By students, for students.

Why we buy (2/2): social spending

In Management, Marketing on April 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm

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Psychological models provided much-needed insight into non-rational motivations. Sociologists became active in this field, recognising the social nature of purchase decisions. When we buy shoes, we may consciously emulate our peers, weigh their symbolic value and their suitability against the ‘habitus’ of the social ‘world’ we occupy, even before questioning their durability and comfort. Snowden (2009) found, for instance, that SUV drivers strongly identified with their ownership in-group.

The contribution of sociologists

Maslow established a hierarchy of rational and non-rational needs in 1945, unwittingly setting the model for marketer’s understanding of consumer needs, wants and desires. A need complies with the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, something required for physiological comfort, health or survival.  The higher levels needs of a sense of belonging, esteem and self-actualising activity represent a spectrum of intangible desires which goods can fulfil.

A woman might need to carry her diary, purse and spectacles, but she wants a Gucci handbag because of the status gained from owning it. Hirsch (1979) would describe the Gucci bag as a ‘positional good’, because it places its owner in a particular social role by association.

The importance of being ‘seen’ as owning representational goods is at the heart of conspicuous consumption, a theory established by Veblen in 1899. Veblen and Hirsch have been criticised for assuming that every consumer purchase in emulation of higher social groups. In doing so, they do not account for peer pressure to reject the behaviours of other groups. The bitterness towards middle class grocers Waitrose was publically revealed when its ‘#WaitroseReasons’ Twitter promotion was hijacked by tweets such as ‘I shop at Waitrose because … I don’t like being surrounded by poor people.’

Human capital

Bourdieu (1979) helped to set purchase decisions into their social context in his writing on human capital. In his theory, consumers can be grouped by their economic capital (material/financial wealth), cultural capital (education/aesthetic tastes) and social capital (network of friends/influencers/family). An individual’s human capital, therefore, places them in a distinct social ‘world’.

These worlds come with their own fashions, ‘habitus’ (social norms and habits) and sanctions. For example, members inclined to the mod subculture by economic, cultural and social conditions are more likely to buy into a nexus of goods, including the iconic motor-scooter, suit and shades.

Bourdieu’s understanding is flawed, more representative of the separate class cultures of France, than the Western world as a whole. Moreover, he neglects Galbraith’s (1950) ideas of external factors, such as marketing, imposing wants on social groups.


So, are we left with merely a handful of imperfect theories? Yes, but theories which can build upon each other to bring us nearer to the truth. Reflect on our economic, psychological and behavioural explanations next time you are scanning the shelves.


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