The following essay will focus on consumption and consumerism in relation to food consumption in modern society. Focusing on how mass production created Mcdonaldization of society and also how conspicuous consumption has filtered down through the classes so that the entire country were consuming the same foods.
There is no set definition of consumption and consumerism so the subject takes on many terms and theories. One way of describing consumption in simple terms is the buying, using and interpretation of goods or that consumption is simply socially structured by the society an individual lives in (Mackay 1998).
The Fordism revolution in the early 1900’s led to what is known as mass production increasing productivity in the workplace but also creating mass consumption as without this mass production would simply not be needed. The idea of mass production has been taken to the extreme by the McDonaldization process which has seen regimental production techniques, which in turn ensures consumers of fast food, are guaranteed to receive the same product every single time wherever that may be in the world (Ritzer 2006). The way in which McDonaldization has been accepted into modern society is that whilst people’s lifestyles become more and more hectic it offers a quick and simple way of changing from “hungry to full” in just a few minutes (Waters 1996 Cited by Ritzer 2006). The theory is looking to take control of consumers, taking away individuality in order to spread its own source of consumer culture, whereas the consumer culture that is the norm is that the consumer is expected to have choice (Ritzer 2006). In McDonaldization Ritzer argues that it is simply an extension of Fordism and accompanies globalization as well as post modernization in the fast paced environment of modern life. The way in which food is consumed within these establishments is down to the necessity of the “I want it now” society in this country. The fast food industry accepts money from consumers and gives them a suitable nutritious meal in return, the industry does not exploit consumers but simply accepts the fact the population has less and less time to spend on every day activities such as food consumption (Waters 1996 Cited by Ritzer 2006).
In contrast to McDonaldization the conspicuous consumption theory written by Veblen represents a more social hierarchy to consumption with a trickle-down analysis through the classes in society (Veblen 1899 cited by Trigg 2001). The theory of conspicuous consumption gives individuals the opportunity to emulate the consumption patterns of those in higher classes, which results in the entire population consuming similar foods for example spaghetti Bolognese which was once only eaten by the higher classes of society who travelled to other countries and yet is now part of a staple diet for most households in the United Kingdom. This shows that what could be seen as a status of consumption and shows your social standing one day can change the next therefore giving no status whatsoever (Trigg 2001). Veblen stated that “people must always try to acquire new consumption goods in order to distinguish themselves from others” (Veblen 1899 Cited in Trigg 2001 pg 101). This still runs true today with modern society attempting to distinguish themselves from others by being noticed in the finest of restaurants consuming the finest foods on offer.
There have been restrictions discovered in Veblen’s theory of consumption in that it rely’s heavily on the trickle down pattern where in modern times the lower classes may also set trends for consumption as social standings have less relevance although it may still prove true for luxury goods (Trigg 2001). One more restriction is that people simply do not show their wealth conspicuously anymore but show it through their lifestyle choices to the rest of the population so they are simply perceived by others to have a certain standing in the social hierarchy through their own personal consumption (Featherstone 1991 Cited in Trigg 2001). The claim that conspicuous consumption is simply not subtle enough to be accepted is fiercely defended by Veblen and even Bourdieu has worked on some of the framework in the theory incorporating it into his own work. Bourdieu starts his argument stating that the population’s consumption habits start early in their schooling and the tastes of wanting to be ahead of everybody else is learnt from peers and those of a privileged upbringing. This then relates into their consumption becoming a natural process and so the cycle will continue on (Trigg 2001).
Veblens theory is a 100 years old but still has some relevance in today’s modern society although cultural habits are also involved in consumption as people are not always attempting to conspicuously consume which could be shown by buying expensive items that would not even be seen by the community a person lives in such as expensive wine and steaks that would be enjoyed behind closed doors with no relevance to a person’s social standing. This is illustrated by Veblen in the following statement made in his work of 1899:
“For the great body of the people in any modern community, the proximate ground of expenditure in excess of what is required for physical comfort is not a conscious effort to excel in the expensiveness of their visible consumption, so much as it is a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency in the amount of grade goods consumed”(Veblen 1899 Cited in Trigg 2001, Journal Of Economic Issues, Volume 35, Issue 1, Pg 108).
In this essay both a modern theory in McDonaldization has been explored finding positives and negatives of the theory and relating that into a modern society’s fast paced lifestyle which the industry reaps the benefits from. In contrast to this Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption relates the population’s consumption to a trickle-down effect where food tastes and styles are filtered down through the class system. Although this may have been the case some years ago in recent times with more and more people in society having the capital to enjoy what they wish then the trickle-down effect can also trickle upwards through the classes. This can be seen by the varying consumer base of fast food which was once seen as lower class food by the masses, yet is now accepted across the board with young families as well as high flying business types using these establishments (Ritzer 2006). Overall to gage an understanding of food consumption and consumerism in this country all theories involved in consumption would need to be looked at in detail although consumption habits are constantly changing especially in the current economic climate where finer foods are being swapped for cheaper alternatives.
Macionis, J, Sociology A Global Introduction, 2nd Edition, Essex, Prentice, 2002
Mackay, H, Consumption and Everyday Life, London, Sage, 1998
Ritzer, G, McDonaldization the Reader, 2nd Edition, California, Sage, 2006
Slater, D, Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1997
Trigg, A, Veblen, Bourdieu and Conspicuous Consumption, Journal Of Economic Issues, Volume 35, Issue 1, Pg 99-109, 2001