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The Consumer Society
By Neva R. Goodwin, Frank Ackerman, David Kiron
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1997 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Scope and Definition
by Neva R. Goodwin
The scope of this volume must depend, in part, on how we define the subject with which we are grappling. What is a Consumer Society? Let us start with a smaller part of that question: What is consumption?
Economic and Other Views on Consumption
In the Introduction to this volume we said that we would restrict our exploration to the economic concept of "final" consumption, most often associated with households (as distinct from, for example, the consumption or use of materials by firms or by governments). This accords with most economic theory and modeling, which is concerned with the consumption of goods and services that have been purchased from a "producer" and are then in some way used by the "consumer." In the conventional view, consumption in economics is a simple, individual, readily quantified process of satisfying well-defined needs. This part will consider some alternative views that have recently gained prominence, diverging from mainstream economic theory in two directions.
The "sociological view" (held by others as well as sociologists) emphasizes the social and symbolic meanings of consumption. The "environmentalist view" emphasizes the material implications of consumption, in light of potential ecological limits to growth.
One starting point for the sociological view has come from economics. Kelvin Lancaster pointed out that what we seek when we set out to make a purchase is not a good itself, but rather its characteristics. Along similar lines, Harry Johnson has noted that what we actually consume may or may not be the good, but will, in any case, be the "service" that the good can provide. For example, when we buy a hat we are seeking the characteristics of style, warmth, rain or sun protection, and so on. We won't actually consume the hat, but will consume the services contributed by its characteristics (the feelings we receive from wearing a stylish hat, the protection and warmth it provides, and so forth). The hat can continue to provide some of these services as long as it holds together; others may be used up more quickly. For example, if "newness" is an important characteristic, that will soon wear off.
Some recent writers have extended the Lancaster/Johnson approach, moving even farther away from the actual thing (or service) that is purchased and used by the consumer. Daniel Miller and Alan Warde are two writers who especially focus on the postpurchase activities in which the consumer distances herself from the impersonality of the market transaction, actively incorporating the thing into a world of her own creation.
This contrasts with the approach of the environmentalists, who emphasize the material starting point of the whole economic process. Most consumption activities can be traced back to some extraction and use of natural resources—the environmentalists' special concern. This is expressed by Herman Daly, a leading ecological economist, when he states that "consumption is the disarrangement of matter, the using up of value added that inevitably occurs when we use goods. Consumption is the transformation of natural capital into manmade capital and ultimately to waste."
Essential Characteristics of a Consumer Society
Now we are ready to attempt a broader definition of the consumer society. One of the motives for the recent focus on this topic comes from the environmentalists' concern with the physical entropy that arises in all stages of the economic process, from extraction through production, distribution, use, and disposal, with entropy usually increased at each of these stages. Nevertheless, the environmentalists' concern for what happens to material resources is not the central feature of the prevailing definitions of the consumer society. Two quotations will give the general flavor:
A consumer society is one in which the possession and use of an increasing number and variety of goods and services is the principal cultural aspiration and the surest perceived route to personal happiness, social status, and national success.
A consumerist society makes the development of new consumer goods and the desire for them into a central dynamic of its socioeconomic life. An individual's self-respect and social esteem are strongly tied to his level of consumption relative to others in the society.
An apparently necessary, though not sufficient, characteristic of a consumer society is that "people obtain goods and services for consumption through exchange rather than self-production." The things whose consumption characterizes a consumer society are not those that are needed for subsistence, but are "valued for non-utilitarian reasons, such as status seeking, envy provocation, and novelty seeking."
One of the most common themes is that a consumer society relates individual identity to consumption, so that our judgments of ourselves and of other people relate to the "lifestyle" that is created by consumption activities. Thus Raymond Benton, Jr. defines "consumerism" as "the acceptance of consumption as the way to self-development, self-realization, and self-fulfillment," and Anderson and Wadkins contrast consumption-oriented societies with production-oriented ones, noting that, in the former, "[a]n individual's identity is tied to what one consumes rather than in a production culture where an individual's identity is more tied to what one produces."
Throughout these definitions we may see that the characteristics of a consumer society include issues to do with:
a. Commodity characteristics and the symbols associated with them.
b. The interlinked behaviors of producers (who, through advertising, etc., attempt to increase their sales) and of consumers (whose behavior is often seen as manipulated by producers).
c. Attitudes toward commodities and toward commodity-oriented behavior.
All of these issues are engaged, for example, in the attention that has been paid to mass production. The characteristics of mass-produced items (the fact that they arrive on the market in large numbers, all alike, and are produced at a relatively low marginal cost) make it possible—and necessary—for producers to induce most members of a society (not just the elite) to become habituated to consuming purchased items, and to purchasing more than they need for bare subsistence. The behavior of producers and consumers are to some degree shaped by this necessity. Cultural attitudes have been called into play—some may, indeed, have been called into being—to support the behavior that is a necessary basis for a socioeconomic system much of whose activity is oriented to the production and sale of mass-produced commodities.
If Consumption Is the Means, What Is the End?
The preceding paragraph laid out one picture of the consumer society, presenting a complex relationship—with some hints as to the directions of causality—among commodity characteristics, cultural attitudes, and socioeconomic behaviors. Is this an accurate picture of our society? Is it more accurate than other, different pictures? Many of the writers represented in this book grapple with the questions of what is an accurate description of our society, and of the roles played in our society by consuming behavior and by attitudes toward consumption. These authors offer a variety of different descriptions, even though by no means all views will be directly represented. We will find that the attempt to describe our world as it is will be complicated by the strong normative (value-related) views of the authors. These views are necessarily interrelated with debates over positive (objective, fact-based) analysis. For example, the issue of whether greater consumption brings greater happiness involves both the interpretation of survey results (positive analysis) and also perceptions about social and environmental norms and values.
Durning's article—the first one summarized in this section—makes a critically important point with respect to this issue when he says:
In the end, the ability of the earth to support billions of human beings depends on whether we continue to equate consumption with fulfillment. (Durning, 157)
The implication here—one that deserves to be spelled out explicitly—is that human beings have some choice in how we define success (or happiness, or well-being, or whatever word we use for our goals). That definition depends partly, to be sure, on our biological needs, but it also contains a large cultural component—a component that probably becomes relatively more dominant as the wealth of societies expands beyond what is needed for the simple maintenance of life.
It is increasingly recognized that even what we think of as basic, essential needs are human constructs; culture is even more so. No individual can, alone, create a culture, but each of us participates in its ongoing construction. The statement quoted from Durning suggests that, as we continue this process, if we are wise we will accept guidance from the realities presented to us by ecologists, replacing a shortsighted, throw-away culture that is severely damaging to our environment with "a culture of permanence."
Durning speaks of the "correlation between ability to consume and happiness." From the perspective just described, this is not a given. Our sense of well-being depends in an important way on our definition of well-being. That definition is a variable which we might choose to try to affect if we are persuaded that it is necessary to do so in order to preserve something of value. Are the "facts" about the impact of consumption on the natural world, as described by environmentalists, more scientific, less subjective, than the way we ourselves are affected by our consumerist lifestyle? We are seeing the early stage of the development of a strong body of research about, for example, the likelihood of global warming, the health effects of agricultural chemicals, even perhaps the human psychological dependence on certain aspects of nature. All of these issues continue to be hotly debated, and human values, wishes, and practical interests play a large role on each side of the debate.
The second summary in this section is of an article by David Crocker, which takes the value issues head-on. He raises the questions:
To what extent, if any, is our current consumption good for us? Bad for us? Would some other level or kind of consumption be better? What evaluative criteria should we employ to assess the impact on our lives of our present consumption and to evaluate alternatives? (Crocker, 3)
Crocker identifies the important theme of means and ends that is carried through a number of other papers summarized here, especially those by Marshall Sahlins and William Leiss. Sahlins says that "Scarcity is not an intrinsic property of technical means. It is a relationship between means and ends." (Sahlins, 4–5) In other words, your goals can be so defined that what you have is enough; or they may be differently defined, "causing" scarcity.
The idea that scarcity is not given to us as a fixed fact, but depends on the level of our wants, is not new to much of Eastern philosophy. It is, however, diametrically opposed to two basic premises of modern neoclassical economics, which assumes that (1) wants are exogenous to the economic system (they are not influenced within it), and (2) wants are insatiable.
Many commentators in this century have accepted the second assumption at the expense of the first, as the evolution of economic logic made it necessary to choose between the two. (For example, the appearance of insatiability is in effect derived from the fact that new wants arise in response to evolving economic possibilities; thus wants must be seen as endogenous to the system.) This theoretic choice was partly the result of an image of human nature that emphasizes the driving forces of emulation and envy, along the lines laid out by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (published in 1899). A related tendency of human nature that is described, in various forms, by many different writers, is that whatever we get seems less appealing than it was before we got it. Colin Campbell (in a book partially summarized in Part VII) emphasizes the creative role of the imagination, which can daydream a better world than any we are likely to encounter. Other authors find other reasons to anticipate, as Leiss does, that "no matter how wealthy and productive our society might become, we would always require higher levels of production and greater quantities of goods." (Leiss, 24) A result, as Crocker concludes, is that "American consumerism seems more productive of dissatisfaction than contentment." (Crocker, 24)
These observations about inherent tendencies in human nature and the resulting state of dissatisfaction have been offered as statements of fact. It would be nice if we could turn to the discipline of psychology for clear and undisputed evaluations of their truth. Unfortunately, none of these issues have been comfortably settled.
The Roads to Happiness
Emulation and the tendency to want more than we possess have been observed at least since Aristotle's time. This century's communist regimes conducted some grand (largely unsuccessful) social experiments in controlling wants or in redirecting emulation to nonmaterial goals. There is still little agreement on the extent to which these characteristics are inevitable, how large a role they play, or what cultural controls might be effective in reducing their impact.
There have been many studies on the issues of how happy people are and what makes them happy. As this is a topic which will have a prominent place in the next Frontiers volume (Human Well-Being and Economic Goals), we have not gone into it in depth here, only summarizing the single article that seemed to best represent the state of knowledge as it applies, particularly, to the consumer society. Richard Easterlin's 1974 article, "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence" has been widely cited, discussed, and argued over for two decades. His recent article, "Will Raising the Incomes of All Increase the Happiness of All?," summarized in this part, brings the debate up to the present.
Recognition of the imponderable effects of cultural differences, along with attention to methodological and other criticisms, have caused Easterlin to reduce the importance he had earlier placed on international comparisons. At least on a within-country basis, however, his essential conclusion remains: Happiness is relative; a person's sense of well-being depends less on the objective reality of material affluence than on how his or her position compares to the reference group. At any point in time, wealthier people as a group are much happier than poorer members of the same society. However, careful research over a period of decades in many developed countries has shown that even substantial economic growth and increases in average incomes lead to no increase in average happiness for society as a whole.
The authors summarized in the rest of this volume, whether or not they address these questions openly, almost all seem to make some assumptions about their answers. Most of these writers accept some version of the Easterlin conclusion—namely, that the part of happiness which depends on material well-being is a function of how one interprets one's achievements; and that, in turn, is determined by the expectations raised by the material achievements of one's reference group. Only a few of the writers represented in this book accept the hypothesis that there is some absolute dependence of well-being upon material success. That is, however, the dominant assumption in neoclassical economics writings.
There is, thus, a division between economics, on the one hand, with its implicit assumption that maximizing well-being and maximizing material wealth are the same thing, and, on the other hand, the findings of researchers in the Easterlin tradition, who find that this correlation is weak or even nonexistent when it is measured over time. Within a consumer society the economic view has a strong consonance with popular beliefs.
Excerpted from The Consumer Society by Neva R. Goodwin, Frank Ackerman, David Kiron. Copyright © 1997 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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