Jo Littler

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

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“Consumerism” is a word with multiple meanings and histories. To begin with, it is frequently conflated with “consumption,” but it is useful to make a conceptual distinction between these terms. Whereas “consumption” tends to mean the general using up of an object, a good, or a service, regardless of what kind of economic or ideological context the consumption is happening in, “consumerism” is more often used to denote the logic of consuming within a particular type of social and political system: consumer capitalism. Within this system, consumerism encompasses the presumption that increased consumption is necessary for the economy in general through the generation of private profit and economic growth. This is the most common contemporary usage of “consumerism,” and it is one that has been in general currency since the mid-20th century. However, as concern with the implications of a system inciting the continual expansion of consumption grows, both on an economic and an environmental basis (whether because of anxieties over, e.g., “boom and bust” recession or global warming), “consumerism” has also become a term carrying a derogatory connotation for those critical of this political and social system and its ideology of rapacious material acquisition. However, in addition there is an earlier and quite different use of the term “consumerism,” meaning the actions of those involved in consumer movements and organizations. This usage refers to services and campaigns mounted by or on behalf of the consumer. As Matthew Hilton points out in his books Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Prosperity for All (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), by the late 20th century this particular meaning of the word “consumerism”—consumer-led action interventions in the matter of what got sold, and how—was becoming increasingly obsolete. As the types of intervention and campaigns emanating from the consumer became more likely to be termed “anticonsumerism” rather than “consumerism,” this earlier meaning has largely faded away. Hilton ascribes such a linguistic volte-face to the failure of this particular strand of the consumer movement to intervene successfully within wider political cultures, arguing that it gradually became entrenched with the less politically charged work of comparative testing and less concerned with the challenges to corporate power that were to become the hallmark of later anticonsumerist movements.

Article.  5639 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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