Illustration by Ivan Brunetti
Illustration by Ivan Brunetti
Consumer society has a history of approximately three hundred years and basically caused a nonreligious revolution.

Why Do We Buy?

A look at America’s consumer society

It is Record Store Day in Chicago.

Snaking around the dusty bins at my local record shop is a line of people with their arms full of vinyl records. In this bastion of obscure albums and obscene movies, our careful and hipster shopping certainly bears no resemblance to the hordes of shoppers on the Magnificent Mile, who seem to buy as mindlessly as they wander down the sidewalk. Surely our spelunking into the aging nooks and crannies of recorded musical culture is not the same as the Midwestern tourists with their arms full of bags from American Girl Place and Macy’s, is it?

Although these two scenes seem worlds apart, the psychological reasons for buying these goods may be quite similar. Take, for example, this superciliously jaded young man on his way to the register with a rare pressing of an album by an obscure anarcho-punk band from the 1970s. Why is he buying this particular record? Is it the same reason a little girl on Michigan Avenue asks her parents to buy her a doll with the same hair color as hers? To answer this modest question one must zoom out and onto the consumer society that is America, for it is in this cultural context where each of these examples occur—a place where buying is the way an individual’s identity comes to be enacted and displayed to, and for, others. That is to say, to answer the little question we must ask the big question: Why do we buy?

Consumer society has a history of approximately three hundred years and basically caused a nonreligious revolution. It changed every possible feature of social life, leading to no less than a new definition of self-identity and one’s relationship to society. Historically, the well-documented emergence of the Consumer Revolution coincided with the Industrial Revolution (1750–1850). The latter made possible mass production and wider channels of distribution of consumer goods and necessitated a correlative demand for the goods that were now being pumped out more efficiently. The factories themselves were staffed by employees with money to spend after buying necessities, such as food and basic clothing, and discretionary spending beyond the aristocratic class began in earnest.

According to noted anthropologist Dr. Grant McCracken in his book Culture and Consumption, many of the important developments of the Consumer Revolution in the eighteenth century are still with us today, including: the participation of subordinate classes in consumption, a rise in the importance and ubiquity of advertising and sophisticated marketing, the obsolescence of goods, and a shift in the symbolic properties of consumer goods that came to assume a gatekeeping role for social mobility. During the period of the maturation of consumer society, consumption of goods at first overlapped with, then slowly became the foundation of, how we express our identities in our social lives. It became a vital component in what it means to be an individual.

America is considered a consumer society because a significant proportion of our social interactions and institutions are mediated by acts of consumption. Buying stuff is so important that in his first address to the nation on the night of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush made it a point to announce that “the American economy will be open for business” tomorrow. In fact, the way a society is structured economically (in the case of America, as a developed capitalist consumer society) provides cultural and social structures for its citizens, and effects how we relate to each other. But, of course, social structures are built atop our natural human minds, with their need for social interaction and tribal identity.

Though our species’ gregariousness seems dampened in public spaces with the advent of smartphones and the warm glow of television in the evening, humans remain very much social creatures. Indeed, new technology has led to, for better or worse, new ways to be social—the incessant text messaging, the curated virtual self of Facebook, being drawn into the drama of the latest reality celebrity’s soap opera, and so on. So many (and some experts would say all) of our actions are directed toward social goals, such as pleasing a friend or a lover, meeting new people, or impressing your superiors. But what is the platform upon which we scratch our indelible marks of individuality and uniqueness for others to see?

It seems we all share the platform of having an identity—who one is, a collection of personal characteristics (such as one’s values), where one is from, one’s aspirations, and so on. One way to put this is, identity is the currency of being an individual within society. In a highly urbanized society where anonymity is the norm, many of the traditional markers of social identity, such as ancestral line and family trades, are less visible. Consumer society has provided a solution to this problem of social identification by allowing us to be placed according to the goods that we purchase and subsequently display.

Because humans are social animals, consumption in a consumer society is intrinsically a social activity. Many of the things people buy come to play a role in defining, or at least presenting, the identity of the purchaser to other members of society. For example, browsing the rock, jazz, or classical sections of a dusty record store indicates one’s identity within that context. The same can be said of the little girl who wants the doll that has her hair color. In a world with so many choices, it is a consumer’s taste that identifies who he or she is to others. Taste, in fact, has become an abstract collection of how a person organizes the world of products. It is one’s particular stamp on the acquisition of goods from out of the surfeit of choices. It is in this act of agency that we can suss out a person’s values, provenance, and aspirations—his or her identity.

The natural human need to have and broadcast one’s social identity became tied to the structure of consumer society through many transformations in institutions, family life, and socioeconomic class. For example, the ascendancy of the Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1922 to the role of President in 1929, and all the changes he made interweaving domestic policy with the private sector, the urbanization of labor that split rural families apart, and the sedimentation of the stratification of America into haves and have-nots. This was an important time in America, as the division into these new classes of rich and poor was followed by another revolution that forever changed how, what, and why we buy: the rise of marketing and advertisement departments.

The social process of making and acquiring meaning in contemporary consumer culture is mediated by advertisements: They are the crucial link between our values and how those values are sold back to us in the form of consumer goods. According to cultural critic Dr. Sut Jhally, advertising provides a means to staunch our needs through consumer goods; it is an institution that currently stands as the most influential form of socialization in contemporary society.

There is no doubt that advertisements are the most direct and prevalent way we come into contact with the underlying values and motivations of a consumer society in our daily lives. If you are not at home while reading this, take a look around. How many advertisements do you see? Chances are you see many. In 2007, a study by market research firm Yankelovich found that the average American living in a city sees more than five thousand advertisements a day. Thirty years ago, according to a similar study conducted by Yankelovich, we saw two thousand advertisements a day.

Contemporary advertisements are not passive, either. Slogans and jingles echo in many of our social practices as reference points, and have come to serve as a common cultural lexicon. Take, for example, “Have You Had Your Break Today?” or “Just Do It.” These advertisements have become memes—cultural ideas transmitted and spread like genes across the population. Advertisements reflect many values in our society, and according to anthropologist Dr. Mary Douglas and econometrician Dr. Baron Isherwood, they integrate the consumer within a rich and complex web of social status and symbolic meaning, wherein consumption serves as a ritual to make sense of the inchoate flux of society and culture.

If a successful advertisement sells a brand and selling a brand is selling meaning and identity, then it should be possible through an analysis of the symbols used in advertisements to discern the underlying values that explain the success of any given advertisement in a particular culture. This is because consumer goods as represented through advertisements sell us tools for the construction of our identities— advertisements reflect our needs. In the symbols that advertisements use to define and represent products we find who we are through what we buy. We can also see ourselves as who we want to be through consumer goods. Advertisements are thus able to communicate implicit messages about social values and sell us the lifestyles we desire. We distinguish ourselves (and position ourselves within social groups) through the products we most relate to, and through these decisions based on our taste we construct our respective identities. Take the jaded young man buying vinyl records at my local record store. In a simple reading, he is throwing his lot in with radical political traditions through the symbols and content of the record. He is telling others and himself that he is, among other things, for the underdog, whereas the girl through the doll with the same color hair is communicating physical aspirations as aspects of her burgeoning self-image.

In this way, consuming goods is a way of expressing one’s personal identity to society. Expression itself is a highly regarded activity in contemporary society, and for many it is thought to be the main impetus for the creation of art. After Romanticism (1770 – 1830), an era that promoted the value of authenticity, nature, and the importance of expressing oneself in the production of art, and then the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis, it became more common for anyone to think of him or herself as having the potential to be an artist, insofar as he or she could mine their inner space to express their identity.

The conceptual background of the romantic and psychoanalytic interpretation of art as expression has given way to a parallel interpretation of the customization of lifestyles and the aestheticization of everyday consumption practices. The choices revealed in one’s lifestyle are a form of expression through self-fashioning and, when taken to extremes, self-fetishization. Taste and style in consumption decisions are expressions of an inner self. To consume the fancied need of a particular lifestyle is to manifest one’s taste and therefore one’s identity. One of the psychological reasons why we buy is to reveal our inner selves to others.

Taste, or our respective preferences, is shaped primarily during childhood by internalizing our particular socioeconomic and cultural conditions and aspirations. According to this discussion of identity, what underlies the buying of both the young man in the record store and the parents of the little girl is a natural human need to demonstrate one’s social identity filtered through the structure of a consumer society—a society in which goods come to play a role in how we define ourselves. The young man’s record and the little girl’s doll position them within their respective social groups, families, and larger peer groups. Specifically, the record reflects knowledge of the esoteric tradition of’70s punk rock, and thus purchasing the album positions the scruffy fellow in a certain way in his immediate social group of other ruffians who understand the tradition and can gauge his knowledge and dedication to the community. In the case of the little girl, the parent’s purchase of the doll with similar (though largely idealized) physical features is really a way of according the child an image to anchor her identity in terms of gender, race, sartorial elegance, and age.

But is basing our social relationships, not to mention our very identities, on what we buy an ethically defensible way of living? Some thinkers have claimed that having relations based on commerce is a way of breaking down our tribal affiliations and bringing us closer together no matter where we are from. This may be so, but there are definitely some unwelcome consequences of this way of organizing society and human relations.

Because the current structure of society and identity is a historical, psychological, and philosophical consequence of the past, it is not in itself something to criticize. That is not to say that this is the only way identity can be constructed in America; it just turns out to be the way it is currently structured. On the other hand, we may criticize the effects of the institutions that have accreted around consumer society upon individual and community livelihood.

Specifically, civic engagement suffers when social relations are disproportionately satisfied through consumption. When taken as the central form of social relationships, this bond between consumption and identity ultimately endangers the community necessary for a healthy democracy. It is only through strengthening our extant public institutions and acknowledging community-based forms of identity and value that the self can grow past the enclosures of consumer society, however satisfactory it may appear to be in the short-term.

Through this foray into the context of our individual acts of buying, it appears as though one of the reasons we buy in a consumer society is to express our identities as individuals to others through the display of goods. Be it a record collection or a doll that provides comfort, the objects we consume play a large part in the way that each of us constructs our identity. For better or worse, in America, you are what you buy.

Rami Gabriel, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology in the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago, and the author of Why I Buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America (Intellect Ltd, April, 2013), on which this excerpt is based. His book is available for purchase on Illustrations by Ivan Brunetti, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art + Design.