Conspicuous consumption  

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Fireworks as an example of conspicuous consumption.  Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket  (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler
Fireworks as an example of conspicuous consumption.
Illustration: Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (c. 1875) by James McNeill Whistler

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money for and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power — either the buyer’s income or the buyer’s accumulated wealth. Sociologically, to the conspicuous consumer, such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status. Moreover, invidious consumption, a more specialized sociologic term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.

History and evolution

In the 19th century, the term conspicuous consumption was introduced by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929), in the book The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (1899), to describe the behavioural characteristics of the nouveau riche (new rich) social class who emerged as a result of the accumulation of capital wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution (ca. 1860–1914). In that social and historical context, the term “conspicuous consumption” was narrowly applied to describe the men, women, and families of the upper class who applied their great wealth as a means of publicly manifesting their social power and prestige, be it real or perceived.

In the 20th century, the significant improvement of the material standard of living of a society, and the consequent emergence of the middle class, broadly applied the term “conspicuous consumption” to the men, women, and households who possessed the discretionary income that allowed them to practice the patterns of economic consumption — of goods and services — which were motivated by the desire for prestige, the public display of social status, rather than by the intrinsic, practical utility of the goods and the services proper. In the 1920s, economists, such as Paul Nystrom (1878–1969), proposed that changes in the style of life, made feasible by the economics of the industrial age, had induced to the mass of society a “philosophy of futility” that would increase the consumption of goods and services as a social fashion; an activity done for its own sake. In that context, “conspicuous consumption” is discussed either as a behavioural addiction or as a narcissistic behaviour, or both, which are psychologic conditions induced by consumerism — the desire for the immediate gratification of hedonic expectations.

Sociologically, conspicuous consumption was previously thought to comprise social and economic behaviours primarily practiced by rich people. Yet the research of economists, such as Kerwin Kofi Charles, Erik Hurst, and finance professor Nikolai Roussanov, indicated a different understanding: that conspicuous consumption is a socio-economic behaviour very common to the poor social classes and economic groups, and common to the societies of countries with emerging economies. Among such people, the displays of wealth are used to psychologically combat the impression of poverty, often because such men and women belong to a social class or to an economic group whom his or her society perceives as poor.

In the 21st century, there emerged the variant consumerist behaviour of conspicuous compassion, the practice of publicly donating great sums of money to charity, to enhance the social prestige of the donor.

See also

See also

general economy

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