Anthropology Consumerism
Jo Littler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0036


“Consumerism” is a word with multiple meanings and histories. To begin with, it is frequently conflated with “consumption,” but it is useful to make a conceptual distinction between these terms. Whereas “consumption” tends to mean the general using up of an object, a good, or a service, regardless of what kind of economic or ideological context the consumption is happening in, “consumerism” is more often used to denote the logic of consuming within a particular type of social and political system: consumer capitalism. Within this system, consumerism encompasses the presumption that increased consumption is necessary for the economy in general through the generation of private profit and economic growth. This is the most common contemporary usage of “consumerism,” and it is one that has been in general currency since the mid-20th century. However, as concern with the implications of a system inciting the continual expansion of consumption grows, both on an economic and an environmental basis (whether because of anxieties over, e.g., “boom and bust” recession or global warming), “consumerism” has also become a term carrying a derogatory connotation for those critical of this political and social system and its ideology of rapacious material acquisition. However, in addition there is an earlier and quite different use of the term “consumerism,” meaning the actions of those involved in consumer movements and organizations. This usage refers to services and campaigns mounted by or on behalf of the consumer. As Matthew Hilton points out in his books Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Prosperity for All (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), by the late 20th century this particular meaning of the word “consumerism”—consumer-led action interventions in the matter of what got sold, and how—was becoming increasingly obsolete. As the types of intervention and campaigns emanating from the consumer became more likely to be termed “anticonsumerism” rather than “consumerism,” this earlier meaning has largely faded away. Hilton ascribes such a linguistic volte-face to the failure of this particular strand of the consumer movement to intervene successfully within wider political cultures, arguing that it gradually became entrenched with the less politically charged work of comparative testing and less concerned with the challenges to corporate power that were to become the hallmark of later anticonsumerist movements.

Introductory Readers and Guides

Academic work on consumerism has developed out of a number of disciplinary areas. The work is intimately connected to the broader zone of studies of consumer culture, itself a meeting ground of disciplines deploying a rich variety of methodologies and epistemologies. Since the rapid expansion of academic interest in the subject in the 1980s, a variety of readers and introductory guides to consumer culture have emerged. These include discussions of consumer culture that are oriented toward social theory (Slater 1997), postmodernism (Featherstone 2007), politics and history (Gabriel and Lang 1995, Lee 2000), and cultural sociology (Lury 2011, Sassatelli 2007). A multidisciplinary approach has been encouraged by many scholars researching in this area (Journal of Consumer Culture, Miller 1995, Schor and Holt 2000).

  • Featherstone, Mike. 2007. Consumer culture and postmodernism. 2d ed. Theory, Culture and Society. Los Angeles and London: SAGE.

    Influential discussion of key theoretical standpoints on consumer culture.

  • Gabriel, Yiannis, and Tim Lang. 1995. The unmanageable consumer: Contemporary consumption and its fragmentations. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    An exploration of the multifaceted ideological perspectives on consumption and their different manifestations and developments through time.

  • Journal of Consumer Culture. 2001–.

    Journal of research on consumption and consumer culture from history, anthropology, media studies, sociology, marketing, geography, and beyond

  • Lee, Martyn J., ed. 2000. The consumer society reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Reader on consumer culture, with a strong emphasis on Marxist theory.

  • Lury, Celia. 2011. 2d ed. Consumer culture. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

    Introductory textbook written primarily from a cultural sociology perspective, with a strong emphasis on material culture.

  • Miller, Daniel, ed. 1995. Acknowledging consumption: A review of new studies. Material Cultures. London and New York: Routledge.

    Pithy edited collection surveying the new academic interest in consumer culture from a variety of disciplinary standpoints.

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

    Sociological textbook on consumer culture.

  • Schor, Juliet B., and Douglas B. Holt, eds. 2000. The consumer society reader. New York: New Press.

    Multidisciplinary reader on consumer society that is particularly strong in sociology and cultural studies.

  • Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer culture and modernity. Oxford: Polity.

    Wide-ranging and influential study of the different political and philosophical underpinnings of various theories of consumer culture.

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