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New Faces and New Masks of Today's Consumer

Gabriel, Y. & Lang, T. (2008). New Faces and New Masks of Today's Consumer. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(3), pp. 321-340. doi: 10.1177/1469540508095266


In 1995, we proposed that consumption and contemporary consumerism could not be studied or understood separately from the world of work and production. We proposed that contemporary consumerism was built on the back of what we referred to as `the Fordist Deal'. This deal, pioneered by Henry Ford for his employees, was the promise of ever increasing standards of living in exchange for a quiescent labour force accepting alienating work. Since that deal was struck, consumerism came to signify a general pre-occupation with consumption standards and choice as well as a willingness to read meanings in material commodities and to equate happiness and success with material possessions. In this sense, Ford may be seen as the father both of mass production and mass consumption. Since the Fordist high noon of consumerism in the West, mass consumption is widely seen as having fragmented into a proliferation of highly individualized niche products. For its part, a considerable part of mass production has migrated to countries with lower wages and looser environmental and social controls, fueling their own variants of consumerism. In this article, we examine the gradual erosion of the Fordist Deal in the light of developments in the last 10 years or so, seeking to assess the future of consumerism at a global level. We also seek to identify and discuss some emerging conceptualizations of the consumer, some of the new faces and masks assumed by the archetypal character of our types. We analyse some of the tensions and contradictions lurking behind these conceptualizations and try to envisage some of the real choices facing consumers today and some of the processes of social change that hinge on the outcomes of these choices. The article identifies a fundamental paradox between the ubiquity of the consumer in contemporary discourses and the virtual impossibility of generalizing about consumers. We suggest, then, that the consumer may be viewed as one of those `essentially contested concepts' proposed by Gallie that defy domestication. The consumer, we argue, is unmanageable, both as a concept, since no-one can pin it down to one specific conceptualization at the expense of all others, and as an entity, since attempts to control and manage the consumer lead to the consumer mutating from one impersonation to another. It is precisely this paradox that we seek to capture in our article's title. The article concludes with a consideration of three basic challenges that are liable to lead to fundamental reorientation of consumption and production, as well as of our conceptualizations and theorizing about them. These challenges are the outcomes of environmental, demographic and social factors that, we argue, make the current situation unsustainable and will bring about its dissolution.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright Sage 2008
Publisher Keywords: Fordist Deal, consumer choice, challenges and limits to consumerism
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Healthcare Services Research & Management > Food Policy
SWORD Depositor:
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