Contemplation: Quality, Cost, and Social Status

I feel that recently I have been thinking a lot about what I perceive as our overwhelmingly consumerist culture.  In thinking about what it means to live in a consumerist culture I have found considered both pros and cons of the system.  On an upside individuals are presented with a vast variety of goods and services and thus are able to make choices that most directly benefit them and their personal lifestyles, pursuits, beliefs, etc.  On the down side, we are constantly being bombarded with the demands to buy buy buy!  Our culture is driven by the need “to have” whatever is out there an available, regardless of whether it is actually necessary or useful at all.

Upon seeing a $550 – $725 Watch on Uncrate I found myself wondering about the relationship between product costs in regards to actual item quality versus the perceived social status benefits in the act of purchasing and owning the item.  Allow me to explain further.

I am currently wearing a Timex Expedition analog watch about my left wrist.  It has a nice looking leather strap to hold it in place upon my arm. The casing is a simple brushed steel that is both aesthetically pleasing (in my opinion) and functional.  I’ve had the watch for over three years now and it has continued to work effectively (I set it’s time to my phone clock and it has kept pace wonderfully) without incurring too much wear and tear (the only real wear is in the leather strap getting a little worn down).  Being somebody who has worn watches most of my entire life (since I was quite a young child) I can say that my current timepiece is as good, if not better, than any I’ve ever owned.  It serves it’s purpose wonderfully and I am completely satisfied with having purchased it.

I believe its purchase put me out only about $30.

With this in consideration I have to think about expensive watches in general.  I can reasonably assume that there are a good number of watches that are, arguably, built of more quality than most Timex pieces (Timex is, in general, a kind of all-purpose affordable watch brand).  My question is though, when does this increased quality of functionality become irrelevant and thus all additional cost is solely in regards to a perceived social status appeal (basically the “I have the money to afford this and so my social status is something to be in awe of).  It is not that a doubt that a $700 dollar (or more. Think Rolex) watch cannot be a fine made thing and work exceptionally well, but that there must come a point where our general human senses and understanding cannot perceive the furthering degrees of fine tuning and precision, and thus we value an object, like a watch, primarily for the perceived value that has been placed upon it.

To me, this is a central essence of our consumerist culture.  In that the acquisition of objects is of central importance to this culture, we have created object statuses that allow for individuals to maintain a form of social mobility through ownership of varying degrees of perceived valuable goods.  Certainly some of these goods, like a Rolex watch, still possess a quality of functionality which is partially contributed to their overall worth and cost, but at some point the line of functionality becomes irrelevant and the worth is driven solely by the object (and its associative brand) alone.

This is not a new thing by any means.  I would suspect it has been going on throughout the entirety of human history.  However, I feel that this cultural mindset is more prevalent now than it has ever been before.  There is hardly an item in existence that we cannot think of an extravagantly high-priced version of, which serves as a social class marker of sorts.  However, this distinction seems to be terribly obvious and present in goods such as vehicles, clothing, food stuff (especially beverages), etc.  They are noticeable goods, the things in which others are apt to notice our individual direct connection.

So is this bad?  I don’t really know.  On one hand human kind is likely to almost always have medals of social status in some form or another and so judging one type as good or bad is kind of silly.  However, if we take a social justice perspective of some of these goods it seems an awful shame that people can spend hundreds of dollars on a relatively mundane device like a watch while there are millions of people in the world who cannot even afford food on a daily basis.  Perhaps social justice is often in the blind spot when one is concerned with the upward mobility of social justice.

What do y’all think?  I’d love to hear.

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~ by Nathaniel on March 7, 2011.

5 Responses to “Contemplation: Quality, Cost, and Social Status”

  1. 1. That’s a lovely ad for the new Dell laptop at the bottom of your blog post on consumer culture.

    2. It seems high priced goods are only bad when those that can’t afford them buy them. Consumer culture that creates a credit card culture. That’s bad. If not, it’s great. I imagine the large rents that can be extracted from high dollar watches helps to drive innovation down the line.

    For example, it’s impossible to have a $30 watch that tells great time without first going through the first wearable watches of the 1500’s described in Wikipedia as,

    It should not be thought that the reason for wearing these early clock-watches was to tell the time. The accuracy of their verge and foliot movements was so poor, perhaps several hours per day, that they were practically useless. They were made as jewelry and novelties for the nobility, valued for their fine ornamentation, unusual shape, or intriguing mechanism, and accurate timekeeping was of very minor importance.[40]

    But having those watches be bought in the consumer culture of the 16th century Europe allowed the watch making profession grow into something that provides real value at a fair price.

    • WordPress puts random ads in posts if I don’t host my blog myself. It is always interesting to me to hear what ads show up here.

      In regards to watches and other products, I agree. A lot of the goods that we take for granted today started out as extravagancies and were likely incredibly overpriced. Objects of high social status drive a consumerist desire thus promoting innovation to find means to bring the price down while also maintaining (or in watches cases, increasing) the functionality. However, I don’t know that this makes a case for the modern equivelent of these objects needing to have such high cost and social value items. Certainly an interesting perspective on our capitalist societies drive of innovation and productivity.

  2. What you wrote here is basically Thorstein Veblen’s theory of the leisure class. Check it out!

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/833

  3. With some products or services, you do get what you pay for. With others it is just a social status thing.

    Think about the difference between a $10 cheeseburger and a $5 cheeseburger. Is the more expensive cheeseburger really worth 2X as much?

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