Material culture and mass consumption

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  • REVIEWS

    The interesting historical material in these chapters on nineteenth- and twentieth- century long waves offers many useful insights into British regional development and opens up an immense field for further investigation. The author himself concludes however with what he sees as some of the major implications of his study for contemporary issues. Commenting on the absence of carrier type industrial cycles Marshall shows how so called sunset industries will continue to play a major role in economic life and are in fact one of the most important markets for microelectronic goods. The role of social movements in earlier regional and national growth waves suggests, in the second place, that intervention in economic restructuring will again play a determinant role in shaping the map of uneven development: on this front the author sees some hope in some of the recent socialist initiatives for local economic development.

    University of Sussex MICK DUNFORD

    COLIN CAMPBELL, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987. Pp. + 301. E25.00).

    DANIEL MILLER, Material Culture and iUass Consumption (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987. Pp. vii + 240. E25.00).

    Historians, economists, anthropologists and others have puzzled over consumption for a long time. Increasing demand is recognised as important in industrial development; consumption is also taken as implying a great deal more than whether or not goods or services are used. It has been recognised that consumption cannot be discussed in isolation from economic and social life as a whole. At the same time there is a great deal of uncertainty about the subject, partly due to inadequate data and partly due to inadequate theory.

    These two books approach the subject of consumer behaviour from theoretical perspectives. Both books range over a variety of disciplines and cultures to show how investigations of the material world and its meanings are crucial to understanding industrial society. Both are concerned to show that existing theory does not contribute much to our understanding of the relations between the social and material worlds. They both draw on historical material, but neither is an empirical study; both carry on a dialogue with the past and both use the past to describe the present. They do not present consumption in the past in its own terms, but rather use it to explain the present.

    Campbells book has a bold title and a bold argument. It is intended as a complement to Webers The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and the literature and ideas that have stemmed from it. It argues that parallel processes occurred in relation to the development of modem production and modem consumption. Whereas aspects of the protestant ethic of self denial and thrift and hard work aided the development of capitalistic production, the romantic ethic of feeling, imagination and individualism provided (and still provides) ethical support for the hedonistic, pleasurable aspects of consumerism. The book establishes these parallels in a manner that throws light on certain puzzling aspects of material culture both by discussing the development of the consumer society in the eighteenth century and by an analysis of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. There is a neat critique of Veblens emulation model and of McKendrick et als discussion of the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century. The standard account of the role of consumption is rightly criticised because there is no clear understanding of the relationships between social pressures and economic factors. Campbell argues that the key is a romantic ingredient in material culture which played a crucial part in the development of consumerism and continued mass consumption. The problem of an apparent contrast between puritan and romantic is resolved by showing that there were two cultural traditions arising from protestan- tism, one leading to the protestant ethos as we know it from Weber, the other to cults of

  • REVIEWS

    benevolence and sentimentalism and the ethic of feeling. This legitimated the search for pleasure as a good in itself, including pleasure in self expression through ownership of material goods.

    Millers book is about the archaeology of modern life, if that does not seem a contradiction in terms. It sets out to investigate the relationships between society and material goods and especially the consequences of increases in industrial production over the last century. It argues that our understanding of material culture is rudimentary despite the fact that modem cultures are associated with an enormous range of goods, furnishings, buildings and so on. The study of goods themselves has tended to be ignored in academic writing but material goods are a powerful form of cultural expression and should be recognised as such. Everyday objects reflect personal tastes and have physical attributes but they also reflect moral principles and social ideals. These are not new ideas when applied to anthropological studies of primitive societies; we are less familiar with them when applied to the recent past or to ourselves.

    Objects have characteristics that transcend their physical being, such as their ability to call up mental imagery or refer to unconscious relationships; thus furniture can provide an appropriate background for living and the social implications of an array of furniture are worthy of consideration. There is no difficulty in accepting these arguments in outline, for they have been widely stated in anthropological literature in the last ten years or so. On the other hand I had more trouble with the core of the book, which attempts to construct a theory of material culture based on ideas derived from Hegel and later writers. The concept of objectification is developed as a central tenet of a theory of material culture. In this social, cultural and other meanings are held to manifest themselves through the values implicit in material items. Four chapters cover objectifica- tion in Hegel, Marx, the anthropologist Munn and Simmel. Perhaps no single overall theory is needed to embrace all consumption. We might be approaching the subject from the wrong end even to expect to find one. Rather, a range of ways of trying to understand consumption is needed and, in this regard, I am happier with Campbells book. We do, however, need to know more about what actually happened and what continues to happen. Theory must not be a substitute for knowledge, although in studies of consumption it tends to be.

    University of St Andrews LORNA WEATHERILL

    LORNA WEATHERILL, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760 (London: Routledge, 1988. Pp. xi + 243. E30.00)

    Two models of eighteenth-century social relations can be distinguished within recent historiography. On the one hand, E. P. Thompson and J. C. D. Clark have focussed on eighteenth-century patricians and plebeians, conjuring a rigidly polarised society, character&d for Thompson by inevitable structural conflict and for Clark by natural deference. On the other hand, J. H. Plumb, Roy Porter and Neil McKendrick have stressed the social aspirations of the middle ranks within a multi-layered but relatively fluid society; a model of social relations which assumes that widespread competitive individualism and keeping up with the Joneses were the norm.

    Building on the latter vision, it has been argued that the late century saw an unprecedented boom in the production of new consumer goods and services, snapped up in the universal desire to consume conspicuously and emulate the material lives of social superiors. This birth of a consumer society has become widely accepted. In a number of important respects, Loma Weatherill challenges this account, although her work implicitly affirms the fluid model of social relations. She contests both the stress on the late century as the key period of consumer take-off, and the explanation of consumer psychology in terms of social emulation and competitive display. This is the first study to

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