This essay will consider the way in which American consumerism defines us as an individual and a society. As such, the paper will using the key readings from the specified text address the issues of how and why we use the purchase of goods and services to help define ourselves as individuals.
The general thesis statement to be examined in this paper is the contention that the acquisition and consumption of goods and services is used by the American public not only to fulfil basic physiological needs to also to help define a person either as an individual or as a part of a society as a whole.
One view as presented in the article “the more factor” (Shimes 90-96) is that the reasons behind why individuals use consumerism to define themselves links to a wider historical culture which has been perpetuated over a prolonged period of time. In this case Shimes (90-96) considers that historically the frontier culture of America presented a historical background in which there was always “more” available, in this case more referring to quantifiable and consumable resources such as land, precious metals and other commodities. As such, over a period of time individuals came to define themselves by their ability to gain greater assess to levels of tangible resources thus helping to define their individual personalities. However, the article (Shimes 90-96) goes on to indicate that while this is a historical backdrop which endures in the modern American psyche, the context of the frontier and prospect of an everlasting abundance of natural resources as not existed for the best part of a hundred years. As such, an analysis of the Shimes (90-96) article would seem to suggest that the deep routed American tradition of defining one’s self by the ability to exploit a so called frontier of everlasting natural resources has more to do with a historical cultural set of beliefs rather than the realities of contemporary society. As such at this point one may infer that modern considers do indeed define themselves through a process of consumerism but that this may be linked to wider historical and cultural backgrounds in nature.
Other articles on the subject of modern consumerism such as that of Gadwell’s (97-103) the science of shopping consider that consumerism is not necessarily the function of the purchaser necessarily looking to make a purchase in order to define themselves as an individual. Rather in this case Gadwell (97-103) considers that the decision to purchase relates to personal responses to physiological conditions within the retail environment which encourage or reduce the likelihood of consumption taking place. In this case, Gadwell’s (97-103) article considers that good store and retail space design should see that a firm is able to sell almost any product or service to an individual consumer through the creation of the right physical environment and the observation of the individual behaviours of the consumer.
As such, this view may present a challenge to the original theasis statement which considered that consumers when making a purchase were looking for products or services which helped to define them as individuals. However, Gadwell’s (97-103) article would seem to suggest that consumers are instead consuming on the basis of their relative comfort within a retail environment rather than necessarily looking for a character defining item to purchase. As such, while Shimes (90-96) article considered behaviour to originate in the historical context, this is a world away from Gadwell’s (97-103) consideration that considers that behaviour happens distinctively in the here and now.
Like Gadwell (97-103), Norton (104-110) also presents an overview of consumerism from a notably physical perspective analysed amongst other environments the concept of the shopping mall. However, in contrast to Gadwell’s (97-103) article Norton (104-110) considers that the use of such physical environments are primarily for the purpose of consumers helping to use consumption as a form of character definition. In this case Norton (104-110) presents a view which shows how consumption in the context of the shopping mall is used by many women to create a definition of femininity itself. In this case the authors considers shopping (consumption) in the context of the mall is used to distinguish the female identify from that of the male with woman opting to spend time in the company of other females and divert time an energy always from traditional home care and family maintenance activities in favour of a consumer orientated life style.
As such, the article implies that even the spending of time in a shopping mall in itself acts as a form of character definition through consumption in comparison to those who make use of alternative environments. In this case Norton (104-110) also considers that consumption is used to define not only the concept of femininity but also the individual definitions of an individual’s personality as defined by the cloths they buy, the stores they shop in and the food which they consume.
Dery (111-116) sticking with the American shopping mall as a place conspicuous with consumption also considers that consumption may in itself be used as a way in which the modern American consumer helps to define their individual personality. While the article (Dery 111-116) considers the struggling plight of the shopping mall in the context of the contemporary economic environment, a key defence of the model is to consider the benefits consumers have enjoyed over the years. In this case, Dery’s (111-116) article considers not only that the shopping mall is a place to buy goods and services but that more importantly this is a place to “see and be seen” (Dery 113). In other words this is not only a place for consumers to help define themselves buy what they buy but also a place to exhibit their acquisitions and personality defining possessions. As such, it may be seen that Dery’s (111-116) use of this as a defence of the business model does in fact support the original thesis statement that consumption of goods and services is a critical defining factor in the personalities of the American consumer. However, the article is not a sole defence of the business model as it exists, here Dery (111-116) considers that many malls have now outlived their usefulness and must be turned back to the community in one form or another. One key issues however is to highlight the fact that one such model may be to see another round of consumerism taking place with “recycled malls” helping to define green and ethical forms of consumerism amongst individuals.
Finally one of the most conceiving arguments that modern Americans use consumption as a form of character definition is to consider an article presented by Frank (163-170) which considers that even the concept of decent has become a commodity. While decent may often be associated with a rejection of consumerism and a rebellion against mainstream capitalist perspectives, Frank’s (163-170) article considers that large organisations including Burger King and Toyota amongst other have actually turned the rhetoric of consumer decent into a valuable consumer commodity itself.
As such, consumers in defining themselves as rebels against the system need no longer turn to political ideologies or alternative ways of life, they can simply opt to purchase products and services which make use of rebellious symbols and rhetoric in order to define themselves as rebellious, anti-consumerist or anti-capitalist through the very act of consumption itself. As such, the very fact that a form of consumption is used to define a person in some circumstances as being anti-consumer in nature would appear to be the final victory in arguing that consumption is ultimately one of the most important factors used by the modern American in defining their personality.
Having reviewed the evidence it becomes apparent that consumerism within the United States does indeed contribute significantly to the way in which individuals define themselves both from and individualistic perspective and as part of wider groups within society. This has been seen from a range of perspective including the way in which consumption has been used to create definitions of the feminine personality through to the way in which paradoxically consumption is even used at times to help individuals express decent against the very nature of capitalist consumerism itself and this being perhaps one of the most important elements of the analysis to be witnessed.
Dery, Mark. Dawn of the dead mall. Signs of life in the USA. (2012). 111-116.
Frank, Thomas. Commodify your dissent. Signs of life in the USA. (2012). 163-170.
Gadwell, Malcolm. The science of shopping. Signs of life in the USA. (2012). 90-96.
Norton, Ann. The signs of shopping. Signs of life in the USA. (2012). 104-110.
Shimes, Laurence. The more factor. Signs of life in the USA. (2012). 97-103.