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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 11 / 19





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in so much cultural-studies literature.  The problem is not one of whether or not such consumers were so motivated – although ethnographic studies in which consumers speak for themselves rather than being ventriloquized by pundits and academics almost always reveal a more complex picture – but of making a particular type of consumer speak for all consumers.  Thus most accounts of consumer society come with a stereotypical, ideal-type consumer and debates about consumer society are also debates about consumer identity.  But as Fine and Leopold have stressed, given the extraordinary complexity of consumption practices – not only in the present but in the past – “it is inconceivable that any one general theory of consumption will suffice”.   Moreover any interpretation that moves from the motives of an aggregate of individual consumers to “consumer society” entails an astonishing myopia.  Any remotely plausible account of consumer society cannot overlook the role of institutions – from the firm to the state – the topographies of consumption, questions of access and exclusion, and the complex chains that link production and consumption.   

Such analysis certainly exists, but its absence from so much of the work debating the existence of a consumer society can best to understood if we turn to a closer analysis, an historical account of the consumer society debate.

The term ‘consumer society’ as opposed to consumption/the consumer is a relatively recent coinage.  The term was not used at all before the late 1950s and only achieved anything like general usage in the 1960s.  Even the American economist George Katona, one of the major early apologists for post-War mass consumption preferred to speak of a mass consumption society rather than a consumer society.  There have been three phases of the consumer society debate – the first, between c.1950-74 occurred during the so-called golden age of post-World War II growth in Europe and the US that combined new

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