July 30, 2015

Consuming Home

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Would you be excited to have a high-end brand of shower valve?

Most of us probably wouldn’t know the brands of shower valves to be excited one way or the other. I certainly don’t. But when a contractor came to give us an estimate for replacing our shower, he said he had connections and could “upgrade” us to a specific brand, assuming that I knew it signaled high-end plumbing. He promised that if we hired him we could have fancy branded tile at a discount too, giving us “the wow factor I know you’re looking for.”

The only “wow” came when we saw how much he would charge us for our new high-end branded shower, which we passed on.

This experience reminded me of sociologist Juliet B. Schor’s book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. She has a chapter called “The Visible Lifestyle,” where she explores how consumption is connected with identity. We make statements about ourselves through the products that we consume, and the more visible the product, the more brands matter to consumers.

 

Schor conducted research on women’s cosmetic purchasing habits. She found that women are much more likely to buy expensive lipsticks—which others often see them putting on—compared to expensive facial cleansers, which few people observe them using. Putting on a designer brand of lipstick and carrying branded lipstick connotes status. What you keep in your bathroom cabinet, largely hidden from others, probably doesn’t. Visibility matters: others can see that you have purchased an expensive car, but few will know where you buy underwear. Consuming is a social act.

But a shower valve (the handle that controls the temperature and volume of the water) is something seldom seen by others, not even by most visitors to our home. The contractor didn’t say anything about superior quality or appearance of the valve or tiles, just that I might have those brands in my home for what he claimed was a slightly lower price. Why would that matter?

Even though the home is a private space, it is also a way through which we mark our status. Websites like Houzz.com and Pinterest.com now make our interior spaces—and our desires for these interior spaces—public. What used to only be visible through invitations to friends’ homes or niche magazines like Architectural Digest, Sunset, or House Beautiful are now ubiquitous online or on numerous cable channels devoted to home shopping and remodeling.

Schor discusses how “inner desires are prompted first and foremost by exposure.” We now can see into homes owned by people far wealthier than we are, and thus might desire that our homes look like homes we might never have seen before social media or reality television.

In her research, Schor found that if our reference group (those to whom we compare ourselves) has a higher income than we do, we save less money. Surprisingly, she also found that the higher the level of education, the more her respondents spent and the less they saved, presumably to try and keep up with higher-income reference groups. Simply put, if we have friends who can afford expensive things, we might value those things and assume we should have them too. This is especially the case when spending on children, Schor found.

The “wow factor” the contractor was sure I wanted presumes that others will be wowed by my home, in this case, the shower in the master bedroom, and that this would elevate my status. I could go from having a non-branded, dated, but functional shower to one that might connote taste and wealth.

Bathrooms and kitchens have become show pieces of homes, particularly when realtors market them for sale. It’s common for a brief 100-word listing to include the name brands of appliances to attract buyers. These buzzwords can help increase the price, so having a branded home can increase its value as well as its owner’s status.

Homes are both private spaces and public commodities; the purchase price of a home is part of the public record. It always has been, but now images of these private spaces are more likely to be online either through online listing sites or shared on social media. By seeing others’ private spaces, we might step onto what Schor calls “the consumer escalator” and buy things we can’t afford and don’t need.

Can you think of any other previously private commodities that are now widely visible to the public? How might this shape consumer spending?

Comments

I would say people go on pricier vacations because seeing other people's exotic vacation pics has now become ubiquitous as seeing other peoples home as you describe in the blog.

The sad thing is people don't use time off to enjoy hobbies or local tourism.

When choosing this article, I found that it relates a lot to things I have seen throughout my life. In schools, students who wear more expensive clothes are the ones who will be noticed more. The “popular” crowd usually consists of those with more wealth and prestige than the other students.
Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of money. It never really bothered me but it did affect my social class around the school grounds. I am sure everyone has experienced this from one end or another in high school. Studying this with a sociological perspective is what really made me notice why it was ever like this n the first place. I don’t think I noticed it as much in high school, but looking back now it is very clear.

I definitely agree a lot with this article and see it in my every day life. Seeing someone with an expensive car or nice shoes draws my attention. Our society is drawn to those who have nice things. This makes those who aren’t that wealthy envy those who are. This essentially can make someone feel insecure or maybe make someone want to work harder to get to a higher socioeconomic class. Those who simply cant afford nice things are seen to be less prestige and lower in class which could turn some people off from wanting to engage with them. One of the first questions someone asks when meeting is “What do you do?” Whatever the response is may greatly affect the way we look at that person. It is essentially survival of the fittest in the real world.

This is to do with the type of class you are in.

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