Summary of Session Neglected Classics: Three Intellectual Traditions in the Sociology of Consumption

Douglas B. Holt, Pennsylvania State University
[ to cite ]:
Douglas B. Holt (1994) ,"Summary of Session Neglected Classics: Three Intellectual Traditions in the Sociology of Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 64.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Page 64



Douglas B. Holt, Pennsylvania State University

This session was organized to begin to address the gap that exists between the theoretical orientations predominant in consumer research and the orientations that shape how consumption is viewed in the social sciences outside of ACR. In particular, the session focuses on intellectual traditions that currently hold sway in the sociology of consumption. While sociology was critical in the early development of marketing and consumer research concepts in the 1950s, the discipline has had little influence on consumer research in the last two decades. This is ironic since it is really in the last two decades that sociology has begun to attend to consumption with increasing theoretical sophistication.

In this session, three key works from the sociology of consumption were selected as exemplars: Georg Simmel's Philosophy of Money, Jean Baudrillard's first three books describing the rise of the consumer society, and Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction (a reference list is available from the organizer upon request). These works are widely considered to be seminal contributions to the sociological understanding of consumption but, surprisingly, have had negligible impact on consumer research (as measured by citations in Advances in Consumer Research and the Journal of Consumer Research).

Doug Holt began the session with an overview specifying the nature of the theoretical gap that currently exists in the "new" consumer research. This research tradition's dual goalsCto examine consumption at the level of meaning and to take a more macro/molar perspective than currently existsChave only been partially realized. Most of this research is still "micro" in that it does not consider how consumption is socially structured, nor how the act of consumption serves to reproduce and/or transform such structures. In addition, research that has taken a more structural stance draws predominantly from idealist traditions and thus seldom examines the equally-important material dimension of structure.

The three authors discussed in the session offer different approaches to addressing this theoretical gap: Simmel describes how structural shifts from premodernity to modernity altered the nature of consumption, Baudrillard describes how consumption has become the central mode through which society is structured in late/post modernity, and Bourdieu describes how consumption acts as a subtle mechanism through which social stratification is perpetuated.

Since two of the papers are included in this proceedings volume, only the presentation that isn't includedCBaudrillard's early works presented by Fuat FiratCwill be discussed. Baudrillard is critical in the development of the sociology of consumption for two reasons: he was the first to argue for the centrality of consumption in modern social life (versus Marx' emphasis on production) and he was the first to articulate a comprehensive conception of the consumption system as a system of signs (and thus is the grandfather of semiotically-oriented consumer research). Further, Baudrillard describes the act of consuming as a productive activity in which consumption meanings are cultivated through the educated organization of one's lifestyle, foreshadowing recent research on how consumers manipulate meanings. Ultimately, Baudrillard is interested in using this account of modern society as a tool for critical analysis. At the center of this critique is his observation that human and material values are constructed and transformed within the semiotic web of consumption and so have fewer and fewer material references. Baudrillard's portrait of modern social life poses a number of complex problems for human identity, social change, and certainly also for the manner in which social scientists attempt to understand consumption.