Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Consumption and the World of Goods

Book Cover

Book Title

Consumption and the World of Goods. London: Routledge, 1993


Brewer, John and Porter, Roy (eds.)


The book addresses the need for a historical study of the ‘world of goods’ or the ability of material objects to affect human life and society over time. Combining different forms of historical study, economic, social and cultural, whilst building upon work such as The Birth of a Consumer Society , the work establishes a necessity for a historical approach to the field. The apparent “discomfort” at the thought of a history of consumerism fuels the necessity to confront the need to write a history of the sort that addresses the centrality of goods and services, as the study claims that it is an important aspect of western societies and their development.

Whilst understanding the ideological critiques of such an approach, alongside its ‘historiographical immaturity’- the work sets itself up as a new approach that should be considered as part of important, critical work in the field of history. Being a large volume with a wide array of contributors from Peter Burke to Simon Schama, the work is generally comprised of (largely) historians and individuals who work on topics related to consumerism and society.

Commenting that “we are all semiologists now”, the volume confronts the advent of the rise in studies on material culture and societies, and situates itself in the field of reading signs and their signifiers. It does this by examining goods in the shaping of the modern western society.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book is structured in six sections, with each part addressing problems found suitable to understand western society (Europe and North America) and the relationship to consumption. Chapters covering themes such as the problem of situating and defining the term “consume” form the opening section which is largely a methodological assessment.
Subsequently, the work addresses the contextualized relevance of consumption in society. It goes on to deal with provision of goods and their usage by buyers. This is followed by studies on the meaning of consumption and the visual and tangible properties of objects, as well as the communication technologies in the ways objects are distributed. The volume is divided into chapters which deal with the subject matter thematically, relating to issues in and around consumption.

Whilst unable to cover themes on a global scale, several studies in this chapter do merit comparison to other regions- as the volume makes many valid observations that are indeed well written and illuminate many subjects that link together to a desire to write history with the lens of consumption; which may provide a new way of looking at the world.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The work is largely historical, creating the impetus for a more developed historiography in the field of reading commodities in historical development. As with any other large volume, it is segmented, giving enough breadth for its contributors to provide individual arguments- both impacting the context of their study but having repercussions for studying the vast mass of ‘western society’ as a whole.

Accepting the critical discourse that comes from political ends ie. Left, Right points of view that such work could be a veiled attempt at ideological promotion (the teleological structure of reading the present into the past, or on the other hand, the promotion of a history of market capitalism which also glorifies it); it rejects these claims to assert that there is an important value in reading the past and its relationship to consumerism, if only to deepen the historiography of the approach. By taking a cross-disciplinary approach to the volume, it allows the contributors to approach themes with a larger scope to understand human society.

Considering the impact of semantics, the ostentation of possessions, suspicion towards consumerism due to religious and other moral inclinations, the volume systematically unravels the issues that concern commodities and historical development. In this sense, it is important not just for the wealth of information, but with a clear and developed approach, gives readers the ability to navigate through the book easily.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh