Mimetic Desire as Illustrated in The Joneses

Mimetic Desire as Illustrated in The Joneses

David J. Burns (Kennesaw State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6120-0.ch004


Individuals' participation in the marketplace has exceeded all projections. As opposed to a leisure-based utopia that was predicted by many, even with most basic needs being satisfied, most individuals continue to strive to obtain more and more income to participate in the marketplace at progressively higher rates. This chapter examines this seemingly counter-intuitive reality. Specifically, this phenomenon is explored within the theories of Rene Girard, where the concept of mimetic desire is discussed and advanced as a primary motivation behind most present-day consumption. The movie, The Joneses, is the used as an avenue to illustrate the theories of Rene Girard. Several conclusions are drawn.
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In many affluent consumer-based societies today, arguably most physical needs (clothing, food, and shelter) have been met for most of their residents. This was foreseen in many predictions of future life made in the 1950s and 1960s, where the future was viewed as a time of leisure, where the workweek would be halved and much of humanity would be living in a virtual utopia freed from the requirements of employment. Has this utopia arrived? Is a leisure society where life is dominated by recreation and social activities the norm for most today? Clearly, these prognostications could not have been more wrong. In affluent societies where the physical needs of most are more than met, the amount of time spent by individuals in income-producing activities have climbed sharply (Leete & Schor, 1994; Schor, 2004). The amount of time invested in income-producing activities is even more pronounced when the rise of the dual-income household is taken in account (Schor, 1998; Yount, 1997). Indeed, time poverty resulting from spending increasing time in income-producing activities is a characteristic of affluent consumer societies (Schor, 1994).

How could the predictions have been so wrong? Interestingly, productivity has increased significantly during this time period, an increase that has been reflected in increasing incomes, particularly among upper-middle income households (Leete & Schor, 1994). The increase in income has been significant. Upper-middle class individuals who were relatively affluent sixty years ago have seen their incomes explode over the past several decades. The increase in income has not come solely as a result of an increasing per-hour pay rate, but as a result of an unprecedented increase in the number of hours worked (Schor, 2004). In other words, the leisure society has not come. Instead, even faced with sharply increasing incomes, most individuals have significantly increased the amount of time devoted to income-producing activities to produce even more income so that they can purchase more. What is the rationale of this counter-intuitive result? The purpose of this paper is to explore the underlying causes of the growth in consumer activities occurring in societies characterized by consumer cultures. First, the role of products in the construction/communication of one’s self is examined. Second, the theories of Rene Girard are reviewed. Third, the relationships between Girard’s theory and present-day consumption and marketing activities are examined. Finally, the movie, The Joneses, is used as a means to illustrate and explore the ramifications of Girard’s theory in present society.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Value: A measure of the relative worth of an item.

Referent Others: Individuals and groups who serve as models for one’s choices.

Competitive Consumption: The use of product acquisition as a way to express superiority over others.

Consumer Culture: A culture characterized by a focus on the marketplace as the central societal institution.

Mimetic Desire: Desire that is copied from the perceived desires of others.

Materialism: The belief that physical possessions are central to life and the source of happiness.

Identity: One’s assessment of who they are – their self.

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