Theorising the struggle for social recognition can be approached from numerous angles. One – rather cynical – account has been given by the nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen. In his view, the struggle for social standing is carried out in a specific area of communication which is antagonistic in nature. Central to his work is the claim that the indication of social distinctions is carried out through the accumulation of goods and eventually wealth. At the heart of this notion is the assumption that all societies have been motivated to accumulate wealth – depending on the epoch we are looking at, wealth and ownership have taken different forms: women, slaves, inferiors or things.
In modern and postmodern societies conspicuous consumption has probably become the most favourable end to display one’s pecuniary strength. Certainly, this development did not occur suddenly, but gradually. To understand the contemporary social logic of (conspicuous) consumption one has to embrace an historical approach to the development of the struggle for social recognition. In his work, Veblen offers an historical account on how contemporary society developed from a barbarian logic of ‘war trophies’ to a modern/postmodern logic of ‘consumer goods’.
For Veblen, the practice of ownership begins in the lower barbarian stages of culture. Albeit individuals have always appropriated useful tools and objects, the earliest form of ownership has been the ownership of women. While the appropriation of the former took place without particularly raising the question of ownership, the appropriation of the latter was associated with actual possessions. This practice stems from seizing women from the enemy as trophies (resulting in ownership-marriage and in a household with a male head). Later, the same practice was extended to slavery, other captives and inferiors.
The ownership of women is regarded as the impetus for extending the concept of ownership to other domains. First, including the products of women’s industries and later the ownerships of things and other people. What followed was a gradual installation of a system of property in goods.
At this time, possession of wealth conferred honour and allowed for invidious distinction and comparison. However, the primary focus of comparison was not so much within the group/community but rather across groups/communities (i.e. between the group and their enemy). In the primitive communal organisation, according to Veblen, the “man’s prowess was still primarily the group’s prowess” and appropriations were held as (mutual) trophies of a successful raid. Though the utility of possessions as indicators for the social standing of members within the group was by no doubt present, this was certainly not its chief element.
This communal point of view has gradually been replaced by a more consistent mode of private property at the time individual ownership began to disseminate and manifest itself in the social logic of appropriation. Eventually, the subsequent phase resulted in a shift from a communal mode of invidious comparison to an individual-centered mode. The game of ownership was now increasingly carried out between the members of the communal group.