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The Wolf of Wall Street: Re-imagining Veblen for the 21st Century

By Georgios Patsiaouras and James Fitchett


Metadata only entryConsumer research has sought to challenge and move away\ud from classical models of behaviour by drawing on alternative\ud traditions from across the social sciences which emphasize the\ud cultural, sociological, anthropological, ideological and historical\ud systems of consumer society and the place of the individual within\ud them (Arnould and Thompson 2005). Within this broader sociocultural\ud paradigm of the consumer there is a growing space for\ud discussion of issues related to the influence of reference groups,\ud competitive consumption, conformity and upward social mobility\ud via status-seeking consumption phenomena. While attention has\ud given to academics and theorists who have examined the processes\ud of class consumption and social differentiation, such as Pierre\ud Bourdieu (Holt 1998) and Jean Baudrillard, relatively limited\ud detailed attention has been given to Thorstein Veblen’s (1899) The\ud Theory of the Leisure Class, (Hereafter TLC) a foundational and\ud seminal text for these concerns and issues. The TLC is one of the\ud earliest and most complete accounts of the dynamics and structures\ud of early American consumer culture. Although many consumer\ud researchers will be aware of some of the terminology popularised\ud from the book-especially the term “conspicuous consumption”-\ud surprisingly little research by marketing theorists and consumer\ud researchers engages with the substance of Veblen’s arguments and\ud observations (Mason 1998). Our paper invites readers to re-examine\ud and re-imagine Veblen in more complete terms, and will show\ud how a Veblenian inspired analysis can be useful and relevant not\ud only in historical and theoretical terms but as a framework for\ud understanding contemporary consumer culture. To achieve this we\ud provide a Veblenian take on the autobiographical and confessional\ud book, The Wolf of Wall Street (2008).\ud In TLC Veblen explicated how the use of possessions as means\ud of indicating one’s success and prosperity has occurred for centuries\ud and drawing insights from the barbaric stage of human development\ud he described the use and exhibition of trophies, together\ud with women and slaves, as means of fulfilling men’s craving for\ud status. Focusing his analysis on modern industrial and developed\ud societies, Veblen suggested that social status was signified through\ud the possession, accumulation and exhibition of luxurious goods and\ud status symbols which indicated one’s membership in an upper\ud social class. Veblen emphasized that individuals’ motivation to\ud emulate the consumption preferences and cultural practices of the\ud class above played a fundamental role in the formation of social\ud networks, class distinctions and social mobility via wasteful consumption.\ud The primary association of Veblen’s name with the term\ud conspicuous consumption, as a construct referring to the ostentatious\ud economic display of the late 19th century, offers a simplistic\ud and cursory representation of Veblen’s theory by treating his work\ud as an historical account with limited relevance to consumer research\ud of the 21st century. Veblen’s book includes some diachronic\ud insights on consumer culture and relevant ideas to contemporary\ud studies in consumption. We conclude that consumer research can\ud benefit from a more thorough understanding of The Theory of the\ud Leisure Class, based on a closer and more in-depth examination of\ud Veblen’s arguments related to excess, generation of irrational\ud desires, status competition, illicit consumption and abstention from\ud productive forces as means of signifying higher social standing

Publisher: Association for Consumer Research
Year: 2012
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