Sociology Consumption
by
Ian Woodward
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0075

Introduction

A rudimentary definition of consumption emphasizes the purchase and use of goods or services, noting that the point of expenditure on such items and the instant of their usage constitute the act of consumption. This understanding of consumption reflects a utilitarian, economic approach to consumption that should be seen as a starting point, since the range of theoretical and empirical innovations within the field of consumption studies—which exists within sociology, as well as having disciplinary expressions within anthropology, history, geography, business, and marketing studies—has established an understanding of consumption as a complex, widespread process. “The Sociology of Consumption” by Colin Campbell in Daniel Miller, ed., Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies (London: Routledge, 1995) adds a number of other stages to this basic definition of consumption. Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service but also selecting it, maintaining it, possibly repairing it, and ultimately, disposing of it in some way. Within each of these stages there are a number of complex subprocesses that consumption studies scholars have increasingly paid attention to. For example, the selection of goods is sometimes undertaken largely subconsciously or automatically but also based upon various social norms, cultural learning, emotional factors, prejudices, facets of identity, taste, or style. Likewise, disposing of a good may mean literally throwing it away, or it may mean reselling it, donating it, or passing it on to others. Campbell’s definition usefully shows how consumption is a process over time that fuses practical, emotional, material, and economic factors, rather than merely the moment when a person pays for something over the counter. In many ways, this broader understanding of consumption points to a range of innovations within the field that have occurred in the last few decades, which in turn direct us to broader changes in patterns of sociological inquiry. Questions of labor, industry, production units, social, legal, and economic institutions, technology, and social class were the core stuff of social inquiry through much of the 20th century. In mainstream sociology, consumption was for most of the discipline’s history simply not a relevant analytic category, which explains why for much of sociology’s history consumption was understood through theories of capitalist production. However, in the last few decades researchers have increasingly situated practices of consumption and a consumerist ethic as central for understanding broader social and cultural change, impacting on the way sociologists have conceptualized such diverse areas of social change as cultural and economic inequality, urban and spatial development, identity and selfhood, gender relations and performativity, media, and advertising.

Textbooks

The establishment of consumption studies as an important subfield of sociology is reflected in the variety of introductions to the field. The texts Bocock 1993 and Slater 1997 plot the historical shifts in consumption studies from the modern to the poststructural and postmodern, while maintaining a broadly critical and Marxist framework. Corrigan 1997 takes a different approach by exploring many domains or fields of consumption practice from home decoration to travel, while Smart 2010 picks up on recent concerns, focusing on the politics and sustainability of consumer society. Lury 2011 takes a more cultural and theoretical approach that focuses on objects, commodity circuits, and the meaning and process of exchanges, while Sassatelli 2007 integrates economic, philosophical, anthropological, and cultural approaches to the topic.

  • Bocock, Robert. 1993. Consumption. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203313114Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bocock traces the development of modern consumer society and its postmodern apotheosis in the late 20th century. Using a range of critical social theory, the book maps the way identity, desires, and commodification define present-day consumption.

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    • Corrigan, Peter. 1997. The sociology of consumption: An introduction. London: SAGE.

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      Corrigan introduces a range of concepts pertaining to and perspectives on consumption within sociology. His focus is on the development of consumer society and the mapping of consumption as a process. A feature of the book is its focus on various fields of consumption, including shopping, food, dress, the home, tourism, and the body.

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      • Lury, Celia. 2011. Consumer culture. 2d ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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        Lury works from a cultural and theoretical position to analyze consumer culture in terms of mobile commodities, circuits of cultural production and exchange, and the work of brands. The work shows how economy, culture, and materiality are constituted through chains of production and consumption.

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        • Sassatelli, Roberta. 2007. Consumer culture: History, theory and politics. London: SAGE.

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          This is a comprehensive, historically, and politically informed account of the development of modern consumer culture. The book covers literatures on historical features and development of consumption and consumer society, needs and fetishization, taste and aesthetics, and multiple contexts of consumption.

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          • Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer culture and modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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            Slater offers a careful and critical account of the way consumption becomes an identifying feature of modern society and the ideology of modernity. The book covers a range of theoretical perspectives on consumption using the frameworks of commodification, freedom, identity, and social status.

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            • Smart, Barry. 2010. Consumer society: Critical issues and environmental consequences. London: SAGE.

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              Smart analyzes consumer society in terms of the systemic creation of consumption as a social activity. He considers the way marketing, branding, and advertising creates markets, the globalization of consumption, and the environmental, political and environmental consequences and issues wrought by modern consumer culture.

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              Journals

              While many general sociology journals publish papers related to consumption and consumer society, there are a number of specialist journals in the field. Each tends to publish research broadly characterized by distinctive methodological and theoretical approaches. The Journal of Consumer Culture and Consumption, Markets & Culture focus on sociological and cultural approaches to consumption, encouraging a diverse range of theoretical and methodological approaches. The Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Consumer Behaviour tend to publish research using behavioral, psychological, and economic research paradigms. The Journal of Material Culture publishes interdisciplinary research on material culture, often anthropologically inspired. Poetics characterizes itself as a journal publishing empirical research on arts, media, and culture and is an important forum for publishing research on patterns of cultural consumption.

              • Consumption, Markets & Culture. 1997–.

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                Consumption, Markets & Culture was first published in 1997, now producing four issues per year. The journal solicits research from social scientific, humanities, and management perspectives and takes a self-described postmodern and critical approach to the consumer research it seeks to promote.

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                • Journal of Consumer Behaviour. 2001–.

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                  This journal was first published in 2001. Now published six times yearly. It publishes interdisciplinary research into a variety of facets of consumer behavior.

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                  • Journal of Consumer Culture. 2001–.

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                    The Journal of Consumer Culture, founded by George Ritzer and Don Slater, was first published in 2001. It is now printed three times per year. The journal publishes work from multiple disciplines, including history, anthropology, and sociology. Seeks also to publish critical theoretical work and incorporate global perspectives.

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                    • Journal of Consumer Research. 1974–.

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                      First published in 1974 and six times per year since. Publishes academic research on consumption and consumer society from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, management, and economics. Embraces a range of scientific methodologies, from micro- to macro-oriented research.

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                      • Journal of Material Culture. 1996–.

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                        First published in 1996 and four times per year since. The Journal of Material Culture publishes research that investigates relationships between artifacts and social structures. The journal invites research from a variety of disciplines. While it publishes works on a range of topics, material consumption papers feature strongly in the journal.

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                        • Poetics. 1971–.

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                          First published in 1971 and six times per year since. This journal publishes interdisciplinary empirical research on culture, the media, and the arts. Research investigating patterns of cultural consumption has figured prominently in this journal.

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                          Classic Works

                          Prior to the consolidation of consumption studies as a coherent subfield of sociological inquiry in the 1980s, much writing on the topic was framed through or inspired by economic and productionist approaches. This work was indebted to the writings of Karl Marx and was characterized by attempts to develop a theory of ideology to account for consumption. Marx 1954 locates consumption in terms of a particular relation to commodities and thereby human labor, while Adorno 1991, Barthes 1993, and Baudrillard 1998 develop a response to Marx in unique ways, but all emphasize a theory of consumer culture as ideology. Veblen 1994 is the first coherent attempt to explain the social dynamics of fashion, display, and social status in modernity. Douglas and Isherwood 1996 is a unique forging of anthropological and economic principles, while Campbell 1987 is quite singular as a coherent theoretical explanation of consumer behavior and consumer society. Bauman 1988 and Featherstone 1991 represent important statements linking consumption to various sociocultural conditions inherent in postmodern theory.

                          • Adorno, Theodor W. 1991. The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. Edited by J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge.

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                            This book collects key essays by Adorno on the problem of mass culture. Adorno locates developing mass-media cultures of the era, such as cinema, radio, and popular music, as denying authenticity and promoting the devaluing of culture through its commodification. Adorno identifies the rise of consumer culture as part of the tragic demystification and rationalization of social life.

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                            • Barthes, Roland. 1993. Mythologies. Translated by A. Lavers. London: Vintage.

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                              Barthes takes from structural linguistics and anthropology to enliven Marxist-inspired studies of commodification and ideology with the language of semiotic analysis. Driving home his central idea of the commodity as an ideological container of cultural myths, Barthes deconstructs a range of everyday consumer signs, from laundry detergent to the Citroen car. Originally published in 1957.

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                              • Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. The consumer society: Myths and structures. London: SAGE.

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                                In this book, Baudrillard draws from semiotic and critical theories to expose the mythical and ideological aspects of consumer society, including credit, the creation of needs through advertising, and the emphasis on the body as a point of consumption. Part of an important trilogy of Baudrillard’s early works on consumer society, consumer objects, and consumption processes. Originally published in 1970.

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                                • Bauman, Zygmunt. 1988. Freedom. Milton Keynes, UK: Open Univ. Press.

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                                  An important statement that prefaces Bauman’s later works on the “liquid” formations of late modernity. Working in the critical tradition, Bauman exposes the ways freedoms are based on the freedoms and promises of capitalist markets. Personal consumption, possessive individualist ownership, and cultural distinction become the dominant modes of experiencing social freedom and personal transcendence.

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                                  • Campbell, Colin. 1987. The Romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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                                    A development of Weber’s famous “Protestant ethic” in the light of modern consumer society. Alongside the rationalist and technical ethic that characterized Weber’s theory of modern society, Campbell identifies a romantic, pleasure-seeking, and hedonistic spirit as essential to modern consumer societies. Campbell’s focus on the restless, imaginative desiring of novel goods as the engine of consumer society is a coherent and important theory of consumption.

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                                    • Douglas, Mary, and Baron Isherwood. 1996. The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. New York: Basic Books.

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                                      An innovative work on the cultural meanings and functions of consumption, which combines Douglas’s Durkheim-inspired structural anthropology with the insights of her coauthor, economist Baron Isherwood. Modern consumption is seen as demarcating and classifying cultural categories, confirming moral claims, and generating systems of social differentiation. In the end, consumption is understood as the means for circulating and encountering meanings.

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                                      • Featherstone, Mike. 1991. Consumer culture and postmodernism. London: SAGE.

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                                        Featherstone draws on a range of theoretical and disciplinary sources to situate aspects of consumption as central to “postmodern” social life. Drawing on notions of aestheticization, lifestyle, personal stylization, artistic movements, and new cultural skills required to navigate collapsed cultural hierarchies, Featherstone offers a detailed analysis of consumer culture under the conditions of postmodernity.

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                                        • Marx, Karl. 1954. Capital: A critical analysis of capitalist production. Moscow: Progress.

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                                          While Marx established the centrality of production as the central problem of sociology, this work also inspired many later inquiries into consumption as ideology. Marx argues that commodities are embodiments of and equivalents to human labor. As a consequence, consumers are implicated in the exploitation of workers and ultimately contribute to their own alienation through consuming goods produced by alienated labor. First published in 1867.

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                                          • Veblen, Thorstein. 1994. The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. New York: Penguin.

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                                            A witty, sometimes acerbic, analysis of the processes of fashion, taste, and social norms related to decoration and leisure. Veblen links cultural distinction and differentiation to competitive, imitative, and display-based social behavior. Veblen underscores the increasing relevance of displays of aesthetic expertise to social life, including things such as dress, gardens, and pets. First published in 1899.

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                                            Historical Accounts

                                            Historical accounts of consumption allow us to see how contemporary consumer society is in fact not such a strange thing, as its formation has been relatively gradual, stretching back into the origins of modernity. McKendrick, et al. 1992; Mukerji 1983; and Williams 1982 chart the emergence of mass production and industrial society alongside the development of the modern consumer, discussing cultures of branding, fashion, and distinction. Auslander 1996 shows how ideas about social status and cultural distinction were encoded in the decoration and design of furniture. McCracken 1988 provides a useful historical overview of the development of modern consumption, while Cook 2004 focuses on modernity’s mobilization of the child consumer.

                                            • Auslander, Leora. 1996. Taste and power: Furnishing modern France. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                              Auslander’s 1996 study of furnishing in modern France shows how intricate, elaborate, and expensive aesthetic styles were used in the 18th century by the upper classes as status symbols to form a symbolic link with ruling monarchies. Auslander traces how over time multiple furnishing styles were equated to social models of taste, linked to a differentiating system of social class.

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                                              • Cook, Daniel. 2004. The commodification of childhood: The children’s clothing industry and the rise of the child consumer. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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                                                A study into the historical formation of children as consumers through an examination of changing norms about childhood as they are reflected in dress codes. More broadly, Cook charts the rise over the 20th century of the industry that caters to children as consumers. Children are increasingly seen as consumer citizens over time.

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                                                • McCracken, Grant. 1988. Culture and consumption: New approaches to the symbolic character of consumer goods and activities. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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                                                  Chapter 1 of this important work on culture and consumption plots the emergence or making of the modern consumer of the past couple of centuries. McCracken reviews major works in the field to show how modern consumption is tied to particular production techniques, branding, social differentiation, fashionability, and social status.

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                                                  • McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and John H. Plumb. 1992. The birth of a consumer society: The commercialisation of eighteenth-century England. London: Europa.

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                                                    This historical work charts the rise of consumer society through a study of the links between production technologies, social elites, the trickle-down of fashion and status, and the rise of decorative and aesthetic arts in relation to commodification.

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                                                    • Mukerji, Chandra. 1983. From graven images: Patterns of modern materialism. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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                                                      Mukerji reveals the links between the rise of mass production and mass consumption, beginning in early modernity and the Industrial Revolution and having its origins even earlier. Mukerji considers the role of science, production techniques, rational systems of scientific calculation, and printing in enabling mass production.

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                                                      • Williams, Rosalind H. 1982. Dream worlds: Mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                        An historical account of the rise of mass production and consumption, including discussions of the development of consumers and the notion of consumption-enabled lifestyles, fashion, dandyism and elites, luxury and status forms of consumption, and the rise of the consumer citizen.

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                                                        Materiality and Material Culture Studies

                                                        In the last few decades there has been a widely influential “material turn” in studies of consumption. From its anthropological origins, the field of material culture studies has provided a culturally sophisticated approach to consumption, emphasizing symbolism, ritual, and meaning as the basis for defining understanding consumption via relationships with material objects. Miller 1987 is a foundational theoretical statement for this perspective, as is the collection of essays assembled in Appadurai 1986. Baudrillard 1996 represents a unique combination of diverse theoretical traditions to account for materiality and consumer society. Woodward 2007 and Dant 1999 connect a diverse range of social theory to the study of objects, while Alexander 2008 explores the iconic dimension of material consumption from a theoretical perspective. Molotch 2003 looks to explain the systems of economic and cultural production that bring consumer objects into being. Cardenas and Gorman 2007 and Belk and Tumbat 2005 use multidisciplinary approaches to investigate the biographies and mythic qualities of particular consumer objects.

                                                        • Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2008. Iconic consciousness: The material feeling of meaning. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26:782–794.

                                                          DOI: 10.1068/d5008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          In this paper, one of a series of Alexander’s works on iconicity and iconic consciousness, objects of late modern capitalism are seen to concretize social meanings in objectual form. It is within the aesthetic surface, texture, and shape of an object that people are able to feel immersion within its cultural and moral meaning. Available online by subscription.

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                                                          • Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                            An important work in introducing and consolidating the material approach to consumption. The essays in this collection explore the way meaning and value are created through the circulation and trade of commodities. The focus on the biographies, or lives, of things as they are exchanged shed light on the creation of cultural value via economic exchange.

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                                                            • Baudrillard, Jean. 1996. The system of objects. Translated by James Benedict. London: Verso.

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                                                              An important and highly original early statement on materiality and consumer society that coalesces Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, and classical structuralism. Baudrillard seeks to reintegrate objects into culture by studying them as elements of a sign system. Consumption is characterized as the systematic and thoughtful manipulation of objects as symbolic units of a larger communicative system.

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                                                              • Belk, Russell W., and Gulnur Tumbat. 2005. The cult of Macintosh. Consumption, Markets, Culture 8.3: 205–217.

                                                                DOI: 10.1080/10253860500160403Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                The authors explore the meanings of “Apple” and “Mac” via interviews with consumers and also the interpretive analysis of media discourses. They show how this brand becomes an iconic, cult brand, based on the promulgation of a number of myths about its creation, its leaders and representatives, its apparent political and lifestyle meanings, and the ongoing romantic relationship people have established with it.

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                                                                • Cardenas, Elaine, and Ellen Gorman, eds. 2007. The Hummer: Myths and consumer culture. New York: Lexington.

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                                                                  This is a multidisciplinary collection of essays devoted to understanding the career or biography of the controversial “Hummer” motor vehicle. The authors show how the Hummer refers to various myths and ideologies of American society. The Hummer’s life course is originally sustained by its embodiment of notions of freedom, individuality, and masculinity but is ultimately cut short by questions about its environmental sustainability and relevance to city life.

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                                                                  • Dant, Tim. 1999. Material culture in the social world: Values, activities, lifestyles. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

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                                                                    Dant takes a pragmatic approach to analyzing materiality and consumer culture. His essay on the windsurfer was one of the first within sociological studies of consumption and leisure to focus on person-object assemblages. Much of the book consists of an explication and synthesis of ideas for studying material culture within the sociological tradition.

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                                                                    • Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.

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                                                                      The book consists of a series of mostly philosophical essays, drawing upon diverse theorists of modernity, to show how culture is dynamically constituted through meaningful people–object interactions. Constituting a highly original and effective contribution to theories of capitalism, Miller switches the frame of analysis from the economic realm of objectification to the process of consumer objectification.

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                                                                      • Molotch, Harvey. 2003. Where stuff comes from: How toasters, toilets, cars, computers, and many other things come to be as they are. New York: Routledge.

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                                                                        A study integrating design, history, marketing, and sociological perspectives that account for how a range of consumer goods are produced, distributed, marketed, and materially realized. Molotch studies the diverse processes that bring consumer objects to market and identifies consumer goods to be at the center of complex systems of production chains.

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                                                                        • Woodward, Ian. 2007. Understanding material culture. London: SAGE.

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                                                                          Woodward draws on his research into the performativity of material consumption and taste, as well as classical traditions in social theory, sociology, and anthropology, to advance a cultural sociological take on material culture and consumption. The theoretical discussion is framed in terms of traditions for studying materiality, while empirical and analytic perspectives are advanced by recent ideas about identity and object performativity.

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                                                                          Consumer Practices

                                                                          A recent focus on consumption practices has emerged as a way of pursuing an empirical agenda on consumption studies that attends to the embodied, pragmatic actions of consumers within material contexts. As pointed out in Warde 2005, this focus on practice seems productive because it does not presume or speculate about cultural categories, meaning, or symbolism but identifies how consumption occurs within and for the sake of embodied practices. Dant 2008 is a synthesis of theoretical perspectives, while Gregson 2007 and Gregson, et al. 2009 constitute an empirical investigation of practices of household usage and disposal. Watson and Shove 2008 and Shove, et al. 2007 focus on aspects of consumption practices in the home.

                                                                          • Dant, Tim. 2008. The “pragmatics” of material interaction. Journal of Consumer Culture 8.1: 11–33.

                                                                            DOI: 10.1177/1469540507085724Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                            Dant undertakes to explicate the dynamics of material interaction with reference to flat-pack furniture and work on motor vehicles. He synthesizes pragmatic, semiotic, and phenomenological theories. Consumption objects are understood relationally, in the context of other related objects, and also in terms of the intentions of designers or makers. In this account, consumption is seen as consisting of the relation of bodily gestures to material things. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                            • Gregson, Nicky. 2007. Living with things: Ridding, accommodation, dwelling. Wantage, UK: Sean Kingston.

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                                                                              Based on ethnographic research in an English village, Gregson looks not at exchange and commodification, but at the processes involved in living with things in the home. This is a study of possessions and how they are lived with, moved about, displayed, treasured, stored, and disposed of.

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                                                                              • Gregson, Nicky, A. Metcalfe, and Louise Crewe. 2009. Practices of object maintenance and repair: How consumers attend to consumer objects within the home. Journal of Consumer Culture 9.2: 248–272.

                                                                                DOI: 10.1177/1469540509104376Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                This paper explores the attention consumers give to repairing and maintaining objects within the home. The authors explore the range of maintenance practices people engage with in their homes, from cleaning and polishing to repairing and restoring. Maintenance and repair connect to disposability, ridding and, in the larger picture, aspects of meeting consumption needs. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                • Shove, Elizabeth, Mathew Watson, Martin Hand, and Jack Ingram. 2007. The design of everyday life. Oxford: Berg.

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                                                                                  This research is based on interviews with householders and considers the links between a consumer object’s design and use. Products within the home are considered in relation to networks of other objects, and in turn to consumption patterns within the home more broadly.

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                                                                                  • Warde, Alan. 2005. Consumption and theories of practice. Journal of Consumer Culture 5.2: 131–153.

                                                                                    DOI: 10.1177/1469540505053090Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                    A review of key debates in consumption studies and an exploration of the theoretical rationale for the application of theories of practice, already established in a variety of other subdisciplines, within sociological studies of consumption. Warde plots consumption as a series of practical engagements with things, with each experience requiring requisite skills, attitudes, and outlooks. Warde suggests that consumer wants emerge from cycles of practice. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                    • Watson, Matthew, and Elizabeth Shove. 2008. Product, competence, project and practice: DIY and the dynamics of craft consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture 8:69–89.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/1469540507085726Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      The authors explore do-it-yourself practices in the home. Consumption is disaggregated, moving it away from expressions of personal tastes and identity, toward the practices that actually construct, modify, and transform domestic space. Seeks to synthesize theories of consumption with approaches in science and technology studies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                      Taste and Social Differentiation

                                                                                      Although early statements on consumption and fashion pointed to their capacity to symbolize differences of social status and class, it was not until Bourdieu 1984, a groundbreaking empirical study of cultural taste in France, that sociologists developed the empirical and conceptual frameworks for investigating the patterns and processes whereby consumption was directly implicated in the reproduction of social inequalities. In the decades following its publication, this work inspired a variety of empirical studies that verified, extended, or critiqued the author’s findings. Bennett, et al. 1999 and Bennett, et al. 2009 verify and extend Bourdieu’s approach in Australian and United Kingdom settings. Working in the Bourdieusian tradition, Peterson and Kern 1996 critiques and extends Bourdieu’s findings, focusing on the development of the culturally omnivorous consumer and inspiring a vast subfield of empirical inquiry in studies of cultural consumption. Bryson 1996 explores the role of symbolic exclusion as the basis for cultural differentiation, while Hennion 2007 and Blumer 1969 represent divergent and original developments of the idea that cultural tastes both create and reproduce social inequalities. Daloz 2010 focuses on the strategies of cultural distinction used by social elites.

                                                                                      • Bennett, Tony, Michael Emmison, and John Frow. 1999. Accounting for tastes: Australian everyday cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                                        This is a critique and elaboration of Bourdieu 1984 from Australia. While directly inspired and modeled on Bourdieu 1984, the work introduces a variety of theoretical and methodological points of departure. This includes incorporating qualitative interview data as a component of the study and the combination of sociological and cultural studies disciplinary perspectives, which introduces analytic approaches allowing greater flexibility.

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                                                                                        • Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth De Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright. 2009. Culture, class, distinction. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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                                                                                          A substantial and wide-ranging empirical inquiry into taste, cultural capital, and class in contemporary Britain. Inspired by and indebted to Bourdieu 1984, the authors take into account the complexity of cultural formations in the context of globalization, cultural fragmentation, and the widespread consumption of mass media. The authors also contribute to discussions on the relation of gender and ethnicity to class. They modernize and update Bourdieusian scholarship on the relationship between class and cultural consumption.

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                                                                                          • Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Fashion: From class differentiation to collective selection. Sociological Quarterly 10:275–291.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.1969.tb01292.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            In contrast to Simmel 1957 (cited under Identities), Blumer’s theory is that fashion and taste are formed collectively rather than set by privileged elites, as Simmel had earlier suggested. On the basis of extensive observation of the women’s fashion industry in Paris, Blumer identified a key feature of fashion to be a process of collective aesthetic discrimination and selection. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                            • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.

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                                                                                              Bourdieu’s study of tastes and cultural consumption is based on data collected in 1960s France. It advanced a theory of how tastes were implicated in the reproduction of social inequalities. Bourdieu uses advanced statistical techniques, combined with his elaborate theoretical and conceptual model, to show that the social and cultural correspondences of cultural tastes vary according to quotients of cultural and economic capital.

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                                                                                              • Bryson, Bethany. 1996. “Anything but heavy metal”: Symbolic exclusion and musical dislikes. American Sociological Review 61.5: 884–899.

                                                                                                DOI: 10.2307/2096459Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                This is a quantitative exploration of a range of hypotheses concerning exclusion and dislikes, in contrast to prevailing literatures in the sociology of taste that focus on positive preferences and patterns of liking cultural forms. The author explores patterns of tolerance in relation to musical preferences, drawing conclusions about broader patterns of political and racial tolerance in American culture. Available online by subscription.

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                                                                                                • Daloz, Jean-Pascal. 2010. The sociology of elite distinction. London: Palgrave.

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                                                                                                  Daloz focuses on theories of elites and the cultural techniques, strategies, and practices they use to establish their individuality and difference from other social groups and classes. Analyzes the communicative and symbolic dimensions of social elites, along with the social effects of this play of distinction.

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                                                                                                  • Hennion, Antoine. 2007. Those things that hold us together: Taste and sociology. Cultural Sociology 1:97–114.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1177/1749975507073923Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    Develops an approach to theorizing tastes that emphasizes the processual and experiential dimension of judgment in everyday life. Not committed to a strong version of actor-network approaches, but nevertheless focusing on the performative elements of people-object engagements, Hennion argues that “taste” refers to the way in which individuals apply principles of judgment and evaluation to the diverse array of objects, events, and people that they face in everyday settings. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                    • Peterson, Richard A., and Robert M. Kern. 1996. Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review 61 (October): 900–907.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.2307/2096460Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Presents empirical data from a US survey that provides a compelling challenge to Bourdieu’s findings. They show that people consume goods not just according to their class and cultural location but from across the social and economic spectrum. These “omnivorous” consumers use their cultural knowledge to transform ethnic or working-class cultural consumption experiences into valuable forms of social distinction and cultural capital. Available online by subscription.

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                                                                                                      Identities

                                                                                                      A strong trend in consumption studies research since the 1980s within both sociological consumption studies and also business and marketing studies of consumption has been the figuring of consumption as an identity-forming activity. In the papers Simmel 1957, Warde 1994, and Woodward 2003, identity is achieved through consumption practices in a variety of fields, though this is not an unproblematic process. Simmel 1957 sees fashion as a modern social practice par excellence, which requires a balancing of individual and collective impulses. Woodward 2003 shows how consumption is a practice involving choice that also demands the weighing up of notions of individual taste and identity against group norms. Warde 1994 explores the way consumption can potentially be a domain of social anxiety and how various institutions and interests structure particular pathways of consumer choice. Belk 1988 explores how consumer possessions afford the construction of social and personal identity, while Lamont and Molnár 2001 focuses on how consumption constructs group identity and how it is in turn constructed by marketing interests. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981 and Dittmar 1992 develop systematic social-psychological approaches to consumption that figure identity centrally. Hebdige 1979 explores youth as a consumptive identity, especially the role of fashion and style in subverting social norms.

                                                                                                      • Belk, Russell W. 1988. Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research 15:139–165.

                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1086/209154Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                        Belk shows how people value consumer objects very highly and extremely personally, especially those objects that they deem themselves to “possess”. Belk suggests that this aspect of possession is crucial to identity formation, for it allows people to see themselves, or project their identity, into the things around them. Possessed objects thus allow the self to be identified and extended into the material world. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                        • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139167611Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                          This extensive and innovative study empirically accounts for the transactions between people and objects within homes. Their research approach is underpinned by a belief that domestic objects are identity symbols. Results shed light on processes of identity formation in relation to family, life course, gender, and the uses and meanings of objects within the home.

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                                                                                                          • Dittmar, Helga. 1992. The social psychology of material possessions: To have is to be. New York: St. Martin’s.

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                                                                                                            An extensive and informative review of the processes that link consumption practices to identity. Dittmar draws on a range of theories and research evidence to show how possession, display, ownership, and consumption can assist in forming or negating interpersonal and group attachments, mediating the formation of self-identity and esteem, and integrating and differentiating social groups, classes, or tribes.

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                                                                                                            • Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.

                                                                                                              DOI: 10.4324/9780203139943Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                              A classic account of the role of consumption within youth subcultures. Young people who are participants in subcultures are identified as skilled consumers who use everyday consumer objects as a means to challenge and subvert dominant social norms. Codes of dress and personal style become arenas for creating meaningful personal identities and for upsetting conventional codes of behavior and appearance.

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                                                                                                              • Lamont, Michèle, and Virág Molnár. 2001. How blacks use consumption to shape their collective identity: Evidence from marketing specialists. Journal of Consumer Culture 1.1: 31–45.

                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1177/146954050100100103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                The authors explore the way black consumers are marketed to in American society. Using a social identity theoretical framework, the authors look to identify the discursive construction of internal and external referents of black identity, namely group identification and social categorization. They investigate the role of consumption in achieving social membership and in transforming the meaning of “blackness” in society. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                • Simmel, Georg. 1957. Fashion. American Journal of Sociology 62.6: 541–558.

                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1086/222102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                  Simmel’s classical analysis of fashion fuels his explication of basic social processes that underscore modern life, and in turn, their impact on the psychosocial development of the modern person. Fashion allows a public playing out of taste mechanisms, underpinned by class-related processes of imitation, driving the trickle-down of fashion from elites to the mass. Originally published in 1904. Available online by subscription.

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                                                                                                                  • Warde, Alan. 1994. Consumption, identity-formation and uncertainty. Sociology 28.4: 877–898.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1177/0038038594028004005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    Warde shows that consumption is ascribed significant weight in constructing identity, but this also makes it a domain of risk. He argues that consumption choices can be problematic, risky, or anxiety provoking, though this will depend on social context, the relative cultural authority of the person who is selecting and consuming the good, and the degree of importance they invest in their own, and others’ perception of, personal consumption choices. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                    • Woodward, Ian. 2003. Divergent narratives in the imagining of the home amongst middle-class consumers: Aesthetics, comfort and the symbolic boundaries of self and home. Journal of Sociology 39.4: 391–412.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/0004869003394005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      In this qualitative study, Woodward explores the common threads in the narratives people have in relation to home decoration, and their relationship to the broader meanings of home. The author makes the case for a performative account of consumption, using empirical evidence to argue that it is a process by which meanings are continuously managed through the accomplishment of a narrative, in conjunction with chosen elements of domestic material culture. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                      Gender

                                                                                                                      Relative to the perspectives of class, culture, and identity, gender is a framework that has not been so influential within recent consumption studies. This is not due to lack of relevance but reflects the trend toward studies of class, inequality, and culture within the field that frequently discuss gender but do not deal with it as a central concern. In addition, some authors have also highlighted a relative lack of interest on the part of feminist researchers in contemporary consumption studies. There have been, however, many excellent studies that have explored the way consumption habits, technologies, styles, and practices impact on gender roles and relations. Casey and Martens 2007 explores a diverse range of consumptive settings where gender is relevant to consumption. De Grazia and Furlough 1996 investigates the historical framing and construction of gender through consumption patterns and processes, while Stratton 1996 explores the historical dimension of bodily construction through ideas about commodification and fetish. Mort 1996 and Edwards 1997 investigate the commercial construction of masculinity, while Woodward 2007 takes an ethnographic, material approach to understanding the dress and fashion habits of women.

                                                                                                                      • Casey, Emma, and Lydia Martens, eds. 2007. Gender and consumption: Domestic cultures and the commercialisation of everyday life. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

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                                                                                                                        This is a collection of research papers from prominent British and Continental European scholars. It collects papers from historical and comparative perspectives, but for the most part contains studies exploring the gendered public and private discourses around consumption. The final part of the book explores consumption in the domestic sphere, with particular use of concepts from material culture studies.

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                                                                                                                        • De Grazia, Victoria, and Ellen Furlough, eds. 1996. The sex of things: Gender and consumption in historical perspective. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                                                                          A wide-ranging collection of papers that explores the gendered and sexual division of labor as expressed through settings and practices of consumption. Thematically organized around the home and the domestic sphere, the citizenship dimensions of consumption, and the historical emergence of gender as a relevant category in consumption.

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                                                                                                                          • Edwards, Tim. 1997. Men in the mirror: Men’s fashion, masculinity and consumer fashion. London: Cassell.

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                                                                                                                            Edwards investigates the representation of the contemporary man through a study of how ideals of masculinity are established within commercial and consumer settings. He uses textual and visual material to show how different versions of masculinity are politically and culturally valued.

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                                                                                                                            • Mort, Frank. 1996. Cultures of consumption: Masculinities and social space in late twentieth-century Britain. London: Routledge.

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                                                                                                                              Mort looks to explain the systemic, commercial, and identity-related factors that have led to the commodified construction of masculine style in contemporary Britain. He examines a range of advertising, marketing, and retailing practices, as well as locating the construction of masculine styles in particular spaces and places of the city.

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                                                                                                                              • Stratton, Jon. 1996. The desirable body: Cultural fetishism and the erotics of consumption. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                                Stratton makes use of Freudian and Marxist perspectives to explore the cultural drives that invest sexual power and energy into the imaginative construction of the ideal body. The author draws on cultural texts to examine the archetypes and iconology of desire as it is manifested in representations of the body.

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                                                                                                                                • Woodward, Sophie. 2007. Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg.

                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.2752/9781847883483Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                  In contrast to textual and media-driven analyses of cultural ideals about femininity, Woodward’s analysis uses anthropological, ethnographic approaches to study women’s dressing practices. Her theoretical frameworks make use of identity, consumption, and material culture perspectives to study the personal, social, and relational dimensions of female dressing.

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                                                                                                                                  Critiques

                                                                                                                                  Through the latter half of the 20th century economic, environmental, and psychological critiques of consumer society began to emerge. Galbraith 1984 constitutes a wide-ranging critique of the capitalist imperative of progress, which, he argued, led to extreme private affluence and consumption, yet degraded public wealth. In a similar vein, Bell 1976 explores the psychic and economic contradictions consumer capitalism creates, while Fromm 1976 critiques consumer culture on the basis of the psychological traumas it renders. Miller and Rose 1997 use theories of governance and discipline to show how consumption industries create consumers’ expectations and meet them at the same time. Schor 2000 is a critical investigation of patterns of consumerism in America while Ritzer 2010 offers a powerful critique and analysis of many trends in contemporary consumer culture. Schudson 2007 explores the implications of personal consumption in terms of the public sphere and forms of sustainable citizenship. Chapman 2005 looks at the contribution design cultures can make to sustainability of consumption, implying that design has tended to focus on promoting immediate pleasures and gratification rather than product longevity.

                                                                                                                                  • Bell, Daniel. 1976. The cultural contradictions of capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

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                                                                                                                                    Bell critically explores the anomic and alienating consequences of contemporary capitalism, which produces more goods and in turn needs to create and manage consumer demands for those goods. The essential contradiction highlighted is the need for disciplined and rationalized forms of economic production, against the rise of forms of individualized, hedonistic, and impulsive cultures based on consumptive gratification.

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                                                                                                                                    • Chapman, Jonathan. 2005. Emotionally durable design: Objects, experiences, empathy. London: Earthscan.

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                                                                                                                                      Coming from design studies, but informed by material culture approaches to the social psychology of consumption, Chapman argues that designers need to take some responsibility for creating a society in which short-term emotional attachments to objects are part of the problem of waste and overconsumption. Rather than for rapid cycles of product replacement, his argument is for the design of emotionally durable products.

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                                                                                                                                      • Fromm, Erich. 1976. To have or to be? New York: Harper & Row.

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                                                                                                                                        Fromm argues that capitalism, and the consumer culture it creates based on “having” rather than “being,” is associated with a pathology that alienates real human needs. Fromm saw that consumption was estranged from human needs and put to perverse and socially divisive uses, such as ostentation and social distinction. Acquisition becomes a goal in itself, effectively displacing genuine human needs. A synthesis of psychoanalytic and Marxist theory.

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                                                                                                                                        • Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1984. The affluent society. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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                                                                                                                                          Galbraith’s popular work crossed over from professionals to the educated public. In highlighting the problems associated with traditional socioeconomic models that assume “the more the better,” the themes he raised were an important forerunner to current ideas manifested in the rise of “green” social movements and consumer values, for example, about overconsumption, waste, and the real costs of affluent consumer societies. Originally published in 1958.

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                                                                                                                                          • Miller, Peter, and Nikolas Rose. 1997. Mobilizing the consumer: Assembling the subject of consumption. Theory, Culture and Society 14.1: 1–36.

                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1177/026327697014001001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                            The authors draw on archival material from The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. They show how consumers were “mobilized”—their subjectivities toward consumption assembled. Rather than merely reiterating an account in which powerful corporate interests manipulate consumer desires, Miller and Rose’s account is much more subtle, illustrating the technologies of expertise that assemble consumption spaces and modes of action. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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                                                                                                                                            • Ritzer, George. 2010. Enchanting a disenchanted world: Revolutionizing the means of consumption. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

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                                                                                                                                              Ritzer analyzes the settings, spaces, and locales that he sees as constituting the means of consumption in the contemporary world. These settings, including casinos, shopping malls, cruise ships, superstores, museums, and gated communities, are settings where consumption is mandated, rationalized, and disciplined. Ritzer draws on the theoretical resources of Weberian sociology and postmodern theory.

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                                                                                                                                              • Schor, Juliet B. 2000. Do Americans shop too much? Boston: Beacon.

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                                                                                                                                                An inquiry into the hegemonic status of consumption and consuming in American social life. Working in the tradition of liberal critiques of consumption, Schor discusses the environmental, personal, economic, and social costs of the emphasis on consumption in American life.

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                                                                                                                                                • Schudson, Michael. 2007. Citizens, consumers and the good society. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 611:236–249.

                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1177/0002716207299195Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                  An account of the links between consumption, the civil sphere, and civic participation. Schudson argues there is no reason why individual consumption cannot lead to positive social, political, and ethical outcomes. Schudson argues for a less moralistic approach to theorizing consumption, citing studies that reveal both the political restrictions and the liberatory possibilities embedded in the consumption act. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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