Consumption and Its Consequences

Hedonism and selfish materialism are noticeably absent from the shopping list, says Eric J. Arnould

May 24, 2012

Daniel Miller's new book argues for three critical points, with which I happen to concur. Observing him pound these points home makes me wish fervently that it was Miller who was regularly invited to offer critical commentary on materialism, consumerism or climate change policy on BBC Radio 4 and not the usual public intellectuals who do little more than echo received wisdom or "economic pseudo-science" (Miller's term). His insights here deserve a wider hearing. The book seeks to be formally innovative and more accessible than the average academic book. However, while the polemical arguments are relatively winning, the format is perhaps less successful than the author might wish.

Of the three critical points, the first is one that Miller has argued since his first book in 1987. The argument is that consumption is almost always glossed as a moral failing, when in fact it is a necessary constituent of culture; indeed, a reflexive relationship with things defines the human condition. But worse, this misunderstanding leads to misrepresentation, which in turn leads to a long-standing, misguided association of consumption with all sorts of social and moral pathologies. Miller also summarises his three wonderful theoretical ideas about consumption. First is the peanut-butter theory, the point that much contemporary consumption is driven by the desire to find lowest-common-denominator solutions that please most, delight few and offend none. I concur, believing that this is the marketing strategy that accounts for the success of middlebrow chain restaurants. His second theory holds that most shopping is mundane rather than hedonistic. And mundane shopping is governed by an overarching morality of thrift and is an act of devotional love and dutiful labour that (mostly female) shoppers direct to the glorification of the family. In thrift-driven shopping, the ancient tripartite structure of religious sacrifice can also be detected. And his third theory may be called either the denim theory or the little black dress theory. The idea is that a good bit of consumption is driven by the goal of achieving normality: in my work, I have referred to this under the rubric of authoritative performance. It is an idea we get from Hegel, by way of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, that consumption is about stabilising cultural categories and principles within culturally particular webs of significance. This theory has legs: for example, it helps explain the passion for branded products in zones recovering from conflict, where brands may represent stability, continuity and normality for traumatised populations. These theories give the lie to popular representations of consumption as wasteful, hedonistic and selfish materialism.

The second major point is that consumption has little directly to do with the planetary environmental catastrophe that is slowly unfolding (anyway, much of the world still struggles with underconsumption: pleas for asceticism in emerging economies will go unheeded - and rightly so, Miller argues). More importantly, directing political efforts to reforming consumption will have little consequence for this catastrophe. The problem actually lies in two other parts of the global economic system - production and distribution. Indeed, climate science, as Miller agrees, would tend to support this assertion. He places his proposal for combating climate change in the mouths of three protagonists who populate his first and last chapters. It boils down to allowing natural science to arbitrate the nature of climate change, government to regulate production and distribution more effectively, and education to promote lasting changes in values. The proposals are better argued than my summary but perhaps run counter to some of Miller's own findings. But his masterful explanation in Chapter 5 of how the morality of thrift conflicts with so-called "ethical consumption" to the detriment of the latter is worth the price of the book.

And the third major point is that citizens ought to wrest control of the debate over the first two issues - climate change and consumption - from economics and psychology. Miller roundly condemns these fields as pernicious pseudo-sciences in Chapter 6. The problem with economics' stranglehold over public commentary about matters of public interest including consumption and climate change, as has been argued by eminent anthropologists such as Maurice Godelier in the 1960s, Marshall Sahlins in the 1970s and now Miller, is that it is primarily an ideological justification for the culture of capitalism. With notable exceptions such as Amartya Sen, Miller suggests, economic thinking conjoins an extreme mathematical methodolatry ill-suited to accounting for underdetermined human culture with a simplistic moral philosophy and a utopian nostalgia for a world of emotionless, rational automata. This provokes all sorts of mischief in social policy, including that related to climate change.

Two qualities detract from this engaging work. Miller tends to ignore both significant social theory about, and ethnographic and anthropologically inspired work on, consumption outside that produced by a circle of British anthropological colleagues and students at University College London. A few examples: a discussion of immigrant identity-seeking through consumption ignores much work on "culture swapping" and the post-assimilationist approach to migrant consumer culture more generally that has developed over the past 15 years. He also argues that he is alone in taking a stance on consumption that marks an advance on the views of the early 20th-century commentator Thorstein Veblen, who codified the ideas of conspicuous consumption and status competition through consumption. Here, forefathers Georges Bataille, Georg Simmel and Jean Baudrillard are given short shrift, especially (and inexcusably) the last of them. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and Zygmunt Bauman, fellow contemporary scholars of materiality, are likewise conspicuously absent. At one point in the book, Miller rediscovers the well-known disconnect between account managers and cultural creatives in the advertising world, and the chestnut that advertising's direct effects are indeterminant. This lapse in perspective is ironic because recognition of the disconnect, not only between creatives and account managers but also between them, brand managers and business strategists, has given rise to - wait for it - an explosion of employment in corporate anthropology and ethnography, like that of the practitioners who annually gather at the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference.

This neglect of contemporary scholarship and its antecedents in Continental social theory induces two unfortunate effects. First, it renders the book occasionally parochial, and second, conveys a certain hard-spiritedness. This is a pity for someone who strives to be a contributing public intellectual, and whose voice should certainly be heard in many quarters. And to a classically trained anthropologist like me, it appears to shirk one of our primary disciplinary responsibilities: namely, to listen as hard as we might to the many disparate voices that make up the human conversation, and in turn to let them be heard by others.

A second weakness is the format. Miller bookends four engaging, fairly scholarly chapters with two written in the form of a dialogue between the three academic personae: a Filipina whose role is to represent the voice of the poor in emerging economies, and two blokes, one of whom represents a kind of woolly green activism and the other a middle-of-the-road reformist social scientist. I loudly applaud Miller for exploring alternative modes of representation, but the dialogue is stilted, especially when compared with the more conventional prose on offer in other chapters. And the problem here is that despite Miller's aim for accessibility, only the well-educated public-minded citizen will navigate them. For stylists of consumption, there is still only one person to turn to and that is Stephen Brown, the University of Ulster academic renowned for his brilliant send-ups of consumption and marketing.

The Author

"World music and the Womad festival naturally appeal to an anthropologist," says Daniel Miller of his pastimes, "but I also enjoy sitting in pubs and listening to people. Is being nosy a pastime?"

He took a first degree in archaeology at the University of Cambridge. Shifting his attention to anthropology and "people still living", he has spent his entire academic career at University College London. "It has become the key site for studying material culture, my core academic I don't see anywhere else to tempt me."

A prolific author, he tends "to concentrate on my own writing in the morning when I am more alert. Knowing that one's own work is accounted for then allows you to be more interested in and generous to students and others by the afternoon."

Miller lives in London with his wife Rickie Burman, "the director and pretty much the creator of the modern and exemplary Jewish Museum in London", and their "two entirely wonderful children, Rachel and David".

Pressed to name a few of his own favourite things, the acclaimed observer of our deep feelings for "stuff" says: "I am fascinated by consumption, but I don't think I could ever feel as attached to things I have purchased as to objects made by my children or inherited from my family."

Consumption and Its Consequences

By Daniel Miller


200pp, £50.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780745661070 and 661087

Published 1 June 2012

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