Consumption: A Sociological Analysis

By Korstanje, Maximiliano E. | Journal of International and Global Studies, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Consumption: A Sociological Analysis


Korstanje, Maximiliano E., Journal of International and Global Studies


Alan Warde. Consumption: a sociological analysis. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

At the height of orthodox economics, consumption was historically seen--or, at best, conceived pejoratively--as an anomaly of economic performance. Until the 70s, a decade that saw radical shifts in economic literature, consumption was systematically vilified as a glitch that unless regulated, would lead society towards bankruptcy. In fact, the fear and self-loathing manifested to the rise and expansion of poverty in the country--a discourse that was originally introduced as a part of the left-wing view that poverty was a structural phenomenon--had condemned consumption to a necessary evil. From that moment on, the discourse began to emphasize consumption as the mechanism that could mitigate the negative effects of stock and market crises. Consumption, from that moment on, was situated as the touchstone of economic doctrine (Donohue, 2003; Korstanje, 2018). This is the point of departure for Alan Warde's Consumption, in which he explains that social scientists have always shaped and defined what consumption is. The concept has historically taken many shapes and definitions and has been subject to many interpretations that vary depending on the disciplines involved, as Warde eloquently observes. Each discipline has fleshed out its own conceptual corpus revolving around consumption. Warde's book aims to provide an all-encompassing model to expand the current understanding of consumption.

Although it is normally conceptualized as belonging to the field of economics, consumption may be framed as the anthropological need for distinction. This opens some interesting questions regarding the extent to which sociology is an appropriate lens through which to explore consumption or whether consumption should be studied interdisciplinarily. Warde--following Pierre Bourdieu--attempts to respond to these questions. Bourdieu strongly believed consumption was social in essence, and therefore, asserted that consumption could be explained by sociology. Warde, recognizing the influence of Bourdieu, organizes his book into four parts, each one discussing valuable aspects of globalization and the culture of consumption. The first section dissects the first approaches, contributions, and limitations of sociology, while the second explores a much refined technical debate around the epistemology of consumption. In the third section of the work, Warde maintains that sociology is indeed the lens through which consumption can be examined; he reiterates Bourdieu's assertion that consumption cannot be dissociated from other derived terms such as taste, class, and social scaffolding. In view of this, it is sociology--not economy--that is the discipline that is most prepared to study the phenomenon. Complementarily, the fourth section exhibits a critical viewpoint on the role of consumption and its effects not only in daily life but on contemporary society.

It is important not to lose the sight of the fact that while there are no serious disparities among disciplines regarding the nature of consumption, there is a conflict of interest when it comes to agreeing on a consensus. Warde asserts that the act of consuming includes three clearcut facets: acquisition, which denotes exchanges between two or more parties; appropriation, which signals the process of using the purchased object for practical purposes; and appreciation, which gives some insights into the emotional and psychological meanings attributed to the object. This last element is of particular importance in legitimizing social order. While some disciplines like economy stress acquisition, others, like sociology, focus on appreciation, as Warde contends. In capitalist society, the demand for goods is directly supported by production. …

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