The term consumer cultures refers to a theory according to which modern human society is strongly subjected to consumerism and stresses the centrality of purchasing commodities and services (and along with them power) as a cultural practice that fosters social behaviors. The history of consumer cultures can be traced back and linked to particular periods of discontinuity. The international historiography tends to identify three different periods in the history of consumerism in the last three centuries:
- a first period starting in the 18th century England with the popularization of certain products such as exotic drinks and clothing;
- a second phase in the second half of the 19th century with the appearance of the first department stores where practices of shopping were initiated;
- a third phase starting in the 1950s with the achievement of a mass society, the construction of an Atlantic market and the beginning of the process of Americanization of culture.
Without rejecting the precision of the traditional periodization, the interest in the history and practice of consumption in the last decades by an increasing number of scholars has brought to light new interpretations of consumer cultures. These new perspectives consider the phenomenon in the context of continuity throughout a longer duration. According to these perspectives, it is possible to highlight an onset of consumer cultures in Europe from the period between the 17th and the18th centuries when a profound shift of the economic system occurred due to European colonial expansion.
The circulation of new products, such as sugar, tobacco and chocolate, not only brought a major change in the European mode of production but it also gave impulse to a process of appropriation of such goods as they were available on the market. The consumers approached the market in a variety of ways, strongly influenced by their geographical belonging, gender, social position, religious beliefs and cultural tendency. The consumer cultures that were initiated by the circulation and consumption of these new goods are the product of a process of production of everyday life where the main subjects are the consumers who appropriate the goods. Therefore, we can think about consumer cultures, in part, as contributing to the process of identity formation.
Here is a very precise account of how the consumption of coffee, introduced as a new commodity into Europe as well as elsewhere, has contributed to the creation of a certain intellectual and social culture centered on the space of coffee houses.
The interest in consumer cultures focuses on the aspect of production of everyday life as a source of cultural meaning and expression as well as the constant alteration of the symbolic universe through these practices of signification. However, the study of consumer cultures also engages the analysis of a macro sphere where consumer behaviors are strictly connected to economic and commercial aspects of production. In reference to the experience of consumer cultures in 18th and 19th century Europe, for example, the economic and commercial aspects of production involved the deportation of a labor force and the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. This gave Europe a predominant position in the market. A similar reflection can be made with reference to consumer cultures in the era of mass society. The Americanization of culture in the aftermath of the Second World War placed America into a hegemonic economic and cultural position that influenced European political systems.
This said, it is impossible not to recognize that the formation of consumer cultures is strictly connected to a system of power that periodically redesigns the map of world relations.
- Can you think of any big brands or companies representing today’s consumer culture?
- Which one do you consider the most powerful?
- Where do they originally come from?