We’re all consumers, but hardly anyone would like to be called a consumerist. I think this word has strong negative connotations. In consumerist societies, people buy more things than they need, which indicates excessiveness and may be perceived as greed. Why do they do it? The question can be answered if we understand consumerism as the “tendency to define ourselves in terms of the goods and services we purchase” (Brym and Lie 2015:47). It means that consuming replaces other practices and experiences that one can engage in to define himself or herself. Instead of turning to moral values, ethical principles, and relationships with people, some strive to buy a certain status and self-image through purchasing certain clothes, devices, or foods in large numbers. Therefore, consumerism is also widely seen as meaningless spending for shallow purposes. However, it can be regarded from the sociological perspective to assess its role and mechanisms in today’s society. Upon reflecting on my own experience of engaging in consumerism, I will examine it from the structural-functionalism perspective to reveal sociological implications.
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Reflecting on one of my experiences, I recognize it as consumerist. There was an opening of a new fancy healthy food café that I attended with my friends. The presentation was very powerful, as the owners were talking about the growing importance of healthy lifestyles. They stressed that eating healthy food was not a luxury or indulgence but should be seen instead as a contribution to one’s healthy lifestyle plan. They also emphasized that there was a perception of healthy food as something boring and tasteless, and the perception should be rebutted, which is exactly what they were pursuing with opening the café. My friend and I were impressed by the food samples, so we decided we would go to the place regularly. We would meet up there two or three times a week, and we had a deal to eventually have every single item on the café’s lengthy menu. Having a meal there cost me more than I usually spent on lunch, but spending time in the café with a layered smoothie in my hand, barbecued shrimp on my plate, and all those fancy people around made me feel good about myself.
From the sociological perspective, I was demonstrating behavior that revealed a particular mechanism of society and a certain aspect of the way it has been working within recent decades. Production has been increasing, and the massive amounts of products and services significantly exceeded basic needs. However, for the economy to work, all those products and services need to continue being consumed. That is why there has been extensive effort to create additional demand. It was carried out by offering to consumers along with a product something more than the product itself—for example, an image. In a way, when one buys an expensive watch, they buy the image of themselves with this watch on their wrist, thus buying a claimed status. In the twenty-first century, consumers in Western societies find themselves surrounded by these images they may pursue, for which purpose they have to consume more and more, as they feel the compulsion.
This mechanism has grown into one of the “stable patterns of social relations” (Brym and Lie 2015:7) between consumers and producers, which allows considering it a social structure and regard it from the perspective of structural functionalism. For any such mechanism to work, there is a need for members of society to display social solidarity, i.e., agree upon certain “beliefs and values and the intensity and frequency of…interaction” (Brym and Lie 2015:10). In this case, the agreement is that, while we’re all surrounded by immense varieties of goods, consuming them will be meaningful for us, as we will express, position, and define ourselves through such consumption. A manifest function of this structure is to facilitate both economic and cultural development. A latent function is to promote “shopping addiction” (Brym and Lie 2015:48), which comes to be recognized as a social disease.
Consumerism is a phenomenon of capitalist societies where economic development depends on constant consumption, which encourages producers of goods and services to invent additional incentives for individuals to buy more. These incentives include consumers’ attempts to define themselves through what they purchase. I found myself to be part of this process, as I was willingly attending a healthy food café buying everything they could offer. I am not strongly devoted to every aspect of a healthy lifestyle, but going to that place made me feel like I was, so I felt better about myself as I was more like someone I perhaps wanted to be. I was buying an image of myself according to my own perception of “coolness.” After getting to know more about consumerism as a sociological concept, I now can transform this individual experience into a sociological understanding, i.e., “see the connection between personal troubles and social structures” (Brym and Lie 2015:7). My behavior illustrated how consumption is driven by the desire to adopt a certain image. Consuming products and services thus became a tool for indirect social and cultural interaction supporting the social structure of supply and demand in capitalist societies.