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 pluralization 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? \ud The aim of this article 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\ud 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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