The Paradox of Shopping: a new way to ask, “Do you REALLY want that?”

November 29, 2011

Political Theory


As much as some of us like to dispute this, we all love to possess things. Growing up, it was practically forced upon us to learn to share. Whether our “things” are new age tech toys, designer shoes, expensive bags, or Pokemon cards, is of no importance. I theorize that this love of possessions is rooted in our desire to stay “trendy” or up to speed with the rest of society. Having new toys, whatever they may be, is a way of doing this. In grade school, the coolest things were always the newest things.

Silly bands have been the most recent trend, on the left.

But have you ever stopped to wonder, who decided that they were cool in the first place? Logically, in order for something to catch on as a trend, it has to start somewhere.

          The so called “trendsetters” of our generation decide what is supposed to be popular, and the rest of us sheep do our best to comply with the decision. Needless to say, these trends tend to be downright outrageous. Does anyone remember this beautiful hairstyle from the 90’s to the right? Point made.

One would think, however, that everyone would be in agreement on what’s cool and what isn’t at any one point in time. However, this is not the case. Think globally for a minute. What seems really cool to us in the U.S. might seem absolutely absurd to someone from, for example, Thailand, and vice-versa. It seems to me that the idea of what people “need” to have, according to society is arbitrary. In fact, as we mentioned in discussion, the idea of property itself seems arbitrary as well!

Rousseau discusses the ideas of natural differences and social inequalities in his, “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality”. He explains that natural differences are those that are “God-given” such as strength, intelligence, beauty, etc. He defines social inequalities as such that are man-made, and suggests that they are simply ideas that society chooses to endorse such as property, wealth, etc. As Rousseau talks about property, he suggests that it is simply an idea that the “weak” create in order to even themselves with those that have stronger natural differences. What’s more is that the only reason that social inequalities, such as property, exist is because the public chooses to believe in them.


In honor of Black Friday, let’s examine the mass hysteria over shopping and getting deals for expensive stuff. The typical consumer will spend all night and day standing in line, fighting through crowds, all in attempt to get a great deal on something(s) typically very expensive, like the image to the right.

We as a society constantly try to outdo ourselves in any way possible. Typically, wearing high fashion clothes, having new gadgets, and owning the latest technology allows us to feel good about our status in society. However, this is all driven by others perceptions of us. In my opinion, our constant need to impress others takes away from our freedom to pursue our own happiness. Let’s face it; many of us wouldn’t put any effort into dressing up to go anywhere unless it was socially expected of us.

Obviously, choosing to buy new things that are trendy doesn’t feel like a forced choice, in fact choosing to shop is a completely free choice that we all make. If I want the new iPhone, I’m going to buy it, because I live in the U.S.A. and have the freedom to do so with my own money. However, perhaps choosing what to buy is already determined for us by society. Through commercials and media, society defines for us what we should want to buy, and in doing so, takes away from our purchasing freedom by convincing us to want things that we do not really need. This is paradoxical because the act of buying something new is a free choice, but is in fact something we have been convinced to do by society.

Would you agree that the things we want are simply ideas such as property in order to gain status? Something to think about here is whether the fact that society controls our perception of what is “cool” affects our ability to live our lives freely.  Would you agree or disagree? Do you think this is a good thing for us or not? Think about why society might want this, and also why not. On a broader not, why do you think that we as a society endorse such ideas, and create social inequalities?

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9 Comments on “The Paradox of Shopping: a new way to ask, “Do you REALLY want that?””

  1. elyssashea Says:

    I think that whether or not it is outright good for us as a society to buy things, it ends up being necessary and can even be utilized. In many ways, one’s status– which seems to be derived by possessions– is what makes he/she popular. While, as Rousseau says, there are natural differences that can create stronger people, it is evident that the ways of property in society has trumped this. Yet, for those who are innately more intelligent, and possess what Rousseau might define as “God-given” gifts, they are able to work society for themselves. In politics, for example, the status that one derives from being a notable member of society and being appealing to the masses can be used to enhance political participation. Obama may be a gifted speaker and leader, but ultimately some of his supporters may have voted for him because they were originally just fans of Michelle Obama’s cute J.Crew wardrobe. Ultimately, because the Obamas fit so well into the consumerist aspect of society and have so many possessions, they have enough supporters to be elected and therefore serve the country. In its own perverse way, property seems to lure people in and can strangely help political participation.

  2. cchevat Says:

    I definitely believe that the things we purchase besides necessities are items that help us gain acceptance in society. I know that before I came to Michigan as a freshman, I bought Hunter Rain Boots and a Northface Parka because I knew that everyone else had those items. Even purchasing things such as cars and homes are status symbols. A three person family could live in a house that could fit twenty people just because they are lead to believe that having more is better for one’s social image. While this is the case for a lot of the highly publicized items that get a lot of attention, I feel that buyers still have a say in what they purchase. A lot of that has to do with personal interest. For example, if someone is really into soccer, they may think it is worth it to spend hundreds of dollars on authentic jerseys as opposed to a person who values video games and spends money on the latest game console.
    The idea that this influence of purchase is both is both a good and a bad thing, which goes along with why society may or may not endorse this idea. First of all, it is good because buying items stimulates the economy. Also, a benefit of people purchasing a certain item is that it can unite people. This is why people who value their university buy the associated apparel, wear it, and acknowledge people positively who do the same. It can also be negative because it can create a gap between people who have or do not have a certain item which usually correlates with socioeconomic class. If people see other people with something they do not have, it makes people want it more. No matter what, material items are always going to be something that we desire no matter how unrealistic the item is so this issue will always be prevalent.

  3. tylerhoffman1 Says:

    I agree with the author when they say the things we want are simple ideas of property in order to gain social status and a feeling of fitting in. In the most simple thinking, we do have freedom of choice when we as consumers decide on what we want to purchase with our hard earned money. Although, if you look deeper into the matter, advertising and social media really influences our desires for certain goods/services. While some may say this restricts our freedom, we as consumers willingly give up our freedom when we purchase that TV knowing that we will be marketed to. We also must accept accountability of giving up our freedom when we read magazines and allow ourselves to be persuaded. It’s personal responsibility for our actions, and we as consumers must own up to it. We also allow ourselves to create social inequalities even if it hurts others simply because we act with self-interest. We the consumers have a desire to be constantly on the top, and if we can obtain the “king of the hill” status by knocking someone else down, we will do it.

  4. aecorwin Says:

    Due to society’s control over what is popular, there is a clear inequality, according to Rousseau’s theories. The way society causes these trends to go in and out of style so quickly is a result of perfectibility and evolution of our society. In order to keep up with all the trends, you must have enough disposable income to continue to buy all of these ridiculous items that will make you believe you are “cool” for a few weeks, maybe even months, but will soon be out of style just like silly bands or ridiculous hair styles. Only those that are able to afford these “luxuries” are able to keep up, thus creating an even greater social inequality as those who cannot keep up with all the latest trends get left behind. People will continue to buy these trendy items in order to gain social status, and so more and more new items will dictate what is cool and what is not as everyone struggles to keep up. Those who are able to afford these nonessentials will be at the top of the social pyramid, and those who cannot keep up will fail. This drive to be at the top of society leads to these trends developing, and the companies are taking advantage of this flaw in our society by creating more unnecessary products that they can market to convince you that if you buy this specific item, you will suddenly be at the top of the social status pyramid.

  5. Danielle Studenberg Says:

    This is an interesting argument you have made. In my opinion, things we buy are status symbols that are not necessary for us to survive. Everyone knows this yet we keep spending money and acquiring new belongings. I’m not saying that I’m frugal, I am one of the many Americans who enjoys staying with new trends (though I would NEVER have that dumb haircut no matter how stylish it is) and going shopping just for fun.

    Although, I do agree with you that in some cases things we buy are seen as property in order to gain status. Commercials and the media have put the idea in our heads that expensive name-brand items give power if they are in our possession. Thus, people feel that they themselves are worth more if they own, for example, a Mercedes or Burberry coat. In reality, we all know a coat or car cannot give us actual power yet these items are bought anyways. I think that society endorses this to fuel the economy and make more jobs available. If no one shopped at certain stores they would close them, and thus workers would be fired and stop shopping at other stores. Consumerism is promoted in our society and only adds to the paradox of shopping.

  6. nluongo Says:

    I don’t think that our freedom is being infringed upon by the way that society promotes buying certain things. Although we may think that we have to buy this new gadget or these new clothes, the truth is that we do not and in the end we are the only person who decides what we spend our money on. Saying that we aren’t free because society promotes certain things is like saying that we aren’t free when someone suggests a certain product to us over another. It may influence our thinking, but the final decision still lies with us.

    I also think that it is a bit overzealous to state that everything we buy is just another attempt to increase our social status. Sure, people might buy the new iPhone because it’s cool and other people are buying it, but they also buy it because it is simply better than the last one. Likewise, a family of three living in a house that could fit twenty might like it simply because there is more space to do what they want. I’m also pretty sure the presidential election is determined by more than how much property the candidates possess and how well they fit the consumerist image.

    Whether this is good for society or not is a very difficult thing to determine. Sure, people spend money on plenty of things that could be put to better use elsewhere. However, the argument could be made that having this sort of central influence helps to keep society bound together in a way.

  7. carweiss Says:

    I definitely agree that we perceive as popular is completely determined by what we see in the media, magazines, online and in the news. Take Uggs as an example – most people would agree that they are perhaps some of the ugliest shoes ever made but because the media portrayed them as being “the next big thing to hit the “fashion” world” the necessity to purchase them was increased. If you had the money, you had to have a pair (or even more) of Uggs – if you didn’t you weren’t “cool” enough. Everyday new trends are introduced into our society but until it becomes a socially acceptable thing to purchase (usually by someone of higher status) it will never gain the popularity if only “average” people have it.
    Our society is so immersed in the idea that we must strive for perfection through the means of staying up to date on everything new. We are constantly evolving and reaching for perfection which will never be achieved in our advancing society. The more possessions one holds, the more powerful they tend to feel.

  8. bonannianthony Says:

    I like this post and I happen to agree with most of it. As individuals we all have things that we like to have. Some of us put a higher importance on gaining more and more things and having the greatest stuff. For instance, I like powerbalance wristbands. I don’t know why I like them, I know they don’t work but my brother and my friends from home all wear them for some unknown reason. Some people like more expensive things like watches or cars. Others just like to have things so they can compare themselves to other people. That is why the U.S. has such a huge market for clothes, shoes, and accessories. Personally, I am not that big into clothes and shoes and stuff like that but my sister will have no problem dropping a couple hundred dollars on a new purse. Like it or not much of society likes things and the producers will keep producing because we will keep buying, basic economics.

  9. arielleshanker Says:

    Would you agree that the things we want are simply ideas such as property in order to gain status? Something to think about here is whether the fact that society controls our perception of what is “cool” affects our ability to live our lives freely. Would you agree or disagree? Do you think this is a good thing for us or not? Think about why society might want this, and also why not. On a broader not, why do you think that we as a society endorse such ideas, and create social inequalities?

    I would agree with the author in her claim that our material wants are socially constructed and are acquired as a means to gain status. I would also argue, however, that our needs, things that our absolutely vital to our survival, are socially constructed as well. Many of the things that we believe in America to be essential, such as shelter, heating, clothes, etc., are seen as superfluous in other cultures and societies. In this way, society controls our ability to live our lives freely in that it dictates not just our wants, but also our needs, which might limit our consumption because we must fulfill some of these societally-constructed needs before our wants can be taken care of.

    I believe that society creates social inequalities so that individuals may gain power. Power is relative, meaning that it is derived from the inverse of the dependence one individual has on another. When there is an imbalance in society, whether it is created naturally or artificially, people become dependent on one another, causing for some to gain power through having leverage over others.

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