The Impact of Modernity on Consumption: Simmel's Philosophy of Money

Douglas B. Holt, Pennsylvania State University
Kathleen Searls, Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - This paper is intended to demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of a classic work in sociology, Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money, for contemporary consumer research. First, we synopsize Simmel's discussion of the impact of modernity on the nature of consumption: his view of consumption, how consumption was structured in pre-modernity, the relation of modernity to the rise of money exchange, and finally how the changes associated with modernity changed the way in which consumption was structured. In the second half of the paper, we use this Simmelian conception of consumption in modernity to shed new light on two important concepts in consumer researchCconsumption goals and lifestyles.
[ to cite ]:
Douglas B. Holt and Kathleen Searls (1994) ,"The Impact of Modernity on Consumption: Simmel's Philosophy of Money", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 65-69.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 65-69


Douglas B. Holt, Pennsylvania State University

Kathleen Searls, Pennsylvania State University


This paper is intended to demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of a classic work in sociology, Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money, for contemporary consumer research. First, we synopsize Simmel's discussion of the impact of modernity on the nature of consumption: his view of consumption, how consumption was structured in pre-modernity, the relation of modernity to the rise of money exchange, and finally how the changes associated with modernity changed the way in which consumption was structured. In the second half of the paper, we use this Simmelian conception of consumption in modernity to shed new light on two important concepts in consumer researchCconsumption goals and lifestyles.

Sociologists, influenced by Marx and Weber, often view social change through the lens of production. Thus, descriptions of modernity and explanations of its emergence typically are concerned with economic structure. More recently, however, sociologists have come to view consumption as an important constituent element of modernity (cf. Baudrillard's early work as described in this session), and historians and sociologists have suggested that changes in consumption played a key role in the rise of modernity (McCracken 1988).

While sociologists have only recently begun to explore this relationship, in 1900 Georg Simmel published what is now regarded as a brilliant statement of the role of exchange and consumption in modern society. Unfortunately, The Philosophy of Money did not receive a complete English translation until 1978, so it had little impact on previous debates concerning modernity. In the past decade, however, Simmel's work has come to be recognized as a classic treatment of this issue and has served as a rich resource for social scientists concerned with consumption (e.g., Rochberg-Halton 1986; Miller 1987; Featherstone 1991).

This paper introduces Simmel's argument regarding the structural impediments to consuming brought about by modernity. First, we develop Simmel's unique understanding of consumption. We then discuss Simmel's description of the social structuring of consumption in modernity as compared to the pre-modern era and the personality types that evolved to adapt to these structural changes. Finally, we speculate on how Simmel's understanding of modern consumption can be used to extend and critique prominent research streams in contemporary consumer research.


Consumption as the Path to Cultivation

Consumption, for Simmel, lies at the heart of the process through which people become cultivatedCthat is, grow to become participating, reflective members of society. This is because consumption provides a site, par excellence, for what Simmel believed to be the key to cultivationCthe interaction between subject and object (Miller 1987; Rochberg-Halton 1986). SubjectivityCthe specifically-human capacity for self-reflection, which allows for the self-conscious construction of action and identityCis not naturally endowed; it only develops through the creative tension provided by interaction with objects (including people) extant in the world. For Simmel, consumption provides a vital forum for this subject-object interaction. Through consumption, people come to understand, imbue meaning in, and act upon objects encountered in the world. Consumption provides people the opportunity to refine themselves through interaction with objects in the world. In addition, by confronting, adapting, and integrating alternative world-views substantiated in consumption objects, people not only realize their potential as unique human beings; they also become well-socialized members of a society. Consumption, then, for Simmel, is a profoundly moral activity beholden to the normative ideals of cultivation of the individual, both as a unique personality and as a citizen contributing to the well-being of society.

The Structuring of Consumption in Pre-Modernity

Simmel describes the ideal-typical characteristics of modern versus pre-modern societies in order to examine historical shifts in the social structuring of consumption. Pre-modern and modern societies each pose particular opportunities and challenges for people to become cultivated through consumption. In the pre-modern world, where systems of exchange were based on barter or payment in labor, two primary impediments to consumption existed. First, the overdetermined network of social constraints in premodernity left little room for the pursuit of individuality through consumption. Economic and social relations were naturally intertwined and geographically isolated. Long-term, local relationships based on tradition, kinship, and a diffuse set of social obligations permeated all social interaction, resulting in consumption oriented to propriety rather than individual development. Second, since most production was local, driven by historical needs and regionally specific resources, there was a relatively limited array of goods available for consumption. In this pre-modern economic and social system, the range of consumption objects (important vessels of "objective culture," in Simmel's terminology) to which one was exposed was narrow, resulting in fewer opportunities for the creative tension of subject-object interaction.

But pre-modern economies also uniquely facilitated cultivation through consumption in particular ways. Since the absolute quantity of consumption objects was relatively low and their production local, these objects were readily assimilable by consumers. The objective culture reflected in these goods represented that of the local trading area, which was relatively insulated from the goods representative of vastly different values. Thus, the merging of objective and subjective culture, necessary for consuming in its ideal form, was not problematic for pre-modern consumers.

Modernity as the Rise of Money Exchange

In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel argues for a conception of modernity with a more inclusive sweep than the production-focused portrayals of Marx and Weber, characterizing modernity as the increasing abstraction and objectification of social life (Miller 1987). Whereas pre-modern economic relations were local, long-lasting and direct, relations in the modern world become distanced and impersonal. Money, for Simmel, is both a causal agent and an exemplary symbol of these newly impersonal relations. Money is the most abstract and impersonal of things because, particularly in its most advanced stages (e.g., paper money), it is a form with all specific contents removed. Money has value only in terms of its ability to represent other valued things: "Money is the reification of the general form of existence according to which things derive their significance from their relationship to each other" (Simmel 1978, 128). Through the successful employment of its abstract, quantitative, and objective characteristics, money forced similar shifts throughout the entire system of exchange, and consequently, throughout all social relations. Money can be unarbitrarily counted, divided, transferred to unknown others and used by social unequals for heterogeneous purposes. It supports the disinterested stance of the rational actor by replacing diffuse interpersonal ties with an abstract, emotionally distant, quantifiable value (Coser 1977, 193-194). Thus, through money, socio-economic relations become increasingly distanced through the medium of goods. This shift in the socio-economic relations has permeated all aspects of society including, and in particular, the nature of consumption.

In addition to his focus on the impersonal, abstract nature of money exchange, Simmel (like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber) was also interested in money's relationship to industrialization and the division of labor. Simmel describes how economic specialization, which is enabled by the rise of money exchange, accelerates the objectification of social life in modernity. As workers cease to have a direct, holistic relation to the fruits of their labor, the goods produced increasingly become perceived as purely objective, autonomous creationsCas objects whose existence is separate from the subjects who produced them, and thus, also from those who will consume them. While his analysis of the rise of specialization in the workforce does not differ significantly from other accounts, Simmel's contribution is to provide an expansive description of its implications well beyond production into the realm of consumption.

The Structuring of Consumption in Modernity

The Philosophy of Money is particularly concerned with examining how these characteristics of modernityCabstraction, objectification, rationalityChave transformed peoples' ability to become cultivated. Since consumption is critical in this endeavor, Simmel spends considerable time explicating the relationship between modernity and consumption. Like pre-modernity, the modern era structures consuming in ways that both facilitate and constrain peoples' ability to become cultivated.

The abstraction of social life in the modern era resolves the two dominant constraints of pre-modern timesCthe intensity of social obligation and the narrow range of available consumption objects. Simmel (like Marx) viewed modernity as a period in which tradition-bound social obligations rapidly dissolved. Freedom of action increased due to the impersonal relations between people that resulted from the abstract character of money exchange. In a monetarized society, persons may be under obligation to many more people than was previously possible, but these obligations are almost entirely anonymous. This allows individuals more autonomy than was previously possible, which the convertibility of money allows them to pursue unfettered. Monetization offers greater possibilities for cultivation because in such anonymous relations, consumption is no longer controlled by local propriety. Thus, the liberating effect of the money economy provides individuals the freedom to articulate the self in the medium of things (Miller 1987, 73-76). Likewise, through the growth of money exchange and the division of labor, the volume of consumption objects available to the average consumer increased dramatically in modernity. This quantitative change vastly expanded consumers' opportunities to confront others' values through the world of goods.

But while modernity resolved some of the previous structural limitations on consumption, these changes also imparted a whole new set of impediments, which include: objectification, rationalization, and proliferation. These structural changes present significant new hurdles to become cultivated through consumption.

Objectification and the Fragmentation of Social Life. Consumption, for Simmel, requires the integration of consumer and consumption object; and so the greater the symbolic distance experienced between self and object, the more difficult it is for the consumer to successfully integrate products. The specialization of labor in modern societies increases subject-object distance both directly and through its indirect consequences on the objects produced. As workers have direct impact on a smaller and smaller percentage of the product, they find it increasingly difficult to "find themselves expressed in the work" (Simmel 1978, 455). That is, the product of their labor becomes increasingly objectifiedCviewed as something external to its producers, a given element of society whose subjective creation is obfuscated. Ironically, as labor becomes increasingly specialized in modernity, the products of that labor become increasingly commodified. To achieve the production efficiencies possible through the division of labor requires mass production of similar goods. Since these products are no longer directly suited to consumers' needs, they require more intensive work on the part of the consumer to become integrated. Thus, by virtue of the increased separation of workers from products and the increased commodification of available goods, modern products confront consumers as something foreign, something which they may buy with money, but which they will have to invest considerable symbolic and material effort to claim as their own.

Rationalization and the Quantification of Social Life. The rise of money exchange not only increased subject-object distance, it also changed the very manner in which consumers experience consumption objects. In pre-modern society, consuming was an idiosyncratic activity, influenced by the local nature of production and the personalities of producer and consumer. Of central importance were the qualities (material and symbolic uses) of the thing consumed; barter and then money (in its early stages) were merely media of exchange that allowed one to acquire these desirable qualities. However, the abstraction and quantification of all marketable items that results from money exchange eventually led to the transformation of consumption itself. Money's single traitCthat it is able to reduce all quality and individuality inherent in things to a common exchange valueCtransformed the goals of consumption.

Whereas consumers traditionally viewed consumption objects in terms of their particular qualities, money exchange has reoriented consumer perceptions toward viewing objects quantitatively based on their exchange value. The diffusion of money exchange infuses the goods that are exchanged with different properties than in a barter system. Goods become quantified and rationalized. Things are no longer valued for their particular characteristics in isolation from other goods. Rather, goods take on value as a result of their comparability, through monetary exchange, to the universe of goods available. Goods become valued for what they are worth, rather than for what they are. In this exchange environment, consumption increasingly becomes a calculative rather than an emotional endeavor. Objects lost their distinctive character, to be replaced by traits which are quantifiable such as scarcity, relative expense, and newness. Value, which began as a qualitative assessment an object's ability to further the individual's efforts at his own cultivation, is now reduced to an amount, a quantity. This rationalizing process reached its evolutionary peak at the point where people came to view the means to consume (money) as the desired end in itself.

The Proliferation of Objective Culture. The rise of the money economy is accompanied by an enormous increase in "objectified" consumption objects. Simmel argues that individuals in modern society become overwhelmed by this increase. Unlike pre-monetarized societies where the connection between good and self is virtually inalienable, in modern society people are not able to appropriate these goods in such a way that they become instrumental to their life project. Instead, in their efforts to keep up with the proliferation of objective culture, consumers spread themselves too thin, and so do not allow for sufficient interaction with the object necessary for self-development. In modernity, then, consumers often become instruments of objective culture, rather than the opposite.

Modern Personality Types

Consumers in modernity must adapt to these changing social-structural conditions. Simmel offers discussions of a number of "social types"Cpersonality types that have developed in response to the rise of the money economy. These personalitiesC"the Cynic" (Simmel 1978, 256), and the person burdened with the "Blase Attitude" (Simmel 1971, 329-330)Cdescribe consumers' inability to interact meaningfully with objective culture.

The cynic is one who protects his personal sense of integrity by adopting the rationalizing, valueless mentality of modern life. The cynic understands, accepts, and participates with relish in the calculating character of the money economy. The cynic "...considers the downward movement of values part of the attraction of life..." (Simmel 1978, 256). He is alive to this possibility and finds delight in the many and varied pleasures, stimulations, and objects available for purchase.

The person afflicted with the blase attitude understands the calculative forces shaping modern exchange relations. But he does not accept this condition and so is unable to participate in any meaningful fashion. Rather than re-orient his personality around the value-less nature of the modern economy, he essentially commits emotional suicide by donning "..indifference toward the distinctions between things." (Simmel 1971, 329). Because all aspects of social life are perceived as monochromatic and generally "not worth getting excited about" (Simmel 1978, 256), this individual is unable to interact significantly with objective culture.

Ultimately, then, Simmel expresses his doubts as to whether persons can successfully adapt to the structural shifts of modernity. Simmel found that the inability to develop subjectively significant relationships with the objects of material culture led people to develop a sense of oppression, the social world becoming experienced as anti-individualistic at the same time that it's multitude of opportunities seem to invite creative and individualizing acts. Rather than offering opportunities for self-completion, objective culture developed into a remote and confrontative structure, one which forces the individual to shape his personality in accordance with the dictates of the material world and the materially-oriented way of being (Levine 1986).


A mainstream sociologist surveying consumer research would likely be bewildered by the field's lack of comparative-historical vision. Although comparative-historical approaches were influential in the early development of marketing thought (Jones and Monieson 1990) and are experiencing something of a resurgence presently (Tan and Sheth 1986; Lavin and Archdeacon 1989; Smith and Lux 1993), the historical and situational specificity of many key concepts in consumer research remains unacknowledged (a few notable exceptions notwithstandingCe.g., Arnould 1989). Based on the assumption that the properties of social phenomena are similar to invariant natural phenomena, key consumer research conceptsCe.g., exchange, perceived risk, reference group, lifestyle, attitude, values, satisfaction, searchCare described as timeless concepts with universal application.

In contrast to this assumed invariance, Simmel's macro-historical analysis of money describes the transitory nature of key consumer research constructs such as desire, goals, exchange, and consumption. In this paper, we have developed Simmel's understanding of how the structural characteristics of consumption were altered by the rise of money exchange. To demonstrate that Simmel's historical perspective can deepen our understanding of consumption, in this section we offer a Simmelian interpretation of two key consumer research conceptsC(consumption) goals and lifestyle.

The Commodification of Ends

Consumer research has been heavily influenced by a neo-classical economic conception of action, which examines the means by which people pursue their interests. Such research typically treats the ultimate ends or goals of consumption as subjectively-derived entities exogenous to the research domain. Instead, rational action is taken as a point of comparison to examine the means (or processes or decision heuristics) through which people pursue a given goal. In consumer research, this economic orientation is found in the heavy emphasis given the processes of consumer decision-making (or choice or buyer behavior).

In addition to the attention devoted to means, a growing body of what has been termed symbolic consumer research (Hirschman 1981) describes the ends that people attain through consumption: for example, communicating to self and others (Levy 1959; Mick and DeMoss 1991), sacred experiences (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989), and hedonically-satisfying experiences (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). This research has often been positioned as diametrically-opposed to the cognitive-rationalist assumptions of economically-oriented research in that it emphasizes the subjective, emotional, lived-experience of consuming (e.g. Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). Like the means-oriented research, this research stream also often seems to portray a world of universal, invariant constructs, albeit a different set than those discussed in the economic realm. [A notable exception to this characterization is an article by Celsi, Rose, and Leigh (1993), which seeks to link the recent American predilection for high-risk leisure activities to conflicts imposed by modernity on the Western dramaturgical conception of self.] Thus, although one would expect to find a number of useful linkages between theoretical depictions of consumers' means and consumers' ends, instead we are faced with two seemingly-incommensurable sets of constructs that typically "talk past" one another.

Through its longitudinal examination of consumption as a socially-structured mode of action, The Philosophy of Money offers an interesting linkage between these two previously-divergent paradigms. Simmel demonstrates that, in modernity, the rational mode of thinking structures not only consumers' means, but the ends that they pursue as well. Consumption objects can be both subjectively-valued in terms of their particular characteristics as perceived by the consumer ("qualitative" value in Simmel's terms) and relatively-valued in terms of their exchange value as set by the market ("quantitative" value). Simmels' conception of qualitative ends here closely parallels the phenomenological orientation of symbolic consumer research, but the conception of quantitative valuing is for the most part missing in the study of ends.

When consumption objects enter the money economy, they become subject to quantitative valuing in addition to, or instead of, qualitative valuing. Goods are appraised in terms of exchange value to the degree that they are exchangeable. Thus, as the market for a good becomes more developed (and thus the good more "liquid"), consumption is increasingly structured around quantitative as opposed to qualitative ends. Thus, when Simmel (1978, 443) describes the pervasiveness of the "calculating character of modern times," he is not chiefly interested in the rationalizing character of decision-making so much as the encroachment of means-focused rationality into structuring the goals that people pursue. In the extreme, Simmel observes that means actually become perceived as ends. Thus, we witness such phenomena as shopping as a leisure experience, acquisition as a valued goal, and bargaining and getting the best deal as enjoyable aspects of consuming. In particular, money itselfCthe ultimate meansCbecomes a goal rather than a medium.

Here, then, Simmel demonstrates an important and previously unexamined causal relationship between consumers' means and ends. How would one continue to research this relationship in contemporary Western societies? While exchange, and the resultant quantification of ends, has diffused into virtually every nook and cranny of society, there are still a number of consumption categories where the quantification of ends is contested. That is, there exist competing systems of value in these categories that are powerful enough to compete with the market's commodification of the good. For example, consider the consumption of religion, high art, education, and the family. In each of these categories, ideological struggles have persisted that attempt to fend off the redefinition of value by market forces, although these efforts are not always successful (e.g., O'Guinn and Belk 1989). These consumption categories provide fertile grounds for studying the relationship between the impact of market rationalization on ends and other institutional and subjective dimensions of consuming (e.g., Zelizer 1986).

Lifestyles as Strategies for Consuming in Modernity

In consumer research, lifestyles have often been conceptualized as a-historical patterns of consumer preferenceCelective differences in consumption unrelated to the society in which they are situated. This psychologization of a social concept is fraught with theoretical problems (Holt forthcoming). Simmel's analysis of the impact of modernity on consumption provides an historically-sensitive approach that serves to address some of these weaknesses. Lifestyles can be viewed as the strategies that consumers have constructed to pursue cultivation in the face of the structural impediments posed by modernity as delineated above. Here, we develop a Simmelian interpretation of lifestyle types prevalent today in the United States, arguing that they embody three distinct strategies for consuming in modernityCpassive acquiescence, activist insulation, and reflexive alienation.

Passive Acquiescence: Materialism. A materialist lifestyle is one in which the value of consuming is found in the acquisition and ownership of desired consumption objects (Richins and Dawson 1992). Locating value in acquisition and ownership embodies a lifestyle strategy that acquiesces to the quantification of social life in modernity. Materialists accept the conversion of ends to exchange values and, thus, their tastes are structured by these quantitative goals.

Materialism is perhaps the easiest consumption strategy to adopt psychologically because it is harmonious with the structural shifts imposed by monetization (although many people are economically limited in their participation). As such, it is probably the least "strategic" of these strategies, since materialism offers a natural progression for consumers socialized in rationalized modes of thought and exposed to extreme quantities of goods that they are unable to assimilate. Materialism allows consumers to manage the proliferation of consumption objects by ignoring the substantive contents of these objects. With materialism, assimilation is no longer a problem since the specificities of the object are no longer important. The only requirement is that one become knowledgeable of and involved with the exchange values of objects.

While materialism may be the most accessible lifestyle in modernity, Simmel would likely argue that it is ultimately an illusionary solution to modernity's obstacles. Materialism promotes a unidimensional interaction with objective culture, one in which objects are perceived as interchangeable economic entities. So even if consumers are able to integrate objects into their lives through materialism, the result is diametrically opposed to the type of cultivation that Simmel describes. Instead of the well-rounded person who emerges from interacting with a variety of qualitatively-different value systems embodied in consumption objects, consumers who incorporate modernity's quantifying impulse as the foundation of their lifestyle emerge with a narrowly-cast self-understanding driven by exchange value. As research on materialism has pointed out, this leads to the quantification of perceptions of self-worth (Richins and Dawson 1992).

Activist Insulation: Voluntary Simplicity, Consumption Communities, and Subcultures. Unlike materialism, which cedes to the structural changes of modernity, a number of other lifestyles actively confront modernity's proliferation of consumption objects by limiting the universe of goods one must assimilate. Through voluntary simplicityCin which people attempt to limit the material goods used in consumptionCconsumers have more opportunity to become engrossed by and competent in the limited avenues of consumption and thus achieve the level of subject-object interaction that Simmel associates with cultivation. Subcultures (groups bound by a cohesive moral order organizing all of the experiences of its participants) and consumption communities (less-encompassing than sub-cultures, where one's consumption activities are dominated by interests in a single arena of consumption [adapted from Boorstin 1973]) are lifestyle types in many ways similar to voluntary simplicity. Like voluntary simplicity, both act to limit the volume of objective culture in the universe of ones interests. But, in addition, subcultures and consumption communities also seek to address the fragmentation of modern social life by imposing coherence across the activities in which one engages. By orienting all activities to a single moral order (in the case of the subculture) or consumption category (in the case of the consumption community), these strategies create the sense of holistic personality that has been fragmented in modernity.

While Simmel would no doubt view these activist strategies as superior to materialism, he might also observe that their varying degrees of insularity poses some of the same restrictions on cultivation that he describes in pre-modernity. Limiting one's universe of consumption objects also necessarily limits the span of culture that one will experience in those goods. The proliferation of objective culture is in part a reflection of the increased diversity and complexity of the world to which we are exposed as communication and markets have become globalized. Choosing to limit this range results in limiting our cultivation to a narrower set than exists in the world.

Reflexive Alienation: Slackerism. In recent years, a reflexive awareness of modernity's impediments has grown, and with it a realization that the strategies used in the past to deal with these impediments (activist insulation of various stripes beginning in the 1960s, materialism in the 1980s) have met only a modicum of success. These persons feel that activist efforts to overcome modernity's impediments are futile and they are unwilling to accept what they perceive as the false consciousness of materialism. Burdened with a deep sensitivity to the modern predicament and the perception that there is little that they can do about it, these consumers gravitate to a distanced, cynical, playful, and ironic sensibility in their consumption that reflects their sense of alienation. This skeptical posture toward consumption's rewards, once limited to fringe areas of counter-culture and academe, has grown significantly in the 1990s. Numerous mass media sources have recently claimed that this consumption strategy is emblematic of the post baby-boom generation who are termed "generation x" (the title of a popular book) and those who participate in this lifestyle have often been termed "slackers" (after an independent film of the same name).


Simmel's examination of how the structural changes associated with modernity impact consumption offers a radical departure from the predominant research traditions in consumer research. Most consumer research focuses on the individual consumer in his/her current situation. Little attempt is made to understand the social conditions that lead the consumer to consume in a particular manner, nor to understand how these conditions that impact consuming have changed over time. So while consumer research has crafted immensely-detailed descriptions of consumers' behaviors, these depictions are of consumers as atomistic, encapsulated individuals who live outside of time, having no history themselves and being unaffected by the historical changes imparted by others.

To complement our microscopic depiction of consumption, Simmel asks us to stand back and look at consumption as a historically-located mode of activity that is significantly enabled and constrained by social and cultural structures. Mapping Simmel's approach onto current consumer research streams, then, yields a number of interesting insights. Most generally, this mapping forces us to acknowledge that the key constructs of many important paradigmsCrational action, materialism, symbolic consumption, lifestyleCare modes of action that have arisen as adaptations to broad socio-historical forces. This acknowledgement has, in itself, significant implications for these paradigms. Our knowledge of these constructs will remain attenuated until we place them in their historical context. To do this requires giving up the assumption of invariance and, instead, describe how and why these constructs change across groups and over time. At the workbench level, what is required is a theoretically-informed historical-comparative tradition in consumer research, one that does not simply describe the histories of particular consumption phenomena, but that also raises the level of analysis to relate these particular descriptions to broader social-cultural changes.


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