"The myth of unending consumption has taken the place of the belief in life everlasting."
-Ivan Illich

Much of what we know of the social world is understood through metaphor. Reality, the cultural logic by which meaning is derived from the symbols and behaviors of social actors, is the specific metaphorical template of a given social group conditioning its members' anticipations and hence experiences (Ornstein, 1977).  In part, the "sociological imagination" (Mills, 1959) involves the method of suspending these metaphorical perspectives routinely applied in everyday life and exercising another orientation in their place,  ideally to reveal the intersections between biographical experiences and historical social processes, between personal motivations and social structural dynamics.  As opposed to the sociology of the unusual or the counter-intuitive, our approach here is to enlighten the mundane.

To be developed is one commonplace ritual of Americans, consumption, and how the increasing personal significance of this ritual has historically culminated in a new architectural space that symbolically dramatizes its new meaning. Specifically, our argument is that the growth of the materialist ethos has changed the metaphor for the shopping place from the bazaar to the temple. Our intent is to impart a new frame of reference for those who will experience this action setting as well as to demonstrate the need for reconceptualizing the sacred.

The Profanization of Work and the Spirit of Consumption

Until the onset of industrialization, work was imbued with the quality of the sacred as religious immanence was still invested within everyday life.  Max Weber theorized on this wedding of the two worlds, with religion providing the necessary restraints and opportunities for experiences of transcendence through one's work. Yet with the obsolescence of craftsmanship, the loss of individual control over the totality of production, and the forces of secularization, transcendence became diffused and no longer possible through work experiences.1

Further, the efficiencies accrued through the economies of scale and assembly-line divisions of labor produced increasing amounts of goods requiring even greater markets.  Meanwhile, the American worker benefitted with increased discretionary income and ability to purchase non-essentials.  Daniel Bell notes that "from the 1920s modern corporate capitalism, being geared to mass production and mass consumption, has promoted a hedonism that has undercut the very Protestant ethic which was the initial motivation or legitimation for individuals in bourgeois society" (1980:xv). This change in attitude encompassed major political, intellectual and social adjustments as well as the more obvious economic realignments:

What men and women had once hoped to inherit from their parents, they now expected to buy for themselves. What were once bought at the dictate of need, were now bought at the dictate of fashion. What were once bought for life, might now be bought several times over. What were once available only on high days and holidays through the agency of markets, fairs and itinerant peddlers were increasingly made available every day but Sunday ..." (McKendrick et al., 1982:1)

The "keep up with the Joneses" ethic was to become amplified in an other-directed, competitive cultural context and moves the glut of goods generated (Packard, 1960).  Internal work satisfactions remain generally limited to the professional elite2 while the common, extrinsically-motivated workers focus solely upon the consumptive opportunities afforded by their labor.  For many individuals, life became a series of choices of theoretically insatiable consumptive specialties.3 The French "concept of civilisation provided an authoritative guide for the consumer--in an age when only a small fraction of the population were consumers in the sense of enjoying discretionary spending--by positing a humanistic ideal capable of giving consumption a meaning and purpose.  In the nineteenth century, however, this humanistic ideal of civilisation tended to evaporate, leaving behind a residue of material possessions which by themselves claimed prestige for their owners" (Williams, 1982:9).  And it was this ethos that allowed retailing and advertising to become the twin pillars of modern consumer life,  promoting a division of labor capable of absorbing all levels of the status hierarchy (by 1991, an estimated 1 in 11 Americans worked in a shopping center or mall).  Further, since the second world war, this American middle class ritual of consumption has increased both in intensity and meaning, coming to be housed in a new architectural space that symbolically dramatizes this new meaning.  It was the emergence of mass consumption that catalyzed the transference of the sacred from the cathedral to the modern shopping mall.

The Sacred Aspects of Consumption

The traditional sociological approaches toward consumer behavior have focused either on the anomic (Durkheim), imitative, attention- (Veblen) or status-seeking (Packard), or fetishistic (Marx) motivations of individuals,  or on the macro forces of capitalist development.  Reading Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, one can interpret religion as a constraint upon consumptive excesses.  How can it be argued that consumption of material goods has taken on near-sacred values?

Durkheim defined the sacred as a collective representation and a social symbol. This definition encompasses a broad range of matters which could feasibly be vested with sacredness upon collective consent. For him, religion involves the reaffirmation of publicly standardized ideas, providing social solidarity and linking the individual to the broader social order. The sacred becomes a concrete expression embodying the power of society itself; it is external to the individual, an object of deference, and has the coercive power to organize and influence life.

Luckmann (1967) attempted to tap some of this stray religiosity with his concept of "invisible religions." He argued that a great variety of invisible forms of religion existed in society, expressed even in such things as industrial norms. Yinger further broadened the concept of religion by defining it as a system of beliefs and practices by which people cope with ultimate concerns --concerns which are collectively shared (such as the meaning and purpose of life and death, evil and injustice) and made interpretable by an interpretative scheme which religion reinforces through organized rituals and ceremony. And finally, Machalek and Martin (1976) discovered people's ultimate concerns are not always existential in nature, but often can be spontaneous, episodic, and possibly even founded in the materialistic aspects of life.

But can the consumptive spirit of contemporary American society be seen as part of the sacred ethos? In her analysis of the origins of mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France, Rosalind Williams (1982)  developed one of the Latin sources of the word "consumption" in Romance languages, consummare, which is from cum summa, "to make the sum" or "to sum up":

The Latin translation of Jesus' last words on the cross is "Consummatum est." The usual English translation of his cry ("It is finished") implies only termination and fails to convey the meaning of a life summed up and perfected in the moment of death. (1982:6).

When one thinks about it, it is within the mall that the consumer experiences that Durkheimian sense of feeling connected with the broader social orders.  Malls have all the attributes of traditional town centers and have become one of the most effective forums for reaching people. They are one of the few places where one even sees one's fellow community members. And, considering the spectrum of international product lines, the mall is one of the few places where one comes in direct contact with the world system. It is also within the mall that we find dramatized the classificatory solidarity of a society where all social relations are understood as market transactions and where sacredness has been transferred to the individual (see Douglas, 1986). Store franchises and common product lines provide the unifying theme linking regions, age groups and social classes of this country together. And it is with the individual's ability to partake of these collective representations (to purchase clothing at a Saks Fifth Avenue as opposed to a Sears, for instance) that the extrinsically-motivated worker sums up the meaning of one's labors and gauges one's worthiness (which is now a matter of consumptive potential as opposed to any moral consensus) in the contemporary social order.

Applying the Temple Metaphor to Malls

Throughout America huge edifices have appeared, dedicated to the consumptive ethos that binds the social order and concentrating this meaning into complexes that dominate the urban geography (by the late 1990s, shopping centers took up an estimated 21.5 square feet per capita in the U.S.). These shopping centers, nonexistent until the 1950s, now account for about one half the  annual retail sales of general merchandise and clothing in the United States (Jacobs, 1984).  Dying cities have become malled over in an attempt to resurrect them and to compete with the suburban shopping centers.

Saturdays have become the true holy day, parking lots being filled with shoppers before noon. Whereas it used to be said that the family that prays together stays together, nowadays it is the family that pays together stays together (and have you noticed the new catechism of recent holidays: "Shop like you mean it"?).  As is the case with different religious denominations, the malls are stratified by the social class catered to; the "lower" denominational mall features J.C. Penney's and Woolworth's, the "upper" Sakowitz and Neiman-Marcus. Each is a reflection of its membership composition and is maintained by its congregation's attendance. The need for the individual to be in the mall consistent with his social and economic status becomes obvious when the individual is coolly received, is constantly monitored by others, or is snubbed when shopping in an establishment incongruent with his social status. As the upwardly mobile Baptists become Episcopalians, so, too, do they change their mall affiliations. Upon entry, one is immediately struck by the immensity of the mall structure. The sense of vast, open, larger than life space that one receives within both cathedrals and malls induces the sense of awe, wealth and power. Some of the over 22,750 shopping centers in the U.S. exceed one million square feet of gross leasable area (Jacobs, 1984:1).  If not used for lease space, the central public spaces often house community fairs and seasonal exhibits, wherein members of the same geographical territory are attracted to look over one another and share in common activity. The larger malls feature an assortment of flora, often with waterfalls and other selected aspects of the natural order. The semeiology of housing nature under huge glass arches undoubtedly has deep significance in terms of urbanism's immunity to the natural rhythms that governed social life for a majority of human history. As in the religious cathedrals of the past, one receives the sense of unseen force or person being in control, of some greater divine, master plan. Not only is one instilled with a sense of space, but a sense of time as well. There are seasonal observances as well as observances of man-made temporalities: Back-to-school, Christmas, After Christmas sales, and the Easter-Spring renewals of wardrobes. In addition, the mall attempts to capture some facet of sacred time as well: transcendence is, for instance, attempted through the burial of time capsules, sealed with the minutiae of everyday life from an earlier point in time. 4 In one 25-year-old capsule recently opened in a San Antonio mall there were such things as daily newspapers, tapes of the local news, and photographs of the city.

In one study, it was concluded that the essence of the mall is control (Kowinski, 1984).  Higher status malls--for instance, those housing a Marshall Fields and Saks as opposed to a J.C. Penneys or a Sears-- nearly require respectable presentations of self: people normally don't appear with dirt on their hands, grease on their clothes, nor curlers in their hair. (So profound is this demand for conformity that attention- seeking adolescents will defy dress codes in order to receive the recognition they lack in the broader society by becoming "mallies.") This control extends to the maintenance of the purity of the rituals to be performed. "Casual shoppers" are sinners of a sort and are often the last to be attended to by the temple's high priests, the sales attendant.  Restrooms are nearly invisible in malls and cathedrals as they detract from the symbolic messages being communicated.

To further guarantee the purity of the shopping ritual within these vast settings, strict separations of secular consumerism from politics and other civic activities have been made. Attorneys for a suburb mall west of Hartford battled for two years to keep out the National Organization of Women. Other groups similarly attempted to take advantage of any breach of purity in the consuming rituals yet these groups, including the KKK, have been likewise unable to penetrate the policies of political restriction within the mall. During the 1984 Christmas season, Salvation Army bell ringers were either muffled or banned from some shopping centers because merchants and managers complained that the clanging disrupted business. In Pittsburgh, Jeanne Williams, a Salvation Army spokesperson, said the group's collectors had been banned from half a dozen malls.  At one of them, she said, only one collector with a kettle was allowed to stand outside a single general entrance and wave a bell with no clapper (New York Times, 1984).  To legally reaffirm the ritual purity of malls' consumptive function, in 1985 the New York Court of Appeals held that the shopping center was not the functional equivalent of the Main Street of yesteryear, where people have the constitutional right to disseminate their views (Margolick, 1985).

Thus, unlike the bazaar, the mall is neither a public place nor a free market (Kowinski, 1984).  As the most sacred of temples are lined with crutches of believers therein healed,  nowadays cardiovascular physicians send their bypass patients to the mall for exercise because of its climate-controlled environment and its stimulating character.5

The temple was also a site for meditation and insight. With secularization in the United States, the voice of God is now revealed in public opinion polls. Instead of going to the Oracle of Delphi, the mall consumers become the source of wisdom. Mall intercepts routinely interview individuals fitting demographic prerequisites to evaluate shopper awareness of product lines as well as to tap their attitudes toward a host of issues; the mall provides researchers with a ready-made sample offering itself to the interviewers as part of the shopping day. And depending upon the sample needed, a mall may house a near-perfect cross-section of Americans.

And finally there is the actual ritual of consumption. A temple priest approaches those showing interest in the products of the establishment and asks "May I help you?" His or her job is to help the consumer select from a seemingly infinite array of options the particular item(s) that will bring the greatest amount of satisfaction for the percentage of his/her present and future earnings. Having waited in line to conduct the formal exchange, the individual slowly arrives at the front of the queue. Most now carry insufficient currency and must use a more indirect symbol of his/her desire to partake: either a credit card or check. This symbol of consumptive potential requires a test of good faith; an investigation is made to insure that one has not sinned, that is, over-extended the returns gained from one's labor by broaching the credit limit.

As opposed to the bazaars of the past, the contemporary shopping mall features not only greater control over its inhabitants, but it is, to a large extent, standardized in terms of layout and in terms of stores. For a Californian entering a Kansas City mall there is instant familiarity, an experience not unlike that of the pilgrim entering an unknown cathedral in Europe: for both, there is the sensation "I've been here before." The Notre Dames of the American landscape are but variations of Houston's Galleria, which, itself, is but an elaboration of Chicago's Marshall Fields edifice of the late nineteenth century (perhaps Minnesota's Mall of America has become the new American Mecca).  Secondly, the vast, cathedral-like enclosures of malls are intentionally divorced from the profane, everyday, outside world (in this sense, the contemporary bazaars are the flea markets). The space is designed to instill a sense of awe toward the primary cultural value system, dramatizing the materialist order, completely channeling one's attention towards the total mall experience. It is only in the malls where there are the representations of ideal people - the secular icons, if you will - who  are presented as mannikins, forever being young, beautiful, slim, and never out-of-date in appearance. Instead of burying the remains of the Saints under the cathedral's floors, the saints are now often remembered in the names of the establishments they founded or in the product lines they began.6


"If you think the United States has stood still, who built the largest shopping center in the world?"
-Richard Nixon

As we stated in the beginning, our attempt is to apply a metaphoric perspective that is different from that used in everyday life and thereby reveal new insights into the relationships between biography and history, between personal motives and broad socio-cultural dynamics. Not just any randomly-selected metaphor, any interpretative template, will do, however. This point is what separates the efforts of ethnomethodologists from the methodology of Candid Camera: One must pick a single underlying theme implicit within the setting and then generalize it to the whole. In this way, one can see more clearly the symbolic significance of ritualized behavior.

We selected the theme of the sacred as it seemed apparent to us that material consumption now satisfies higher-order needs on Maslow's need hierarchy not typically satisfied in the work place. For many Americans, work has lost its transcendent and spiritual qualities and has become the means to achieve other ends. These other ends have been socially shaped--by mass marketing, mass advertising, and mass creation of artificial needs--to involve the purchasing of goods produced by a mass production economy. One's labors, then, culminate in one's consumptive potential. And when consuming within these huge edifices (designed purely for this explicit function) one becomes integrated with one's fellow community members of similar social class, as well as being integrated with others across space--the national and world system are represented in the product line (such as the "Made in Japan" or the "Made in Denmark" labels)--and across time--time capsules link us with past and future generations as do antiques. No doubt for many, the pushing of this mall-as-temple metaphor to its logical limits comes up short in its ability to capture the experience of the sacred. We come to an interesting juncture. The first deduction is that the metaphor is totally inappropriate, that mall activities are strictly secular and mundane. For instance, the vastness of the mall structure instills not a sense of awe and of some divine master plan, but rather a sense of bewilderment and disorientation. Instead of imparting the feelings of interconnectedness with the broader social order, malls are generally characterized by impersonal, secondary relationships which promote feelings of alienation and personal insignificance.

A second conclusion is that the exercise revealed our lack of understanding about something that which we thought we knew--namely, the sacred. The feeling of some sacred-type awe--of something literally extraordinary, baffling, overwhelming, and radically distinct from everyday life as experienced by a medieval peasant when entering the great cathedrals--simply no longer exists. What awe is even possible when the profane world features vistas of earth from the moon, the creation of new forms of life by biotechnology, the medical resurrections of the clinically dead, and the ability to record on celluloid the images and words of our ancestors? Perhaps any contemporary experience of this traditional sacredness is, in actuality, a nostalgic emotion.

A third inference is that the mall captures some novel mutation of the sacred, a type of sacredness engendered in secular, materialistic, individualistic, Gesellschaft, organic solidarities. In other words, the "sacred" as demarcated by Durkheim and his intellectual heirs applies only to an earlier form of social order, one based on more religious, spiritual, and collectivistic values and upon mechanical solidarities. As Mary Douglas observed, in primitive societies where there's no dependence on the exchange of differentiated services and products,

individuals come to think alike by internalizing their ideas of the social order and sacralizing it. The character of the sacred is to be dangerous and endangered, calling every good citizen to defend its bastions. The shared symbolic universe and the classifications of nature embody the principles of authority and coordination.

...However, an advanced division of labor destroys this harmony between morality, society, and the physical world and replaces it with solidarity dependent on the workings of the market. Durkheim did not think that solidarity based on sacred symbolism is possible for industrial society. In modern times sacredness has been transferred to the individual (1986:13).

But here we think such sacred symbolism does exist, albeit in a modified, perhaps vulgarized, form. The rituals of Compulsive Consumerism can be seen as a sign that the individual is a member of the elect and that he or she is, indeed, performing a meaningful part of the contemporary organic solidarity that binds not only individuals, but nations together.

Certainly there exists some hierarchy of consumptive acts in terms of its meaning to the individual: to buy underwear is certainly different than purchasing some expensive piece of electronics that one spent years saving for. The later may, indeed, have ecstasy but without the religious component to it. It is, though, the realization of one's own efforts and one's own values. It is the net result of, the meaning given to, an episodic punctuation to the sum of one's suffering and boredom. The religious impulse set in a traditional society that gained expression in the sacred context has nowadays become secularized.


Douglas, Mary. 1986. How Institutions Think. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1947. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press.

Jacobs, Jerry. 1984. The Mall: An Attempted Escape from Everyday Life. Prospect Heights, Ill.: The Waveland Press.

Kowinski, William. 1984. The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise. New York: William Morrow Co.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The Invisible Religions. London: Macmillan.

Machalek, Richard and Mike Martin. 1976. "`Invisible' Religions: Some Preliminary Evidence." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15: 311-21.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb. 1982. The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Margolick, David. 1985. "New York Court Lets Malls Limit Pamphleteering." The New York Times (Dec. 20):1,18.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

New York Times. 1984. "Some Malls Ban Salvation Army or Its Bells." (Dec. 14):13.

Ornstein, Robert. 1977. The Psychology of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Packard, Vance. 1960. The Waste Makers. New York: McKay.

Schmemann, Serge. 1985. "Queues in Soviet Persist As Scourge of Daily Life." New York Times (Feb. 6):6.

Williams, Rosalind. 1982. The Dream Makers: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yinger, Milton. 1957. Religion, Society and the Individual. New York: Macmillan.


1. The quality of labor in post-industrial economies has generally become a form of informational exchanges of bureaucratic messages, activities that hardly capture the sense of cosmic participation as when it rains upon one's just-planted crops. Rarely is even the experience of transcendence possible through one's work, as craftsmanship is obsolete and most products are assemblages of the efforts of many. RETURN

2.The professional elite have their own status games of conspicuous consumption (Veblen).  RETURN

3. With affluence and the pill, people now make basic choices as to what their consumptive specialties will be. And unlimited spending is theoretically possible for each: homes, children, drug habits, collections (stamps, jewelry, Stuben glassware), etc. Certainly part of the public fascination with the wealthy is how they choose to consume non-essentials. The mass media observed the 50th anniversary of the dead Elvis Presley by viewing his life's acquisitions at Graceland.  RETURN

4. The ritual of burying the past in time capsules and the like ironically serves to legitimate our culture's future time orientation in the fact that even 25-years ago people--in this context of fashion and planned obsolescence--were interested in communicating with those of the present so what must be the present's future-time orientation? RETURN

5. One San Antonio mall actually provides a lane, demarcated by tape, for measuring one's walking distance. There are places along the route where one can test blood pressure and learn about factors contributing to good health. Clinics are also relocating within the malls to increase their clientele. RETURN

6. The appropriateness of mall space for religious purposes was illustrated in San Antonio in the late 1980s when what formerly was the Texas Outlet Mall became the new headquarters for the Alamo City Baptist Church. RETURN

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