consumerism: what’s the big deal?

People will often use “consumerism” in a pejorative way and, recently, I got into a discussion of why intellectuals are often so obsessed with critiquing consumerism. First, a definition, then a discussion of reasons why people criticize consumerism.

Online, I found two definitions. One is not relevant to this post – consumerism as a defense of consumer rights. The second definition is the one most intellectuals have in mind when they discuss or critique consumerism – an obsession with the purchase or acquisition of consumer goods.

Let’s get into critiques:

  1. Consumerism is bad because it is wasteful.
  2. Consumerism is bad because it is a status signal.
  3. Consumerism is bad because it is anti-spiritual.
  4. Consumerism is bad because it is inauthentic.

A few responses:

  1. Consumerism can only be viewed as wasteful if you have a concrete idea of what is and is not wasteful and this is much harder than it seems. In modern society, people have a relatively high amount of surplus wealth. Should people not spend money on anything beyond shelter, food, and medicine? If so, when is it enough? Arguments about wastefulness and consumerism appear to me to be about what the critic values (e.g., if I like books, they are not “consumerism”). This criticism strikes me as weak.
  2. This is one criticism that I have sympathy for. If people are buying tons of stuff just to socially compete, it is a poor use of one’s time and resources. Consider how diverse the modern world is, how many things in it can make you happy. To spend money on things just to display status is a tragic waste. A cessation of buying things probably won’t solve the underlying problem, as people will probably signal status though non-pecuniary means. Thus, the criticism identifies a genuine issue, but consumerism is a symptom of a deeper problem that being anti-consumerist may not stop.
  3. A lot of religions slam the consumption of material goods. It’s been that way for millennia. So one’s response to this depends on one’s religious views. Personally, I lead a happy secular life that’s deeply enriched by material goods, so the criticism doesn’t work for me on a personal level.
  4. The gist is that you need some sort of real connection or appreciation of the world. So passively consuming things or being obsessed with the latest material goods is an inauthentic life. This strikes me as a reasonable criticism and it resonates with me once you consider the opportunity costs of consumerism. By obsessing over cars, or wine, or computer, you pass up the opportunity to do more enriching things. Fortunately, there are solutions. One is hipsterism – you consume things but only in hyper-aware ways that emphasize your knowledge and relation to the produce. Or, you can follow that advice that you should work on experiences rather than things. I suppose that could turn into a version of consumerism, but it’s less likely than getting into wine or Justin Bieber merchandise.

Do you live a consumerist lifestyle? If so, tell me what you think.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 20, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in culture, ethics, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. My Ph.D. mentor S.M.Miller used to be quite annoyed with me when I would write (pre-PC) on both sides of a piece of paper. He sais it was hard to read, I said I was saving paper. His analysis was that the new left seemed to want everyone to be poor and so eschewed consumption. The old left he said wanted everyone to be rich, consumption was a sign of progress. A cultural explanation, the new left ideology got lodged in academia. [Although I have noticed marked exemptions for fancy dinners.]

    Liked by 1 person

    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    March 20, 2018 at 9:52 am

  2. I am glad you included this topic on the blog. I would point out, however, that there is an entire subfield of our discipline focused on researching numerous facets of consumer behavior and consumer culture. “Consumerism” is an outdated moral epithet that no serious sociological researcher would use today. For a more conceptually clear understanding of the nature of contemporary consumption, I would recommend consulting Alan Ward’s recent Annual Review piece on this topic, my book, “The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach,” (2015 Polity), reading the section’s blog summarizing recent research (Consume This!), or attending one of our ASA sessions.

    Liked by 1 person

    Joel Stillerman

    March 20, 2018 at 11:04 am

  3. Another two critiques:
    1. Consumerism has replaced citizenship in various social discourses. Arguably this could be part of the dominance of economic language in social and political debate.
    2. Consumerism contributes to trashing the planet

    Liked by 1 person

    Dror Etzion

    March 20, 2018 at 2:20 pm

  4. @Joel Stillerman: Thanks for the comment and the readings! But you are correct, my post was a response to a discussion about ethics not social science.



    March 20, 2018 at 5:27 pm

  5. Sure. Since I do research in this area, I’m more interested in explaining the different ethical positions.


    Joel Stillerman

    March 20, 2018 at 6:16 pm

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