Of Diamonds and Desires: Understanding Conspicuous Consumption from a Contemporary Marketing Perspective

By Chaudhuri, Himadri Roy; Majumdar, Sitanath | Academy of Marketing Science Review, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Of Diamonds and Desires: Understanding Conspicuous Consumption from a Contemporary Marketing Perspective


Chaudhuri, Himadri Roy, Majumdar, Sitanath, Academy of Marketing Science Review


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Drawing upon existing literature, this paper briefly discusses aspects of conspicuous consumption. Analysis of the construct has been done in the perspective of changing capitalist structure and dominating socio-philosophical ideologies, especially postmodernism. Effort has been made to extend the original concept and propose necessary refinement and integration of relevant concepts to enable a meaningful, holistic, and contemporary interpretation of the said construct. This paper examines different aspects of consumer behavior, helps to generate some important directions for future research in the field, and also discusses these issues in the context of the transitional socio-economic background of India.

Keywords: Conspicuous Consumption, Postmodernism, Cultural Capital, Taste, India

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By looking into any standard English dictionary for the meaning of the word "conspicuous," one gets a variety of lexicographic entries including "eye catching," and "prominent;" but the word acquires a significantly different connotation in the context of "consumption" when it clearly indicates the phenomenon of "wasteful and lavish consumption expenses to enhance social prestige." Based entirely on observation, more than a hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen (1899) proposed that American rich were spending a significant portion of their time and money on unnecessary and unproductive leisure expenditures and coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe the behavior; this linguistic construct has been used so widely that it has entered into popular English lexicon only in this particular sense of the term (Oxford English Dictionary).

Effort in studying the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption can be adequately justified by the concept's near universality and timelessness; McCracken (1987, pp. 50) notes that "conspicuous and competitive consumption are especially important to the study of the history of consumption because they play an important role in the growth of a consumer society." However, any analysis of consumer behavior has to be done in the perspective of changing economic-political-social contexts or even philosophical thoughts, and assessment of the conspicuous consumption construct cannot be an exception. The focus of this paper is restricted to the discussion and analysis of some important theoretical work on the subject, from the perspective of changing time, evolving business principles and ideologies, and existing as well as evolving literature. In the process, we extend the original Veblenian thesis through a review, refinement, and integration of divergent concepts in order to arrive at a meaningful conclusion regarding

the contempory nature of this construct and the proper scope for further research. In this spirit we propose a periodic-structural analysis of conspicuous consumption behaviour (Table 1), depicting its evolution, nature and character.

GENESIS OF THE CONCEPT

To discuss the background of the development of Veblen's thesis, we draw from the work of Page (1992). The leisure class, as discussed by Veblen, consisted of the families of the top business and landowning families in the United States: the Harrimans, the Mellons, and the Fricks, to name a few. Similarly in Europe the old moneyed families, like the Astors and Spencers, habitually spoiled themselves through overconsumption in marriages, business alliances, and leisure activities. A strikingly similar yet parallel lifestyle has been documented even in India in the 19th century (Sastri 1983). During this period of the evolution of colonial capitalism and strongly established feudalism, the nouveaux riche of the city of Calcutta used to spend obnoxiously huge sums of money on grand feasts, betting, musical extravaganzas, brothel-visits, and other showy yet meaningless events; so much so that these stories have become a part of local folklore and other forms of popular culture. …

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