Colin Campbell on Thorstein Veblen on conspicuous consumption.

Author:Tilman, Rick
Position:Criticism on Veblen theory

It is important to note that Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) largely predated the development of the advertising industry whose primary genesis came in the 1920s, a decade noted for its ostentatious display and waste of status-enhancing goods. In fact, one of his chief accomplishments in that study was to anticipate the role of modern advertising by analyzing the self-advertisement of the leisure class. He also came to believe that the massive expenditures on advertising and salesmanship indicated the view of marketers that consumers can be persuaded to buy goods and services that they do not need. The purchase of brand items that are heavily advertised and sold is thus a form of revealed preference for luxury goods.

In keeping with these trends, the literature on consumption by marketing specialists, historians of advertising and salesmanship, literary critics, aestheticians, and social scientists has grown to massive proportions in recent years. Although economists still lag behind in their contributions to what can only be labeled a growth industry of impressive size, more social scientists than ever before are studying consumption. Much of this literature mentions Veblen on conspicuous consumption at least in passing). (1)

An increasingly popular twist on Rene Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" can be added: "I shop, therefore I am." Without ignoring the role of the upper class as a catalyst in the dynamics of middle-class consumer frenzy, it is evident that status emulation and consumer gratification have become a rationale for the existence of the class itself.

If he were alive, what would Veblen say about such? We can only speculate, of course, but what can logically be derived from his writing are warnings against consuming nature, invidious and wasteful consumption, and the continuation of an unsustainable consumer-oriented world. In a positive vein, he favored more austere lifestyles, other regardingness, civic mindedness, and conservation culture; in short, he was a harbinger of a voluntary simplicity movement.

Keeping all this in mind, Colin Campbell is one of the most persuasive of the scholars who have recently attempted a serious evaluation and critical analysis of Veblen. Since 1987 British sociologist Campbell (b. 1940) of York University has subjected Veblen's theory of consumption to systematic, critical scrutiny. In a book, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, and in articles in influential journals and conference papers, he has pointed to ambiguities, inconsistencies, and conflicts in the thesis on consumption Veblen formulated in The Theory of the Leisure Class. (2) Campbell claims that Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption is so flawed that it is not an empirically testable hypothesis. This is because it is essentially three different theories which have been mistaken for one. As Campbell put it:

 There are three rather different conceptions of conspicuous

consumption which can be discerned in the pages of "The Theory of

the Leisure Class," conceptions which possess a somewhat uneasy

theoretical relationship to each other. These are (1) an "interpretive," or subjective, formulation which conceives of conspicuous consumption as action marked by the presence of certain distinctive psychological states in consumers; (2) a consequentialist or "functional" formulation in which conspicuous consumption is viewed as a form of behavior characterized by particular end-results or outcomes, and (3) a substantive

conception which defines conspicuous consumption as a form of conduct marked by certain "intrinsic" qualities. (3)

Are Veblen's allegedly different theories of conspicuous consumption conceptually and theoretically disaggregated from each other as Campbell has suggested? Or are more traditional interpretations which view the theory as conceptually and theoretically coherent and unified still valid? From the perspective of a Veblen apologist, a worst-case scenario would concede the accuracy and relevance of Campbell's claims, and, for the sake of the argument, that is how I will proceed. (4)

The possibility exists, however, that each of these three theories, if they are as different as Campbell suggests and if properly formalized, could be tested separately from each other. He suggested this possibility but did not pursue it. In any case, it may well be that Veblen formulated three different theories without being aware of it. Let us simply re-label them as (Veblen 1) Conspicuous Consumption as Intention, Motive, or Instinct, (Veblen 2) Conspicuous Consumption as Consequence, Outcome, or "Function," and (Veblen 3) Conspicuous Consumption as Intrinsic Quality of Conduct (see table 1).

Reduced, then, to a rudimentary level, Campbell's Veblen on conspicuous consumption takes three forms. Veblen 1 is that consumers consciously attempt to demonstrate their pecuniary strength by buying and displaying goods and services that will bring them enhanced status in the eyes of others. Veblen 2 is that they engage in conduct which impresses others with their ability to pay; however, others may interpret this as generosity and sociability instead of esteeming them for their pecuniary strength. Veblen 3 is that conspicuous consumption on the whole defeats achievement of the generic ends of life, in other words, activity which is engaged in to impress others with one's pecuniary strength is "wasteful," thus futile if judged by Veblen's norms of critical intelligence (idle curiosity), proficiency of craftsmanship (instinct of workmanship), or altruism (the parental bent). Campbell's analysis of Veblen on conspicuous consumption is, of course, much more complex (and convoluted) than this. But, in principle, these three different formulations of conspicuous consumption might be formalized into testable hypotheses. It is unfortunate that Campbell, himself, has failed to do this as he is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to do so.


Veblen's analysis of consumption is aimed at understanding the behavior of social aggregates in contrast with the analysis of Jeremy Bentham, which still plays an influential role in conventional economics and is focused on individuals. For Veblen, comparisons with the individualistic notions of neoclassicism are irrelevant, for unlike his peers he was a participant-observer, not merely a participant. The atomistic individualism of Bentham still resonates to the orthodox, but Veblen knew too much about social psychology and cultural anthropology to believe it was relevant to understanding consumption in industrial societies with market economies, or less developed societies for that matter.

Thus the theoretical, conceptual, and empirical refinements of contemporary neoclassical economics may be interesting to price theorists, but they lack what Veblen called the "breath of life." One of those writing in the Veblen tradition is Roger Mason, who has argued that a "barefoot empiricist" approach will not adequately test the theory of conspicuous consumption. His argument is that survey research is ineffective because few, if any, consumers will admit to having emulatory motives. To inquire whether their purchases are designed to enhance their status aspirations or are motivated by utilitarian considerations is naive, since few will tell the truth. Who wants to admit that one's values are not one's "own," that is, inauthentic because not "self-generated"? (5)

Campbell also objects to testing Veblen's hypotheses using Mason's caveats that, because of the stigma attached by consumers to conspicuous consumption, a questionnaire will not elicit candid answers, thus invalidating any efforts at empirical testing of this form of status emulation. (6) If so, how could social scientists using questionnaires do reliable empirical work on any subjects with stigmas attached to them, for example, homosexuality, bestiality, sadomasochism, incest, and so on? Campbell (and Mason) may be correct about the difficulties of querying consumers on the motives and consequences of status-enhancing consumption. But Campbell fails to tell us why the information they might provide is less reliable than that given on literally dozens of taboo subjects in addition to the four stigma-tainted ones just mentioned. Are social scientists to relinquish efforts to test hypotheses empirically simply because some kind of social stigma or taboo is involved? In any case, there are other sociological tools that can help provide answers for pathologically sensitive issues, including key informant interviews, focus groups, and participant observation where the researcher lives/works with subjects.

To pursue this topic further, why, in principle, are questions to consumers regarding conspicuous consumption less likely to elicit reliable information than queries on dozens of other important subjects which have stigmas of one sort or another attached to them--not just obviously taboo subjects such as incest, murder, and bestiality but lying, cheating, and masturbation? Do academic plagiarism, sexual dalliance with students, and acts of homosexuality with fellow faculty in the campus restrooms, as focal points of inquiry, bring the matter a bit closer to home? Surely, most of these subjects have already been investigated, or soon will be, by social scientists with some degree of success. (7) Campbell's strictures on lack of candor on the part of queried consumers regarding conspicuous consumption are important to his analysis but otherwise unconvincing.

"Luxury Consumption" and Neoclassical Economics

There are other questionable assertions in Campbell's analysis of Veblen's ideas regarding consumption. Campbell claims that there exists a common prejudice in social science against luxury consumer behavior. He may be right in a broader sense, but he errs if he means to include conventional economists in his statement, because for them just the opposite is true; the...

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