A commodity (including goods, services, occupations, or other social relationships) that is either scarce in an absolute or socially imposed sense, or subject to crowding or congestion through more extensive use. Examples would include everything from top jobs, pleasant tourist locations or desirable residential areas, to front seats at the opera.
What these diverse goods and situations have in common is that the satisfactions obtained from them derive in part from scarcity and social exclusiveness. Moreover, shortfalls in the supply of such items cannot be overcome by economic growth alone, since (to put the matter at its most simple) expansions in productivity do not change the fact that not everyone can be President of the Company and not everyone can have tickets to the Superbowl. In Social Limits to Growth (1976), Fred Hirsch identifies a wide range of jobs and goods that are subject to positional competition, and argues that affluent societies (see embourgeoisement) are increasingly prone to distributional conflict over facilities and services which cannot be acquired or used by all without spoiling them for all. Or, as Hirsch puts it, ‘what each of us can achieve, all cannot’. A few tourists can enjoy the attractions of a secluded beach; if we all attempt to enjoy them then the attractions themselves are destroyed.
Hirsch's view of positional competition contrasts with the optimism of many conventional theories of economic growth. The latter tend to assume that increases in productivity solve distributional issues (since there is more pie to go round), and overlook the fact that the expanding sphere of what is generally called ‘public consumption’ actually contains some of the characteristics of private goods, in that its costs and benefits can be or are confined to a limited group. Few consumption items are either purely private or wholly public. To a thirsty worker, the satisfaction of a cold beer is unaffected by the beers other people drink, since the drink itself is a private good. At the other extreme, clean air is a pure public good, since the quality of the air each individual breathes is wholly dependent on what other individuals do by way of encouraging or preventing pollution. However, in advanced capitalist societies, the major (and a growing) part of so-called private consumption actually contains a social (positional) element. Paradoxically, social scarcity is therefore a consequence of affluence, and (for Hirsch at least) this tends to suggest that the principle of self-interest will not serve by itself as a basis for social organization, since a distributional or social morality will be required in order to manage positionality problems. Unfortunately, such societies possess a ‘depleting moral legacy’ of pre-industrial and pre-capitalist status orders, and concern for the welfare of the community has largely given way to the increasing pursuit of individual advantage.
The issues of positionality have provoked stimulating interdisciplinary exchanges between social scientists in economics, politics, sociology, and psychology, although critics have since challenged Hirsch's pessimistic view of growth and his possibly romantic view of the West's pre-industrial past (see A. Ellis and K. Kumar (eds.), Dilemmas of Liberal Democracies, 1983).