Sociology Consumer Culture
by
Steven Miles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0135

Introduction

Consumer culture is a form of material culture facilitated by the market, which thus created a particular relationship between the consumer and the goods or services he or she uses or consumes. Traditionally social science has tended to regard consumption as a trivial by-product of production. However, sociologists have increasingly come to recognize the value of studying consumer culture for its own sake. It could indeed be argued that consumer culture represents one of the primary arenas in which elements of social change are played out in everyday life. Consumer culture can be distinguished from consumption per se, insofar as it is more about the relationship between the material and the cultural rather than the status and inequalities implied by the ownership of consumer goods. In this sense consumer culture is not simply a process by which commercial products are “used up” by consumers. People’s relationship to consumer culture is meaningful and reflects, and potentially reproduces, particular values and forms of status. In this sense consumer culture arguably lies at the heart of the relationship between structure and agency in contemporary society. It demonstrates the power of capitalism to reproduce the parameters within which citizens of a consumer society live their everyday lives. Consumer culture gives us the tools to express who it is we are, but while doing so it simultaneously reinforces an economic system in which the individual’s ability to be free or to choose is, ironically, constrained. A number of texts have sought to understand the social significance of consumer culture and this ability to divide as well as to provide.

General Overviews and Key Works

Consumer culture came to sociological prominence in the 1990s and 2000s as scholars came to recognize that consumption was significant for its own sake. This reflected broader trends such as the “Cultural Turn” and the increased focus on the cultural dimensions of post-modernity. A range of books have sought to demonstrate the significance of consumption to social change. Featherstone 1990 examines the sociological significance of the accumulation of material culture, while Ritzer 1993 looks at the way in which rationalization functions in the context of consumer culture. By utilizing a range of well-chosen extracts from a diverse range of sources, Lee 2000 pinpoints the contemporary significance of consumer culture. Meanwhile, Slater 1997 designates consumer culture as an issue intimately bound up with that of modernity, while Gabriel and Lang 1995 explores the consumer from a cross-disciplinary perspective. Lury 1996 is particularly effective on the consumption of identity in a changing world, while Nava 1991 and Sassatelli 2007 highlight the political significance of consumption.

  • Featherstone, Mike. 1990. Perspectives on consumer culture. Sociology 24.1: 5–22.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038590024001003E-mail Citation »

    A key contribution that emphasizes the sociological significance of the accumulation of material culture. Specifically, Featherstone highlights the emergence of postmodernity, which is effectively characterized by a situation in which individuals lives appear to be more controlled by structural processes and yet freer at one and the same time.

  • Gabriel, Yiannis, and Tim Lang. 1995. The unmanageable consumer: Contemporary consumption and its fragmentations. London: SAGE.

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    Gabriel and Lang argue that the key barrier to consumer choice is money. For them contemporary society is notable for its fragmented volatility. The book considers the consumer in various guises, including that of chooser, identity-seeker, and victim and the proposition is that the more social institutions, such as industry or politicians, try to control the consumer the more unmanageable he or she becomes.

  • Lee, Martyn J., ed. 2000. The consumer society reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    This collection brings together a wide range of the key contributions to debates on the significance of consumer culture. It focuses on some of the key theoretical contributions to such debates from the work of Marx to that of Baudrillard, as well as key contributions to the discussion regarding the historical character of the consumer society from the work of Vance Packard to that of David Harvey.

  • Lury, Celia. 1996. Consumer culture. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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    In this volume Lury considers the ways in which an individual’s position in social groups structured by class, gender, race, and age affects the nature of his or her participation in consumer culture. Consumer culture is seen to provide new ways of creating social and political identities to the extent that consumer culture is actively redrawing questions of difference, struggle, and inequality.

  • Nava, Mica. 1991. Consumerism reconsidered: Buying and power. Cultural Studies 5:157–173.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502389100490141E-mail Citation »

    This piece critically considers the ability of consumerism to create new forms of economic, political, personal, and creative participation. Arguing that waters had previously been muddied by competing theoretical perspectives on consumerism, Nava suggests that a kind of “utopian collectivism” lies within the consumerist project, which may engender its own revolutionary seeds. Nava therefore illustrates the political complexities that are implied by the ability to consume.

  • Ritzer, George. 1993. The McDonaldization of society: An investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ritzer is concerned with the way in which rationalization is played out in the context of consumer culture, namely, through the processes of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. As such, McDonalds is effectively a metaphor for a world that makes us consume in particular ways. However, Ritzer’s contribution has been criticized by some critics for underestimating the potential of consumers to construct their own meanings.

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

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    In one of the most comprehensive of the key textbooks on consumer culture, Sassatelli presents a rich interpretation of the diverse range of theoretical approaches to consumer culture. One of the achievements of her contribution is to balance the needs of a range of disciplines, including sociology, history, geography, and economics.

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

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    Slater’s work takes a thematic approach in considering some of the key points of tension around consumer culture, including needs, choice, identity, status, alienation, objects, and culture. Slater argues that “consumer culture”—a culture of consumption—is unique and specific, and that it represents the dominant mode of cultural reproduction developed in the West over the course of modernity.

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