Saturday, 7 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part II

From Wikipedia

Thorstein Veblen was a sociologist and economist who coined the phrase conspicuous consumption in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class published in 1899. His prose is dense and the book fairly heavy going, but well worth reading.

His basic thesis is that status must be conspicuous, emulation restricted and there are canons of socially approved behaviour designed to achieve these aims. Consumption is pointlessly expensive, common household goods more complex than necessary, clothing needlessly elaborate and expensive, modes of living wasteful and without practical value.

The reasoning behind Veblen’s thesis is simple. As we rise above basic survival, our existence is not contingent on all our modes of behaviour. We may be wasteful, we may do pointless things without risking our survival. High social status inevitably becomes linked with the least accessible and most extreme forms of wasteful and pointless behaviour.

The conspicuous employment of servants to perform inessential activities has a particularly high status in Veblen’s world, as has any activity where one may require others to perform wasteful or inessential functions. Even shaving is not exempt. In Veblen’s eyes, it is a pointless activity with higher social status than simply growing a beard.

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