Social divisions created by the way in which material goods and services—especially major items such as housing, health, and education—are consumed in advanced capitalist societies.
The possible significance of patterns of consumption in determining social stratification was recognized by Max Weber, who observed that status groups are ‘stratified according to the principles of their consumption of goods’. Similarly, Thorstein Veblen analysed the conspicuous consumption of the so-called leisure class. Debates about housing classes and collective consumption during the 1960s and 1970s led some sociologists to claim that consumption-based cleavages had become more significant, than production-based divisions. In Britain this claim has been reinforced by psephological studies which claim to show that, during the 1980s, the public/private housing-tenure divide became more important than social class in determining voting behaviour (the so-called dealignment thesis).
According to a leading theorist of consumption cleavages, ‘a sociological analysis of the different patterns of consumption—state provision in kind, state provision in cash, self-provisioning, and marketed or privatized provisioning—is…central to an understanding of certain key features of contemporary social organization’ (P. Saunders, Social Theory and the Urban Question, 1986). In practice, discussion has concentrated on private (market) and socialized (state) provision, since (according to Saunders) the main consumption-based division in contemporary capitalist societies is between those who satisfy their needs through personal ownership and those who remain reliant on socialized state provision. Moreover, given the choice, those who can afford to do so choose privatized and market-based, in preference to socialized, consumption—for example of housing, health care, and education. This undermines political support for welfare regimes (and parties which promote them) and has negative effects on the quality of what welfare institutions provide for those who remain dependent on them. This creates a major social division between a ‘marginalised and stigmatised minority…cast adrift on the water-logged raft of what remains of the welfare state’, and a privatized majority, with increasing freedom to choose among better-quality market-based consumption possibilities.
There are many criticisms of this theory of sectional cleavages. Increasingly, sociologists accept the need for a closer analysis of the relationship between differing modes of consumption and possible social divisions these create, but many reject Saunders's conclusions about the merits and demerits of privatized and socialized provision. A majority would probably question whether consumption cleavages rather than (say) social class determines life-chances and political alignments, though there is a growing amount of evidence concerning its importance in social identity. There is, however, evidence that consumption cleavages are classdependent rather than independent determinants of social processes. Some critics have argued that the theory is ethnocentric (being mainly concerned with the situation in Britain); others argue that the distinction between socialized and market-based consumption is unrealistic, since the public sector frequently supports apparently privatized consumption. Empirical studies have also shown that attitudes to welfarism vary according to the particular social service under discussion and that the major determinant of voting behaviour (at least in Britain) is still social class. The debate about these findings has led to some further refinements of the original theory which, together with developments elsewhere in sociology, has contributed to a growing volume of literature on the sociology of consumption.