This book addresses three key questions from an anthropological perspective: (1) what is consumption, (2) why do we consume, and (3) what are the consequences. Miller argues that most research on the consequences of consumption fails to understand the process of consumption itself. After more than two decades engaged in field study, Miller draws from his observations to suggest that the act of consumption is an expression of complex social relationships and has more to do with values, emotions, sameness/difference, entertainment and communication than simply “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Development of Argument
Miller bookends his ethnographic research with a Platonic dialog between an environmentalist, a political economist and an anthropologist to illustrate the complexity of the issue of consumption. The first dialog provides a balanced account of the key theories, their points of disagreement, and their corresponding weakness while the closing dialog discusses the consequences of consumption and suggests potential solutions.
The core of the book draws from Miller’s years spent in field work in Trinidad, the United Kingdom and xxxx. (Trinidad provides an interesting case study in consumption because of its complex economic history. In the 1970s, oil-rich Trinidad was one of the three richest countries in the Americas but by the end of the 1980s they had lost most of this wealth.) He begins by providing a thick description of his field observations in Trinidad to explore what it means to live in a consumer society. By examining the role of cola, cars and Christmas, Miller demonstrates how consumer products are co-opted and reborn in acts of authentic cultural expression. In this framework , the consumer actively appropriates material goods to produce their own meaning. Miller suggests consumer culture is just simply culture and that there is nothing inherently good or bad about it. This is similar to Davis’ “third way” approach.
Next Miller provides and account of his fieldwork in the UK observing shoppers to offer two theories of why we shop. Miller, like Rami Gabriel, notes that identity and self-expression are motives for consumption but Miller insists these are not the core motivations, the issue is much more complex.
Peanut Butter Theory – People buy goods to rectify the gap between who the real person is, and who they think they should be.
Sacrifice Theory – Related to ancient animal sacrifice. The large majority of shopping is born out of necessity; the every day, mundane provisioning of a home. This act involves price comparisons, sales and bulk buying to ensure thrift, which is is generally held to be a virtue. Even if one doesn’t have a specific reason to be thrifty, it is seen as being for the greater good of society. Often, after a such a labourious, thrifty exercise, shoppers indulge in a small reward. This is what Miller calls the “treat.” The treat is usually unhealthy, expensive or frivolous. The final act of the sacrific ritual is enjoying and consuming a meal together and watching others appreciate the labour that went into provisioning the meal. However, in our society this part of the sacrifice is usually lost and so the circuit remains incomplete
Ultimately, the large majority of shopping is not an act of indulgence, but an act of love. Miller suggests that “Above all, what we are trying to elicit, if not produce, is love itself” (85). Shopping is a duty to the household that expresses devotion for one’s family. However, Miller is clear that these motives do not help negate the negative consequences of consumption and in fact, may be the cause. Ethical goods are usually more expensive so shoppers will often forego the seemingly more frivolous ethical good out of concern for maintaining the virtue of thrift. Here he maintains, we have a conflict between ethics and morality. The purchase of ethical goods comes at the expense of thrift and so out of love for one’s household and concern for being a moral, dutiful citizen.
Based on two decades of ethnographic research in the field. Thick description
Most notably, Miller suggests our political economy is the consequence, rather than the cause of consumption (38) and maintains that its not consumption that needs to change, but capitalism that must adjust.