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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 7 / 19

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The second is far more cultural, anthropological, qualitative and concerned with issues of identity, subjectivity, and social distinction.  Each approach, as we will see shortly, draws upon and corresponds to one of  the first two phases in the twentieth-century debate about consumer society.  The first comes out of the Cold War debate about mass consumption and growth of the 1950s and 1960s; the second draws on the neo-liberal and post-modern debates about consumption, choice and identity that became so prominent in the 1980s.

The historical literature of the 1980s therefore appeared at the very moment at which the debate about consumer society was changing.   Yet both sorts of historical inquiry have shared, as I shall try to show, a common concern to identify an archetypal or typical consumer, the embodiment, both individual and collective, of the consumer society.

I don’t want to rehearse here the debates among historians  about the eighteenth-century ‘consumer revolution’.  But I do want to emphasise that the discussion has been characterized by a persistent tension between a desire to study consumption – an investigation of how people in the past used, used up, consumed the world – not just its material objects, but its time, space and social relations – and a search for the origins of consumerism – the acquisitive purchase of goods in the marketplace by an individual choosing consumer.   The two, it goes without saying, are not the same.  One is to be found in all societies, the other only in certain sorts of society.  One covers a whole range of social activities and their relation to the material world; the other focuses on the moment purchase or acquisition in the marketplace.  Perhaps we might say that one of the central questions – not well dealt with in this historical literature – is what has been the changing relationship between consumerism and consumption?

I want to ask at least two questions of this historical literature.   The first has to do with what we might call the signs of modernity that I have identified – a world of

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