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Identity and Consumer Culture

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3373 words Published: 23rd Jul 2018

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In the post-modern society, consumption became a very notion in people’s day-to-day life, consumer culture occupies the central position over the historical process of later modernity in the west, no matter we are black or white, fat or slim, male or female, doctor or housewife, European or Australian, people with a wide range of identities act as consumers in daily lives are obviously. The main task of this essay is to discuss the relationship between consumer culture and individual’s identity, whether the contemporary concepts of identity ‘fit’ with the qualities of a consumer culture, whether the qualities of consumer culture pose particular challengers for individuals to construct their identities. This essay was divided into two main parts: in the first part, different theoretical perspectives both on identity and consumer culture will be discussed; in the second central part, the essay will analyze and demonstrate how these two themes interrelated with each other.

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Over the centuries, there were a series of approaches on the subject about identity and self-identity from different aspects: psychology, social psychology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy, this essay will talk about identity from sociology and psychology perspectives. As Mach (2007) argues that identity is a symbolic construction, it is an image of ourselves, which we build in a process of communication with others. Therefore, it is dynamic and contextual, improving via dialogue and through the different ways in which people exchange the meaning of the diversity of symbols that constitute their cultural atmosphere and their social relations. Such as material culture, literature, ritual and myth, they are all the cultural heritage of people involved in the interaction, many other symbolic constructions (including these) plays a part in the process of construction of images, acting as the material out of which all these images as well as borders between groups are constructed. “The construction of the identity of one’s self and of others involves not only building symbolic images but also power relations,” (March, 2007, p.54-55) which we must take into consideration. Between social groups there is an unequal balance of power, the process of communal symbolic identification take up the character of sustaining and legitimising the existing state of affairs through creating and re-creating the identity of all the members in that social context. Changes of symbolic identification and types of identity result from changes in the balance of power. Ardener claims that the construction of image of others and their model of identity is a performance of imposition (Andener, 1989 in Mach, 2007). The acceptance of this imposed identification may result from it. A person of a group may usually accept their identity as it has been created by their partners in the structure of society, in particular, if these partners conquer a stronger position in the structure of society. (Mach, 2007)

Mach continues argues that there are two factors affect identity: one is the social relations of power and another one is the symbolic image of the world. The former contains not only the inner power structure within the group but also the relations with other groups. For example, if the power structure is a particular social group is incapacitated or oppressed, then its possibility to develop activities in which its identity shaped and transformed can be impaired. The latter factor is the conceptual foundation of these activities. (Mach, 2007)

From a psychological perspective, Erik (1968) claims that identity formation makes use of a process of concurrent reflection and observation, a process happens on all levels of mental functioning, by which the individual judges him/herself on the basis of what he/she perceives to be the way in which other people judge him/her in comparison to themselves, while he/she judges their way of judging him/her in accordance with how he /she perceives him/herself in comparison to them and to models that have become pertinent to him/her. This process is more often than not unconscious except where internal conditions and external circumstances combine to aggravate an elated, or painful, “identity-consciousness.” (Erik, 1968, p.23) Furthermore, the process is always developing and changing, increasing differentiation and it becomes more comprehensive as the individual produces aware of a broadening circle of others significant to him/her. Finally, discussing with identity, we can not separate mutual change and personal growth, nor can we detach the identity crisis in person’s life and present crisis in historical development, because these two combine to define each other and are relative to each other. (Erik, 1968) Those are two theoretical perspectives on identity, next, let us move on to look at the concept of consumer culture.

Everyday when we wake up we began to consume, using toothpaste and facial cleanser to wash, having some bread and a bottle of milk for breakfast, then we go to work produce goods, services or experiences for others to consume. Then we taking a break from work only to consume a delicious sandwich in the restaurant, after work we go to some clubs or pubs, if we still have some energy, go shopping or enjoying an incomparable concert, or even bought a CD and listening through computer. Therefore, “our daily life is typically organized as alternating between times/space of work and times/spaces of consumption.”(Sassatelli, R, 2007, p.3) So consumption has played a pivotal role in our daily life. In the modern world, central social practice and cultural values, identities, aspirations and ideas are defined and oriented relative to consumption rather than other social aspects, such as religious cosmology or military role. (Slater, 1997)

As for Slater (1997), consumer culture is the main mode of cultural production developed over the course of modernity in the west. It stands for a social arrangement in which the relation between social resources and lived culture, between meaningful ways of life and the material and symbolic resources on which they rely, is arbitrated through markets. Consumer culture establish a system in which consumption is controlled by the consumption of commodities, and in which cultural reproduction is mainly understood to be performed through the practice of liberated personal choice in the private sphere of everyday life.

Slater (1997) outlined some main features and characters in consumer culture: first, consumer culture is a culture of consumption. When considering this need to regard the main values of a society to be organized through consumption practice as well as in some sense to derive from them. Therefore, we might describe contemporary society as a pecuniary culture based on money, as materialistic, as commodified or as a society of choice and consumer sovereignty. Moreover, values from the sphere of consumption spill over into other areas of social action, such that modern society is totally a consumer culture, and not just in its specially consuming activities. Second, consumer culture is the culture of market society. We usually consume goods, services and experiences which have been produced exclusively with the purpose of being sold on the market to consumers. To a certain extent, essential to our consumption is the action of choosing among a series of alternative commodities produced by organizations and institutions which are not interested in cultural values and need but in economic values and profit. The consumer’s access to consumption is organized by the distribution of material and cultural sources-money and taste- which itself is determined by market relations – wage relation and social class. Third, in principle, consumer culture is universal and impersonal. Although we know that access to commodities is limited by access to money, commodity consumption is treated in principle as the activity of whole population. The idea of selling products is not designed to the needs of a unique and known person or community, however, which might be sold to anyone anywhere, presumes generalizable and impersonal relations of exchange as the foundation for mediating consumption. Fourth, consumer culture identifies freedom with private choice and life. Consumer choice is a private action, it is merely the ordinary version of the broader notion of private, individual freedom. However, the individual privacy choice seems to contradict social order, authority and solidarity. In many aspects, this is the main critics in consumer culture. Fifth, in principle, consumer needs are insatiable and unlimited. In consumer culture, the continuous desire for more and the continuous production of more desires is taken to be normal for its citizens as well as crucial for socio-economic progress and order. The increased is widely understood as both a spur and a response to individual’s desires to become increasingly imaginative, sophisticated and personal, as well as individual’s desire to advance themselves economically and socially. Sixth, within a post-traditional society, consumer culture is privileged medium for negotiating identity and status- the communication and practice of social position-under these conditions, tradition regulation is replaced by construction and negotiation, and consumer goods are important to the way in which we construct our social appearance, networks and our structures of our social value. However, Consumer culture is a contradiction in terms of culture because it characterizes the destruction of a stable traditional social order by capitalist and industrial relations that degrade real culture, challenge the social values that are essential for social solidarity and render people’s social identities fluid and unstable.

Through consumer culture, through the use of goods, services and experiences that we formulate ourselves as social identities and present these identities. Goods can indicate social identity, but in the post-traditional society, comparing to others identity seems to be more a function of consumption. The images we constructed on the external of our bodies, our living location -appearance- become a central way of understanding and identifying ourselves and each other. (Slater, 1997) In terms of appearance, Giddens argues that bodily appearance and demeanour become especially important with the advent of modernity and modes of facial adornment or dress to some degrees mean individualization. (Giddens, A, 1991)

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On the one hand, our personal impression manifest our identity, so we consume certain goods to make ourselves look better and feel better which could be considered as a sign we construct our self-identity. For example, women consume cosmetics and beautiful dress to make them look good; some people use weight loss products to make them look slim; others may go to health clubs to built muscles or practice yoga to make them healthy. “We choose these goods over others precisely because they are not neutral, because they are culturally incompatible and even in opposition to those perspectives on the organization of society and identity which we want to refute. In this sense consumption is ‘the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape’.” (Sassatelli, 2007, p.98) This means that consumption reflects fundamental choices of which type of society we want to live in and which type of person we wish to be, and what we do not agree to take and what we do not want to be. (Sassatelli, 2007) It is a process of internal self-examination and self-communication. In this process, people judge themselves, classify themselves and make themselves to choose, because “consumers have sovereignty over their own needs, desires, wants, identities.” (Slater, 1997, p.34)

On the other, “goods ‘are good to think’: they can be treated as symbolic means of classifying the world, as the tools of a particular form of non-verbal communication.” (Douglas, M, 1996) Our world and society are classifies by goods into different class, lower class, middle class and upper class, people within different class have different social identity, according to Slater (1997), in principle consumers needs are insatiable and unlimited and “whose desires grow much faster than their fortunes,” (Ewen, 1999) So people in different class with different social identity and status want to rank among a advanced class to pursue ‘higher’ identity in the manner of high value consumption. For instance, some may choose to go further for education and get masters degree or doctors degree; or others may choose to consume a famous brand to flatter their self-esteem, such as Chanel, Gucci, Christian Dior, Swarovski, Lancôme and so forth, therefore, some factories may copy those fashionable and popular luxuries from upper class to fulfill those individual’s desire and satisfaction on proving their social identities and status. “A growing market in cheap luxury items allowed others to purchase the symbolic accoutrements of status.” (Ewen, 1999, p. 59)

We could negotiate, define, improve or observe our identities through goods, through consumption, through consumer culture; we also could be defined, guided and identified by those goods, institutions or communities vice versa, they are important in our daily life for constructing, reconstructing and maintaining our identity. Consumer culture offers wide range of guidance on the relation between the expanding sphere of meaningful consumer goods, experiences and services and the scheme of maintaining a self. This comes in the form of consumer magazines and the consumerist editorial columns in more general magazines as well as in the form of advertising. (Slater, 1997) For example, a teenage magazine named sugar considered as ‘style bible’ for the teenage girl readers, because it provides a wide range of guides and instructions in the operations of femininity. To some degree, the developments in the teenage magazine industry during the 1990s can be seen as an intensification of the process of ‘logic of consumption’. Increasingly promotional and editorial features have tied the ‘making of adolescent feminine selves’ to the deployment and acquisition of appropriate goods and products and celebrated shopping and consumption as specifically feminine pleasures. Marketing publishers and directors were particularly active in constructing the figure of different consumers’ identity to meet the logic of consumer capitalism, and creating a ‘natural fit’ between the demands and desires of those consumers with the solutions provided by the magazine product. Magazines are presented as dominant to the successful management of their readers who will have developed a ‘strong sense of their own identity’. (Bell & Hollows, 2005, p. 173-177) Also, advertisement is another ‘guidance’ guide us orientate ourselves for constructing self-identity. Slater (1997, p.86) claimed that in a commercial world, advertising provides ‘maps of modernity’, authoritative, ‘discourses through and about objects’ which allow us to orient ourselves to the social meanings of things. For example, appealing to insecurities and dissatisfaction around the job, certain advertisements not only offered their goods as a sort of job insurance, but also suggested that through the usage of their products one might become a business success-the capitalist concept of individual ‘self-‘ fulfillment. (Ewen, 1976, p. 46-47) However, under some circumstances, some advertisement or promotional images may not genuine or if the individual read them amiss, they may be lead very wide astray, because “a promotional message is a complex of significations which at once represents, advocates, and anticipates the circulating entity or entities to which it refers.” (Wernick,1991)

People with different identities or people want to prove their distinct identities depend on ‘choosing’, “we have no choice but to choose” (Giddens, A, 1991, p.81), choosing according to one’s taste is a issue of identifying goods that are objectively adjust to one’s position. (Bourdieu, P, 1984) However, consumer culture increases the individual’s experiences of anxiety and risk by offering more choice images and choices of different identities and by raising the sense of social risk let in for making the ‘wrong choice’, This kind of risk may cause identity crisis to some extent with the process of modernity. The description of modernity as mass identity crisis link up with consumer culture in several ways: first, the symbol of individual choice controls our sense of the social. Social structure and action are progressively understood in terms of individual choices take on in relation to the needs of/for self. Through the image of consumption modern identity is best understood. In the pluralized social world we choose a self-identity from the shop-window; objects, experiences and actions are all reflexively confronted as part of the need to maintain and construct self-identity. Second, identity itself can be seen as a commodity which can be sale. Self is not an internal sense of authenticity but rather a predictable condition of social success and survival. We have to create and ‘sell’ an identity to a variety of social markets with the purpose of having intimate relationships, jobs and social standing. Third, both material and symbolic resources through which we create and maintain identities increasingly take the form of consumer goods and actions through which we create appearance and arrange social encounters and leisure time. Conversely, in post-traditional anomie, the quest for identity is debatably the greatest market of all, or the motivation underlies all markets, at least, marketing take for granted that we want goods primarily for the desirable and meaningful identities with which they might endow us. At the same time consumerism exploits mass identity crisis by offering its goods as solutions to the problems of identity, and in the procedure strengthens it by proffering ever more plural values and methods of being. Consumer culture breeds and lives in the cultural deficits of modernity. (Slater, D, 1997)

As a conclusion, this essay goes overview the Mach and Erik’s perspective on identity and Slater’s concept about consumer culture and analyzes the relationship between those two themes: through consumer culture individuals could construct self-identity and present these identities when consuming, because goods can indicate social identity, in another word, people could construct identity in the back ground of consumer culture, this is a process we depend on our ‘self’ and active. Also, we were received and guided through ‘media consumption’ vice versa, this point was demonstrated by magazines and advertisement in consumer culture, and within this process compared to the previous one individuals are not so active to construct identity to some extent, they were guided by media information. Last, people making ‘choice’ when consuming, when we make the ‘wrong choice’ will lead to ‘identity crisis’, consumer culture increases the individual’s experiences of anxiety and risk by offering more choice images and choices of different identities and by raising the sense of social risk let in for making the ‘wrong choice’, This kind of risk may cause identity crisis to some extent with the process of modernity. Therefore, for the previous two points identity is ‘fit’ with the contemporary notions of consumer culture, and for the last one, consumer culture poses the challenge for constructing an identity.


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