London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Consumer culture sits alongside several influential descriptions of modern Western society (such as media society, market society, mass culture) that attempt to sum up and evaluate the specificity of the modern West. The phrase therefore can be used in three different ways.
First, it can be used as a description of how consumption is organized in modern societies, and the importance of consumption to those societies. Consumer culture is usually invoked to argue that consumption has become centrally important to identities, values, social reproduction, political order, and much more, and that modern people live out their social lives more through their identities as consumers than as, say, workers or citizens.
Second, it can be viewed as discourses or debates through which people have articulated key concepts and issues in modern experience such as choice, freedom, individualism, needs and wants, value, and so on. In this sense, describing the modern West as a consumer culture might be a way of asserting a liberal vision of individual choice on the basis of uncontested private preferences (consumer sovereignty) or a way of arguing that collective political interests are being masked by individualistic fetishization of material things. In either case, consumer culture has provided an idiom through which to debate the central values and visions of modern life.