Special Session Summary Social Class and Consumption: Challenging Postmodern Images

Douglas B. Holt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
[ to cite ]:
Douglas B. Holt (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Social Class and Consumption: Challenging Postmodern Images", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 219-220.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 219-220



Douglas B. Holt, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Until recently, the consensus position in sociology and social history has been that consumption patterns have served as a consequential site for the expression and reproduction of social class boundaries throughout history and across societies (though obviously this universal is organized very differently across time and place). In pre- and early capitalist eras, these social boundaries were transparent in everyday life. Boundaries between classes such as nobility, peasantrie, yeomenry, petit bourgeoisie, capitalists and proletariat were clearly marked and maintained through distinctive ways of life that rarely intersected. Even the most peripheral of incursions motivated sumptuary laws that rigidified these boundaries. As these laws fell and as class mobility increased as the middle class emerged beginning with industrialization, elite classes developed a variety of conspicuous goods and leisure activities that signalled, and thus served to sustain, their status positions relative to lesser classes. Numerous sociological studies during the half century spanning approximately 1920-1970 built upon the initial formulations of Veblen, Simmel, and Weber to document how consumption patterns served to demarcate social class boundaries.

But over the past twenty years, a new consensus has formed around a postmodern conception of social organization, which argues that the relationship between social class position and consumption patterns has fractured. In advanced capitalist societies-of which one important characteristic is that a postmodern organization of culture is increasingly dominant-the massive proliferation of cultural meanings and the fragmentation of unitary identities (two primary traits of postmodern culture) have shattered straightforward correspondences between social categories and consumption patterns. In such societies, critical analysis of the reproduction of social class through consumption has become an increasingly treacherous intepretive exercise. Influential critics have inveighed that consumption patterns are no longer consequential to class reproduction. Interestingly, we find the same orthodoxies have developed in both marketing and economics. Thus, analyses that seek out such patterns are often dismissed as essentialist or worse. But is it true that social class is no longer reproduced through distinctive patterns of consumption? Or, alternatively, is this relationship obscured when old theorizing is used to analyze a new social formation? This special session offers three papers that challenge the now prevalent wisdom that social class has become of neglible import in the organization of consumption.



Hans Mommaas and Juliet Schor

For the past twenty years, consumer researchers have expressed growing levels of scepticism about the idea that the pattern of consumption reflects the pattern of social inequality and class. Beginning in the 1970s articles began heralding "the decline of the status symbol" and the rise of a pandemonium in status markers. Since then, a litany of arguments against an earlier tradition associated with names such as Veblen, Warner, and Bourdieu has only grown. Phenomena such as consumption "differentiation," niche marketing, identity-based consumption, the proliferation of products, the fluidity of consumption symbols, the movement of goods vertically up the status hierarchy, lifestyle clustering, and subcultural consumption are variously offered as evidence for the obsolescence of a more traditional Veblenian, or even Bourdieuian model in which consumption reflects and reproduces social position. However, some of the aforementioned phenomena are evidentiarily well-established, others are not. Furthermore, the relationship of these phenomena (e.g., differentiation, product proliferation, fluid symbolic meanings) to the social patterning of consumption is not as obvious as is often assumed. For example, the oft-noted dictum that the name of the game is no longer keeping up with the Joneses, but being different from them, is by no means a clear rejection of an analysis based on social patterning and inequality. Perhaps differentiation is just the latest strategy of social distancing and status reproduction.

First we review existing theoretical and empirical literature on the social patterning of consumption: has the association between social class and consumption "broken down"? Can consumers no longer "read" status markers? Are earlier patterns of cultural participation and the reproduction of elite culture eroding? We attempt to clarify this theoretical debate and, on the basis of that clarification, assess the existing empirical evidence for the United States and Western Europe. We find that the many rhetorical bids to advance a postmodern model of pluralistic, plastic lifestyles unrelated to social hierarchy over straightforward status models offer little in the way of compelling empirical evidence to support these claims. We present new evidence for the United States-the first direct test of James Duesenberry’s classic formulation of the Veblenian "keeping up" model of status consumption of which we’re aware-which argues that at least some of the essential building blocks of classical models of status dynamics remain intact. Drawing upon an 800 person survey carried out by a large corporation, we use multiple regression to estimate a model of aggregate savings (consumption) controlling for standard variables such as family structure and permanent income. We find strong reference group effects that explain a very large proportion of aggregate consumption. We are also able to show that income distribution continues to have a significant impact on consumption: for example, the increasing inequities in distribution in the 1980s was a primary structural factor behind the rise of conspicuous consumption in that decade.

Finally, we use this evidence to reformulate the classical status consumption model, based upon the changing dynamics of consumer and labor markets in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, we show empirically that reference groups are based upon workplace and friendship networks rather than residential locations, and that mass media can serve as a substitute for interpersonal social pressure (complementing recent research by O’Guinn and Schrum). In this revision, we integrate theories under development in an emerging European literature-particularly Gerhard Schultze, Justin O’Conner and the Manchester School, and Alan Ward-which are not yet well known in the United States.



Douglas B. Holt

This stdy examines one of the most debated questions in the sociology of culture: Does Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital and tastes-developed most comprehensively in his book Distinction (Harvard, 1984)-apply to the contemporary United States? First, I summarize the innovative characteristics of Bourdieu’s theory of tastes in relation to the Warnerian tradition that has served as the orthodoxy in consumer research for many decades. While Warner’s theory is apt for studying small town "modernist" settings, Bourdieu develops a potent analytic tool to plumb the structuring of social class increasingly occluded by the heterogeneity, cultural fragmentation, and boundary transgression of postmodern social life. Since its publication in English, cultural sociologists have debated vigorously the applicability of the theory laid out in Distinction to the United States. A spate of influential articles and books by sociologists such as Michele Lamont, David Halle, John Hall, and Bonnie Erickson have challenged the theory’s usefulness for explaining how social reproduction works in the United States. I critique American appropriations and suggest that, in the contemporary United States, Bourdieu’s theory should be reformulated to focus on consumption practices rather than consumption objects and on mass rather than high culture. Using this reformulation, I conduct an interpretive empirical study to investigate whether differences in cultural capital resources structure patterns of tastes in a Mid-Eastern American county. I conduct in-home semi-structured interviews lasting about 90 minutes covering the most important consumption categories in the construction of social identity: fashion, food, home/interior, vacations, music, television/film, reading, hobbies, and socializing. I compare interviews with ten informants who rank high in terms of the socialization resources used to accumulate cultural capital to interviews with ten informants who rank low (using cultural capital ratings adapted from the sociology of culture literature for family upbringing, formal education, and occupation). I find six dimensions of taste that distinguish informants with high versus low cultural capital resources: material versus formal aesthetics, referential versus critical interpretations, materialism versus anti-materialism, local versus cosmopolitan tastes, communal versus individualist forms of consumer subjectivity, and autotelic versus self-actualizing leisure. These results suggest that consumption continues to serve as a consequential site for class reproduction in the United States. Implications for consumer research, the sociology of culture, critical theory, and theories of postmodernity are discussed.



Melanie Wallendorf, Joan Lindsey-Mullikin, and Ron Pimentel

Toy shopping is a highly affective activity: filled with joy and excitement for children, but often filled with anxiety for parents and grandparents focused on finding a toy that is "appropriate" for their child or grandchild. Since the overwhelming majority of toys are purchased as birthday, Christmas, or Hanukkah gifts for children, adults often make toy purchase selections in the absence of the child who will play with the toy. In this research project we examine the implicit social-class appropriateness that also guides adult product choices for children.

Both parents and grandparents are involved in a socialization project with respect to these children in which particular values, goals, and attitudes toward work and play are both explicitly and implicitly given preference. The socialization project they are involved in reaches a momentary peak of clarity as they make selections of toys to present to their child/grandchild. Adults decide between mass-marketed licensed toys, such as Disney-inspired Pocahontas dolls, which are requested by children based on their popularity with peers in day-care or school, versus toys marketed to parents as making an educationa or developmental contribution, such as high-contrast mobiles to stimulate the sensory perception of infants. Adults decide between toys that depend on reference to longstanding cultural material, such as Beatrix Potter’s simple stories and illustrations of Peter Rabbit from the turn-of-the-century, versus those that make reference to current popular culture material, such as stuffed spotted dogs based on the animated movie of 101 Dalmatians. In some cases, they can choose from two versions of the same toy, such as between stuffed bears that resemble Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations of A. A. Milne’s books, or brighter color stuffed bears that resemble the Disney version of Pooh. In making such choices, adults give material representation to their own class-structured tastes.

In making such product decisions, adults also choose where to shop, either accepting the self-service challenges of toy supermarkets or choosing the salesperson assistance available in smaller toy stores. Salespeople in the latter environment assist in suggesting "appropriate" toys, responding both to adults’ explicit descriptions of the child’s age and gender that indicate those constraints on appropriateness and to the unarticulated social class constraints on appropriateness. In doing so, retailing participates in the social class construction and transfer process described in Bourdieu’s Distinction as the accumulation of cultural capital.

The central theoretical focus of this presentation is not on which kinds of parents or grandparents buy which kinds of toys. Instead, the focus is on how retail salespeople participate in carrying out the social class transmission project envisioned by parents and grandparents when they purchase toys for their children and grandchildren. What is of interest is how the concern with social class appropriateness is communicated and negotiated between retailing salespeople and adult purchasers without ever explicitly verbalizing a concern with social class. Two-way communication takes place. The store communicates particular social class appropriateness to customers, and customers communicate particular social class desires to retailing salespeople. Out of successful communication is borne a sustained satisfactory relationship between customer and store.

Ethnographic research involving 18 months of extensive participant-observation in a locally-owned toy store combined with interviews, focus groups, surveys, and in-home observation of customers provide the empirical basis for addressing this theoretical issue. Such marketing strategies as store design, inventory selection, product display, and sales interactions are considered, as are such customer characteristics as age, occupation, education, and mobility aspirations. In the final analysis, these data point to reasons why there is such stability of social class position when considered intergenerationally, despite widespread mobility aspirations that people have for their children.

In order to allow for questions, the discussion leader Alladi Ventatesh briefly raised a methodological question for each of the papers and then directed discussion.