When I first read Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, I found the idea of conspicuous consumption a bit ridiculous. In the book, he argued that individuals consume for the purpose of signalling his wealth. Wealth as a signal evolved from prehistoric social structure.

During barbarian times, what Veblen called successful exploits — primarily war but later as society became peaceful and orderly, through business — brought the great spoils to the victors. Success brought status and wealth. The society soon used wealth as a signal of success that brought status, while taking the causal relationship for granted. Slowly, it did not matter whether one is successful or not. Only wealth matters. Wealth differentiated individuals into classes.

Wealth is observed through either consumption or leisure. Long story short, through further evolution, the whole society in the end engaged in consumption to signal wealth and status. All that matters in the end are consumption. If one consumes some minimum level of goods or leisure, then one is accorded with some kind of respectability by the wider society.

Veblen called it conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. It is conspicuous because individuals consume goods and leisure to — to put it crudely — show off.

As I said, I found the whole concept ridiculous initially. It could not be that we all consume to show off in conscious manner. After awhile however, I started to warm up to Veblen’s idea though there were some reservations, mostly because I accepted that there are individuals who engage in this type of consumption. After all, there is such a thing as a Veblen good. For example, a Ferrari. One of the reservation I had was not all consumptions are principally due to signalling. There are consumptions made out of necessity, even in a rich society. Even so, a majority of consumption of items that might be labelled as luxurious are done simply because individuals enjoy such consumption, not because they want to signal their status in a conscious manner.

That opinion of mine later changed.

While I was in Sydney, a majority of individuals, friends and strangers alike, had iPhone or iPod or anything Apple’s. Even I had one. Apple’s products were ubiquitous. It had become some kind of expected standard of consumption.

I only started to recall Veblen when I was riding a train in Kuala Lumpur. I did not see any Apple product, or at least, a majority did not own it. Consumption as a signal of wealth did function well in describing wealth difference between Malaysian and Australia societies.

As I switched on my iPod in the train, I kept holding it in my hand. I did that because I would like to control the player rather than allow it to randomize the songs for me. At one point, I asked myself, am I showing off in the way Veblen described more than a century ago? More question came to mind: what if whether one is aware that he or she is showing off is relevant? What if all of us are showing off, unconsciously?

Whether or not I was aware of the signalling, or regardless of my intention in consuming, I was effectively signalling my wealth, and arguably, status to others through my iPod.

I first read Veblen about five months ago. The first few months were a struggle that began with me trying to disprove Veblen. From disproving, I later tried to qualify his statements. In the end, Veblen won.

2 Responses to “[2326] Conspicuous consumption in the train”

  1. on 03 Mar 2011 at 12:24 Bobby

    One thing I’ve noticed about you is that you’re never averse to different ideologies/theories.
    Veblen’s work can be called the father of “Branding”.

  2. […] The Theory of The Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. It is all about signalling! […]

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