Emulation and Global Consumerism


Richard Wilk

Department of Anthropology

Indiana University

Bloomington, IN 47405- Publication version, 1996


There are good reasons for concern about the environmental impacts of five billion people consuming at the level of the developed countries of Europe and North America. Given high economic growth rates in many parts of the developing world, the rapid spread of electronic media, advertising, and consumer goods, we must ask what kind of consuming future we can expect in areas that are now constrained by poverty and isolation. If everyone develops a desire for the western high-consumption life-style, the relentless growth in consumption, energy use, waste, and emissions may be disastrous.

It is also possible, however, that each country, region, or ethnic group may maintain different aspirations, definitions of living-standards, and consumption goals. Then we could expect a high degree of diversity in consumer demand, and perhaps much more moderate long-term levels of consumption, even with more equal distribution of income. Of course it is also possible that a large part of the developing world will never achieve the threshold income levels necessary to consume large amounts of durables, luxuries, or services, whatever their aspirations.

The choice of different scenarios for the consumption trajectories of the developing world hinges partially on the issue of emulation. Do people of other cultures find the western high-consumption model attractive? Or do their own cultures offer strong alternative values that make foreign models less attractive? Are some groups or cultures more likely to emulate the West than others? What cultural, social, and economic forces promote high consumption life-styles?

The strongest form of emulation is often labeled "cultural imperialism." This theory contends that a combination of western control of mass media and improved advertising, along with falling trade barriers and the spread of industrial capitalism will inevitably lead the developing world into emulative forms of consumption (Tomlinson 1991, Rassuli and Hollander 1986). There are various moral positions on cultural imperialism; some see it leading to economic freedom, while others consider it a malign form of brainwashing and false consciousness (Ewen 1988, Horowitz 1988). Many social scientists reject cultural imperialism, and contend that instead of increasing centralization and homogenization, the next century will be dominated by new forms of nationalism, localism, and cultural fundamentalism that will challenge both the economic and cultural hegemony of the West (Foster 1991). There is some empirical evidence for both processes; some forms of localization are concurrent with other kinds of globalization; heterogeneity and homogeneity both seem to be increasing in different sectors and at different scales (Friedman 1990, Hannerz 1987, Featherstone 1990, Wilk 1995, Drummond and Patterson 1988, Belk and Dholakia 1995).

Recent historical and social-scientific research on consumption has produced a great deal of empirical data, and many excellent case studies that bear directly on the issue of consumer emulation. Studies of the growth of consumer culture in post-World War II Japan (Tobin 1992), France (Kuisel 1993), and Austria (Wagnleitner 1994) all argue that emulation is not at all mechanical or inevitable, but is instead a temporary product of specific political policies, trade practices, and cultural influences.

The explosion of consumer demand in China during the last decade has been used both as an example of cultural imperialism, and of autonomy and increasing diversity in consumer culture. consumer aspirations have changed several times during the last 20 years, and comparisons show that the mix of goods consumed in China at a particular level of income is quite different from that found in other Asian countries (Sklair 1994).

The case studies demonstrate that people in general tend to emulate local elites rather than following a single global generic "western" consumer model. Sometimes they explicitly reject foreign models instead of emulating them. Periods of emulation may alternate with intervals where global or international standards are rejected in favor of local goods or styles (e.g.. Andrae and Beckman 1985, Appadurai 1986, 1990, Friedman 1994).

The influence of western media and the advertising of global brands on actual consumer behavior and aspirations is still not clearly understood, and the "cultivation effect" of television is weak or highly variable in cross-national data (Ware and Dupagne 1994, Liebes and Katz 1990, Moore 1993)). The few comparative cross-cultural studies of consumer aspirations and values are difficult to interpret. Technocratic, urban, highly educated groups in many parts of the world show some increasing commonalities in aspirations and cultural beliefs. But are these sectors the leaders of a new wave of consumerism, or small western cultural enclaves of technocratic and academic "cosmopolitans?" (Hannerz 1990, Belk 1988, James 1993) Methodological problems (translation, sampling) also make these survey results equivocal (Holt 1994). The precise linkage between westernized values and the consumption of western goods is also not well established. Economists find that the determinants of national demand, and the amount saved and invested instead of spent on consumer goods, are complex. The share of increased income spent on major consumption categories such as food, durables, and housing, varies widely at the same income level, as does the savings rate (Lluch et al. 1977, Gereffi and Korzeniewicz 1994).

Even the historical development and present fluorescence of mass-consumer society in the West is poorly understood, despite a wealth of new studies (e.g.. Mintz 1985, Brewer & Porter 1993, Cross 1993, Richards 1991, Benson 1994, Tierstin 1993, Craik 1994, McCracken 1988, Csikszentimihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Historians tend to agree that the growth in western consumer demand resulted from breakdown of rigid class hierarchies and relaxation of religious inhibitions on conspicuous consumption. Some stress the emergence of a "romantic ethic" (Campbell 1987), or a trend towards cultivating health and self-improvement (Lears 1989). Recent work has shifted away from "social emulation" or class-competition models of consumer demand, towards a focus on communication, nationalism, advertising, and the growth of markets and retailing. Since all of these trends are taking place in developing countries, we can expect a similar growth of consumer culture, even in the absence of any specific form of emulation. So, even without emulation, consumption levels in developing countries may dramatically increase.

Judging the emulation hypothesis is premature because social science in general still lacks a well established general theory of consumption. Each discipline tends to focus on consumption from its own narrow perspective (though see Miller 1995). More synthetic work is being done in hybrid fields like consumer research, cultural studies, and social history (Sherry 1995). Studies of household decision making in several disciplines have been especially promising , since most major investment and consumer decisions are made at the household level. There is considerable constructive debate on models of intra-household bargaining, gender, and power that have direct implications for understanding consumption, spending, and savings behavior (e.g. Phipps and Burton 1995, Folbre 1994).

Given the importance of predicting future global demand for consumer goods, energy, water, food, and other resources, we need to better establish the determinants of consumer behavior. While there is a good deal of empirical data available that bears on these issues, there has not been very much cross-disciplinary synthesis, and fundamental theoretical issues remain unresolved. The major points that emerge from the literature in several disciplines include:


1. There is still no generally accepted model of consumer behavior.

2. The database for cross-cultural comparison of consumption is poor in quality.

3. No single academic discipline has adequate tools or data for the study of cross-cultural consumer behavior.

4. The development of consumer culture in developing countries is following a different trajectory from the historical path of the west.

5. There is still every reason to think that consumption will increase as incomes rise, but we cannot yet predict how that increase will be apportioned to various goods or sectors.

6. Simple emulation remains an empirically weak model for prediction.




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