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A 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 [1913] 37-8)




STEPHEN EDGELL
DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY
INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH
UNIVERSITY OF SALFORD
SALFORD M5 4WT
ENGLAND



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

Copyright: s.r.edgell@sociology.salford.ac.uk



INTRODUCTION


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 of production and consumption in terms of useful and wasteful activities follows 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 status.


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 and/or vicariously.


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: 225).

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: 77).

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 1990).


CONCLUSIONS


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 recognized that:

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.



RETURN TO: VEBLEN FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

RETURN TO: Correcting the history about Thorstein Bunde Veblen


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