Applying Conflict Perspectives to Shopping and Consumption
How might advocates of a conflict approach analyze the process of shopping nnd consumption? A contemporary conflict analysis of consumption might look at how inequalities based on racism, sexism, and income differentials affect people's ability to acquire the things they need and want. It might also look at inequalities regarding the issuance of credit cards and access to "cathedrals of consumption" such as mega-shopping malls and tourist resorts (see Ritzer. 1999: 197-214). However. one of the earliest social theorists to discuss the relationship between social class and consumption patterns was the U.S. social scientist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1967/1899). Veblen described early wealthy U.S. industrialists as engaging in conspicuous consumption-the continuous public display of one's wealth and status through purchases such as expensive houses. clothing. motor vehicles. and other consumer goods. According to Veblen. the leisurely lifestyle of the upper classes typically does not provide them with adequate opportunities to show off their wealth and status. In order to attract public admiration. the wealthy often engage in consumption and leisure activities that are both highly visible and highly wasteful. Examples of conspicuous consumption range from Cornelius Vanderbilt's 8 lavish mansions (including one with 137 rooms) and 10 major summer estates in the Gilded Age (about 1890 to the beginning of World War I) to the 2.400 pairs of shoes owned by Imelda Marcos. wife of the late President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (Frank, 1999; Twitchell. 1999). However. as Ritzer (1999) points out. some of today's wealthiest people engage in inconspicuous sumption, perhaps to maintain a low public or out of fear for their own safety. According to contemporary social an-rests, conspicuous consumption has become more widt.ty acceptable at all income levels, and some middle and lower income individuals and families tO use as their frame of reference the lifestyles note affluent in their communities . As a result. many families live on credit in order to purchase the goods and services that they would like to have or that keep them on the competitive edge with their friends. neighbors. and co-workers (Schor. 1999). However. others may decide not to overspend. instead seeking to make changes in their lives and encouraging others to do likewise (see Box 1.<). Living in a society that overemphasizes consumption is particularly difficult for people in Jow-income categories. as women's studies scholar Juliet B. Schor- (1999: 39) states: "For many low-income individuals. the lure of consumerism is hard to resist. When the money isn't there. however. feelings of deprivation. personal failure. and deep psychic pain result. In a culture where consuming means so much. not having money is a profound social disability. For parents. faced with the desires of their children, the failure can feel overwhelming." According to conflict theorists. the economic gains of the upper classes are often at the expense of those in the lower classes, who may have
had to struggle (sometimes unsuccessfully) to have adequate food. clothing, and shelter for themselves and their children. Chapter 8 (-Class and Stratification in the United States") and Chapter 9 ("Global Stratification") discuss contemporary conflict perspectives on class-based inequalities.