The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
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The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

New Extended Edition

Colin Campbell

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eBook - ePub

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

New Extended Edition

Colin Campbell

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Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti

Informazioni sul libro

Originally published in 1987, Colin Campbell's classic treatise on the sociology of consumption has become one of the most widely cited texts in sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and the history of ideas. In the thirty years since its publication, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism has lost none of its impact. If anything, the growing commodification of society, the increased attention to consumer studies and marketing, and the ever-proliferating range of purchasable goods and services have made Campbell's rereading of Weber more urgent still. As Campbell uncovers how and why a consumer-oriented society emerged from a Europe that once embodied Weber's Protestant ethic, he delivers a rich theorization of the modern logics and values structuring consumer behavior. This new edition, featuring an extended Introduction from the author and an Afterword from researcher Karin M. Ekström, makes clear how this foundational work alignswith contemporary theory in cultural sociology, while also serving as major influence on consumer studies.

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© The Author(s) 2018
Colin CampbellThe Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern ConsumerismCultural Sociology
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: The Romantic Ethic 30 Years On—Reflections on the Nature and Reception of a Weberian Thesis

Colin Campbell1
University of York, York, UK
End Abstract


The Romantic Ethic and The Spirit of Modern Consumerism was first published by Basil Blackwell in 1987. A paperback version, in Blackwell’s Ideas series, was published two years later. It was then reprinted several times in the 1990s prior to Blackwell’s ceasing publication towards the end of the decade. Given that I continued to receive inquiries from academics seeking to purchase copies in 2005 I arranged for it to be published on demand by Alcuin Academics,1 while at the same time hoping to organize a new edition to be produced in time for the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication in 2007. This, I hoped, would allow me to write a new introduction, one that would enable me to respond both to the passage of time and to the various responses that there had been to the work. However, in the event, other projects came to take precedence, and that deadline passed, as too did the 25th anniversary. So it is that only now, a full 30 years since it was first published, that I have finally got round to doing what I had intended many years ago, which was to write a new introduction to the work.

Initial Reception

I was well aware, when writing this book, of the danger facing any academic brave enough, or perhaps one should say foolhardy enough, to venture outside his or her own discipline. Given therefore that, as one reviewer described it, this book ‘mixes social theory with economic history, psychology, history of religious thought and literary criticism’, I had anticipated trouble.2 Indeed, as Professor Evans predicted in his review for The Times Higher Education Supplement, ‘As with so many inter-disciplinary efforts, it will be widely criticized by subject specialists.’3 In this he was not wrong. There were, in the event, two groups of academics in particular who were inclined to find fault with my argument, those specializing in the study of English literature, and those historians whose focus of concern was the English Industrial Revolution or ‘Great Transformation’. In the former case my foolhardiness had taken the form of writing about Romanticism, a highly controversial topic that had long been the subject of passionate debate, even to the extent of a widespread difficulty in agreeing on a definition of the term. Hence it was no great surprise to discover that I was taken to task for my depiction of this particular movement. But then I was also running a considerable risk in discussing the transformation of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and especially in focusing on the role attributed to the bourgeoisie. For this was territory that had been ably mapped by the likes of such prominent figures as E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson.
Yet as it transpired formulating a thesis that drew upon material from a number of different disciplines also brought some rewards as well as penalties. In particular it was gratifying to discover that those academics working in such fields as aesthetics, design and fashion judged my comments on taste, aesthetic theory and the role of the artist to be of importance, as too, for perhaps more obvious reasons, did those in the fields of marketing and consumer research. I was also able to draw comfort from the fact that several reviewers, while judging my thesis to be wrong-headed in one way or another, nevertheless deemed it to be of importance, given that, as one suggested, it ‘helped to change the way we think about the critical elements in the transformation of the past into the present’.4
Undoubtedly one other reason why the book was reviewed by academics in a number of disciplines, in addition to its character as an interdisciplinary work, was because of my good fortune in publishing it when I did. For if embarking on an interdisciplinary work was a risky venture, it was less so when its central subject matter was just beginning to attract the attention of academics in a number of different disciplines. Yet this was exactly what was happening to the topic of consumption in the mid-to-late 1980s. Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb’s study of the birth of a consumer society in England was published in 1982, while Michael Schudson’s Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion, a book in which he called for the creation of a ‘sociology of consumption’, was published just four years later; these two publications were then accompanied by Rachel Bowlby’s book on consumer culture in 1985, and Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things in 1986. So the fact that this book was published in 1987, the same year as Danny Miller’s Material Culture and Mass Consumption, was very fortuitous, especially given that Grant McCracken’s Culture and Consumption, Per Otnes’ The Sociology of Consumption and Lorna Weatherill’s Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660–1760 were all published the following year. The only downside of this from my perspective was that this fortuitous conjunction of events helped to confirm the perception that this book was primarily a contribution to the study of consumption, rather than—as I had been inclined to regard it—a contribution to cultural sociology.
But what about my fellow sociologists, how did they receive the thesis? Well here, for many of them, there was the initial problem of deciding precisely to which sub-discipline or field of study this work could be seen as principally connected; should it, for example, be seen as an exercise in historical sociology, or alternatively perhaps, as a contribution to the study of cultural change, or even the sociology of religion? Or was it perhaps simply a contribution to the emerging field of the sociology of consumption? The fact that the title advertised a direct link to Max Weber’s famous essay didn’t necessarily help to resolve this problem. Although it did help when it came to the question of evaluating the work. For, as Gordon Marshall expressed it, in all probability echoing the view of many in the discipline, ‘one is likely to find the thesis convincing … only to the extent that one concurs with the Weberian original’, having ‘the same strengths and weaknesses’, to which, judging by some of my fellow sociologists’ remarks, Gordon could also have added, ‘and is likely to be subject to the same misunderstandings’.5
It is always interesting for an author to read reviewers’ comments, if only to discover the kind of book reviewers thought one should have written. But then it is also interesting to discover what it is that one should have consulted or discussed at length, yet in the opinion of the reviewer regrettably failed to do. In my case it seems that I was especially remiss in not mentioning the work of Baudrillard, Braudel, Elias, Foucault, Halevy and Lacan, to mention but a few of the names of the distinguished scholars suggested, while I was also judged to be seriously misguided in failing to consult the extensive literature on Methodist theology, English Evangelism and the psychological literature on consumer behaviour, again to single out just three of the bodies of work that various reviewers thought I should have referenced in my discussion. But then I was also criticized for failing to bring my analysis of modern consumerism up to the present day—which in the context of these reviews largely meant the 1980s—and in so doing examining the manner in which it had been modified as modernity gave way to post-modernity.6 But then, in addition and perhaps more predictably (and in an obvious echo of Gordon Marshall’s observation mentioned above), there were those reviewers of a Marxist, or at least Marxist fellow-traveller, disposition who considered my major failing to have been an undue neglect of the role played by power and wealth in the emergence of modern consumerism.
One last point needs to be mentioned before leaving the general issue of how this book was originally received, and this concerns the question of my own values and whether, in presenting a thesis linking a romantic ethic with modern consumerism, I could be said to have adopted a particular moral standpoint. Some reviewers believed this to be the case, for while noting my criticism of writers such as Veblen, Galbraith and Marcuse for prioritizing the condemnation over the investigation and explanation of modern consumerism, they appear to have come to the conclusion that I was intent on defending, if not actually celebrating it. Some commentators then took this argument one stage further, even suggesting that I sought to justify hedonism and in so doing was acting as an apologist for the romantic counter-culture of the 1960s. But then, as if to demonstrate the extent to which starkly different meanings can be extracted from the same manuscript, other commentators found a very different message in my claim that the modern consumer is of necessity a day-dreamer, as they saw this as meaning that such individuals are ‘deluded’; inhabitants of a fantasy world largely divorced from the reality that surrounds them. Consequently, the message they extracted from my analysis was a distinctly dystopian one, a vision of post-modern society in which consumerism depends for its continued existence on individuals being perpetually high on the ‘drug’ of self-illusory hedonism. That it was possible for reviewers to form such different opinions has helped reassure me that I had largely achieved my stated intention, as outlined in the original introduction, of avoiding condoning or condemning, and to focus instead on explaining rather than moralizing. But then here I was simply taking my cue from Weber, who says at the end of the Protestant Ethic essay that he does not intend ‘to burden … this purely historical discussion’ with ‘the world of judgements of value and faith’.7

This Is an Essay

Given the ambitious scope of this work it was always highly likely that it would contain both errors and omissions, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that the book might have been improved by the inclusion of some of the material mentioned above. However what is critical here is whether the inclusion of the additional material would have substantially altered the main thrust of the argument and hence resulted in significantly different answers to the questions posed. Thus although I was accused, among other things, of neglecting society’s power structure or ‘material reality’ as well as ‘the social relations surrounding consumption’, those who made these observations failed to explain quite how taking such factors into consideration would provide fundamentally different answers to the questions posed.8 Consequently I haven’t felt under any great compulsion to modify the argument by including discussion of the above-mentioned topics.
But then the other consideration that has counted against the addition of extra material was that this would have resulted in a considerable expansion in the size of the manuscript and hence would have robbed the book of its essential character as an essay. It is therefore important to repeat what I said in the original introduction, which is that the book, like that upon which it is modelled, is essentially an essay and that consequently, ‘despite its length it remains an attempt, an experiment, arising out of a deep dissatisfaction with the doubtful cultural contrasts and marked productionist biases of most contemporary discussions, to see if a more plausible and acceptable account of the development of modern consumerism and the culture of modernity can be constructed. It is not a detailed scholarly study, but a broad-ranging and fundamentally speculative attempt to draw together a highly diverse and apparently unrelated body of material to form a meaningful and coherent story.’ Unfortunately several reviewers seemed to overlook this important caveat, something that probably helps to explain why I was frequently criticized for not including this or that body of work. The fact remains that this is still an essay and not ‘a detailed scholarly study’; which is also the reason why I have resisted any temptation to undertake a revision of the original manuscript, preferring instead to focus on responding to some of the more significant criticisms and associated misunderstandings in this introduction.9
In emphasizing that the book was intended as an essay I did not just mean that it was intended to be a short piece of writing (in fact some reviewers considered it to be quite long), but rather, as stated above, that it was intended to represent an attempt or an effort, one aimed at exploring a new way of looking at familiar phenomena and in the process resolving certain intriguing problems. Again in doing this I was simply following Weber’s lead (Part 1 of The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism is called ‘The Problem’). For him the initial problem, which he went on to refine, was how to explain the widely recognized link between religious affiliation and social stratification, specifically the correlation between Protestantism and capitalist activity, or as he expressed it, ‘why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?’10 In addition he asked how it was that deep-seated traditional attitudes towards labour and entrepreneurial activity were cast aside, and hence how ‘an activity which was at best ethically tolerated, [could] turn into a calling in the sense of Benjamin Franklin’?11—not to mention the fundamental question of why modern rational bourgeois capitalism emerged in Western Europe in the eighteenth century rather than in such developed civilizations as Classical Rome or ancient China.
In my cas...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. Introduction: The Romantic Ethic 30 Years On—Reflections on the Nature and Reception of a Weberian Thesis
  4. Part I. The Spirit of Modern Consumerism
  5. Part II. The Romantic Ethic
  6. Back Matter