Applying Postmodern Perspectives to Shopping and Consumption
According to some social theorists, the postrnodern society is a consumer society. The focus of the capitalist economy has shifted from production to consumption. Today,the emphasis is on getting people to consume more and to own a greater variety of things. As previously discussed, credit cards may encourage people to spend more money than they should, and often more than they can afford (Ritzer, 1998). Television shopping networks and cybermalls make it possible for people to shop around the cIock without having to leave home or encounter "real" people. As Ritzer (1998: 121) explains, "So many of our interactions in these settings ... are simulated, and we become so accustomed to them, that in the end all we have are simulated interactions; there are no more 'real' interactions. The entire distinction between the simulated and the real is lost; simulated interaction is the reality" (see. also Baudrillard, 1983). Similarly, Ritzer (1998: 121) points out that a credit card is a simulation:
Any given credit card is a simulation of all other cards of the same brand; there was no "original" card from which aUothers are copied; there is no "real" credit card. Furthermore, credit cards can be seen as simulations of simulations. That is, they simulate currency, but each bill is a simulation, a copy, of every other bill and, again, there was never an original bill from which all others have been copied. But currencies, in turn, can be seen as simulations of material wealth, or of the faith one has in the Treasury, or whatever one imagines to be the "real" basis of wealth. Thus, the credit card shows how we live in a world characterized by a never-ending spiral of simulation built upon simulation.
As this example suggests, postmodern theorists do not focus on actors (human agents) as they go about their everyday lives, but instead offer more-abstract conceptions of what constitutes "reality."For postmodernists, social life is not an objective reality waiting for us to discover how it works. Rather, what we experience as social life is actually nothing more or less than how we think about it, and there are man)' diverse ways of the theoretical perspectives we have previously discussed, as well as how those thinkers created the theories (Ritzer, 1996). These theorists oppose the grand narratives that characterize modern thinking and believe that boundaries should not be placed on academic disciplines-such as philosophy, literature, art, and the social sciences-when much could be learned by sharing ideas.
Just as functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives emerged in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, postmodern theories emerged after World War II (in the late J 940s) and reflected the belief that some nations were entering a period of post industrialization. Postmodern (or "postindustrial") societies are characterized by an information explosion and an economy in which large numbers of people either provide or apply information, or they are employed in professional occupations (such as lawyers and physicians) or service jobs (such as fast-food servers and health care workers). There is a corresponding rise of a consumer society and the emergence of a global village in which people around the world communicate with one another by electronic technologies such as television, telephone, fax, e-mail, and the Internet.
Jean Baudrillard, a well-known French social theorist, is one of the key figures in postmodern theory, even though he would dispute this label. Baudrillard has extensively explored how the shift from production of goods (such as in the era of Marx and Weber) to consumption of information, services, and products in contemporary societies has created a new form of social control. According to Baudrillard's approach, capitalists strive to control people's shopping habits, much like the output of factory workers in industrial economies, to enhance their profits and to keep everyday people from rebelling against social inequality (1998/1970). How does this work? When consumers are encouraged to purchase more than they need or can afford, they often sink deeper in debt and must keep working to meet their monthly payments. Instead of consumption being related to our needs, it is based on factors such as our "wants" and the need we feel to distinguish ourselves from others. We Will look at this idea in more detail in the next section, where we apply a postmodern perspective to shopping and consumption. We will also return to BaudriLlard's general ideas on postmodern societies in Chapter 3 ("Culture"). Today, postmodern theory remains an emerging perspective in the social sciences. How influential will this approach be? It remains 10 be seen what influence postrnodern thinkers will have on the social sciences. Although this approach opens up broad new avenues of inquiry by challenging existing perspectives and questioning current belief systems, it also tends to ignore many of the central social problems of our time-such as inequalities based on race, class,and gender, and global political and economic oppression (Ritzer, 1996).