Is Consumer Culture Destroying Cultural Difference Around the World? Essay

In recent global affairs it appears there’s no question that any sombre theory in contemporary society cannot ignore the importance of consumption. The World Wide Web is an emblematic example of how the global society has accessed the modern world (Ritzer, 2001). Globalisation had been described as the “worldwide diffusion of practices, expansion of relations across continents, organisation of social life on a global scale, and growth of a shared global consciousness” (Ritzer, 2004).

There is no doubt that the study of consumerism has been an area of steady growth particularly within cultural studies over the past decade (Bertelsen, 1996).

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For this reason there has been increasing suggestion that consumers and their behaviours deserve much more attention (Brinkmann, 2004) as consumption is production and production of good affects consumption, amongst other factors. Consumption is a social, economic and cultural process of choosing goods effectively reflecting the opportunities and constraints of modern society.

Ultimately the global population has become a society of consumers, and now our global culture is becoming increasingly emergent.

Because of global consumption is has now started to become the bridge to cultural institutions (Zukin, 2004), large scale social structure changes the opportunity to design peoples individual lifestyle. Consumer goods are an increasing part of public culture, shaped by various good and services. Advertisements and media (TV, magazine, radio ECT) promote products services and places i. e. shopping malls, websites and gift shops.

It seems the extensive volume at which the consumerist society purchase commodity goods has resulted in a view that consumption has become a threat to social order and cultural variation around the world (Ritzer, 2001). There are strong views that the consumerist society stands for a kind of society which promotes and enforces a consumerist lifestyle and dislikes all alternative cultural options (Bertelsen, 1996). This consumerist society adapts to the perceptions of consumer culture and follows a peculiar set of conditions unquestionably as the approved choice within society.

Consumer culture had become so embryonic, mainly due to how well it has been produced by all the agents who work directly within the economy i. e. managers and marketers. These agents constantly criticise and market products to create the mass consumption system. It is this very system that has the potential to destroy global cultural difference as interconnected economic and cultural institutions have become centred on production of commodities for individual demand (Maguire, 2004).

This paper intends to discuss the extent of the consumer culture and its damaging or positive influences on cultural differences. According to Hannerz (1996), the current contemporary world is characterised by an intense, interplay between the indigenous and the imported. This means no society can truly provide an authentic source of authentic meaning for any particular commodity or cultural form. This is a result of mass consumerism and demand creating product diversity and different uses of goods.

Miller (1995) argues there is an increased genuine relativism within the globe stating there “are no longer inauthentic copies by people who have lost their culture”, rather an equality of genuine relativism making everyone creative variants of social processes based on possession and use of goods. Despite this, Millers view has been largely challenged as theories such as Americanisation and ‘grobalisation’ emphasise aims towards a lack of cultural, industrial and economical choice in society.

The consumer culture focuses itself on consumers from an early stage coercing pressures from early childhood (Bertelsen, 1996). A constant focus on commodities through the media and advertisement creates members of society who are able to inhabit and successfully act in their natural habitat around shopping malls, where goods are sought and purchased and street shops which display commodities (Bertelsen, 1996). Shopping malls selling good focus on what the consumer demands and its uses; this in turn restricts advertisement of cultural aspects as it is overpowered by globalisation (Jackson, 2004).

Consumer culture has changed historically; the change in women’s roles within society for example has affected how commodities are now advertised and where consumption sites are placed within society. Times have changed since women were appointed as purveyors of services to now, equally manipulated consumers by a sensory of delights (Jackson, 2004). Shopping malls are one sensory delight which enable women to meander freely within society purchasing commodities unescorted. Women now lay claim to city centres (Wolff, 1985). Just as the female population have been manipulated by the roducers of commodities, consumption as seen by Marxist theorists is principally an opportunity for greater control and manipulation of the global population (Ritzel, 2004). A famous consumerist contribution to this particular theory is within the culture industry (Adorno, 1972). At one time art and music were seen to be authentic and pure forms of culture, however through the advancement of time art and music have become increasingly commodified objects of culture, weakening their symbolic or objective meaning as the worth of these products have been reduced to ‘the value of exchange’ (Horkhiemer, 1944).

In many ways the cultural field has become increasingly dominated by the same principals who also rein industrial production (Ritzer, 2004). Adorno (1972) saw mass cultural consumerism as homogeneous (according to the Fordist model) as cultural goods are artificially or unoriginally produced. People within society recognise themselves in what they chose to purchase, and this is the basis of a consumer’s equality (Marcuse, 1994). The majority of people regardless will wear similar shoes, drink the same water and wear the same clothes but capitalism allows people the freedom to change brands whenever they please.

The ambush of imitation mass produced commodity culture, has resulted in traditional forms of culture retreating; however without such traditions the individual is left powerless against an unmediated capitalist economy. Despite the importance of traditional cultures, personal identity in the present day is rarely formed through internalisation of a family structure or expanded and disrupted by idealistic art forms (Smart, 2001). Instead in consumer culture we are indentified by what we purchase.

Current consumption has become based on customers consuming ideas and meanings. People can now construct a sense of who they are through the use of symbols of consumption (Bocock, 1993). This new way of individual’s identifying themselves through commodities not culture has lead to weakening the variety cultural differences. Producers within the consumer society have a desire for a transnational expansion with common codes and practises (homogeneity).

Models such as ‘Americanisation’ and grobalisation and their concepts are current examples which have had a significant influence within production of merchandise today. Grobalisation is a concept which risks a reductive consumption system and those who support it see a vision of the world becoming increasingly rationalised, codified and restricted (Ritzer, 2004). Grobalisation leads to set of negating ideas to cultural differences such as minimising differences within and between areas around the globe.

A globe following the theory of grobalisation will result in individuals and groups having little opportunity to adapt and roam freely around the world. This is because grobalisation prefers the larger structures overpowering all local limits and the individual’s ability to create themselves and an individual life. The roots of grobalisation lie within urbanisation and industrialisation; this combined with capitalism has lead to multinational corporations wanting global control over what commodities consumers purchase and where they purchase their goods from.

Because of the increase within the cultural industry and the various goods available than ever before, objective culture continues to grow whilst the capacity to understand and control cultural objects purchased has increased barely. Reasons for this are due to the subjective symbolic meaning which is advertised to consumers’, rather than the objective true symbolic meaning or use of the commodity. This creates an increasingly distant knowledge of cultural objects and they are purchased as a result of creativity or design.

As consumers become increasingly overwhelmed from the large variety of goods produced by the culture industry and other industries the artificial demand for such products becomes a senseless act from the ‘perspective of the subject’s culture’ (Simmel, 1978). With people now being given the opportunity to live a more rational life, many traditional stable frameworks once used by individuals and groups i. e. religion, family, class and nationality have weakened and some abandoned.

As the consumer makes the choice to modify this they are then free to chose their own path of consumption aiming to improve oneself through consumption (Maguire, 2004). Other evidence of consumer culture destroying cultural difference is proved in the intensity of the commodification culture. According to Gartman (1991), attention to design has become a mundane part of the production process and design aesthetics have converged such that the ‘same look’ is sold across various price categories (Gartman, 1991).

This makes it hard to distinguish the difference between a taste for the material function or the symbolic form (Bourdieu, 1984). At its extreme grobalisation involves a purification of economic, social and all cultural elements, as any indigenous elements are rejected and replaced by a ‘grobal’ alternative (Ritzer, 2004). Despite many examples of the consumer culture weakening cultural difference around the world, there is also a strong argument proving cultural difference still remains despite if it has been overlooked by producer’s priorities in the consumerist world.

Despite this there are claims that culture still sits in some places within the consumerist world. Regardless of displacement and in some cases de-territorialisation which has partnered globalisation there is localisation in places around the world, keeping cultural difference afloat (Escobar, 2001). The importance of cultural difference is in many cases wholly overlooked as the majority of producers focus on demands and how they can influence consumers to follow the theory trends they create.

However despite this desire from consumer producers around the world, and increasing transnational flow, flow of people, artefacts and money the desires of cultural homogenisation is very far from being achieved (Jackson, 2004). Reasons for this include the local demand within places around the world. The indigenous population having a stronger hold over commodity demands and immigrants looking for a cultural change are two possibilities of why cultural difference still remains. This has resulted in producers having to adapt their global brands so they can succeed commercially.

An example of adaption to their global brand occurred within the Cadbury industry in China. The site in China despite wanting to maintain standards of production was forced to make significant changes to both the production process and their product. Changes included: changing the products names to local names i. e. ‘best of luck’ and ‘a hundred blessings’ and the Cadbury recipe was also changed to have a lesser sugar content and an increase in coca solids were introduced to the recipe.

This, regardless of representing a classic example of globalisation, the Chinese Cadbury plant also demonstrates a resilience of local consumer cultures. This also indicates that transnational corporations are not as powerful as their ‘shop window effect’ or brand name lends them to be. In fact, in this case Cadburys as a transnational corporation was to adapt in order to succeed, this is a similar case for many other transnational corporations i. e. McDonalds. The changes which the Cadbury plant in China made follow the concepts and principles of the theory ‘Glocalisation’.

This particular concept emphasises the diversity around the world as opposed to the emphasis of uniformity which links more to the term ‘Grobalisation’. Glocalisation aims to involve two or more elements from various cultures around the world producing a concept that is being adopted by organizations all over the world. It means the tailoring of a company’s offering to suit the interests of local markets across the world. Theorists supporting the glocalisation theory usually view it as a combat representative against grobalisation, leading it to create a wider new array of global local forms (Ritzer, 2001).

Robertson (1992) stated essential elements to glocalisation include the theory being sensitive to differences within the world and provoking a variety of social reactions i. e. nationalist and cosmopolitan processes. The main difference in grobalisation and glocalisation is the power and freedom individuals have to change and adapt and innovate within a globalised world (Robertson, 1992). Referring back to the Cadburys case study, glocalisation can fashioned to accommodate the user or consumer in a local market.

This means that the product or service may be tailored to conform to local laws, customs or consumer preferences. Products or services that are effectively “glocalised” are, by description, going to be of much greater interest to the end user. A number of both public and private companies currently practice glocalisation in an effort to build their customer bases and grow revenues. An example where McDonalds has used glocalisation to improve revenue and expand is in India: McDonalds were smart to consider Indian religious sensitivities as beef and pork are not included as constituents to the burgers.

India is the first country where McDonald’s has offered a home delivery service and vegetarian burgers have been introduced for the enormous vegetarian population. The popular mayonnaise is replaced with ‘chutney’ a local spicy favourite. Usage of local language and widespread material in the marketing strategy combines with portraying people of all age groups enjoying a burger in the advertisements has gone a long way in brand positioning McDonald’s in India.

The behaviours and minute changes McDonalds and Cadbury’s as global corporations have displayed in India and China have enabled the local populations to enjoy their brand whilst maintaining their standards for good chocolate and fast food. It seems glocalisation and its concepts is dedicated to promoting cultural differences within the consumer culture and is much more prepared to work with globalisation whilst respecting the various cultures which shape the current modern globe the consumer society inhabit today.

It appears despite producer’s best interests to work and manipulate the consumer culture towards a more restricted culture, indigenous inhabitants local traditions, tastes and demands cannot be ignored if transnational corporations and multinational corporations are to succeed in a consumerist society.

References

Ali, M (2007) “Globalisation: It’s Effects”. International Business & Economics Research Journal, 1 (6) pp. 89-96. Bauman, Z (2007) Consuming Life. Cambridge: Policy Press. Bertelsen, E (1996). Post Mod-cons: Consumerism and Cultural Studies”. A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 1, (10) pp. 87-107. Ger, G. (1997) “Human Development and Humane Consumption: Well-Being beyond the ‘Good Life’”. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 1 (16) pp. 110-125. Jackson, P (2004). “Local Consumption Cultures in a Globalising World”. Royal Geography society, pp. 165-178. Ritzer, G (2001) Theories’ of Consumption. London: Sage publications. Zukin, S; Maguire, J (2004). “Consumers and Consumption”. Annual Review of Sociology, 30 pp. 173-197.

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