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Black Friday and Consumerism

Something we sociologists are keenly interested is how society determines what  is a “good life”, regardless of whether or not that life is actually beneficial to us.

Property of The Tiny Life

The consumer culture is particularly relevant in the wake of our annual Black Friday shopping spree, when people go to incredible lengths to get the best holiday deals on stuff that, arguably, no one really needs. Black Friday has started earlier and earlier the last few years, to the point that a certain unnamed “big box” retailer actually opened their doors at 8:00 PM on Thanksgiving day. The irony is obvious – on the same day we remember to be thankful for what we have and who we share it with, we can now dash out to get the newest “big thing” that we or our loved ones don’t have.

Why are we so consumption happy, to the point that shopping for new things cuts into traditionally off-limits days such as Thanksgiving? There are a variety of opinions on the matter. Some think that society elites are increasingly promoting consumption in order to promote their own profits. There may be some truth to that, but there is a problem with this argument – people who stand to make a profit traditionally do everything to maximize profit. Something else has to have changed in society to increase the degree to which consumption consumes us (yes, that just happened).

In his classic sociological work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argued that the rise of the protestant belief in work and profit as a sign of spiritual standing was the key to the explosion of modern capitalism. While the mechanisms of capitalism have been at work as long as people have traded goods and services, it wasn’t until the values of society shifted that accumulating wealth through trade became virtuous activity.

Something similar may be happening with consumerism. While people have always enjoyed having nice things, and producers have always been more than happy to supply nice things, a shift in values in contemporary culture (going back to the 1950’s) has allowed consumerism to become a defining feature of daily life.

So what changed? I would argue that the belief in self-determinism enables our consumer culture. In particular, American society has see a rise in the belief that people are able to create themselves as they see fit. Choice is the virtue of the day, desirable even when our choices have terrible results (for more on that read The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl). If you are unhappy, there is something you can change to make it better, choices you can make to become better and happier.

This belief in choice trickles into our spending habits. For my part, I am prone to believe that owning a new piece of technology will inherently make me more productive. I’m guilty of believing that purchasing the right product will necessarily make my life better. When it doesn’t, I am unhappy again, and the cycle starts over.

This isn’t a novel idea. The Salecl book has a lot to say about it, and there are a host of social theory books that dance around the argument that consumerism is driven by the pressure to “choose a better self.”

So what do you think? Do you consume because you think it will make your life better?

If so, how do we rewire this faulty logic to become more satisfied in our lives?

What’s your consumer vice? Does it actually make your life better?


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A Technology Dilemma?

From “More Americans Find Technology Stressful”, Mental Health News

Sorry for the long break, my work/school life was pretty busy last week and I didn’t have a lot of time to write. In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking about technology as it impacts our social existence. I’d like to talk about how we engage with technology and how it changes the way we interact with the world. Most importantly, I’d like to talk about some of the problems that might come with integrating technology into every aspect of our daily lives.

The inspiration for this post came completely by accident. I was listening to a interview with Derek Webb, one of my favorite musicians, when he started talking about some “tensions” he was experiencing regarding the impact technology has on the way we live our lives. The link is below (to save you some time and banter I’ve started the video at the 1:32 mark):

Derek Webb on Technology

I was quite interested in the idea that technology devices have become miniature “worldviews”, through which we engage with both information and one another. This becomes even more interesting when the technology has no “off switch”, meaning we are constantly responding to what is going on with our smart phones. This has some advantages like being able to respond to crises quickly, keep in touch with a huge network of friends, or work on a project from literally anywhere.

Those advantages can come with some serious implicit demands, however. Consider the following possible expectations that come with technology:

1. If I can respond to a crisis quickly, then I must respond to a crisis quickly.

Sure, responding to things like hurricanes as quickly as possible is almost certainly always a good thing, but what about work? If your boss can e-mail you at 11:30 pm, and you can receive it instantly in bed via smartphone, does that mean you should reply immediately? If your boss knows you received and read the e-mail at 11:31, does that make you feel pressure to “take care of one quick problem”? Problems that are, in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal may seem more pressing than they are simply because technology expands their presence in our lives.

2. If I can stay in touch with many people, then I must know what is going on with many people.

This is my dilemma with Facebook. It seems that there are constant updates in the lives of everyone I know. If I am not constantly checking “the feed” then I won’t know what is going on with someone when I run into them in “real life.” A brief example would be what I call “breakup etiquette.” I think it is mostly understood that, when a person is going through a breakup, people are supposed to be considerate and not talk too much about the relationship around them. Before Facebook, someone would have to tell you about the breakup. Thus, if I ask someone about their girlfriend and they told me they had been broken up for weeks, I wouldn’t be rude for not knowing about it. Now, however, I could know about the breakup the instant it happened, so it might be rude to not know about it (even if I missed the news in my feed of 500+ friends).


3. If I can be working at all times, I should be working at all times.

I do a lot of statistics as a sociologist. Thirty years ago, I would not be able to do this from home. I would have to wait until I had access to a massive computer to run my statistics, then wait while the computer chewed on my data. Now, it is totally possible to access and work with data from virtually anywhere, including a smart phone. The same is true of word processing, slide shows, and all kinds of things that people do to be “productive”. But the knowledge that we could be working on something might increase the pressure to get it finished instead of kicking back away from work.

Thinking about it…

These are just a few thoughts about the way advances in technology could be problematic for society and potentially hazardous to our personal lives. So what do you think? Webb suggests that there should be “sacred spaces” where technology does not intrude into our lives, and this is an intriguing idea. We haven’t done a lot of predicting the impact of new technologies before rolling them out. Should we be putting “guard rails” on technology at the society level, before it is “too late”, as Webb suggests?

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