Just thirty years ago, identity and social affiliation was defined mostly by one's occupation (Hetherington, 2009, p. 22). Western societies were shaped and divided through belonging to a certain class which was determined by the work one did. Driven by the decline of manufacturing industry and a growing number of middle-class jobs in the service sector, society shifted towards what social scientists call consumer society. In this essay, I will outline how consumption affects and shapes today's life and culture by looking at the historical developments which led to these changes by considering the present day situation.
What people buy forms their environment, streets or even whole towns. ...view middle of the document...
(ONS, cited in Hetherington, 2009, p. 110)
This shift in consumption was first described by Warren Susmann in the 1970s. (Susman, cited in Hetherington, 2009, p. 42) The origin of this transition lies much longer in the past though. It begun in the nineteenth century, when the first department stores opened up for a broad audience. The abundant offer and relatively low prices made possible by the industrialisation and new, cheap and fast transportation (by means of the railway) enabled the growing middle-class to show their newly acquired wealth and express their character through consumption of material goods. In the time before, conspicuous consumption, first mentioned by the sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class 1899 (Veblen, cited in Hetherington, 2009, p. 31), was a privilege of very wealthy capitalists and the upper class as a way to impress and demonstrate wealth, rising status and social position. Conspicuous consumption did not disappear throughout the centuries, but what it expresses begun to change in the twentieth century.
Susman studied self-help manuals of the nineteenth century which provided guidance on how to consume properly and appropriate to one's social class. In these books, Susman observed a significant change after the 1880s towards advice on how to consume to express individuality and personality.
Today, social status and acceptance within a certain social ecosystem is merely indirectly determined by one's profession. More importantly, the type of goods, services or experiences a person can afford affects both the membership of a certain social group and one's identity, as well as acting as a mark of distinction between different social groups.
More generally, it is crucial to participate effectively in consumption to feel socially accepted and to experience a sense of belonging. Although today it is easier to find acceptance, especially for young people, just through a certain way of dressing or a particular music taste, it is easy to become socially isolated by not participating in consumption, for whatever reason.
The social scientist Zygmunt Baumann (Baumann, cited in Hetherington, 2009, p. 25) believes that through the emphasis on consumption contemporary societies are broadly divided into two groups: the seduced and the repressed.
Consumer lifestyle, often inspired by celebrities and other rich people, is accessible to a broad group with steady incomes or access to relatively cheap credits, even if to varying degrees. Purchasing something means more than the mere acquisition and use of a product but also entails access to a certain lifestyle which determines one's identity which can then be displayed to others. This is sometimes achievable through the ownership of a particular brand which is linked to a particular message. Members of consumer society are not only valued by peers but also by those who provide goods and services.
Baumann calls this group 'seduced',...