Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen is a work of non-fiction, focused on sociological analysis of the class system. Thus it does not have "characters" in the sense that one talks about characters in a work of history, biography, or imaginative literature. It references individuals (often nameless exemplars) as examples of certain behaviors and also cites important individual thinkers who influenced Veblen's thought. Among the most salient influences on Veblen's thought were the work of Karl Marx and American Pragmatists such as Pierce and Dewey. He was influenced by German thinkers who emphasized that sociology, history, and economics should investigate aggregate human behavior and the actions and thought of groups rather than individual people or "characters." Thus rather than individual characters, Veblen focuses on groups or classes.
The insights for which The Theory of the Leisure Class are best known are its descriptions of how conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure serve to demarcate classes within the United States. Veblen points out that the higher social strata are distinguished by not doing productive work such as manufacturing or manual crafts (carpentry, plumbing, building houses) but nonetheless are disproportionately wealthy. They distinguish themselves by habits of consumption, use of leisure, and "taste".
Members of the lower classes attempting to move up the social hierarchy imitate these consumption patterns, whether of drugs and alcohol or material goods, often to the detriment of accumulating the capital actually necessary for economic mobility.
Veblen was quite radical in his argument that the role of women, and especially the conventions which relegated them to the home, were grounded in conspicuous consumption rather than any rational system and identified gender inequality and patriarchy as part of a class system that used symbols of conspicuous consumption to limit social mobility.
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