consumerism development

The materialism of developing countries

Do we measure our success by what we own? That’s supposed to be one of the hallmarks of a consumer society, with material possessions giving us our status and identity. But if you ask people if they measure their success by their possessions, the vast majority of British people will say no.

That’s according to Ipsos Mori, who have asked the same question in a number of different countries. As it turns out, people are more likely to admit to being materialistic in China and India than they are are Britain.

Perhaps that’s because quality of life is improving in such tangible ways in those places that you can actually feel it as progress. ‘Last year I did not have a fridge, and now I do’. That’s progress, and it is measured by what we own. Here, on the other hand, most of us have everything we need already. Getting something new might be nice, but the increase in quality of life is negligible.

That’s one theory. Another might be that consumerism is so embedded in our society that it is now invisible to us. We are constantly judging others and ourselves by what we own, but we don’t realise we’re doing it.

I don’t know, but the graphs below have made me think differently about materialism.


Source: Understanding Society, Ipsos Mori



  1. Materialism. To have or to be? That is a key question. Good old veblen goods. Most societies do and did express status by way of possessions. Gold and Gems, the number of horses, a palace, a yacht. Positional goods are as old as civilization (in the widest sense). I suppose that for generations who grew up with scarcity of even the most basic requirements for life the consumer life looks like heaven – a heaven where you can waste money for useless things since the important things all are taken care of. For my parents’ generation here in Western Germany (they were born 1940) growing out of the rubbles of WWII was the no. 1 goal in life. Working hard and achieving something, where achievement meant possessions, ideally your own house, perhaps one day a vacation home somewhere, a nice car – perhaps a Mercedes or BMW (the bigger the better). That was the unquestioned dogma. And that’s how people of that generation generally still define themselves and judge each other. My generation (dob late sixties, early seventies) already grew up in an unprecedented state of affluence. In many respects the average west German citizen was better off than today. Everything was basically free, from education on all levels to full medical care, and even unemployment benefits were high enough to really live a decent life. My generation has a much higher percentage of people who moved away from materialism and consumerism – or at least question that lifestyle – but despite growing up in a state of affluence, the majority still is materialistic and status oriented. A difference is that you can also be admired for choosing an alternative lifestyle – especially when you have something to show for, like college degrees, research results, a bestseller – some fame, a “name” in or for something. Achievement is not only possessions. I notice however that among the immigrants from Eastern Europe – like the several million Russian Germans who migrated here during the last 20 years, but also among oriental people, having things, especially that big SUV, is a main goal in life. I also once talked to Rupert Sheldrake, who lived in India for a long time, and he stressed that the cliché about the “spiritual Indians” is totally wrong. Only a tiny percentage is “spiritual” and somehow beyond materialism, while most people there are totally materialistic and dream of that luxurious bollywood life. By and large we are a species of greedy monkey…

    1. @Jeremy – I’d like to hear much more concerning your last sentence – perhaps?
      @Stefan – But ask yourself ‘why are we, by and large, a species of greedy monkey?’ . You already know by answer.

      1. I take it back – I’d rather say we became a global society of greedy monkeys. Nature or nurture. The hallmark of the wolf is not that he is a predator – it is that he is a cooperative predator. Same with the naked ape: we survived all these millenia because we mainly are a cooperative species. The type of modern individualistic “I want it all – and I want it now” competition strikes me more as a very recent western cultural trait. If I look at my very own personal development, it feels immature – an expression of insecurity. The older I got the calmer I became – and material wishes all but vanished. Also competitiveness – wanting to be better than others vs. trying to be the best you you can possibly be.

        1. Stefan – In my opinion, people haven’t changed, but the circumstances, led by some, have enabled more of us to express more of our worst side. Those who could see the consequences of the bad side of our nature have warned of it long since. Those who think they are ‘winnng’ do not usually want to know and we are all dragged into the slipstream. We learn at different times, if at all, (and knowing and doing are clearly not the same). We require maturity and courage, so, what hope of a sufficient reversal to save humanity? Meanwhile, we (by degrees), continue to search for more energy/power from the earth and over our fellow man, and follow our desire for more still.

  2. The main question in your post was ‘Do we measure our success by what we own?’, I think that If I was asked that question I would probably say that I measure my success by my achievements, life goals, children etc etc. However I don’t think that is the whole answer. If the question had been something like ‘Do we measure our success by what we own compared to what others own?’,

    I think the result from this question would have been very different, I think that we, as a species, are basically competitive and want to be better than the other guy. For example for most people the type of car you have, as long as it does the job, is not important in itself, however if your neighbor or brother in law has a bigger, newer, more expensive car then we’ll feel less successful. This is a fairly wide generalisation and isn’t true of everyone, but it is true of most. Even if a person takes a different route and maybe gets an electric car or rides the bus or a bike they will be thinking that they are better than the people who own one of those ‘pollution machines’. Most people will deny that they think like this, and I may be entirely wrong, but in my opinion everyone measures themselves by comparing to others using a scale of some sort, whether its size or cost of car, how many bedrooms in there house, how eco friendly they are or any one of a million and one other arbitrary measures.


    1. Jim: I agree about the emotion. The car is always the best example, and yes – there can be that inferiority feeling sneaking up to you when you sit in a small run-down car and your cousin drives by, with a grin, in that Audi Q7. But where does that feeling come from? Is it our nature or is it lifelong conditioning by schoolmates, friends, family, TV commercials… ? To be honest: when I sit in my lpg powered Fiat Panda it is ME who feels superior, because I decided to drive it – to cut down costs, to reduce our emissions, to make finding parking space in the city easier. Perhaps when certain emotions befall us the question really is not whether that is our nature, but how we respond to them. What makes us human, above anything else, is our ability to reflect upon ourselves. At least in principle. And I find it quite amazing that all religions and spiritual traditions in the one way or the other teach and preach to “let go”, to overcome fear, greed and selfishness. Basically to grow up, I presume – perhaps grow up as a species. There probably is nothing wrong with playful competition, but competition as a lifestyle – or the idea that we are a competitive species – isn’t right. As far as I can tell from the anthropological literature I read there isn’t a strong case for that idea.

  3. Yes, I think we can’t help but take cues from others. That’s the foundation of our behaviour, learning right and wrong, what is normal and expected from us. It’s not surprising that ‘stuff’ is part of that.

    Where it’s more difficult is when those material comparisons become more important than the social comparisons, or when that natural and playful competitiveness is manipulated for profit. It’s not wrong to compare ourselves to others. It’s probably necessary. But basing an economy on the idea of competitive individualism is deeply antisocial and short-sighted.

  4. And Dichasium, to say more on my last sentence. The graph has made me think differently about materialism because I tend to think that it’s overconsuming Western societies that are overly materialist. But it’s more complicated than that, and the consumerist mindset manifests itself in different ways in developing countries.

    1. Absolutely! Temptation has many faces and many places. We don’t win it by succumbing to it, wherever and however it arises. But we still try! (not forgetting those who appear to have mastered it).

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