CENTENNIAL REASSESSMENT OF VEBLEN'S
THEORY OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION
The table was set for company in the dining-room, where highly varnished wood
and colored glass and useless pieces of china were conspicuous enough to satisfy
the standards of the new prosperity. Alexandra had put herself into the hands
of the Hanover furniture dealer, and he had conscientiously done his best to
make the dining-room look like his display window. She said frankly that she
knew nothing about such things, and she was willing to be governed by the general
conviction that the more useless and utterly unusable objects were, the greater
their virtue as ornament. That seemed reasonable enough. Since she liked plain
things herself, it was all the more necessary to have jars and punch-bowls
and candlesticks in the company rooms for people who did appreciate them. Her
guests liked to see about them these reassuring emblems of prosperity.
Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1993  37-8)
DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY
INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH
UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD
SALFORD M5 4WT
Paper presented at the Second Conference of the International Thorstein Veblen
Association, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, May 30 - June 1, 1996.
I wish to acknowledge the financial support of the British Academy and permission
from Columbia University Library to quote from the Joseph Dorfman Papers.
DRAFT: NOT TO BE CITED OR QUOTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION
Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) published his first monograph, The Theory of the
Leisure Class (TLC) in 1899 and it is still in print. Its central concept,
conspicuous consumption, is the one that is most readily associated with his
name and appears frequently in the social sciences, the humanities, and public
discourse, often without attribution (Edgell 1992).
The idea of conspicuous consumption had been hinted at several years earlier
in his article on competitive display and social unrest (Veblen 1892) and had
been applied to the consumption of human apparel in another early article in
which Veblen used the term conspicuous consumption for the first time (1894).
In a trilogy of papers (Veblen 1898a; 1898b and 1899a), Veblen outlined the
premises upon which his more full developed theory of conspicuous consumption
was founded (1899b). Clearly, Veblen was working on his most famous concept
throughout the 1890s. More specifically, we know from his letters to one of
his ex-students that he started writing TLC during the academic year of 1895-96.2
Hence, the timing of this Second International Thorstein Veblen Association
Conference, and this exercise in particular, is pleasingly apposite.
The purpose of this paper is to reassess Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
in the light of nigh on a century of commentary. Interestingly, among the three
major previous 'centennial' publications which celebrate the hundredth anniversary
of either Veblen's birth (Dowd 1958; Monthly Review 1957) or the founding of
Carleton College (Qualey 1968), a mere single contribution was concerned with
the TLC, or more precisely, the theory of conspicuous consumption (Baran 1957).
Yet, the TLC is 'the only work of nineteenth Century American sociology still
widely referenced' (Fine 1994: 461; see also Galbraith 1977), which suggests
that this reassessment is not before time nor without promise. It is also not
lacking in pitfalls since commentators, whatever their view about the substance
of Veblen's works, invariably note that his prose style is less than conducive
to unambiguous interpretation.
VEBLEN'S THEORY OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION
The phrase conspicuous consumption was coined, theorized and popularized by
Veblen, but it is entirely likely that in doing so he drew upon the work of
John Rae (1796-1872), the Scottish-Canadian political economist (Edgell and
Tilman 1991). There are many parallels in Veblen's and Rae's respective accounts
of conspicuous consumption including the idea that expensive, rare and highly
visible commodities are acquired for social rather than utilitarian purposes.
A second major intellectual antecedent of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
concerns its aggressively competitive dimension, a ritualized form of which,
called the potlatch, had been documented by Franz Boas (1858-1942), the German-American
anthropologist. Veblen was sufficiently familiar with Boas's studies of the
Kwakiutl Indians (1966) to include his 1895-6 ethnological reports on their
ostentatious feasts in the bibliography of his course entitled Economic Factors
in Civilization.3 Veblen gave this course for the first time at Chicago University
in 1899 (Dorfman 1934) and wrote that 'the potlatch or the ball serve an invidious
purpose' (1970: 65) Although many scholars have noted the Boas-Veblen connection
(e.g. Dorfman 1934; Diggins 1978), a full account of Veblen's debt to Boas
has yet to be published, possibly because tracing the intellectual influences
on Veblen is impeded by his tendency, quite marked in TLC, to forsake the norm
of citing sources. Veblen included these social and competitive features of
conspicuous consumption in his own more radical theory (Edgell 1992). At the
risk of over-simplification, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption may
be summarized by eight propositions:
1. In every society beyond the earliest, two types of economic activity may
be delineated; those which involve 'workmanship' or 'serviceability' and enhance
material life, and those which involve 'predation' or 'exploit' and enhance
social repute. The contrast between these two types of economic activity varies
in societies depending on the degree of economic specialization.
2. When this dualism is applied to the production of goods and services, two
types of work may be distinguished; (a) industrial occupations which are primarily
concerned with mechanical processes and (b) non-industrial occupations which
are primarily concerned with pecuniary values; and when it is applied to consumption,
two types of commodities may be distinguished; (a) useful commodities which
are essential to sustaining human life and (b) wasteful commodities which are
essential to sustaining social standing.
3. In communities dominated by workmanship, emulation is of an industrial kind
but is not very pronounced; where predation dominates, emulation is pecuniary
and is far more marked.
4. In the early stages of the economic evolution of societies, the differentiation
gender lines, with women dominant in serviceable activities and men in predatory
ones. In later stages the differentiation of production and consumption activities
also develops along class lines, with the lower classes specializing in useful
activities and the upper classes in wasteful activities.
5. In economically abundant communities, the struggle to survive economically
is, to a large extent, transformed into a heightened competition for social
6. The major way of indicating social status in modern societies is pecuniary
and takes the form of the conspicuous consumption of goods and services, directly
7. There are three main factors which contribute to conspicuous consumption;
(a) abstention from productive work or conspicuous leisure, (b) costly or conspicuous
consumption, and (c) the extravagant consumption of resources or conspicuous
waste. In sum, the conspicuous consumption of time, money and resources.
8. The cultural imperative to consume conspicuously originates among the upper
classes of earlier societies, notably the predatory barbarian era (e.g. Feudal
Europe), and spreads to all classes in modern societies, especially the urbanized.
There are innumerable additional points that one could make to elaborate upon
this brief outline of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, but I will
restrict myself to three since the later discussion will, of necessity, involve
a degree of explication. First, his theory of conspicuous consumption was part
of his wider critique of the taken-for-granted preconceptions of classical
and neo-classical economics which elevated accepted norms of self-interested
economic behavior to universal truths. Second, and relatedly, Veblen's thinly
veiled preference for the values and institutions of workmanship over the values
and institutions of predation, denied ethical legitimacy to modern capitalism.
Third, the sociological thrust of his theory was that, such is the contemporary
pervasiveness of the culture of conspicuous consumption, the subordinate classes
tend to be incorporated into the archaic values of a leisure class dating from
the pre-modern era. In the final analysis therefore, Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption is an account of the 'social stability' of modern capitalism (Heilbroner
1955; 189; see also Diggins 1978).
VEBLEN'S THEORY OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION: CRITICAL DISSENT
From the outset, criticisms of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption have
ranged from the economic to the political, from the historical to the sociological,
even the literary quality of his contribution has been assessed, often all
within the space of one exposition. Notwithstanding the difficulty of disentangling
one line of criticism from another, to say nothing of discriminating between
insubstantial and substantial comments, my reference point is primarily, but
not exclusively, sociology. This may be broadly conceived in Veblenian terms
as an inquiry into the 'forces which have shaped the development of human life
and of social structure' (1970: 131). As a sociologist by training and profession,
I am encouraged to adopt this perspective by the judgment of one of north America's
most eminent economists and long time student of Veblen, Galbraith. In the
context of discussing conspicuous consumption, Galbraith asserted that Veblen's
'enduring achievement was not in economics but in sociology' (1977: 61).
The initial response to the publication of TLC did not focus on the theory
of conspicuous consumption (Mason 1981), but on its radical political-economy
and the language in which it was expressed (Tilman 1992). However, in these
early commentaries, there is a hint of what was to become a major and persistent
line of criticism, namely Veblen's penchant not to define his terms consistently
or unambiguously. For example, one reviewer concluded that:
All scientific writing suffers from these undefined connoted significations
in its terminology, and it is essential to accuracy and clearness to put the
reader on guard by careful definition of the sense in which each term is employed.
(Cummings 1899: 454).
Another expressed the same sentiment, somewhat indignantly, albeit with greater
succinctness: 'If this is Sociology, it is the kind that brings the subject
into disrepute among careful and scientific thinkers' (Wells 1899: 213).
The concerns of these first dissenting commentators seem to set a pattern of
neglect with regard to the theory of conspicuous consumption (e.g. Homan 1927;
Hobson 1936), which lasted until the 1950s. This was despite the publicity
given to Veblen's TLC in the restudy of Middletown (Lynd and Lynd 1937) which
addressed the issue of class and consumption. It was not until the 1950s and
1960s, an era of mass affluence and unparalleled material consumption, that
Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption attracted sustained critical attention,
especially of economists and sociologists.
Among the more detailed objections to Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
were that it was of limited historical applicability in the late nineteenth
century and that by the mid twentieth century, it had passed its sell by date,
in a word, it was 'obsolete' (Riesman 1954: 225). Drawing upon the concept
counter-snobbery (Steiner and Weiss 1951), and echoing the assertion that the
upper class had ceased to engage in conspicuous consumption (Lipset and Bendix
1951), Riesman argued that Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption 'fitted
not too badly' the period between the 1890s and 1920s in America, but economic
expansion had prompted the established upper classes to conspicuously underspend
in order to distinguish themselves from the extravagant new rich of all classes
(1954: 225 and 1960: 174). It was further claimed that conspicuous underconsumption
was now practiced by `educated people' in an attempt to minimize waste (Riesman
1960: 177). With a touch of irony, it was suggested that this trend can, in
part, be attributed to the influence of Veblen's ideas, and in this sense he
could be regarded as the 'godfather of the consumers' movement' (Riesman 1954:
Also in the early l950s, a similar line of criticism had been advanced by Mills
(1970) who had suggested that Veblen's TLC in general and his theory of conspicuous
consumption in particular, was of limited relevance at the time it was written
and even less now. According to Mills, Veblen's analysis applied to 'a particular
element of the upper classes in one period of the history of one nation ...
the nouveau riche', and to comparable groups today, such as the new middle
classes who enjoy 'corporate privileges' (1970: xiv and v). Moreover, the growth
of the American economy since the second World War had reduced inequality and
enabled virtually everybody to consume conspicuously, and this in turn had
undermined the invidious dimension so essential to this type of economic activity.
Meanwhile, economists of the 'right' (neo-classical) and the 'left' (neo-Marxist)
reprimanded Veblen for his sins of omission rather than those of commission.
For example, economists from Leibenstein at the beginning of the l950s onwards,
have sought to absorb Veblen's idea of conspicuous consumption into their conventionally
'Static analysis' of consumer demand and show that Veblen was remiss in overlooking
other external non-economic influences on consumption (1976: 50). This was
achieved by defining conspicuous consumption as a price effect and distinguishing
it from two other types of 'nonfunctional' demand, 'bandwagon' and 'snob' effects
(Leibenstein 1976: 51). Thus, in contemporary mainstream economics textbooks,
Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption tends to be incorporated under the
heading of exceptional demand, either with (e.g. Hardwick et al. 1990) or without
attribution (Lipsey and Chrystal 1995).
Although neo-Marxists have tended to approach Veblen from a more macro-economic
perspective, they have also suggested that his account of conspicuous consumption
was incomplete. The major lacuna for neo-Marxists such as Baran (1957) and
Davis (1957), was that Veblen paid insufficient attention to the role capital
accumulation in his account of the growth of conspicuous consumption. The main
reasons adduced for this were that his theory of conspicuous consumption suffered
from a 'petty bourgeois' focus on wastefulness and a 'tantalizing lack of precision'
(Baran 1957: 83 and 86). Hence, his analysis was full of 'empty boxes' which
prevented him from seeing that the imperative to accumulate capital, not the
'competitive striving for prestige', was the primary economic force in history
(Baran 1957: 84 and 88). Tilman (1992) has noted that this critique of Veblen
was reminiscent of Adorno who, in the early 1940s, had also argued that his
theory of conspicuous consumption was a narrowly 'puritanical' account of culture,
bereft of the 'happiness' and 'beauty' that may be derived even from this form
of 'pseudo-individuality' (1967: 78, 83, 86 and 87).4
Following the somewhat patchy rediscovery of Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption during the 1950s, citations, mostly of a positive variety (e.g.
Diggins 1978), seemed to increase, and what criticisms were made, tended to
be made in passing rather than in depth. For example, the historical and conceptual
limitations of his theory were noted by Giddens (1973) and Douglas and Isherwood
(1978) respectively. However, the l980s witnessed a revival of critical interest
of a more detailed kind, in conspicuous consumption.
Mason has reviewed the history of conspicuous consumption from the standpoint
of conventional economics and with reference to traditional and modern societies
(1981 and 1984). At the outset he emphasized the difficulties this concept
posed for empirical research, notably the 'major problem' of getting people
to 'admit' that 'the display of wealth and gain in prestige' were part of their
'intentions' (Mason 1981: 42). Yet Mason proceeded to show that 'differences
between societies are substantial. enough to remove any hopes that it may be
possible to develop a general theory of status directed consumer behavior which
would have universal application' (1981: 137), although conspicuous consumption
'continues to flourish' in affluent societies (1981: 150) and that the 1980s
was a 'decade of remarkable conspicuous consumption in Britain' (1989: 24).
Also during and since the 1980s, there has been a revival of sociological interest
in consumption which was possibly not unconnected to the emerging debate about
post-modernity (Bocock 1993). In addition to the familiar ritual reference
to Veblen as a pioneer in the study of consumption, either in the briefest
of terms (e.g. Mukerji and Schudson 1991), or in a somewhat more fulsome manner
(e.g. Kaiser 1985), there have been several short dissenting comments and one
long critique. Regarding the former, Smith (1981) has suggested that Veblen's
analysis of women's clothing is an incomplete male one and Wilson has recycled
Adorno's criticism that his theory of conspicuous consumption is 'oversimplified'
and allows no place for pleasure (1985: 53). A similar point has been made
by Urry in relation to tourism, namely that today 'leisure patterns are immensely
more complex' than is indicated by Veblen's use of the idea of the conspicuous
exemption from work (1990: 24).
One of the most detailed and severe critiques of Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption to appear in the last hundred years has been developed during the
recent past by Campbell (e.g. 1989, 1995 and 1996). Over the course of these
analyses, Campbell detects two (1995) and then three different formulations
of conspicuous consumption in Veblen's TLC:
(1) An "interpretive", or subjective formulation which conceives
conspicuous consumption as action marked by the presence of certain distinctive
psychological states ... (2) a consequentialist or 'functional" formulation
in which conspicuous consumption is viewed as a form of behaviour characterised
by particular end-results or outcomes, and (3) a substantive conception which
defines conspicuous consumption as a form of conduct marked by certain "intrinsic" qualities.
(Campbell 1996: 62)
According to Campbell, the first formulation is ambiguous because it is not
clear whether the crucial defining criterion should be intentions or motives
and in which case which of several candidates should be chosen' (1996: 80).
Also it is unclear whether these criteria 'should be viewed as conscious, subconscious,
or merely embodied in habitual practices' (Campbell 1996: 80). The second,
formulation is problematic because 'it naturally excludes conduct which, although
marked by such intentions, fails to achieve its goals', yet 'includes conduct,
which although marked by this outcome, was not prompted by any such intention'
(Campbell 1996: 79). Moreover, this approach 'fails to allow for other means
of achieving the same goal (that is, functional alternatives)' (Campbell 1996:
79). The third, 'substantive conception', is deemed problematic since a judgment
about the wastefulness or ostentatiousness of consumption 'is necessarily highly
contextual and cannot in any case be assumed to overlap with expenditure which
is incurred for status reasons' (Campbell 1996: 79). Campbell concludes that
even if all these difficulties with Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
were surmountable and a testable set of propositions emerged, there remains
a final obstacle to empirical research, namely Mason's point that respondents
may be reluctant to admit to engaging in conspicuous consumption. Campbell's
critique of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption echoes many of the early
dissenting comments which were made from the standpoint of 'scientific sociology'
(e.g. Cummings 1899: 431; Wells 1899: 218) and were directed at the lack of
clarity inherent in the original conceptualization. Thus, over the period of
a century, the criticisms have come full circle, and the relative neglect of
Veblen's best known theory by sociology and its marginal status in economics,
becomes explicable in terms Veblen's conspicuous confusion.
VEBLEN'S THEORY OF CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION: CRITICAL ASSENT
The first positive sociological endorsements of Veblen's TLC including the
theory of conspicuous consumption, were expressed by E.A. Ross and his uncle
Lester F. Ward (Dorfman 1934). Ward thought TLC 'contains too much truth' in
that it was not just a 'mirror in which we can all see ourselves', but a 'telescope
through which we can all see our ancestors' (1900: 829-30); whereas Ross was
clearly influenced by Veblen's social theory and social criticism (1905; 1936).
Ross and Ward were not alone in their admiration; a variety of social scientists
and even literary figures, commented favourably on the penetrating insights
and style of Veblen's TLC and more specifically his theory of conspicuous consumption
(e.g. Howells 1899; Henderson 1900; Day 1901). Veblen's immediate impact was
therefore considerable (Dorfman 1934), and by around the time of his death,
he was revered as much for his satire as his originality (e.g. Hazlitt 1929;
Mitchell 1929; Dorfman 1932) and his contribution had achieved both influence,
most noticeable in the writings of Ross on class (1920), and textbook recognition
in economics (Odum 1927) and sociology (Maclver 1931).
However, it was not until the late 1930s that Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption was illustrated with empirical data, thereby demonstrating its
usefulness (Lynd and Lynd 1937). Although competitive emulatory consumption
had been described in the first study of Middletown (Lynd and Lynd 1929, see
especially chapter XII on clothing), the re-study went further in that it not
only confirmed Veblen's thesis regarding the role of the upper (business) class
in setting the community's cultural standards, but also revealed the relevance
of his analysis of conspicuous consumption to an understanding of consumer
behaviour, notably the 'depression-proof', and in Veblen's terms wasteful,
pattern of buying a new model automobile annually (Lynd and Lynd 1937: 266).
As a result of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption proving its usefulness
in analysing empirical data, and an extensive range of positive comments which
focused on the theoretical value of his contribution in general (e.g. Anderson
1933; Dorfman 1932; Mumford 1934; Herskovits 1965), and two book length studies
of his life and work (Dorfman 1934; Hobson 1936), Veblen was acclaimed as 'the
major' American sociologist of class of his generation (Page 1940: xii).
The value of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption in empirical social
research was further demonstrated by Warner and Lunt who reported the on the
tendency for the new rich of Yankee City, in contrast to the established upper
class, to conspicuously display their wealth via relatively high expenditure
on houses, cars and sport (1941; 1947). One of the later volumes in the same
series also drew upon Veblen to make sense of the social importance of fund
raising (Warner 1959). It was suggested that the process of public gift exchange
within and between members of associations concerned with fund raising was
more than 'purely utilitarian', it involved 'competitive and cooperative elements'
of a symbolic kind (Warner 1959: 241).
Meanwhile, back in England, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption was
the 'point of departure' and informed 'all' the 'arguments' advanced by Bell
(1992) in his historical account of fashion. Bell rejected all (i.e. pre-second
World War) theories of apparel except Veblen's, which he found, on the basis
of considerable historical data. to be `of the utmost value', although not
beyond criticism as his chapter on 'Deviations from Veblen' indicates (1992:
29). Bell confirmed Veblen's three elements of conspicuous consumption -conspicuous
cost, leisure and waste - with illustrations from the past and the present,
and added a fourth category, conspicuous outrage, which he defined as 'a kind
of aggressive non-conformity' (1992: 44). He suggested that those in the vanguard
of progressive ideas in all societies, seek to 'challenge the proprieties',
typically 'in speech', but also 'in dress' (Bell 1992: 44). Bell's concept
of conspicuous outrage extends Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption in
the sense that it refers to an 'elite or in-group' who flaunt their indifference
to accepted cultural- standards of dress, in effect they are communicating
their socio-economic superiority in yet another way to those outlined by Veblen.
Back in the USA in the late 1940s Merton was developing his distinction between
manifest and latent functions and cited Veblen's analysis of conspicuous consumption
as an 'example of inquiry which implicitly uses the notion of latent function'
(1968: 123). Veblen's thesis that consumption involves both utilitarian and
status considerations is recast by Merton to refer to manifest and latent functions
respectively. Merton regards the discovery of latent functions as an event
of some sociological significance as it 'leads to conclusions which show that "social
life is not as simple as it first seems"' (1968: 122). Thus, Veblen's
is credited by Merton with making a key contribution to this mode of sociological
analysis. Whilst others have since argued that Merton's incorporation of Veblen's
theory of conspicuous consumption into a functionalist framework deradicalizes
his work (Simich and Tilman 1984), the critical bite of his analysis is still
apparent, though perhaps less sharp, in the sense that it goes beyond conventional
understandings of everyday actions.
During the early 1950s the relevance of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
was extended by Mills (1968a) in his account of the 'mechanisms' by which the
threat to middle class status, and the panic which it induced, could be managed.
He suggested that Veblen's thesis that the struggle to keep up appearances
had replaced the struggle for economic survival, was increasingly focused on
one's home, clothes and holidays. In particular he noted that 'month-end or
year-end' episodes of 'ostentatious display' helped to 'sustain the illusionary
world in which many white-collar people now live' (Mills l968a: 258). In his
other major study of class published in the mid 1950s, Mills argued that although
Veblen's TLC does 'not cover the scenes and characters that have emerged in
our own time. It remains strong (with the truth] because we could not see the
newer features of our own time had he not written what and as he did' (l968b:
58). Unsurprisingly, in his polemic against the dominant sociological tendencies
in America since Veblen's time, grand theory and abstracted empiricism, expressed
briefly in his introduction to a reprint of TLC in 1953 (Mills 1970), and more
fully in his 1959 manifesto for the historical and comparative study of social
structures, he bracketed Veblen with Marx and Weber, as a 'classic social analyst'
and supreme social critic by virtue of his profound sociological imagination
(Mills 1967: 6).
Veblen's theory of competitive consumption found popular expression at the
end of the 1950s via Packard's best-selling critique of American consumer culture
(1965). There are only two brief references to Veblen, and one of these asserts
that 'leisure has lost most of its potency as a status symbol' due to its greater
availability (Packard 1965: 31). However, the other reference to Veblen is
embedded in an updated discussion - the air conditioner and television aerial
- of the continued prevalence of conspicuous consumption. Packard, a sociology
graduate who listed Mills among those to whom he owed an intellectual debt,
emphasised the 'symbolic significance' of consumer goods that are 'costly',
'conspicuous', and 'wasteful', and which impel neighbours to 'emulate the pioneer',
all of which is pure Veblen (1965: 68-9).
There were many other favourable commentaries on Veblen's TLC and its central
concept, conspicuous consumption, during the 1950s of an academic and less
academic kind, but whatever their context, or indeed length, they tended to
be just that, comments on rather than developments of Veblen's theory and were
often a mixture of assent and dissent (e.g. Galbraith 1962; MacDougall 1957;
Riesman 1960; Rosenberg 1956; Vine 1959). It would seem that inside and outside
institutions of higher learning, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
had a resonance in the affluent society that was America in the 1950s for the
more radically inclined, notwithstanding the conservatism of this era and various
comments to the contrary.
As noted at the beginning, the 1966 Veblen Seminar to celebrate the centennial
year of Carleton College, somewhat surprisingly, did not focus on his theory
of conspicuous consumption (Qualey 1968). This oversight was corrected in the
1970s by the extended discussions of this theory in Coser's textbook (1977)
and Diggins's monograph (1978). The former included Veblen as one of the 'masters'
of sociological thought and concluded that his 'analysis of the socio-psychological
roots of motivations for competitive life styles' was the most valuable part
of his contribution (Coser 1977: 302). The latter also placed Veblen in the
same company as Marx and Weber and focused on his theory of competitive consumption;
'in the phenomenon of "emulation" he discovered why the commodity
fetish, instead of alienating man and producing social conflict, integrates
man and produces social cohesion' (Diggins 1978: 104). Whilst these were essentially
re-interpretations of the sociological import of Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption, they contributed to the dissemination of Veblen's ideas, especially
his theory of conspicuous consumption.
The wider diffusion of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption was occasioned
by Brooks (1981), whose updated and extended version of this theory was reviewed
in Time magazine (Sheppard 1981). Drawing upon Bell (1992) as well as Veblen's
TLC, Brooks argued that though conspicuous consumption was still widespread,
competitive consumption has become more complex in that it now involves an
element of mockery. Thus, in addition to exhibiting wealth and power, 'parody
display is showing off wit and irony' and this ambivalent form of competitive
display tends to be 'practiced by college graduates and (perhaps more to the
point) those who spend their lives associating with college graduates' (Brooks
1981: 25 and 35).
Evidence of the continued relevance of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption
to research in less developed and developed societies has been provided by
Colloredo-Mansfield (1994) and MacDonald (1989). The object of these studies
was architectural conspicuous consumption, an underplayed dimension in TLC.
On the basis of in-depth interviews, participant observation and visual data,
Colloredo-Mansfield's anthropological study of house forms in an Andean community
showed that 'the cultural importance of the conspicuous display of resources
... lies in the way signals of wealth initiate new appraisals of socially appropriate
economic activity' (1994: 862). MacDonald's sociological analysis of the collective
conspicuous consumption of recent and established professional bodies complements
the aforementioned study of individual consumption and used a similar range
of empirical sources, including observation and photography, works on architecture
and historical documents. MacDonald used data on the site of buildings plus
their exterior character and interior contents to develop a conspicuous consumption
rating for headquarters of six professional bodies. He found that: 'There is
no doubt about the expense involved in the buildings under review in this paper
nor that it was devoted to conspicuous consumption as the visual data show'
(MacDonald 1989: 77). MacDonald concluded that all but one of the professional
bodies he studied possessed 'imposing buildings ... in carefully chosen locations'
and had used the space within them wastefully and expensively to display furnishings
which reflect leisure class values in order to enhance their status (1989:
The continued use of buildings and their contents by individuals and collectivities
to signify their upward social mobility has also been confirmed by studies
of gentrification. Studies of gentrification in Melbourne (Jager 1986) and
New York, London and Paris (Carpenter and Lees 1995), have shown that the new
middle classes consume conspicuously to indicate their arrival and cultural
superiority when they move into a lower class urban neighbourhood.
Thus, Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption continues to exert a major
influence on this increasingly popular research topic and to feature in reviews
of it as a pioneering study in the sociology of consumption (Miller 1991; Rossides
This relatively brief and necessarily selective centennial reassessment of
the social scientific fate of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption with
special reference to sociology, plus anthropology and economics, has revealed
two key areas of evaluation, sociological adequacy and historical relevance.
The argument that Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption is formulated
in a such an ambiguous way that hinders its operationalization and therefore
precludes its use in verificational research is predicated upon an essentially
natural science model of sociology. At best, this approach to sociology is
optimistic, at worst it is naive. This is because it overlooks the inherent
limitations of 'scientific sociology', notably the problem of reducing what
can be studied to what can be measured or what Mills (1967) referred to as
abstracted empiricism, and the difficulty of creating a language of universal
meanings in the social world or what Bergmann (1964) and others (e.g. Diggins
1994; Rorty 1967) have called the linguistic turn. These, and related limitations,
have led to the view that attempts to develop sociology in the image of natural
science 'were all doomed to disappoint' (Bryant 1995: 4). Thus, it is now well
the idea that there can be a theory-neutral observation is repudiated, while
systems of deductively-linked laws are no longer canonized as the highest ideal
of explanation. Most importantly, science is presumed to be an interpretative
endeavour, such that problems of meaning, communication, and translation are
immediately relevant to scientific theorizing. (Giddens and Turner 1987: 2)
Veblen advanced his theory of conspicuous consumption well before the rise
and fall of (natural) scientific sociology, a form of sociology that became
particularly prevalent in America after the l930s and where it has withstood
the anti-positivist critiques quite successfully (Bryant 1985). Hence, to dismiss
Veblen's most famous theory on the grounds that it fails to conform to the
methodological prescriptions of a conception of sociology that had yet to be
developed and has since been discredited, is doubly inappropriate.
The other main line of critical evaluation to emerge over the past century
concerns the historical relevance of Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption.
On the assumption that it is possible to identify conspicuous consumption then
and now, albeit on the basis of 'qualitative assessment' (MacDonald 1989: 59),
it has been argued that his theory, even if it applied to the new rich of late
nineteenth century America, is no longer relevant because the advent of material
abundance has simultaneously reduced its import and increased the complexity
consumption. Yet, there would seem to be considerable evidence to the contrary,
both with regard to individual and collective forms of conspicuous consumption.
In fact, the contemporary prevalence of conspicuous consumption is attested
to by no less than one of the major contributors to the said debate who has
expressed concern about the virtual impossibility of identifying empirically
this type of consumption (Mason 1981; 1984; 1989).
However, the question remains; does this one hundred year old story have a
happy ending? Notwithstanding the undeniably imprecise character of, and the
research problems associated with, Veblen's formulation of the theory of conspicuous
consumption, there are strong grounds for answering in the affirmative. First,
if Veblen is judged on his own terms and those of the time he was writing,
his idea of what constitutes theory involved the rejection of the extant ahistorical
and static conception of economic activity and this informed his theory of
conspicuous consumption in the important sense that he 'alerted us to the social
meaning of what money buys' (Zelizer 1989: 343), thereby transforming the 'economic
uses of consumption' (Gusfield 1990: 39). Second, in the process of achieving
this Veblen not only anticipated the anti-positivist attack on social 'science',
but he provided an interpretation of the stability of unequal class relationships
which was highly original, provocative, and has stood the test of time (Diggins
1978). Third, innumerable scholars, including historians (e.g. Smith 1981;
Vichert 1971), have drawn upon Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption to
comprehend the consumption of a great variety of products including buildings
and vacations (e.g. MacDonald 1989; Mills 1968a). Fourth, his theory has been
developed in an attempt to update it in ways which accentuate its continued
relevance (e.g. Bell 1992; Brooks 1981). Fifth, what has been called the classical
sociological tradition of social criticism (Mills 1967) or the 'debunking tendency
in sociological thought' (Berger 1963: 38), which Veblen's theory of conspicuous
consumption helped to pioneer, has been kept alive by those who have been inspired
by Veblen to disregard dominant versions of social reality in their search
for alternative understandings. The prime sociological example here is arguably
Mills (Eldridge 1983), though he is not alone even where the theory advanced
bears little relation to Veblen (MacCannell 1976).
Finally, an irenic supposition; Veblen's powerful critique of the wastefulness
and pointlessness of the competition for social status embedded within his
theory of conspicuous consumption, may not have been in vain. His clear preference
for what has since been termed 'inconspicuous consumption' (Whyte 1961: 287),
seems to be experiencing a revival among the new middle classes in the most
economically developed capitalist societies, especially America via the 'voluntary
simplicity' movement. Thus, it is entirely possible that during the next century
the main legacy of Veblen will be practical rather than intellectual and I
would suggest that this prospect would not have displeased the originator of
the theory of conspicuous consumption.
TO: VEBLEN FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
TO: Correcting the history about Thorstein Bunde Veblen