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Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence


Sociology, History

Publication Details

The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 60 (4), pp.721-39.


While the concept of living standards remains central to political debate, it has become marginal in sociological research compared to the burgeoning attention given to the topic of consumer culture in recent decades. However, they both concern how one does and should consume, and, indeed, behave at particular times. I use the theories of Norbert Elias to explain the unplanned but structured (ordered) changes in expected standards of living over time. This figurational approach is compared to other alternative explanations, particularly those advanced by Bourdieu, Veblen and Baudrillard. Though these offer some parallels with Elias’s theories, I argue that consumption standards are produced and transformed through the changing dependencies and power relations between social classes. They cannot be reduced to the intentions, interests or ambitions of particular elites, nor to the needs of social systems. Using qualitative data from parliamentary debates in Ireland to trace changing norms and ideals of consumption, as well as historical data to reconstruct shifts in social interdependencies, I further contend that discourses of living standards and luxury are vital aspects of the growing identification and empathy between classes, which in turn encourages greater global integration in the face of emigration and national decline.