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Conforming to Mass Culture in America

In: Social Issues

Submitted By long
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Americans like to imagine themselves as unique individuals unlike anyone else and that we all possess specific characteristics that distinguish us from the pack. However, despite our illusions, the majority of human beings conform to some set of societal rules most of the time. We drive on the right side of the road; children attend school and adults work; these are examples of conformity for obvious reasons; society is based on rules that keep our society functioning, if there were no rules then our entire structure would break down. The question of this thesis is to investigate why individuals give in to less important reasons to conform. Why do a group of teenagers prefer to wear one brand of clothing over another, why do teenagers judge others for their choice of clothes, electronics, and hairstyles? Why do adults feel the need to live in certain areas over others, why do they find fulfillment in the type of car they drive?
For decades, advertisers have portrayed a happy and successful lifestyle by using images of consumption. We are told that to measure our success in life we must use status symbols of designer clothes, cars, jewelry and our choice of neighborhoods and homes. Americans have been seduced into the belief that without designer labels and expensive electronics, our lives are not complete and that we are not truly fulfilled. Through advertising, consumers are persuaded to base purchases not on need or want but as a way to show others that they are happy, healthy, and successful and to show their prestige.
People want others to acknowledge their prestige (Henslin 2010) and conformity is the tendency of an individual to change their thinking and behavior to the social norms to garner respect. The most apparent effect of conformity is shown in fashion and style. I wonder about whether the majority of our population likes the clothes they wear because they actually like them, and not just because everybody else is wearing them. I find it hard to believe that anyone would just have to own clothing that spells “Juicy” across their backside. We live in the age where all across the country people are eating the exact same Big Mac's, and shopping at the same Abercrombie & Fitch. The unique and independently owned businesses have been replaced by chain stores appearing in every city of every state. Blocks of identical houses line up in rows. Gap and Old Navy are mass-producing more copies than all the genetic engineers and at a speed copy machines could only dream of reaching. The pressure to conform is inevitable and hard to fight.
The most persuasive form of conformity in the American culture is advertising. Through this medium companies can offer willing consumers the means to finding happiness. There are a number of proven ways to persuade the consumer that he or she needs the product being advertised. These methods of persuasion, instead of concentrating on the actual product, usually concentrate on the benefits that will be brought to the consumer. These benefits may include the hope of more money and better jobs, popularity and personal prestige, praise from others, more comfort, social advancement, improved appearance, or better health. For example, an automobile advertisement would most likely focus on the excitement, prestige and social advancement it may bring the buyer, while mentioning the mechanical attributes of the car as a mere afterthought. This social advancement very often involves attraction of the opposite sex, so the car advertisement may also mention the glamorous women or women that the consumer will attract with the purchase of the fancy car. Advertising has been blamed for a great variety of negative social impacts. One of the major criticisms received by advertising is that it forces people to buy things they don't really need, often by projecting negative emotions such as fear, anxiety or guilt upon the consumer.
Material possessions are at the core of people's perception of status. The more cars you have, the bigger your house TV, etc. the higher you’re standing in the community. Societies always tend to value wealth and power, and for our society, material possessions are a huge symbol of this. Many get caught up in the rat race to always have more, to be more, and find, at the end, they are left unfulfilled. Material possessions are superficial indicators of success, but they can't guarantee happiness. Consumerism has been a historical constant; the significant difference now is the scale upon which we are able to consume, and that consumption is based on want and not on need.
Consumerism might stem from the cultural identity of the United States. We've all heard the maxim "Keeping up with the Jones" and in a capitalist society, consumption is a normative good. Materialism has become the prevalent trend in our society and Americans have a constant, growing fixation on earning more money and owning material goods. Based on that, you would think everyone should be happier today than in the past. Shouldn’t they be? Yet, if you probe deep into our desires toward material possessions; you will find we have come to hold many illusionary beliefs about these possessions. We look upon them as bridges to our idealized lives, helping to increase our happiness, to improve our satisfaction of life, to increase our self-esteem, to boost our confidence, to make us feel more worthy. We see material goods as tools that will help us improve our quality and experience of life. It seems our problems will no longer be around or will be reduced considerably if we are to have these material possessions. Material possessions have evolved into our holy grail and represent symbols of hope, happiness and joy. However, these symbols are no more than just artificial creations by people.
People are bombarded everyday with millions of advertisements, endorsements, and product suggestions. All of these efforts attempt to convince the individual to buy a particular product because it will bring some satisfaction to their life. But buying products is not the solution and only adds to feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth. You cannot measure your true worth by what you own because possessions do not convey your true self. The only true way to measure your own self-worth is by looking deep into your soul and finding out what kind of person you are beyond the car you drive or the clothes you wear.
Our particular society does label some types of conformity as abnormal in order to reinforce the cultural values and norms associated with personal freedom, independence, and being unique. Examples of the negative results of conforming include cult mass suicides, peer pressure drinking among young people, and group silence within families with dysfunction. Whether or not conformity is viewed as negative or positive is dependent on the culture is which it takes place. What cannot be argued is that conformity is effective and pervasive (Kim & Markus, 1999).
People who don't care what others think of them are usually scorned upon, most likely because it's harder to control someone when they could care less if you hate them or love them because of how they look, talk, dance, what music they listen to, etc. If you like tattoos and piercings, dye your hair black, love rock/punk/emo music. This would make you not "normal". Wouldn’t it be easier to conform if someone could give a definition of this "normal", this basis of conformity. In the world, "normal" is just a compiled list of one's prejudices. For example, some people consider the normal blonde white female to be a cheerleader, an idiot, and a slut. That is what "normal" is perceived to be for this type of individual.
When you don't live up to these "norms" of our conformity-loving society, you are scorned. Self-expression and individuality is something our country, for the most part, and a large part of our government, wish to quash. When everyone is the same, things are so much easier. Those who conform are easier to understand, to have power over, and to predict. Anyone different is feared because they do not know how to react to someone they do not understand. As a society we value conformity because it is easy.


Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch's (1952b, 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111-137.

Brewer, M. B., & Caporael, L. R. (1990). Selfish genes vs. selfish people: Sociobiology as origin myth. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 237-243.

Henslin., J. M. (2010). Chapter 10. In Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (Tenth Edition ed., Social Calss in the United States). Retrieved from Sociology_Ch10.pdf

Kim, H., & Markus, H. R. (1999, March 30). PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES. In Deviance or Uniqueness, Harmony or Conformity? A Cultural Analysis. Retrieved May 23, 2012, from San Jose University website: s1/Kim_and_Markus_1999_article.pdf

Rashotte, L. (2006, October 1). Social Influence. Retrieved May 8, 2012, from Blackwell Publishing website:

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