• Use-value, exchange-value and symbolic-value

    by  • June 16, 2012 • Theory

    In the sociology of consumption much emphasis has been directed towards the exchange-value of commodities. In contrast to use-value, the exchange-value of a commodity is based on equivalences which unfold when a product enters the market (commodification). In a capitalist system any object X can be made equivalent to a certain proportion of any object Y — which can be written as Y: X = nY (where n is a number). Basically, the exchange-value renders the commodity exchangeable on the market.

    In this classic Marxist view, the use-value is subordinated to the exchange-value. Goods are no longer produced with use-value in mind but with the aspiration of a certain exchange-value. Of course, use-value does not entirely disappear, but exchange-value (often) overrides use-value in a capitalist economy. The reason for the predominance of the exchange-value is that from the point of view of use-value, objects are incompatible — which is unexchangeable — with each other. A luxury-label leather-jacket has little use in keeping warm, but may achieve an extraordinary high exchange-value on the market. The (little) use-value of the jacket is subordinated to the (much higher) exchange-value of the commodity.

    The point is, that use-value makes it difficult to exchange goods between individuals. A frying pan may be used to cook food, whereas a computer may be used to write a lecture — but it might be difficult to write a lecture on a frying pan (Corrigan 2010:34). Each commodity is useful for a different purpose and the sole presence of a use-value makes it incompatible with other goods. Only when commodities are ascribed an exchange-value (e.g. one computer equals 50 frying pans, one frying pan equals 100 pencils) the object becomes exchangeable on the market.

    In Marx’s discussion of the fetishism of commodities one particular dimension of objects have long been overlooked: the signifying-value (symbolic-value) of commodities. Some objects possess ‘uses’, which are far beyond their obvious use-value. Additionally to the concrete use-value a more latent (probably individualised) use-value may be present. The obvious use-value of a tea-cup, for example, may be to use it for drinking tea, but its signifying-value or symbolic-value may be tied to the fact that it was given from a precious friend of family member. On the other hand, the symbolic-value of a self-purchased luxury sports-car may have little to do with family, but it also has little connection with just getting from A to B. The signifying-value goes way beyond the apparent use-value. With regards to exchange-value, collectors may find that the exchange-value — and use-value in particular — of their objects gathered, goes well beyond their official exchange- and use-values.

    Probably the first and most influential sociological account of the social character of objects has been offered by Marx. In the opening book of the Capital he identified objects having two dimension (use- and exchange-value). Today, a great deal of work has focused on a third dimension of objects: the signifying- or symbolic-value. This extension has lead to a number of new problems and questions such as the processes of commodification, recommodifaction, sacralisation, singularisation or different spheres of exchange (see for example Corrigan 1989; McCracken 1988; Kopytoff 1986; Baudrillard 1968).


    Philipp Babcicky is a PhD student at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change at the University of Graz, Austria.