Social Relationships sample essay
The way in which we shop, and the items, products or services we buy reflect a great deal about modern western society. We define ourselves by the job we do, the house we live in, the things we own and the way we look. Since the 1950’s mass consumer societies characterised by bigger credit facilities, more consumer choice and a central role for consumption in every day life have flourished in the western world (Dittmar, 2008).
In these societies consumer goods play a strong role: ‘we value and buy them as a means of regulating emotions and gaining social status and as ways of acquiring or expressing identity and aspiring to an ’ideal’ self’ (Dittmar 1992, 2004). It is proposed that the mass society in which we live arose from the ‘disruptive consequences of industrialisation and urbanisation…(which) have destabilised and eroded the societies and values which previously held them together’ (Strinati, 2004, p5).
This implicates urbanisation in the decline in religion and tightly knit village communities resulting in ‘atomisation’; dissolving peoples relations to one resembling atoms in a chemical compound. This suggests in turn that these people are lacking in ‘meaningful or morally coherent relationships’ (Strinati, 2004, p6). Mass society theory also suggests that there are fewer and fewer institutions which people can turn to so that they can find their identity and morally appropriate values which to live by.
The moral benchmarks set up by religion and community have been kicked out from underneath the public by globalisation and technical advances, it is consumerism that has filled the void. Consumerism, like all ideologies, must be internalised to be effective, its values must become that of the individual. One of the many ways in which the ideology of consumerism is internalised is through advertising and exposure to the mass media.
Our exposure to mass media has increased dramatically over recent years and starts at a very young age. In her book ‘Born to Buy’ (Schor J 2004), Juliet Schor highlights the deliberate commercialisation of children by the media in order to turn them into materialist and buyer. The purpose of this is two fold, children may either buy the product themselves or ask their parents for it, and will then grow up to be a materialist. Items are advertised as must haves for any cool kid, that those without this product are a loser.
Advertisers study children in great depth to see how to make them as susceptible as possible to their adverts; using questionnaires, child psychology, in depth interviews, observational research and even MRI scanning of the brain itself. Adverts aim to sell a specific product, making the child think ‘buying/having this product will make me happy/cool/pretty ect’. If this behaviour becomes normative a born to buy consumer is created.
The success of the commercialisation of the youth is staggering: more than half of nine to fourteen year olds in a large study in America agreed that ‘when you grow up, the more money you have, the happier you are’ and over a third ‘really like kids that have very special games or clothes’ (Schor J 2004 p37). For the culture of consumerism to exist, it must be supported by individual human beings who follow the beliefs and practices of that culture. It also follows that in a culture of consumption individuals are exposed to enormous pressure to conform to the beliefs and practices of this culture (Kasser et al 2003).
The culture of consumption must therefore be appealing to at least some individuals – it must offer them something. Kasser et al believe that the development of a strong materialistic value orientation (MVO – their definition of the culture of consumptions constellation of aims, beliefs, goals and behaviours) arises because ‘experiences that undermine the satisfaction of psychological needs can cause individuals to orient toward materialism as one type of compensatory strategy intended to countermand the distressing effects of feeling of insecurity’ (Kasser et al 2003 pg13).
The paper goes on to claim that people develop a strong MVO to ‘compensate for worries and doubts about their self-worth, their ability to cope effectively with challenges, and their safety in a relatively unpredictable world’ (Kasser et al 2003 pg14). This, combined with the mass society theory could indicate that consumerism is a replacement for the security and self-assurance once offered by religion and community, institutions and ideologies that have been eroded by globalisation, scientific and technological advancement and modern political movements. This rise in retail therapy is encouraged by modern institutions that directly benefit rom buying; mugs saying ‘keep calm, go shopping’ objectifies the message the mass media wish to perpetuate.
Cultural and historical changes have clearly aided the rise of the culture of consumption. Firstly, greater expendable income brought about by the low cost of keeping oneself and family alive and the minimum wage have allowed even poor families to own flat screen TV’s. Since the industrial revolution, the production line and the division of labour people also have more free time in which to spend money. For women, it is arguable that post feminism has been instrumental in creating the allure of things.
Feminist values of equality coupled with post-feminist ideals of claiming power over men through sexuality and looks means it is acceptable for woman to be in a high powered job, have an opinion, rule a household and be a sexual predator but only if she is wearing Gucci shoes and is completely hairless from the temples down. Success for the modern woman goes hand in hand with the ability to shop. It is argued that materialism arises from insecurity; as Kasser et al surmise ‘perhaps materialistic pursuits have been evolutionarily ingrained within humans as a way to feel more secure and safe (e. g. Hungry? Get food. Being attacked?
Grab and club)’ (Kasser et al 2003 pg16). This suggests that the allure of things originally arose because we needed the ‘thing’ in question. This is definitely not the case nowadays; the reasons to have things have changed. We buy things to belong, to compete, to show others we are rich or loved, we buy things because they are there or even because a certain celebrity endorsed or owns the product. Shopping has even become a leisure and lifestyle activity where shopping malls become a place for socialising (Underhill 2004). As well as changing the reasons we shop the culture of consumption has also driven changes in the practice of shopping.
Films can now be rented or bought from ones TV set, internet ordering and delivery is now a service offered by almost every shop. This feeds the culture of consumption and the power offered by advertising as there is no need to leave the house, an advert can pop up whilst you are checking your emails and a few clicks later an item you had never even heard of before is being delivered to your door the next day. The removal of this physical aspect of shopping makes it ‘very easy to spend a lot…(it) detaches you from a sense of actually spending money’ (Dittmar et al 2004 pg429).
If we accept that we live in a culture of consumption we must give some thought to the potential risks of such an ideology. Kasser and Ryan (2001) showed that people who rate extrinsic materialistic values as high compared to others such as self-acceptance or community feeling have a lower quality of life. More directly Cohen and Cohen (1996) discovered that adolescents who admire others because of their possessions are at an increased risk for personality disorders. While these harmful effects are possible causes, not results of materialism, it is still very likely to be a link between them.
Kasser et al suggest that ‘people experiencing higher levels of insecurity may be more susceptible to the influence of environmental messages concerning the benefits of acquisitiveness, which may in turn make them feel increasingly insecure, and so on in a vicious cycle’ (Kasser et al 2003 pg17). Potential threats of the consumer culture have been highlighted in modern fiction. In the film ‘Fight Club’ a man who is a ‘slave to the IKEA nesting instinct’ (Fight Club 1999) develops insomnia and then multiple personalities which rebel against the consumer society and attempts to bring it to its knees.
The converts to this anti-consumer way of thinking are told “You are not your job. You are not how much you have in the bank. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking Khakis. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. ” (Fight Club 1999). The film predicts that when people realise that they have been conned into believing that ‘things’ make them happy and that they would all become rich and famous there will be a uprising against the ideology (Fight Club 1999).
There are other, more directly harmful effects of the culture of consumption which are caused by a change in the ‘things’ it is possible to buy. With advancements in cosmetic surgery it has become possible to buy thinness through liposuction, to buy a larger bust and buy fuller lips, it is now becoming inexcusable to be ugly. Levine and Murnen (2009) believe that the mass media is instrumental in driving this process in order to profit from the advertisement potential of making people believe that ‘owning’ the perfect body is ‘a central determinant of ones identity (Levine and Murnen 2009). Aside from the bvious dangers of surgery further risks of eating disorders and low self-esteem are risks inherent in an ideology where the body becomes a modifiable product.
This issue is of such concern that in 2000 the British medical association reported that there ‘is a great deal of theorising and media criticism available but far too little systematic research’ (BMA 2000) in regards to the effect of the media on female body image perspectives and a summit in June 2000 the British government confirmed both general concern about self-starvation and the need for more research into the role of the media.
This is likely caused or at least aggravated by the idea that buying certain beauty products, diet plans or advice from magazines will help one obtain the ‘ideal body’. High street shops also perpetuate the idea as larger cloth sizes are sectioned off or even in a different shop entirely (for example Evans and Bravissimo). The more ‘fashionable’ the shop the smaller the size available. Shops such as Miss Selfridge have sizes as low as a 4 in their standard adult section but go no higher than a size 16. New clothes are modelled by women no more than a size 4 and size 12 is described as ‘curvy’.
This suggests that belonging to the culture of consumption is increasingly requiring a thin and beautiful body. The practice of shopping objectifies many aspects of the culture of consumption in which we live. The Culture of consumption arose with little resistance as it was replacing the supporting institutions of community and religion which had been eroded by the mass society. The changes in shopping behaviour, the reasons why people shop, the things they buy in the culture of consumption are potential cause for concern.
Nowadays consumerism has become internalised due to exposure to mass media advertising from an early age. This has created a materialistic society where people believe that objects help them find and define themselves by material things and other people’s perceptions of them. Nowadays people have more expendable income. They no longer buy things in which they need they buy things they want. People buy things to show off. They like and admire people for ‘things’ they own and it is these people who are more at risk of personality disorders (Cohen and Cohen 1996).
Shopping nowadays is becoming more and more than simply shopping for physical objects. With the rise in both minor and major cosmetic surgeries more and more people are trying to acquire nonphysical things such as ‘beauty’ or ‘thinness’. People will always want to belong to something, religion, community, a football team or nation. Outsiders on an evolutionary basis did not have the protection of the pack and were more at risk meaning we are evolved to conform. However all ideologies carry risks and global consumerism may not be the worst.
Unlike other some other ideologies it does not require the overthrow of governments or the enslaving or murder of people. The security and self-assurance provided by owning things is useful for people in the western world following the rapid collapse of institutional religion and community in the 20th century. There do however need to be checks on the rampant and aggressive push of consumption and the allure of things which we are experiencing nowadays, people need to not be brainwashed into thinking that the ‘things’ are how we define ourselves and make ourselves happy.
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