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Consuming Identity

According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, the saying ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ was pronounced by Julius Caesar in front of a plate of asparagus seasoned with butter. The dish was served to Caesar and his generals by the rich and influential Milanese Valerio Leone. Romans, who used to season vegetables with olive oil, considered butter an example of ‘barbarian’ culture. As the generals did not appreciate the dish, Caesar resolved the matter by pronouncing the famous sentence, which can be translated as ‘in matters of taste, there is no dispute’.
Over time this expression has been interpreted to mean that what people like is a private matter, and there is no point arguing about it. However, the lesson to be learnt by Caesar was the opposite. As the way of consuming asparagus with olive oil was self-evident and common sense for himself and his generals, it was almost unnecessary to discuss. The challenge provoked by a different way of consuming the vegetable, in the manner of the ‘barbarians’, revealed how taste was seen not as an expression of individual identity but rather an expression of collective identity.

The way in which Caesar used the expression could be interpreted as a diplomatic way of remarking a difference of taste between groups and their dispositions. Also, in both contexts, we are left with the impression that a taste is somehow better than another, detaining a stronger legitimacy on how things should be consumed.

Understanding how affiliations shape the ways we consume has been of interest to marketing and consumer researchers. The very concept of segmenting the market is based on the assumption that any market can be divided into homogenous categories defined by shared characteristics. Among the criteria for dividing a market, demographics – which is based on age, occupation, income, and often gender – has been one of the most popular. These criteria can be criticised for providing a too simplistic way of dividing a market because it assumes that people in the same social class will necessarily share dispositions. For example, people with the same income might have very different preferences for music, where to go on holidays, or how to dress.

If demographics are still used for segmenting markets, lifestyle is adopted as a useful way to downplay the role of occupation and income. This is a concept that marketing has borrowed from sociological studies looking at consumption during post-modernity. In contrast with structural perspectives that affirm that people’s decisions emerge from their social class, race, gender, religion or other structures that define their identities, the concept of lifestyle assumes that individuals are ‘free’ to choose. The decline of consolidated forms of affiliation – such as political parties, church and family – has reduced the pressure towards uniformity; hence, individuals are often understood as reflexive agents, free to choose at any time or situation. This perspective, known as the ‘pleasures of consumption’ thesis, emphasises that consumers easily overcome market impositions through their personal skills when deciding what and how to consume. According to this perspective, it is through consumption – understood to be a highly individualised activity without particularly tough sanctions or limitations – that individuals maximise their quality of life by assembling a lifestyle through personalised acts of choice in the market. Following this thesis, individuals can be ironic, adventurous and able to change identities just as easily as changing clothes. Although free to select what and how to consume, they do not act in isolation. They are often affiliated with multiple groups formed around consumption interests, including sport, food, fashion, role-playing games, arts, music and specific brands. These groups might have an internal hierarchy, rules and conventions, but their affiliation transcends social class, race, age and other structural or geographical forms of association.

Recently, this view of consumption as a matter of enjoyment and freedom is being downplayed in social sciences. The idea of a free consumer able to navigate the market has been criticised because a decline of traditional forms of affiliation does not necessarily mean that individuals are more reflexive and free from well-established norms, habits or routines. Take, for example, people’s interest in sport. Some sports, like polo, are typically practised by wealthy people, while others are practised by the less wealthy. There are many exceptions to this, but the very fact that we consider them as exceptions is a way of proving the rule. The concept of lifestyle has also been attacked by critics who insist that the ‘pleasures of consumption’ thesis overlooks that consumption is not a form of enjoyment for many, particularly those who do not have resources to fully participate in the ‘game’ of constructing their own identities. Studies looking at how people cope with limited resources show how lifestyle is not a helpful tool for understanding structural inequalities and how they affect people’s everyday lives. These studies promote the use of social class, which helped to understand the recent economic crisis and the consequent austerity measures that have aggravated the financial situation of precarious workers and other already marginalised people.

As such, many economists, sociologists and critical theorists have recalled how at the very heart of economic marginalisation and limited access to consumption for some, there is a profound structural inequality and a lack of social mobility and redistribution of resources. The current concentration of wealth in the West has reached inequality levels not seen since before the Great Depression of 1928.

An extreme case might be represented by the city of Florence. a study comparing households’ income over time discovered that the ten wealthiest families in 1427 remain among the richest today and that the ten poorest are still at the bottom of the social ladder. One might wonder if the term ladder is of any use!

Can we mesure the ladder’s steepness?

Defining and measuring social class has been a topic of interest to economists, sociologists, anthropologists and historians. It is not only academics that have spent time in this exercise: politicians, civil servants, and entrepreneurs have also tried to define social class and the attendant privileges (or lack of). Britain provides a remarkable case of how political and cultural interest is associated with social class measurement. As such, this is an interesting case that can illuminate some of the most recent trends in studying social class. Changes to social class measurement have been mainly driven by the principles of classification, which leave aside any understanding of antagonism or struggle, which, as we will see, might be key to critical studies of social class.
Historians documented that even before the Industrial Revolution, indeed already in the sixteenth century, there were many wage-earning farm workers and many skilled and unskilled trades. These workers had a solid identity and sense of independence, mainly associated with the pride of their manual skills, which endured into the industrial revolution and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such a strong class identity was pivotal in generating socialist movements and trade unions. Another segment of the population with a strong sense of identity was the aristocracy, which, unlike in many European countries, managed to persist and thrive economically. Somewhere in the middle between these extremes, businessmen, tradesmen and white-collar workers had an insecure identity compared to the aristocrats, farmworkers or unskilled trades. Able to vote only in the late nineteenth century, the middle classes gradually incorporated into the country’s political life, but their class identity remained deferential to those above and dismissive of those below.

The middle classes’ uncertain identity was balanced out with extravagant consumption to display a cultural distance from the working class and establish some commonalities with the aristocracy. Distancing themselves from the working class was seen as a major preoccupation of the of the middle class and, according to some, it is still visible today. Therefore, it is not surprising that some of the first attempts to measure Britain’s class system were devised in 1880 by Charles Booth, a London shipping entrepreneur, and in 1901 by Seebohm Rowntree, a chocolate entrepreneur. Both studies were partly inspired by William Petty’s attempt to measure the value of people in 1665. This value was finalised for taxation purposes and, as such, calculated from people’s labour, making individuals’ worth an object of calculation. This process was then institutionalised in the New Poor Law 1834, generating a form of control, inspection and legislation of the poor. Booth and Rowntree’s analyses built on this economic perspective, adding that people’s moral value may be deduced from their professions. Such studies were then partially replicated by the Registrar General Office in 1911, which developed the first formal measure of linking professions with ‘moral/immoral behaviour’. That study provided a detailed distinction between manual and non-manual workers, reflecting the middle-class anxieties of establishing boundaries between them and the working class. These distinctions reflected not only professional terms but also ‘culture’ – an index that could explain the different mortality rates amongst the population. This class differentiation marked a moral difference between the middle (non-manual workers) and the working (manual workers) classes, highlighting the notional superiority of the former and the lack of respectability of the latter. In the mid-twentieth century, the distinction between middle and working class was adopted by Conservative politicians, who increasingly identified the working class as dangerous and the middle class as virtuous. After WW2, the persistence of this distinction and the need for skilled labour drove the need for education reform, opening free education to the working class.

In the 60s, British academics started to develop more nuanced ways of studying social class. The sociologist John Goldthorpe strongly believed that the working class had fewer chances in life and, as such, were not culturally or morally inferior. The basis of Goldthorpe’s model is that there was a divide between two groups: the first constituted by self-workers and employers, and the second by employers. The first group is characterised by people who own their business and might employ staff and, most importantly, have an income derived by profits. The second group are employees paid by salary or wage; this group is far from being homogenous and, as Goldthorpe highlighted, can be broadly divided between professional or managerial staff and manual workers. This division was the basis of different ways of remuneration (monthly salary for the first and weekly, hourly or piece-based wages for the second) and pension entitlements. This distinction was also visible in how some firms organised their space: employees had different toilets and canteens depending on their contacts, and some were required to wear uniforms, while others were required to wear suits. Thinking of some firms or sectors, one can recognise that some of these forms of remuneration and working practices are still in place today.


Measuring social class while considering the cultural and social aspects of people’s lives is not a recent method. Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption is one of the first attempts at linking consumption and social class membership. Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, was interested in understanding how the American rich and nouveau-riche in the late nineteenth century spent their money. A central point of Veblen’s work is that hierarchical inequalities derived from the sphere of production are perpetuated and reinforced by consumption. In other words, different consumption practices are explained as an expression of different positions in relation to the system of production. The most evident sign of distance from productive labour is a life of comfortable leisure and conspicuous consumption, which includes a waste of time and goods. In his famous ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ (1899), Veblen explains how the main motive animating purchases of luxury objects was ostentation and the desire for social esteem. Being wealthy, apparently, was not enough: people had to display their wealth and, indeed, to ‘waste’ it mainly by purchasing luxury goods that were socially visible, including homes, dresses, shoes, jewellery, and so on. This conspicuous consumption (waste of money), together with conspicuous leisure (waste of time), form the “canon of conspicuous waste”, according to which people do not work or consume objects to signal their wealth in society or to gain the esteem of others.

Conspicuous consumption is not confined to the wealthy – the ‘leisure class’ – but also the less affluent who try to imitate how more privileged people consume. Veblen called this ‘invidious comparison’, explaining how lower-status social climbers emulate the consumption choices of a higher status to mark their social positions. Emulation then becomes the central driver of ownership and consumption. Veblen believed that consuming conspicuously was as defensive (protecting a privileged position in society) as offensive (trying to achieve a higher status through emulation) behaviour. Given this double role of consumption, public visibility is central to such competitive games between the social classes. Although Veblen’s theory was attacked for its lack of empirical support, it has shaped studies on consumption and social class.

Amongst the investigations influenced by Veblen is the work of Pierre Bourdieu. In his famous Distinction, the French anthropologist and sociologist analysed two surveys that mapped the French population’s consumption in the 1960s. Correlating consumption patterns (what people like and consume) with their professions, wealth, social network and education, he defined a set of theoretical tools – Bourdieu refuses to call his work a ‘theory’ – that explains how and why people like what they like. A central concept for underrating people’s consumption is taste; good taste, bad taste, sophisticated taste, and vulgar taste are all ways of classifying and ordering social works around us. Through taste, we classify and judge others, we classify ourselves (we align our choices to others similar to us) and are classified and judged by others. According to Bourdieu, taste is neither attributed to individual dispositions nor to shared standards, but it is somewhere in between these two extremes. In analysing the data from his survey, he discovered that people sharing similar economic positions (professions and wealth) also shared similar preferences and consumed similar types of sport, music, food, etc. as well as maintain certain networks of friends. He argued that our taste is influenced by our position in society, which is determined not simply by our professions and wealth, but by a combination of three different capitals: economic (income and wealth), cultural, (formal education, interests and leisure activities) and social (friendships, associations and networks). If economic capital can allow people to spend money on luxury items, cultural capital consists of socialised taste that is acquired through a long process. While cultural elites might share the same economic capital of others, their taste remains distinct. According to Bourdieu, the cultural capital of the most privileged classes is characterised by ‘proper’ use of language, table manners, appreciation of the beaux-arts (classic music, painting, literature) and is passed through generations via parenting styles. As children from privileged classes are very familiar with such arts, it is not surprising to see that they have excellent attainment in education, which later facilitates their access to high-prestige professions.

Like Veblen, Bourdieu sees social emulation as a never-ending process: the upper classes are forced to distinguish themselves by consuming new symbols of exclusiveness. However, a key difference is in how individuals are conceptualised; if Veblen sees individuals as rational players who can choose how to waste money and time in leisure activities and conspicuous consumption, Bourdieu does not see individuals as being agentic or fully aware of their taste and its hierarchical nature. As he famously put it, ‘we can always say that individuals make choices, as long as we do not forget that they do not choose the principle of these choices’ (Bourdieu 1977, in Jenkins 1993, p.77). Such principles are indeed something that individuals cannot control or of which they are often aware. Having become familiar through parents, peer groups or schools, these principles guide and shape dispositions.

To explain this concept, Bourdieu introduced the term habitus, which consists of the unconscious dispositions and classificatory schemes that are evident in an individual’s sense of taste. Social distinction incorporates both the importance of classificatory schemes, through which individuals distinguish between objects, and the practice of communicating and achieving distinction in social relations. In this framework, symbolic activities, including consumption, do not mechanically express the socio-economic social structure; rather, they are a relatively autonomous practice within which individual agency can be expressed relative to a social-group taste.


For Marx, becoming aware of one’s class position and the nature of class relationships would lead to recognising the exploitative nature of class and, consequentially, change completely how political struggle is understood. As such, the identification with a class is based on inequality, exploitation and conflict.
Thus, class is not a matter of identity but rather the understanding of the material conditions of life under capitalism; consciousness is not a matter of self-identification with a lifestyle but a recognition of labour exploitation under capitalism.
Given the importance of production rather than consumption, how can this trajectory be useful for understanding class and consumption? This trajectory was used to look at how the inequality generated elsewhere, usually in production, is also visible in the consumption market.

One line of enquiry has focused on the issue of morality and its articulation through class. As shown in previous sections, social class has also been measured in Britain in terms of morality. For example, in the 1850s and the1860s, there was a big emphasis on moral rather than economic criteria.
Distinctions were made between the deserving and undeserving poor or between the decent and the indecent poor. The undeserving poor was a category that in the British imperial discourse was used to dehumanise the urban poor and foreigners coming from the colonies. A manifestation of this would be the Irish famine of the 1840s, which led to over one million people’s starvation. The British parliament understood the famine as a reflection of the Irish Catholics’ immature character rather than a consequence of the colonial infrastructure they imposed upon Ireland. Therefore, the British refused to ship supplies.

Described as degenerate, without morality and intellectual ability, the working classes and peasantry have long been considered inferior and deserving of their positions in society (McClintock 1995). While the middle class could distance themselves from the working class on a moral base, mainly achieved via consumption, the working class were left without any other distinctive characteristics but the negative ones attributed to them. Simultaneously, middle-class morality became representative of the norm and, supported by economic, cultural and symbolic resources, the one to be used in legitimising class.

Seen as distant from such a legitimate morality, the working-class subject was defined as lacking resources, values and morality. This differentiation’s logic is still visible today; it is based on a dichotomy between the improper and the proper, the legitimate and the illegitimate, the valued and the value-less. This logic shows how social class classification is based on struggles for value that, although originated in production, go beyond such a sphere. As the struggles move outside the working sphere, it becomes easy to see how morality is at play in consumption, where the lines between proper and improper are reinstated.

One might ask, how can people cope when they are positioned as value-less and when the resources required for a valued life are not available? Take, for example, how the working class has been portrayed on the media as undeserving poor that cannot eat ‘properly’, cannot control their bodies, cannot furnish their homes, and cannot live a respectable life. Although portrayed as pointless and out-of-place, working-class people possess self-value and invest time and money to defend themselves against being devalued. Some defence strategies include investing in branded clothes and technologies that can be displayed as signs of having value. Although such consumption is practised to gain respectability, it often creates the opposite effect because brands are seen as a sign of ‘improper’ taste. Investing in respectability through consumption is also seen to provide instant gratification because precarious working conditions make long-term planning impossible and the present very grim. The focus on the present and the absence of long-term planning have been the main characteristics of the british working class, whose precarious and insecure conditions have been constant except for a short period of full-employment in the 1960s.

Translated into English by Matteo Annechiarico.

Cover: Fritz Von Uhde, German Das Tischgebet The Mealtime Prayer, 1885.

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Born and raised in Rome, he moved to the UK for his studies, with a particular focus on consumer behaviour and marketing analytics. He now works in a tech multinational.
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