Convestment: Tension in American Consumption

I recently watched an interesting talk given by Prof. Dalton Conley, Dean of Social Sciences at New York University. In the talk Prof. Conley provided an overview of his latest book, Elsewhere USA, chronicling changes and movements in modern American society.

Evolution of the American ethic

According to Prof. Conley, modern Americans often find themselves caught in a tension between the traditional protestant ethic that helped shape their nation, and a newer social ethic that emerged mid 20th century.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the traditional protestant ethic influenced individuals to live their lives so as to appear ‘blessed on earth’. The virtues of meaningful work and thrift were extolled, and individuals were encouraged to save and invest their resources.

In contrast, the mid 20th century saw the emergence of large multi-national corporations that shaped a new social ethic emphasizing loyalty, meritocracy and bureaucracy. This created a situation of consumption conformity, where individuals attempted to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ by conforming, spending and consuming.

The tension between investment and consumption

The tension between saving and spending is one example that Prof. Conley provides to illustrate the melding together of the protestant and social ethic in America. On one hand, Americans wish to maintain the older virtues of thrift and saving, whilst at the same time they are driven to conform to social expectations by consuming and spending.

This tension has given rise to a new form of behaviour that Prof. Conley termed convestment, or the blurring of the lines between investment and consumption. For example, when Americans renovate their bathroom with high-end faucets, tiles and fixtures, they rationalize this consumption as an investment in the resale value of their homes.

I really like the concept of convestment, and the tension that it describes between protestant traditions and individual desires for consumption. It's certainly a tension we've seen reflected in our research across North America. For example, in the electronics category, this tension can lead to the purchase of products with higher-end metal casing; rationalized as an investment in longevity but really providing social prestige.

For those of you who are interested in hearing more about Prof. Conley's research and ideas, below is the full video of his talk: