Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

7.6: Consumption and Global Capitalism

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    Consumption refers to the process of buying, eating, or using a resource, food, commodity, or service. Anthropologists understand consumption more specifically as the forms of behavior that connect our economic activity with the cultural symbols that give our lives meaning.[46] People’s consumption patterns are a large part of their lives, and economic anthropologists explore why, how, and when people consume what they do. The answers to these questions lie in people’s ideologies and identities as members of a social group; each culture is different and each consumes in its own way. Consumption is always social even when it addresses physical needs. For example, all humans need to eat, but people around the world have radically different ideas of what foods and flavors are most desirable and appropriate.

    We use our material possessions to meet our needs (for example, we wear clothing to protect us from the environment), regulate our social lives, and affirm the rightful order of things.[47] Anthropologists understand that the commodities we buy are not just good for eating or shelter, they are good for thinking: in acquiring and possessing particular goods, people make visible and stable the categories of culture.[48] For example, consumption helps us establish and defend differences among people and occasions: I might wear a specific t-shirt and cap to a baseball game with friends in order to distinguish myself as a fan of a particular team. In the process, I make myself easily identifiable within the larger fan community. However, I probably would not wear this same outfit to a job interview because it would be inappropriate for the occasion.

    Economic anthropologists are also interested in why objects become status symbols and how these come to be experienced as an aspect of the self.[49] Objects have a “social life” during which they may pass through various statuses: a silver cake server begins its life as a commodity for sale in a store. [50] However, imagine that someone’s great-grandmother used that server to cut the cake at her wedding, and it became a cherished family heirloom passed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, the server ended up in the hands of a cousin who did not feel a sentimental attachment to this object. She sold it to a gold and silver broker for currency and it was transformed into an anonymous commodity. That broker in turn sold it to a dealer who melted it down, turning the once cherished cake server back into a raw material.

    Transforming Barbie Dolls

    We have already learned about the hard work that Americans devote to converting impersonal commodities into sentimental gifts at Christmastime with the goal of nourishing their closest social bonds. Consumers in capitalist systems continuously attempt to reshape the meaning of the commodities that businesses brand, package, and market to us.[51] The anthropologist Elizabeth Chin conducted ethnographic research among young African American children in a poor neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut, exploring the intersection of consumption, inequality, and cultural identity.

    Chin specifically looked at “ethnically correct” Barbie dolls, arguing that while they may represent some progress in comparison to the past when only white Barbies were sold, they also reinforce outdated understandings of biological race and ethnicity. Rather than dismantling race and class boundaries, the “ethnic” dolls create segregated toy shelves that in fact mirror the segregation that young black children experience in their schools and neighborhoods.

    The young black girls that Chin researched were unable to afford these $20 brand-name dolls and typically played with less expensive, generic Barbie dolls that were white.[52] The girls used their imaginations and worked to transform their dolls by giving them hairstyles like their own, braiding and curling the dolls’ long straight hair in order to integrate the dolls into their own worlds.[53] A quick perusal of the Internet reveals numerous tutorials and blogs devoted to black Barbie hairstyling, demonstrating that the young New Haven girls are not the only ones working to transform these store-bought commodities in socially meaningful ways.[54]


    Consumption provides us with a window into globalization, which we will learn more about in the Globalization chapter. Over the past several decades, as global capitalism expanded its reach into developing countries around the world, many people fretted that the growing influx of Western products would lead to cultural homogeneity and even cultural imperialism. Some argued that with every McDonald’s constructed, the values and beliefs of the West were being imposed on non-Western societies. However, anthropologists have systematically challenged this thesis by providing a more sophisticated understanding of local cultural contexts. They demonstrate that people do not become Westernized simply by buying Western commodities, any more than I become somehow more Japanese after eating at my favorite neighborhood hibachi restaurant. In fact, anthropological research shows that Western commodities can sometimes lead to a resurgence of local identities and an affirmation of local processes over global patterns.

    The Children Cry for Bread

    The anthropologist Mary Wesimantel researched how families adapt to changing economic circumstances, including the introduction of Western products into their indigenous community of Zumbagua, Ecuador. Once subsistence barley farmers, men from Zumbagua began to migrate to cities in search of work while the women stayed home to care for the children and continue to farm barley for home consumption. The men periodically returned home, bringing cash earnings and urban luxuries such as bread. The children associated this bread with modernity and city life, and they preferred to eat it rather than the traditional staple food of toasted ground barley, grown and cooked by their mothers. The children “cried” for the bread their fathers brought home. Yet, their mothers resisted their pleas and continued to feed them grains from their own fields because barley consumption was considered a core component of indigenous identity.[55] This example illustrates the complex negotiations that emerge within families and communities when they are increasingly integrated into a global economy and exposed to Western goods.

    Consumption, Status, and Recognition among the Elite in China

    In other parts of the world, the consumption of Western goods can be used to cement social and economic status within local networks. John Osburg studied the “new elite” in China, the class of entrepreneurs who have successfully navigated the recent transitions in the Chinese economy since the early 1990s when private businesses and foreign investment began to steadily expand their reach in this communist country.[56] Osburg found that the new elite do not constitute a coherent class defined by income level or occupation. Instead, they occupy an unstable and contested category and consequently rely on the consumption of Western-style goods and services in order to stabilize their identities.

    Osburg argues that the whole point of elite consumption in Chengdu, China, is to make one’s economic, social, and cultural capital as transparent and legible as possible to the widest audience in order to let everyone know one is wealthy and well connected. Consequently, the Chengdu elite favor easily recognizable and pricey brand names. However, consumption is not simply an arena of status display. Instead, Osburg shows how it is a form of social practice through which relationships with other elites are forged: the shared consumption of conventional luxury objects like liquor and tobacco solidifies relationships among the privileged.[57]


    In his 1967 speech “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that all life is interrelated:

    We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. . . Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. . . And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.[58]

    King’s words are even truer today than they were in the late 1960s. Due to the intensification of global capitalism, the vast majority of the commodities we buy and the food we consume come to us from distant places; while such global supply chains are not new, they have become increasingly dense in an age of container shipping and overnight air deliveries.

    Recall that a commodity is any good that is produced for sale or exchange for other goods. However, commodities are more than just a means to acquire general purpose money. They also embody social relations of production, the identities of businesses, and particular geographic locales. Many economic anthropologists today study global flows through the lens of a concrete substance that makes a circuit through various locales, exploring the social lives of agrifood commodities such as mutton, coffee, sushi, and sugar.[59] In following these commodities along their supply chains, anthropologists highlight not only relations of production but also the power of ideas, images, and noneconomic actors. These studies of specific commodities are a powerful method to show how capitalism has grown, spread, and penetrated agrarian societies around the world.[60]

    Darjeeling Tea

    The anthropologist Sarah Besky researched Darjeeling tea production in India to better understand how consumer desires are mapped onto distant locations.[61] In India, tea plantation owners are attempting to reinvent their product for 21st century markets through the use of fair-trade certification (discussed earlier in this chapter) and Geographical Indication Status (GI). GI is an international property-rights system, regulated by the World Trade Organization, that legally protects the rights of people in certain places to produce certain commodities. For example, bourbon must come from Kentucky, Mezcal can only be produced in certain parts of Mexico, and sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it originated in France. Similarly, in order to legally be sold as “Darjeeling tea,” the tea leaves must come from the Darjeeling district of the Indian state of West Bengal.

    Image of women taking a break from work on a tea planation in Darjeeling
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Tea Workers in Darjeeling, India

    Besky explores how the meaning of Darjeeling tea is created through three interrelated processes: (1) extensive marketing campaigns aimed at educating consumers about the unique Darjeeling taste, (2) the application of international law to define the geographic borders within which Darjeeling tea can be produced, and (3) the introduction of tea plantation-based tourism. What the Darjeeling label hides is the fact that tea plantations are highly unequal systems with economic relationships that date back to the colonial era: workers depend upon plantation owners not just for money but also for food, medical care, schools, and housing. Even when we pay more for Darjeeling tea, the premium price is not always returned to the workers in the form of higher wages. Besky’s research shows how capitalism and market exchange shapes the daily lives of people around the world. The final section of this chapter explores the ways in which economic anthropologists understand and question structural inequalities in the world today.


    Besky, Sarah. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

    Chin, Elizabeth. Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

    King, Martin Luther Jr. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967,”

    Osburg, John. Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.

    Wesimantel, Mary. Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.


    1. Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” in Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology, ed. James Carrier and Deborah Gewertz (New York: Berg Publishers, 2013), 319.
    2. Ibid.
    3. Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, A World of Goods: Toward an Anthropology of Consumption (New York: Basic Books, 1979).
    4. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism.”
    5. Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
    6. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” 329.
    7. See for instance,
    8. Elizabeth Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
    9. For example,
    10. Mary Wesimantel, Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).
    11. John Osburg, Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
    12. Ibid., 121.
    13. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Christmas Sermon on Peace, December 24, 1967,
    14. Some examples of this literature include Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington, Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Sarah Lyon, Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011); Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).
    15. Colloredo-Mansfeld, “Consumption: From Cultural Theory to the Ethnography of Capitalism,” 326.

    Adapted From

    "Economics" by Sarah Lyon, University of Kentucky. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    7.6: Consumption and Global Capitalism is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.