Compare and contrast the changing experiences of consumers from the year 1900 until present day. How do the theories of Marx, Durkheim and Weber help to explain the changing consumer experience and the emergence of contemporary consumer society?
“Until the eighteenth century the word consumption meant waste…” (Williams, 1976)
As consumers our experience of consumption today is exponentially different from that at the turn of the twentieth century in the recently urbanised and industrialised modern nation. Consumer culture is traditionally described in terms of the arrival of mass consumption as a counterpart to mass production as a result of the Fordist system (Miles, S). Choice is one of the biggest factors of the changing experience for consumers, during the 1950’s after the austerity years the now aging baby boomers were part of large scale changes to consumption patterns.
For example as women began to enter the work place leaving less time to run the home, products were being developed to ease the burden of housework, washing machines, fridges and vacuum cleaners were among these products; the ever-growing use of hire purchase to enable consumers to afford these luxury products, combined with Fordist methods of mass production reducing the manufacturing cost of the products allowed the economy to grow strong once again. As television grew in popularity advertising was increasingly utilised by businesses to sell their products creating a far more impersonal environment while shopping for products. From this time the standard of living has been increasing up until present day (The Economist, 2008) with the aspirations of society increasing further still.
Marx presents his theories as a materialist understanding of society, explaining capitalism as an unequal system based on the exploitation of the lower class (Abercrombie N et al, 2006), a system based on surplus value being extracted, the capitalist’s entire aim is to maximise the gap between value produced and value paid for (Slater D, 1997). Which a hundred years ago meant using Fordist methods of production to bring down costs and reducing the skill required of workers which in turn reduced the compensation needed for workers. The Fordist method of production first seen around 1911 (Cohen and Kennedy, 2007), Alienated workers from the act of production. In his theory of Alienation Marx describes human essence as being realised through labour (Abercrombie et al, 2006) and working as an alien activity that offers no intrinsic satisfaction as the worker has no control over what is produced; this loss of ownership and loss of control over the workers own life due to management organising and enforcing the labour.
Where during the early twentieth our working classes were exploited and Alienated, now capitalists in the quest towards decreasing wages and widening the gap between value produced and value paid for are increasing looking to less economically developed countries where costs of production, epically workers are much lower. The counties known as BRIC economic group (Brazil, Russia, India and China). By indiscriminately consuming as a society, this encourages the expansion of exploitation of foreign working classes. Bauman proposes post-industrial societies are governed by ‘aesthetics of consumption’ rather than ‘ethics of production’ (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007). Organisations such as Apple, Nike and similarly Primark are guilty of this system, the former two retailing premium priced products produced at the lowest cost possible cost, by attaching symbolic meaning to the products.
Primark produces clothes at the lowest cost possible which are retailed for the lowest cost possible; consumers buy into this system with no feelings of guilt, as these products allow consumers to display possessions acting as social glue possibly due in part to the increasing Alienation of workers as society is increasingly detached from production with the service based economy we ‘enjoy’ today. Durkheim’s concept of Anomie is similar to Alienation, discussing Anomic suicide due to people no knowing how they fit in with society where possessions are used as social glue allowing consumers to display their beliefs and social groups. It is harder to relate Marx’s definitions of the class system as the proximity to production is becoming increasingly distant for most of society.
“Every capitalist is trying to decrease the wages and consumption of their own workers and entice everyone else’s workers to consume to their limit and beyond.” (Slater, D 1997)
Marxism, as other modern economic theories believe, that the production and consumption of products is intrinsically connected, in the sense that incomes from production and consumer buying power are two sides of the same coin.’ (Slater, D 1997). This theory is particularly relevant now due to the current economic climate. As the recession began in 2008 many workers lost their jobs or suffered significant cuts in wages this resulted in a widespread reduction in consumer spending as a result society ended up a cycle of ever decreasing demand where the government had to intervene to stimulate spending. Of the stimulus the VAT reduction had an impact by reducing the cost of products, to reduce ever growing back up of cars as they still needed to be produced to keep the workers in employment the car scrapage scheme was introduced temporarily (Lloyds, 2009). In this scheme two thousand pounds was offered if a old car was scrapped in exchange for a new car.
Capitalists driven to mass production, not by greed but conditions of capitalism (Edwards T, 2000), if not competing, competitors will capture markets through lower prices. This practice discussed by Marx leads to situations like the above were supply far exceeds demand. A good example of over production can be found by searching for any random product on a supplier listings website, Alibaba.com have over 64,979 different belt buckles available. Durkheim predicted that modern industrial societies would over-emphasise the importance of individuality which would erode social stability and solidarity (Schmidt, R 2010), consumers are sold their own individuality through advertising campaigns a few examples are: Dell’s ‘Yours is here’, My Yahoo. Products are increasingly customisable, mobile phone cases are a hugely popular consumer item. ‘Durkheim argues that people can only be happy when their wants are proportionate to their means.
Left to themselves, human desires are boundless… together with necessarily limited recourses, creates great unhappiness or ultimately suicide’ (Abercrombie et al 2006). Society controls the problem of unattainable goals by restricting desires through values aimed at permitting only goals which have some chance of attainment. The X-Factor is currently the most popular television program (Plunkett, J 2010) as dreams of mostly unattainable goals are being realised for a lucky number of consumers. This is a stark contrast to the 1940’s where society was based around family values, working together to repair Britain where jobs were expected for life. Anomie describes the situation when this framework breaks down, goals again outrun means and suicide rate rises (Abercrombie et al 2006). Weber predicted that society would experience unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007), this is a very accurate description of the contemporary experience, more than ever consumers are looking to the symbolic meaning of products to identify with their desired social groups and status.
Social media is an interesting way to examine the inner loneliness experienced, taking facebook where consumers might have several hundred ‘friends’ who are merely acquaintances, with few solid friendships, while there is pressure to appear to have acquired huge numbers of ‘friends’ on social networks. To explore further into the loneliness of individuals, one in three households now have just one member compared with one in five in the 1970’s (BBC, 2004) this is known as the ‘meal for one’ society, more than half the meals eaten in the UK are now eaten alone. Traditional family unit is also becoming less common, with predictions indicating that in 2011 more than sixty percent of marriages will end in divorce (BBC, 2004). Weber discuses formal rationalisation of society as it becomes more industrialised and that this rationality is inevitable, the greater calculability required for rationalisation has affected greatly the consumer experience (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007), consumers – save for the wealthy classes, have an impersonal consumption experience.
Self service check outs are a perfect example of this, once a shop keeper in the local store, would ring through and bag up your products now in the national and often multinational store, consumers ring through and bag up their own shopping. The systematic measured approach to contemporary life has created a predictable almost emotionless society, the consumption of university is a relevant example to the author, students are recognised by their identification number only, few if any university staff will know student’s names, no individuality between the students leaving students to display their personality and attachments through the conspicuous consumption of goods with symbolic meaning. Whereas the baby boomers will remember university involving debates with friendly tutors, with little care about appearances. This system creates greater efficiency, economic growth and control of nature, the ‘iron cage’ describes this situation.
However it does lead society towards the theories of Anomie and Alienation by Durkheim and Marx respectively. Calculability becomes an organising principle in the overall personality where ever more of our behaviour is informed by consistent logical expectations of human beings and of the environment. Spontaneity and surprise are experienced less and less in society, with calculability everything becomes increasingly predictable, unexpected events are planned for and avoided through policies and rules.
The commoditisation of adventure is a good example of the disenchantment of society, Disneyland and all it represents takes the excitement out of spontaneity due to the ‘iron cage’ of functionalism and rationality. Weber sees class defined by income, (Cohen & Kennedy, 2007) explaining that classes form around market positions, amongst people who share similar life chances which is relevant to the differences seen in society today from that at 1900, social mobility much more fluid with government actively perusing policies pulling people up the class system.
The theories of Marx, Durkheim and Weber are relevant to society today; Weber the youngest of the theorists has accurate concepts relating to the bureaucracy experienced in the post-industrial age which explain well the changing experiences of consumers. Durkheim’s theories on Anomie in relation to individualism and the breakdown of society while religions stability isn’t the answer are partially interesting in explaining how society consumes conspicuously, using products as social glue to find a place in society.
Marx’s idea on Alienation of workers, as Anomie explains aspects of the consumer mindset today. The globalisation of business taking the class struggle Marx discuses around the world. The current economic climate demonstrates that capitalism has failings even if the least of these is disconnecting individuals from a more intrinsic and meaningful existences within society.
“Capitalism simultaneously produces more goods and less effective demand to pay for them.” (Slater, D 1997)
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