A Consumer's Republic
I shop therefore I am.
The lack of attention to consumption on the part of American sociology is remarkable given its central role in our society. The Encyclopedia of Sociology, last updated in 2000, doesn’t even have entries for consumerism, consumer society or consumption. And efforts to create a special interest group on the subject within the American Sociological Association stalled a couple of years back. (Although the group maintains a loose affiliation under the banner Consumers, Commodities and Consumption.) Stepping into the breach is City University of New York sociologist Sharon Zukin with the highly readable, well-researched Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture, now out in paperback.
Zukin is the author of such acclaimed studies as Loft Living, Landscapes of Power and The Cultures of Cities. In her latest book, she goes against conventional wisdom, which sees consumers as conformists, victims or dupes and portrays marketers as a diabolical cabal of cultural engineers. Instead, she looks at consumption from the consumer’s point of view. For the better part of a decade, Zukin trained her sociologist’s eye on where people shop and why, trying to get at the point of purchase in both senses. She personally interviewed dozens of shoppers from all social strata, to the point of even questioning her own position as what David Brooks terms a “bourgeois bohemian.”
What Zukin discovers seems simple enough: we shop because must. We engage in market transactions because we can’t provide for ourselves all of the things we need to live in the modern world. But just as important, we also shop as a way of being with one another, as a way of taking part in society and sharing traditions and values. We shop, according to Zukin, to create meaningful lives.
One problem she sees is that corporations still look at us like commodities, things to be sliced and diced according to buying habits and of value for nothing more than profits. This can be seen in the evolution of brands over the last century, replacing needs-based consumption with complete packages of fully coordinated preordained identities. There’s also the disconnect between desire and fulfillment, the gap between what we want and what we can actually have. Plus there’s the legacy of inequality in America in terms of sex, race and class.
Point of Purchase is in the best tradition of the Chicago School of American Sociology, founded at the University of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Like the Chicago School, Zukin uses field research to gain first-hand knowledge of the structures of social life. And also like the work of her predecessors, the animating spirit of her project is early German sociologist Georg Simmel.
In particular, Zukin’s analysis shows the influence of Simmel’s concept of culture. We make things, Simmel holds, to better understand who we are; but in so doing we surround ourselves with so much stuff that we end up not being able to see the forest for all the trees. This overabundance leads to what Simmel terms the “blasé” attitude, the need to tune-out external stimulation in order to preserve some semblance of self-identity.
Similarly, Zukin points out that in a world where “too many goods chase too few buyers” it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re shopping more but enjoying it less. What’s more, this ocean of consumer goods has spawned a whole industry, cultural intermediaries, like Zagat, the All Music Guide, and PopMatters, that help us navigate the seemingly boundless waters.
Other influences are more recent European sociologists who have been much more serious about consumption than their American counterparts. There’s the British cultural studies group, people like punk and Rasta subculture analyst Dick Hebdige, who show that people can attach their own meanings to goods despite efforts to brand them for corporate purposes. Conversely, there’s French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who maps out how judgments of taste can work as social domination. In the first case, Zukin presents shopping as a teenage rite of passage, a declaration of independence and exercise in self-determination. In the second, she reports the snubs and worse dealt to the “inadequately dressed” by sales clerks and security guards at places like Tiffany’s.
The history of American consumption Zukin tells from the late 19th century onward is generally one of lower prices and technical innovation as a process of democratization. Yet as Zukin notes, shopping is really an illusion of democracy, a world of free choice that’s only open to those who can pay. Plus, some innovations like Internet shopping, especially eBay, suggest that everything is potentially susceptible to market logic, increasing alienation.
“Shopping hides the means of exploitation,” Zukin writes, which she rightly sees as evidenced in outsourcing, the explosion of consumer debt and the pervasiveness of dual-income households. But her reading of the major shifts in American society over the last 30 years and their repercussions in the global economy isn’t developed much beyond noting the use of Asian sweatshops by US industry and the creeping menace of the Wal-Mart business model. This is surprising because Zukin’s earlier books Loft Living, which looks at gentrification in lower Manhattan, and Landscapes of Power, an analysis of deindustrialization, have such strong economic underpinnings. (She also understandably passes over the role of advertising because there’s already so much written about it.)
Zukin traces the root of the problem to the emphasis on stock market returns during the Reagan Era, when rising stock prices and not production capacity became the primary measure of value in the American economy. But the origins of the change can actually be found a decade earlier in the Nixon Administration, when the United States abandoned the gold standard, first opened trade negotiations with China and adopted the ideas of another Chicago School, the free-market fundamentalism whose leading light is economist Milton Friedman. This is also when logos began moving from inside clothing to the outside, turning people into walking billboards, standard bearers of corporate identity under the guise of individual consumer sovereignty.
Zukin’s response to our discontent with shopping is to reactivate it as kind of public sphere. This means returning to face-to-face interaction with small producers, like local farmers and craftspeople, in keeping with the downshifting and simplicity trends being embraced by many Americans. Although Zukin doesn’t explicitly make the connection, this aligns with other consumer-based activism such as green consumption and fair trade, which confront global capitalism on its two main failings, sustainability and equality. While one might wish for a more in-depth view of the big picture, Zukin’s instincts are for the most part good and her book is an excellent example of what ethnographers call a “thick description” of modern-day consumption. Both make Point of Purchase worth recommending.