Notes from the bookshelf 6: McCracken’s Culture and Consumption

As my research project progresses, the focus of my literature review increasingly shifts from the exploration of past and current knowledge about ethical food consumption towards methodological issues, such as qualitative survey research, interview sampling strategies, etc. Still, one non-methodological book did not leave me indifferent for not only it deals with a vast spectrum of issues around consumerism, it also provides some valuable insights into the history of consumer culture – something I did not yet have any particular knowledge of. So, the hero of today’s review is the book called “Culture and consumption”, written by a contemporary  anthropologist,  author and a blogger Grant McCracken. As I said, this is a valuable source of knowledge about various aspects of consumerism, but of particular interest for me was the first part, which explores the origins of modern consumer culture from an anthropologist’s point of view. I will cover extensively this specific section and only give a very brief overview of what the rest of the book has to offer to a reader.

So, the first chapter invites us to look into the history of “the dream world of consumption”. It starts with an overview of the most significant contributions to the study of the development of consumer society – McKendrick’s “The birth of a consumer society: the commercialization of eighteenth-century England” , Williams’ “Dream worlds: mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France” and Mukerji’s “From graven images: Patterns of modern materialism” are highlighted as not only pioneering, but also the most eminent works on the subject. However admirable McCracken finds these books, he is conscious of both their strengths and weaknesses of which he provides a strong analytical account. The chapter then goes on to offer McCracken’s own anthropological interpretation of the evolution of consumer society which he follows up from the 16th century up to the present day. The author distinguishes three milestones in the development of consumption as a social and cultural activity – those are the points in history when under various forces consumption acquired a novel character and started to exhibit changing patterns of production, demand and exchange.

The first significant transformation is associated with the consumer boom of the 16th century England.  For Queen Elizabeth, ruinous expenditure was a tool of government – luxurious objects and goods were meant to signify the legitimacy of the monarch’s rule and the scale of her dominion. McCracken eloquently describes how the Queen skilfully turned symbolically expressive power of goods into political power. By making the noblemen dependent on her for their share of royal bounty, the Queen asserted the centrality of her own persona to the prosperity of the kingdom. This was a period of fierce social competition through money spending and acquisition of goods which has had a profound effect on the nature of social relations and organization of communal and family life. For the first time, individual takes place of a family as unit of consumption. Social stratification of consumption deepens with high and low status groups increasingly immersing into two qualitatively different worlds of goods. Overall, during Elizabethan era the monarchy plunged into the frenzy of spending previously unseen and unthought-of.

The book then takes us some 200 years ahead – we are now in the 18th century, in which modern consumer culture is believed to be born.  This is the time when consumption, driven by social competition, truly explodes – it becomes more frequent, occurring in more places, involving more goods as well as more people. it is the period of the growth of markets, expanded choice of commodities; the period when consumption becomes a key form of social activity and increasingly acquires its present-day “mass” nature with individual being firmly established as a primary agent of consumption. A genuinely revolutionary development of the period is the birth of marketing. Truly captivating is McCracken’s interpretation of  the 18th century manufacturers as sociologists applying participant observation methods to predict and direct consumer behaviour. Fashion magazines and fashion dolls emerge as the first instruments to manipulate consumer demand and do so quite effectively – fashion becomes the primary consideration for the purchase of goods. As cultural meaning of goods changes dramatically and consumption ripens into a tool of identity creation, culture and consumption increasingly merge into one single force which will soon come to define virtually all aspects of social life.

Finally, in the 19th century consumption pretty much gets into the modern shape.  New kinds of consumption environment and consumer experiences emerge with the proliferation of department stores. Marketing techniques become increasingly sophisticated – sexual and aesthetic motifs are commonly employed to generate consumer desire of goods. Consumption develops into the driver and an unalienable companion of social change. During this period, fragmentation and differentiation of consumer lifestyles occurs – we observe mass consumption facilitated by increasingly ubiquitous department stores, elite consumption with its notion of the “aristocracy by taste”, as well as democratic consumption with an emphasis on accessibility and modesty of goods as an attempt to draw society away from ruinous spending towards the simplicity of lifestyle. All these novel forms of consumption are conceived of by McCracken as consumer explorations into the expressive potential of objects and experiments with the symbolic language of goods. From then on, dialectic relationships between consumption and culture never cease to exert powerful influence on the structure of social life.

The rest of the first part is concerned with some very specific topics: in the second chapter McCracken sets to explore patina as a status marker and the evolution of its symbolism throughout the history. In the third, we meet Mrs Roget, who through her very specific “curatorial” style of consumption helps us understand how long-term possession of heirlooms can provide for the sense of continuity of family relationships, longevity, locality and heritage.  The second part of the book is concerned with theoretical accounts that attempt to shed light on the symbolic meaning of goods and interpret consumption from a variety of viewpoints. Symbolism of clothing, goods as language, movement of cultural meaning to and from consumers – this is just a very brief overview of the issues this part of the book deals with. Finally, the last part of looks into the practices of consumption as and considers how meanings embedded in goods can be used for different purposes – from construction of gender to preservation of ideals, from creating lifestyles to enacting social change.

Overall, the major idea conveyed throughout the book is a view of consumption as one of the most significant causes of social change and the major force behind the revolution of the Western culture. It is specifically interesting for its stimulating description of the history of consumer society to which I have devoted the majority of this review in hope to draw your attention to the subject and this particular book as one fascinating account of it.

References:

McKendrick, N., Brewer, J., & Plumb, J. H. (1982). The birth of a consumer society: the commercialization of eighteenth-century England (pp. 28-28). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mukerji, C. (1983). From graven images: Patterns of modern materialism (p. 13). New York: Columbia University Press.

Williams, R. H. (1991). Dream worlds: mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France. University of California Pr.

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