How Do We Form Identities in a Consumer Society?

You are living in a material world.

Posted Apr 05, 2019

Toyota Scion
Example of an advertisement that connects the individualist element of self-identity to consumerism.
Source: Toyota Scion

The world is complicated these days; it has gotten to the point where even having a self is tricky business. In What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (Scribe, 2014), clinical psychologist Paul Verhaeghe claims that we mirror the consumer society in how we construct our individual identities.

Some people believe our neoliberal society enables social mobility and economic expansion. Verhaeghe depicts it as a form of economic social Darwinism: By creating a struggle for relentless gratification, it perpetuates class inequality and self-absorption to the detriment of collective interests.

Whereas our understanding of identity was previously based primarily on family structures and included social mores, ethics, norms, and values, he argues that in contemporary capitalist society, we effectively mirror the exchange relationships of economics by treating identity like a social competition. While What About Me? is successful at raising the pressing issue of how our social structures and social ills relate to our identities, some additional context is necessary to understand the process of identity formation in a market-based society.

Why I Buy

To deepen our sense of this mirroring process, I suggest self-identity in the West consists of three parts:

  1. a metaphysical aspect—something like a soul or essence
  2. a social orientation—in our case, individualism
  3. a practical aspect—our emphasis on expressing yourself

Consumer society is the playing out of these elements of identity. It provides products that allow us to express our individual essence. It is thus our natural psychological need to identify who we are and to which social group we belong that drives our relation to consumerism. Our identities are manifested in consumer tribalism, as brands identify us by class, race, gender, age, etc. An individual’s taste becomes the main determinant of their identity (Gabriel, 2013).

Identity in a Material World

Adolescence is the formative period for an individual’s identity. Through social interactions, we discover where we belong, who our role models are, and what our aspirations are. It is no surprise, then, that during this period, social relationships are of utmost importance. Adolescents are constantly monitoring how others perceive them relative to how they would like to be perceived. Psychologist Erik Erikson perceives this hypersociality of adolescence as a universal human phenomenon that includes set stages—for example, identity moratoriums when teenagers are allowed to "try out" a range of social roles, and rites of passage (like puberty or one’s first time getting drunk) that inaugurate identity transitions.

Throughout consumer society, individuals construct their identities partially through what they buy. We can observe and take part in this process through media that are predominantly used as avenues for identity construction: from real-time projections (Twitter and Snapchat) to visual sketchpads (Instagram, Facebook), entrepreneurial and corporate platforms (LinkedIn, Bandcamp), and personal dating slideshows (Tinder, Bumble). These platforms seem to provide a high level of control for the user to engage in creative identity-construction and self-presentation. Some argue the vanity and pettiness of social media paired with the facile pleasures of consumerism have effectually extended adolescence into adulthood.

While it is true one is always presenting oneself to others—be it by choosing a particular pair of socks in the morning or touting the neighborhood one lives in—the degree of control possible on virtual platforms seems unprecedented in its comprehensive scope and range of projection. Previously a matter of word-of-mouth or propaganda, reputation and identity on social media can be manipulated with great precision. We can act as advertisements for ourselves.

The Travails of Identity Construction

There are several possible pitfalls in this struggle for identity.

First of all, when we consider the psychology of adolescence, there are clearly wellsprings of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy stemming from a perceived (and actual) lack of power. Fueled by what Verhaeghe describes as neoliberalism’s basis in competition and separation, these insecurities may manifest themselves in a desire to stand out as unique. Strong incentives thus arise to seem unique no matter the means. If accuracy and transparent representation does not suffice then one can bend the truth in anonymous media platforms; this is a dishonesty that may lead to fraud, self-aggrandizement, and false consciousness. Our media platforms do not naturally allow for the corrective evidence of experience and expertise.

Of course, people can be dishonest in the way they present themselves in person as well as on virtual platforms, but in face-to-face interactions, one does not have control over every detail; we are trapped and exposed in the wilderness of reality. For some individuals, relying on the safety and ease of virtual identity may lead one to avoid face-to-face interactions which, after all, are far more difficult and anxiety-inducing.

At the same time, we have observed how the role-playing of communication platforms and the social Darwinism of consumer society have proven capable of creating or reinforcing tribal identity. Identity and belonging are fostered and some people feel more secure, but this comes at the cost of magnifying already present fissures in civil society. Look no further than the hardening of political echo chambers in the U.S.

In the end, humans are social animals in whatever type of society they occupy, be it the individualist atomization of consumer society or the collective leveling of socialist states. Technology will mirror the social necessity of forging an identity in relation to the people around you. One wonders how identity mirrors the failures of societal systems and what forms of alienation may be growing in our midst.

References

Verhaege, Paul (2014). What about me? The struggle for identity in a market-based society. UK: Scribe.

Gabriel, Rami (2013). Why I buy: Self, Taste, and Consumer Society in America. UK: Intellect press.