Most of us have done it at least once - buy something expensive and then display it proudly, be it a piece of clothing, jewelry, phone, or even a new vehicle. However, you probably weren’t aware that by doing that, you were actually taking part in a phenomenon that is well known in the field of sociology. That phenomenon is conspicuous consumption, and it was coined by the famous sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class from 1889.
Veblen defined conspicuous consumption as the purchase of various services or goods for the sole purpose of displaying one’s economic power and wealth. It is a way to show your social status by buying expensive things. Usually, the term is tied to the higher economic classes, but it can occur even among the lower ones. Veblen was a harsh critic of capitalism and consumerism, which is a term that developed from conspicuous consumption.
Veblen And The Nouveau Riche
Thorstein Veblen was active during the Progressive Era in the United States, and he developed the term conspicuous consumption in his 1889 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He believed that this type of consumption developed during the 19th century, and it should be added that it continued developing throughout the 20th century as well.
During this time, the middle class was developing, and they had more disposable income than people used to. This is why they could spend more money on various goods that are not of the utmost importance. They could spend money just for the sake of spending it, so to say.
Thorstein Veblen was a critic of this type of consumption because he believed that it is a byproduct of capitalism. It also led to the culture of consumerism, which celebrated spending money. He was strongly against production for profit. He believed that everything should be done for the good of society, not for the sole purpose of making money.
Through the term conspicuous consumption, Veblen criticized the way people spend more money on goods than they are worth. He believed that a new class called the nouveau riche emerged during the Second Industrial Revolution. He claimed that the members of this class had accumulated capital wealth, and they engaged in conspicuous consumption.
The Focus On Consumption
Veblen believed that people wanted to impress others with their wealth by manifesting their prestige through material possessions. This prestige and social power often weren’t even real, but what mattered most was the impression that these people left on others. This type of behavior started rubbing off on people from other classes, and they tried to emulate the so-called leisure class.
Veblen claimed that society that followed these principles was one that is marked by the waste of time and money. The thing that made Veblen stand out among other sociologists was the fact that while everyone else was focusing on production, he talked about consumption.
This focus was visionary because everything he talked about conspicuous consumption is still around today. Nowadays, more than ever, people keep buying things that symbolize their wealth. The most straightforward example we can think of would be smartphones. It is entirely normal for people to pay exorbitant amounts of money to buy a new phone even though there is nothing wrong with the old one. This is because today, phones are a display of your economic status, and are noticed by almost anyone.
This is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption, but there are many more you can see every day, including people that pay large sums of money for clothes, cars, and many other things. Sure, not everyone does it to display their wealth and impress others, but sometimes it is hard not to notice it.