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The Consumer Society

Scope and Definition

Overview Essay by Neva R. Goodwin

The scope of this volume must depend, in part, on how we define the subject with which we are grappling. What is the -- or a -- Consumer Society? Let us start with a smaller part of that question: what is consumption?

Economic and Other Views on Consumption

In the Introduction to this volume we said that we would restrict our exploration to the economic concept of "final" consumption, most often associated with households (as distinct from, for example, the consumption or use of materials by firms, or by governments). This accords with most economic theory and modeling, which is concerned with the consumption of goods and services that have been purchased from a "producer" and are then in some way used by the "consumer". The conventional view of consumption in economics presents it as a simple, individual, readily quantified process of satisfying well-defined needs. This section will consider some alternative views which have recently gained prominence, diverging from mainstream economic theory in two different directions.

The "sociological view" (held by others as well as sociologists) emphasizes the social and symbolic meanings of consumption. The "environmentalist view" emphasizes the material implications of consumption, in light of potential ecological limits to growth.

One starting point for the sociological view has come from economics. Kelvin Lancaster pointed out that what we seek when we set out to make a purchase is not a good itself, but rather its characteristics. Along similar lines, Harry Johns on has noted that what we actually consume may or not be the good, but will, in any case, be the "service" that the good can provide. For example, when we buy a hat we are seeking the characteristics of style, warmth, rain or sun protection, etc. We won't actually consume the hat, but will consume the services contributed by its characteristics (e.g., the feelings. See section 6 for the Muth/Becker use of this concept, and for the summary of Lancaster's article.

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