Being Human in a Consumer Society

Barcelona, Spain | March 31-April 2, 2011

How to authentically seek the “good life” in the modern world?

In this meeting, STI aimed to uncover some of the paradoxes of consumer culture, to examine structuralist and phenomenological approaches to the consumer paradigm and critique their effectiveness in analyzing engagement in consumer culture, and to develop a framework for describing the risks that consumer societies pose to authentic human development. By inviting sociologists, philosophers, and business educators and professionals, STI took account of the diverse interests inherent in this debate to encourage a broad consensus on the largest question herein: how to authentically seek the “good life” in the modern world.



Post by Social Trends Institute.

Principal Inquiries

• What significant cultural or structural transformations can be identified in consumer society, in comparison to earlier societies?
• In dealing with consumption, what is the relation between individual motivations and structural constraints? How can these two concepts be linked in order to understand consumer society and its dynamics?
• What processes and tendencies have been –and still are– relevant for the consolidation of a culture of consumption? How does consumption culture affect our understanding of the nature of human beings and praxis?
• To what extent does the culture of consumption spread to other social spheres, affecting social relationships? What are the limits, if any, of this extension?
• In what ways can a culture of consumption lead to isolation, individualization or commodification of human beings?

Academic Leader & Moderator

Academic Leader: Ana Marta González - University of Navarra

Moderator: Ann Brach - National Academy of Sciences 


Talbot Brewer - University of Virginia
Reflections on the Cultural Commons

Colin Campbell - University of York
Should We Blame it on the Joneses? Conspicuous Consumption and the Threat to Sustainability 

Pablo Garcia Ruiz - University of Zaragoza
The Two Faces of Consumerism: When Things Make Us (in)Human

Stjepan Mestrovic - Texas A&M University
Post-emotional Law in Consumer Society

Allison Pugh - University of Virginia
The Planned Obsolescence of Other People: Consumer Culture, Insecurity and Connection

George Ritzer - University of Maryland
The Dehumanized Consumer: Does the Prosumer Offer Some Hope?

Roberta Sassatelli - University of Milan
Consumers, Bodies and Selves. Framing Humanity Consumerwise

Efrat Tseëlon - University of Leeds
The Challenge of Ethical Fashion


Karin Ekström - University of Boras
Alejandro Garcia - University of Navarra 
Melissa Moschella - Princeton University
Lucia Ruggerone - Università della Valle d'Aosta
Joshua Yates - Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture/University of Virginia 

Paper Abstracts

Ana Marta González - University of Navarra
Opening Remarks to Being Human in a Consumer Society Seminar

A couple of weeks ago, one Spanish national newspaper opened its front page with huge headlines: “HOLIDAYS THREATENED”. 

The headline was meant to announce the upcoming strike of airport workers during Easter vacation, and also during crucial days in the summer. While this is worrying from many points of view –especially for those people who make a living from tourism— the interesting point here is that the accent was placed on the fact that our holidays -our free time - were threatened. Thus, the most salient element in this piece of news was the consumerist side of society –the highlighting of our consumerist selves— even if the consumerist side could hardly live without the productive side –which also makes up an important part of our selves.

We seem to live peacefully with this fact, and, for the most part, are not ashamed of describing our society as a consumers’ society, even if, at times, we regret that many valuable things –especially human beings and human relations— are treated as just another consumer good; even if we are increasingly aware of the danger that the aggregate effect of our peacefully enjoyed consumer practices may have on the environment and on the working conditions of people living on the other side of the world.

Taking these worries seriously into account, however, could explain the title of this experts meeting, whose very phrasing seems to suggest that it is difficult, if not heroic, to maintain one’s humanity in a consumer society. 

Conflicting interpretations of consumer society 

Indeed, as we know, there are many social analysts who would subscribe to this view: taking their impulse from classical social theories of modernization, they recognize a dark, anti-human, side in the advance of market rationality, and its consumerist counterpart, which they see mostly in terms of “colonization” of spheres which should follow a different logic. 

While the way this normative element is accounted for remains a matter of dispute, the persuasion that unites all of these theorists can be summarized by saying: Instrumental rationality, on the one hand, and hedonistic enjoyment, on the other, are somehow eroding communal life and moral reason.

To the extent that consumption is seen fundamentally as part of a system that follows patterns of instrumental rationality, these critical theorists tend to consider the expansion of consumption –the transition from a so-called productive capitalism to a consumer capitalism— as a further, if alluring and more seductive, threat to humanity, a new sort of “totalitarianism”, as Baudrillard would put it.

On the other side of the spectrum defined by this very conceptual frame, however, we find theorists who, if they do not celebrate, they at least recognize and legitimize the modern pattern of consumption as a way of expressing aspects of our personality –our identity— which were kept in check under the former regime of productive capitalism. These theorists have shown that the contemporary phenomenon of consumption cannot be adequately approached merely in terms of instrumental or utilitarian rationality or as a function of the market system, since it incorporates an expressive element on the part of the agent, which exceeds the mere satisfaction of needs.

Although those theorists who privilege a macro-structural approach to the phenomenon of consumption, along Veblen’s lines, are inclined to interpret this “expressive element” as a latent function of consumption (as in Merton’s account) in terms of (unconscious) expression of social status; others, more prone to adopt the perspective of the agent, insist that consumers’ choices can only be properly understood insofar as we enter into their motivations and reasons.  They thus take into account the various cultural traditions and ideals informing agents’ personal mindset, as well as the social conventions which these agents have to manipulate in order to adjust to different social contexts.  

All these positions, I think, are more than sufficiently represented in this experts meeting, in the papers by Campbell, Ritzer and Mestrovic, and there are reasons to think that we will have time for passionate debates over these days, which we hope will lead us to a better grasp of each other’s positions. Thus, all I want to do with these introductory remarks is to offer what I think may be the philosophical background for framing this debate. 

An ethico-political frame for the economy

The fact that important aspects of human life can be threatened by an overwhelming desire for material goods is not a new concept. This was part of the reason for Aristotle’s cautionary remarks against what he termed as “unnatural chrematistics”, that is, the desire of acquiring wealth far beyond what is necessary to lead a good life. 

By contrast, “natural chrematistics”, that is, the art of acquisition aimed at providing for daily human needs, is for Aristotle an integral part of “economy”, literally understood as “household management.”  Economy refers then to the administration of property, which is necessary for a fully human life. A “fully human life” for Aristotle is a life not merely confined to the realm of such economic or domestic activities, but also engaged in actions and projects valuable in themselves, actions and projects which lead us far beyond our own particular interests, and help us develop a practical concern for the public good.

As for the more particular question, regarding how much –how many goods— are actually necessary to lead such a life, Aristotle did not have a quantitative answer, but a qualitative one: he pointed to the difference between being driven by a desire to live, and being driven by a desire to live well [1], for which both political freedom and virtue are requisite. While this qualitative answer allows for different levels of wealth and even luxury depending on the context, Aristotle did assert that “the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited” (Pol. I, 8, 1256 b 14).

Implicit, of course, was the idea that political freedom –which he clearly understood not as negative but as positive freedom, in Berlin’s sense— is threatened as soon as citizens are tempted to replace their concern for the public good with a concern for their own private interests. I would say that this worry is also to be detected in Efrat and Tal’s papers. At any rate, it was because of this that Aristotle posited that the economy and market activity belong to the private sphere. 

As we know, liberal thinkers have always rejected this view, seeing Aristotle as a primitive enemy of the market. However, Aristotle himself held this opinion and, at the same time, recognized that the sort of reciprocity we find in the market is one of the sources of unity in the city[2]. The point, of course, is that while private property introduces social difference, the exchange of property in the market does generate something resembling a common good, a sort of reciprocity –not equivalent to justice.

Both points are worth considering, because they remind us of the possible meaning of a human, ethical, context for economic activity, sketching simultaneously the micro and the macro conditions for it. From the perspective of the agent we certainly need moral virtue, as Pablo stresses in his paper, but this cannot be realized entirely apart from a governing idea of what is a good human life; and given man’s social and political nature, neither this idea nor its realization depends merely on the individual alone, but also on the nature of social and political relations. While human flourishing crucially depends on personal decisions, these decisions are framed within the context of a family and a political society, under the influence of certain ideas and values. 

Looking at present consumer societies from this Aristotelian perspective, then, one is tempted to say that the very growth of market activity not only has transformed the language of human interactions, but has problematized the autonomy of the political realm, which is supposedly in charge of granting equality and freedom to all citizens before the law. The process, however, is an ambivalent one.

On the one hand, the very growth of the market has increased the intensity of the sort of reciprocal relations –do ut des— which make up civil society, creating a rich and dense web of human interdependence, revolving around the exchange of goods and services. As a result, market rationality permeates our everyday life in ways which make it very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the human from the economic side of our interactions for the very simple reason that human relations are usually mediated by material objects. Thus, our humanity often seems to speak the language of the economy, even when it wants to express a reality beyond the economy, for instance through gifts. Allison and Roberta’s papers make this very clear.

Yet, on the other hand, the advent of a consumer society is not merely the discovery that consumption has become a prominent language in our relation to the world. If this were the whole story, we could perhaps conclude that the increase of consumption does not threaten humanity in any meaningful sense. However, consumer society has another more worrying side to it, namely, the ethical disconnection between the acts of individual consumption and the aggregate effects of those very acts.  

The ethical disconnection between acts of individual consumption and their aggregate effects

The complexity of our societies does not allow for a clear recognition of the connection between individual actions and common goods and “bads”; we are supposed to rely on experts, whose opinions very often are contradictory; we are supposed to rely on politicians, which is also a daring thing to do. Further, we are supposed to do so within a political frame which verbally rests upon the defence of individual rights, and the deliberate renunciation of articulating any notion of the public common good. 

It was Thomas Hobbes who first expelled considerations of happiness from the realm of politics and made them a mere private matter, having mostly to do with attaining the objects of one’s desire. In chapter 11 of Leviathan he says: 

“The felicity of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus, utmost aim, nor summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter…"[3]. 

In sharp contrast with Aristotle, for whom desire for a good life, and hence an anticipatory representation of it, constitutes a necessary precondition for ethical activity, Hobbes advises us not to dwell much on those sorts of general ideas and focus instead on the particular desires implicit in the most mundane choices.  The very dynamics of desire mobilizes our senses and imagination, and it is this mobilization that we need to feel alive. This granted, felicity –he says- is nothing other than: “Continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continual prospering… (…) life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense" [4].

While any Aristotelian philosopher would like to contest this characterization of life simply in terms of “motion”, the truth is that Hobbes’ approach represents an early modern philosophical legitimization of the activities leading to the development of the market and, ultimately, to the success of consumer societies. This account, at least in this respect, is not contested by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Drawing on Hobbes words anyone could conclude that fostering desire is a way of fostering human life, and, likewise, increasing the ways of satisfying desire is a way of increasing all the felicity that man can expect in this life. 

Now, how could we possibly object to this account? Once we have abandoned the ethico-political frame assumed by Aristotle, his crucial, qualitative distinction between the desire to live and the desire to live well is difficult to apply. Why should I limit my desires as long as they do not endanger anyone’s life? While one can still try to be individually temperate and sober, the reasons to be so would seem no longer supported by ideas of a common political good; while each can follow his desires according to his own subjective ideal of the imagination –as Kant would put it— there is no public reason strong enough to move me, to oblige me, in that direction. Within a Hobessian framework, as the one incorporated in our political system, the only possible ground for a common action in this regard would be the awareness that our physical lives were threatened by the ever growing desire. 

Now, while this is perhaps the scenery some cultural critics are trying to unveil today, it is not entirely clear how to argue for it. Although we can certainly point at the fact that the acceleration of the dynamics of desire in one part of the world has a negative impact in another part of the world, this sort of argument rarely moves the individual agent who has more particular and possibly more pressing reasons for pursuing his or her desires, and is bound to experience any invitation to limit his expenses as an illegitimate limitation of his freedom.


While consumer society may be just a way of stressing the fact that we have come to express our selves increasingly through consumption acts –something which is not necessarily negative—, it is also true that it puts before our eyes certain ethical challenges of a global dimension. Are we perhaps facing the limits of a typically modern western approach to social and political life?  While the structure of ethical responsibilities in this regard is no clearer than the structure of globalization itself, the ethical perplexities we are facing certainly require deep reflection on our consumer practices.

I am sure that our discussions here will enlighten this reflection. 

[1] Hence some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit”. Pol. I, 9, 1257 b 15- 1258 a 16.

[2] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V, 5.

[3] Hobbes, Th., Leviatán, Chapter 11, part 1, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth, London: John Bohn, 1839, vol. III, Second Reprint 1966, Darmstadt: Scientia Verlag Aalen, p. 85.

[4] Hobbes, Leviatán, chapter 6, p. 51.


Talbot BrewerUniversity of Virginia
Reflections on the Cultural Commons

In the most general terms, I want to address an omission that I see in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy, and more generally in popular political debate. Normative assessment tends to operate at a highly abstract level, focusing our attention on permissible patterns of distribution of income and wealth, or on growth in economic productivity, while largely ignoring the daily activities of getting and spending through which the desired distribution or production is achieved.

I want to focus attention on the concrete patterns of getting and spending that prevail in the sorts of socio-economic orders that are favored by a range of contemporary normative political theories, and by the "growth imperative" that operates as a fixed point in public political debate. What I want to suggest is that we face the historic anomaly of a situation in which there is a de-facto program of proselytism on behalf of consumerist values -- a program of proselytism whose intrusiveness and effectiveness has no parallel in history -- and yet this particular form of proselytism can and for the most part does go forward without a cadre of true believers. This form of proselytism is the predictable deliverance of the invisible hand of global markets given contemporary communications technologies. Where it takes hold, this proselytism serves to bolster gross domestic product and to increase achievable levels of income and wealth, hence it is selected for by the normative standards that govern public political discourse and that are encoded in some of the most influential theories of distributive justice. Yet it is a serious impediment to eudaemonia -- or the flourishing life properly understood.

The task of this essay will be to describe this form of proselytism and its dangers, to explain why the normative standards that inform public discourse and much contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy cannot properly highlight these dangers, and to set out certain elements of an eudaemonistic political philosophy capable of casting these dangers in a more revealing light.

Colin Campbell – University of York
Should We Blame it on the Joneses? Conspicuous Consumption and the Threat to Sustainability

Although sociologists generally consider Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption to have little relevance to an understanding of contemporary consumer behavior, a survey of the media shows that this is the most popular explanation for the public’s apparently insatiable demand for goods. This not only raises the question of who is right – sociologists or the public – but it also focuses attention on the importance of establishing whether conspicuous consumption is or is not the primary mechanism behind the ever-expanding levels of consumption that are typical of modern industrial societies.

Although the vague and contradictory nature of Veblen’s original formulation of this theory has led to some disagreement among sociologists over its correct interpretation, it is argued that only conduct motivated by a conscious attempt to maintain or enhance status in the eyes of a target audience deserves the term. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to obtain evidence to show whether people are behaving in this fashion. Hence all that can realistically be attempted is an assessment of the plausibility of Veblen’s thesis in comparison with suggested alternative explanations of consumer behavior, an exercise the results of which rather suggests its relative insignificance.

Pablo García Ruiz – University of Zaragoza
The Two Faces of Consumerism: When Things Make Us (in)Human

There is a growing consensus in contemporary culture on blaming “consumerism” as one of the major evils of our society. We (critical observers) think we (ordinary people) buy, use, keep, and eventually dispose of more things than we really need. This overspending causes devastating effects such as huge ecological damage and greater social inequalities. This waste of resources also seems to harm our own body and soul, since it fosters materialism, selfishness and even new forms of addiction.

However, it is not so easy to abandon the so-called consumerist way of life. It is a tough task to draw a line between what is enough and what is too much. As Colin Campbell (2010) has recently argued, criticisms of consumerism are usually built on taken-for-granted assumptions that are highly questionable and frequently contradictory. The very notion of need can hardly be objectified. The meaning of commodities and the motives of consumers vary greatly. They may express greed and envy but also love and care.

The ideology of consumerism puts us all in a troublesome situation. As Daniel Miller (2008) put it, the rhetoric behind the discourse of consumerism has become hopelessly muddled, submerged in a much older and wider critique of consumption as something intrinsically bad. On the one side, we cannot but agree with the idea of preserving the ecology and of avoiding moral evils. But on the other side, consumption activities are very important in our personal and social lives. It is not only that we cannot obviate consumption. It is that we use the world of things as a language to express our feelings and our projects. We use it to build, to maintain or to end our multiple relations with other people. The material side of our existence is definitely part of a creative human life.

This paper deals with the difficult problem of the distinction between consumption as a human creative practice, and consumerism as a contemporary plague.

Campbell, Colin, 2010, What’s wrong with consumerism, Anuario Filosófico, 43, 2, pp. 276-295.
Miller, Daniel, 2008, What’s wrong with consumption?, RSA Journal of the Royal Society for the Arts, Summer, pp. 44-47

Stjepan G. Mestrovic – Texas A&M University
Post-emotional Law in Consumer Society   

I draw upon my earlier work, Post-emotional Society, and key concepts in the works of Thorstein Veblen and Durkheim’s follower, Paul Fauconnet, to outline the beginnings of a new conceptualization of post-emotional law in consumer society. In Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen argued that modern consumer society was really a latter-day barbarism, or a new version of feudal society in which middle class consumers take on the role of serfs in relation to corporations as the leisure class. In La Responsabilite, Fauconnet argues that modernity involves the evolution of archaic, collective, and harsh notions of responsibility into modern, individual, and gentler laws concerning responsibility. However, he argues that ancient ideas concerning harsh and collective responsibility do not disappear, but are transformed.

I will examine common contemporary issues in responsibility and law regarding the consumer in relation to these ideas: contracts for credit cards, bank loans for home and automobiles, foreclosures, pensions, and so on. I extend my thesis that in post-emotional society, consumers are manipulated into believing and acting on the premises that they are free individuals with agency and the capacity to choose, whereas  harsh, ancient collective representations offer more explanatory power for assessing the realities of consumer society.

Allison Pugh – University of Virginia
The Planned Obsolescence of Other People: Consumer Culture, Insecurity and Connection

The hidden appeal of modern commodification is in its false promise to resolve our ambivalence about relationships, according to Arlie Hochschild.  Contemporary trends in many industrialized countries point to increasing insecurity at work and at home, and thus increasing opportunities for other people to fail us in our close relationships.  How does consumer culture shape the way we respond to the risk society? 

In this paper, I explore the ways in which adults manage uncertainty through consumer culture, including the language of rebranding, consumer choice in intimacy, and the planned obsolescence of other people.  I argue against the prevailing view of consumption as a perennially individualistic pursuit, urging scholars to attend to the varied circumstances under which people deploy it not only to distinguish but also to manage their connections to others. 

George Ritzer – University of Maryland
The Dehumanized Consumer: Does the Prosumer Offer Some Hope?

Being human in consumer society is, paradoxically, no easy matter. In this paper I plan to address that issue from the perspective of some of my recent and current work in the sociology of consumption. First, is the issue of the struggle against the dehumanization Max Weber associated with the rationalization of society and I, more recently, linked to both the McDonaldization of society (Ritzer, 1993/2011) and the cathedrals of consumption (Ritzer, 1999/2010). How human can we expect consumers to be in dehumanized consumption settings? Second, there is the issue of the struggle against the global proliferation of what I termed “nothing” and the search for “something” (Ritzer, 2004/2007).  Does the increase in “nothing” and decrease in “something” make humanized consumption less and less likely? Finally, the recent expansion of the prosumer and prosumption (the simultaneity of production and consumption) raises new issues that relate to being human in consumer (or is it prosumer?) society (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). First, is the consumer who prosumes (and most do) more or less human? Second, does being a prosumer rather than simply being a consumer give one more power? Third, is the prosumer really more human, more powerful? Or is prosumption more a tool to exploit people to a greater degree thereby making them less human?

Roberta Sassatelli – University of Milan
Consumers, Bodies and Selves. Framing Humanity Consumerwise

This paper investigates the historical formation and the specific configuration of a crucial tripartite relation in contemporary society, that which happens between the body, the self and material culture. The relation between the body, self and material culture in contemporary, post-industrial or late-modern societies has come to be largely defined through consumption. This happens at least at three levels: representational, subjective and institutional. Firstly, the imagery associated to consumption is central to visual representation in promotional culture which simultaneously revolves around the display of the body. Secondly, how individuals realize themselves as embodied subjects – that is how they manage corporeal identity participating in social interaction and how they experience and perform self and body - happens largely via the use of commodities and on the backdrop of a promotional imagery. Finally, a variety of consumer spaces, contexts and institutions increasingly address the individual as a sensuous, embodied subject in search of personal gratification and improvement.

In this paper, I shall deal with all these three levels, considering the broad literature that may be brought to bear on how representations, subjectivities and institutions converge and diverge in the shaping of consumers’ embodied selves. The first level is, indeed, typically addressed by critical theories of consumer culture as advertising, image proliferation and promotional culture. Here the self is portrayed as being largely reduced to the (surface of the) body. The body in its turn features as “the most beautiful object of consumption” – to use Baudrillard’s phrase. When dealing with the second level we encounter at least two significant streams of work: one deriving from Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and considering that embodied dispositions of tastes are mapped onto social divisions, class in particular, which consumers’ lifestyles make visible; the other deriving from theories of reflexive individualization which stress the reflexive, strategic role of individuals in stylizing one’s own selves through a variety of body projects. In both streams, body and self are posited as in a dialectical relation mediated by commodities and mediating social reproduction (responding, respectively, either to class/gender divisions and hierarchies or to individualization and cultural de-classification).

Reaching the third level we will then come across a quite varied set of suggestions, theories and even disciplines: just like contemporary marketing is very aware of the sensory and situational component of consumption, we get a number of studies on how, especially in the leisure sphere, institutions of consumption address the individual consumer as embodied self. Places such as the restaurant, the spa, the beauty centre, the tourist village, the theme park and the fitness gyms are becoming key institutions for the production and display of legitimate embodied selves. Concentrating on a few examples, the paper discusses these institutions considering how participants address their role as individual consumers of increasingly standardized products. Finally, I conclude on the normalization of consumers’ subjectivity, dealing with how body/mind-self dualism has come to be rendered in contemporary Western consumer culture.

Efrat Tseëlon – University of Leeds
The Challenge of Ethical Fashion

Ethical fashion, fair trade, and other grass root movements are among the most human faces of globalization, which has done more than anything to erode the sense of community and solidarity.  The desire to improve the human rights record of fashion-producing plants in the developing world that supplies the Western world’s demand for fashion variety is a noble mission.  However it is not enough.

The fashion world is in denial of the real unethical aspects of fashion, using the trend towards “ethical fashion” as a kind of a “conscience tax” or a “conscience laundering” tool, as a diversion and distraction from the industry and the system’s more cynical face. While a debate on the ethics of fashion is a welcome addition to the landscape of perspectives looking at this form of social activity, concern about employment rights in countries to which production has been outsourced masks a whole range of unethical issues connected to fashion closer to home. A partial list includes the rights of migrant textile workers in Europe,  the environmental damage inflicted by certain ethical solutions,  the toxic aspects of the fashion and beauty industry, animal welfare, and the images and role models it presents to the consuming eye, especially the vulnerable eye of teenagers, who are its most loyal followers.

Two fundamental features of fashion are:
1. The reliance on obsolescence
2. The fetishisation of emotions, desires and values into material objects.
Both look incompatible with the ethical mission.

The paper will examine them and their compatibility with the ethical agenda.