Deriving the Engel Curve: Pierre Bourdieu and the social critique of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Trigg, Andrew B. (2004). Deriving the Engel Curve: Pierre Bourdieu and the social critique of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Review of Social Economy, 62(3) pp. 393–406.



In Post Keynesian Economics, theorists have sought an alternative to neoclassical choice theory by turning to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Pasinetti 1981, Lavoie 1992). Instead of each individual surveying a complete choice set, individuals prioritize (basic) physiological needs, moving with increasing incomes to satisfy safety and social needs, through to the higher needs associated with self-actualization. This framework provides a theoretical foundation for the Engel curve, since as incomes increase consumers become satiated when particular needs are satisfied. As an alternative to the neoclassical preoccupation with prices and substitution, a Post Keynesian theory of consumption has been formulated with income effects as the cornerstone. The main problem with Maslow's approach is that individual needs are innate, so that questions of social interaction and culture are seriously downgraded. In this article, the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu is offered as an alternative to the Maslow approach, providing the basis for a social critique of consumerism and an alternative evolutionary theory of consumption. In this approach, the structure of the social hierarchy both constrains the consumption of lower social strata and leads to subtle, less conspicuous consumption patterns at the top of the social hierarchy: a scenario that could provide a social foundation to the Engel curve.

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