Are materialists evil?

March 13, 2018

Prof. Bodo B. Schlegelmilch about the negative image of materialism

Materialism has a negative image, but undeservedly so, says Prof. Bodo B. Schlegelmilch, Founding Dean of the WU Executive Academy and Head of WU Vienna's Institute for International Marketing Management.

A recent research project in Asia that he carried out in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Manchester and Lancaster University shows that there is such a thing as collective-oriented materialism.

Conventional wisdom has it that materialists are always after personal gain, money and expensive things. Being materialistic is seen as something negative. It is claimed that those who are put material possessions over values such as the common good or consideration. But does this image of materialists and materialism reflect reality? Bodo B. Schlegelmilch calls for a new way of thinking—in view of the findings of a study that he carried out in Asia together with Sandra Awanis, Lancaster University, and Charles Chi Cui, University of Manchester.

Picture of a asian shopping street
Materialism can have a different image in different culutres. Photo © CC0 Licence

Collectivist culture and materialism—as compatible as oil and water?

“Especially in the USA and in Western Europe, materialism tends to be associated with self-oriented, egocentric individuals who care for possession but not for people,” says Schlegelmilch. However, according to the study, this is a simplistic view. The findings show that in Asian countries such as China the acquisition of goods also serves the purpose of ensuring that one’s family and friends enjoy a certain status—and this is particularly true with regard to luxury items. People buy them not just for their own benefit but also for the benefit of a group—e.g. their families. In other words, there is a collectivist culture on the one hand, and a materialism characterized by the overt display of expensive brand products on the other. How do the two go together?

The answer: In the West, materialism and collective values are considered to be incompatible. In the East, by contrast, materialism is part and parcel of a collectivist culture. “The materialists do something for the environments they live in; they care for those around them,” explains Schlegelmilch.

A differentiated view of materialism: Looking for relevance vs. status

The question is whether it makes sense at all to think of materialism simply in terms of attributes such as good or evil. Schlegelmilch believes a more differentiated view is needed: “Not everyone who has a tendency towards materialism is per se evil.” The study also shows that, in general, materialists are looking for relevance rather than status. For instance, they use environmentally friendly products like electric cars because they are eager to demonstrate altruism in public and want to shine a favorable light on themselves and others, e.g. their families.

Collective values make all the difference

How can increasingly materialistic societies be encouraged to focus on the big societal picture rather than, say, give themselves over to squandering? The researchers have found that collective values are key in this context: Asian societies stress the importance of values concerning interpersonal relationships, e.g. family responsibilities. Western societies, by contrast, tend to focus on abstract and spiritual values such as equality or justice.

Portrait Bodo B. Schlegelmilch

Prof. Bodo B. Schlegelmilch

  • Founding Dean of the WU Executive Academy

What does this mean in real-world terms? One could, for instance, try to mobilize a society's materialistic tendencies through advertising in such a way as to make people support social causes like refugee-assistance projects, to give you a current example. In other words, social identity is created by means of consumption, which, ultimately, everybody will benefit from.

In an entirely “un-materialistic” fashion, the complete study is available for download from the Journal of International Business Studies absolutely free of charge here.

Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility are important issues that are also addressed in our MBA programs. For more informatione click here.

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