The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

Two primary reactions framed my cursory reading of Veblen’s seminal text. First, it was surprising how much of his thesis has become ‘accepted wisdom’ in the Leisure studies research literature. Second, it was unnerving how well he seems to have captured the field of Leisure studies without any empirical evidence, he seems to be the consummate ‘armchair sociologist’. However, both of these reactions are tied to the downfalls of the text.

That his conclusions have an initial similarity to the current field does not negate the additional dimensions that could have been elucidated through research data of some kind. There is never any sense, for example, for how the Leisure class are defined in empirical terms. Consequently, it is difficult to test Veblen’s thesis of the rising importance of Conspicuous consumption among the Leisure class without being to define who are in that class and who are not (even in a fuzzy way). This is not to say that statistical data is need to justify his claims, rather it is clear that very little data of any kind can be observed in his texts except for a few reflections on specific changes in education. Thus, although some of his reflections presciently capture the way in which leisure and consumption are enacted, his theoretical projections are rather weakly specified.

Veblen is famous for coining the phrase ‘Conspicuous Consumption’ and yet, like other memorable academic concepts, this phrase has been almost entirely emptied of the intended meaning. Consumption is conspicuous because it signifies prestige and, like Conspicuous Leisure, comes to demonstrate wealth; and it is this foundation upon wealth that is mildly troubling in Veblen’s account. Because the Leisure class is seemingly quite small, in comparison to the majority of people, Veblen’s account suffers from focussing upon the distinctions among that class. Instead he fails to trace the more significant (numerically) and problematic groups that have similar amounts of wealth and time but who conspicuously choose to consume particular products or to engage in specific forms of leisure. It is the distinctions within economic classes (in terms of wealth, not occupational position) that are significant in the UK today. Further, Veblen’s attempt to establish wealth as the root of both leisure and consumption while coupling it with honour or status requires a number of theoretical leaps that need to be established in greater detail. In this regard, therefore, it appears that careful reconsideration should be given to Veblen’s work in this area.

What is to be made of his conclusion that education is a form of training for participation in the Leisure class? Though research data indicates the importance of education upon Omnivorous behaviour and other types of ‘legitimate’ cultural practices there is very little concrete associations between attending a higher education establishment and the various types of leisure activities that are part of the ‘Leisure class’. Returning to a previously stated hypothesis on Conspicuous leisure versus consumption, how would you measure the increasing importance consumption? What indicators would suggest a shift either way? That leisure is becoming increasingly omnivorous could be a sign of either the decreased significance of leisure as a marker of distinction or it could be a sign that inter-genre distinctions are becoming more significant. The contemporary relevance of this account is weakened by such oversights.

Veblen’s text is certainly an enjoyable read, if you like late-Victorian academic prose, and his book has proved influential; yet its import has been superseded by more sophisticated and rigorous treatments of similar topics. It is canonical, and as such might be fading in its ability to provide acceptable answers but still has the capacity to provoke important questions.

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