Clio in the Marketplace:&Nbsp; Theoretical and Methodological Issues in the History of Consumption

ABSTRACT - Modern consumer behavior is the work of several centuries of social, economic and cultural change in the west. The origins of this new species of social action can be found in 16th century Europe, and its vigorous development observed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Happily, the investigation of this topic is a matter of growing concern in the historical community. In the last 5 years three major studies and a host of minor ones have appeared. The purpose of the present paper is to examine this work, to identify the theoretical and methodological issues that have emerged from it, and discuss the accomplishments and prospects of this new and vital field of study.


Grant McCracken (1985) ,"Clio in the Marketplace:&Nbsp; Theoretical and Methodological Issues in the History of Consumption", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 151-154.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 151-154


Grant McCracken, University of Guelph [Department of Consumer Studies, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario NlG 2WI]


Modern consumer behavior is the work of several centuries of social, economic and cultural change in the west. The origins of this new species of social action can be found in 16th century Europe, and its vigorous development observed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Happily, the investigation of this topic is a matter of growing concern in the historical community. In the last 5 years three major studies and a host of minor ones have appeared. The purpose of the present paper is to examine this work, to identify the theoretical and methodological issues that have emerged from it, and discuss the accomplishments and prospects of this new and vital field of study.


The "great transformation" saw the west move from a relatively traditional, slow changing, status-bound, sacred society to one that was relatively innovative, quick paced, contract-bound and profane. The literature under review here represents a radical new approach to the study of this transformation. It contends that an essential and unexamined aspect of the great transformation are the changes that took place in consumption from the 16th century onwards. It is this "consumer revolution", just as much as the "industrial revolution" that has traditionally preoccupied historians, that is responsible for the astonishing metamorphosis of the post-medieval western world. This paper seeks to do two things. It will review in highly schematic terms some of the historical developments that make up the consumer revolution. It will then review recent historical scholarship that has taken up the study of this previously neglected aspect of the great transformation. The purpose of this second section is to identify the theoretical and methodological issues that surround this literature and to identify some of the promises and difficulties that now await this growing field.

A Thumb Nail Sketch

The "consumer revolution" that took place as part of the great transformation of the western world is too recent a topic of historical study for comprehensive understanding. Enough work has been done that we are no longer quite so obviously blind men examining an elephant, but certain topics and certain periods have been almost completely neglected. Our present appreciation of the development of consumption is therefore still very limited. The following thumb nail sketch must be treated as an exceedingly hasty review of a very partial record. (A fuller  treatment of this material may be found in McCracken 1985e).

The history of consumption has no single beginning, no single line of development, no single cause, no single set of consequences. It is necessarily a vastly complicated social and historical process that can only be examined imperfectly and incompletely. For purposes of exposition, however, arbitrary selections must be made. Proceedingly arbitrarily, we can say that an important origin of modern consumer behavior can be found in the latter half of the 16th century in England. Here a certain sector of Elizabethan society, specifically the nobility, engaged in a riot of consumption. Their expenditures on housing,,clothing, furnishings, food, servants and ceremony assumed the proportions of the Northwest coast pot-latch. It appeared almost as if this class was bent on consuming its wealth in a self-destructive gesture of extravagance (Stone 1965).

There are several apparent causes for this consumer boom. One of these was the effort of Elizabeth I to make the members of her court active participants in (and therefore underwriters of) the ceremony with which she ruled (McCracken 1982b; Montrose 1980; Strong 1973). Another was the fierce competition caused by Elizabeth's new system of patronage and the new proximity of noblemen living in London. The consumer boom also had several apparent consequences. The new scale of Elizabethan consumption had the effect of drawing the nobleman away from his reciprocal bargain with his family and his locality (McCracken 1983a). Consuming with new competitive extravagance, the nobleman was unable to engage in the consumption patterns with which he traditionally met his obligations to the family corporation (Stone 1977) and his local subordinates (Heal 1984). He now engaged in consumption behavior controlled by new concerns for fashion and devoted to the aggrandizement of the self rather than the material and symbolic needs of the family and the locality. The nobleman's consumption behavior represents a dramatic transformation of the consumer decision-making, the unit of consumption, the social context of consumption, and symbolic properties of consumer goods. All of these changes may be seen to draw consumption away from its medieval constraints and give it new potentially modern characteristics.

The 18th century saw another explosion of consumption (McKendrick et al., 1982). This explosion has the same startling quality of its 16th century counter part. Contemporaries compared it to an epidemic and to a collective act of madness. What particularly distinguished this consumer riot from its 16th century counter part was its greatly enlarged scale of participation. The nobility were now joined by the upper and lower middle-classes as voracious consumers. The causes of this consumer boom again appear to be those of social competition. New wealth and new mobility fueled the competition between social classes and created a fury of spending and display. And again the consequences were dramatic. Consumer behavior was now more than ever governed by the dictates of fashion and the symbolic needs of the individual. It took place in a market place that was increasingly aware of the forces of the market place (such as diffusion driven by social competition) and prepared to exploit them with new advances in marketing and advertising. Once confined to "high days" and "local markets", consumption was spreading out in time and space to occupy more of the week and more of the town. Consumption was growing from a small corner of domestic life into a major preoccupation for both the individual and the collectivity.

The 19th century saw the steady unfolding of the consumer revolution (Williams 1982). A vital development in this period was the Department store which changed the context and nature of consumption. Individuals were now exposed to astonishing displays of merchandise in controlled environments where every medium was used to persuasive effect and every sense commandeered by the marketing process. The Department store served also to further discourage the-barter process and encourage the use of the fixed price, a development which changed profoundly the nature of the interaction between buyer and seller. The Department store also succeeded in encouraging the use of credit, or more accurately, the possession of an object before its purchase. This had important implications for the new wish-fulfilling promise of consumption. A second vital development in this period was the tremendously expanded range of cultural meaning that consumer goods could express (Miller 1981). Both marketers and consumers began to explore the expressive potential of these goods. This exploration meant the eclipse of the "courtly model of consumption" that had prevailed from the Renaissance onwards and the development of new "consumer lifestyles", through which social groups who communicated their values and relationship to the larger society through the increasingly sophisticated deployment of the symbolic properties of consumer goods. The multiple realities of modern society were now under construction as consumer goods were used by all classes and sectors as means of self- and group-definition.

In sum the development of consumer behavior from the 16th century onwards sees it move from a small corner of domestic life to become a major preoccupation for the individual and society. In this period, the very definition of time and space was being changed to accommodate its expanded presence. The number of players allowed to participate expanded continually. Consumption was now an instrument of government and an instrument of competition, and in both these roles represented a newly sophisticated deployment of the symbolic properties of consumer goods. The consumption process was also increasingly understood by and subject to the control of manufacturers and retailers. Consumption was now governed by fashion and subject to obsolescence, and as a result less and less devoted to utilitarian considerations. Consumption was undertaken increasingly for the sake of the individual and less and less for the family, class or local corporation and to this extent contributed to the growing disarray of culture and society in the west. But as goods became increasingly a means of communication and an opportunity for experimentation in cultural meaning, it also became a way of re-establishing new terms for social organization and self presentation. Consumption and consumer goods became an idiom for the expression and invention of new social and cultural orders.

The Methodological Issue

A single methodological issue dominates the present state and future of this nascent field. It is the skill and success with which it selects, imports and applies theories from the social sciences. This is an issue that students of consumer behavior will recognize. It is one with which they themselves have had to wrestle. They will appreciate as well as anyone the urgency and the difficulty of this undertaking. The remainder of the paper reviews the several theories that have been borrowed from the social sciences in order to examine the making of modern consumer behavior.

The State of a Nascent Art

McKendrick et al., (1982) have examined the explosion of consumer activity that took place in 18th century England in terms of two concepts from the social sciences, specifically Veblen's (1912) notion of "conspicuous expenditure" and Simmel's (1904) "trickle-down" theory. The fury of consumption of this period is seen as the result of fiercely competitive status display behavior within each social rank, and the downward diffusion of status markers between them.

There is no doubt that this dual theory serves as a useful way of explaining the consumption behavior of this period. But it is also clear that it offers no exhaustive account of this phenomenon. The astonishing intensity, novelty, and impact of 18th century consumption requires more and more penetrating, theoretical perspectives. We must know the changes in "mentalitie" that were necessary for this riot of consumption to take place. It is wrong and presentist to suppose that the English of the 18th century were merely waiting for the ways and means of consumption; that they took to it as "ducks to water". The ideas of Simmel and Veblen despite their values in this context are sometimes as much the substitute of insight as its opportunity. In defense of McKendrick et al., it must be acknowledged that in relying too heavily on this account of consumption behavior, they have merely reproduced a bias that already existed in consumer behavior research and the social sciences. These fields have for many years sought to explain the meaning contained in consumer goods as "status markers" and to understand the social uses of this meaning as "status competition". Rich and productive as this approach has been, it has helped create the notion that status information is the only or the chief kind of meaning contained in goods. It should not surprise us then that a visitor to the social sciences from the field of history should have been mislead on this score and moved to treat the ideas of Veblen and Simmel as if they were sufficient rather than merely necessary terms for the study of consumption behavior.

The second major contributor to the history of consumption, Rosalind Williams, is the author of "Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France". This work uses a much richer selection of social scientific theory than McKendrick et al. Williams gives due attention to the role of status competition but she moves on to consider several additional explanations. She follows Braudel's suggestion (1973) that consumption was used by European rulers of the Renaissance as an instrument of politics. This is a vital idea that will contribute to current attempts to establish the symbolic aspects of hegemonic control of society enjoyed by ruling families and their courts (cf. Thompson 1974). Williams also follow Elias' study (1978) of the "civilizing process" and suggests that consumer goods served as both a cause and consequence of the growing body of rules that constrained the individual in social situations by heightening the possibility of social embarrassment and shame. And finally, Williams takes up the notion of "lifestyle" and attempts to show how styles of life in 19th century France were indeed created as styles of consumption. The importation of this social scientific idea allows her to consider how goods in the 19th century were becoming the site of diverse social meanings and indeed instuments by which these meanings could be given coherence and expression.

Williams' work has several difficulties. The first is the continual tone of moral disapproval that attends her description of an emerging consumer society. She begins her treatment with the assumption that rising consumption must always have a corrupting influence (even while she presents evidence that it does not). Some pieces of analysis become mere recitations of articles of modern, liberal faith. The history of consumption will certainly become the opportunity for a variety of scholars to sound a variety of ideological horns, but this tendency must be discouraged. Williams' book also tends to confuse the exposition of an argument with its demonstration and leaves us wondering just what evidence justifies Williams' use of ideas from Braudel and Elias. If McKendrick et al. use too few of the social scientific resources at their disposal, Williams uses too many rather too well. The ideas that are imported from the social sciences will surely be transformed by their application in this historical context. They must be used with sufficient care that this transformation can be observed. Finally, it is not clear that Williams controls the idea "lifestyle" with the precision it must have to make a real contribution to our understanding of experiments in the culturally constitutive powers of consumption. As with McKendrick, Williams' difficulty can be said merely to reflect the confusion and imprecision that surrounds this concept in the field of consumer research and sociology. Still, historical study will be no mere client of the social sciences when it uses social scientific concepts. it will almost certainly return with interest the ideas it borrows. This can not happen when care is not taken.

The third contributor is Chandra Mukerji, author of "From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism". Mukerji examines the "consumerist culture" of 15th and 16th century Europe and the rise of early modern printing and 18th century cotton. This is the most ambitious attempt to apply theories from the social sciences to the making of modern consumer behavior. It draws on theoretical innovations by Douglas and Isherwood (1978) and Sahlins (1976) and constructs a model of inquiry that ought to take this work far beyond the sociological transparencies of Veblen and Simmel. Mukerji seeks to consider the "symbolic properties" of consumer goods and to show how their meaning contributed to a "cultural system" that encouraged new demand, new production, and the birth of capitalism (1983:8-1-6). From Graven Images does not succeed in this attempt. Consistently, Mukerji studies the "cultural" aspects of consumption and consumer goods from a functional sociological point of view rather than a semiotic anthropological one (McCracken 1984).

Theoretical Imperatives in the Study of the History of Consumption

The work of these three scholars has helped us see that the consumer revolution was as important to the transformation of the western world as the industrial revolution. They have also made it clear that this topic is a vital one to those who would understand the consumption of the present day. What they have failed to do is to establish an enquiry that takes us to the heart of this emergent species of social action. There is no question that consumption has made itself a kind of preoccupation of modern society. It has even emerged as one of the major ways in which individuals and groups contend with the dislocation and constant innovation the west has made its permanent condition. It has become a source of cultural meaning and an instrument for the manipulation of this meaning (McCracken, 1985b, 1985c, 1985d). In short, the industrial and consumer revolutions have left culture and consumption inextricably linked. The historians who would demonstrate how this interpenetration of culture and consumption took place must resort to more, and more sophisticated, theoretical tools than those they have used to date. They must then apply these theories in a manner that is exacting enough to bring real insight and sensitive enough to see where the data demand theoretical reform. The theoretical and methodological challenges before this scholarly enterprise, then, are daunting. Interestingly, they are precisely those that now face scholars within the field of consumer research itself. The students of past and present consumer behavior have much to offer each other. Whether they will be mutually useful depends upon the success with which they meet this common problem.


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Grant McCracken, University of Guelph [Department of Consumer Studies, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario NlG 2WI]


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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