Consumption and Consumer Culture under Capitalism and Socialism

Course Description: 

“You are what you consume” has been the motto of ‘modern’ societies since the late 19th century. Besides being a key issue among broader economic and political processes, consumption is an important part of identity building. This class will examine 20th century capitalism and socialism through the lens of consumption and consumer culture. Throughout the 20th century, modernity and modernization have been the goals of various political regimes ranging from liberal democracies to socialist dictatorships. Although each of them came with a different definition of modernity and ways to reach it, all of them included, in various degrees, consumption in their modernization project. While scholars have regarded consumption as the backbone of economic development and cultural identity in capitalism, scholars of socialist regimes have placed more emphasis on production than consumption. However, recent studies have stressed the importance of consumption and consumer culture for building social and economic identities in socialism as well. This class will challenge students to examine various commodities through the lens of the economic system(s) in which they are produced, acquired, and consumed. The topics addressed in this course will include, but are not limited to: the study of theoretical approaches to the study of consumption; various venues of consumption; and how tourism, money, and gender relations shaped consumption practices in both types of societies. Last but not least, we will examine the circulation of commodities and consumption in the context of the Cold War.


Learning Outcomes: 
  • Students should acquire an understanding of the current historiographical debates about consumption and consumer culture in capitalist and socialist societies.
  • Students should develop a clear overview of the dynamics of consumption and consumer culture in capitalism and socialism as well as on the economic principles and ideas specific to each.
  • Students should develop an appreciation of the historical and economic changes that took place in the 20th century and how those changes affected consumption.  To accomplish this, students must understand the main concepts that we will use in this class (capitalism, socialism, market-economy, planned economy, consumption, etc.).
  • In this class students should be able to identify arguments in historical scholarship about consumption, consumer culture, and economic thinking in both capitalist and socialist societies, critically discuss a historical question in the written assignments, and learn how to analyze a variety of secondary literature and primary sources in a comparative context.
  • The reports on the assigned readings should help students to improve their argumentative and presentation skills. 

Students are expected to attend each class meeting, complete the reading assignments before class, and participate in class discussions. Attendance and participation make up for 25% of your final grade. As part of your participation grade, each student will give a presentation and lead the discussion for that particular session. The subject of the report will be agreed upon by the student and professor at least one week before the presentation. Each presentation will be no longer than 10 minutes and will identify the text’s main argument, the text’s research context, reception and methodology, and, finally, will pose some questions that will stimulate discussion. You are strongly encouraged to use power point presentations.

 As for written work, you must write five response papers that address the arguments and evidence in the assigned readings for a particular week. These will count for 20% of your grade. In your response papers, you will identify each author’s main arguments and establish connections between the readings for that particular week. Response papers should be between 400-500 words in length and should be critical reviews of the readings. Students are strongly encouraged to present their opinion about the selected texts. You should email me your response paper at least two hours before the class.

 Finally, each student must write two review essays. The review essays will be based on the assigned readings. The first review essay should be five-pages (double-spaced) in length; it will account for 20% of your grade. This essay must connect the assigned readings from at least two consecutive weeks. The second review essay should not exceed ten pages and will account for 35% of your grade; it too will be based on the readings from at least two consecutive weeks. Your second review essay should draw connections between the readings from the first and the second part of the class and, if possible, between the literature and methodologies discussed in-class. You can build on your first review essay for your second review essay. Put another way, your second essay should add readings from the second part of the semester, while attempting to construct a cohesive structure and write an integrated analytical essay that addresses readings from a number of the semester’s readings.



  • Attendance and participation – 25%
  • Weekly response papers – 20%
  • First essay – 20%
  • Second essay – 35%