The Commodification of Everything   /   Summer 2003   /    Articles

The Commodification of Self

Joseph E. Davis

Mannequins in storage (2006). Photo by Thomas Edwards. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The commodification of self would seem to be a misnomer. If a commodity is a product, something that can be bought and sold, then in what sense can the self be commodified? Without any claim to being exhaustive, I want to discuss two possible meanings. A first is that self-understanding is mediated by the consumption of goods and images. In this sense, self-definition depends on the appropriation of the traits of commodities. We know who we are and we judge the quality of our inner experience through identification with the things we buy. A second meaning of self-commodification involves the reorganization of our personal lives and relationships on the model of market relations. This adaptation is well illustrated by the recent practice of “personal branding,” a strategy of cultivating a name and image of ourselves that we manipulate for economic gain. Both of these meanings of self-commodification concern the terms in which we define ourselves and our well-being, and each has been facilitated by the loosening of self-definitions from specific social roles and obligations.

I begin with the shift in self-definitions and then consider evidence for the commodification of self.


From Institution to “Impulse”


In the 1970s and 1980s a body of literature appeared discussing and documenting a modal shift in the way that Americans conceive of and express themselves. Compared with the 1950s and before, scholars argued, people now put less emphasis on institutional roles in their self-definitions and more weight on internal criteria or “impulse.” The shift in self-conception, these writers argued, was fueled by ongoing social and cultural changes and was having important personal and public consequences.

In a characteristic article, published in 1976, the sociologist Ralph Turner found evidence that “recent decades have witnessed a shift in the locus of self….”11xRalph H. Turner, “The Real Self: From Institution to Impulse,” American Journal of Sociology 81 (1976): 989. He characterized the movement in self-anchorage—in the feelings and actions that we identify as expressions of our “real self”—as movement along a continuum from “institution” to “impulse.” At the institutional pole, one recognizes the real self in the pursuit of institutionalized goals. Self-control, volition, and exacting standards within institutional frameworks are paramount. 22xTurner 992.At the impulse pole, by contrast, “institutional motivations are external, artificial constraints and superimpositions that bridle manifestations of the real self.” At this end of the continuum, the real self consists of “deep, unsocialized, inner impulses” waiting to be discovered and spontaneously expressed.33xTurner 992. Though few people occupy the extremes, Turner emphasized, the personal relevance of institutions seemed to be declining and personal reality increasingly indexed to impulse.

Turner’s observations were not unique. Earlier, Nathan Adler had suggested that an “antinomian personality,” a character type who rejects conventional morality, was emerging for whom the expression of impulse and desire is central.44xNathan Adler, The Underground Stream: New Life Styles and the Antinomian Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1972). Similarly, Christopher Lasch, in his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, saw the spread of a “therapeutic outlook” in American society that seeks peace of mind in the “overthrow of inhibitions and the immediate gratification of every impulse.”55xChristopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner, 1979) 43. In a more empirical vein, Joseph Veroff and his colleagues, comparing the results of national surveys they conducted in 1957 and 1976, found a significant shift in the way that people structure their self-definition and sense of well-being. They characterized this change as one from a “socially integrated” paradigm to a more “personal or individuated” paradigm and identified it in three aspects: “(1) the diminution of role standards as the basis for defining adjustment; (2) increased focus on self-expressiveness and self-direction in social life; [and] (3) a shift in concern from social organizational integration to interpersonal intimacy.”66xJoseph Veroff, Elizabeth Douvan, and Richard A. Kulka, The Inner American: A Self-Portrait from 1957 to 1976 (New York: Basic, 1981) 529.

Along with others, including Daniel Bell, Robert Bellah, and Daniel Yankelovich, these scholars saw the sixties and seventies as giving rise to a new emphasis on the exploration of personal desires and immediate experience, on distancing oneself from institutional (i.e., external) norms and goals, on finding one’s unique inner voice, and on freely expressing one’s intimate feelings.77xDaniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic, 1976); Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985); and Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Random House, 1981). None of these sentiments were new, of course; all reflect an old Romantic sensibility. Yet the evidence suggested that they resonated as an ideal and as terms of self-expression with a much wider swath of the public. On the way to the seventies, many Americans had, in effect, internalized the harsh fifties’ critique of the “organization man.”

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