Sociologists have different perspectives in relation to whether we are currently living in a consumer culture. A consumer culture refers to attitudes, behaviour and values that are influenced by the consumption of material goods. The concept of consumerism stresses the importance of economic prosperity and social cultures as they have an impact on human behaviour and lifestyles. Individuals are defined by what they consume and the material possession they own could either create pleasure or pain. Some sociologists may argue consumer culture is a fundamental part of society because individuals need material goods in order to survive.
Sociologists have argued that consumerism affects every society whether directly or indirectly. (Marx 1970) has discovered that the family plays a major role in sustaining capitalism. The family is considered to be a ‘unit of consumption’ who consume goods that are on offer such as ‘food’ and ‘clothing’. The capitalists insist on families consuming the latest products as they make profits by selling their merchandise and meeting the demands of consumers. The media target children as they are easily persuaded and they are able to ‘pester’ their parents into purchasing more items.
For instance, food companies such as Mc Donald’s appeal to children because they are given incentives such as ‘toys’ with their meals, which encourages them to buy more food. Children who lack the latest gadgets are stigmatised at school as they are considered to be unpopular. Individuals want to seek approval from their peers, which causes them to attain more material goods to prevent themselves from being an outcast. From a functionalist perspective (Murdock 1949) considers that the ‘nuclear family’ performs essential functions for a capitalist society.
The mother reproduces a new generation of children, which is important for society because a new labour force is created. The workers make a major contribution to the economy as they accumulate material goods and society would cease to function without their labour. The parents are a vital source of ‘primary socialisation’, where they teach their children the mainstream norms and values of society. Children are able to distinguish between right and wrong through rewards and punishment. For instance, a child may have their ‘toy’ confiscated from them if they behave badly .
This encourages them to become passive and obedient and they develop the correct frame of mind needed for work. Radical feminists (Greer 2000) believe that society is unequal because men benefit from consumer goods at the expense of women. Functionalists (Parsons 1955) state that the male is the breadwinner who financially supports the family. This suggests that women are economically dependent on the male for material resources, which means that men have the power to monitor how much money they distribute to the woman.
Radical feminists have identified that capitalist advertisements maintain a patriarchal society buy producing goods such as ‘cleaning products’ that reinforce society’s expectations of a woman. Liberal feminists believe that consumerism has empowered women as the commercialisation of housework has created new labour saving devices for them to use. For instance, readymade meals lift the burden off women who are expected to perform traditional domestic roles such as cooking for the family.
The position of women is changing as they can work to earn an income, which can be used to buy goods and services. Marxists have revealed that capitalism and consumerism is a global phenomenon. He argues that we are living in a consumer culture because society is based on capitalism, where people are motivated by profit. He believes that there is a distinct class division between two main social groups, which include the ruling class (bourgeoisie) who own the means of production, and the working class (proletariat) who sell their labour.
Consumerism creates class inequality as the ruling class can afford material possessions, which gives them a higher status in society because they form an identity based on what they consume. The unequal distribution of power enables the ruling class to ‘exploit’ and ‘alienate’ the working class in order to gain material wealth. The capitalist economy determines how society operates and capitalist place great value on money, which means that the capitalists search for new markets to sell goods and generate more wages. Parsons 1961) claims that education system is based on meritocratic principles, which implies that everyone has the potential to attain educational qualifications through hard work and self-discipline. This ideology of ‘meritocracy’ is created by the ruling class who believe that everyone has the potential to achieve this goal. Some critics would argue that ‘meritocracy is a myth’ as working class people are placed at a disadvantage compared to middle class people. The underprivileged group have restricted opportunities to achieve ‘educational success’ legitimately.
There are internal factors such as ‘poverty’ prevents people from obtaining the ‘American dream’. There is a greater strain on achieving material wealth as capitalists advertise commodities, which pressures people to obtain goods illegitimately. The conformists internalise the mainstream culture and strive to reach the goal legitimately. While, the innovators commit crimes in order to achieve the goal as they have not succeeded at school. Marx had identified that ‘historical materialism’ is a product of a capitalist society, where the economic system influences how society functions. Materialism’ is a concept that explains that humans require basic material needs such as clothing and shelter. These necessities can only be achieved by working as people would receive money for their hard labour. The capitalist system creates ruthless competition amongst ruling class businesses as people are stimulated by profit, which develops a mentality of self-indulgence and greed. People desire material goods, which motivates them to gain more wealth by any means possible.
In some cases, capitalists in respectable professions find the opportunity to commit white collar crimes such as ‘money laundering’ and ‘forgery’, which fund their extravagant lifestyle. (Friedman 2000) realised that the industrial revolution had created a new global economy, which allows people to organise production on a global scale. He identified that the industrial revolution played a major role in creating economic prosperity by expanding the market place and creating a variety of consumer goods. In the process, people had established how the production was organised and over the years the forces of production had risen.
A division of labour had occurred, where a dominant social class was able to control the means of production. The working class are ‘alienated’ as a result because they have no control over their labour and they do not receive the sufficient funds for the goods they produce. The labourers are paid the ‘cost of subsistence’, which is enough to keep them alive. They feel obliged to work and sell their labour because they are materially deprived. At the expense of the working class the capitalist gain a ‘surplus value’, where they make a profit from selling merchandise that the labourers manufactured. Weber 1905) states that the ‘enlightenment project’ helped people acquire knowledge and observe the world more ‘scientifically’. People were able to produce new technology, which can be used to communicate with others and find important information through global networks. People are provided with goods and services to be provided at discounted prices, which appeal to a larger number of potential consumers. There are various inventions such as the ‘internet’ and ‘televisions’ can compress time and space, where people feel more intimacy and social cohesion despite living in different geographical areas.
Globalisation feeds into consumer culture because new cultures have been exposed through information and communications technology, which makes it difficult for cultures to isolate themselves from the world. New trans-national companies have imported and exported foreign goods that are consumed by a large number of people around the world. Globalisation and advertising have contributed to peoples desires to attain material goods. Sociologists have noticed that humans make a fundamental contribution to the economy because they are constantly buying new commodities.
Globalisation is a concept that refers to the interconnectedness of societies across national borders that shapes human behaviour on an international scale. The ruling class have the power to control how society operates and they control institutions such as the media’ and ‘criminal justice system’. They are responsible for ‘organising capitalism’ by transmitting ideologies that serve their interests and changing society’s ‘superstructure’. Their ideologies create ‘false consciousness’ where people internalise the mainstream norms and values of society and accept the ruling class position as legitimate.
Marxists have branded capitalism as ‘criminogenic’, which implies that crime is inevitable in society because working class people experience poverty, which means that they are desperate to attain material resources. The working class commit utilitarian crimes such as theft and burglary because it is the quickest route to obtain consumer goods. For instance, the London riots are an example of opportunistic crime, where working class people had the chance to retrieve products such as computers, trainers, food, televisions and other valuable items.
The capitalist advertising contributed towards the riots because people were bombarded with new consumer products and they were persuaded into buying unnecessary commodities. (Merton 1938) establishes the ‘strain theory’, which suggests that people engage in deviant acts as they are unable to attain material goods legitimately. People experience frustration as they are unable to get hold of the material things that they desire. This encourages them to participate in criminal behaviour and reclaim the products illegitimately.
The mainstream culture stresses the importance of success and claims that material wealth can be achieved by people’s individual efforts. For instance, ‘The American Dream’ is a fundamental part of American culture as it suggests material wealth enables people to gain power and status. Consumers share the same ‘utopia’, which is an image of the perfect place where people have social and economic stability. (Cohen 1965) develops the term ‘American Dream’ which is an idea that suggests that people have the potential to live successful lives, through hard work.
Americans have dreams and aspirations about their future because they hope to establish prosperous businesses which would theoretically generate happiness. However, some sociologists believe that the dream is unrealistic as people have limited opportunities to achieve the idealistic goal. This is due to class inequalities, where people cannot afford to attain material goods. The American dream is an embedded term in American society because their society is based on ‘materialism’ and ‘competition’. It is a ‘dog-eat-dog world’ because everyone wants material wealth for themselves.
People use their material goods as status symbols such as the designer clothes, attractive cars, immaculate housing and the perfect family, reflect their consumer lifestyles. Postmodernists (Lyotard 1992) believe that we are living in a ‘pix and mix’ society where humans can modify their identity by changing the products they consume. They adopt a relativist approach to their theory and state that individuals are free agents, who attach meaning to their lives by consuming products. They put forward the statement that consumerism is a product of postmodern society.
For instance, they place great emphasis on religious pluralism because individuals have a choice to select what from a variety of religions, which they feel is important to them and they can develop their own religious identity. There is a ‘spiritual market place’ where the emergence of new religious organisations has improved the quality of religious good on offer for consumers. They have acknowledged that the new advanced technology such as the ‘internet’, ‘telephones’ have changed people’s culture.
The media constantly reproduces new images, ideas and versions of the truth, that cause ‘cultural instability’ because there is no longer a consistent value system shared by members of society. Critics argue that new religions and science have undermined the plausibility of ‘meta-narratives’ because there is no longer an absolute moral truth. Sociologists have criticised the postmodernist’s interpretation of consumer culture. Marxists disagree with the claim that individuals can construct their own identity because material deprivation and poverty could limit people’s opportunities for transforming their identity.
Some sociologists would state that people may unintentionally create an identity for themselves if they commit a crime, where they have been caught by police. They would be identified as criminals and the police station would have processed data in their records, which makes them easy to identify. (Miles 1998) illustrates that consumer culture can create an ‘illusion’ of choice for members of society. He has discovered that disadvantaged social classes are disregarded by the system as the mainstream culture serves the interests of the dominant group.
The ruling class use ‘agents of social control’ such as ‘police’ and ‘security guards’ to protect ‘private property’ and valuable goods. This ensures that material resources are protected from the people who cannot afford them. (Abercrombie 1994) has argued that consumerism is dysfunctional for society because consumerism creates class differences and widens socioeconomic gaps. This suggests that the working class have restricted opportunities to attaining goods because they lack the basic funds to buy the items. Marx realised that the ultimate cause of crime was poverty, which is created in a capitalist society.
Working class people desire consumer goods as capitalist advertisements surround them. Marxists put forward the idea that a communist society is an alternative to consumer-capitalism, as there will no longer be a hierarchal class system and all social groups would be equal. To conclude, consumerism is constantly changing and there are always new consumer goods on offer, which people desire to obtain. There is evidence to support the idea that we are living in a consumer as the family is a unit of consumption who need basic necessities such as food that are necessary for survival.
Individuals experience satisfaction when their wants and needs are met as they accumulate products. Critics believe that this causes problems because people become attached to the possessions as they associate different emotions to certain products. This creates greed and individual selfishness as people are desperate to obtain material resources for their own benefit. The excessive consumption no longer satisfies individuals as they are constantly in search for new products.