History Of Consumption Research Paper

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The history of consumption, though a distinct field of historical research and writing only since the 1980s, has recently emerged as an especially vigorous area of inquiry. Stimulated by the visibility and power of the consumer economy in contemporary societies, scholars have redoubled their interest in investigating its past—to locate its beginnings, trace its growth, and assess its historical effects. In principle, then, to write a history of consumption is to shed light on all of those practices, institutions, identities, and meanings attached to the merchandising, acts of purchase, and final use of goods. Earlier traditions of social history addressed some of these concerns. The Annales School stands out for its abiding interest in material culture, especially in the early modern world (Braudel 1977, Roche 2000).

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British social historians too, in the course of debating working class standards of living and moral economy during the industrial revolution, were clearly concerned with consumer habits, as were historians of France when writing about the subsistence crises and bread riots of the old regime and Revolution. Increasingly, subjects such as leisure-time use, once considered separately, are now grouped along with the study of tourism, cinemagoing, television viewing, and other types of spectatorship and reception, reading included, as properly belonging to the history of consumer cultures, especially insofar as they are produced under capitalist exchange relations. The coherence of the field derives, thus, not from any single topic, but rather from the large and complex role that consumer practices are now interpreted as playing in forming collective identities, social movements, and individual subjectivity.

1. Approaches And Concepts

Because there is no general theory for why people consume, and the determinants of consumer practice are recognized as ranging from the economic calculations involved in obtaining commodities to the psychological satisfactions derived from their possession, the methodologies deployed to study the history of consumption are decidedly eclectic. Social history is still the dominant approach. But because of the complex nature of the subject matter and the fact that the timing of the study of consumer cultures coincided with the rising fashion for cross-disciplinary and multicultural studies, histories of consumption draw on an unusually wide range of disciplinary influences. These range from economics, marketing research, anthropology, and sociology to cultural and cinema studies and art and design history.

Evidence of past consumer behaviors is provided by sources as diverse as industrial archeology to recover the shards of past material life; probate records to discover the legacies and bequests of the dead, thereby to estimate the value they put on goods; business records to reveal merchandising strategies; and advertising copy, both to disclose the imagination of taste brokers and to reveal the embedding of ‘social tableaux’ in the popular imagination. Topics such as leisure-time use, which were once treated as specialized subject areas, are now grouped along with tourism, cinema-going , television-viewing, and other types of spectatorship and reception, reading included, as properly belonging to the history of consumer cultures, especially insofar as they are produced under capitalist exchange relations. The coherence of the field derives, thus, not from any single topic or debate, but rather from the belated discovery of the large and complex role that consumer practices play in forming collective identities, demands for social entitlement, and individual subjectivity.

The subfield’s rapid establishment evidences a convergence of pressures. One stimulus came from social historians critical of neoclassical economists who, by treating consumer choices as ahistorical, reducible to demand curves based on the price and availability of goods, ignored the symbolic and social value of commodities. Social historians were also critical of the previous generation of historical scholars who, by focusing on social relations around production, failed to capture the significance of consumer practices to class, politics, ideology, and values.

Another stimulus arises from the so-called post-modern or postscarcity sensibility of the late twentieth-century West. The generally high living standards, the rapid shift from manufacturing to service-oriented industries, and the densely symbolic consumer cultures of late twentieth century capitalism seem to have profoundly altered conceptions of individual and social identity such as to pose a double question. One is whether the postmodern epoch has not engendered an entirely new relationship with material life, so much are modern cultures in the thrall of material abundance to the exclusion of nonmarket values; the other is whether the ambivalence about goods so deeply rooted in Western culture did not previously inhibit study of the power of things to shape social life (Featherstone 1991).

At first, the failure of socialist-type planned economies, which construed themselves as the only fundamental alternative to free-market, individualist consumer capitalism, reinforced a post-Cold War Consensus that consumer freedom was an unalloyed social good, engendering a celebratory attitude toward consumer abundance. As time passes, however, the globalizing trends that go under the names ‘Americanization,’ ‘Coca-colonization,’ or ‘McDonaldization’ has generated worries that the rapid-fire spread of Western-style consumer habits will not just destroy indigenous ways of life suited to local resources and customs, widening the gap between rich and poor nations, but also ruin the global environment.

Finally, feminist historiography has opened up whole new vistas on consumer practices by high-lighting the gendered division of labor around domestic goods, provisioning, and shopping, the bridges between market-driven consumption models and household decision making, and the timeworn tropes associating the female figure with the fickleness of changing styles of culture and consumption (de Grazia and Furlough 1996).

The self-made, often empirical, character of the new field belies the influence long exercised by political economy and historical sociology on ways of thinking about consumption. Adam Smith’s famous dictum from the Wealth of Nations (1776) that it is innate for people to ‘treaty, barter, and purchase’ (Bk. 1, Chap. 2) is often cited to legitimate Western models of acquisitive individualism, as are his remarks that ‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production … The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it’ (Bk. 4, Chap. 8). Karl Marx’s distinction in Capital Vol. 1 (1867) between use-value and exchange value is still influential among critics of capitalist consumerism, used to differentiate between so-called real and false needs, the latter fostered by bourgeois stratagems to fuel ‘false consciousness.’

The ‘fetishism of commodities,’ meaning the process by which exploited human labor is embodied in goods to give the appearance that they circulate the market under their power, their value thereby derived from relations of exchange rather than the alienated labor that originally went into their creation, is still an important reference point for historians critical of the commodification of culture and other goods. The Marxist tradition is also referred too for having emphasized production as determining of class identities to the neglect of relations around consumption.

Non-Marxist German historical sociology also stands as an important reference point. Max Weber is often cited for his paradoxical argument that capitalist accumulation was spurred by an Puritan asceticism. Seventeenth century Dutch indulgence in their ‘embarrassment of riches’ belies Weber’s argument (Schama 1987). Consumerism, a recent critic of Weber argued, is central to the modern Western world outlook, but its origins lie not in capitalist relations of exchange or the Protestant religious ethic so much as in the eighteenth century romantic structure of feeling, combined of alternations of ‘anticipatory pleasure and consumatory disappointment,’ (Campbell 1987) Weber’s more lasting contribution is to recognize the signal importance of socially differentiated consumer practices, based on de facto elite monopolies over certain goods, to reinforcing social status and power.

This intuition is most fully developed in the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’ and the ways in which late twentieth century elites manage it to establish class ‘distinctions.’ Maurice Halbwachs too, writing early in the century (1912, 1933), made the important point on the basis of on cross-national comparisons of lower-class standards of living that different notions of lifestyle, based on class identities, might be more important to shaping consumption practices than differences of income. The influence of his contemporary, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, is still notable for his distinction between commodity exchanges under capitalist systems and the ‘gift economies’ based on reciprocity of non capitalist or precapitalist exchange systems. No historian of consumer culture can forego familiarity with the US sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class ([1899] 1953).

A mordant critic of the turn-of-the century US elites, he excoriated them for renouncing the craft spirit to revel in ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Rivals for place and power in an ever more fluid social structure, they engaged in ‘pecuniary emulation,’ generating the phenomenon, reproduced down the social ladder of what later would colloquially be called ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Veblen’s contemporary, the German historical sociologist Werner Sombart, is equally interesting for hypothesizing that different types of exchange relationship (moving from feudalism to the ‘high capitalism’ of his epoch) yielded very different overall outlooks toward wants and needs (Sombart [1913, 1967]). He was the first to argue, on the basis of his study of the US working class in Why is there no Socialism in America? (1904) at the beginning of the twentieth century, that an abundance of goods, consumed within a more or less democratic framework, could significantly condition political ideologies.

2. Periodization

Like historians of industrialization, historians of consumption struggle over the timing of the moment of birth of a mass consumption society. Some argue the breakthrough was as early as the sixteenth century, fruit of the circulation of images related to the printing press and the cultural exchange around the Mediterranean world and with Northern Europe (Muckerji 1983). Others argue that the eighteenth century was when the collective mentality of the medieval world based on scarcity, austerity, and self-denial, evolved into what the philosopher Charles A. Taylor calls the ‘culture of ordinary life.’

Historians of the early nineteenth century forcefully place the first consumer revolution within the context of the vast shifts in terms of trade that saw Europe’s emergence as the center of the first global world economy. That even the habits of urban lower classes and perhaps even rural cottagers changed in this period is debated. Optimists argue that the demand side was as important as the supply side in the industrial revolution, and modern manufactures such as Wedgewood porcelain ware benefited not just from aristocratic and bourgeois patronage, but also from the custom of a broad band of people capable of purchasing ‘populuxe goods’ (McKendrick and Fairchild 1993). That workers in the British Empire early acquired new tastes for sugar, tea, and rum, and rural cottage workers were willing to exploit them- selves harder to enter the market to purchase exotic wares, is now well-demonstrated. Still, both the British and American colonial experience show that emergent consumer culture was not an unalloyed progress.

Sugar, as it sweetened tastes, also toughened the bonds of empire. The boom in demand was an incentive to expanding slave systems in the colonies; sugar and tea were also stimulants that eased the pangs of early industrial manufacturing’s appalling work rhythms (Mintz 1993). American Colonial records show that householders traded off declining health standards for an improved sense of psycho- logical well-being; tea drinking and smart tea sets spread while nutrition declined (Shammas 1993). What seems sure is that as material life changed dramatically in the course of the first and second industrial revolution, the gap between the conditions of living of a goods-rich bourgeoisie and a goods-poor working class and peasantry was hugely enhanced. This divergence of conditions would only begin to diminish from the first third of the twentieth century.

To speak of the first mass consumer society, one has to turn to the USA around the beginning of the twentieth century. There, the ‘consumer revolution’ was favored by a peculiar combination of vast economic resources, quasidemocratic outlooks, and the rapidly expanding needs of a huge, mobile, urbanized emigrant population. Workers were decently enough paid, class stratifications around consumption enough diminished, and markets highly protected to encourage large units of manufacturing and retailing to orient themselves to standardized low cost per unit production for a mass market. Cheap, abundant food and ample housing reduced the family budget share devoted to nutrition and shelter (which summed together in Western Europe still consumed as much as 75 percent of the working class family budget through the 1950s). This freed monies for other goods. By the late 1920s, as many as three-fifths of the US people were ‘consumers,’ with all due attention to huge differences of income. The Ford Model T (1908) was the paradigmatic good, and US production and domestic consumption of automobiles outstripped the whole world’s combined down to the 1950s.

Not surprisingly, the USA pioneered the invention of practices and institutions related to mass consumption (though not the department store, which was the fruit of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie and highly developed in Western European large cities as well as Japan). Chain-store retailing started as early as the 1840s. The cash register began to be widely marketed from 1884. Retail credit had become wide- spread by the 1920s. Scientific advertising campaigns drawn up by complete advertising agencies dated from before World War I. Mass marketing using survey research and public opinion polling dated from the 1920s. The first government-sponsored national census on distribution occurred in 1929, compared to the British (1951) and the French (1965). Supermarkets flourished from the early 1930s.

Government aggressively promoted exports not just of consumer goods but also images and institutions of the consumer-centered US way of life, the belief that there was no real freedom without consumer abundance becoming a key tenet of US anticommunist foreign policy by the early 1940s. More and more, entitlement as citizens was couched as a right to a decent standard of living, to be achieved not through economic leveling or by government provision, but through free markets and higher incomes. Cold War ‘consensus history’ attributed the USA’s purported superiority as a ‘people of plenty’ to the relatively harmonious ‘communities of consumption’ by contrast with Europe’s class divisiveness. Recent historical studies are invaluable to weigh the formation of and cracks in this consensus. Whereas studies of the ‘brokers’ of the new circuits of consumer culture, including advertising and department store managers, etc, put the emphasis on the blunting of class consciousness (Leach 1993), studies of immigrant and working-class culture show that the language of commodities could be effectively used as civic dialog to refashion demands for social justice as demands for entitlement to a high standard of living (Cohen 1990).

Western Europeans would not achieve similar changes in standards of living until the 1960s, in the wake of the destruction of the most rigid aspects of the bourgeois class order of prewar Europe, reconstruction under the hegemony of US consumer models, the growing confidence of entrepreneurs in the face of widening and deepening markets, the pressure of labor movements on behalf of higher wages, not least government belief in Keynesian growth politics that spurred demand by supplementing low wages with generous welfare state protections.

If there is still no one historical account of the great transformation of the twentieth century which turned postwar Western Europe into a relatively affluent society, recent studies nonetheless pick up on several singular features. One is the sharp class stratifications carried over from the aristocratic into bourgeois regimes of consumption (Roche 2000, Auslander 1996). Another is the centrality of the world of small shopkeepers well into the twentieth century. Before the so-called ‘Auto-Fridge Revolution’ of the 1950s, there was the commodified leisure and spectatorship of the interwar period. Entry into the world of mass consumption was an arduous struggle even in the early 1950s. Evidence that affluence dimmed working class consciousness is at best ambiguous, as Goldthorpe showed in his famous study of early 1960s British auto worker (The Affluent Worker) although it certainly undercut earlier subcultures.

The study of the history of consumer practices in Eastern Europe picked up only in the wake of the collapse of Soviet-type planned economies. The story of the appalling scarcities of the Stalinist years in the former USSR is now well documented. However, to measure postwar, especially post-1950s, developments strictly by Western European and especially US standards misreads the extent of social provision, the pressure from ideologically competing models, the very different point of departure of development, and the paradoxes of finally delivering significant quantities of consumer durables in the 1960s and 1970s just as Western Europe passed to a post scarcity economy. More generally, new research promises to weigh the importance not just of the political regime but of deeply culturally determined ideas of market exchange in shaping wider notions of consumer culture (Merkel 1999).

3. Consumption Regimes Outside The West

The history of consumption in non-Western countries moves in two directions. One is to show the influence of Western consumer culture, the other to show the relative autonomy of developments by delving deeper into national and regional legacies.

The first instinct of writers on non-Western consumer culture was to emphasize the imperialistic nature of Western consumption habits. Aggressive corporate capitalism, most notably US-based media and communications corporations, not only sought uncontested economic power, using force to sustain it, but also fostered a hypertrophic consumer culture so out of proportion to local economic developments that it was capable of snuffing out indigenous cultures. Western consumer culture thereby perpetuated if not aggravated, semicolonial dependency. Closer study, critical of the Eurocentric presuppositions of ‘cultural imperialism,’ highlights the complexity of the inter-action between international commodity flows and indigenous material life.

Subaltern studies posit the essential autonomy of postcolonial subjects; ethnographic studies dissect the multiplicity of interpretative responses to the imported consumer mores; anthropological studies probe the creative uses of material culture as a ‘dialog around development.’ None would dispute that the major direction of cultural flows is currently from the West, notably from the USA in the form of US ‘infotainment’ industries. However, studies focusing on practically all of the world’s regions make a strong case for seeing significant variation in local vernaculars, notably in the cinema and popular music. Major differences turn on how much freedom local cultures have to refashion, ‘creolize,’ or hybridize material and cultural commodities (Smart 1999).

As historical research on consumption widens geo-graphically, more and more emphasis will be put on the relative autonomy of developments, the evolution of sensibilities about material goods different from in the West, the factors that explain the disposition to or resistance against using Western goods (Bayly 1986, Hamilton and Chi-Kong Lai 1989). If the measure is not the quantity of goods and durability of structures but the quality of life that provided for physical well-being but used resources economically, the Japanese compared favorably with the British in the nineteenth century (Hanley 1997). Japan clearly had a distinctive trajectory of development. Urban markets and print culture flourished as early as the Tokugawa period in spite of sumptuary laws (ended only in 1868) that prescripted behaviors on everything from the size and location of residence to style of headgear and foot-wear. The emergence of mass consumption before World War II was disjoined from democratization. The males of the modern middle-salaried class were notably new goods oriented, out of eagerness to show off their capacity to master Western-type technologies and thereby legitimate their place in the social hierarchy.

4. New Agendas

The history of consumer movements stands as an important chapter of the history of consumption. Consumer cooperatives have a venerable history, starting from 1844, when the impoverished spinners of Rochdale in the north of England formed associations to secure their food supply against speculators and the exploitative practices of company stores. From the late nineteenth century, often in connection with the socialist movement, cooperativism spread globally, sometimes to fall victim to political repression, sometimes to succeed so well as to become practically indistinguishable from capitalist enterprises except in its democratic membership statutes and payout of dividends. Movements on behalf of consumer protections were pioneered in the USA as early as the Progressive era.

The goals were to regulate against corporate malfeasance, regulate against consumer fraud, promote truth in labeling laws, and to protect domestic manufacturing and labor unions with Buy National campaigns. Public interest campaigners, most famously the American Ralph Nader, overturned the age-old rule of caveat emptor through campaigns and law suits to hold manufacturers liable for consumer safety. Aside from studying actual movements of protest or reform, historians of consumer cultures constantly engage with the vexed question as to whether mass consumption, like the ‘bread and circuses’ in Roman times or the provisioning boards of absolutist monarchies, has blinded subaltern classes to their exploitation or whether goods, services, and occasions of consumption cannot equally be used, like other social activities, to create communities of opposition, facilitate communication (and thereby to provide alternative perspectives on prevailing power arrangements), and propose new standards of living that, implicitly at least, challenge the existing distribution and styles of wealth and power.

If one is to find fault with this vital field, it is that its rapid growth had caused it to reflect too little on its own genealogy and on the issues that spurred its development. If, initially, the field referred largely to the contemporary period, it now embraces Greco– Roman antiquity as well as postcolonial Central America, the superabundant material culture of the West, and the economies of scarcity of Africa and Southeast Asia. What then, if any, are the shared concerns? One certainly is methodological, common to social history generally, namely to overcome the bias toward the object-laden as opposed to the objectless in the reconstruction of the past. Another concern is to consider the symbolic charge of goods in tandem with the inequalities and asymmetries of power that to a greater or lesser degree are common to all societies. Historically, people have always used goods to think about their society. Ultimately, the historian’s charge is to discover, classify, and compare the extraordinarily different range of ways this has occurred.


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