Analysis Of Two Sociological Ideas "Commodification" & "Emulation"

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The first theory that is going to be analyzed is commodification, which was first theorized by Marx. Marx first began to analyze commodification as the inseparability of production and consumption (Dunn 2010:24). Marx believes that production and consumption are two separate entities when it comes to consumerism; the beginning and end points of consuming commodities. During commodification, the concepts of ‘ideas’ and ‘things’ are turned into items that can be bought and sold within a capitalist dominant society (Dunn 2010:25). Typically, this takes place with items that were previously never thought of as something that could be bought or sold. For example, health care is a basic human right but has been turned into a multi-dimensional capitalist industry, with companies making billions off of the health care of society. In summary, commodification is understood as the process in which an object moves from the production stage to the consumption stage, with things in our society being turned into objects that can be bought and sold, which were not thought of in those terms before (Dunn 2010:25) (Hand 2018).

A main consequence evident within commodification is the idea of alienation. The commodity is a symbol of the separation of consumption from production, in which the consciousness and social relations of individual producers becomes alienated (Dunn 2010:27). By doing so, individuals begin to experiences commodities as an independent entity, which is completely detached from the lives of those that produced it. This concept is referred to as commodity fetishism, which views the social relationships involved in production as economic relationships between money and commodities that are exchanged (Dunn 2010:27). As a result, “commodities begin to mark a transition from labour as the source of human fulfillment and identity to the possession of things as the basis of social identity (Dunn 2010:28).” Meaning that identity is no longer based off of production or the effort one puts into production, but simply based off of the possession of commodities. It is important to understand this concept as it has formed the basis of what we know as consumer culture today, objects have become commodities that are no longer thought about in terms of the production process, we simply consume and enjoy the gratification that comes along with it.

The second theory that is going to be analyzed is the idea of emulation, which is a form of behaviour that has developed from the idea of conspicuous consumption. Whereas conspicuous consumption understands consumption as a form of wasteful spending among the upper classes in order to express wealth and status, emulation is described as the way in which those in a lower social strata conform to the code of the upper strata and base their spending in a way the emulates themselves as one of the elites (Dunn 2010:38). The “leisure class”, or the elites of society, are seen as being the head of the social structure and are the strata in which reputation is built off of. The standards that are set by the elites becomes necessary for the lower classes to live up to, and the coercive influence that they have trickles all the way down to the lowest strata within society (Dunn 2010:38). As a result of this coercive influence, individuals who belong to the lower strata accept the consumption standards of the elites and consume what they have to in order to live up to this ideal. As theorized by Veblen, these individuals must conform to this newly accepted code, and at the very least, must do so in their appearance (Dunn 2010:38).

Emulation is founded in the idea of reputability, and the ways in which lower classes attempt to build a reputation that is accepted among all classes. Veblen’s idea of emulation mirrors the foundation of the American ethos of achievement, in which the individual has a drive to climb the social ladder and find a class identity that is accepted. In terms of consumption, identity becomes accepted based on the accumulation of possessions that one has that emulates the consumption of the class above an individual’s current position (Dunn 2010:39). Although it is exemplified that by emulating one’s social status through possession of goods provides the privilege of being accepted by a higher social class, Veblen argues that this new standard of life fails to provide any more satisfaction than the previous. Unless one reaches the highest social strata, there will always be another one to try and achieve, which then creates the same cycle of emulation over again (Dunn 2010:39). Galbraith further developed the theory of emulation during an affluent time period post-World War II, in which he believed emulating the higher ranks was replaced by simply trying to fit in with your own social class. The middle class began to emerge and became the dominant social class, and production rates were higher than ever. As a result, the more that was produced, the more that needed to be owned and consumed (Dunn 2010:40).

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Galbraith’s view takes into account that status-seeking also needs to include a consideration of production on the perceptions of one’s self; due to increasing production, emphasis continues to be placed on the material standards of status (Dunn 2010:40). This portion of the paper is going to analyze my consumption patterns for the day of October 2nd 2018. For organization purposes, I will first address the ways in which commodification interacts with my daily consumption patterns, and then move into examples of emulation. When I first woke up in the morning, I made myself a cup of coffee and instantly thought about how the coffee bean was one of the first commodities to be produced. The coffee bean is an item that used to be grown freely in the wild but is now mass produced by thousands of companies every day in order to generate capital. So I as the consumer have continued to buy and drink coffee as a part of my daily routine, continuing to contribute to a capitalist society.

The next part of my morning consisted of taking the bus to work at Artillery Park Aquatic Centre. When boarding the bus and travelling downtown, I thought about how transportation has become a way of life that has been largely commodified in capitalist society. Transportation is a necessity in life, it is needed to get from one place to another and to fulfill our social responsibilities such as going to work, getting groceries and getting to the hospital in the case of an emergency. Although transportation is needed for basic human living, it is something that must be paid for and ultimately contributes to a capitalist society. Places and things have become spread out in society and rely on transportation to get there, although individuals have the autonomy to make the decision to walk, we cannot say it’s feasible to walk across an entire city when we could simply pay for the bus, or a monthly car payment. Before capitalist society, society was formed in a way that relied on walking and horses as the main mode of transportation, but now transportation is a commodity that is sold to individuals in society in the form of bus passes, car payments, airplane tickets, among many others. From work, I made my way to Queen’s campus for an afternoon class. Education is an extremely important part of society, which allows individuals to succeed and to generate their own capital once graduated. In addition, knowledge is power, and without gaining many aspects of knowledge from a post-secondary education, comes less power. Although Queen’s University is a place where knowledge and power are gained for individuals, it is also the largest commodity that I consume.

A university education cannot be consumed unless you have paid for tuition and contributed to capitalist society. I dug deeper into my tuition payment and was able to calculate that for every class I attend; it is equal to $50. Therefore, for the one class I attended that was analyzed for this paper, the knowledge I gained was only due to the fact that I paid the $50 for that class. This example demonstrates that in order to gain a university degree, and the knowledge and power that is attached to it, you must contribute to capitalist society as a degree is now thought of as a commodity. An education is something you cannot consume freely, it must be bought. In addition to analyzing my consumption patterns of things that have become commodified, I thought about the consequences that come along with the process of commodification. It was evident during my day that I did not understand the power of production that goes into the commodities that I consumes; coffee, transportation, a university degree. I enjoy the gratification that each brings to my life, but I do so without thinking about the production that went into the creation of each. I think about how coffee is delicious, not the hundreds of people whose effort went into making it. I think about how the bus makes it easy to get to work, but not the lives that went into creating it, or even the bus driver that is controlling it. When I think of my daily consumption patterns in terms of emulation, I argue that being a middle class university student plays one of the largest roles in who I try to betray myself to be.

Queen’s University is a campus dominated by name brands and students trying to portray themselves as among the upper classes, and I cannot deny that I also fall into this category. I don’t come from an extremely wealthy family, the things I buy and achieve are based off of the hard work and the money I have earned, yet I attempt to portray myself as an upper class that has many expensive things at their disposal. As I was getting dressed for the day, I put on my Lululemon pants, my Blundstone boots, and my Urban Outfitters hoodie. By doing so, I am emulating the idea that I am an upper class university student, as an attempt to fit in with the norms found on Queen’s campus. As I take my notes in class, I am typing on my Apple MacBook. I choose to consume this product as opposed to a PC computer as it emulates the idea that I belong to the upper classes, it makes me feel as if I am elite to those that have chosen a different brand computer. This largely has to do with my social context and the brand Apple portrays itself as; it is elite, expensive, luxurious, as are the consumers that consume the product.

By choosing to use my MacBook, I emulate the idea that I am also an elite, striving to be a part of a class that is above my own. In terms of my transportation consumption on the bus, my student card holds many meanings that emulate the idea of the upper class. Although I know I have paid a base fee for my student bus pass, I simply show my student card and I walk onto the bus, ready to consume. My student card emulates the idea that I am an elite transportation consumer that does not need to pay, whereas those that walk on without a card must pay with change. I feel as if I place higher on the social ladder as I walk onto the bus without paying in comparison to Kingston citizens who pay per use. I could choose to opt of out my bus pass and pay per use, but then I would not experience the elitist privileges that a student card offers. In summary, the brands I wear on a daily base, the technology I consume, and the power of my student card all emulate the idea that I belong to the elite group of society, even if I don’t necessarily belong there. It is about the idea that I strive to be there, to portray myself that way, and the most interesting thing about it is that I accept it.

References:

  1. Dunn, R.G. (2008) Identifying Consumption. Temple University Press. Chapter 1. Pp. 21-50.
  2. Hand, Martin. 2018. Class lecture. September 17. Queen’s University, Kingston, ON.
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