> topics > Sociology

Duality of consumption examined in theoretical lens

YANG FAXIANG and HU GAOQIANG | 2022-09-30 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Visitors shop at Sanya International Duty Free Shopping Complex on Sept. 21. Photo: CFP

Since the 1980s, two approaches to studying consumption have emerged: critique and tolerance. In addition, the concept of consumption in contemporary society is divided into two extreme attitudes. One approach is “I consume, therefore I am,” which is an extension of individualism. This transforms the goods purchased, the derived satisfaction, and the projected image into a meaning for, or even the essence of, human existence. The other approach is a critique, using the political and academic concept of “consumerism” to expose consumption’s origin: a self-interpretation of social construction. This perspective scorns the irrational consumption behavior and even takes an anti-consumption stance. 

However, neither of these extremes can sustain the pace of the commodity economy. The former defines consumption as the only way to distinguish oneself from others, whereas the latter overlooks the effect of consumption on the improvement of material levels and the integrative significance based on the social division of labor. There are also people who swing between these two extremes, to form a spectrum of behavior that falls between embracing consumption and rejecting it. They look to not only take note of individualism’s social differentiation function, but also accept the social integration of collectivism in consumption, which constitutes the duality of consumption.


In a narrow sense, the word “consumption” only appeared in the English world in the 14th century, and originally it meant “waste” and had negative connotations. It took centuries for the word “consumption” to attain its full connotation and become a neutral description of spending and consuming. 

At the early stage of capitalism, capitalists expropriated the surplus value that rightfully belongs to workers and gained a large share of social wealth, creating a huge gap between the rich and poor. Coupled with the reality of a limited market and varieties of goods, not everyone can have the same things, making consumption a principal form of social segregation and an embodiment of social hierarchy.

In modern society, the rapid progress of science and technology has brought about a revolution in production. All people can purchase consumer goods with money, which is a historical process for consumption equality. Since the dawn of the 21st century, as internet-based consumption rises, consumption has become an important driving force for economic and social development, and a consumption ecology and culture has gradually formed which all members of society cannot avoid. 

According to the statistics of the People’s Bank of China, during the “Double 11” shopping spree in 2021, Netpay and UnionPay processed 27.048 billion payment transactions, adding up to 22.32 trillion yuan, a significant increase compared with 2020. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s total retail sales in consumer goods grew by 13.7% from January to November 2021, with consumption of basic living and upgraded goods growing steadily.

Consumption and production

On the relationship between consumption and production, Marx believed that “production is simultaneously identical with consumption, and consumption is directly concurrent with production.” Consumption is concerned with the shaping, transformation, and strengthening of existence, lifestyle, and taste of all social individuals (beyond those engaged directly in production). 

Consumption will create new production needs, the untamed expansion of consumerism is closely related to the logic of capital expansion. On the one hand, consumerism presents negative ideological characteristics, and on the other hand, it forms a relatively unified social order through the integration of consumption behaviors, consumption norms, and consumption concepts. Therefore, the significance of positive and negative characteristics, of individuals and society contained in consumerism offers an important lens to examine the duality of consumption.

When sociologists analyze and examine consumption, most of them focus their research on social segregation, which is the classic orientation of consumption sociology. Exemplary theories include: German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel’s understanding of fashion, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s interpretation of the formation of “taste” and its functional representation, Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s vivid depiction of the leisure class, and French sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard’s abstract of consumption for sign-value. 

Even today, these classical theoretical approaches toward consumption continue to carry weight in sociological research. We believe these consumption thoughts still have a strong explanatory power in our current consumer society.

For example, Simmel is often quoted to say that “fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine in uniform spheres of activity...the tendency towards social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.” Human nature features two radical drives—one pushing them to imitate their neighbors, while the other pushes them to distinguish themselves. Fashion is an example of the way in which actual social life always includes in some way its own opposite, an asocial life. 

Compared to traditional society, the consumption of modern society is diversified, from clothing, food, housing, transportation, to entertainment; forming complex and diversified personalized consumption needs. Consumer society is open to all people on an equal basis, and no one will be rejected. A homeless man can go to McDonald’s to buy a cup of coffee, while sitting next to him is an urban white-collar worker holding a hamburger. The entry threshold of consumption is flattened, eliminating class stratification to a certain extent. 

At the same time, consumption breaks down the temporal and spatial boundaries of the internet society and shapes new group identities, where even the most bizarre consumer behaviors can find allies. It can be seen that, in addition to the function of social segregation, consumption also plays its role in social integration. Consumption helps to correct institutional dysfunction by strengthening internal integration and acculturation of social classes.

Dual effect

The segregation and integration of consumption are relative and inseparable symbionts. Consumption sociology’s classic orientation takes consumption segregation as the subject of inquiry and social structure or culture as the main explanatory means. However, the consumption process also promotes a certain degree of social integration. From the individual perspective, the segregation of consumption comes from individuals demonstrating their status through purchasing, while integration in consumption seeks identity through the purchasing process. From the group perspective, shared consumption concepts and behaviors tend to break the individual standard and form group integration, but could once again create segregation within the group based on the diversity of social groups. 

Therefore, consumption emerges as a symbiotic scene. In one way, it creates differences on the individual and group level. As a symbolic system, the value of consumption goes beyond the use-value of goods and becomes a symbol for social status and lifestyle, and a means to meet the people’s psychological needs. Yet another way, these individuals and groups try to find identification and integration through consumption. In today’s society, people tend to say that “seeing is believing,” so visual representation dominates people’s interactions. As a result, society allows most consumers to see equality and feel identity, so as to strengthen the actual effect of social integration.

With the advent of the era of mass consumption, consumption has become an important way to socially integrate. It has altered the single standard of evaluating consumption, narrowed the huge gap facing consumers, and blurred the visual effect of consumption caused by class stratification, or even social conflicts. By shaping consumer identity, mass consumption reunites scattered consumers through the internet, and finally forms an “identity order” or the organizational rules and patterns of identity. In other words, through similar consumption behavior and shared consumption concepts, consumers strengthen the group characteristics, emotional connection, and internal integration of the group, thus forging and enhancing the social order.

Furthermore, the social compartmentalization function and social integration function of consumption will transform into each other, as they have a greater affinity with individualism and collectivism in ideology. In individualism, consumers will highlight and amplify the social distance between themselves and others through differential consumption goods and behaviors, to meet individual spiritual or emotional needs.

However, if such individual spiritual or emotional needs are gathered through consumption goods and behaviors, or transcend regions and achieve space-time co-existence, then a leap from individual to collective has been made true. In fact, integration is nested within segregation, and integration exists within segregation. Segregation is individualistic in orientation, but it can also be expressed as a collective or group. As an individual, the actor is responsible for his uniqueness. A person is a social person who needs to identify with, and integrate into, one or more groups, and there may be a very clear division between the groups he belongs to and other groups.

At the same time, many individuals are integrated into groups based on common beliefs, goods, values, and other factors, and multiple “subgroups” will be formed within these groups due to secondary concepts. They are separated from each other, but this does not affect their common subordination to a group. 

Therefore, the segregation and integration of consumption are opposites full of contradictions, which will tolerate and support each other under certain circumstances. The factors and behaviors that shape the segregation of consumption can also integrate people with the same consumption characteristics across time and space. Mass consumption provides diversified goods for different groups to construct their identity around a certain consumption object or consumption behavior, and people of different classes will identify with each other, thus shaping collectivism beyond spatial proximity to realize social integration.

In sum, consumption’s dual nature is both interdependent and influential. The unitary nature of consumption cannot be inferred or imagined, which either makes consumption a force to dismember society and shatter it into atomized pieces, or fully forge society into an indestructible unit. In the era of material scarcity, consumption has created a prominent social divide with social identity as the core. In the era of commodity abundance, consumption shows the duality of segregation and integration. It is worth noting that the duality of consumption is not limited to that, rather, it involves a series of dialectical relations, such as reform and conservatism, aggressiveness and withdrawal, and positivity and negativity. This is why modern society is vibrant but in order.

Yang Faxiang and Hu Gaoqiang are from the Institute of Applied Sociology at East China University of Science and Technology.

Edited by YANG XUE