The relationship between social position and health has been the focus of extensive public health debate. In the UK and elsewhere, most researchers have focused on physical aspects of health, using indicators such as mortality and morbidity to draw a picture of profound and widening social inequalities. This paper draws attention to the (neglected) influence of contemporary culture on wellbeing, arguing that the social meanings created within consumer culture possess symbolic force that can add to wider inequalities. The possession of greater material and cultural resources by people of higher social status enables them to label their preferred forms of consumption and lifestyle as desirable and legitimate, thus conveying messages about superior taste and social distinction. Symbolic rather than material forms of inequality are implicated here, with consequences for the psychological wellbeing of disadvantaged people. This paper argues that analyses of inequality need broadening to include such considerations. However, there are implications for efforts to address health inequalities because this analysis suggests that if some forms of social inequality are removed, elements within society would be motivated to invent new forms to replace them. Therefore, this article suggests processes whereby people can develop the self-awareness needed to resist the glossy illusions of the good life represented by modern consumer capitalism.
- symbolic dimensions of inequality
- consumer culture
- consumption and identity
- lifestyle and social distinction