Functional Analysis

When Veblen describes the various manifestations of the pattern of con-spicuous consumption, he is always at pains to ferret out their latent functions.Manifestly, candles are meant to provide light and automobiles are means oftransportation. But under the pecuniary scheme they serve the latent functionof indicating and enhancing status. Candle light at dinner indicates that thehost makes claims to a style of gracious living that is peculiar to the upperclass; one drives a Cadillac to indicate that he belongs to a stratum superiorto that of Chevrolet owners; one serves caviar to symbolize a refinement ofthe palate that is the mark of a gentleman. Patterns of consumption, and pat-terns of conduct generally, must never be explained in terms of manifest func-tions alone but must be seen as having the latent function of enhancingstatus. In some cases, indeed, no manifest function may be served at all andthe pattern can be explained only by status enhancement. The Chinese man-darin, when asked why he cultivates long fingernails, might answer that "thisis the custom"; the analyst, however, will conclude that the man who cultivateslong fingernails cannot possibly work with his hands and must thereforeoccupy an honorific position.

One last example will suffice. When Veblen spoke of the prevalenceamong journeyman printers of dram-drinking, "treating," and smoking inpublic places, a pattern apparently quite marked in his day, he gave a func-tional explanation in terms of the conditions of life of such men. The membersof this occupation, he explained, have a higher rate of geographic and em-ployment mobility than most others. As a consequence, "these men are con-stantly thrown in contact with new groups of acquaintances, with whom therelations established are transient or ephemeral, but whose good opinion isvalued none the less for the time being." Hence, a journeyman's ability toconsume in an ostentatious manner in company and to treat his fellows maybe conceived as serving to establish quick contact and to enhance his status intheir eyes. The capacity to "give" to others elicits deference and admiration ina transient environment where other symbolizations of status, such as highstanding in the residential neighborhood, are not available.

From Coser, 1977:271-272.

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