Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

To fetishise an object is to deify it, i.e to give objects supernatural forces, which are foreign to human nature.

explanatory context

In Marx's analysis of capitalism he referred to the fetishism of commodities as a device to point to the alienation of people from their products and the pseudo-supernatural attributes afforded commodities as something over and above their usefulness that is endemic to the capitalist system.


Subsequently, fetishism has been a term used to indicate the attribution of properties to objects/relations that transcend their 'real' attributes.


In psychology fetishism refers to an obsessive fascination. Fetishism has also been used in a particular sense in psychoanalysis to refer to the subject's unconscious disavowel of the threat of castration by idealising the source of the threat.


In film studies the term is used by feminist film analysts in this psychoanalytic sense as a concept in the analysis of cinematic representations of women.

analytical review

Psychology Today (2005) stated:

The term "fetishism" was coined in the late 1800s. It originates from the Portuguese word feitico, which means "obsessive fascination". There is a degree of fetishistic arousal in most normal individuals who find particular bodily features attractive. However, fetishistic arousal is generally considered a problem when it interferes with normal sexual or social functioning and where sexual arousal is impossible without the fetish object.

Fetishism is characterized as a disorder when there is a pathological assignment of sexual fixation, fantasies or behaviors toward an inanimate object -- frequently an item of clothing -- such as underclothing or a high-heeled shoe -- or to nongenital body parts -- such as the foot. Only through use of this object can the individual obtain sexual gratification. The fetishist usually holds, rubs or smells the fetish object for sexual gratification or asks their partner to wear the object during sexual encounters. Fetishism is a more common occurrence in males, and the causes are not clearly known. Fetishism falls under the general category of paraphilias, abnormal or unnatural sexual attractions....


On commodity fetishism, Felluga (2011) has this to say:

Marx turns to fetishism to make sense of the apparently magical quality of the commodity: "A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx, 1990, p. 163). Fetishism in anthropology refers to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things (e.g., in totems). Marx borrows this concept to make sense of what he terms "commodity fetishism." As Marx explains, the commodity remains simple as long as it is tied to its use-value. When a piece of wood is turned into a table through human labor, its use-value is clear and, as product, the table remains tied to its material use. However, as soon as the table "emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness" (163). The connection to the actual hands of the laborer is severed as soon as the table is connected to money as the universal equivalent for exchange. People in a capitalist society thus begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labor expended to produce the object. As Marx explains, "The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things" (164-65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes "the fantastic form of a relation between things" (165).

This effect is caused by the fact that, in a capitalist society, the real producers of commodities remain largely invisible. We only approach their products "through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products" (165). We access the products of the proletariat through the exchange of money with those institutions that glean profit from the labor of the proletariat. Since we only ever relate to those products through the exchange of money, we forget the "secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities" (168); that is labor: "It is... precisely this finished form of the world of commodities—the money form—which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly" (168-69). In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become "the direct incarnation of all human labor" (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, "Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action" (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines fetishism as:

Obsessive attachment or sexual desire directed toward an object.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'etishism of commodities' as:

The tendency in capitalism for commodities to take on an independent, almost mystical external reality. (Marx)

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2.4 Case Study: Marx


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Felluga, D. "Modules on Marx: On Fetishism." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, last update 31 January 2011, Purdue Univeristy, available at, accessed 28 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

Marx, K., 1990, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York, Penguin.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

Psychology Today, 2005, Diagnosis Dictionary: Fetishism, last reviewed 24 October 2005, available at, accessed 28 February 2013, still available 20 December 2016.

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