The term consumer society is commonly used to distinguish contemporary affluent societies from traditional agricultural or modern industrial societies, to emphasize the role of consumption as a factor in social structure and as an element of lifestyle.
History and Meaning of the Term
The concept of the consumer society has been commonly used since the early decades of the twentieth century, originally in the United States, where the wealth of mass-produced consumer goods first became apparent. It designates the importance of consumption in everyday life, but it has also had ideological connotations, meaning that capitalist economies are overwhelmingly efficient in providing commodities at affordable prices to ordinary consumers. In social science discourses, it has suffered from ill fame. As a theoretical vision of advanced capitalism, it has an air of ideological complacency. This usage of the term was most apparent in the cold war period. Critics have argued that contrasted to “class society,” the notion of consumer society depicts consumers as a uniform albeit indeterminate group of people with similar interests instead of conflicting classes. It hints at general affluence and suggests that consumption, primarily of commodities, is the most important content of life and support of identity, but does not account for inequalities and other determinants of social structure, notably production and the labor market. On the other hand, the reality of consumer society has been the object of moral, economic, political, and general ideological criticism for giving priority to material values at the expense of spiritual, cultural, and social interests.
The twentieth century produced in advanced Western countries a phenomenal growth in consumption possibilities that has no parallel in human history, not relatively speaking and certainly not in absolute terms. Often this phase is called the new consumer society . The earlier consumer booms of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in England and still in nineteenth century Europe were limited to small elites, but the development of the new industry-based consumer society in twentieth-century North America and Europe was a phenomenon of the masses and encompassed the structural foundations of industrial society. Although in retrospect the change was dramatic, bewilderment and disbelief about whether any improvement in “living standard” was actually taking place continued for a long time. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, the change was vertiginous seen backwards from the present, and even in the life course of one single generation, the improvements in nutrition, comfort, and the conduct of everyday life were concrete and noticeable.
However, in the course of day-to-day living the change took place gradually, in small steps and one detail at a time. Young people had difficulty in making the distinction between the change in their own individual life from childhood to adults and the change that was taking place in their environment. The new technology of everyday life was revolutionary for their parents, who had recently returned to peace from the conditions of war, but was taken for granted by their children. The individual home in an apartment house near the city center, electricity, central heating, running water, refrigerator, washing machine, radio, and finally television were for the young an ordinary bundle of necessities, and the quaint country life of their grandparents without them seemed strange and distant. The individual car added to the spatial scope of the life sphere of individuals already immensely expanded by other means of transportation earlier in the century. It changed urban structures, made possible the growth of major cities, helped to concentrate production and distribution of commodities, and thus propelled the growth of consumption possibilities further. All this happened fast, but from an...