The Sociology of Consumption
A Sub-Field in Search of Discovery
by George Ritzer
University of Maryland
Among the more inexplicable aspects of contemporary American sociology has been the virtual absence of a sociology of consumption in a society increasingly defined by consumption. The last decade has been characterized by a booming economy often portrayed as being propelled in large part by consumption. That same decade witnessed the birth of the Internet, the explosion of consumption sites (e.g. Amazon.com) on it, and dramatic changes in the ways in which many consume. Traditional modes of production, as well as the jobs associated with them, have continued their long-term decline. While American sociologists, given their productivist bias, have noticed the latter, they seem to have all but ignored the corresponding increase in the importance in consumption. Thus, while a general search of the Internet would yield innumerable citations, largely in the popular media, to Thorstein Veblen's concept of "conspicuous consumption," there would be only a minuscule number of references to Karl Marx's concept of "alienation" (Ritzer, Wiedenhoft and Murphy, 1999). However, a search within sociology, or of the indexes of introductory sociology textbooks, would show almost the complete reverse.
Adding to this baffling situation is the fact that a similar examination of continental, especially British, sociology would yield a completely different picture. There is a very lively sociology of consumption in Great Britain with a steady production of books and journal articles on the subject (Gabriel and Lang, 1995; Miles, 1998; Slater, 1997; Urry, 1995). This is the case in spite of the fact that Great Britain comes nowhere close to the United States in terms of the creation of new consumer goods (for example, innovations in computer hardware and software), the sites in which to consume them (mega-, and cyber-, malls, for example), and the means by which to pay for the goods and sometimes gain entry to the sites (credit cards, among others). British sociologists seem much more animated by consumption than their American counterparts, especially the invasion of Great Britain by American consumer goods, sites and means of payment (Bryman, 1997, 1999).
How do we account for the comparative silence of American sociologists on the issue of consumption (and the relative din on the subject from Great Britain)? The fact that there is an active sociology of consumption in Great Britain (and elsewhere such as Australia [Corrigan, 1997]) casts doubt on the idea that the American silence is traceable to the discipline's productivist history since if that were the cause, one would expect British sociologists (and others) to be similarly affected. That British sociologists have been better able to overcome that bias than their American peers may be traceable to the fact that it is easier to become concerned about a foreign invasion of consumer items than it is to focus on the indigenous production of those same items. As a result, it may be easier for British sociologists to view consumption as a "social problem" and to focus attention on it. Another factor in the greater attention to consumption in Great Britain is the fact that culture (of which consumption is a significant component) became a focal concern there before American sociologists began to recognize its significance. Similarly, postmodern social theory with its view that consumption defines postmodern society (Featherstone, 1991) attracted attention (and has since declined) before the recent growth in interest in that theory in the United States.
On the American side, the very success of American sociology made it easier for its adherents to miss the significance of a new social trend like the growing importance of consumption. In addition, American sociologists (much more than their British counterparts) tend to view consumption-related issues as "trivial," while those linked to production as "serious" issues worthy of scientific investigation. Thus, while the factory and those who work in it are considered important subjects, the mall and its customers are seen as comparatively unimportant. Yet, a strong case could be made that studies of the mall and its customers would tell us at least as much, and probably more, about the larger society than studies of the factory and its workers. In any case, one need not come to this conclusion to argue that far too little attention is being devoted to issues related to consumption in American sociology. This is not the place to go into a lengthy analysis of why American sociologists continue to devote comparatively little attention to consumption (that would make an interesting study in the sociology of knowledge and of sociology). It is sufficient for our purposes to note that American sociologists have found it harder to overcome their productivist history and there has been comparatively little focus on consumption.
Despite this history, there are some hopeful signs in American sociology. First, one is finally beginning to see more books and articles on the subject such as Mark Gottdiener's (1997; Gottdiener, Collins and Dickens, 1999) studies of the "theming of America" and of Las Vegas, as well as my work on fast-food restaurants, credit cards, and the "new means of consumption" (Ritzer, 1993/1996; 1995; 1999). Second, there are efforts underway, led by Dan Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org), to form an ASA section on the sociology of consumption. Finally, Sage (interestingly its English arm not the American office) is starting a new journal, Journal of Consumer Culture, which I will co-edit with Don Slater of Goldsmith's College, University of London. One must feel hopeful about the emergence of a sociology of consumption in the United States. It is obvious that consumption, and everything related to it, is exploding in the United States. This has not escaped the notice of journalists and scholarly observers (e.g. Schor, 1992, 1998; Calder, 1999) of the American scene. While American sociologists can continue to ignore consumption for awhile, they cannot forever remain out of touch with a social change that is dramatically altering not only the United States, but the rest of the world. At least some American sociologists need to come to the conclusion that it is time to deal with the enormous lag between changes in the larger society and what they choose to study.
Bryman, Alan. 1995. Disney and His World. London: Routledge.
_____. 1999. "The Disneyization of Society." Sociology 47: 25-47.
Calder, Lendol. 1999. Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Corrigan, Peter. 1997. The Sociology of Consumption. London: Sage.
Featherstone, Mike. 1991. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. London: Sage.
Gabriel, Yiannis and Tim Lang. 1995. The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentations. London: Sage.
Gottdiener, Mark. 1997. The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions, and Commercial Spaces. Boulder: Westview.
Gottdiener, Mark, Claudia Collins, David Dickens. 1999. Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All American City. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Miles, Steven. 1998. Consumerism as a Way of Life. London: Sage.
Ritzer, George. 1993, 1996. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
_____. 1995. Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
_____. 1999. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, George, Wendy Wiedenhoft and James Murphy. 1999. "Thorstein Veblen in the Age of Hyperconsumption." Paper presented at meetings of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, 1999.
Schor, Juliet. 1992. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. NY: Basic.
_____. 1998. The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer. NY: Basic.
Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer Culture and Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.