Sociology 2172A/B Lecture Notes - Lecture 4: Conspicuous Consumption, Jean Baudrillard, Thorstein Veblen

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Advertising tempts us to consume
Does consumption stretch beyond the economic sense of the word?
Consumption: The Paradoxical Phenomenon
Many aspects of our daily lives revolve around consumption
Integral to policy making – encouraging consumption can result in economic stimulation
Consumption has social, cultural, psychological, economic, political, and historical
factors that must be taken into account
Commodification – self-esteem, emotions, values, and relationships can all be
commodified, advertised, and sold
Material ownership is often seen as a sign of greed and superficiality
Barack Obama: we need to sacrifice consumption as a way of taking collective
The Marxist Perspective on Production and Consumption
Marxist perspective: analyzing consumption from a structural point of view and in terms
of class relations
Inseparable relation between consumption and production
oProduction is consumption, consumption is production
Consuming raw materials in production  necessity of consumption for
oProduction and consumption constitute a mediated relation because of their
mutual dependence
Production creates the material (object) for consumption; consumption
creates the need for production
Production is a means for consumption and consumption is the purpose
of production
oEach of consumption and production completes and creates itself as the other,
and each feeds off the other as an expression of supply and demand
Consumption makes production meaningful
Production validates and creates the specific manner, use, and stimulus
of consumption
Marx doesn't believe that consumption is an individual, subjective behaviour – isn’t
about individual tastes, and isn’t politically neutral
Consumption justifies modern-day capitalism – seeking endless profits through
satisfying the unsatisfied material needs
Example: Sweatshops and Consumption
oProduction of labour-intensive commodities
oLow cost for manufacturing labour
oWorkers experience minimum social security, poor work conditions, low wages
– used to minimize the cost of consumptive production and maximize profit
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Georg Simmel on Fashion and Urban Life
Is consumption only determined by structural forces of domination and exploitation?
Simmel sees fashion, commodities and consumption was ways for modern individuals to
stay autonomous against universal social forces, and where individualism takes shape in
urban life
Consumption is the constant process of negotiation between subjective and objective
cultures, and between the individual and the social
Fashion satisfies a person’s need to conform to social norms, yet also acts as a way to
express one’s individuality
Imitation allows one to feel representative of mainstream culture
Fashion makes an individual unique on one hand, yet renders one into a member of the
larger social group and a carrier of social norms
Consumption by the wealthy sets benchmarks of values in material and psychological
Leisure Class, Gender, and Conspicuous Consumption
Thorstein Veblen: the advancement of modern society is accompanied by the rise of a
middle or leisure class defined by the practices of consumption as opposed to those of
Leisure class = comprises the noble and priestly classes; occupations are diversified;
common economic characteristic of being non-industrial
Conspicuous consumption = consumption patterns prompted by symbolic significance
more than material utility; ex: pursuit of social status, lifestyle
oBuying unnecessary material goods
Historically, consumption was performed by women – undertook the shopping tasks
The wife’s buying power demonstrated the wealth and status of the male counterparts
Cultural Capital and Social Class
Pierre Bourdieu: composed a detailed description of the routines and lifestyles of
He considered consumption to act in the formation and sustainment of personal
identities and social status
Deemed taste to be both personal and social
Connection between economic and cultural capital – how one forms their tastes and
how one consumes corresponds to how one spends and accumulates wealth
Feminist Critiques: Gender, Political Economy, and Consumption
Sex-specific commodities have no reason to be used by only one gender (except for
exclusively gendered products)
The production of consumption is a gendered process – producing items to satisfy the
needs of one gender
Ex: T-Shirt
oCan be worn by either gender
oWomen’s tshirts are designed to fit a woman’s body better
oThe production of the t-shirt itself is also gendered
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oMen are usually responsible for tailoring and ironing the final product
oWomen are sewing the shirts, completing quality control, and final product
oMen meet the physical demands of tailoring and ironing
oWomen are nimble and meticulous when sewing, inspecting and packaging
Gendering consumption = process through which stereotypes and sustaining social
norms can be challenged by the active consumer’s imagination, allowing for the
negotiation of alternatives
Advertising as Mass Communication
Advertising aims to market and sell by stimulating demand for consumption
Fuels media institutions
Financial prerequisite of mass communication
Absence or reduction of advertising can be a substantial threat to media institutions
Advertising: The Phenomenon:
oTransforming from a socialist to capitalist society is often characterized by an
increase in the number of advertisements
oWe tend to take advertising for granted because it has become a kind of natural
Signs, Ideology and Manipulation
oIf consumption is neither politically or culturally neutral, neither is advertising
oJean Baudrillard: consumption is a way of life and an organizing mechanism of
o“There is no such thing as advertising strictly confined to the supplying of
oThe consumer is defined by the means of the commodities
oAdvertising for differences gives a sense of affluence and freedom – gives choice
oThe ‘ideal’ objected is advertised as being beneficial to the consumer’s well-
o“The abundance of products puts an end to scarcity; the abundance of
advertising puts an end to insecurity”
oThe imperative of advertising is ideological – replaces morality and politics as
the symbolic system of manipulation
oAny human value or emotion can be manipulated in advertising
Example: Water
oWater is no longer about satisfying thirst – has become a global business
oThere is an insignificant difference between bottled and tap water
oNature becomes an artificial device for advertising
oBottled water is advertised as being convenient and safe
Advertising as Cultural Parasitism
oAdvertising does not adhere to a specific ideology – can be manipulated into the
ideology of the moment
oGives meaning to both commodities and the consumer
oConsumption is seen as bottomless demands for material fulfillment
camouflaged by the false promise of consumer democracy and freedom
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