Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 9: Consumerism
Peter N. Stearns ‘Consumerism’ refers to an attachment to purchasing goods not necessary for personal or familial survival, and a value system that makes this attachment an important part of personal and social evaluation. Elements of consumerism go back deeply into history. For example, some interest in personal adornment began early in the experience of our species. Nonetheless, the phenomenon is predominantly modern and dependent on modern economic and cultural systems. Ethical concerns about consumerism have also multiplied in modern times, operating in some tension with this widespread interest. Aristocracies and their monied imitators in many premodern societies displayed consumerist impulses – like the Roman senators and their wives who eagerly dressed in silks from China. Often, greater consumerism was part of an aristocratic transition from a warrior past to a more sophisticated, often more urban style of life. Western crusaders in the Holy Land picked up a number of consumer interests from the more polished upper class of the urban Middle East, for example. Consumerism, however, was limited in most premodern societies in several ways. First, and most obviously, the bulk of the population did not have a sufficient margin above subsistence to afford any elaborate display of consumerism. Many other customs limited consumerism as well. Religious commitments often commanded significant economic resources, such that churches and mosques displayed a society’s extra wealth, pre-empting much personal consumerism. Other customs also constrained such tendencies. Urban artisans, for example, emphasized standard uniforms for public display, rather than more individualized consumerist attire. The...
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