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Does our shopping define us?

Posted on 17 December 2002

As you fight your way through the Christmas crowds, ponder this theory from the University of York - far from indulging in an orgy of materialism and acquisitiveness, the frenetic shopping activity you are engaged in is really part of a fundamental search to discover the 'real me' and to convince yourself that you really do exist.

Shopping, the pursuit of the majority of the population in the run-up to Christmas, is one of the most important ways in which people can discover their own individuality and gain reassurance of their authenticity, says University of York sociologist, Professor Colin Campbell.

In an academic paper called ‘I shop, therefore know that I am,' Professor Campbell says that modern consumerism is defined by the prevalence of wants and desires over needs, and by its individualism. He also suggests that we discover who we really are through our tastes and preferences, such as liking red wine rather than white, or Lord of The Rings rather than Harry Potter. But in order to know that we like these things we first have to try them – that is to consume them.

"Viewed in this way the activity of consuming can be considered as a vital and necessary path to self-discovery," says Professor Campbell. "While the marketplace itself becomes indispensable to the process of discovering who we are."

Professor Campbell stresses that he's not saying that we ‘buy' our identity through what we purchase, but that we discover what we are like by exposing ourselves to a wide range of products and services.

He adds: "This view of self-identity is very new. Our grandparents and parents were far more likely to see themselves in terms of their status and position in various institutions, such as their family, religious beliefs, race and nationality - all counting for more than something as insignificant as taste. They would have seen themselves as farmers or fishermen, fathers, Presbyterian or Catholic, Englishman or Swede, rather than through their taste in wine, music or leisure-time activities." Professor Campbell observes that the slogan ‘the customer is always right' is now echoing through the world of health, where there has been a growth in complementary and alternative medicine at the expense of conventional medical practice. He argues that this is clearly because the consumer assumes they are better placed than the experts to judge what is in their own best interest.

This applies to religion as well, he says. "Here too the authority of the churches, in the form of the clergy, is rejected in favour of the individual's claim to select his or her own version of ‘eternal truth' - a process which has led to the development of what is often referred to as the ‘spiritual supermarket'.

"Consumption can comfort us by providing us with the certain knowledge that we are real authentic beings – that we do indeed exist. In this respect the slogan ‘I shop therefore I am' should indeed be understood in a literal sense.

"The more intense our response, the more ‘real' – or the more truly ourselves – we feel ourselves to be at that moment," he says.

And he comments on fashion: "We need regular exposure to fresh stimuli if boredom is to be avoided. Hence the importance of fashion as a mechanism for the regular and controlled introduction of ‘new' products. It is primarily desire that has brought goods into existence."

And he says that the phrase ‘retail therapy' is an accurate expression that we should regard as directly comparable with something like participation in an encounter group.

Professor Campbell concludes: "It is justifiable to claim not simply that we live in a consumer society, or are socialised into a consumer culture, but that ours is in a very fundamental sense, a consumer civilisation."

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