The long queues of the customers to buy the latest products of the big companies, spending a lot of money to buy famous brands and marks, growing interest in TV serials, programs about decoration, fashion, garments and the consumption and interest in special cultural products and trying to define one’s identity based on them are only some aspects of lifestyle in the contemporary era.
What is a lifestyle? What are the kinds of lifestyle? What are the differences and similarities of lifestyle with the social classes and other social divisions? What is the relationship between lifestyle and identity? What is the effect of media on lifestyle? These are some of the questions that this relatively new interdisciplinary concept has brought to our attention.
Lifestyle and the relevant concepts
The concept of lifestyle is associated with a combination of other concepts like taste, consumption, purchasing, and social identity and in many cases these concepts or a combination of them are used interchangeably or just in a way to represent the lifestyle.
Some of the definitions for understanding lifestyle consider the concept of identity as crucial and determine and identify the types of identity as a solution to several questions related to lifestyle. Before conceptualizing social identity, first one must answer the question “on what basis is the social identity formed” as the most comprehensive answer that sociology provides for this question is based on the distinction of the modern and traditional societies. In traditional societies, the basis for the individuals’ social identity is the characteristics attributed to them; however, in modern societies, to reply to the afore-mentioned question, generally two different solutions are given, each of which is based on different theoretical approaches. These two approaches also differ in terms of time and precedence as well:
In the former approach which is also older, productive activities and the position of an individual in the production system is considered as the foundation of one’s social identity and in the second approach, which is more recent, the consumption behavior of the individual are the basis for the formation of his or her social identity. The former is formulated within the concept of social class and the latter in lifestyle.
What explains the prevalence of lifestyle in the recent literature of sociology is the structural changes which have been established such as the growing consumerism and the importance of individual independence and individual freedom to choose. Lifestyles are generally known to be based on the social system of consumption and instead of the social system of production which is classically considered the root of class structures, more emphasis is put on the normative attitudes associated with consumption and what is meant by this is the range of social activities that play a role in determining the characteristics and the identity of people apart from the professional activities. Consumption has a much wider scope compared with production and social structures which depend on it inasmuch as consumption includes all the non-working individuals such as the young, the elderly, and the unemployed and especially women who are not expected in the modern economy to be economic producers.
Hence, the prevalence of the concept of lifestyle is derived from the reality that the previous classifications and typologies had lost their analytic power concerning the new social realities. Lifestyle is a more flexible concept and has a wider characteristic scope and can better present the commonalties of various groups in the new era regardless of their differences. Moreover, lifestyle organizes and overlaps with other concepts such as identity, consumption, and taste.
Although lifestyle expands in the context of the consumption culture and perhaps it can be said that it is dependent on it, this link does not suggest that there is no diversity in lifestyle activities. This conveys two points; first, one has to look for diversity and distinction in lifestyles and, second, though lifestyle is based on tastes and personal values, it can still be expected that they have distinct and clear patterns overlapping with other socio-cultural features. From this perspective, lifestyle must be popular among a majority of people otherwise it would not differ from personal tastes and individual consumptive desires.
First, pessimistic reactions were seen in response to the expansion of the consumption culture in the 21st century implying that the mass culture degenerates the criteria and levels of the superior culture and would ultimately take us to the point where all of us look at the same thing, listen to the same thing and read the same thing. But one of the arguments for the lifestyle is that the mentioned fears and concerns were overestimated. The possibility of chatting and arguing and the use of the facilities provided by consumption and also the recreational industries which aim for the mass audiences are just much richer and much more complex than what the earlier thinkers conceived of the culture.
The concerns of the thinkers regarding the culture of consumption was expressed in the form of mass community theories, cultural industry and consumerism. Nonetheless, more recent approaches and theories have considered consumption to be more dynamic and creative and have tried to grasp the interrelationships between consumption and other phenomena and social issues. This group of theories are more compatible with the recent conceptualization of the effects of communications. This means that there is more attention to the innovative role of the audience in the connection, diversity and complexity of communicative textures and attention to other non-communicative factors in the impact process.
According to “Arthur Asa Burger”, we face a comprehensive word when defining lifestyle which covers one’s hairstyle, clothing, amusement, favorite literature and other related topics. Then, lifestyle is not in fact fashion or the way one lives. Lifestyle is often linked with the economic and social class and is reflected in the image made for an individual.
A look at some definitions for lifestyle
The name of the thinker, definition for lifestyle, mental / objective dimensions
George Zimbel identifies it as the reflection of one’s attempt for finding basic values or, in other words, the individuality of one’s superiority in one’s objective culture and familiarizing others with it. Torsten Voblin identifies it as the collective behavioral model, the reflection of the spiritual mechanism, the intellectual and epistemological habits of an individual and emphasis on the mental and objective dimension.
Max Weber identifies it as the common values and customs which gives a group the feeling of collective identity; what distinguishes the unclear borders of the social situation and class. Emphasis on the mental and objective dimension.
Alfred Adler identifies it as the unique and individual totality under which all the general processes of life can be set. Emphasis on the mental dimension
Pierre Bourdieu identifies it as systematic activities derived from personal taste and desire which mostly have external and objective aspects and at the same time give an identity to an individual in a symbolic way and create a distinction among different social classes. Emphasis on the objective dimension
Anthony Giddens identifies it as the life policy, a policy that is linked to debates and tensions over one question: how should people or the human community live in a world in which what was consolidated and established by nature or tradition is now a subject to be resolved.
Emphasis on the objective and mental dimension
The existing definitions for lifestyle can be broken into two categories:
1-A combination of definitions that assume lifestyle to be of the behavior type and exclude the values, outlooks and mental attitudes made by individuals. This approach does not point to a lack of interference of the mental categories in the formation of lifestyle, rather, it means that it really does not matter how lifestyle has formed.
2-A definition that assumes the values and outlooks to be the main part of lifestyle.
The features of lifestyle:
Some of the classic thinkers recognize the eating habits, wearing clothes (clothing, Following the fashion), the type of housing (furniture, architecture, and decorations), the type of transportation vehicles, pastime, and amusement as the features of lifestyle. In this regard, we may indicate Gordon’s classification. In his summary, he counts a few important factors in the study of lifestyle: the consumption pattern, the type of clothing, the manner of speaking, the outlooks and the patterns related to the centralized points of interest in a given culture such as rationality, religion, family, patriotism, instruction, arts and sports. Other thinkers (like Parsons) also introduce facets of lifestyle derived from the technologies such as automobile, house appliances, television, computer and so on.
Classifications that are more general have been defined to organize these diverse and distinct items and they are based on behavioral and attitudinal facets. For instance, Edward Fern categorizes the afore-mentioned features into three groups of activities (e.g. work and hobbies), interests (family and media) and beliefs (like political and social subjects). Mahdavi Kani has categorized the afore-mentioned elements into four classes:
1-Possession (consumptive capitals)
2-Activites (habits, occupation, pastime, etc.)
3-Attitudes and tendencies
4-Human relations (interpersonal and social relations)
Over time and in the beginning of the twentieth century, instead of focusing on consumptive behaviors and emphasis on the objective aspects of human life (and also in principle relying on primitive needs such as eating, clothing, housing), mental aspects and the secondary human requirements (such as human relationships, attitudes and tendencies) are being considered more. Although the centrality and emphasis on the consumptive behavior continued throughout all the years of the 21st century, the change is quite compatible with changes in the theories of lifestyle.
Also some attempts have been made by scholars to recognize the types of lifestyles. These typologies are a good instrument for comparing different populations and analyzing the fashions of spending. For instance, Horely and others (Horely, 1987) have identified four lifestyles which are mostly based on personality features and psychology among the subjects studied in their research:
1-Hedonsitic: in this lifestyle, the main principle is seeking pleasure and one’s attempt at maximizing individual pleasure.
2-Adventuristic: adventurous people take risks that others are afraid to take. Contrary to others, they do not panic and are not frightened, they live on the edge, fight limitations and, for them, taking risks is like a reward. They say ‘if there is no risk, there is no profit’. They quite easily accept perilous activities and say that life must be perilous. They have independence in life; they are not much concerned about others and are of the opinion that everyone is responsible for himself or herself. In addition, they have persuasive abilities and can easily influence others. One of their important characteristics is “living in the moment”.
3-Individualistic: It can be assumed as an outlook in which the individual is in the center. Individual goals, special features, ruling over oneself, self-control and indifference to the surrounding issues are of the qualities of this outlook.
4-Promethean: Prometheus was a Greek mythical character who was punished by the Gods for stealing Fire and giving it to men. People who follow this lifestyle are fond of subverting the norms and social disciplines.
Consumption and lifestyle
The closest concept to lifestyle in economy can be introduced as consumption and its pattern which has three features:
1-The level of consumption
2-The combination of consumptive goods
3-The manner of consumption
At a minor level, which means the study of family behavior, in addition to the economic factors such as goods, the level of an individual’s income and so on, non-economic factors are also effective and the study of such factors is done by sociologist and cultural experts because a change in these factors lead to changes in tastes and what follows is a change in lifestyle and demand for specific goods. In explaining lifestyle at a major level, it has been posed that an increase in consumption causes a rise in supply and raises the national income. If the consumption level of the society increases by one unit, national income will increase by more than one unit. About the effect of the media on the level of consumption, it has been said that the consumption among individuals is not independent and people always try to harmonize the level of consumption according to the level of consumption in the society and follow the moderate and generally known consumption level as a model.
Sociology recognizes the media-based mass consumption as a process which came into being after World War Two with the expansion of the system of the public media which are the press, radio, television and, along with them, the emergence of computers and the internet which led to the widespread use of appliances by the people. Before the Second World War, although newspapers existed, they were mostly used by the upper classes and the higher part of the middle class. Only after the second world war and more specifically from the 1960s onward and with the advent of welfare governments and following the improvement in the livelihood of the general public, the widespread use of radio and the invention of television, this new kind of media-based consumption came into being. It is a mass media consumption which has also been labeled as the democratic media consumption.
Nonetheless, the dominance of absolute consumerism has always been one of the concerns of the thinkers through the past decades. Crank knows it as the same story in which the individual tries to achieve happiness and sameness with the others by consuming. Public idolatry has replaced the cultural, artistic, religious, and familial experiences that have been lost in this furor with consumer ideals. The consumer satisfies his desire for the evolving lifestyle by buying and owning different appliances and enters the media constructs into his social personality to renovate his spiritual life. Repetition and renovation of life does not exist in the process of the consumerism myth and no allegorical emblem for revitalizing the superior and higher-order truths come into view. Consumerism brings happiness and pleasure for a short time only for the people who can afford to live in luxury and deprives the others who cannot be wealthy of these pleasures.
In his book “The Identity challenges in America”, Samuel Huntington considers the success of the political system of the United States to be in creating identities despite the presence of many foreigners using customs, beliefs and different and sometimes conflicting cultures as opposed to the world or, in one word, Americanization. This means that we have no problem with your religion, skin color, and hair; just live like an American. Huntington is of the opinion that the perpetuation of the American society is made possible by the Americanization process with the strategy that in the center, in the surrounding space, and in the model of the north and south, to achieve the maximum American strategic depth, such a lifestyle must penetrate the lives of the southerners and those who are around.
Today, viewing lifestyle has undergone changes and it is difficult for the media to remain active in this area by relying on earlier basics and images. Today, many questions and challenges like global warming as a result of industrial activities, the destruction of the natural environment, speedy consumption and the threatening irresponsibility for nature and the survival of the planet, hygienically problems and issues such as being overweight, the increase in the number of illnesses and medical problems such as heart attacks, diabetes and other similar issues have been approached by the media. Each day, it gets more difficult for the media to advocate lifestyles based on consumerism.
Attempts in decreasing unhealthy commercials such as fast foods, fuzzy drinks and paying attention to diets which help with losing weight, avoiding smoking, attention to recyclable materials, linking products with nature and observing the environmental aspect all demonstrate the effects of these concerns and challenges. Although such an approach might not be fully implemented for the time being, and might be mostly addressed by the elite media, it has created some sparks of hope for careful and thoughtful consumption.