Category Archives: class

The Contradictions of Consumption: why we both need and abhor consumption

We are facing a collective conundrum: how do we continue to consume enough to keep our economic engine rumbling, while at the same time, not consume too much to destroy that very economic engine? This is a contradiction explored by Marx and Polanyi, and now by sociologist George Ritzer, author of The McDonaldization of Society.

Ritzer has a guest post on Blackwell publishing’s “Compass” blog (wha…? academic publishers are blogging? That’s perhaps another post). He succinctly cuts to the heart of the problem:

[A] discussion of consumption in the U.S. cannot be divorced from issues relating to production, including the decline in the U.S. and the rise elsewhere in the world, especially Asia, in production. Further, we need to realize than an artificial distinction is being made between consumption and production.

For those of you who have read your Marx, you will recognize Ritzer’s train of thought. For those of you who have not, allow me to enlighten you to Marx’s best contribution to understanding the economy:

Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production…Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; iwthout it, consumption would lack an object (p. 91 of The Grundrisse)

Ritzer goes on to say that our consumption is both required and damaging at the same time. We consume “cheap goods” which are actually expensive in the long run. For example, cheap food costs us much more in the long run because of the diabetes and health problems cheap food causes.

We cannot, in short, get away from the underlying Marxian theory of value: all value is “congealed labour” embedded into commodities. We may try to create value without concern for the labour power required to make it, but you cannot get blood from a stone. There is a limit to how much “productivity” we can really create. We are human, after all.

Ritzer’s post is worth reading because it takes the wind out of the sails of our relentless optimism around economic growth. Economic growth itself is not an end; happiness and fulfillment are ends. We ought remember the limits and contradictions of economic production (and consumption).


Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

Social media “gurus” abound these days. Which ones are worth listening to and which ones are bullshitters?

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt exposed bullshitters in his famous essay “On Bullshit.” The liar knows what the truth is and cares very much about concealing it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is and has no compunction in stretching it.

The same goes for social media “gurus.” Those that care what about rigourous examination of the social may be wrong, but at least they take great pains to analyze the phenomenon. Those that don’t care about systematic, theoretically informed social inquiry are interested only in stretching or shaping their own agendas.

How can you tell the difference?

Here are a few signs you’re dealing with a social media bullshitter.

  1. They skate over the tension between structure and agency: The tension between structure and agency is an age-old sociological debate. Social media bullshitters somehow miss this very important point. They often argue that implementing social media or social business design will somehow evaporate decades or even centuries of organizational structures. If your social media guru tells you that adding social media and stirring will create equality, harmony, and profits, begin to question them. If, on the other hand, they tell you that your organization does not live in a vacuum, and that your social media will be integrated in people’s existing lives with their existing economic, technological, and ethnically grounded experience, then they may be onto something.
  2. They use the same social research methods every time: A classically trained sociologist is trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods. They are designers in the sense that they have expertise, which they draw upon selectively, according to the research question. Social media bullshitters, on the other hand, likely have a common stock of tools that they use repeatedly, regardless of the nuance of the research question. If their answer is always, “do a focus group,” or always, “do a survey,” then question them.
  3. They see no paradoxes. Ever: Sociologists are constantly grappling with paradoxes. Weber’s famous paradoxical finding was that bureaucracies are both efficient and inefficient. They work wonders building and managing railroads, for example, but they result in horrible catastrophes like the Challenger disaster. Weber explained this paradox by arguing that rationality, or the rule of rules, is an “iron cage,” that keeps us safe but enslaved. If your social media guru claims there will be no paradox, nuance, or ambiguity, question them.
  4. They don’t know what social capital really is: Social capital is not something one can measure in terms of bank balances. It was the creation of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (come to think of it, the bullshitters wouldn’t know that either). Social capital is something one develops by being in a particular social location. I may go to an exclusive boarding school. My social capital is my network of well-off friends. Social capital is a particularly important concept when thinking about social media. Bourdieu noted that those in lower economic classes explicitly reject items they consider “above their station.” This means that luxury or “top of the line” is not always your best approach.

The bottom line is this: social media bullshitters have no knowledge of social theory or methodology. Trust a person who provides no easy answer, who carefully selects their research method, and who understands complex concepts.

Do you have more signs of being a social media bullshitter? Please share them here!

What Designers Need To Know About Economic Class

Recently the blogosphere blew up over a post by Danah Boyd about classes on MySpace versus Facebook. Boyd contended that each site appealed to differing economic classes. Facebook has a “cleaner” look, some people argued, making it “higher class.” What does that even mean? Well designers, here’s what you need to know about class.

In his famous book Distinction, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that one’s “taste” was not just something one simply “has.” No, Bourdieu said, “taste” is a function of your economic class, and higher classes pursue “distinction.” He surveyed many thousands of French people and found that from fashion to food, people strove to distinguish themselves economically through their use of symbolic objects.

Bourdieu points out that merely expensive things are not “distinguished.” One can be adorned with many expensive items but not have one iota of distinction. Imagine the young woman who wears several designer objects at once. Or the middle-aged man who wears diamonds and gold because he thinks it’s “classy.” Such goods are indeed expensive but they do not connote higher class. Bourdieu noted that this paradox is related to the rich’s desire to maintain its preeminent social position. The “nouveau riches” will never have “what we have.”

Designers of all media tend to unconsciously understand this concept. Perhaps the designers of Facebook designed its clean Web 2.0 look to contrast with the “down market” or “ghetto” look of MySpace, with its garish colors and poor user experience.

When designing a new object, keep in mind the following:

  • Understand the class position of your target user. Imagine what clothes this person would buy and wear. Imagine their closet, their garage. What kinds of goods does this person use to adorn herself? Ensure your design object matches that type of good.
  • High-class objects embody such values as “refinement,” “subtlety,” and “understatement.” Clean objects with streamlined looks and no obvious connection to price are implicitly higher class. Those with refinement (but maybe not money) will be attracted to them.
  • Don’t design higher-class objects in the hopes of creating a “better” object. Higher class objects are off-putting to middle and lower class people. In the words of Bourdieu, lower-class people “refuse what they were refused.” Lower-class people do indeed have money to spend, and good design serves the needs of people. If you improperly privilege the “refined” over mass appeal, you will unwittingly reduce your number of potential users.
  • Exclusivity is the elixir of the elite. Designing luxury items necessarily entails limited editions, smaller product runs, fewer accessories or add-on products. The secret to creating truly successful luxury items is committing to the unique. This may not be very profitable (even if you do charge an “exclusivity premium”). But after an exclusive product is created, it can be “copied” for mass production. The “original” will never lose its distinction, especially if it has a clear imprimatur.
  • Read the best Dr. Seuss story of all time: The Star-Bellied Sneetches Who Lived On The Beaches. It will tell you everything you ever needed to know about class and design.