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Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire

Author(s):Stearns, Peter N.
Reviewer(s):Aimaq, Jasmine

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Peter N. Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of

Desire. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. xii + 147 pp. $17.95

(paperback), ISBN: 0-415-24409-9; $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-415-24408-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jasmine Aimaq, Department of History, University of

Southern California.

According to author Peter Stearns (George Mason University), the rationale

behind writing Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of

Desire is that our world is currently “permeated by consumerism” — hence

the importance of understanding why consumerism developed and what causes have

sustained it. Stearns, well established as a leading voice in World History,

argues that his study of consumerism will allow a better grasp of various

international issues, and offer some readers new perspectives on themselves. He

then presents a succinct, brief analysis of the evolution of consumerism in a

142-page volume broken into three main parts. The first part analyzes the

emergence of consumerism in the West; the second, the globalization of

consumerism; and the third, the future of consumerism.

A review of this work first requires an establishment of perspective. It

appears that the book is intended for a general readership, since it cites no

primary sources, nor makes references to secondary sources, and can therefore

not be evaluated primarily on the grounds of scholarly rigor and original

research. Stearns’ book must instead be reviewed in terms of the contribution

it makes in broader terms, namely, as a general, insightful presentation of

ideas and perspectives on the emergence of consumerism in human society. To

that end, Stearns proposes to focus on two phenomena: the historical

development of the consumer apparatus, and the emergence of needs and goals

from the customer side. He notes particularly that the book is value-neutral,

treating consumerism as neither inherently good or evil.

In his preface, Stearns explains that Consumerism in World History rests

on a fairly recent strand of research, which shows that contrary to what was

previously thought, the phenomenon of consumerism predates the Industrial

Revolution. Stearns does not, however, identify in what manner his work either

complements or challenges existing research. There is no direct link to

previous scholarship, making it impossible to evaluate the full value of

Stearns’ contribution. Also in his preface, Stearns signals that his work “…

rests on several assumptions, which of course need to be tested in the chapters

to come …” Here, Stearns risks the pitfalls of circular reasoning, namely,

the adoption of ideas that are at once assumptions and cases to be tested.

What follows, however, is a lucid, insightful and highly readable discussion on

the rise and nature of consumerist society, i.e. society in which many people

formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly

do not need for subsistence or for traditional display. Since consumerism is

predominantly associated with “Western” civilization, Stearns spends a third of

the book discussing the emergence of consumerism in Europe, and its eventual

spread to the United States. Stearns argues that consumerism represented

compensation in a modernizing society — compensation for the disruption of

traditional social channels, a means of demonstrating modest achievement in new

ways.

While this point is illuminating, the argument would have greater depth if the

facets of traditional life, and exactly which facets were disrupted and

replaced with consumerism, were explored more fully. Stearns notes the decline

of traditional religion, for instance, but does not analyze the concept of

consumerism as a religion of its own. This has been one of the interesting

contributions of recent studies outside of history — in sociology,

environmental studies, and religious studies, for instance. The emergence of

consumerism parallels the emergence of the free market, and arguments presented

by scholars such as David R. Loy (“The Religion of the Market,” in Visions

of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption and

Ecology) and others emphasize the religious role that consumerism fills in

contemporary society.

The lack of a discussion on this perspective in Stearns’ work is somewhat

disappointing, particularly in light of growing recognition among scholars and

others that consumerism and environmental protection are fundamentally and

dangerously at odds. If, as Stearns states in his preface, we are to study

consumerism in large part to “better grasp a host of international issues,”

consumerism’s relationship to the deteriorating global environment should be

foremost among those. The absence of this issue is especially striking in

Chapter 6, which provides an otherwise illuminating discussion on “The dark

side of Western consumerism.” The strength in this chapter is that Stearns

effectively links critiques of consumerist values to broader movements such as

anti-Americanism. But the relationship between the environment and consumerism,

and the link between critics of consumerist values and spokesmen for the

environment, seems crucial to the subject of the chapter; for some reason,

however, it has been overlooked.

Similarly, the question of gender relations is addressed, but not fully

explored. Stearns provides an insightful account of changes in gender relations

as one aspect in the historical emergence of consumerism. But the relevance of

gender to consumerism extends beyond the early stages of the phenomenon; it

would be relevant to analyze whether contemporary relations between the genders

foster consumerist behavior today, i.e. whether women acquire material goods in

order to demonstrate economic parity with men, whether men pursue material

acquisition to a greater degree than before in an effort to out-compete women,

or alternatively, one another, in a society where women are increasingly

economically self-sufficient. Given Stearns’ expertise on gender in world

history, his full insights on this issue would have been especially welcome.

The discussion in the first part of the book serves largely as an insightful

introduction to different perspectives on consumerism, and provides an

excellent foundation for further research. But it is the second part of the

book that is perhaps the book’s most illuminating and original. Here, Stearns

offers a round-the-world view of consumerism, describing the phenomenon, its

character, manifestation and scope, in Russia, East Asia, Africa and the

Islamic Middle East. Readers who are familiar with studies on consumerism will

welcome this contribution. It is fair to say that so far, most scholars in the

field discuss these regions only to gauge the extent to which indicators of

“Western” civilization and modernization, including consumerism, have

effectively reached non-Western societies. In this work as well as previous

publications, Stearns, while well aware of the influence of the West in the

spread of consumerism, demonstrates a true knowledge and genuine appreciation

of the “world” in “world” history. Once again, however, the discussion would

have benefited from a deeper analysis of societal factors such as the role of

religion, which Stearns discusses as only one of numerous factors, and its

relationship to consumerist values.

The final part of the book, which contains only two brief chapters, deals

briefly with the accelerating pace of globalization and the spread of “Western”

style consumerism. While the first chapter of this section offers nothing

controversial, and serves as a sort of summary of globalization in terms well

understood by scholars, the media and social observers, the second chapter —

and book’s Conclusion — takes a surprising turn. Stearns spends the final

pages of his work investigating “Who wins — Consumerism or Consumers?” This is

surprising mainly because it seems to contradict the author’s introductory

declaration of this study as value-neutral, as an analysis that does not wish

to present consumerism as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

Particularly on pp.139-142, Stearns directly addresses the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of

consumerism, asking, for instance, whether consumerism is making the world too

homogeneous, and directly asking whether consumerism “is a good thing, in terms

of human values.” The inclusion of this discussion does not follow from what

the reader is led to expect in the opening of the book, and is therefore a

structural weakness. In terms of the substance of Stearns’ response to the

questions, it is again notable that environmental issues are alluded to in only

the most general way, although they figure very prominently in today’s debate

on consumerism and globalization.

Stearns’ most recent book is nevertheless an excellent introduction to the

study of consumerism in world history, and a highly recommended read for anyone

interested in the subject. Graduate students or scholars interested in

developing a thesis relating to consumerism will come away from this book with

a good general grasp of the phenomenon, and will be happy to find abundant

secondary sources listed as “Suggested Readings” at the end of each chapter.

Jasmine Aimaq is a Visiting Professor at the Departments of History and

International Relations, University of Southern California. She is the author

of a book on French-American relations in Vietnam and several articles, and

currently conducts the USC History Department’s course on Modern World History.

Subject(s):Household, Family and Consumer History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative