v. Functional Analysis

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

One last example will suffice. When Veblen spoke of the prevalence among journeyman printers of dram-drinking, "treating," and smoking in public places, a pattern apparently quite marked in his day, he gave a functional explanation in terms of the conditions of life of such men. The members of this occupation, he explained, have a higher rate of geographic and employment mobility than most others. As a consequence, "these men are constantly thrown in contact with new groups of acquaintances, with whom the relations established are transient or ephemeral, but whose good opinion is valued none the less for the time being." Hence, a journeyman's ability to consume in an ostentatious manner in company and to treat his fellows may be conceived as serving to establish quick contact and to enhance his status in their eyes. The capacity to "give" to others elicits deference and admiration in a transient environment where other symbolizations of status, such as high standing in the residential neighborhood, are not available.

Coser, 1977: pp. 271-272.

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