Featherstone (1990) Perspectives on Consumer Culture

Link to Oxford Bibliography >>  |

Argument – Our relationship to material culture has sociological significance and consumption can not be viewed as a simple by-product of production.  Consumer culture has been studied in three key ways 1.) “the production of consumption”, 2.) “modes of consumption” and 3.) “the emotional and aesthetic pleasures” of consumption.  He highlights the development of post-modernism which is marked by increased structural control and increased consumer autonomy at the same time, and more discriminating tastes and more mass-produced goods at the same time.

 1. The Production of Consumption

Mostly Cultural Studies/Frankfurt School (Ewen, Adorno, Baudrillard)

This perspective identifies the link between increased production and the development of consumer culture (ex. Stuart Ewen 1976). Particular emphasis on Horkheimer and Adorno’s theorization of the culture industry which seeks to produce consumers the same way goods are produced and Baudrillard’s semiological “commodity-sign” which lacks meaning and stability.  The effect is a collapse of high and low culture and homogenization of society.

We should move beyond these over simplified mass-culture theories.  They are elistist (they look down on advertising/media as “low” culture) and they are not grounded in ethnographic or other observable methods to study how real people actually participate in the marketplace.

2. Modes of Consumption

Mostly Anthropoligical (Veblen, Douglas & Isherwood, Bourdieu)

These theories examine how goods are used to demarcate social status and hierarchy. Douglas & Isherwood explore how goods are used as “markers” (sports teams, brands). They describe 3 sets of goods.  1) staple set based in primary production ex. food, 2) a technology set based on secondary production ex. travel and 3) an information set based on tertiary production ex. arts, culture, leisure. The poor are limited to the staple set while the higher sets require more money and more knowledge which are a barrier to access.

Bourdieu (1984) – “taste classifies and classifies the classifier“. Tastes, preferences and lifestyles distinguish between occupations and class status and we use consumer goods to classify others.”Habitus” – learned social norms that distinguish between specific groups. This requires a high level of knowledge and magazines and media “teach” how to cultivate a particular lifestyle. It is the role of “cultural intermediaries” (those who work in media, design, advertising) to construct lifestyles using symbolic consumer goods. “Symbolic capital” – manners, stance, demeanor – can betray ones origins even when the proper goods are used. This helps to weed out the new-rich so that only those rich in cultural capital truly belong to the prestigious classes.

3. Emotional and Aesthetic Pleasures of Consumption

Walter Benjamin – Department stores as “dream worlds” and a phantasmagoria of commodities on display. The collapse of high art and everyday life through advertising and product design.











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