Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Consumption, Identity, and the Sociocultural Constitution of "Preferences": Reading Women's Magazines

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Consumption, Identity, and the Sociocultural Constitution of "Preferences": Reading Women's Magazines

Article excerpt

Abstract This paper shows how the concept of identity may figure importantly into shifts in preferences and patterns of consumption. We explore the 1970s emergence of the "working woman" a woman who worked outside the home and regarded work as central to her identity. Women's magazines were especially involved in working out the "working woman" image, stressing how products could be used to attain her readily-identifiable appearance and efficient, pleasant home life. As such, they played into a shift in social valuation of female identities--away from those centered on traditional feminine pursuits, towards those centered on intensified labor-force involvement, consumerism, and commodified private life.

Keywords: consumption, preferences, culture, women's labor force participation, advertising, commodification


Questions of "tastes" have long been perplexing in economics. Neoclassical perspectives commonly take tastes as given, as either a matter of fact or of convenience. In this view, changes in consumption that might seem to reflect changing tastes should instead be traced to changes in wages, prices, and technologies of household production (Stigler and Becker 1977). In contrast, social and institutional views generally portray individuals' tastes as shaped crucially by sociocultural and institutional considerations. Yet transmission mechanisms for preferences are not well-understood (Bowles 1998, Hodgson 2003). The perspective of social economics is particularly valuable in this regard, given its concern with connections between socioeconomic context and individual outlook and behavior (Etzioni 2003, Dolfsma 1999).

The concept of identity is useful for conceptualizing interrelations between tastes, social and institutional factors, and consumption. As sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) has noted, in traditional societies, lifestyles, social roles, relationships, and daily activities were largely regulated by religion, ascribed status, and long-standing practices, Yet modernization has meant a weakening of these sorts of proscriptions, creating more scope for people to "craft their own identities," that is, to adopt lifestyles, self-presentations, and self-understandings that have meanings, pleasures, and values relevant to them. Consumption plays an important role in this regard: given the anonymity and fragmentation of contemporary socioeconomic life, readily observable things such as clothing, the vehicle driven, place of residence, and eating and drinking habits provide compact signals of how one wants to be seen, what resources one commands, and what one's values are (Dolfsma 1999). Because advertising and media figure centrally in establishing shared banks of perceptions and images from which identities are constructed, there is a sort of inevitable link between companies' desires to sell products and the ways in which people self-stylize. This suggests a need to see "preferences" as growing out of economic processes in which both companies and people are agents.

This paper develops this idea with respect to a major trend in which preferences may well have played a role: the rise in women's labor force participation. As is well known, women's labor force participation rose dramatically between the 1960s and 1990s (see Figure 1). While a good part of the trend can be traced to rising real wages, much labor research establishes that rising wages do not tell the whole story: rather, even after controlling for changes in wages and other measurable factors, more recent cohorts of women are more likely to work outside the home than previous cohorts were (Pencavel 1998). This suggests that a broad change in values contributed to the rise in women's labor market participation. (1) Yet economic research has delved little into the question of how and why attitudes to women's market work, including their own preferences, might have changed. This partly reflects an assumption that the changes originated outside the economic domain; yet given how integral work preferences are to economic decisions, it would be preferable to establish exogeneity rather than assume it. …

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