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What is Conspicuous Consumption?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist wrote an 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class in which he developed and defined the term conspicuous consumption. Veblen was referring to the nouveau riche, who went out of their way to make large expenditures in order to purchase their way into a social position that would be respected by upper class families.

This type of conspicuous consumption was certainly not a new device in 1899. In fact throughout the industrial revolution and slightly prior to it, families who had made money often attempted to jump to a higher class standing by making excessive and unnecessary purchases. Dickens in Our Mutual Friend develops the Veneerings, a family of unknown origin with everything “bran new.”

"Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new…"

One goal of conspicuous consumption was marriage into the upper classes. In fact marriages were often arranged between the respectable old rich and new rich in order to refinance members of the upper classes, who were frequently less than solvent.

The close of the Civil War in the US, generally meant in the Deep South, that conspicuous consumption was the hallmark of carpetbaggers. People clung to their new poverty, as much as they had clung to their wealth and to slavery prior to the war. As well, in the Depression, this type of consumption was seen as rude. It was thumbing one’s nose at all that were near starving.

The 1950s in the US saw conspicuous consumption as the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.” If a neighbor had a new car, then one should get a new car oneself so as to maintain a certain status. It didn’t matter if one needed a new car. In fact the hallmark of this phenomenon is to buy things one doesn’t need.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980s as a time of extreme consumption. The yuppie emerged as the primary agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth.

In conspicuous consumption, one object is to serve wealth. Wealth and its display become the litmus test of the status of a person. In some circles, consumption is almost required in order to maintain the good opinion of others.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon998110 — On Apr 11, 2017

Never been called a Britisher before; is it a new word ? The central

Banks manipulate interest rates to get the consumer spending

otherwise you have recessions. As a middle aged Englishman, I buy

what serves a purpose, but if the rest of the consumers spent like

I do, then a lot people would be out of work.

By imranbichu — On Jan 14, 2011

if a Britisher does that, it looks OK, not applicable to Americans and if an Indian does that not in India, it looks horrible.

By behaviourism — On Nov 07, 2010

These days, you might also define conspicuous consumption as the material culture and mass consumption. People not only consume to raise social standing, they consume because it seems as much a hobby as anything else. Bored people go to stores and malls and buy things, or they go to restaurants to pay to eat and drink things, or they pay to go to movie theatres or video stores to watch things. Fun has become synonymous with money.

By dwroberts — On Jun 04, 2009

I love the irony: this page is covered in Google ads for German sports cars and a "lifestyle magazine for high flyers, luxury gifts and holidays".

Nice work, all the same!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia...
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