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Updated: May 5, 2014 22:06 IST

Contemporary trends in consumer culture

R. Devarajan
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Consumer culture, Modernity and Identity. Edited by Nita Mathur. Sage
Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 895.
Consumer culture, Modernity and Identity. Edited by Nita Mathur. Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B-1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 895.

Consumer Culture may be defined as an indomitable passion for the purchase and possession of material goods and services, usually in the high-cost bracket. It is perceived as a symbol of affluence and aristocracy in the society. Companies take advantage of this idiosyncrasy in people and accordingly idolise their products to augment sales.

Two characteristic features distinguish a consumer economy. First, it is defined by the spree of spending and buying by the people. Second, consumer culture hinges not so much on the purchasing power of money, as it does on creating happiness and a sense of satisfaction obtained through acquiring and owning personal property.

Consumer culture may be viewed both positively and negatively. Proponents say that people are happier and more productive, when their wants are met. The contrary perspective is that consumerism is wasteful and greedy; that it encourages consumption for its own sake. However, both sides agree that consumerism is a sign of freedom and choice.

Nevertheless, during the last quarter of the last century, as technological advancement leapfrogged, the traditional roles of the supplier and consumer were changed beyond recognition. Consumer sovereignty asserted itself; and both the consumer and supplier entered into a symbiotic relationship in which their mutual loyalty was manifest. They reached a definitive role as equal partners in the business process.

Therefore, as at present, it is not the supplier who dictates what a society shall buy and use, but rather the free-thinking and self-directed consumer, who decides what he wants and will possess. This drives the economy into a liberal, laissez faire, strong, and stable system; purchases lead to more purchases and the wheels of production keep churning all the time.

Perhaps, one of the most liberating aspects of consumer culture is the concept of creating a “new self”, a different avatar, by transforming the person into a more modern individual, and conferring on him a new identity. The phenomenon of consumer culture is so completely engrossed in the idea of modernity that the world is no longer governed by custom, conformity, or tradition; but by flux, fashion, fancy, and fanfare.

This book is a collection of 13 essays pertaining to consumer culture in five different countries — the U.S., India, Turkey, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The articles have been written by scholars are experientially familiar with, and hence, authentic in the subject. The empirical studies have been juxtaposed with the concepts of modernity and identity.

The first part “Lifestyle Choices and the Construction of Modern Identities” contains an article that deals with the ways in which the well-to-do are exploiting new opportunities following financial deregulation, to their own personal advantage, in different parts of the world. The next essay is an analysis of the ethnography of new consumerism, in sequel to the “LPG Syndrome” [Liberalisation, Privatisation, & Globalisation] in India.

A third article examines the impact of globalisation on urban women’s engagement with consumer culture in India — especially those working in the Business Process Outsourcing sector. Following this, Nita Mathur — who has also edited this volume — writes about modernity and consumer culture as experienced by the youth in India.

In an essay, there is an exposition of how contemporary trends like the Internet and communication technologies have transformed the construction of modern identity — a metamorphosis from what it used to be in an earlier era, into how it obtains in the current context.

In the second part, ‘Global Markets, Local Needs: Fashion and Advertising’, three co-authors critically examine the social and cultural scenario in India during the 25 years following deregulation of the economy. Another article advocates that in a consumer society, identity is achieved through fashion and advertising; further, that a product acquires far more power and exaltation, when it is endorsed by icons and celebrities operating as brand ambassadors, than by its own intrinsic features.

The story of ‘Kamasutra’, popularised in the 1990s, constitutes the third essay in this part. Here, the focus is on the conflicting criteria between customer preference for exclusivity, and corporate compulsion for mass consumption.

The third and last part ‘Subaltern Concerns and Moral Subjectivities’ bemoans that an overwhelming majority of people are forced to exist with a sense of deprivation arising out of their inability to meet the demands of consumer culture. The central theme of the first article is that in contrast to the propagation and belief based on neo-liberal slogans, common good does not automatically spring forth from the assiduous practice and pursuit of consumerism. The second article explodes the fallacy and fiction that ethical consumption is a movement towards social uplift and economic justice.

The variety of themes on consumer culture as the common and central issue brings ample credit to the editor’s sourcing skills. It is a useful addition to the shelf of both the preacher and practitioner of marketing management.

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