Shopping a way of life? I'll buy that


November 12, 1999

While other "isms" that have become staples of sociology syllabuses seem to have been around for ever, consumerism feels like a newcomer. Unlike the lofty concepts of Marxism, feminism and postmodernism, it is something that all students have direct experience of. "Consumerism is an important topic for sociologists precisely because it appears, at a commonsense level, to be somewhat inconsequential," insists Steven Miles.

Consumerism's historical roots set against a paradigm shift from work to leisure are dealt with early on in this book, as are the dutifully reiterated theoretical perspectives of Marx, Weber, Bourdieu and Baudrillard. However, it is in the main body of the book that Miles really comes into his own as the present comes under the microscope.

In chapters examining matters ranging from the Sony Walkman to fashion, a number of points emerge that reflect consumerism's multifaceted nature and underpin Miles's contention that consumerism may be the religion of the late 20th century.

The debates explored have implications for us all, such as the galloping standardisation of shopping malls worldwide, termed "McDonaldisation". The liberating potential of technology weighed against limited access concerns is also discussed. The ever-cosying sport/consumerism love-in identified by Miles has recently been reignited with controversy over the acquisition of stakes in football clubs by television companies and BSkyB's failed bid for Manchester United FC. In considering the tensions between creativity and commercialism in pop, Miles argues that the Spice Girls' talk of "girl power" represents "a commodification of female sexuality and the prioritisation of image over substance", although his view of world and dance musics as the only truly "anti-commercial" and "authentic" contemporary musical forms is surely dubious, as are the very concepts themselves in an age of remix and revival.

However, none of these problematics is seen as an inherent evil. Miles studiously avoids leftist labelling of consumerism as a movement of false consciousness that succeeds only in duping its public. He deftly debunks the opinions of those who see it "through... designer-tinted spectacles". For him, consumerism is a way of life. Its ultimate paradox is that it never leaves its public satisfied. Whether one agrees with the primacy Miles attaches to consumerism or not, no one can doubt that he has produced a lucid, wide ranging and illuminating survey of what is an inescapable fact of contemporary society.

Rupa Huq is a researcher, post-16 studies unit, department of education, University of Manchester.

Consumerism: As a Way of Life

Author - Steven Miles
ISBN - 0 7619 5215 2
Publisher - Sage
Price - £14.99
Pages - 174

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