Deriving the Engel Curve: Pierre Bourdieu and the Social Critique of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

By Trigg, Andrew B. | Review of Social Economy, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Deriving the Engel Curve: Pierre Bourdieu and the Social Critique of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


Trigg, Andrew B., Review of Social Economy


Abstract In Post Keynesian Economics, theorists have sought an alternative to neoclassical choice theory by turning to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Pasinetti 1981, Lavoie 1992). Instead of each individual surveying a complete choice set, individuals prioritize (basic) physiological needs, moving with increasing incomes to satisfy safety and social needs, through to the higher needs associated with self-actualization. This framework provides a theoretical foundation for the Engel curve, since as incomes increase consumers become satiated when particular needs are satisfied. As an alternative to the neoclassical preoccupation with prices and substitution, a Post Keynesian theory of consumption has been formulated with income effects as the cornerstone. The main problem with Maslow's approach is that individual needs are innate, so that questions of social interaction and culture are seriously downgraded. In this article, the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu is offered as an alternative to the Maslow approach, providing the basis for a social critique of consumerism and an alternative evolutionary theory of consumption, In this approach, the structure of the social hierarchy both constrains the consumption of lower social strata and leads to subtle, less conspicuous consumption patterns at the top of the social hierarchy: a scenario that could provide a social foundation to the Engel curve.

Keywords: Maslow, hierarchy of needs, Post Keynesian, consumption, culture, Engel curve, Bourdieu, evolutionary theory

INTRODUCTION

In Post Keynesian Economics, theorists have sought an alternative to neoclassical choice theory by turning to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Pasinetti 1981, Lavoie 1992). Instead of each individual surveying a complete choice set, individuals prioritize (basic) physiological needs, moving with increasing incomes to satisfy safety and social needs, through to the higher needs associated with self-actualization. This framework provides a theoretical foundation for the Engel curve, since as incomes increase consumers become satiated when particular needs are satisfied. As an alternative to the neoclassical preoccupation with prices and substitution, a Post Keynesian theory of consumption has been formulated with income effects as the cornerstone.

The main problem with Maslow's approach is that individual needs are innate, so that questions of social interaction and culture are seriously downgraded. The aim of this article is to compare the hierarchy of needs with the writings of the late Pierre Bourdieu, who has been described as "'the most important contemporary theorist of consumption proper" (Campbell 1995: 103). In this framework, an alternative social hierarchy is developed in which Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital leads to an emphasis on the role of consumption in symbolic struggles between different social classes. The main result of the paper is to show how a social basis for the Engel curve can be derived from Bourdieu.

The first part of the paper provides an introduction to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, followed in the second part by a discussion of some of its problems. In the final part, this social critique of Maslow is completed with a presentation of Bourdieu's social theory as an alternative contribution.

THE HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

Maslow pioneered a new field of humanistic psychology by focusing on needs that are human, as distinct from the needs of animals. This leads to an emphasis on human beings striving to fulfill their individual potential. As stated by Lea et al. (1987: 31): "The basic tenet of Maslow's theory is that humans strive to actualize, or realize, their individual potentials, that is, to grow and enhance the self." Needs are therefore objective, there to be fulfilled by individuals in their struggle to be human (see Berry 1999: 402).

As individuals strive to realize their potential, a hierarchy of needs is presented by Maslow as a ladder of human achievement that has to be climbed. …

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