology of work, organizational sociology, as well as the absence of a specialization in the sociology of consumption. Ironically, part of the reason for the concern of European theorists is American consumerism and its exportation to Europe and the rest of the world. American theorists may not be much interested in American consumerism, but others are acutely concerned about its implications for an emerging global culture. Thus, we have the paradox of a virtual absence of a sociology of consumption in a nation which is without doubt the world leader in consumption and is aggressively exporting its consumer goods and its means of consumption to much of the rest of the world.

That leads to the question: Why have social theorists (especially Americans) paid so little attention to consumption? Three factors suggest themselves. The first is the productivism that has historically dominated social theory. This was easily understandable during the nineteenth century and until the end of the Second World War. Throughout these years, one could defend the idea that production was predominant. But what about since 1945? How could social theory ignore or simplistically condemn the world-transforming changes in consumption over the past half century? While there has been an upturn in theorizing consumption, it has a long way to go to approximate the amount of theorizing on production. Productivism still lingers in social theory because the training of social theorists involves, in large part, reading the giants of the nineteenth century. And what they find when they read them is productivism. To break that habit, social theorists will need to learn to spend at least as much time gazing at the world around them as they do on the works of the predecessors. Perhaps more difficult, they will have to develop new tools and vocabularies that break with the production paradigm and are more appropriate to an analysis of consumption.

A second and related factor is that social theorists have the belief that serious theory deals with production while trivial theory deals with consumption. This is undoubtedly related to the gendered division of labor where men work and women shop. A sociologist is a serious thinker when studying the factory, but a dilettante when studying the shopping mall. This continues to this day, even though it is clear, at least in the United States and Western Europe, that the shopping mall has become an infinitely more important place than the factory and, more generally, consumption is of greater importance to more people than production.

Finally, theorists tend to think of their professional careers in terms of production rather than consumption. Status and salaries are related to what they write, not what they read. Furthermore, to recognize consumption is to acknowledge that their own contributions will be consumed in ways that they do not intend and cannot control. The meaning of any consumer product, including social theory, derives as much from the consumer as the producer. So long as theorists see themselves as producing social theory, can they ever accord consumption a central place?

The past three decades have brought forth some new theoretical (and empirical) work on consumption, but it nonetheless remains greatly subordinated to thinking on production. There is no question that given current social and economic trends, theorizing consumption will eventually exceed thinking on production, but not now and not soon. Social theory continues to be characterized by ‘cultural lag’—our thinking continues to lag behind the changing social world.