Theories of Consumption & Consumer Behaviour: Social, Economic, and Cultural Perspectives

We live in a consumer society where the ownership of goods and consumption of services pervades every aspect of our existence.

Ever since the global economy began to be integrated and tightly interconnected, consumption of goods and services has been taken to new heights with an accent on owning goods from economic, symbolic and consumer culture viewpoints.

In recent years, there has been a lot of research on these dimensions and hence there is a review of the available research pertaining to the three theories (selected portions) here. The focus of this article is on understanding how the different perspectives of consumption interact with each other and the effect that they have on the marketing strategies employed by the marketers.

Economic, Symbolic and Consumer Culture Perspectives

It would be worthwhile to introduce a baseline understanding of what is sought to be discussed in this article and then proceed to a broader discussion of the different perspectives as well as the implications for marketers and the impact on marketing strategies.

Consumption of goods and services is a basic act that is performed by all of us whenever we purchase goods and services for personal and professional use.

The economic aspect of consumption is the dimension which is concerned with consumption from a purely economic benefit point of view.

In this dimension, the acts of consumption are motivated by a desire to accrue benefits in the form of material gains for satiating the human need for food, clothing, shelter and other aspects concerned with these dimensions.

On the other hand, the symbolic perspective of consumption is concerned with the dimension of seeking to consume goods and services from the perspective of acquiring social status and for what can be described as “cool capitalism” where the tendency to belong to a certain group of consumers with the overriding benefit being the value attached to the symbolism of belonging to that group.

Finally, the consumer cultural perspective of consumption is one where the consumer acquires goods and services to satiate ones needs not merely for basic consumption but more towards consumption as an ingrained phenomenon that seeks sensory gratification as an end.

To take examples of the three perspectives of consumption, the act of buying food or other basic necessities can be termed as economic consumption where there are clearly defined and tangible benefits that accrue to the consumer from making the purchase.

Real World Examples

On the other hand, the act of buying a pair of sneakers that is priced more than what the economic theory says should be the price and when the consumer is willing to pay a premium for acquiring that particular good or service, it can be said to be the symbolic aspect of consumption where the desire to acquire goods for the status that one perceives is associated with that good is the motivating factor.

Finally, goods acquired as part of the need to consume for the sake of consumption which is associated with mores of the specific population group or the market segment can be said to be the consumer culture aspect of consumption.

As opposed to the economic aspect of consumption which is largely concerned with satiating the basic needs of the consumer along with certain higher level needs, the symbolic and cultural aspects of consumption are largely to satisfy the consumers’ craving for social status and class consciousness.

Of course, this does not mean that both symbolic and consumer culture aspects fall into this category as the cultural aspects can manifest across the board and start with economic aspects and then go on to symbolic aspects.

However, the point remains that both these aspects of consumption are to do with needs above and over the basic ones like need for food and clothing and shelter. This is the reason that symbolic aspects of consumption that form part of the marketers strategies are often referred to as “populist capitalism” because of the fact that targeting these needs forms the basis for marketing strategies aimed at satisfying popular notions of class and status.


Before concluding this discussion, it would be in the order of things if some of the key points discussed so far can be analyzed in the overall perspective of the consumer society and the consumer culture that is characteristic of the times that we live in.

As noted at several places, the rise of the consumer society has had both positive and negative effects and hence it is indeed the duty of the marketers to minimize the latter while maximizing the former.

For instance, the term CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility is used to denote the responsibility of corporates and marketers towards society at large and hence the implication is that marketers would not be driven by profit alone when devising their strategies.

The recent global economic crisis has shown that unfettered consumption can have serious consequences for the economic health of nations which when combined with the ecological costs that such consumption fosters on the world make for a deadly combination which should serve to alert us to the dangers inherent in the consumer society.

In conclusion, consumption as a fact of existence is not going to go away and hence it is up to us individually and collectively to ensure that we make conscious choices instead of succumbing to the latest fad or fashion without thinking about the effects of that behavior.

Expecting the marketers alone to be responsible is missing the point since the consumer society and the production society interact to produce these phenomena of consumption patterns and consumer behavior.

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