McDonald and Wearing. (2013) Social Psychology and Theories of Consumer Culture

Traditionally psychologists have teamed with corporations and advertising ing agencies to provide insight into the minds of consumers and how to more effectively persuade potential customers to buy.  In Social Psychology and Theories of Consumer Culture McDonald and Wearing suggest this ongoing partnership has “blinded psychologists to the potentially pernicious effects of the mass media and advertising, and the internalization of consumerist values” (5).  Unlike traditional psychological consumer studies which examine consumer attitudes, preferences and decision making, McDonald and Wearing aim to fill a gap by investigating the culture of consumption from a psychological perspective.

Main Argument

The authors examine the repercussions for western individuals who have been engulfed by consumer society by investigating how political economy shapes and influences social behaviour,.  They argue that the consumerization of western culture has significant impacts on the individual in three key areas: (1) consumer culture mediates self-identity, (2) the internalization of the consumerist values promoted in popular media leads to emotional and behavioural problems and (3) consumerization of public space impacts social behaviour.

Three main issues with consumer culture:

  1. Self-Identity – is commodified.  “It is packaged, presented and sold like any other commodity” (47).  “Much of what is observed, measured, and theorized by social psychologists such as social identify, self-esteem, self-presentation, social comparison, self-enhancement and impression management are show here to be influenced and shaped by consumer culture and the capitalist/neoliberal ideologies that underpin it” (67).
  2. Emotional and behavioural problems –  alienation, exclusion, body image, substance abuse
  3. Social behaviour –  Transformation of open public space into sites of consumption serves as a form of governmentality at a distance in which the individual is not a free acting agent.  This consumerization of public space shapes individual behaviours and is alienating to those who cannot participate.

According to MacDonald and Wearing, the commodification of the self leads to emotional and behavioural problems including feelings of alienation and exclusion, body image issues, and even substance abuse.  While psychology typically attributes these pathologies to internal weaknesses such as faulty thinking, the authors suggest these problems actually stem from the external pressures a consumer society places on individuals.  Instead of helping the individual adjust to society, they argue, we must adjust society to fit the needs of the individual (96).

Ultimately consumer culture contributes to the destruction of our limited environmental resources (how does this impact the individual?) and they intend for this research to inform researchers identifying more sustainable forms of consumption.

Method & Evidence

There are two key approaches to studying consumer culture:

  1. Cultural studies approach – focuses on the meaning of consumption, how people perform consumption to manage thier reputation and use consumer products as symbols to represent human attributes (style, taste, class etc.)
  2. Critical approach – studies how consumer culture leads to unfulfillment, inequality and depleting resources.  It tends to assume consumers have less agency (structuralist)

McDonald and Wearing engage predominantly with classic Marxist arguments and postmodernist theorists including Beaudrillard, Bordieu and Featherstone.  Additionally they draw from social anthropological discourse and feminist theory to critically frame their analysis of consumer culture.  In order to differentiate this study from traditional psychology research, the authors to not conduct any original experimental research.  In fact, the lack of a clear methodology may prove frustrating for some readers but I suggest that the hybrid nature of the study, with one foot in the social sciences and the other in cultural studies, is necessarily loose and should not yet be confined by any particular method.

Contribution to Cultural studies

While this volume aims to broaden and inform psychology debates, MacDonald and Wearing’s social psychological approach uniquely contributes to the existing body of literature in cultural and communication studies.  They pair traditional cultural theory pertaining to value, capital and symbolism with psychological frameworks and, as a result, illuminate new ways to understand the emotional and behavioural impacts on the individual.  However, it would be a stretch to state that the research breaks new ground in the field of cultural studies as the insights into the effects of consumer culture on the individual generally conform to those already posited by Bauman and others in the field.

Do they accomplish what they set out to do?


Most interesting point

One of the most unique points raised in the book is the authors’ recommendation that all advertising and promotion be banned from public spaces in order to quell our obsession with overconsumption. (Chapter 4)


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