U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Theory BLEG: Consumption Communities and Cultural Capital

Today’s post is a blog beg. I first forwarded the following naked question at the USIH Facebook page a few days ago. But here I offer more context (or textiles, to follow a clothing metaphor) and a connected concern. The question:

Beyond Daniel Boorstin himself, where have you seen the best critical discussion of his idea of “consumption communities”?*

In addition, I’m particularly interested in any past historical-theoretical discussions linking Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to Boorstin’s theoretical tool (which prominently appeared in The Americans: The Democratic Experience). The links seem, to me, fairly straightforward:

Boorstin first defined a consumption community, in 1969, as a group that “consists of people who have a feeling of shared well-being, shared risks, common interests and common concerns that come from consuming the same kinds of objects.”** The goods around which these communities gather mostly qualify, I’m thinking, as things that are beyond the bare necessities (i.e. immaterial and higher order material goods). So despite Boorstin’s implied premise of shared and common culture, that leaves room for class and inequality. Enter Bourdieu. He first developed the theory of cultural capital in the 1960s, but it seems to have not entered the American cultural lexicon until the 1980s.*** At any rate, cultural capital can help explain the inequalities that remain in those consumption communities when income/expenditures by each member are held equal.

After seeing the question on Facebook, USIH friend Michael Kramer informed me of an article by one of our respected senior colleagues, David Steigerwald, that offers further discussion of Boorstin’s concept. David’s article appeared in the Journal of American History, and here’s the relevant passage:

Yet just as the premise of the critical consumer drives writers to untenable positions, so has the premise of the enduring community encouraged many consumer historians to see group existence in modern America as a process of negotiation with mass media in which the community often had the upper hand. Like those who deploy the critical consumer, the social historians of consumption often see the process as at least potentially liberating. Daniel J. Boorstin, whose 1973The Americans: The Democratic Experience was the first true consumer history, enthusiastically linked the rise of mass marketing to “consumption communities” as a form of liberation from provincialism. According to Boorstin, once-isolated late nineteenth-century Americans were gently gathered into communities of “customer-millions who would never see one another but who still somehow leaned on one another.” Because they were abstract, those communities of choice were “milder, less exclusive” than the rigid communities of the past. Members had an ease of entry and exit, like the urban shopper who could stroll through the department store and stay or leave at will. If the consumer communities were a bit “attenuated,” they were also vehicles of liberation from the stifling confines of the village.

Boorstin created a formula in which the consumption of mass-produced goods created new communities built on the abstract foundation of choice. He worked out a dialectic in which integration into the world of mass consumption actually generated a countervailing diversity, and that dialectic reverberates throughout studies of consumption and leisure in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.****

As always, David raises interesting questions. Here and in the article he is explicitly criticizing the positive association of consumer choice and liberation. He wonders about the chains from which we are escaping, and into what new chains we are freely bonding ourselves. These are important points, even if they don’t directly help me with my questions about connections between Bourdieu and Boorstin.

Two interesting expansions on Boorstin and Bourdieu in relation to my topics of concern have appeared outside of historical literature, in the Journal of Consumer Research. The first appeared in June 1998. It was authored by Douglas B. Holt and is titled “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption” (Vol. 25, no. 1). The next appeared in 2001. It was authored by Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Thomas C. O’Guinn, and is titled “Brand Community” (Vol. 27, no. 4).

Because these concepts are now dated (if still useful!), I feel sure that others have done the spade work. I’d like to be able to credit those folks and build on their thinking.

Can anyone help with my question, or at least further the discussion? – TL


* And no, I do not mean asylums for people with tuberculosis. 🙂

** Daniel Boorstin, “Welcome to the Consumption Community,” in The Decline of Radicalism: Reflections on America Today (New York: Random House, 1969), 22; Michael Davis, “Boorstin Proposes New Concept Of ‘Communities Of Consumption’,” Rice Thresher [Rice University Student Newspaper] 53, no. 12 (December 9, 1965): 3. He put his idea to work in The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1974), Part Two passim.

*** In these two works: Bourdieu, “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction,” in Power and Ideology in Education, eds. Jerome Karabel and A.H. Halsey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 487-511, and “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.

**** David Steigerwald, “All Hail the Republic of Choice: Consumer History as Contemporary Thought,” Journal of American History 93, no. 2 (September 2006): 399-400. The article covers pp. 385-403.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim —
    To continue this conversation, I think there are some important distinctions to make: Boorstin was an American consensus historian; Bourdieu was French and explicitly Marxist. Boorstin was most interested in consumption as it related to the expansion of liberal individualism and the thinness of his “consumption communities” concept bespeaks this focus; Bourdieu was most interested in how aesthetics, taste, and culture, traditionally conceptualized as a side story to class relations in more vulgar verions of economic Marxism, could be calculated in precise ways as relevant to class struggles—the politics of liberal individualism was the side story here and the politics of class struggle, which Boorstin had little apparatus for studying as a liberal consensus historian, moved to the center.

    All of which is to say that to my mind the Boorstin-Bourdieu is an unlikely but intriguing connection to make. Most historians challenged liberal consensus history by turning to Gramsci (I’m thinking of those Lears/Fox books on culture of consumption and power of culture), but Bourdieu is useful as well for taking the general point of Boorstin’s work—consumption communities mark the turn away from provincialism in American life—and going in a direction that doesn’t bemoan the ills of modern liberal individualism but instead locates those ills in a Marxist framework of analyzing culture and community through the lens of class struggle.

    In cultural studies, popular music studies, and the like, there have been many, many uses of Bourdieu to think about culture and class. Some of these use Bourdieu in quite clunky ways, others are brilliant. But I think historians, with exceptions, have been less willing to draw upon Bourdieu. Is this because his theories of cultural capital, with their vectors and grids, fields and maps, lack a strong temporal component?

    Thanks, as always, for bringing up fascinating questions!


    • Michael: I really appreciate your first paragraph. All true. On your last question, who knows? I don’t. Perhaps historians, when they turned to French theory, preferred Foucault, or even a bit of Derrida, Lacan, and Kristeva? Perhaps Bourdieu was overshadowed somewhat. – TL

  2. PS
    It seems to me that among the other historians with useful things to say about all this is Lawrence Glickman, especially in his introduction to the edited collection of essays on consumerism in America.

    • I need to look into this, but I’ve run out of time for my current project. Sigh. There’s never enough time to see and read everything one must. – TL

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