Consumption and what it means to be a consumer goes hand-in-hand of a thriving capitalist society. To consume a good or service, individuals put a value on particular material objects and the ones whom produce the goods profit from the transaction. These objects and other “things” are the essential aspect in a capitalist society.
Through its historical cultivation and process, material objects become a source of power, agency, as well as inequality for many groups of all social classes. In other words, material objects are recreated and given a different meanings based on their relationship to the consumers, producers and larger society. Under capitalism, according to John Storey’s Theories of Consumption, consumerism is a “specific mode of consumption” of this particular economy (Storey 1). In his work, Storey addresses important theoretical lenses in addressing consumerism. Through centering the conversation in Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, Storey engages with the framework by defining alienation as an occurrence “when individuals are prevented from realizing their full human capacities in acts of labour” (Storey 1). In essence, through the social psychology of individuals distance with material production, they buy more and support the capitalist system as the ultimate result.
In analyzing Storey’s main argument, Storey illuminates Marx’s analysis, as well as two other framework in engaging with consumerism. In Frank Trentmann’s work Crossing Divides: Consumption and Globalization in History, he argues that the discussion around consumerism and other dominant theoretical frameworks have shunned important aspects of the conversation. On the contrary, Trentmann attempts to complicate the conversation which put the frameworks in conversation with each other. Rather than analyzing it as its own separate entity, the article argues that the conversation should be looked at as a “dynamic interaction between … forms across time. (Trentmann 187).
Trentmann gives an empirical evidence by looking at the comparison and juxtaposition of consumer culture and the age of affluence in the World War II. That is, Trentmann argues that consumerism is a process that is relationally and dialectically related to each period in time. In Sara Pennell’s article Consumption and Consumerism in Early Modern England, she discusses about her criticism with the contemporary shift in analyzing the phenomena of consumerism. Through that, Pennell argues that consumerism should not center the conversation in accumulation. In other words, Pennell argues that scholars should not equate “more” with “better.” She also adds that the strategy of consumption for creating a foundation of stability and survival neither leads to change nor perpetuates the status quo. Pennell criticizes the field with the other scholars’ over popularized contributions and frameworks.
On the other hand, shying away from critiques of consumption and consumer practices, David Graeber takes a different approach. In his article, Consumption, he engages the topic by asking questions that surrounds self-expression and enjoyment. That is, Graeber attempts to analyze consumption as it revolves around the phenomena of possessive individualism. To put into practice, one example would be through the lens of the beauty industry. Take for instance, MAC Cosmetics and its wide range of makeup. The significance behind this is that individuals have the ability to choose the types of products they desire, facilitating self-expression and individuality.
However, like clothing in Webb Keane’s article, Signs are Not the Garb of Meaning: On the Social Analysis of Material Things, makeup can be seen subjected “too much to the opinion of others” (Keane 184). Meaning, individuals may give makeup as a commodity too much power as its fuels their own egos. In summary, through the analyses of these scholars, individuals can find different frameworks and lenses in which they can look at consumption. With that said, through the engagement and conversations that have been proposed, the topic of consumerism can be seen as simultaneously an individual social/psychological phenomena, an interactive occurrence, as well as a product of historical discourse.