Jacqueline Priddle

This paper will look at the changes in modern consumerism since the 1950s and its affects on groupings and identity. It will look at the theoretical perspective that consumption is now  part of ‘post-modernity’ rather than the ‘modern’ industrialised, urban, capitalist society where socio-economic class determined peoples lives. Emphasis will be on the emergence of post-modern grouping and consumerism and the social construction of identity in post-modernity. .  Furthermore, it will look at the proposition that our identities are enhanced by what we consume. 

The New Consumers
By the 1950s, mass consumption began to develop among all but for the very poorest groups (Bocock 1993:21).  He suggested that they had sufficient income to provide for their basic needs and became aware of new objects such as cars, TVs, stereos and experiences like holidays to the Mediterranean which they could now afford.  It could now be argued however, that it is the groups classed as the poorest due to their income or socio-economic grouping, that often do possess these goods and take an active part in this ‘new age’ of consumption. 

This can be justified by studying the consumption of durable household goods by socio-economic grouping on table 3.21 and table 3.22 on appendix 1 (source: Living in Britain 1995).  Table 3.21 shows almost as many unskilled manual workers and economic inactive own a colour TV as professional workers.  As many unskilled manual workers own a video as professionals.  However,  semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers are much less likely to own goods like dishwashers, computers and cars than professional workers and managers.  A similar pattern appears in table 3.22 whereby most of these consumer durables are owned by over 50% of all economically active households with the exception of a home computer, dishwasher and a car. This would indicate that occupational class and income are not always significant  when it comes to consumerism of household durables.  Appendix 2  (Source: Office for National Statistics) shows the increase in consumer expenditure of a variety of goods from 1985 - 1995 which implies a general pattern of growth with all consumerables.

Post -modernity, consumption and identity
Recently, there has been much speculation that we have entered an era that has been termed ‘post-modernity’ (Spink 1994:21) .  Bocock (1995:3) suggests if ‘modern’ implied an industrial, urban, capitalist society, in which socio-economic class was still the determining feature of people’s lives, of their sense of who they were, their identity; 
post-modern implied a post industrial, suburban, even post-capitalist social formation in which old, stable points for establishing people’s sense of identity had been displaced.  Bauman (1992) believed identities in post-modern conditions become more flexible and float around in a state of potential, if not actual change.

As mass industrialisation and urbanisation came to an end, we have seen an increase of employment in the service and professional jobs and a decline in the manufacturing industry.  The era of mass production (‘Fordism’- termed by Gramsci (1971) due to mass car production manufactured by Henry Ford) has given way to more individualised production.  According to Spink, it is because of these changes we have experienced a growth of individualism.  He believes this is evidenced in political changes from the 70s onwards and increased emphasis on private consumption based on increasing affluent individuals.  Post-modernists theory points to this growing pattern of consumption and affluence as opposed to the old social groupings based on occupation and class.

Since the 1950s and more particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, new kinds of groups have emerged for whom consumption plays a central role in their way of life (Bocock 1993:27). Bocock believed it was not the external characteristics of these groups which were new, for example age, socio-economic,  gender or ethnicity but the internal dynamics of these new groups.  He believed these internal dynamics affected the social construction of a sense of identity for the group members.  Finding a sense of identity can be seen as a process which may make use of consumable items such as shoes, designer trainers, clothing, music, sports activities, and belonging to clubs or soccer clubs. 

Such consumption patterns could be used as a central means of defining who was a member and who was outside a specific group.Many status groups, including youth and older groups, use specific consumption patterns as a way of marking a boundary between peer group membership and outsiders.  It could be said these patterns of consumption can be found in modernity as well as post-modernity.   So what is so distinctive in the post-modern model?  Bocock (1993: 80)
believes that the various social, ethnic or age-grade boundaries have less significance in terms of consumption patterns than more individuated patterns.  He suggests group boundaries in post-modernity are much more fluid than under the conditions of modernity; people do not feel that they belong necessarily to the same social status group, or even the same ethnic group, into which they were born.  They may also move between youth groups as they move from being children through various adolescent teenage group identities and reach middle or old age with a more variegated set of enthusiasms as opposed to the former ‘modern’ generations where the youth groups and status groups were more stable.

Under post-modern conditions, identities are in a constant state of change: individuals move freely from one sub-cultural group and enthusiasm to another;  they mix and match what were formerly distinct categories.Under modernity, popular music, jazz, country and western, reggae and classical music had relatively distinct audiences, however, under post-modernity they have become mixed.  Other forms of style consciousness in clothing, cars, interior decor, television viewing, types of food - which in modernity were clearly defined as distinct patters for specific social status groups - have become more mixed up under post-modernity.(Bocock 1993: 81)  An example of this would be the traditional dresser and eater in the morning, goes to a rock festival at the weekend, church on a Sunday, listen to ‘classical’ music coming home from work and attend a new age meeting one evening.

Categories of taste, pastimes, interests, style, religious and political belongings may change rapidly under post-modern conditions; under modern conditions however they were seen as distinct and separate.  Bocock (1993) believes that people who were once supposed ‘to know their place’ in the social hierarchy under modernity cease to think in terms of such a social hierarchy under post-modernity.  Style, enjoyment, excitement, escape form boredom at work or play, being attractive to self and others have now become central life concerns, and affect patterns of consumption in post-modernity, rather than copying the ways of living and consumption patterns of ‘superior’ social status groups.

During the 1980s, market researchers began to change ways in which they saw the various groups of consumers.  This change in the way in which consumption patterns are perceived by market researchers from being seen as influenced by socio-economic class to being seen as influenced by life-cycle stages.  Mike Featherstone has written:

“The term life-style is currently in vogue.  While the term has a more restricted sociological meaning in reference to the distinctive style of life of specific status groups, within contemporary consumer culture it connotes individuality, self expression, and a stylistic self-consciousness.  Ones body, clothes, speech, leisure pastimes, eating and drinking preferences, home, car, choice of holidays, etc. are to be regarded as indicators of the individuality of taste and sense of style of the owner/consumer.  In contrast to the designation of the 1950s as an era of grey conformism, a time of mass consumption, changes in production techniques, market segmentation and consumer demand for a wider range of products, are often regarded as making possible greater choice (the management of which becomes an art form) not only for the youth of the post 1960s generation, but increasingly for the middle aged and the elderly.....we are moving towards a society without fixed status groups in which the adoption of styles of life (manifest in choice of clothes, leisure activities, consumer goods, bodily disposition) which are fixed to specific groups have been surpassed”.   (Featherstone, 1991: 83)

Instead of people being working class or miners or doctors, marketing groupings like Yuppie, Twinky or Wrinkly appeared (Spink 1994:22).  This emphasised groups of consumers rather than producers. Music is a consumable item that can be put into particular groupings, for example, heavy metal, punk rock, hip-hop and rave all have their own particular group of consumers.  These patterns are found especially in young people aged 13 - 30 although similar patterns are found amongst older groups who have maybe settled into a pattern of marriage, home-ownership, car ownership and child rearing.

Marcuse (1964) argues that liberal consumer societies control their populations by indoctrinating them with ‘false needs’ people are manipulated through the media and advertising into believing that their identities will be enhanced by useless possessions.  Marcuse (1964:24) writes:

“People recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level control is anchored in the new needs which (the consumer society) has produced".
However,  Galbraith (1958) believed that “advertising could create demand (false needs in Marcuses terms) and that desires could be ‘shaped by the discreet manipulations of the persuaders”.This form of manipulation implies that consumers are victims of this culture industry and are bullied into buying things they don’t need.  It implies the industry is controlling us.  It is true to say nobody actually ‘needs’ a walkman or a holiday in India, but it doesn’t mean to say we don’t desire it - and why shouldn’t we have them?

Consumption is seen today as being based  increasingly on desires, not simply on need (Baudrillard 1988: 10) 

To conclude,  it would appear the former sense of a clear social status group hierarchy has disintegrated in post-modern conditions.  Consumerism isn’t just apparent in affluent societies only.  Consumer goods don’t just have a value, they don’t just serve a simple function - they make a statement about ourselves and they become important. If we look at our own patterns of consumption and what meanings we attach to them, then maybe we it makes our identity a little clearer to ourselves.  It is a form of identity.They make statements about who we are and who we wish to be and help us identify our membership to certain grouping by the things we consume.

It will remain an important social, psychological and cultural process, as well as an economic one.  (Bocock 1993:3)


Bocock, R. (1993) Consumption. Routledge: London
Featherstone, M (1991) The Body in Consumer Culture. Sage: London
Galbraith, J. K. (1958) The Affluent Society.  Houghton Mifflin:  Boston
Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man. Sphere: London
Mort, F. (1996) Cultures of Consumption.  Routledge: London
Spink, J. (1994) Leisure and the Environment. Butterworth-Heinmann Ltd. London.

Cross G (1993) Time and Money.  The making of consumer culture.Routledge: New York
Lee, M. J. (1993) Consumer Culture Reborn.  Routledge: London
Miller, D. (1995) Acknowledging Consumption Routledge: London.
Williamson J (1987) Consuming Passions  Marion Boyars: London.

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