Thorstein Veblen on Conspicuous Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen, born in Wisconsin in 1857, was an economist and sociologist. He grew up in Minnesota, raised by his parents to value education and hard work. Perhaps this is the root for his distain of what he termed as “conspicuous consumption” and waste of the Gilded Age.

Context: He wrote Conspicuous Consumption in 1902 in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He wrote this during the second industrial revolution.

Language: Veblen’s tone is critical, informative and philosophical.

Audience: Veblen’s audience is the upper class and other philosophers or sociologists.

Intent: Veben’s intent in this piece is to deconstruct the consumer culture of the “Gilded Age” and enlighten people on America’s money lust and thirst for status. He exposes the upper class’ need to show off their status by buying items in excess and splurging on superfluous extras.

Message: His overall message in this piece is the harm in society’s need for status based on wealth. He believes it is a waste for people to spend extraordinary amounts on what they don’t need just to prove to society that they have the means to. He has brings up the problems this causes for the economy and the character of people as well. Veblen argues that this culture creates a bigger divide between the rich and poor and is wasteful of resources. According to him, people should not consume more than is necessary for quality of life- it is bad form and extremely wasteful.

Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, born in 1857, was a respected American sociologist and economist. He was raised in Nerstrand, Minnesota by successful Norwegian parents who accentuated the values of hard work and education while contributing to his disdain for lavishness. He began his formal studies in economics at the age of seventeen and worked under the tutelage of many prominent economists.
Context: Veblen’s renowned economic treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class, was published in the United States in 1899. The Gilded Age, a period of economic growth and increased immigration in the U.S., was just reaching its conclusion. Veblen accused the leisure class of squandering the advantages of the Gilded Age through their ostentation, or conspicuous consumption.
Language: The prose in The Theory of the Leisure Class is intelligent and complex. Using precise word choice and sophisticated sentence structure, Veblen was able to squeeze a substantial amount of insight into little space. The tone of the treatise is derisive and overflowing with contempt for the leisure class and their conspicuous consumption.
Audience: The language reveals that Veblen wrote his book for an educated audience with a prior understanding of economic and sociological theory.
Intent: In ridiculing the leisure class, Veblen elucidated his desire to reverse the prevailing sociological mindset of conveying economic reputability. Veblen sought to warn his contemporaries and the public of the wastefulness of conspicuous consumption and urged consumers to rely on prudence instead of propriety.
Message: The primary aim of The Theory of the Leisure Class was to denounce the leisure class’s use of conspicuous consumption as a vehicle to enhance their apparent economic or social stature. Veblen provided an appropriate example of conspicuous consumption in identifying society’s preoccupation with how people dress. He recognized attire as the most prevalent expenditure in any line of consumption because of its immediate observability and effectiveness in indicating one’s economic standing. Regrettably, the desire to be fashionable overwhelms the need for a practical and comfortable wardrobe. The growth of the economy during the Gilded Age led many people to purchase extravagant items in an effort to enhance their observable economic standing, which Veblen condemned as a squandering of potential advantages.