The Inequality of Consumer Society

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Part 1: Essay plan


Define inequality - Bauman’s idea that consumer society is associated with new forms of inequality.

Define consumer society - Section 1 of Understanding social lives 1

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Paragraph 1 - Bauman’s idea that consumer society is associated with new forms of inequality.

  • Point The ‘seduced’ have more opportunities to partake in a consumer society in comparison to the ‘repressed’.
  • Evidence Factors which prevent the ‘repressed’ taking part in a consumer society. The difference of industrial and consumer society and what a person’s identity is based on.
  • Example Income/disability and how this prevents the ‘repressed’ being a member of the consumer society and having less opportunities.
  • Paragraph 2 Chapter 6 of Understanding Social Lives 1 ‘winners and losers’
  • Point Big supermarkets indirectly cause independent shops to close therefore removing freedom of choice of where to shop.
  • Evidence Supermarkets meeting the needs of consumers so independent businesses get less business therefore close down.
  • Example Tesco supplying fresh fruit and vegetables therefore closing down independent greengrocers.
  • Paragraph 3 Chapter 6 of Understanding Social Lives 1 Migrant labour in the UK
  • Point Migrants get low pay for long hours to meet supermarket deadlines.
  • Evidence The poor working conditions, the pressure of losing the contract therefore have no way to compromise for higher pay.
  • Example Clothing made in factories and verbal intimidation to pressurise workers into working overtime to finish products in attempt to prevent the factory losing the contract resulting in no paid work.

Conclusion - Sum up all points above and outline why these show inequality within a consumer society.

Part 2: Describe the argument that inequality constrains a consumer society.

A consumer society can be defined as people’s needs being met and satisfied through the purchase of goods and services (1 Inequality is described as the unequal distribution of valued social resources within a society or between society ( 2 Understanding Social Lives Part 1 book, pg 13). This essay will identify and outline the inequalities within and how this limits a consumer society using the views of Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’, the idea of ‘winners and losers’ created by supermarkets and migrant labour in the UK and overseas.

Zygmunt Bauman (1988) divides consumers in the Western society into two groups; the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’ (2, pg 125). The ‘seduced’ refer to people who have enough money to purchase services and goods, and are valued members of a consumer society by those who sell and also by other consumers. This group of people include the employed, older people with savings and good pensions and the young. The ‘repressed’ refer to people who are excluded from consumer society and include people with limited money and life chances such as the unemployed or in insecure employment, the recently arrived migrants and the low paid. (2, pg 127)

A dominating factor of a person becoming part of the ‘repressed’ group relates to income however is not the only factor of being part of this group. Other factors include people with disabilities, chronic illness, older people on a basic state pension and people who experience social exclusion and discrimination such as minority ethnic groups. An example of this could be someone who may be on low income but is in a better position to buy into the acception of others by following the latest trends in music, having a large network of friends whom they share similar interests with and someone who wears fashionable clothes. This person is in a better position to become a member of the consumer society as they are more likely to be accepted in comparison to someone who is disabled and is physically excluded by the design of the built environment around us, therefore creating social divisions (2, pg 128).

Bauman argues that in the Western society, we now live in a consumer society as opposed to previously living in an industrial society. During a consumer society, a person’s identity and the way we are seen by one another is dominated by a person’s possessions and the image that is created through factors including the items a person consumes, the holidays a person takes and the car they drive. In an industrial society a person’s identity is created through factors such as having secure employment and citizenship rights. (2, pg 126)

Living in a consumer society as the ‘repressed’, people have less opportunities and choice to take part in the consumer society they live in due to lower incomes, less life and social chances therefore showing the inequality within the consumer society. This shows inequality as the ‘seduced’ have active opportunities to be a member of consumer society whereas the ‘repressed’ do not.

Inequalities within a consumer society are not only visible through consumers but also through supermarkets and local businesses. Denis Wrong (1997) describes this as a ‘zero-sum game’ in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. In this example, consumers have less freedom of choice of where to shop due to large supermarket chains such as ‘Tesco’ and ‘Asda’ dominating therefore local independent shops being ruined and having no option but to close down due to having less customers (2, pg 158).

This takes away a consumers freedom of choice of where to shop as if independent shops are closing, the only available choice is the large supermarket chains. The large supermarket chains are able to dominate the consumer society as they have increased their choice for everyone, for example providing a variety of affordable fruit and vegetables, therefore eliminating the need for independent green grocer shops (2, pg 159). The four main large supermarkets within the UK account for roughly three-quarters of the UK groceries and food market, therefore profiting at the expense of independent and local businesses therefore limiting the consumer’s choice of where to shop. (2, pg 169)

Large supermarket chains therefore creates inequality in a consumer society by indirectly causing independent businesses and shops to close down, which results in the restriction of the consumers freedom of choice to shop where they desire.

Inequality can also be seen in relation to supermarkets and the low paid, often migrant, workers who help provide the supermarkets with their clothing items and fresh fruit and vegetables. These workers often work excessive hours for very low pay in order for supermarkets to be able to provide consumers with low cost, affordable items (2, pg 170). Many nationalities are involved within these low paid jobs such as Polish, Slovakian, Latvian and Romanian with hourly rates paid to them below the legal minimum wage. The jobs involved include harvesting, picking and gathering in fields, working in supermarket packhouses and food-processing plants.

This inequality does not just exist in the UK as supermarkets also hire factory workers within countries such as China, Bangladesh and Thailand to source particular products such as clothing items. For doing these jobs, the faraway workers are often paid very low wages to work long hours and provide quality finished goods (2, pg 172). In order to meet the supermarket demand for products, the factory and it’s workers have a relentless pressure to provide the products or risk losing the clothing contract which leaves them with no room to compromise or request higher pay. If they do so, they risk losing the contract and having no income. Due to this pressure, workers are forced to work overtime and work in overcrowded workplaces along with receiving verbal intimidation for very little pay (2, pg 174).

To conclude, there is inequality within the consumer society and this is shown between consumers, supermarkets and independent shops and also supermarkets and the people who work to provide them with their affordable, low cost products.

In regards to the inequality between consumers, this is created by the opportunities people are presented with in life which may often result in them being treated unequally in comparison to those presented with more fortunate opportunities. For example being born into a wealthier family or being born without a disability results in a person being more likely to become a member of a consumer society as they are physically and financially able to access buildings and contribute to the consumer society.

Inequality within a consumer society between supermarkets and independent shops refers to supermarkets meeting the needs of consumers, for example supplying fresh meats, which indirectly prevents the need for independent shops and businesses such as local butchers therefore resulting in independent butchers being closed down due to having less customers. This example of inequality within a consumer society also dominates where consumers shop, effectively taking away freedom of choice.

Finally, the inequality of consumer society in regards to supermarkets and the pressure they put on their workers for very low pay. This is an example of inequality as those with more power, the supermarkets, are able to prevail and dominate over those with less, the low paid workers.

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