Analyse the proposition that the practices of consumption have become the fundamentals of identity.

Tarquin Finland

Within the social sciences there are many explanations of the Western World's transformation into a consumer society. These focus not only upon social changes but also the economic and political ideologies and forces that have driven this trend.
The validity of this statement must therefore be analysed in several ways. Firstly that it implies that the notion of identity has changed from something previously held to describe an individual and their behaviour. These descriptions importantly, may apply to different groups behaviour as much as the individual. For clarity, this study will aim towards a sociological  rather than a psychological  explanation.Various theories and perspectives will be examined to gauge the extent of society's influence upon the individual, both as the effect upon his/her identity as a consumer and in a more wider sense.

A person's identity could be said to have evolved from many influences. The proposition suggests that consumption, or our new consumer society, forms our identity and behaviour and that this is a radical shift from before. At what point, if at all, this social change occurred is arguable; technology, modernisation and some would argue the growth of capitalism automatically lead to a consumer orientated society. If the present prosperity of Western society makes goods available to nearly all, how much this creates a new identity is difficult to assertain. However, the continuity of a agrarian or even an industrial society with each generation's lifestyle mirroring the one before led to very structured expectations and behaviour. The way people worked, especially the assumption that men went out to work and women cared for the home and family, all bound up in a class structure, led to very narrow expectations. 

Their cultural life was also very limited, shared with people with the same social standing and the inability to cross the boundaries set by class, gender and income could all be said to have, to a large degree, decided the consumption patterns, identity and behaviour of the next generation. This inflexibility has now almost gone, the post-industrial western economy evolving towards service industries away from being based upon manufacturing; where a large number of the population had similar employment, lived in similar homes, had the same level of income and socialised within their own group. The new prosperity from a fundamental change in our economy has blurred these boundaries.

One sociological description for some of these changes has been termed postmodernism.Berger (1995:26) states:

" The term postmodernism suggests that our culture has moved into a new phase, beyond that called modernism. So, at the very least, we have to know what modernism is to know what postmodernism is not. Modernism refers to the period that came into being as a result of the Renaissance, which was a movement that was connected with the rise of individualism and the beginnings of the capitalist, bureaucratic industrial order."
Examples often quoted to illustrate postmodernity are the arts and culture, a shift towards populism, blandness and universalism of our experiences argued by Featherstone (1991:203) as:
" the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life; the collapse of the hierarchical distinction between high and mass/ popular culture; a stylistic promiscuity favouring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony playfulness and the celebration of the surface "depthlessness" of culture; the decline of originality / genius of the artistic producer and the assumption that art can only be repetitious"
He further adds that this perspective could equally apply to the whole of culture and its relationship to the economic and political order. (Berger (1995:27) 

One of the most important ideas contained in postmodernism  is that there is an eclecticism throughout our lives, in this case art and culture used to illustrate the theme. This could be linked to the post-war prosperity, and some would argue, the enlargement of the middle class. Relative prosperity, home ownership and the ability to purchase goods and services now appear to fix one's position in society, or at least one owns self image of status. Thus perhaps identity as well.

To continue this idea, several writers have suggested the power of society upon the individual's actions.
This idea of time, a precedent concept and the current framework of society was summed up by Berger (1963:p109) 

“ Society antedates us and will survive us. It was there before we were born and will be there after we are sum, society is the walls of our imprisonment in history.”
A second simple example of this looking beyond the accepted views might be looking at a town or community. An economist or resident might see the regulations allowing or preventing trade within the area, the sociologist would suspect that there was an “informal” power structure, not publicly visible, operating behind the scenes. A study would assume vested interests controlling, or at least influencing matters, perhaps even the elected officials themselves; decisions taken outside the community. This might be corporate executives, a small number of like minded business men, a powerful union or even a Mafia like criminal organisation. None of these are the official powers, yet may be the dominant forms of control. The individual may believe that he/she has some autonomy and control over his/her prospects, the truth may be more sinister. 

The example of this in modern day life, is the advent of huge multi national corporations operating in third world countries. Not only do they virtually dictate their terms to the governments once established, they alter the traditional cultures of the people. 
What was once a simple agrarian lifestyle becomes a more industrial, Westernised culture of consumer needs, introducing all the goods and services that we perceive necessary for our standard of living. Their old society and culture is often lost. This is particularly interesting, the transition from an often agrarian to a society with all the trappings and perceived needs of a post-modern society in an incredibly short time period.

These examples appear to show a certain preordained nature to our lives, events somewhat out of our control. It shows a degree of social autonomy. This was one of the central ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, that to live in a society automatically means to be dominated by it; often with little awareness of this control, which questions the validity of people’s own identity, values, ideas and of their motivations. The theoretical approach to this question raised by Durkheim is now called functionalism, (Alpert 1939) that the system of society is not visible, or at best blurred, to those within it.

An alternative approach was the work of Max Weber. He thought similarly that society had a degree of determinism but stressed the part of the individual for change. He thought that our own acts created and supported society and may occasionally change it, rather than being trapped within it. He thought that the rationalisation that we use to justify our actions was; “ the substitution for the unthinking acceptance of ancient custom of deliberate adaptation to situations in terms of self-interest” (Weber 1921 cited in J Eldridge 1971) This suggests a continual re-assessment or rationalising of one's actions or behaviour; therefore one's identity. This could therefore be true of consumerism, our perception of what we "require" or need to be fulfilled constantly evolving.

One of the leading writers upon postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard argues this point by claiming: 

 "The whole discourse on consumption, whether learned or lay,  is articulated on the mythical sequence of the fable: a man, "endowed"  with needs which "direct" him towards objects that "give" him satisfaction.  Since man is never really satisfied (for which by the way, he is reproached),  the same history is repeated indefinitely, since the time of the ancient  fables."(Baudrillard 1988:35) 
Baudrillard however has a particular stance on consumer society as a whole, a Marxist viewpoint leading towards a further, or deeper, explanation of the individual's role in consumption as a function of identity.He argues that the capitalist system is dependent upon the consumer to feed the mode of production, expansion of consumption through incitement of desire for objects. There would appear to be almost no limit to the "new and improved" objects we desire, even spreading these needs beyond our own society (in this case the Third World). (Poster 1988)

Alternatively, there is some evidence that the consumer can sometimes have power over producers. A simple example might be the boycotting of products from a country or regime with a poor record on human rights. South Africa under apartheid or Cuba with its' communist leader might be given as examples. However, even these apparently straightforward issues must be clouded by what we have been led to believe by our consumption of the media. We have never visited these countries and our only reference of "what is true" has been the media interpretation of what is right or wrong.

Conversely, the spread of western media into communist countries has helped create "needs" that some might argue have helped bring about the fall of communism. Eastern Germany received the television programmes of Western Germany, this has been cited as one of the reasons for unrest and the desire for change.

In conclusion, the various arguments offered would suggest that society is somewhat deterministic towards our choices and therefore our identity. If this is essentially true, then consumerism is just the latest manifestation of what is "expected" of us. Essentially, whatever the stage of our society's development, other than perhaps very primitive societies, there are pressures that determine our "needs" and behaviour.

Class, gender and race are becoming less important in our measures of status, for example, more women now work and this is just one factor in  the blurring of boundaries that previously created our identity. 

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