Veblen, Bourdieu and conspicuous consumption

Trigg, Andrew B. (2001). Veblen, Bourdieu and conspicuous consumption. Journal of Economic Issues, 35(1) pp. 99–115.



Written just one hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class ([1899] 1994) still represents a powerful critique of the neoclassical theory of consumption. In contrast to the individual's static maximization of utility according to exogenous preferences, as posited by the neoclassical approach, Veblen develops an evolutionary framework in which preferences are determined socially in relation to the positions of individuals in the social hierarchy. According to Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, individuals emulate the consumption patterns of other individuals situated at higher points in the hierarchy. The social norms that govern such emulation change as the economy and its social fabric evolve over time.

Alongside a continuing, though limited, role in mainstream economics (Bagwell and Bernheim 1996; Basmann et al. 1988), the theory of conspicuous consumption has in recent years also been subjected to considerable criticism from outside of this mainstream. Three main issues have been raised. First, it has been argued that Veblen's approach is too restrictive in relying on the "trickle down" of consumption patterns from the top of the social hierarchy. The pacesetters for consumption may also be those at the bottom of the hierarchy (Fine and Leopold 1993; Lears 1993). It follows from this position that conspicuous consumption lacks generality as a theory of consumption since it applies only to luxury goods. Second, since Veblen's day it has been argued that consumers no longer display their wealth conspicuously. Status is conveyed in more sophisticated and subtle ways (Canterbery 1998; Mason 1998). And third, for those writing in the postmodern tradition, consumer behavior is no longer shaped by positions of s ocial class but by lifestyles that cut across the social hierarchy (Featherstone 1991; McIntyre 1992).

In this paper we show that to some extent these arguments misrepresent Veblen's original conception of conspicuous consumption and take it out of context in relation to his overall framework. In addition, in order to develop a contemporary response to these arguments we examine the possible contribution that can be made using the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist and anthropologist who has been described as "France's leading living social theorist" (Shusterman 1999, 1).

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