The Sociology of Consumption

A review of The Sociology of Consumption by Patricia Hogwood

The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach, authored by Joel Stillerman, offers a long-overdue account of the processes and cultural relevance of consumption in the twenty-first century.  Patricia Hogwood finds much to admire in this solid introduction to the diverse theoretical literatures on consumption and its exploration of the new opportunities and challenges arising for governments and citizens alike due to rapid changes in contemporary practices of consumption.  

The author: Joel Stillerman explains on page 43, that shopping malls orginated in the U.S. after WW2. Victor Gruen, the designer of some of the first shopping malls  in New Jersey and New York, viewed them as the new “Civic centres, that would serve the same functions as the streets and parks of urban down town."  While malls attract large crowds they are not genuine public places.  First, malls are privately owned, which means that managers can restrict political speech much more than city authorities can in parks, furthermore the malls ‘ private ownership allows them to “screen” customers behaviour, excluding individuals and groups whom the mall authorities believe deter the more affluent shoppers they seek to attract, moreover sociologists have developed distinct interpretations of malls’ as consumption sites and quasi-public settings.  Some authors emphasize the malls’ appealing designs, arguing that, much like the Paris arcades Walter Benjamen described, these settings encourage consumers to adopt a dreamlike attitude that allows them to imagine themselves as owners of goods at the mall.  In this regard the mall authorities use recognisable and appealing symbols or signs, such as palm trees, carousels, or brand-name logos, allowing them to seduce consumers into making purchases. Others focus on mall managers surveillance of customers via security guards and cameras.  Building on the discussions of malls as pseudo-public spaces noted above, these authors argue that mall managers exrecise control over customers' behaviour, and that consumers often internalise these controls. Controls can be direct, such as the use of security personnel; or indirect, through the design of hallways and stores that encourage visitors to walk by as many stoes or products as possible, and the use of lighting and ambient music (much like department stores) to create a calm environment for consumers. This argument suggests that mall managers seek to minimize any spontaneous behaviour that might frighten or annoy shoppers, and to guide shoppers' behaviour in a manner that encourages them to spend their money.

Another perspective examines shoppers attitudes and behaviours.These authors have a somewhat more positive view of the ways that mall visitors use these settings for their own purposes. Scholars note that two groups - teens and the elderly - use malls primarily as social settings rather than to spend money.  While mall managers are not happy that large groups of people use these settings without spending money, they fear that directly confronting these groups might deter other shoppers. Further, others , following the work of Michel de Certeau (1984), note tha visitors may chart out their own pathways in malls, which do not necessarily relect the owners goals. For example, Stillerman and Salcedo (2012) found that some mall visitors in Santiago, Chile, brought picnic lunches to the food court , teens rode skateboards in the mall, and other individuals who were not store employees sold small items to visitors.  All these activities are officially prohibited, but authorities turn a blind eye to them. These authors argue that visitors cxonvert malls to meaningful spaces, or places, through their everyday actions of appropriation (they use the mall much as they would use a park or subway car).