Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption

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Cultures of Consumption

Working Paper Series

Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption*

Dr Frank Trentmann
Birkbeck College, London

* Now published in Journal of Contemporary History, 39(3) (2004), pp.373-401.

Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author(s)

“Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption”1

Frank Trentmann
For Cultures of Consumption Working Paper Series
If there is one agreement between theorists of modernity and those of post-modernity it is about the centrality of consumption to modern capitalism and contemporary culture. To thinkers as different as Werner Sombart, Emile Durkheim and Thorstein Veblen at the turn of the twentieth century, consumption was a decisive force behind modern capitalism, its dynamism and social structure. More recently, Anthony Giddens has presented consumerism as simultaneous cause and therapeutic response to the crisis of identities emanating from the pluralisation of communities, values, and knowledge in ‘post-traditional society’. Post-modernists like Baudrillard have approached consumption as the semiotic code constituting post-modernity itself: ultimately, signs are consumed, not objects. Such has been the recent revival of theoretical interest in consumption that the historian might feel acutely embarrassed by the abundance of choice and the semiotic and, indeed, political implications of any particular approach. Which theory is most appropriate for the historical study of ‘consumer society’? What is being consumed, by whom, why, and with what consequence differs fundamentally in these writings: should we study objects, signs or experiences, focus on the drive to emulate others or to differentiate oneself, analyse acquisitive mentalities or ironic performances, condemn resulting conformity or celebrate subversion? It is helpful to note that the theoretical debate about consumption in the last two decades has in the main been driven by a philosophical engagement with ‘modernity’ (or its disappearance), not by an empirical reassessment of the historical dynamics of consumption; in stark contrast with, say, Sombart’s earlier empirical work on luxury, or the Frankfurt School’s research into mass society. The changing pictures of consumption thus followed on a changing assessment of ‘modernity’, not vice versa. And this theoretical dynamic inevitably had a decisive effect for how consumption and the consumer are portrayed in these texts. We encounter the ‘modern consumer’, the ‘traditional consumer’ and the ‘post-modern consumer’ as ideal-typical constructs. These may be well suited to provide commentary on the condition of ‘modernity’ or ‘post-modernity’. They are less helpful for a historical understanding of consumption, since they present holistic, static, and finished end-products rather than problematise how (and whether) these different types have emerged, developed, and stood in relation to each other in different societies at different times.

What, then, should be the unit of inquiry for historical research? Should we write a history of ‘consumerism’ or ‘consumer society’, of ‘consumption regimes’ or ‘consumer culture’? Historians have largely sidestepped this interpretive problem. The prolonged debate about the merit of ‘class’ and ‘society’ shows that this is not because the profession is theory-challenged. Far from it, it might be argued that ‘consumer society’ or ‘consumerism’ have been adopted just as ‘class society’ became problematic. One reason for this conceptual silence may be found in the formative split between the two principal approaches to consumption in the first wave of historical studies in the late 1970s and 1980s, a split that has effectively limited the contribution of history to the broader debate about consumption. Two largely self-referential enterprises emerged. One project traced the birth of ‘modern consumer society’ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Western Europe and the Atlantic world. The second focused on shopping and mass consumption, particularly the late nineteenth-century department store. These selective enterprises not only ignored many other forms, sites, and meanings of consumption, but the temporal gulf between them disguised the incommensurability of their respective notions of modernity. Historians interested in the former project turned to the ‘modern’ acquisitive desire for commodities and ‘novelties’ amongst a broadening middling sort and some artisans. Historians working on the latter, by contrast, argued that a modern consumer society only developed once the large bulk of society, freed from the regime of needs, was able to enter a system of ever-expanding goods and desires. The conceptual and empirical gulf between the two groups was deepened further by different methodological upbringings, the first steeped in anthropology and culture, the latter in social history and gender studies. Whereas historians of seventeenth and eighteenth- century Holland and Britain worked with a theory of culture inspired, in part, by Durkheim and Mary Douglas, where ‘need’ is as much a cultural construct as ‘desire’, writers privileging the twentieth century often employed an essentialist definition of needs that stood in stark contrast with the ‘culture’ of consumerism. In short, here was a disagreement about the very essence of human existence and culture.

The theoretical divide underlying the chronological gulf in studies of consumption was deepened by competing national traditions of historiography. In Germany, the belated turn to consumption emerged from within the Weberian development of social history as Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Rather than being present at the birth of modernity, consumption here was one of its offspring; and even then (like other cultural subjects) it was less a subject in its own right than a source of answers to questions about class and status.2 Hence the almost iconic status of Bourdieu (rather than, say, Baudrillard) in German history seminars. Bourdieu’s treatment of taste and consumption in the formation of habitus can be easily accommodated within Gesellschaftsgeschichte; after all, Bourdieu’s idea of ‘the choice of the necessary’, though not economistic in the strict sense, continues to present the ‘habitus’ of the working class as the learned outcome of their material situation.3 In North America, by contrast, the recent revival of interest in consumption has been driven by a very different historiographical dynamic: the disillusionment with social history, especially with the ‘working class’, and the shift to gender and post-structuralism. Instead of producing ‘false’ needs, new sites of consumption, such as the department store, offered opportunities for an emancipation of the self and the transgression of dominant gender hierarchies. The late Victorian metropole suddenly exhibited some of the very features of post-modernity avant la lettre.

If the strategy of Gesellschaftsgeschichte was to use consumption to buttress social history by showing just how subtle and distinctly ‘modern’ class and status were, feminist and post-structuralist approaches turned to consumption to question the very notion of modernity underlying social history. Either way, consumption was instrumentalised. It was not the principal subject or problem. Interest in consumption remained highly selective and fragmented. The department store spoke to questions about the gendering of public spaces, identities, and desires. Advertising spoke to questions about semiotics. There were few connections here with the historiography on food, leisure, and fashion.4 There was little dialogue with the fresh and expanding literature in anthropology and geography exploring systems of provision, material culture, life-cycles, and the processes and spaces connected to consumption before and after purchase.5 The synergy between the social sciences, history and the arts that had fostered studies of the birth of consumer society stands in stark contrast to the situation for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.6 There were simply too few historical building blocks for a general debate about the changing physiology of ‘modern consumer society’ in its subsequent adolescence, maturity or old age, let alone for a general historical narrative.

The aim of this essay is to outline some of the questions that may help structure such a debate. Should we think in terms of a linear expansion of Western consumerism ending in global convergence? What was the underlying dynamic of this expansion and where should we locate its modernity? What was the place of consumption in social and political relations, and what do these connections (and disconnections) tell us about the nature of ‘consumer society’? More broadly, what are the meanings of consumption and what should historians include or exclude? ‘Consumerism’ and ‘modern consumer society’, it will be argued, are concepts with diminishing analytical and conceptual usefulness that have privileged a particular Western version of modern consumption at the expense of the multi-faceted and often contradictory workings of consumption in the past and are increasingly at odds with the current debate about the cultures and politics of consumption.

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