New directions in the political economy of consumption
This dissertation surveys the literature on consumption across diverse paradigms in economics. It presents a critique of theories that posit an "authentic" mode of consumption free of contradiction. I argue that the view of the consumer constructed within neoclassical economic discourses as rational and utilitarian should be subjected to epistemological critique. While there have been economists who have challenged the conventional wisdom on consumption, their critiques have relied on notions such as manipulation and alienation--notions that presume the existence of a free and sovereign human subject waiting to be liberated from the evils of the consumer society. Both views--the mainstream and the heterodox--accept the premise that an "authentic" relationship between the subject and object of consumption is possible, and indeed desirable.
This "modernist" understanding of consumption is contrasted to developments in other disciplines that have explored consumption from a postmodern perspective. In a postmodern framework, consumption is not viewed as a process in which a consumer is or is not rational, but rather as a contradictory process in which consumer subjectivity is endogenously produced, contested and negotiated. The dissertation concludes by examining how postmodern theory could be applied to consumption within economics, and illustrates its significance with case studies of the natural foods and discount retail industries.