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.
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?