Sociology Consumption
by
Ian Woodward
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0075

Introduction

A rudimentary definition of consumption emphasizes the purchase and use of goods or services, noting that the point of expenditure on such items and the instant of their usage constitute the act of consumption. This understanding of consumption reflects a utilitarian, economic approach to consumption that should be seen as a starting point, since the range of theoretical and empirical innovations within the field of consumption studies—which exists within sociology, as well as having disciplinary expressions within anthropology, history, geography, business, and marketing studies—has established an understanding of consumption as a complex, widespread process. “The Sociology of Consumption” by Colin Campbell in Daniel Miller, ed., Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies (London: Routledge, 1995) adds a number of other stages to this basic definition of consumption. Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service but also selecting it, maintaining it, possibly repairing it, and ultimately, disposing of it in some way. Within each of these stages there are a number of complex subprocesses that consumption studies scholars have increasingly paid attention to. For example, the selection of goods is sometimes undertaken largely subconsciously or automatically but also based upon various social norms, cultural learning, emotional factors, prejudices, facets of identity, taste, or style. Likewise, disposing of a good may mean literally throwing it away, or it may mean reselling it, donating it, or passing it on to others. Campbell’s definition usefully shows how consumption is a process over time that fuses practical, emotional, material, and economic factors, rather than merely the moment when a person pays for something over the counter. In many ways, this broader understanding of consumption points to a range of innovations within the field that have occurred in the last few decades, which in turn direct us to broader changes in patterns of sociological inquiry. Questions of labor, industry, production units, social, legal, and economic institutions, technology, and social class were the core stuff of social inquiry through much of the 20th century. In mainstream sociology, consumption was for most of the discipline’s history simply not a relevant analytic category, which explains why for much of sociology’s history consumption was understood through theories of capitalist production. However, in the last few decades researchers have increasingly situated practices of consumption and a consumerist ethic as central for understanding broader social and cultural change, impacting on the way sociologists have conceptualized such diverse areas of social change as cultural and economic inequality, urban and spatial development, identity and selfhood, gender relations and performativity, media, and advertising.

Textbooks

The establishment of consumption studies as an important subfield of sociology is reflected in the variety of introductions to the field. The texts Bocock 1993 and Slater 1997 plot the historical shifts in consumption studies from the modern to the poststructural and postmodern, while maintaining a broadly critical and Marxist framework. Corrigan 1997 takes a different approach by exploring many domains or fields of consumption practice from home decoration to travel, while Smart 2010 picks up on recent concerns, focusing on the politics and sustainability of consumer society. Lury 2011 takes a more cultural and theoretical approach that focuses on objects, commodity circuits, and the meaning and process of exchanges, while Sassatelli 2007 integrates economic, philosophical, anthropological, and cultural approaches to the topic.

  • Bocock, Robert. 1993. Consumption. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203313114E-mail Citation »

    Bocock traces the development of modern consumer society and its postmodern apotheosis in the late 20th century. Using a range of critical social theory, the book maps the way identity, desires, and commodification define present-day consumption.

  • Corrigan, Peter. 1997. The sociology of consumption: An introduction. London: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    Corrigan introduces a range of concepts pertaining to and perspectives on consumption within sociology. His focus is on the development of consumer society and the mapping of consumption as a process. A feature of the book is its focus on various fields of consumption, including shopping, food, dress, the home, tourism, and the body.

  • Lury, Celia. 2011. Consumer culture. 2d ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Lury works from a cultural and theoretical position to analyze consumer culture in terms of mobile commodities, circuits of cultural production and exchange, and the work of brands. The work shows how economy, culture, and materiality are constituted through chains of production and consumption.

  • Sassatelli, Roberta. 2007. Consumer culture: History, theory and politics. London: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a comprehensive, historically, and politically informed account of the development of modern consumer culture. The book covers literatures on historical features and development of consumption and consumer society, needs and fetishization, taste and aesthetics, and multiple contexts of consumption.

  • Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer culture and modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Slater offers a careful and critical account of the way consumption becomes an identifying feature of modern society and the ideology of modernity. The book covers a range of theoretical perspectives on consumption using the frameworks of commodification, freedom, identity, and social status.

  • Smart, Barry. 2010. Consumer society: Critical issues and environmental consequences. London: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    Smart analyzes consumer society in terms of the systemic creation of consumption as a social activity. He considers the way marketing, branding, and advertising creates markets, the globalization of consumption, and the environmental, political and environmental consequences and issues wrought by modern consumer culture.

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