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Teaching about consumption is one of the primary ways we “do” a sociology of consumers and consumption. In this blog post, Charlotte Glennie describes an assignment that has students making changes in their own consumption habits and reflecting on the many sociological factors that affect people’s abilities to implement such changes – and their wider social impacts.

– Laura Miller, section chair

Consume This! Teaching about Consumption with Autoethnography

By Charlotte Glennie

Consumption is one of the most accessible entry points for many sociological topics, such as stratification, the sociology of culture, and environmental sociology. In my research on urban agriculture and food justice, consumption plays a clear role in motivating people’s everyday behavior as well as their involvement in organizations and movements. Because it connects to so much in social life, consumption can provide a powerful basis for student engagement—for Introductory Sociology, as Johnston, Cairns and Baumann’s (2017) textbook demonstrates, and also for sociology courses on specific topics.

When I teach Environmental Sociology, I encourage students to engage with the persistent tension between individual-consumerist and social-structural strategies for bringing about sustainability. In this regard, autoethnography works well to connect students’ own lives to the theoretical concepts and broader research findings they are learning about. After surveying major environmental problems and their social causes, students in my Environmental Sociology course choose a lifestyle change to implement for two weeks; they are tasked with taking notes during the experience and then analyzing how feasible and effective this change might be as a strategy to reduce environmental damage, if implemented at a large scale. 

Dietary changes: resource use for different foods
Photo credit: World Resources Institute, https://www.wri.org/research/shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

Students can choose any type of lifestyle change; almost all involve ethical consumption. I emphasize that their grade is based on the quality of their description and analysis rather than whether they succeed or fail in maintaining their change for two weeks. Results from three of the most common lifestyle changes selected—dietary changes, waste reduction, and alternative transportation—provide a window into the value of this assignment for exploring how social aspects of consumption relate to environmental impacts.

When adopting a more ecologically conscious diet, students often describe health benefits and improved energy; at the same time, they report experiencing the most direct social resistance to their lifestyle change. Friends and family who are used to sharing meals with these students sometimes express skepticism about the impact that the change will really have on the environment, unwillingness or frustration over the need to accommodate their dietary change, and even occasional derision about the change itself. 

The relatively strong social resistance that students often face when they make a dietary change seems indicative of how much our identities and culture are bound up in the consumption of food, as Johnston, Szabo and Rodney (2011) have shown. Some students have described the difficulty of missing out on favorite dishes that were prepared at family gatherings during their trial period. Conversely, a few students have also reported building a deeper connection to their culture as they learned to make family recipes that accommodated their lifestyle change.

Students who attempt a plastic-free or zero waste lifestyle frequently express a profound new awareness of how ubiquitous plastic is in our lives, in particular the volume of packaging associated with typical consumption habits. They also tend to report much more positive affirmation from others.

One student captures this well:

“I went out to eat at a restaurant with family members twice within the two weeks of the change. I brought a food container with me because I normally am not able to finish all of my food. I felt somewhat nervous taking out a container from my purse, since I have never seen another individual bring a container to a restaurant. Luckily my family was supportive when I told them I was making an effort to decrease the amount of waste I produce.”

Students have reported that family members, friends, and even cashiers sometimes express a desire or sense of responsibility to decrease their own plastic usage. This response suggests that many people consume plastic packaging beyond our own desire for it, rather than being emotionally or culturally invested in plastic consumption the way we are with food. 

Despite their support for reduced plastic use, many people—both students and those they interact with—seem to feel powerless regarding their consumption of plastic packaging and waste.

As one student put it:

“Although I think enough people could actually make this change [switching to reusable shopping bags], I do not think it would significantly reduce our society’s environmental impacts…. In order to make a significant impact, corporations would have to completely stop producing paper and plastic bags. This will probably not happen in our lifetime, due to the fact that corporations are making money off this production.” 

The lifestyle change that seems the hardest for students to maintain is to stop driving. Students attempting this lifestyle change have reported various situational complications, such as time constraints on their commute, an unexpected medical appointment, or lacking anywhere safe to store a bike. These complications speak to the ways in which our physical and social infrastructure is organized around automobile use, making it relatively difficult for individuals to ­­­­decrease fossil fuel consumption through their own lifestyle choices (as with plastic waste). Yet, as Trentmann (2007) notes, while infrastructure strongly influences consumption practices, consumption also helps to shape infrastructure systems over time. Students’ views on the transformative potential of car-free living vary accordingly.

While some students have anticipated identity-based challenges in giving up driving, most have found unexpected benefits to the change. As with dietary changes, students cutting down their driving frequently report health improvements (from extra exercise), cost savings, and even socio-psychological benefits from chance encounters with friends and nature as they circulated through their community outside of a vehicle. In their papers, some students also note the reality that many Americans (and many people around the world) live without a car all the time; thus, they acknowledge that the challenges they encountered during their trial period are daily occurrences for many.

Overall, students have expressed enthusiasm for the lifestyle change project both during the course and in their evaluations afterward. As I’ve refined the assignment, I’ve added elements that have made it more successful. I provide lots of lead time to contextualize the assignment during lectures and let students prepare to make their chosen change. I also assign a short proposal assignment that enables early feedback, as some students may choose lifestyle changes that won’t work well for the timeline of the project.

Finally, my assignment instructions emphasize analyzing the social circumstances involved—i.e. what about students’ own positionality contributes to the challenges or benefits that they experience and how different social circumstances might lead to more or fewer challenges for other people attempting this lifestyle change. My hope is that students come away from the project with a deeper appreciation for society-environment relations and for the socio-structural factors influencing our consumption.

About the Author:

Charlotte Glennie is a Sociology PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. Researching food justice and urban political economy, she seeks to build understanding of the ransformative power of social movements. She is also committed to the transformative power of teaching and learning.

Photo Credits:

Alternative transportation: biking instead of driving

Photo credit: Kyle Gradinger, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kgradinger/4080724020/

Dietary changes: resource use for different foods

Photo credit: World Resources Institute, https://www.wri.org/research/shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

Plastic-free or zero waste: plastic pollution

Photo credit: Piqsels, https://www.piqsels.com/en/public-domain-photo-zceyw

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What does it mean to consume productively?  In this blog post, Abigail M. Letak considers the cultural anxieties attached to consuming television, and shows us how time is a resource at stake in consumption debates.

– Laura Miller, section chair

Consume This! “You lazy piece of trash! Come on, do something with your life!”: Productivity Anxiety and Our Troubles with Television

By Abigail M. Letak

“Are you still watching?” I blinked. Moments earlier I had been immersed in a world where a small woman possessed inordinate powers of strength and was preparing for a final showdown with a former abuser with mind controlling abilities. I’m ripped from the televisual world of Jessica Jones, and register that I’m back in the real one. I struggle to comprehend the time displayed on the clock nearby. Guilt and anxiety wash over me as I realize it’s been hours since I first hit “play.” Reality and, with it, responsibilities flood my mind. I should be grading. I should be answering emails. And, oh my goodness, I should be working on my dissertation.

I think to myself: You’ve done nothing for hours! You have so much you should be working on right now!

Common refrains in my thoughts, these two accusations are telling about our cultural attitudes towards television consumption, and a phenomenon I call “productivity anxiety.”

“You’ve done nothing for hours!”

Former Stanford University President John Hennessy once unabashedly declared: “TV is a waste of time.” If that’s the case, Americans are wasting an awful lot of time: The Nielsen Company’s estimates from 2018 put the average American’s weekly viewing time at over 33 hours—approaching the equivalent of a full-time job. Other estimates are a bit lower, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate still puts the figure between two to three hours a day—more than half of Americans’ daily leisure time.

American culture often denigrates television consumption. Medical professionals and wellness experts increasingly proscribe too much screen time. Scholars continue to tally up the negative consequences of time spent in front of the small screen. Perpetuates negative stereotypes? Check. Distorts perceptions of reality? Check. Harmful to children’s socialization? Check

The denunciation of television may be linked to a cultural obsession with accomplishment and success—values at the root of capitalism and Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. In effect, spending time consuming television violates the productivity imperatives of American meritocracy. As an activity unconcerned with competitive advancement, it attacks the very basis on which we accord status culturally. Consuming television doesn’t earn you a promotion or degree. It doesn’t help you buy a car or a house. It won’t help pad your resume or CV.

“You have so much you should be working on right now!”

This considerable cultural pressure for advancement leaves individuals bearing the weight of a constant imperative to be productive. Ever-increasing competition for college admittance, scholarships, grants, and job opportunities raises the bar; resumes must be more robust, experience more extensive. The treadmill of productivity never stops; the ladder to success has ever more rungs. 

Underlying these symptoms of modern productivity imperatives is “productivity anxiety”—the significant stress (and distress) resulting from a constant pressure to be working hard, producing results, and advancing toward life goals. There is no room for “wasting time” in a society where “time has become a commodity.” We must justify even our leisure activities. We do not run for running’s sake: we run “to train for a marathon” or “to fit into those skinny jeans.” Hobbies become instrumentally worthy based on their productive value.

But what does this mean for television consumption, an activity with no apparent productive value to speak of? As part of a larger project on productivity anxiety, I conducted a pilot study of fifteen interviews to explore the cultural status of television.

For the pilot study, I chose to speak with undergraduate students, as many of them are negotiating time management and work-life balance for the first time in their lives. The time-structured nature of high school and often close parental and guardian influence mean relatively little time-use autonomy for high school students. In college, though, students become responsible for managing their own time. 

For most of the students with whom I spoke, a range of negative emotions accompanied discussing their television consumption habits—guilt, shame, regret, frustration. These feelings all seemed to center on that notion that they were indeed “wasting” their time when they were watching TV. Many felt that it would be better to do something else—really, anything else. One young woman admitted that sometimes when she has a day off and spends much of it watching TV, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s making poor life choices. She told me that she’d think to herself, “You lazy piece of trash! Come on, do something with your life!” even though we had spent the past twenty minutes of the interview going over all the incredibly impressive things she is indeed “doing with her life.” Particularly after binge watching, students reported feeling “icky,” “gross,” and like they had “wasted” their day.

One student would only watch TV if she was simultaneously doing some sort of task—washing the dishes, folding the laundry. She could not stand to be “doing nothing.” A Communications major initially discussed his television choices in terms of enjoyment and entertainment. But as we talked further, he explained his behavior in a different light, discussing how the time he spends watching TV will help prepare him for a career in the television industry. His television consumption became instrumentally valuable instead of intrinsically worthy.

Talking about these students’ TV consumption habits highlighted their stress and distress over feeling like they were never doing enough, and TV consumption became equated with “wasting time” and “doing nothing.”

Such a relationship to television—one that often exacerbates feelings of guilt and productivity anxiety—might seem to suggest that these students would come to resent TV in some way. But they don’t hate television. In fact, they adamantly love it; their eyes lit up when they got to talk about their favorite shows. But I watched smiles fade as the conversations turned from show content and characters to quotidian habits and how much time was spent actually watching these shows. It’s one thing to love Lost, and quite another to face the reality that watching the entire series translates to an investment of over 100 hours. 

Ultimately, television consumption gets in the way of doing more, achieving more, accomplishing more. Or at least the students I spoke with often see it that way. In a culture where self-worth is equated with productivity, it’s no wonder television consumption can be so troubling. 

About the Author:

Abigail M. Letak is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her areas of interest include cultural and phenomenological approaches to mental health and wellbeing, media consumption, gender, and disability. Her recent work on television includes a forthcoming article in Sociological Forum titled “The Promise of Sociology of Television: Investigating the Potential of Phenomenological Approaches.”

Featured

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Unpacking Retail Inequality with Ken Kolb 

By Jordan Foster 

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Ken Kolb, Professor and Chair of Sociology at Furman University. In this conversation, we discuss Ken’s new book, Retail Inequality, and his interests in food studies and consumption more broadly. 

Jordan Foster: How did you come to work on your book, Retail Inequality, and the topic of food? 

Ken Kolb: Well, my research in Greenville, South Carolina started with working with some neighborhood groups. In 2012, they were in a big fight with the State Department of Transportation that was trying to tear down a bridge that connected their neighborhood to another side of town. 

So, I took some students and did a little community-based research project going door-to-door and sort of documenting what the neighborhood really wanted. Unfortunately, the bridge was ultimately torn down. It took 8 years of fighting to get it replaced. But in the aftermath of the bridge fight, I kept asking community members what concerns they held about the community more broadly.  A central concern at the time—and one that received a lot of attention—was the development of a grocery store. 

And while this was an important concern, it was by no means their only one. The multitude of their complaints led me to develop the general thesis of the book: neighborhoods without grocery stores have been complaining about the lack of grocery stores, as well as a bunch of other things—poor retail availability for example—for a long time.  But nobody cared about those other things until the problem became framed in the language of “healthy food” and once it was, out of the woodwork came all of these largely white middle class social movements related to food, food justice, and organic food.

Jordan: What sparked your interest in this area of research? 

Ken: Well, I was really drawn to it because of my interest in food. I took a break from graduate school and joined the Peace Corps in the United States. I served in Paraguay and lived on a farm as a beekeeper. So, it’s food that really drew me in. 

Jordan: In your book, Retail Inequality, you take issue with the term “food desert.” Can you tell me why this term isn’t the right one to think with? 

Ken: At the time, the food desert terminology was really kind of in its heyday and it’s amazing that this term went from just a talking point in a UK public policy document in 1990 and then by 2010 it was making wide appearances across national publications. The term had a lot of political strength: it was intuitive, it could be mapped. It really captured people’s attention.

What people missed, however, was a slow growing critique. There was, at first, a lot of debate about whether we should call them food deserts or “food swamps” (places inundated with unhealthy and fast food). Or “food mirages” because there could be, say, a Whole Foods or a Farmers Market in your neighbourhood but it’s too expensive and inaccessible. More recently we’re starting to hear the phrase “food apartheid,” which is a good step forward because it acknowledges the systemic and institutionalized racism that depopulated many of these neighbourhoods and drained them of the wealth necessary to support small scale retail. And although I think “food apartheid” is an appropriate term, I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough. It is about so much more than food – it’s about banking, dry cleaning, hardware stores, and so on.

Jordan: What was the process of transforming this curiosity like for you in terms of developing your research question and later, your book? 

Ken: My research is very much inductive and the research question changed over time. It began with, “how can I help people eat better?” And so, I started going to public meetings and hearing all this outrage to the tune of, ”there’s no healthy food in our neighborhood or our grocery stores, the lettuce sold on our side of town doesn’t look as nice as grocery stores on other sides of town” and so on.  I wanted to help and this made me really excited.

It was clear that people had this desire for healthy food and so, I thought they were just going to jump at the first opportunity for it. My first hint that there was something off with the “food desert” concept came when a mobile farmers market started trucking in fresh fruits and vegetables to a neighborhood without a grocery store. I surveyed its shoppers whenever it arrived and found out that in reality they weren’t community members, but relatives of the people working at the market. 

I did the same type of survey at a local “healthy food” store – a small 8000 square foot space. The same thing happened. When I charted customers’ geographic distance from the store, it turned out that almost all of them were coming from three or four miles away. 

So, I started talking to community members and performing site visits to better understand where they were doing their shopping and how they accessed healthy food options. I came to find that community members charted quite different paths to grocers, often outside of their own neighbourhoods. It turned out that distance wasn’t the obstacle we imagined it was, and it certainly wasn’t the only or even the most important factor explaining food choices. 

Jordan: How long did your publishing process take from the inception of your idea when you first got thinking about this to the point you know that book is bound and we’re ready to go.

Ken: Well, my last book came out in 2014. I started Retail Inequality in the spring of 2015 with fieldwork on a local farm. In and around that time, I began to find evidence from among these local farmers markets and food stores that really distance wasn’t determining diet.  

Once I started questioning the relationship between distance and diet, I joined the Consumers and Consumption section session and really dived into food studies and food study scholarship. This was completely new to me. I delved into the field and set about writing a book in an unfamiliar area. 

Officially, I started writing in 2017/2018 and by 2019, I had the first draft all set. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the review process, but this process was very valuable. One of the reviewers shared that retail inequality argument was the strongest point of the manuscript, whereas I had thought the best frame was around the rise and fall of a concept. It turned out that the new revision really drew out how everyday people talk about their access to food and the complexities that shape it. 

Jordan: What does consumption mean to you in your work? 

Ken: Well, it’s twofold. First, I think about consumption in terms of bodily consumption; people are consuming things into their body. And this makes food consumption quite a bit more unique than say, consuming a movie or watching television.

Second, I think about consumption as a symbolic gesture to show how one is an equal participant in the society that we have together. Driving through a new town, for example, you get a sense of a place by taking a look at its storefronts and sidewalks. Are there yoga studios and nice cafes or do the stores have iron bars on the windows? These are questions that bear on one’s sense of community. 

Jordan: Is there any book or article about consumption that’s been particularly influential in your work? 

Ken: I really like Pressure Cooker by Joslyn Brenton, Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliott because it really gets into like the nitty gritty of how hard it is to make meals work. Michaela Desoucey’s Contested Tastes is similarly wonderful; she’s such a brilliant writer and such an excellent ethnographer. And obviously, Shyon Baumann and Josee Johnston’s Foodies is very impressive and made a big impression on my work. 

Jordan: What are some of the major takeaways you would like your readers to leave with? 

Ken: I want readers to be critical of what they perceive to be a problem in the world around them and how white privilege can cloud people’s judgements. If the premise of white privilege is that societies’ institutions are generally structured in a way to benefit white people in ways that they aren’t even aware of, then a corollary to that theory is that in order for something to be deemed a problem in society, its solution must also appeal to the tastes of white and middle-class folks. 

People in “food deserts”, like the one I studied, have been living their lives in entrenched poverty and residential segregation. These problems were in plain sight, and yet it wasn’t until the solution became about nice grocery stores that all of a sudden, the proverbial veil had been lifted. 

And so, I do want people who read the book to think to themselves when deciding to join a social movement, ”why is it that I care about this right now?” ”Why am I dedicating my time and energy to this cause or that one?” Questions like this can open up an opportunity for some internal reflection into one’s positionality and their privilege and from this place, they can start unpack their ways of knowing and reflecting. That’s probably the biggest takeaway, to get people to reflect, especially white readers, on their privilege and which movements or causes they choose to support and which they don’t. 

In addition, I also really like the work it takes to debunk a concept and this is something I explore throughout Retail Inequality. You know, there’re some concepts out there that we just can’t seem to knock out of place (“broken windows theory” is a classic example), and we need to be more critical of these. Questioning taken-for-granted concepts and their usefulness is something that sociologists are pretty well equipped to do. 

About the Interviewer: Jordan Foster is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His research lies at the intersection of consumption, new media, and inequality.

Featured

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Hannah Wohl, Bound by Creativity

By Tim Rosenkranz

I had the chance to interview Hannah Wohl, Assistant Professor at UC Santa Barbara, about her fascinating book Bound by Creativity (University of Chicago Press, 2021) and her experience doing field work with artists, collectors, curators and dealers in New York City. We talked about creativity and judgment, the difference between distinctiveness and distinction, her current research project on the qualities of scholarly worth, and finally, about new objects of consumption.  

Tim Rosenkranz: Your book, Bound by Creativity, is a fascinating and unique ethnography of the social world of artists and creativity. How did you come to work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this?

Hannah Wohl: My first ethnography was of a sensual figure drawing session at an erotic arts club, which ignited my interest in aesthetic judgment. This group was trying to accurately represent the human figure, and ultimately, I wanted to explore an art world in which aesthetic judgment was more uncertain. Contemporary visual artists strive to represent abstract ideas, concepts, and moods in physical forms, and there is not a clear consensus about when a work aptly embodies theory. This led me to the New York City contemporary art world, where art could be made of anything from frozen cat food to socks (in the case of two artists I studied) and artists make these aesthetic decisions with a lot of money and prestige on the line. 

Tim: Your book is based on two years of ethnographic research in New York. Please let us look behind the scenes. How did you gain access, how did your project develop? Are artists hard to engage and study with?

Hannah: I started by interviewing artists. Access to artists was relatively easy, as they generally enjoy talking about their work, but the interview process was challenging, as artists tend to talk about their creative decisions in very abstract terms. To get artists to discuss their creative practices more concretely, I asked them about specific work in the studio at different stages of development, such as sketches, unfinished work, and work in storage, and, when possible, I returned to the studio several times to see how work had evolved. I also realized that to understand how artists made creative decisions, I needed to grasp how artists’ interactions with others shaped their judgments. That’s when I started interviewing dealers, curators, collectors, and art advisers (people who professionally recommend artworks to collectors).

Elite collectors were the hardest to access, because they don’t publicly display their contact information and because artists and dealers are understandably cautious about maintaining these relationships. Eventually, a well-known dealer reached out to several collectors on my behalf, and these collectors were not hesitant to refer me to their collector friends, so things snowballed from there. Accessing interviews and fieldwork was a symbiotic process for me, as I asked interviewees if I could accompany them to art world events and met more people to interview at these events. As I conducted interviews and fieldwork over time, I observed how artists, dealers, curators, collectors, and art advisers all drew upon their perceptions of artists’ creative visions to orient their aesthetic judgment.

I homed into the concept of creative visions, which I defined as a bundle of formal and conceptual consistencies that were core and enduring within a body of work. This became a unifying focus that tied together my research across these various groups.

Tim: On first sight, your study seems to be about communities and practices of production. How does “consumption” feature in your book?

Hannah: I’m interested in how artists’ perceptions of others’ judgments influence their aesthetic decisions, so analyzing how collectors made decisions about which artworks to purchase was important. I interviewed elite collectors and conducted ethnographic fieldwork with them, including accompanying collectors to studio visits, exhibition openings, art fairs, and VIP parties. In a world where reputation was paramount, collectors jockeyed for status. They used narratives of what I call aesthetic confidence, claiming that they selected works based on their independent and superior taste.

They downplayed recommendations received from others, framing this information as received as part of informal friendships, while delegitimizing lower-status collectors’ claims to aesthetic confidence by arguing that lower-status collectors had to buy their taste through formal recommendations from art advisers. The broader literature on elites and consumption shows that elites make their distinction through their cultural omnivorous taste patterns. I reveal that, in certain fields, showing aesthetic confidence (or distinctiveness in taste) is at least as important as displaying cultural omnivorousness (or distinction in taste). More broadly, I argue that more research should examine not only taste patterns but also how people present their taste in face-to-face interaction.

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Hannah: It’s hard to pick just one. Since I focus on elite consumption, Ashley Mears’ Very Important People and Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street have been especially helpful in thinking about contemporary elites’ orientations toward consumption and how elites justify their consumption in moral terms. Clayton Childress’ Under the Cover pushed me to think about how processes of production, distribution, and consumption are intertwined and influence one another. 

Tim: What are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

Hannah: During the pandemic, I started squirreling away archival datasets. One project I’m currently working on is about the evaluation of academic worth. I collected a unique dataset of tenure files across STEM, social sciences, and humanities disciplines, and I’m in the process of analyzing the letters from external reviewers. It’s a really rich and fascinating dataset, and I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. I’m particularly interested in how reviewers weigh different qualities of scholarly worth, attach or decouple these qualities from multiple metrics, project future outcomes, and understand their own ability to judge. An ethnographer at heart, I’m eager to get back to the field and I’m soon starting new fieldwork involving creative industries in Los Angeles.

Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption, what are areas that need more attention? And, what are new/emerging phenomena that have to be studied?

Hannah: I’m definitely biased. Analyzing aesthetic judgment in social interaction, including consumption, has long been a passion of mine, and I would love to see more work in this area. I’d also like to see a more relational focus on consumption, where sociologists examine how consumers’ evaluative orientations are influenced by their perceptions of how others make judgments within a field. Empirically, we’ve obviously started living much more online, and this has led to the emergence of new objects for consumption, from influencer culture to NFT art. I’m also very curious about what the future of ethnography will look like as we navigate this hybrid existence. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

Featured

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

SCHOLARS’ CONVERSATIONS: ALEX HOPPE, FASHION, WORK, AESTHETIC EVALUATION, AND CREATIVE DECISION-MAKING

BY JORDAN FOSTER

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Alex Hoppe, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and this year’s winner of the Consumers and Consumption Student Paper Award. Alex’s research focuses on the dynamics that surround cultural production and creative decision making especially as these apply to the fashion industry. In this conversation, we talked about his ethnographic work in fashion, his dissertation more broadly, and his forthcoming (and award recognized) project on aesthetic evaluation.  

Jordan Foster: How did you come to investigate the fashion industry? What sparked your interest?

Alex Hoppe: I’ve been interested in fashion for almost 10 years. Much like Ashley Mears, my own interest grew out of my work as a model. I began observing creative decision making and power at multiple levels, and my work followed from this. 

Jordan Foster: Over the summer you received the section’s Student Paper Award for your work, “Coordinating Transnational Futurework in Fashion Design.” Can you tell us a little bit about how it is you came to begin this research? 

Alex Hoppe: This research is part of my dissertation, and it came out of maybe four or five months of dedicated ethnographic observations of design in India. Over the course of my observations, I noticed a bunch of different sets of issues in design including issues related to forecasting tools like WGSN (Worth Global Style Network). Following Blumer’s early work in fashion and through fieldwork, I was left with questions related to production and decision-making. Specifically, how do people come to agreement?  What is particularly fascinating about this question in the context of fashion is that the industry is future-focused. And so, there is considerable ambiguity and uncertainty around what could or should come next. Yet season after season after season, there is substantial agreement on what the trends are and what the trends were. What is more, industry figures are often using the same tools to make these decisions (whether they admit to it or not). 

In my forthcoming work in Qualitative Sociology on aesthetic evaluation I ask a similar set of questions related to creative decision-making, but I do this with an eye toward the modeling industry. How, for example, do people decide on which models will appear on the runway? What processes underscore their decisions and how do people make aesthetic choices in the absence of any strict technical criteria? 

Jordan Foster: With respect to Futurework in Fashion [published in Socio-Economic Review], call you tell us what the publishing process like for you? 

Alex Hoppe: This one was quite straightforward, I think. I had the data ready to go, and writing prepared within my dissertation chapter so, from there, I elaborated and moved toward publication. 

As for the work itself, it was a straightforward application of economic theory and organizational theory to the aesthetic realm. Here, like fashion in general, we find some conformity and some dynamism; some conformity that comes from the top and some innovation that moves from the bottom up. As when, for example, workers or designers play with new concepts or pieces. 

Jordan Foster: With respect to both this project and to your dissertation more broadly, what are some of the key takeaways that you would like readers to leave with? 

Alex Hoppe: There’s a great scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) kind of lays out how the fashion industry works. She criticizes Andrea’s (Anne Hathaway’s) skepticism and puts a small group of people at the center of the fashion industry. The idea is that this group makes decisions, and that these decisions take effect from there. It’s a producer-oriented version of the trickle-down thesis.

In my own work, I would tend to agree with that basic perspective. It’s a small set of people who are making a lot of the initial decisions and my position is (more or less) that they do trickle down. It’s a simplistic formula, but overall, that’s an easy way to think about fashion production and creative decision-making. 

Jordan Foster: Can you tell us a little bit about your methodological approach to fieldwork in fashion? 

Alex Hoppe: Ethnography feels very intuitive to me, I think. You have to ask the kinds of questions that are relevant for the field and in the case of fashion, I’m really interested in organizational and workplace dynamics. So, it’s not just what happens, but about the structured processes by which decisions are made. Martha Feldman and Brian Pentland provide some great tools for accessing these processes. They do a lot of good work on organizational routines, for example, and provide an iterative methodology that you can apply in most settings. 

Jordan Foster: What other scholars (or scholarly works) are you inspired by? 

Alex Hoppe: The go-to answer for me is Simmel, no question. He’s a little bit of out of left-field stylistically, but for me that’s extremely inspirational because you can pick up on, you know, little bits and pieces and then follow them. I think he’s got answers for everything; all the interesting problems that I’ve come across, or at least a good starting point which to work from.

Jordan Foster:  And last, but not least Alex, what does consumption mean in your work?

Alex Hoppe: Well, it’s a tricky question. Whether fashion starts with consumption, that is. I tend to think that it does, even though my first set of research projects are all on the side of production. But I’ve always been fascinated by consumption and the curious relationship between an individual’s fashion choices and conformity.

Put differently, I’m struck by the fact that while most people tend to think that other people are conforming, they’re doing something different themselves. There is an ideology of individualism that circles around consumption, and as sociologists, we can kind of unpack that and take it apart. 

About the Interviewer: 

Jordan Foster is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research interests lie at the intersection of consumption, new media, and inequality. 

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Scholars’ Conversations: Andre F. Maciel, Space and the Politics of Consumer Identity

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Andre F. Maciel, Space and the Politics of Consumer Identity

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the fascinating opportunity to interview Andre F. Maciel, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Introducing his most recent article on knitting as consumption practice, published with Melanie Wallendorf in the Journal of Consumer Research, Andre and I discussed the importance of understanding space as a resource that structures the politics of consumer identity. We talked about knitting, ripping-off, and restitching as well as about the academic relationship between marketing and sociology in consumers and consumption research.

Tim: Your recent article Space as a Resource in the Politics of Consumer Identity (2021) approaches the “consumer’s intentional use of space.” How do you conceptualize space in the study of consumers and consumption?

Andre: That was a crucial question for the article. In consumer research, space is often treated as a setting where things happen, or a site to conduct ethnography. In our work, we conceptualize space as an affordance of social structure rather than merely a setting. In this view, space is an aspect of social life that constrains and enables action—much like money, knowledge, and symbols do. 

Specifically, we analyze space as a resource that consumers intentionally use to re-negotiate stereotypes associated with their identities. More succinctly, we study how consumers use space to engage in identity politics. We show how they assert the value of their identities across various sites, from their homes to public venues. Each of these types of space has different affordances; accordingly, we show how consumers enact complementary yet distinct identity practices in them. 

Tim: You use a very interesting methodology in your fieldwork connecting interviewing and netnography; you even learned how to knit for your participant observation. How did you get into this project and how did you decide on your approach?

Andre: In my early days as a Ph.D. student, I was interested in consumption activities that involve creating tangible products, like crafts, homebrewing, and gardening. I chose knitting as the focus of this project because of a particular empirical paradox: knitters and knitting carry the stereotype of being dull and backward; nevertheless, this hobby was experiencing a renewed popularity when I was deciding on my dissertation topic.

As often happens with ethnography, the methodology was emergent.  We didn’t set out to study the role of space in the politics of consumer identity. We incorporated different methods gradually, as we sought to expand our understanding of consumers’ engagement in identity politics across the various spaces that constitute their lives.

The primary method was participant observation at a local yarn shop. Learning the fundamentals of knitting was essential to show my genuine interest in the social world of my informants (I was a male researcher amid a primarily female clientele). Luckily, my co-author (then advisor), Melanie Wallendorf, is an occasional knitter and taught me the basics. Learning how to knit was also a source of embodied knowledge. I had to rip off and re-stitch many hats and scarves, gaining insight into the skill that goes into making handknit pieces, a type of object often devalued in the larger culture. 

Participant observation was vital to learn about my informants beyond their activities as consumers. I visited their homes, went to coffee shops with them, and chatted about their lives in general. In important ways, most were exactly the opposite of the knitter stereotype as backward and dull. They were well-educated, intellectually curious, and professionally active, left-leaning on the political spectrum, and interested in clothing design. And they were much aware of the systematic devaluation of cultural expressions that are historically feminine (romance novels, soap operas, fiber crafts, canning, jamming, etc.). 

That’s when I decided to conduct in-depth interviews, and later a survey, to better understand how these knitters relate to their hobby in light of the stereotypes surrounding it. It became clear that these women are reclaiming a devalued gendered identity, but they are not simply doing so subjectively. At home, they overtly assert the value of their hobbies to their domestic partners, claiming leisure spaces that are the feminine counterpart to the more popular “mancaves.” At coffee shops and libraries, they display their knitting and have conversations with strangers about patriarchy. And in the public sphere, many conspicuously work on knitting projects in quite unusual places and times, like baseball games, while some join initiatives to cover public statues in yarn (an initiative called yarn graffiti). Many have also contributed multiple pussyhats to the Women’s Marches that occurred during the Trump administration. In a way, these knitters are turning their needles into small swords to make their identities more visible and fight some stereotypes that apply to multiple feminized cultural expressions.

The netnography was added to the methodology because we wanted to confirm that our findings extended beyond a local community. Our informants quickly suggested that we looked into ravelry.com. It’s a site where millions of fiber crafters from all parts of the world, but mainly from the US, discuss a wide variety of issues, from craft projects to gender issues. After finding similar data in this larger forum, we started to theorize the use of space in the politics of consumer identity. Finally, we conducted a media analysis to quantify how the consumer uses of space we conceptualize has impacted public discourses about knitting over the last four decades.  

Tim: What book or article about consumption has been particularly influential in your work?

Andre: So hard to pick only one! Can I mention two, one for consumption and one for space? 

For consumption, I’d choose Janice Radway’s (1982) Reading the Romance. This book helped me realize how a mundane practice (in that case, reading romance novels) can say so much about sociocultural forces. I read it in my first years in the Ph.D. program, when I was starting to dive into the sociology of culture and gender. This book that made me see my data in a much more critical way.

For space, I’d go with David Storey’s (2012) Territories: The Claiming of Space. Our work is significantly informed by Foucault, Giddens, and Lefebvre, who are probably the pioneers in highlighting space as an affordance of social structure.  But while these authors operate on a more abstract level, Storey focuses on the importance of space for the identity of individuals and social categories. The book is an excellent entry for non-geographers into the insights that cultural geography can have for the analysis of consumers and consumption.

Tim: You’re an Assistant Professor of Marketing. How do you think Sociology approaches marketing and what could be done better?

Andre: For the most part, I see sociological research referring to marketing as a business activity only. However, marketing is an academic field, too. At business schools, marketing scholars have backgrounds in a wide range of disciplines, and a productive group of these scholars is trained in sociology and anthropology (as a little secret, I took more doctoral credits in my minor area, Sociology, than in my major, Marketing). This group of marketing scholars study Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) and are members of the Consumer Culture Theory Consortium (CCT-C). 

Like many sociologists, CCT researchers study issues of culture, power, inequality, and stratification in market relations. Our premier journals are the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. We also publish often in Consumer Markets & Culture and Marketing Theory, in addition to the Journal of Consumer Culture, which is a common forum with sociologists of consumption affiliated to sociology schools and departments.  

Tim: What is next for you? What can we look forward to in your work? 

Andre: I’ve been studying crowdfunding with my colleague Michelle Weinberger. We’re particularly interested in the types of consumer agency that crowdfunding enables. By funding new business ventures, consumers can decide which offerings are worth existing in the market in the first place, instead of simply buying what is already available to them.  

With a former doctoral student, Abigail Nappier Cherup, I’m also studying consumer discrimination in retailers. Her dissertation focused on an understudied group with a stigmatized sexual identity, known as bi+. We’re focusing on this group to conceptualize how consumers “read” a retail store regarding its inclusiveness, and how retail managers can design spaces where consumers feel recognized and accepted. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Elizabeth Martin, Consumption, Credit and Debt

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Elizabeth Martin, Consumption, Credit and Debt 

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth C. Martin, PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University. Her paper, “Regulating the Risk of Debt,” won the 2020 Best Student Paper Award from our ASA Consumers and Consumption Section. We talked about the cost of credit and the shocking differences between U.S. states’ debt protections. Elizabeth’s ongoing dissertation research is a fascinating analysis of the political economy of consumer debt regulations. We also discussed her coming projects about the relationship between racial inequality and student debt, as well as between state credit ratings and economic insecurity.

Tim: Congratulations! You won the 2020 Best Student Paper Award from our section for your paper “Regulating the Risk of Debt: Exemption Laws and Economic Insecurity Across US States, 1986-2012.” What is the paper about?

Elizabeth: Thank you! My paper examines asset exemption laws, a protection for those defaulting on unsecured debts. These protections have a long history in U.S. states, with protections existing in statutes since at least the 1600s. They set the terms of protections, typically listing the amount of wages and different types of property that can be protected from debt collectors. Although all U.S. states protect certain assets in the face of debt collection, protections vary significantly among states. For instance, in 2012, a single debtor in Ohio not filing for bankruptcy was entitled to exempt $125,000 of home equity, while a similar debtor in neighboring Michigan was only entitled to exempt $3,500. Asset exemptions are a last resort protection that simply allow a debtor to not lose their property and earnings. This differs from lots of other social protections that we typically discuss, that give families resources more directly. Further, unlike social welfare transfers, exemptions assist families economically while also limiting the capacity of banks and creditors to extract resources from debtors. 

My paper asks three questions: what determines how protective a state’s exemptions are, does protectiveness matter for a state’s population economic insecurity, and if so, does that depend on economic conditions or population makeup in a state. I compiled state statutes from the mid-80s until 2012 and coded how much value of home, personal property, cars, tools for work, wages, and bank accounts are protected from debt collectors. What I find is that higher protections are related to lower rates of economic insecurity during recessionary periods and in states with a more privileged population. I look forward to sharing more of my findings once it gets through peer review! 

Tim: You are a PhD Candidate at Ohio State University—please introduce us more to your current research and what does “consumption” mean in your work?

Elizabeth: My work is generally at the intersection of stratification and political economy, with focuses on economic insecurity, credit and debt, and social policy. I’m really interested in how the state and policy affect economic outcomes for households, especially the most disadvantaged. I also study student loans, financial crises, credit card debt, and even state credit ratings. Consumption comes in through my focus on credit and debt. People have to consume, but increasingly have fewer resources with which to do so. Access to credit is one way to bridge the gap between consumption goals and current resources, but it comes at a cost—literally! Of course, not all debt is created equal, and we see costs and access to different types of credit products vary by class and race, as do the consequences of indebtedness.  

Tim: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project?

Elizabeth: I started graduate school broadly interested in inequality and neoliberal governance, thinking about big general questions. What role do state institutions play in ameliorating or exacerbating inequality? What kinds of extractive markets come to fruition without a solid welfare state? Are the powerful better able to exploit the disadvantaged when the state does not regulate markets? Coming in as a non-sociology major, I used my first year of graduate school as a time to read widely and think about the state, safety nets, and insecurity. Through my advisor, Rachel Dwyer, I became interested in credit and debt as a key case to study these dynamics. 

As I was trying to come up with a master’s thesis topic for a fellowship application, I came across a report from a consumer advocacy group on exemption laws and how they vary so widely by state. Naively, I was just shocked that state protections could be so wildly different! My MA paper unfolded from there. I wanted to understand whether these huge differences in protections mattered for population insecurity. My dissertation is an extension of this project.

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Elizabeth: It’s so hard to choose just one! Research on the political economy of credit has been super influential in my work, like Monica Prasad’s 2012 book, The Land of Too Much.  Prasad’s book shaped my understanding of the U.S. state as not non-interventionist, but interventionist through consumer regulations rather than more effective welfare state spending. The idea of access to credit and welfare state spending as potential tradeoffs has been influential in how I think about the role of credit in the political economy. Rather than subsidize important collective goods, like education, housing, and safety nets, the U.S. structures loose credit markets so individuals can finance these goods on their own, by taking on debts. Rachel Dwyer’s 2018 Annual Review on Credit, Debt, and Inequality is another strong influence, especially the call for a relational approach to understanding credit and debt. 

Tim: What is next for you? What can we look forward to in your work?

Elizabeth: Right now, I’m especially focused on my dissertation, which examines the relationship between state policy environments and experiences of economic insecurity. The first empirical chapter is the paper described above. The second empirical chapter analyzes how U.S. state political and economic environments differentially moderate the relationship between financial shocks and insecurity in households. The third chapter dives deeper into the case of medical shocks. I’m actually getting ready to start collecting data for this chapter, which I’m really excited about! 

In addition to my dissertation work, I’ve been working hard on a number of collaborative projects that I hope to be able to share soon! A few examples include one paper that looks at racial inequality in the effects of student debt on financial stress over the Great Recession, another that examines the relationship between state credit ratings and economic insecurity, and another on financial risk and population exposure to student debt. As I continue my academic career, I look forward to continuing to engage with questions about consumption and inequality, and to learning from the marvelous scholarship produced by members of this section.

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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Consume This! A Capitalist Culture & The Sympathetic Consumer

Boycott? Buycott? Why, or why not? In this post, Tad Skotnicki summarizes the main contribution of his first and new book, The Sympathetic Consumer, and ties it to recent incidents in the news where people voice political concerns in consumerist terms. 

– Michaela DeSoucey, section chair


Consume This! A Capitalist Culture & The Sympathetic Consumer
By Tad Skotnicki

A glance at the news suggests that many things can trigger a call for consumers to spend or withhold their money on some product or at some store for political reasons. Recently, for example, we have been treated to the spectacle of conservative pundit Ben Shapiro buying a solitary wooden plank from Home Depot—ostensibly because the corporation, based in Georgia, remained silent on a controversial new law that curtails voting rights, where many others released critical statements on the new restrictions. Elsewhere, there was confusion as Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama distanced themselves from a proposed Amazon boycott organized in support of their unionization drive. Supply chain politics have placed some global brands at the center of a moral tug-of-war between U.S. and Chinese consumers (and their governments). U.S. consumers and human rights groups, troubled by conditions of Uyghur laborers involved in the production of cotton in the Xinjiang region of China, pressured fast fashion companies H&M and others to seek out alternative cotton sources, while Chinese consumers have responded with calls to boycott these same brands for capitulating to scurrilous Western fear-mongering. These are anything but isolated incidents.

The swiftness with which such calls come and go—and the lasting impressions that they often fail to make—lends credence to the meme-able exhortation: “there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism!” Comparing people’s consumer behavior with their stated ideals, some have argued that the ethical consumer is a myth. But in our haste to litigate whether people actually buy ethically or whether ethical consumption is possible, we bury the lede. Instead, we should consider why people voice political concerns in these consumerist terms repeatedly. Moreover, it is worth exploring why these concerns assume an eerily similar form over time and across space. These are issues that I take up in my new book, The Sympathetic Consumer: Moral Critique in Capitalist Culture (2021, Stanford University Press). I argue that the sympathetic consumer—one who “feels with” often invisible people, things, and institutions through their purchases—emerges again and again as people struggle to make sense of buying and selling in a capitalist society. What is it, then, about capitalist buying and selling that enables people to make their sympathies known through purchases?

Rather than the frenetic present, however, my book looks back to several historical eras when efforts to organize people as consumers in this way left more of an impression. In the late eighteenth century, abolitionists in the British Empire pioneered a popular effort to abstain from sugar made by enslaved people in the Caribbean colonies. Nearly one century later, activists in the United States and England developed organizations of consumers that they hoped would usher in a more just world. Despite their varied backgrounds, intentions, and forms of organization, these activists leveraged what they saw as the consumer’s privileged position in chains of production, distribution, and exchange to transform the conditions under which goods were made and sold. In other words, by inviting people to imagine and engage with the world in their role as consumers, they pursued a project that resonates with the contemporary examples above. 

Are these similarities merely superficial? Can we say that they are informed by the particular character of buying and selling in capitalist societies? To answer, consider three aspects of the sympathetic consumer. First, the sympathetic consumer refers to an ideal or vision. Abolitionists and turn-of-the-twentieth century activists alike imagined the consumer as a figure with decisive moral and political power. One abolitionist implored consumers to renounce the purchase and use of Caribbean sugar, “Take away the cause and we all know that the effect will cease. Abstain from Sugar, and Slavery falls.” Such claims were common. And these activists weren’t fools. They didn’t believe that individual consumers could turn the tides of history on their own. But they grounded their sense of consumers’ political potential in a system of commerce organized around the profit motive. This was a system that many of them glimpsed, even if only obscurely, in the sale and purchase of goods from sugar and tea to blouses and boots. Just as important, their activism asked people to reflect on what these purchases really meant. 

But this wasn’t a mere ideal or vision. The sympathetic consumer refers, secondly, to a set of practices—explicit efforts to cultivate ethical purchasing and broader political engagement through consumption. These activists invited people to see and imagine the conditions under which goods were made, delivered, and sold. At the turn of the twentieth century, working-class British co-operators often advertised products like boots and cocoa as originating from “the best conditions of labor.” Further, they published articles and reports to expose these hidden conditions of labor—the good and the bad—so that others might reflect on and change their purchasing habits. Such tactics were shared by abolitionists and many subsequent consumer activists. In this way, they organized their activism around an exchange process wherein goods, by necessity, cannot reveal the conditions of their making or their worth. And activism has often reflected this.

Finally, the sympathetic consumer refers to the assumptions that have informed activists’ arguments as to why people should purchase “ethical” goods. It turns out that the manner in which activists argued for sympathetic consumption reflected the specific conditions of capitalist buying and selling. Florence Kelley, leader of the turn-of-the-twentieth century reformers the National Consumers’ League, told a story of white cotton underwear manufacturers: one utilized a “well-ordered factory” while others utilized home-work undertaken in “wretched,” crowded tenements. But the catch was that these differences didn’t present themselves in the price or appearance of the underwear. Someone needed to bring them to light. By tracing the supply chain, Kelly both justified the Consumers’ League’s existence and sought to motivate sympathetic consumption. Such arguments made sense because they mirrored the supply chains through which these goods traveled. 

Ultimately, I argue that these aspects of the sympathetic consumer—visions, practices, assumptions—depend on specific capitalist tendencies and phenomena. All of the goods that these activists concerned themselves with were produced systematically to turn a profit. Many argued or assumed that profit could be reshaped to serve the common good. Furthermore, they depend on the aura of mystery that enshrouds these goods—this dependence manifests most directly in the effort to expose something not otherwise apparent about certain goods, manufacturers, or sellers. But, in addition, they also depend on the familiarity of everyday buying and selling. It is easy to take the profit-oriented production of goods and services for granted. In different ways, all of the activists or would-be activists mentioned here do this as well. As consumers, we have a particular kind of claim on different organizations and people that rely on profit to survive. It is this claim that consumer activists have exploited time and again.  

To be sure, there may be many variations on the sympathetic consumer, as time progresses. The work of abolitionists differs in some important ways from efforts to boycott H&M in China or Amazon in the United States. Moreover, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that such efforts can produce some changes. Yet, when we ask only whether people actually buy “ethically” or whether it is even possible to buy ethically, we overlook the persistence and form of the myth itself. Once we begin to understand the myth of the sympathetic consumer, we may recognize the ways that our visions, practices, and assumptions—in a word, culture—sometimes assume a uniquely capitalist form. This form may manifest not only in competitive individualism, but also in compassion and care. To account for these phenomena, we should trace the development of such myths in relation to identifiable features of the capitalist world. It is a matter of our interpretations and the systemic order that makes them possible. We can and must take heed of both. That is what it means to explore consumption in a capitalist culture. 

About the Author:

Tad Skotnicki is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of North Carolina Greensboro. His research centers on the dynamics and of capitalism, alienation, and culture, looking from the past through comparative historical methods and to ideas about the future with theory. He received his PhD from the University of California, San Diego in 2015.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Patricia Banks, Understanding Race, Class and the Politics of Consumption 

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues. 

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (tim-rosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster (jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca). 

Scholars’ Conversations: Patricia Banks, Understanding Race, Class and the Politics of Consumption 

By Jordan Foster

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Patricia Banks, Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College and Co Editor-in-Chief of Poetics. Banks has authored three books including Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle ClassDiversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums, and Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View. In this conversation, we talked about her work on race and consumption, the inspiration behind it, and about Banks’ research and writing process. 

Jordan: How did you come to the work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this? What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Patricia: My research focuses on culture, consumption, and inequality. I am especially interested in the ways that ethnoracial boundaries influence, and are influenced by, consumption and related practices. I first became curious about these processes when I was a graduate student in sociology at Harvard University working with Lawrence D. Bobo and William Julius Wilson. In my first few years of graduate study, I was focused on race, ethnicity, and class. However, I later encountered Pierre’s Bourdieu’s work on culture when Michèle Lamont moved to Harvard from Princeton. I was particularly intrigued by Distinction and its analysis of cultural consumption as a practice that reproduces class. In that same period, Prudence Carter, who was also at Harvard at the time, began developing the concept of black cultural capital. Her work, which focused on low-income black youth, brought attention to how cultural consumption can also signal racial identity. Given that we still knew very little about cultural consumption among middle- and upper-class blacks, I embarked on a dissertation that examined art collecting among this group. When I became an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College, I further developed this line of research when my first book, Represent: Art and Identity among the Black Upper-Middle-Classwas published. Represent draws on over 100 in-depth interviews, observations at arts events, and photographs of art displayed in homes, to develop a racial identity theory of consumption. The analysis elaborates how upper-middle class blacks consume black visual culture to nurture their own and their children’s racial identity. This project set the stage for my future research on race and cultural patronage, as well as my scholarship on race and consumption, more broadly. 

Jordan: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project? How long did you take in publishing since you first conceived the project?

Patricia: After Represent, I embarked on what would become my second book, Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums. One reason that I became interested in patronage at African American museums is that some of the collectors who I interviewed for Represent were also supporters of black museums. At the time fundraising was also underway for what would become the largest black museum in the United States—the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. For this study, I traveled across the nation and interviewed over 80 supporters of African American museums in different states. In contrast to the conventional portrait of cultural philanthropists which paints their concerns as grounded in class, I found that supporters’ values were also shaped by their race and ethnicity, profession, lifestyle, and generation. This project led to my interest in corporate support of black culture. In my ongoing book project Black Culture, Inc.: How Cultural Patronage Pays for Business (Stanford University Press, Culture and Economic Life Series, Under Contract), I examine how race-related philanthropy and sponsorships benefit businesses. Drawing on ethnographic, archival, and other data, I show how black community support is a form of diversity capital whereby companies cultivate an image as diverse and inclusive. 

Working on Represent not only shaped the direction of my research on race and cultural patronage, but it also planted the seed for my book Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View. At the time that I was conceiving of the project that would ultimately become Represent, I searched for a resource that provided an overview of sociological approaches to race and consumption. I couldn’t find one then or in the ensuing years. While there is a rich tradition of sociologists exploring topics related to race and consumption it exists in different subfields. For example, the literatures on discrimination in housing and credit markets, assimilation and identity, cultural capital and inequality, and gentrification squarely address race, ethnicity, and consumption. 

Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption: A Sociological View is the first book to bring together these literatures. The book covers six themes including identity, crossing cultures, marketing & advertising, neighborhoods, discrimination, and social activism. The introduction also presents “The Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption Framework” which highlights how ethnoracial boundaries and consumption reinforce one another. 

Jordan: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?

Patricia: One thread that runs through my research is a focus on the meanings associated with consumption. This is particularly the case for my research on cultural patronage. For example, Represent highlights how collectors make sense of visual art in relationship to their identity; Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums casts light on how museum patrons think about the value of cultural institutions; and, Black Culture Inc. puts a spotlight on the ways that philanthropy and sponsorships are used in the racial image management of corporations. Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption looks at consumption from a range of vantage points. For example, the section on identity engages research on direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing which looks at how these tests influence the ways that people think about their identity. This section also looks at consumption and meaning in other ways such as how homeland tourism is informed by ethnoracial identity. A meaning-centered lens of consumption is also taken in subsections of other chapters such as the discussion of ethnoracial stereotypes in advertisements as well as the commodification of racial activism in marketing. A focus on consumption as purchasing is highlighted in the chapter on discrimination—for instance, this chapter explores how racial discrimination limits opportunities to buy goods and services such as homes and meals. Similarly, the chapter on neighborhoods looks at how access to goods and services differs in communities with varying ethnoracial demographics. In other chapters, consumption as use is highlighted. For example, the chapter on social activism highlights how consumer boycotts and buycotts have been used in racial activism. 

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Scholars’ Conversations: Michaela DeSoucey, The Moral Politics of Food Risks and Responsibilities

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster (jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca) or click here.

Scholars’ Conversations: Michaela DeSoucey, The Moral Politics of Food Risks and Responsibilities

By Nino Bariola

I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Michaela DeSoucey, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University and current chair of the Consumers and Consumption section. Her book Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food (Princeton UP, 2016) won the 2017 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the ASA Culture Section, the 2016 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from the ASA Consumers & Consumption Section, and the 2017 Gourmand World Cookbooks Award in the Culinary History category. We talked about her book and more recent work that analyses the history and cultural politics around peanut allergy to theorize the moralities of food- and consumption-related risks.

Nino: You know I am not alone in considering your book an excellent contribution—it won the awards from the ASA Culture section and from our very own Consumers and Consumption section. How do you see it fitting with current and classic consumption research? 

Michaela: I’ve been always interested not just in how people spend money, but also how they think about the market as a possible vehicle for change. So, inspired by classic works about consumer society, the politics of consumption has always been a driving force for me. I started in graduate school out researching alternative food movements—local food, slow food, organic food, and grass-fed meat—to think about how people were using meshing movements and market opportunities, as well as using everyday practices to promote their virtues in particular ways.

In my book, I push this perspective forward by creating a theoretical model of what I call gastropolitics, which is at the interplay of political sociology, economic sociology, and social movements studies, all within a circle of culture. To my mind, gastropolitics does not just imply political fights about food. Rather, I see it as conflicts, both large and small, over food practices that get branded as social problems and that enmesh state systems of law and regulation, markets, and social movements. It’s fighting about food in particular ways and using particular cultural strategies and venues to change people’s ideas. Foods are tools in these processes: materially, discursively, and symbolically. That seems to be what people have especially liked about the book. 

Nino: In sociological literature, consumption and production are often conceived as separate processes: Economic sociologists tend to focus on production, and consumption scholars center on, well, consumption dynamics, including, for example, the ways in which buying something becomes a means to build a specific kind of identity. In your book, consumption and production are theorized as interconnected processes…

Michaela: Yes, that’s right. I think food is a great way to open up the connections between production and consumption. Processes of food production have become visible in ways that making automobiles or refrigerators are not necessarily. Fashion too. Food and fashion are industries where the work of production has turned more visible. For example, Claudio Benzecry’s recent work traces how a shoe is produced globally, from design in one place to production in another and worn in yet another. While writing my dissertation, I also read a lot in the commodity chains literature, which makes these connections and also considers the intermediary steps and actors—all the organizations and people that are in the middle, who are themselves producers and consumers. There’s also a great deal of new research about how consumers produce value for companies through things like online review systems, what is called co-production or prosumption. In that sense, I see production and consumption as interactive and constitutive.

Nino: Speaking of food…Food has had this weird standing in sociology as an object of study, don’t you think? There is not a long tradition of food sociology as there is in history or anthropology… 

Michaela: That’s absolutely right. Rural sociologists have long emphasized the impacts of industrial agriculture in their work. But recently, there’s been extensive sociological interest in food in other subfields. I’m teaching a graduate seminar on food this spring that I haven’t taught since 2017, and my syllabus is full of amazing new books that came out in just the last few years from sociologists and related scholars. So far, my students have loved Alyshia Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA and Andrew Deener’s The Problem with Feeding Cities.

Nino: Could you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done since the book was published?

Michaela: I’ve worked on a few papers about different topics related to consumption. For example, I published a paper in Poetics, along with Michael Elliot and Vaughn Schmutz, in a special issue on “global tastes” about how some cultural objects that originate in particular times and places become classified as transnationally valued forms of cultural heritage—processes we theorize as instances of “rationalized authenticity.” The cases we analyzed and compared were tango from Argentina and Uruguay, acupuncture from China, and a music education program called Kodály from Hungary. I enjoyed getting to write about “Dancing with the Stars” in an academic article. Most recently, I published a paper in Organization Studies with several coauthors from management programs using the case of craft beer to add nuance to organizational theories of consumer evaluation, category-spanning, and authenticity norms.

Another paper I’ve been working on is becoming what I think will be my next big project. Since writing my book, I’ve thinking more about risk, responsibility, and morality in terms of food and consumption. I’ve been now working on a paper with a collaborator using these ideas focusing on social responses to peanut allergy. One thing I find really interesting about a research project is to look for things that have contradictions within or backlash to them. I think the backlash means there’s something deeper going on about culture and morality, about the ways people categorize and classify objects, events, other people.

The plan would be to do something similar to what I did with foie gras: Take a contested object and then study it from every angle—What are families of peanut allergy kids doing; what organizations like schools and daycares and restaurants doing; what is happening with medical research and clinical trials to treat allergic people, etc.

Nino: And, as you were saying, why there’s backlash against any sort of regulatory measure?

Michaela: Yes, over whose responsibility is it when you have a health condition like this. Why do some people think “Even if your kid might die, I should have the right to bring cupcakes for my child’s birthday”? Where is the empathy for other people’s situations? Whose responsibility is it to keep people safe and how does that change over time? These are all politics of consumption issues because at the end of the day, it’s about what we put in our bodies and what we don’t, what we purchase, what we don’t. But this also leads to many other interesting questions that have lots to tell us about how the world is working right now.

Nino: This type of backlash sounds like an incredibly relevant research topic given how are things going with COVID-19…

Michaela: Yes, totally. I see the parallel with social distancing and mask-wearing so clearly. Why is it that something that is a minor inconvenience to one person gets politically constructed as an infringement on that person’s rights? 

Nino: Will we see any articles from this new project in the near future?

Michaela: The first part of the project is currently under review at a journal. It’s about the politics of peanuts and peanut restrictions on airplanes. Miranda Waggoner, my coauthor, and I presented the first version of this a couple of years ago at ASA on Consumers & Consumption section panel. It’s always good for students to keep in mind that conference presentations can (and should!) become publishable papers. The interesting thing about airplanes is that traditionally there has been a cultural-cognitive association between airplanes and peanut consumption—baseball stadiums and airplanes are seen by many Americans as physical spaces where eating peanuts is conventional. And there’s other literature that uses airplanes as settings for studying risk, so our work draws on that too. I think the topic of allergy is incredibly interesting as it gets into issues of health, responsibility, and politics, and there are so many analogous issues out there that consumption scholars should be following.

Nino: What books and articles have been particularly influential to your work?

Michaela: The books that really got me going were Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family and was Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, which was published when I began graduate school. I think I associate the work of learning to be someone who studies food with Food Politics, especially—thinking about how policies delineate what is available to consumers, about the role of lobbying and corporations behind the scenes of everyday life, etc. Viviana Zelizer’s work about how economic processes are cultural processes and influence consumption and politics of consumption has also been a crucial influence. Getting to spend two years at Princeton, and having conversations with her about my work, was phenomenal and essential for what my book became.

Then there are non-academic food books that I’ve loved and constantly go back to, like Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, especially Tender at the Bone, and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which were hugely influential in terms of doing my dissertation fieldwork on food and thinking about kitchens and cooking and chefs. And, I will also admit that my bedtime reading has often involved cookbooks. 

For the risk and responsibility work I’ve been doing, I am revisiting anthropologist Mary Douglas’ work. I love revisiting classics in light of new projects and thinking about all they have to offer. Douglas’ work has been just so important. I also go back over and over again to Sidney Mintz’s well-known Sweetness and Power, and I always find implications for what’s going on today. This is kind of work that I want to do.

About the interviewer:

Nino Bariola is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Graduate Fellow of the Urban Ethnography Lab at The University of Texas at Austin. His interests include food and environmental justice, gender and racial inequalities in the workplace, and political corruption. Bariola’s research appears in American Behavioral ScientistConservation Biology, and other academic journals and books.

Featured

Scholars’ Conversations: Péter Berta, Materializing Difference

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca) or sign up here.

Scholars’ Conversations:

Péter Berta, Materializing Difference

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the fascinating opportunity to interview Péter Berta, Honorary Research Associate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His recent book, Materializing Difference – Consumer Culture, Politics, and Ethnicity among Romanian Roma (University of Toronto Press, 2019), won the 2020 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award from our ASA Consumers and Consumption Section.

Péter told me about his book’s journey from fieldwork to publication. He gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of Gabor Roma’s tournament of value and the relation between luxury consumption and intra-ethnic politics. 

Tim: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?

Péter: Studying changing (and often competing) consumer ideologies, practices, and identities offers a unique analytical lens through which a deeper and critical understanding of the complex interactions between and interdependence of subjects and material worlds can be achieved. Focusing the analytical gaze on the multidimensional politics of consumption also provides me with a dynamic and nuanced picture of how intersectional relationships among power, gender, class, race, and ethnicity have developed as well as how these relationships shape and are shaped by structural factors and the lived identities of consumers.

Tim: Your book Materializing Difference is a fascinating ethnography of the Gabor Roma in Romania. How did you come to work with this community? What sparked your interest in the specific circulation of silver beakers and roofed tankards?

Péter: I first encountered Gabor Roma in April 1998 when I was travelling around Romania— and more particularly, the Mureş County in Transylvania—looking for local Roma communities where I could begin a twelve-month field research planned for a year later. My initial plan was to examine practices and ideologies related to death and mourning, as the continuation of earlier research. However, after I began the field research, it soon became clear that these phenomena are surrounded by such intense anxiety and so many linguistic and other taboos that it is exceedingly difficult to gather information. Accordingly, after a short while I decided to seek another focus for my research. 

This is how my choice fell on intraethnic politics, an ethnicized and gendered phenomenon that has special significance in the world of the Gabor Roma, and especially in one of its symbolic arenas: the consumption of beakers and roofed tankards (interpreted as a “tournament of value”) made of antique silver, defined as luxury goods. Nothing illustrates the special political and economic significance of these objects among the Gabor Roma better than the conspicuous difference between the price range associated with them on the global antiques market and the prices paid for them among the Gabor Roma. While on the antiques market the price of these pieces currently rarely exceeds US$9,000 to US$11,000, within the Gabor Roma ethnic population they usually change hands for many times that sum. The price of the more valuable objects may reach, or occasionally even exceed, US$200,000 to US$400,000! Of the sales transactions I analyzed, the highest purchase price was handed over in 2009—one of the most influential and wealthy Gabor Roma collector paid US$1,200,000 for a silver beaker that was considered to be exceptionally valuable. These beakers and tankards are involved in many identity projects among the Gabor Roma. They are imbued with multiple political and social meanings, as well as personal, family, and ethnic population-level identity and emotional values. The consumer subculture organized around them is a contemporary second-hand culture based on patina-oriented consumption. 

Tim: That is fascinating! How did you turn this observation into analysis?

Péter: The fact that in my search for a new analytical focus my choice fell on analysis of the dynamic interrelatedness between luxury consumption and intraethnic Gabor Roma politics appeared to be a logical choice given that one of the central topics of male discourse at Gabor Roma social gatherings and in everyday meeting situations was the group of silver beakers and roofed tankards – their ethnicized ownership histories, negotiations on two or more pieces’ comparative political significance and economic value as well as on their local or regional rankings.

In the course of field research and writing the book, I was concerned mainly by such questions as: How do consumer goods and practices shape and mediate human relationships? In what ways do these goods and practices possess social, economic, or political agency? What role does consumer culture—especially luxury consumption, as well as commodity aesthetics, biographies, and ownership histories—play in the production of social and political identities and hierarchies? How do (informal) consumer subcultures of collectors organize and manage themselves? The research aimed to reveal the inner dynamics of the complex relationships and interactions between luxury goods and their consumers, as well as among consumers themselves, and to investigate how these relationships and interactions contribute to the construction, materialization, and reformulation of social, economic, and political identities, boundaries, and differences in the Gabor Roma ethnic population.

On a more theoretical level, I tried to demonstrate that agency is not an exclusive attribute of the world of either subjects or things—these two spheres are created and acquire social meanings and significance in the context of the interactions arising between them, and therefore subjects and things are simultaneously products and producers of these interactions, as well as of each other. When writing the book, I also placed great emphasis on investigating how, after 1989, the political transformation in Romania led to the emergence of a new, post-socialist consumer sensitivity among the Gabor Roma, and how this sensitivity reshaped the pre-regime change patterns, meanings, and value preferences of luxury consumption. 

It was clear for me right from the outset that the study of intersectional relationships between luxury consumption and intraethnic political inequalities and hierarchies is not part of the mainstream of research in Romani studies. For this reason, when deciding on the analytical framework and focus, I made a special effort to link my research closely to some of the central research questions, contemporary directions, and new theoretical developments of wider fields such as the sociology and anthropology of consumption and the new material culture studies. This is one of the reasons why my interest turned towards such practices, phenomena, and methods as the politics of commodity aesthetics and ownership histories; bazaar-style consumption and risk management; the construction, commodification, and consumption of (fake) authenticity attributed to commodities; contemporary second-hand cultures based on patina-oriented consumption; and the biographical method and the method of multi-sited commodity ethnography. 

Tim: How long did you take in publishing since you first conceived the project?

Péter: I began field research among the Romanian Gabor Roma in April 1998. Between 1998 and the publishing of Materializing Difference, I spent a total of over thirty-three months in Transylvania conducting multi-sited ethnographic research, in the Gabor and Cărhar Roma ethnic populations. In addition, when I was back home in Budapest, I often met Gabor Roma families whose members were trading in Hungary; I joined them in mapping offers on the Budapest antiques market, and in their intermediate trade. The first results of the research appeared from 2007, among others in Social AnthropologyResearch in Economic Anthropology (volumes 30 and 34), Museum AnthropologyMuseum Anthropology Review and Journal of Consumer Culture.

Almost twenty-one years passed between the beginning of field research and appearance of the book. I received professional support of inestimable value for finishing the manuscript from University College London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I spent two years under the guidance of Professor Alena Ledeneva on a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

In the matter of publication, it was an important consideration for me that the fields of sociology and anthropology should occupy a prominent place in the profile of the chosen publisher. Materializing Difference should appear as part of a prestigious series of sociological or anthropological titles. And the publisher should be effective in the global distribution of digital copies. The University of Toronto Press proved to be an excellent choice in all three of those respects. 

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Péter: It is difficult to mention only a few of the great number of writings that had a big influence on me in elaborating the analytical framework of the research. One of those was Arjun Appadurai’s Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value (1986), a classic study throwing light on the subtle dynamics of the social life of commodities that I first read on a 24-hour bus journey between Budapest and London. The new analytical perspectives and research directions it outlined, and such analytical categories it introduced as “methodological fetishism,” “tournament of value,” “bazaar-style information search” basically influenced the way I approached the social, economic, and political aspects of luxury consumption among the Gabor Roma, and second-hand cultures in general. Appadurai demonstrates brilliantly that monitoring the biographies of things—their ownership histories, transnational/transcultural movements, transformations of their meanings and values—is crucial to a more nuanced understanding of the contexts, human relationships, and processes surrounding them (such as colonialization, globalization, or the spread of capitalism). 

Another book that was also closely related to the analytical perspective of things-in-motion and the biographical method, and that also had a big influence on me was Christopher B. Steiner’s African Art in Transit (1994). Steiner superbly analyzes the politics of value and authenticity of commodities circulating in the globalized market of authentic tribal art (in local and global antiques markets, auction houses, and museums) and offers insightful examples of how the manipulation of ethnic provenance attributed to commodities works. African Art in Transit—just like Appadurai’s classic study—convincingly highlights how the de- and re-contextualization of commodities migrating transnationally/transculturally take place and why it is worth tracking their movement as well as the metamorphoses of their symbolic and material features. 

Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption: What are areas that need more attention? Or what are new/emerging phenomena that should be studied?

Péter: Investigating the connections between luxury consumption and the intraethnic politics of difference, I characterized the Gabor Roma ethnic population as a translocal consumer community of practice. Following this train of thought, it would be useful to learn more about the complex and dynamic relationships between consumer goods, practices, and ideologies imbued with identity value and consumer communities of practice. I have in mind here, for example, a more detailed examination of brand communities and ethnicity, class, nation, or gender-based consumer subcultures, as well as of the politics of consumer tastes that characterize them.

In the light of my present research, I find the analyses that examine the dynamic interrelatedness of power, gender, consumption, and ethnicity in arranged marriage cultures, as well as the proliferating research on the relationships between consumption and the wedding industry especially interesting. In harmony with this, I am attempting to give space to these topics in the book series I edit published by Rutgers University Press and titled The Politics of Marriage and Gender: Global Issues in Local Contexts.

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge today for research on consumption is to follow and analyze how COVID-19 is reshaping hitherto dominant consumer practices, ideologies, and patterns in the different social contexts, as well as the consumer communities of practice themselves. In my opinion, this new research direction should focus principally on a deeper understanding of how consumption is changing in social distancing and how this change affects the complex relationships between consumers, products, and markets as well as the various consumer identity projects.

Tim: After such an intriguing ethnographic project, what comes next? What is your current research about?

Péter: My current research focuses on the politics of arranged marriage among the Gabor Roma living in Romania. The project aims to give a detailed critical analysis of the European media, human rights, and political discourses dealing with the presumed motivations and consequences of arranged marriage among Roma, and it also examines the ideologies the Gabor Roma use to justify and rationalize the political, social, and cultural significance of arranged marriage interpreted as an essential and inalienable component of their collective cultural heritage, ethnic identity, and belonging.

The project pays special attention to the complex interactions between transnational economic migration, intraethnic politics of difference, and arranged marriage, and to the inner dynamics of the legal classification struggles between Gabor Roma customary law and European Union/Romanian state/church laws. In short, the project aims to reveal the changing ideologies, practices, and strategies through which a translocal post-socialist informal economy—the Gabor Roma market of arranged marriages—works and flourishes despite the formal disapproval and prohibition represented by the laws of the Romanian state, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and the European Union. The first results of the research will be available in Arranged Marriage: The Politics of Tradition, Resistance, and Change, a volume edited by me and to be published by Rutgers University Press in 2021. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Merin Oleschuk

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website:  the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster (jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).


Scholars’ Conversations: Merin Oleschuk

By Jordan Foster  

I had the great opportunity to talk to Merin Oleschuk, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work appears in journals such as Social ProblemsGender & SocietySociological Forum, and Poetics. Oleschuk’s paper “‘In Today’s Market, Your Food Chooses You’: News Media Constructions of Responsibility for Health through Home Cooking” received the 2019 Student Paper Award from ASA’s Consumers & Consumption Section. She received her Ph.D from the University of Toronto. 

In this interview, Oleschuk talks about her most recent project, “Cooking for One.” Specifically, Merin addresses the inspiration behind this project, its relationship to consumption, and her own evolution as a scholar in the field.  

Jordan: Can you tell me a little bit about your most recent project?  

Merin:  This is a project that’s still in the early stages of conceptualization, but it will examine the foodwork of people who live alone. With it, I’m hoping to better understand how foodwork is enacted and given meaning, including the role it plays in connecting us to others. The project will also draw attention to some of the gaps in nutritional support for single-living people, especially those who are also otherwise vulnerable like BIPOC communities, older adults, and those who are food insecure. 

 
Jordan: How did you come to the work on this topic? 

Merin: The idea for this project came out of the tenure track interview process where those on the job market are asked to think about, and kind of “pitch,” their next research steps. I had a couple different ideas about where to take my research after my dissertation–and actually this isn’t the project I originally presented at Illinois–but this is the one that I just couldn’t let go. It nonetheless feels like there’s a lot weighing on this decision because this project will make up the bulk of the work that will bring me up to tenure. So, there’s lots to consider. Beyond the big questions about the contributions of the research to science and to society, it seemed important to me to also think about practical, or some may say strategic things like, is this interesting and timely enough to attract the interest of external funders? Is it scalable in size and scope to adapt depending on how funding ends up playing out? Does it fit with the mission and priorities of my department? Will it produce outcomes that they and others within the university value? In today’s research landscape these types of questions seem necessary when starting something new, particularly when on the tenure-track. 

 
Jordan: What sparked your interest in this?  

Merin: Well, my dissertation research dove deep into the topic of home-cooked family meals, and in undertaking that research it became very clear how fetishized those meals are. Home cooked meals eaten together around a dinner table are this quintessential ritual for a lot of reasons: for fostering health and well-being, for socializing children, for expressing love and care, and for just connecting to each other and our communities. But it made me wonder, where does that leave people who live alone? Cooking for one sits uncomfortably in a cultural context where home cooking holds immense value due its role in maintaining social and family life. 

The same can be true for living alone more generally, and Eric Klinenberg actually wrote a great book on this a few years back. But people who live alone are still embedded in social and familial relationships, they just don’t live alongside them. I’m interested in how cooking and eating work to connect, or maybe fail to connect, this group of people to their families and communities. The thing that excites me the most about this project is the possibilities it holds for better understanding why we value the work of preparing meals and how we connect with others through that work. And I think these meanings are especially poignant at the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic has re-centered the role of cooking in our lives and cast renewed light on the meaning of our relationships with others.  

There’s also a more practical arm to this project as well, because the current emphasis on cooking within family life holds very real implications for the resources available to single-living people for health and nutrition promotion. People who live alone face a number of food-related challenges that are particular to their living situation. They have to deal with large food quantities that are expensive for their purposes and often lead to waste. They have to work with recipes that are largely designed for cooking for a group. They regularly cook and eat in isolation and are usually solely responsible for all of the work involved in producing meals – grocery shopping, preparing, cooking, cleaning etc. 

Since public and policy attention have been directed at families, there are very few places for people in this situation to turn to help them cook and eat well – and this is especially true for those who are otherwise vulnerable and need that support the most, such as those who are food insecure or recent immigrants. I hope that this research will help inform nutrition outputs that more effectively help diverse groups of people cook and eat in ways that nourish their bodies and souls and help connect them to their communities. 

 
Jordan: How was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project? 

I’ve been lucky to have had some space over my initial semester here at Illinois to think deeply about what the project is going to look like and what questions drive it. That has included speaking to a variety of mentors and colleagues about it to get advice and feedback from people who have much more experience than I do leading larger-scale projects. There’s so much to learn in your first year on the tenure-track so I’ve really tried to absorb as much as I can from folks around me. 

One of the things that attracted me to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is that it’s a very interdisciplinary, collaborative research environment. That aspect is really exciting because it’s encouraged me to think about the research from different disciplinary perspectives, which ultimately will help broaden its relevance and its reach. Plus, I just really enjoy working with others. It makes the work more fun, and it’s usually also more productive, so I’m excited.  

 
Jordan: What does “consumption” mean in your work? 

Merin: I approach consumption in a couple different ways. I’m interested in how consumption is embedded in the work or labor that people (especially mothers) do at home. This includes the various roles that consumption plays in social reproductive, care and body work within households, as well as how that work reflects and reproduces, but also at times challenges broader inequalities. Given that women still perform most of the food labor within households, this work is highly gendered, and much of my research interrogates why this is still so. This may seem counterintuitive while initiating a project on cooking for one, but I think it’s going to produce some really interesting insights that open up new possibilities for thinking about how social reproductive labor happens through food.

For example, I was just talking to someone the other day who commented on how food played a key role in assessing the well-being of her aging mother who lived alone. Questions like, “What did you have for dinner?” and “Did you eat enough?” are key ways that care is performed across distances. I think the pandemic has also really revealed how food-oriented care can operate beyond the boundaries of a household–like through mutual aid operations, for example – so I think this is quite timely to be thinking about.  

I’m also a cultural sociologist, so I pay a lot of attention to consumer culture in my work. I’m interested in how consumption is framed in public life and what implications these framings hold for people’s everyday consumption acts. This also means I pay attention to how certain forms of consumption are legitimated, while others disparaged, and how those framings work to reinforce broader social inequalities, boundaries and exclusions. A focus on culture then helps draw attention to how seemingly mundane consumption acts are moralized and politicized in insidious ways.  

JordanWhat book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work? 

Merin: Oh gosh, there’s so many, but thinking to my dissertation specifically, Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family and Sharon Hayes’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood have certainly served as foundations. Those books sit on my desk as a regular reminder of the multifaceted emotional, physical and cognitive work involved in feeding others as well as the myriad ways that labor is tied to femininity. The work for my dissertation is also very indebted to Sarah Bowen Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton,  whose amazing bookPressure Cooker, and other research on foodwork was coming out as I was writing and really acted a critical base from which to build on.  

About the Interviewer  

Jordan Foster is a graduate student in the department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research lies at the intersection of consumption, culture and inequality. Learn more about his most recent project which focuses on social media influencers.

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Consume This! Publishing Consumption

In this month’s post, we branch out from research projects to hear some thoughts from the new(ish) director of Vanderbilt University Press, Gianna Mosser, about the press’s interest in, and in expanding, the study of consumers and consumption for its sociology and related lists.

-Michaela DeSoucey (Section Chair)


Consume This! Publishing Consumption

By Gianna Mosser

Since last March, many of us have been living in unprecedented circumstances, where so many facets of our social structures have been significantly shifted. Consumption has been one of the areas of our lives that has become hyper central to our thinking: how do you get what you want and need in a pandemic? When our social interactions are limited to only our most nuclear family units, how have our consumption patterns changed? How are structural inequalities exacerbated in these conditions? As an acquisitions editor in the field of sociology and the new director of Vanderbilt University Press, I have to consider these questions in determining what projects to pursue that will become the books in an uncertain future. And, I am going to venture that this subfield will continue to expand widely as scholars wrestle with these critical aspects of our immediate livelihoods. 

In this ConsumeThis! post, I summarize a few recent titles from Vanderbilt University Press that engage and examine consumption in different and important ways. I hope to keep this as an area of expansion and focus for our publishing output within sociology and beyond.  

Recent Titles from Vanderbilt UP:

Food and Poverty: Food Insecurity and Food Sovereignty among America’s Poor, edited by Leslie Hossfeld, E. Brooke Kelly, and Julia Waity 

Food insecurity rates, which skyrocketed with the Great Recession, have yet to fall to pre-recession levels. Food pantries are stretched thin, and states are imposing new restrictions on programs like SNAP that are preventing people from getting crucial government assistance. At the same time, we see an increase in obesity that results from lack of access to healthy foods. The poor face a daily choice between paying bills and paying for food. Sociologists of consumption will be especially interested in the book’s examination of paradoxes (and possible solutions) surrounding the American food system—e.g., a bountiful food supply vs. widespread food insecurity, obesity vs. hunger, and notions of urban renewal vs. racial inequities. More information about Food and Poverty.

Food, Texts, and Cultures in Latin America and Spain, edited by Rafael Climent-Espino and Ana M. Gómez-Bravo

The fourteen essays in Food, Texts, and Cultures in Latin America and Spain showcase the eye-opening potential of a food lens within colonial studies, ethnic and racial studies, gender and sexuality studies, and studies of power dynamics, nationalisms and nation building, theories of embodiment, and identity. The studies span from the Middle Ages to the twenty-first century, and the contributing scholars occupy diverse fields within Latin American and Hispanic Studies. Section members will be especially interested in the book’s eclectic critical and theoretical approaches toward the ways in which food consumption practices have greatly shaped Latin American and Iberian cultures and texts across centuries. More information about Food, Texts, and Cultures in Latin America and Spain.

Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story, by Rachel Louise Martin

These days, hot chicken is a “must-try” Southern food. But for almost seventy years, hot chicken was made and sold primarily in Nashville’s Black neighborhoods—and the story of hot chicken says something powerful about race relations in Nashville, especially as the city tries to figure out what it will be in the future. Hot, Hot Chicken recounts the history of Nashville’s Black communities through the story of its hot chicken scene from the Civil War, when Nashville became a segregated city, through the tornado that ripped through Nashville in 2020. Consumption scholars will be drawn to the book’s focus on the ways in which the marketing and consumption of hot chicken have been inextricably tied to race, and how those dimensions have shifted throughout the past and present. More information about Hot, Hot Chicken.

To propose a project to Vanderbilt UP, get in touch via email at gianna.f.mosser@vanderbilt.edu. Submission guidelines can be found at this website.

About the Author:

Gianna Mosser is the Director of Vanderbilt University Press and an active member of the Association of University Presses. She was the previous editor in chief of Northwestern University Press and was journal managing editor for Social Psychology Quarterly.

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Consume This! Home is Where the Money Is

In this first blog post of 2021, Max Besbris shares some implications from his new book, Upsold, for scholars of consumption, namely that intermediaries (in his case, real estate agents) are central to shaping consumers’ market choices and practices – even for special commodities like houses.

– Michaela DeSoucey (Section Chair)


Consume This! Home is Where the Money Is

By Max Besbris

The housing market is an endless source of fascination for scholars and the general public alike. And it’s no wonder why—housing production and consumption is integral to the overall economy, and housing itself is a special kind of commodity. Houses are homes: they give consumers a sense of place and identity, they are where the day-to-day activities of life and social reproduction get done, and, as such, they provide existential security. But not all homes are equal. The housing market is a site of extreme stratification because home quality and the characteristics of the neighborhood in which a home exists determine a great deal about the lives of those who reside there. 

There are many sorting mechanisms that lead homeseekers to particular houses in particular neighborhoods, but one that has fascinated me as a sociologist for almost a decade is the work of real estate agents. In my recently published book, Upsold: Real Estate Agents, Prices and Neighborhood Inequality (2020, Chicago University Press), I explore what effects real estate agents have on homeseekers’ decisions. I found that agents are central to understanding why a prospective homebuyer chooses one house over another, as well as how buyers come to pay a certain price. Put another way, I discovered that consumers’ preferences—even for an object as expensive and consequential as a house—were extremely malleable. 

For my book, I spent over two years shadowing real estate agents in New York City. While my fieldwork covered many different neighborhoods, it was concentrated in Lower Manhattan and Northern and Central Brooklyn—parts of the city that are very expensive. I followed agents as they took buyers to open houses and paid close attention to the ways they discussed neighborhoods and value. I also interviewed agents and buyers throughout New York State, created various regression models to measure the relationship between real estate agent geographic concentration and house prices, and observed classes at multiple real estate licensing schools.  

In their interactions with buyers, the agents I studied worked very hard to establish their authority and to gain their clients’ trust. They constantly disparaged other agents as unscrupulous, they regularly told buyers not to trust free information available on housing websites, and they deemphasized their own economic interests. As one agent in Manhattan said, “Buyers who think they aren’t paying for any of the agent are wrong,” yet agents representing buyers often framed their fees in this way. For example, when a buyer asked her agent how she got paid they agent responded, “Oh, don’t worry about that. The seller is the one who pays me.” These practices often endeared agents to buyers and made agents seem like trustworthy partners in the housing search process. 

Agents then used this trust and authority to shape buyers’ preferences. They did this mainly through eliciting emotions from the buyer, namely excitement over particular housing units and fear that if a high offer was not made quickly the buyer would not be able to find another quality house soon. When agents found a house that they believed was well matched to the buyer they would not only use words like “special,” “perfect,” and “unique” to describe it, they would also act giddy. Buyers noticed.

As one buyer told me: 

When we bought our last apartment, we had an agent we didn’t really like, he was always so glum. We started calling him Eeyore [the donkey character in the Winnie-the-Pooh books who is pessimistic and talks with a deep voice very, very slowly]. He was never excited about anything, and I think that mattered. We never really felt great about our last place. [Our new agent] made us feel a lot better about buying our new place because it was clear that it was just what we wanted. 

Agents would also draw on various buyers’ characteristics in an effort to get them to agree to make an offer on a house. For example, one couple with two children kept talking about resale value during their search in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. But their agent kept hinting that other aspects of a house should be considered. At one open house, he opened his arms up as if to embrace the space, saying, “Places like this are pretty special. You get the old exterior and this newer inside that’s a lot more comfortable for you and your kids.” At another he pointed to a working fireplace (an uncommon amenity in New York City) and said: “You know this is perfect for Christmas or Chanukah, I mean everyone sitting around the fire opening presents.” After the couple made an offer on house, one of the buyers told me that she was excited because she knew her kids were “going to love the new place.” She said she hoped her family could move in before Halloween, in time to carve pumpkins and set them out on the front steps. Other agents tended to be similarly influential in determining the criteria through which buyers judged and ultimately selected houses. 

Perhaps my most surprising finding, however, was the fact that homebuyers were so easily upsold. Every single buyer in my study ended up offering a price above their initially stated price ceiling – upsold. But upselling played out differently for buyers at different price points. Agents credited very wealthy buyers (those looking to spend over $1 million) with existing knowledge about money, treating them deferentially throughout the process. Additionally, agents assumed very wealthy buyers had the capital to make much higher offers. As one who worked in a very wealthy town on the Long Island Sound put it, “In my experience, there’s not a big difference between one or two or five million [dollars].” So instead of talking about prices when interacting with very wealthy buyers, agents focused on things like building amenities (views, doormen, etc.), proximity to fancy restaurants and cultural institutions, and architectural features. As the search progressed, agents would show wealthy buyers houses that were more and more desirable—better locations, fancier amenities, more famous neighbors—and also happened to cost far more. And, as a result, wealthy buyers often ended up spending amounts far higher than what they had expected to when the search began.  

Agents upsold less wealthy buyers to a lesser extent, because agents assumed these buyers had more practical constraints (namely a buyer who needs a mortgage to finance the purchase of a house is limited to an amount determined by the bank granting the loan). Moreover, the constant talk of prices between agents and less wealthy buyers quickly narrowed their range of acceptable prices. One agent said, “People who are spending $500,000 or $600,000 probably don’t have a lot of wiggle room.” And one agent working in Manhattan said, “With people who have enough money, it’s never going to be about price. It’s going to be about how a place makes them feel. With everyone else, you kind of have to stay within budget.” Across all purchases I observed, home buyers’ initial price ceiling was positively and significantly correlated with the difference between the initial price ceiling and the actual price offered. In other words, buyers’ initially stated price preference was highly correlated with the margin by which they were upsold. 

I think the implications of these findings have some important lessons for scholars of consumption. In particular, they reveal that individual preferences—even for prices—are highly mutable and that market intermediaries, like real estate agents, are quite powerful in shaping consumption choices. Future work should continue to bridge examinations of the cognitive dimensions of consumption (valuation, judgment, and decision-making) with studies of the social contexts in which consumption occurs. In other words, scholars of consumption do not have to choose between psychological, sociological, or economic explanations, but can mix and match. Be omnivorous! 

About the Author:

Max Besbris is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where is also a faculty affiliate of the Center for Demography and Ecology and the Center for Financial Security. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. His research is primarily on housing, discrimination, and economic markets.

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Consume This! Consumer Activism and Corporate Diversity

In this post, Patricia Banks, author of the just-published Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption, reflects on how consumer-focused companies’ social media reacted to this spring and summer’s racial justice protests, as well as the subsequent activist response, neatly weaving it all through the important concept of ‘racialized political consumerism.’ 

– Michaela DeSoucey (section chair)

Consume This! Consumer Activism and Corporate Diversity

By Patricia A. Banks, Mount Holyoke College

 In the days after the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans, protests broke out across the United States. While police brutality was a core focus of the unrest, an emergent strand of activism was directed at businesses. Corporate America, some critics charged, was failing to diversify its ranks. Over the course of the summer, consumer activists targeted companies to make progress around workforce diversity. As I discuss in my new book, Race, Ethnicity and Consumption: A Sociological View, the use of consumer activism to pressure companies to diversify is not unprecedented.

Among the topics explored in the book’s chapter on social activism is racialized political consumerism—consumer activities aimed at “influenc[ing] how resources are allocated toward a specific racial group.” In the United States, there is a long history of racialized political consumerism directed at diversifying the workforce. For example, activists involved in “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns in the 1920s to 1940s picketed in front of stores where African Americans could shop but were banned from employment. Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights activists boycotted businesses that refused to hire African Americans into management positions. Consumer activism that emerged in the summer of 2020 continues in this tradition.

In the wake of these most recent protests, a flurry of posts disavowing racism swept across corporate social media channels. Brands in the beauty industry, such as Revlon, L’Oréal, Neutrogena, and Shea Moisture, were especially active in making pro-diversity statements. For example, a May 31st Instagram post by global beauty corporation Estée Lauder included an image of a black box overlaid with the phrase “WE STAND WITH THE BLACK COMMUNITY” in white writing.

That same day, another major beauty company Coty, Inc. published an Instagram post stating that the business was “in support of Black Americans and people all over the world fighting for freedom, justice and equal opportunity.” Two days prior, cosmetics company Lush posted a colorful portrait of Floyd with accompanying text proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter” and “Staying Silent is not an option.” While these posts were intended to communicate that businesses were on the side of equity, they were dismissed by some consumers as mere window dressing. The Pull Up for Change movement, which emerged in response to these pro-equity posts, was aimed at pressuring companies to become more publicly accountable around their employee diversity, particularly that of black workers at the management level. This online movement was initiated by Sharon Chuter the founder of the Uoma Beauty brand.

On June 3rd, a series of posts on the Instagram account @pullupforchange called on companies that had made racial justice statements to post information about their employment of blacks in professional and managerial positions within the subsequent 72 hours. “You cannot say Black Lives Matter publicly when you don’t show us Black Lives Matter within your own homes and within your organizations. . . ,” Chuter remarked in a video accompanying one post. To pressure companies to publicize diversity figures, posts by the Pull Up for Change organization encouraged consumers to boycott companies.

For example, one post beginning “Dear Allies” asks that “For the next 72hrs DO NOT purchase from any brand and demand they release these figures.” Soon, social media users were leaving comments underneath corporate racial justice postings requesting that they publicize this information. Some comments just included the movement’s hashtag “pulluporshutup” while others included more extensive statements. For example, a commenter responding to an Estée Lauder post asked the company to “Please share the number of your black employees at corporate level, and the number of black people in LEADERSHIP ROLES! If it isn’t good enough please share these statistics with a sufficient actionable plan, including dates and figures about when and how you’ll improve, because I think your silence already shows you need to improve. Fab, thanks!

Similarly, underneath a Revlon racial justice post a commenter wrote that “If your company doesn’t share @pullupforchange then I can no longer support you. I love your products but our lives need to matter.”

Within days, businesses started to respond to the appeals. In some cases posts not only included data about the diversity of employees, but also recognition that more work needed to be done in this area. For example, in an Instagram post L’Oréal USA reported that “Among our corporate (HQ) population . . . 7% identify as black and “Among our executive leadership team . . . 8% identify as black.” The post concluded, “We can, we must and we will do better. Transparency in conversations like this one are an important step. #pullupforchange #pulluporshutup.” Similarly, a post reporting that 2.9% of employees at the director level and above at Coty are black noted that the company “can do better.” The post ended by thanking “@pullupforchange for challenging us all.”

A post by Revlon showing an image of the Revlon logo above the pullupforchange hashtag noted that 5% of employees in the director and above level are black and acknowledged “that we are not where we need to be on diversity and representation at our company.” While it appears that company responses to  movement demands were at their height during the peak of the summer protests, some companies addressed the Pull Up for Change challenge into the fall. For example, in an Instagram post in September, Lush reported “learnings” from a “90-Day Action Plan” launched a few months prior to address diversity, equity, and inclusion at the company. The post included a series of images with pie charts about employee diversity. “@pullupforchange” was written across the top of each image. 

The concept of racialized political consumerism is key to understanding consumption in the past and present. This concept, as well as many others, are explored in Race, Ethnicity and Consumption which looks at the central concerns of consumer culture through the lens of race and ethnicity. In addition to social activism, other chapters examine identity, crossing cultures, marketing and advertising, neighborhoods, and discrimination. These chapters can offer insight on a wide-range of recent events, such as Johnson & Johnson pledging to stop selling skin-whitening products, the Uncle Ben’s brand changing its name to Ben’s Original, and the introduction of legislation to “explicitly outlaw” customer discrimination at banks. These issues illustrate the central argument made in Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption—that understanding racial inequality requires paying close attention to consumption.

About the Author

Patricia A. Banks is Co Editor-in-Chief of Poetics and Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of the books Race, Ethnicity and Consumption: A Sociological ViewDiversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums, and Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class. In her research on corporate cultural patronage, Banks extends her investigation of race and cultural capital to organizations.

List of Images

  • Figure 1: Mary McLeod Bethune pickets People’s Drug: 1940 ca / Washington Area Spark
  • Figure 2: Race, Ethnicity, and Consumption A Sociological View / Routledge
    Figure 3: Pull Up for Change post calling on consumers not to purchase from brands not posting diversity figures / Screenshot by author
  • Figure 4: Response to Pull Up for Change post by cosmetics brand Lush / Screenshot by author

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Consume This! Geek Wave! Driving Scenes from the Fringe

In this month’s blog post, Eli Wilson, Nate Chapman, and J. Slade Lellock introduce us to their recently launched collaborative project on the craft beer scene, and discuss what – and who – drives scenes and shapes tastes, and why we need to take aficionados seriously.

– Michaela DeSoucey (section chair)

Consume This! Geek Wave! Driving Scenes from the Fringe

By Eli R. Wilson, Nate Chapman, J. Slade Lellock

Introduction

You are walking down Manchester Road in St. Louis, home to Side Project Brewing. As one of the highest rated breweries in the world according to leading beer websites such as Beer Advocate and Untappd, Side Project is known for releasing highly coveted small batch, specialty bottles of beer. Today, you notice a line of people wrapping around the block and heading toward the back of a warehouse. The line is full of people, mostly bearded white men, sitting in folding chairs and surrounded by coolers and backpacks full of beer. You ask someone in line, “What’s going on? Are they giving away free beer or something?” “No,” the man scoffs, “Derivation is being released today. Two bottles per person, $40 each. Most of us have been waiting in line for three hours already. It is going to be an instant whale [an extremely rare and valuable beer].”

To many people, craft beer is simply an alcoholic beverage to be consumed socially. The casual imbiber may occasionally go to a taproom with friends, take a brewery tour, or grab a six pack of something made locally at the grocery store. However, for a small subset of craft beer enthusiasts, none of this is sufficient to satisfy their thirst for beers that are rare, unique, and imminently collectable. These beer “geeks” participate in cross-state and international bottle trades brokered via social media apps like Facebook and Instagram. The “whales” they buy and sell, often purchased at the brewery source on the day it is released, go for hundreds of dollars each. Yes, we are still talking about beer.

Three Waves of Craft Beer

Today, the US craft beer scene is in its third “wave” since the mid-twentieth century. The concept of “waves” offers a general framework for understanding changes in how cultural goods are produced and consumed. The coffee industry provides a textbook example of this. As John Manzo (2010) notes, industrial coffee manufacturers like Folger’s and Maxwell House were mainstays of the first wave in that they mass-produced cheap, instant coffee with minimal variety and maximum distribution in the post WWII period. Then came companies like Starbucks and Peet’s in the 1980s, who epitomized coffee’s second wave through their focus on higher-quality ingredients, specialty coffee drinks, and a more elevated coffee shop experience. “Artisanal” coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia from Chicago and Blue Bottle from San Francisco now represent coffee’s third wave. These companies offer consumers an ostensibly unique experience based on carefully-sourced coffee beans, small-scale production, and a well-curated “guest” experience (similar to what Richard Ocejo (2017) describes about modern cocktail bars, distilleries, and butcheries). 

The US craft beer scene mirrors these three waves—just replace the word “coffee” with “beer,” Folgers with Budweiser, Starbucks with Sierra Nevada, and so on. Today’s craft breweries, such as Side Project, make products that push the boundaries of what beer can be while using techniques not typically associated with brewing beer, such as aging, cellaring, and souring. During this third wave of beer, the number of US breweries has swelled to nearly 8,000—over twice the number of breweries that existed prior to prohibition a century ago. Meanwhile, consumer tastes for beer have grown ever more sophisticated, as Michael Ian Borer (2019) has pointed out.

If the idea of “waves” gives us an overview of the changes to a scene and the general direction of this change—from mass-production to specialization to small-batch artisanship—the Production of Culture (POC) perspective helps explain this process more systematically. According to POC, shifts in production reflect changes in technology, laws and regulations, markets, and the industry structure. In the beer industry, brewers innovate by continually adjusting to their environment, including what other brewers and breweries are doing. However, POC tends to neglect how consumers themselves construct meaning and value around cultural objects “from below.” We end up missing how the everyday actions of consumers may bare influence on how objects come to be produced, valued, and circulated in the first place. 

But why would certain types of consumers opt for increasingly expensive, specialized brews in the first place? Bourdieu and other consumption theorists would argue that it comes down to cultural capital. Yes, but only to an extent. Cultural capital offers some explanation as to why social elites may seek out rare or expensive beers while thumbing their noses at inexpensive, corporate-made alternatives. In their mutual distaste for “low-brow” beers, elites and beer “geeks”—whether self-professed or labeled by others—appear to be cut from the same cloth. But only a beer geek would travel thousands of miles to stand in line for hours at a beer release at Side Project, or take part in a prolonged discussion afterward about the rarity of a certain beer in an online forum. Geeks, and their relationship to the scene they are a part of, are something all their own.

Why We Need to Take Geeks Seriously

In fashion, an oft-used expression is that if you want to know where the next trend will come from, look to the streets. Like street fashionistas, geeks infuse value in the objects they consume by producing and circulating specific kinds of knowledge about them. Geeks bring intense interest, specialization, and resources, to a scene. At the same time, the kinds of knowledge that geeks obsess over is not necessarily the same thing that authorities such as trained professionals and credentialed critics recognize. Nor do geeks engage with their objects of interest in the same way that more mainstream, casual consumers do—that’s why they get called “geeks” in the first place and studied for the intensity of their fan culture, as Henry Jenkins has done with bloggers and gamers. What beer geeks covet may have a lot to do with the rarity of the beer or its extreme flavors and esoteric ingredients, none of which translates into mass consumer appeal or critical acclaim — at least not directly.

Consumers today have seemingly endless options from which to make their purchasing decisions. Before buying a beer, they have dozens of potential books or websites to consult to deepen their beer knowledge. They have apps to log their own liquid adventures. Coming across a beer that is “handcrafted” by a local brewery is no longer a novelty. In this context, who, or what, shapes tastes? 

Our research is exploring the idea that beer geeks may be playing a pivotal role in driving trends in the craft beer industry and in postmodern consumer culture itself. They may be co-producing beer trends in specific ways just as they shape consumer perceptions from the fringe. However, we suspect the influence of geeks occurs indirectly: through secondary markets and “hype” that originates in small online forums and in-person bottle shares. What makes this fascinating for us is that geeks are not the same as institutionalized taste makers, or what Bourdieu refers to as cultural intermediaries.

Many beer geeks do not hold formal positions in the beer industry, nor do they have a direct influence on a brewery’s decision-making process. In fact, brewers and brewery employees may have a tenuous relationship with beer geeks that think they know more about beer than them. Geeks, like “otaku” in Japan, are, by definition, fringe players. What geeks say and do—characterized by an intensity of interest, idiosyncratic appeal, or adherence to any number of subcultural norms— may influence emerging industry trends in fitful or partial ways that are never fully embraced by everyday consumers or professional producers.

 All of this raises important questions about the role that a specialized subset of consumers—geeks—play in shaping cultural scenes from the fringe. How do beer geeks, who tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, circulate particular kinds of knowledge within a scene? How might this knowledge flow towards both producers and (non-geek) consumers? Unpacking the influence of geeks in linking other stakeholders together within a scene should be of particular relevance to those of us who study culture and consumption. 

In a society of specialized hyper-consumption, who among us will drive our collective tastes one way or another? Geeks just might.

References

Borer, Michael Ian. 2019. Vegas Brews: Craft Beer and the Birth of a Local Scene. New York: NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Manzo, John. 2010. “Coffee, Connoisseurship, and an Ethnomethodologically-Informed Sociology of Taste. Human Studies, 33: 141-155.

Ocejo, Richard. 2017. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Peterson, Richard. and N. Anand. 2004. “The Production of Culture Perspective.” Annual Review of Sociology, 30: 311-334. 

About the Authors

Eli R. Wilson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. His current research explores labor dynamics, cultural narratives, and social inequality in the U.S. craft beer industry. His first book, Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers is due out in December through NYU Press.

Nathaniel G. Chapman is an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas Tech University. He is co-author of Beer and Racism: How Beer Became White, Why it Matters, and the Movements to Change it (Bristol University Press, 2020). His research examines the intersections of race and gender in craft beer culture. 

J. Slade Lellock is an assistant professor of sociology at Averett University. His work explores the relationship between symbolic and expressive elements of culture and inequality.  

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Consume This! Fashion Influencers and COVID “Chic”

In this month’s blog post Jordan Foster uses his research on fashion influencers to discuss how conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic have shaped their work lives, and reflect on what issues and questions they as well as brands and consumers in the fashion world face in our current moment and going forward. 

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

Consume This! Fashion Influencers and COVID “Chic”

By Jordan Foster, University of Toronto

Fashion influencers—bloggers, digital content creators and social media aficionados—have generated much attention in mainstream news media throughout the COVID19 pandemic. These news media suggest that influencers, owing to the precarity of their work aside shrinking advertising budgets and brands at the edge of bankruptcy, are losing their edge. For example, Cristina Criddle (2020), a journalist for the BBC News, explained that influencers’ contracts, press trips, and brand deals have all been “cancelled.” Amanda Perelli and Dan Whateley (2020) at Business Insider similarly reported that influencers’ collaborations and revenue streams have receded rapidly. 

For readers less familiar with influencers and fashion influencers specifically, we might think of these content creators as cultural intermediaries and arbiters of taste (Bourdieu 1984; Childress 2017). They are located between producers and consumers and they play an important role in framing purchases and establishing value. Fashion influencers, for example, tout their latest apparel purchases online, sharing with viewers their thoughts on the seasons’ most important staples, as well as secrets around how to style them and, of course, where to buy them.

Given the role that influencers play in framing purchases, they are sometimes critiqued for promoting (over) consumption or else (Hund and McGuigan 2019), tied to the reproduction of broader, largely class-based, inequalities in the consumer landscape. What with [some] influencers marketing the purchase of a new product every day, it isn’t hard to see why.

My own research addresses these critiques, shedding light on the work that influencers perform with a critical eye toward how this work has been shaped by the COVID19 pandemic. My recent correspondence with contacts in the industry, including social media influencers, advertising agents and public relations personnel, confirm that some news media speculation circling around influencers is, of course, true— brands are proceeding with increasing caution and some deals are falling or have fallen through. In part, this is because of broader contractions in the global economy that make consumer spending less likely and advertising more costly for brands. And because of public health restrictions that make influencers’ day-to-day work like high-production photoshoots and trips abroad more difficult.

Still these industry figures and influencers have managed quite well throughout the pandemic, with some reporting an uptick in their brand collaborations and advertising deals. Now, more than ever, they say, consumers’ eyes are on their screens, providing influencers greater access to social media followers and, importantly, more leveraging power to use against the brands and advertising agencies they work with. In fact, for some influencers the pandemic has provided new opportunities to sell consumer goods that might have otherwise fallen outside the scope of their aperture, including slippers and robes to wear around the house, home workout accessories, essential oils, and DIY project kits.

Throughout the pandemic, influencers have encouraged their followers to reimagine stay-at-home orders and nation-wide lockdowns in ways that are eye-catching, playful, and frankly, quite fashionable. Em Sheldon, for example, an influencer based out of the U.K. has devoted considerable time and attention to crafting content that is solicitous of public health advisories (image reproduced with permission), encouraging consumers to make the most of their present circumstances in lockdown.

But as restrictions loosen in fashion capitals such as New York City, London, and Toronto, influencers are stepping out of their homes, returning to city streets and well-worn hotspots. And, they’re poised to make social distancing “chic.”

As per their usual, fashion influencers are dressed to impress. Only now, their photographs might feature masks, gloves, and t-shirts embroidered with suggestions for social distancing. Their content is accompanied by written reflections on the global pandemic as well as “hashtags” like, #WearAMask and #StayAtHome.

On the one hand, social media influencers who encourage their followers to abide by social distancing and public health recommendations play an important role in modelling behavior and in providing much-needed caution to thousands and, in some cases, millions of social media users. Fashion influencers might be especially well suited to encourage social media users to purchase and wear facemasks (a contentious issue for some), demonstrating how these masks can be worn in normatively fashionable ways. Or else, direct followers to brands, local businesses, and independents who manufacture masks for fashion conscious consumers.

On the other hand, social media influencers risk appearing to capitalize on the tragedy of the pandemic, or trivializing the issues at stake, obscuring important questions around health and health inequality, while rendering superficial the scope and scale of the present pandemic and its effects around the globe. With this in mind, we might ask, what role, if any, should social media influencers play in modelling health behavior and guiding consumers more broadly?

This question arises while influencers are still implicated in promoting consumption and what many would argue is normalizing inequality. Social media influencers are moving products from everyday apparel and accessories to four and five-figure handbags. In recent weeks, for example, a handful of widely followed fashion influencers have taken up a strategic campaign with the Parisian designer, Dior. Each are dawning (and displaying) Dior’s new “bobby bag,” sharing what colors and hardware combinations the “timeless” bag can be purchased in and reflecting on what they like or love about it. The bag costs approximately $2,900 (USD) dollars— a detail, I should add, that is conspicuously absent from influencers’ posts.

And while posts of this kind are not new among fashion influencers, the global spread of COVID19 colors these posts in a different light. Recent financial shifts around the globe propelled in part (if not in whole) by the pandemic render many consumers unable or unwilling to consume as they might have before and exacerbate what were already deeply fractured class lines in the consumer landscape. Who can afford to follow in their footsteps and, at this time, is it appropriate to do so?

References

Criddle, Cristina. 2020. “Coronavirus: Influencers’ Glossy Lifestyles Lose Their Shine.” BBC      News. Retrieved July 21, 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-52362462).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Harvard University Press.

Childress, Clayton. 2017. Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel. Princeton University Press.

Hund, Emily and Lee McGuigan. 2019. “A Shoppable Life: Performance, Selfhood, and Influence in the Social Media Storefront.” Communication, Culture & Critique:1-18.

Perelli, Amanda and Dan Whateley. 2020. “How the Coronavirus Is Changing the Influencer Business, According to Marketers and Top Instagram and YouTube Stars.” Business Insider. Retrieved July 21, 2020 (https://www.businessinsider.com/how-coronavirus-is-changing-influencer-marketing-creator-industry-2020-3).

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Consume This! Inclusivity and Reflection in Artistic Spaces

This month’s blog post features an essay by Amanda Koontz based on her recent visit to Art Basel Miami and the Spectrum Miami Art Show. Here she uses audience engagement with art exhibitions to discuss the relationship between inclusiveness and authenticity.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

ArtNet_Comedian

Consume This! Space, Place, and Authenticity: What Helps Create Inclusivity and Reflection in Artistic Spaces?

By Amanda Koontz

Somehow, I consistently come back to a quote by Paul Gauguin: “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” Recently, it struck me again after a trip to Art Basel Miami (December 2019), when I came across an article about a banana. While I was off observing up-and-coming artists, the banana was gaining a lot of attention.

The contrasting dynamics and publicity surrounding different exhibitions and staged performances brought me back to the Gauguin quote, and more specifically made me ask, Why is it that some artwork appears over the top and too much of a spectacle to deeply engage audiences, while other artwork seems to encourage authentic reactions and reflections?

Here, I consider how artists describe the purpose of the artwork itself, along with my observations of the interactions between the art and physical space. I use contemporary examples from this most recent Art Basel Miami to explore how staged artistic performances and works of art can reveal components that help to encourage, or potentially discourage, a sense of belonging and authentic reflexivity.

I do so to explore what contributes to the creation of an interactive dynamic that compels introspection. I contend that, in Gauguin’s terms, the interactions that can lead to a “revolution”—the moments that are powerful, even if personal and short-lived—are those that feel as though they organically encourage an authentic expression of one’s self in a safe and open manner.

Alternatively, those that lead to “plagiarism” maintain distinct boundaries between the artist, artwork, and audiences. This dynamic can contribute to reflection on how others will view the work—and in turn how one “should” view the work—which can perpetuate a form of exclusivity.

maurizio-cattelan-banana-1024x600

Art Basel Miami: Bananas, Chalk, and Making Connections

The Comedian. At the 2019 Art Basel Miami, Maurizio Cattelan stole the show with his art work “Comedian” – an art work that garnered publicity as a banana duct taped to a wall. This piece took the social media world, if not the art world, by storm—to the point that it was removed prior to the end of Art Basel in order to encourage visitors to look at other exhibits and diminish the flurry of people coming to simply take a picture and leave. Prior to its removal, though, popular interest increased even more after the performance artist David Datuna took the banana off the wall and ate it without permission of the artist (titling this performance “Starving Artist”). This occurred after 3 editions of the art work sold in the range of $120,000 – $150,000.

In explaining their purchase, one couple stated they did so as they felt the conceptual work would be “iconic.”[i] It was acknowledged that the banana was simply bought from a local grocery store, and the collectors also acknowledged the commonplace nature of the materials. They additionally recognized that the banana would need to be regularly replaced and that, in effect, what they had technically purchased was the certificate of authenticity. A Perrotin gallery spokesperson (the gallery representing Cattelan) explained that without the certificate of authenticity, “a piece of conceptual artwork is nothing more than its material representation.”[ii] From this, we can argue that collectors were literally purchasing “authenticity”.

Science and Humanism. For conversation and comparison purposes, let us also consider the artist Yang Yibin, an exhibitor at the Spectrum Miami Art Show. Spectrum ran concurrently with the Art Basel convention and featured 500 up-and-coming artists. As an artist from Beijing, Yibin won best international exhibitor for Spectrum 2019. His work, “Science and Humanism,” was interactive and the exhibition (labeled as an “Art Lab”) had a rotating theme each day of the show.

Located toward the front of the exhibition hall, the exhibition featured four grey walls that anyone could come up and write on with chalk. Inside of the four walls was an immersive video component. On the day I visited, one wall of the exhibition featured a scientific equation written on glass, while another had a television with a static display (“television snow”). I observed how people came up to the exhibition to write on the walls, with the artist even handing out chalk to people walking past or looking at his exhibition, silently encouraging them to write on the walls.

I had an opportunity to speak with the artist (through a translator traveling with the artist, due to the language barrier), and asked Yibin about his inspiration behind having people write on the walls. He replied that overall, the work was about civilization, so each wall provides a prompt, which then allows people to react. For instance, the back wall was entitled “Eternal Beauty,” featuring a mirror in the middle of the wall with an equation that he described as the basic equation for humanity, but since most people are not scientists, he did not expect for them to recognize the formula.[iii]

Accordingly, people would likely write something random (as in, not directly inspired or connected with the equation itself), but this would then encourage people to express their individualism. I asked if he considered it to be a time for reflection, and he replied that it created a moment for people to think about something small instead of everything larger, which can get confusing and mixed together. That small time of reflection helps to reveal the shared humanity (or civilization), even with the diversity of the attendees and their responses. Similarly, on the wall with the television, he compared the white static to snow, connecting this with how it offers a neutral—and therefore equalizing—backdrop for people to then respond to and interact with the work.

A man poses for a photo next to a banana attached with duct-tape that replaces the artwork 'Comedian' by the artist Maurizio Cattelan, which was eaten by David Datuna, in Miami Beach

What Represents You? To extrapolate from Yibin’s discussion in conjunction with my own observations, by offering prompts that can be understood as relating to something bigger (e.g., humanism), attendees are placed in a position to reflect on themselves long enough to decide first, if they do want to participate and interact (which still takes a moment to justify one way or another), and then second, to figure out what to write. This momentary time of reflection is fleeting yet telling, as you must make a decision about what to write in a public manner—what represents you?

This brief moment makes you a part of the exhibit and reflects a part of your identity, even if this symbolic expression is temporal and untraceable. In conjunction with this, the artist explained how the joint reflection and participation unites those involved into something bigger or higher; in his terms, a form of human spirit and spirituality. From a sociological perspective, in connecting back to expression of self, one then alternates between internal reflection, reflection on those around you (and living up to the expectations you perceive that others hold for you or how they will judge you), and then a reflection on what the narrative of the situation is as a whole. The spontaneity and lack of pressure, combined with reflexivity, offers a fertile ground for a moment of authentic expression.

Types of Urgency and Reflection

While it can be difficult to guess what will become an overnight sensation, the sensationalism greatly differs between the works of Cattelan and Yibin.

Turning Inward. Even if transient, the type of interaction encouraged by and theorized through Yibin’s exhibit offers insight into connections between broader artistic meanings and expression of self. As mentioned, the set-up can create a sense of urgency in determining if you will interact with the work and, if so, how (and usually why, because we like to have a rationale to create continuity in our actions). Yibin’s exhibit on science and humanism asks us to become reflexive and consider how we relate to the work, then and there. It makes us turn inward along with outward, in order to figure out how to personally interact with it, alongside the larger meaning of the work. This sense of urgency is rather different from that facilitated by “Comedian,” which arguably is a different form of spectacle.

Turning Outward. “Comedian” does not necessarily require reflexivity or turning inward; the provenance of the art is not even a part of the authentication process, as the artwork itself is not the point. Prior to the banana spectacle, Cattelan had been best known for his work that referenced Marcel DuChamp’s “Readymades.”[iv] As DuChamp was known for using his work to question what is art, “Comedian” is also considered to be potentially iconic as it helps audiences to consider the relationship between art and society. Along this line of questioning meaning, Cattelan is quoted as explaining that he titled the work “Comedian” in reference to the double entendre of the banana as representing both global trade and comedic humor. While potentially reflective of DuChamp or Warhol, in questioning the boundaries between the popular or everyday versus sanctified art, what is instead being consumed is arguably what audiences and collectors think that others will think of the art work.

Three Components of Inclusivity

Accordingly, we can consider three components related to authentic place and space to help determine what helps to create a sense of inclusivity. We do need to keep in mind that a certain habitus (e.g., embodied habits, skills, knowledge, mannerisms) will still help for some people to feel more comfortable interacting with art work over others. With this in mind, based in my observations, I propose that what particularly influences a sense of inclusivity includes: (1) roles, (2) observation, and (3) accountability.

Roles. Even in formal artistic spaces, there are interactional norms that make people have a sense of being the creator or consumer. As Howard Becker discusses in Art Worlds (1984), art worlds can have a hierarchy, including gatekeepers (owners, managers), through creators (artists), and then consumers (which can still be differentiated between established collectors and novice attendees). In a space that is more open, figuratively (e.g., informality; party-like exhibition openings) and more literally (e.g., festival-like environments), it is more likely that the boundaries between these roles can be blurred.

Through interactive exhibits and/or performance art, the consumers also become a part of the creative process, helping to equalize the space. Additionally, especially in such settings as festivals, the creators can become active consumers of other creators’ art work. This helps to create a sense of equal exchange, even of ideas and experiences, rather than a sense of hierarchy.

Observation. Related to hierarchies, a sense of being observed can also influence one’s presentation of self and the felt expectations for one’s actions. With a sense of observation, the audience member (consumer) may feel compelled to act one’s part in a particular way, rather than allowing a more immediate (“natural”) reaction. For instance, the strategic interactions of performance art have the opportunity to perpetuate a sense of hierarchy or to help question it. In this way, individuals with a certain habitus may feel more comfortable in playing out their roles while being watched. Alternatively, interactive pieces can help audience members feel less monitored, particularly in a judgmental manner, because there is no “wrong” way for an audience member to interact with the piece.

In such a setting, the artwork can be a vehicle for interactions with both the artwork itself and other consumers. Both the setting and the artworks can influence if the form of observation has a felt sense of higher or lower stakes. Non-traditional settings, such as a festival or pop-up event, may foster a greater sense of openness. This can breed a more authentic experience, in that the interactions and reactions can feel more organic. More traditional museums or galleries can feel more regulated, interactionally through social norms or procedurally, especially as there is oftentimes an obvious presence of formal monitoring by volunteer or hired workers.

Accountability. When boundaries and roles are more formalized and explicit, people can feel held accountable to their performance in a much stronger manner. To take this example into another setting, if one is in casual conversation with friends about their current work projects, they may have a greater sense of comfort and confidence even when their friends ask for details or probe further. Alternatively, if this same conversation was held with an authority figure (e.g., boss, manager, instructor, etc.), then these interactions could carry a certain weight due to perceived consequences that could result from the interactions.

In an arts setting, the consequences for audiences may be more social and identity-oriented, although for the creators and in the case of networking, the felt pressures can be greater in relation to career opportunities. As such, accountability also related to observation. In more monumental settings, the openness can, at times, create a greater sense of accountability for actions because of the ability to be monitored and observed by all involved. Ironically, this same sense of accountability can occur in galleries due to the proximity.

When physically close to others, how one reacts can be observed potentially instantaneously by owners, creators, and fellow audience members alike. As such, one’s actions can potentially be deemed as deviant or uncouth, thus incurring the fate that Erving Goffman would refer to as “losing face”. In a space that has been designed as interactive, then the interactions can be less pressured and with decreased hierarchical divisions, along with the associated expectations. When the expectations are to be deeply and personally engaged, rather than an academic disengagement or cultural aloofness, then the concern for losing face can be far less.

The Authentic and the Aesthetic

With the three points of inclusivity established, we can now further consider how the resulting dynamics of “Comedian” and “Science and Humanism” helped to re-establish or question hierarchical boundaries for who could legitimately participate, and in what ways they could interact in the space. The performance artist, Datuna, created such a splash because he knowingly broke the boundaries to add even more sensation through eating artwork. Even so, we must consider how this could still reinforce the boundaries because of what a spectacle it became.

Full interaction was not expected; as DuChamp had noted, simply by taking the banana and creating a certificate of authenticity and placing it on a wall, it had become sacred as a form of art. Even by intentionally questioning what is art, this form of art reinforced that only some people could feel comfortable and access this art. The others taking pictures were a part of the spectacle, but not the art itself. The experience itself was aestheticized.

In such moments in which the only explicit intent is for one to react and interact, the stakes can be high for the presentation of self. In fact, the expectations of the true expression of self can actually block the true expression of self, due to concerns that one’s reaction may not appear “correct” enough for that setting and associated habitus, or one’s general constitution (e.g., skills, tastes, habits, mannerisms, dispositions, etc.). It can be an authenticity trap – we have little else but authenticity (being true to ourselves) to guide our decision-making, yet every choice accordingly has the possibility of “exposing” us, or who we truly are.

Alternatively, by requesting people to interact, they became a part of the art. Audience members were asked to be a part of the art to give it full meaning, rather than creating an aesthetic. Therefore, the interactions that can feel as though they organically encourage an expression of one’s self in a safe and open manner can be powerful, even if the moments themselves are short-lived.

The uncontrollable crowds help to show the accountability to actions that were to take place—the banana is the center of the show, not the crowds; they are on the outside looking in. Alternatively, pictures and selfies at “Science and Humanism” included the audience, and oftentimes their own contribution to the artwork, which shifts the accountability. This accountability to boundaries is also how the performance artist broke the rules, in that he took advantage of the observation to again redirect the attention to him. The casual observation of  “Science and Humanism” fostered inclusivity, while the use of observation in order to bring further attention to “what is art” perpetuated a form of exclusion, even with the attention being garnered.

All of this also suggests that high attendance does not necessarily relate to inclusivity; participation can feed inclusion or exclusion from particular worlds. In these instances, authenticity is experienced in differing ways. The incorporation of reflexive exploration of humanistic authenticity differs from the symbolic exploration of legitimation of high culture. From a critical perspective, “revolution” occurs through questioning the everyday order of things. Through inclusive interaction, we question ourselves and our part within the bigger picture. Through exclusive interaction, we question why that object legitimately belongs, and this reinforces our place within (or outside of) that world. Artwork that blurs boundaries in roles, observation, and accountability can arguably create a revolution, while artwork that upholds these boundaries may be a form of plagiarism in upholding established dynamics.

Just a little something to chew on for a bit.

About The Author

Amanda-Koontz-Anthony

 

Amanda Koontz – is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Florida, whose primary areas of interest include the sociology of culture and consumption, social inequalities, and identities. Her current work focuses on connections between constructions of authenticity, identity work, empowerment, and definitions of success.

 

Sources:

[i] As cited in multiple news sources, including: https://miami.cbslocal.com/2019/12/12/miami-couple-explains-why-they-bought-120k-art-basel-banana/; https://www.newsweek.com/banana-duct-taped-wall-comedian-maurizio-cattelan-buyers-absurdity-1476414; https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-nw-art-basel-banana-duct-taped-20191212-xqrkdtzd35defey2ckoibl7jp4-story.html

[ii] Ahmed (2019): https://apnews.com/a53e1ece92974f26108ec14d222c3c31

[iii] Due to the conversational nature and use of translator when speaking with the artist, I do not use direct quotes. I practiced reflective listening to ask a question, listen to the answer, and then ask a question back to ensure I was capturing the artist’s response as closely as possible. The artist did give verbal consent for our interactions to be included in this write-up.

[iv] For more information on “Readymades”: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/dada/marcel-duchamp-and-the-readymade/

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Consume This! Ethnography and the “Tuned-Up” Palate

In this month’s post, Michael Ian Borer, author of the recent book Vegas Brews, discusses the importance in ethnographic research of “learning to taste” as both a part of the method and an object of inquiry. — Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

Borer-Vegas Brews cover

Consume This! Ethnography and the “Tuned-Up” Palate

By Michael Ian Borer

Despite his vast experiences in the field as well as the numerous students he supervised doing fieldwork, Erving Goffman never published a methodological treatise or even an abbreviated discussion of the subject. He did, however, as a panel member and presented some of his thoughts on the matter during the 1974 Pacific Sociological Association Meetings in San Jose, CA. It was later transcribed and edited by Lyn H. Lofland and published twenty-five years later to the benefit of novice and veteran ethnographers alike. Though he disparagingly quipped that ethnographers equipped with the ideals of participant observation were “finks” who must “be willing to be a horse’s ass,” ethnographers of varying persuasions have relied upon his words to inspire theirs and others’ fieldwork.

Though most of his contemporaries overlooked it or merely took the idea for granted, Goffman opened a door he didn’t fully step through in his own studies. Namely, when doing participant observation of and with a “set of individuals,” he argued that it was necessary to subject “your own body and your personality . . . so that you are close to them while they are responding to what life does to them . . . to pick up their minor grunts and groans as they respond to their situation.”

And even though you can leave their situation

you act as if you can’t and you try to accept all of the desirable and undesirable things that are a feature of their life. That ‘tunes your body up’ and with yourtuned-up’ body . . . you’re empathetic enough to sense what is that they’re responding to.”

Goffman’s focus on the body trained or “tuned-up” to sense and respond to the situations and objects uncannily anticipated the recent recognition of and focus on both sensuous scholarship and the “entanglement” of people and the things they revere, are near, or hope to be someday.

When I set out to study the burgeoning yet structurally stunted craft beer scene in Las Vegas for what would become Vegas Brews, having a “tuned-up” body was paramount for gaining access to and establishing rapport with local craft brewers, distributors, brewery representatives, bartenders, and consumers from the neophyte to the self-identified beer geek. More importantly, I learned quickly that it wasn’t merely my body as a whole that needed to be “tuned-up.”

It was my palate.

I wanted to understand how the local scene influences and is influenced by the aesthetic experiences of those who set and act across the multiple stages of the scene. In order to so, I wanted to feel the very experiences that led them to craft beer and led them to engage it with valor and sometimes sacred fortitude. To foster an intimate relationship between the tasting subject (me) and the tasted object (craft beer), I sought out ways to train my palate by engaging in informal chats with beer geeks, taking formal certification classes, attending beer festivals and “bottle shares,” and drinking, drinking, and drinking some more. I wanted to taste what they taste, or at least taste how they taste, to help me uncover the ways that taste is performed though interactions with others, including interactions with the tasted or soon to-be-tasted object.

All scenes revolve around at least one central “core thing” that scene members—from those in the center to those on the periphery—endow with meaning and value through interactions with it and others. Paying attention to the thing itself is an important corrective to the vast majority of studies of scenes in cities, across them, or elsewhere. As an analytical term, scene derives from and expands Goffman’s dramaturgical writings as a theatrical metaphor and from popular parlance about collectivities with common aesthetic preferences and affinities.

Though scenes of varying configurations have been studied in multiple contexts and around varying interests from punk rock to gourmet food, direct sensorial engagement by ethnographers tend to by lacking. Sociologists have provided valuable works on the social organization of social worlds and local cultures, as well as the discourse and talk of, in, and about them. But many studies largely ignore the aesthetic experience of the consecrated object that provides the social adhesive as if all adhesives were created equal. Knock-off Band Aids stick to skin like water.

It would be a shame to continue to ignore the care with which someone might carefully unwind the tiny metal of a small cage that surrounds a cork, slip their thumb beneath it to slowly push it to pop open, pour the sour nectar that spent a year sitting in white wine barrels into a tulip glass, and then fill their nostrils with the oak and fruit aromas before finally letting the spirited liquid roll beneath their top lip to invigorate their taste buds. I’ve not only seen this; I’ve done it. When someone opens a rare and highly coveted limited-release bottle—a “whale” as it’s called across the translocal beer scene—and shares it with perfect strangers; the thing matters.

When a series of small 4 oz. pours are passed over the bar in carved wooden paddles or planks with a list of corresponding names, styles, IBUs and ABVs to either first time visitors or brewery veterans to quaff and compare; the thing matters.

When people get excited that a local brewery is throwing a party where Las Vegas’s desert dwellers happily don furry Russian ushanka hats as they sip one-off variations of a Russian Imperial Stout as I observed and participated in at CraftHaus’s Comrade release party; the thing matters. Knowing why and how the thing matters—and how it is produced, distributed, and consumed—are matters of utmost importance for ethnographers interested in embodied sensory experiences and the ways they unite or divide, or both.

We can’t simply separate the valued object from the valuing of it; the two work together in tandem. Like Gary Alan Fine, I too am sympathetic toward interpretive studies that focus solely on the interactive practices that help people define the situations and the people they encounter. But, in recognizing both the social significance and the sensuous significance of the things themselves, I follow Fine’s lead when he argues that [sociologists] dismiss the aesthetic characteristics of works too quickly. People respond to objects viscerally and through culturally linked ideas of beauty. While aesthetic judgments are subjective, they are not random.” And they aren’t random because they are learned through often intense engagements with the “core thing” of a scene.

Sensuous knowledge is learned by the people and groups we study and their tastes are performed through both explicitly and implicitly learned tasting acts and techniques. Ethnographers can learn these too, just as some have learned to box, blow glass, butcher, fight fires, and walk the runway. When we make such learning explicit we can better understand the practices of sensuous learning and tasting especially as aesthetic objects continue to diversify throughout privileged cultures burdened by the freedom of choice.

Learning to taste is also a means for obtaining, as Goffman contended, “the ecological right to be close to them (which you’ve obtained by one sneaky means or another).”  As we “tune-up” and take in their world(s) through our palates, breaking through a level of intimacy rarely permeated, ethnographers will see the benefits of embracing taste, or more pointedly tasting, as both a worthwhile subject and method of inquiry.

About The Author
Borer-Vegas Brews-FergusonsMichael Ian Borer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Borer is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and mentor. He was awarded the UNLV Graduate and Professional Student Association Outstanding Mentor Award in 2012 and the College of Liberal Arts William Morris Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014. In 2015, he was presented with the Early-in-Career Award by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.

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Consume This! Engaged Sustainers in the Food World

In this month’s post, John Brueggemann gets hopeful. Based on his research on what he calls “engaged sustainers” in the food world, he revisits Juliet Schor’s influential “new politics of consumption” piece from 1999, and finds a lot of optimism among food doers.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Engaged Sustainers in the Food World

By John Brueggemann

A while back I began waging a personal campaign against hopelessness through my
research. (My flirtation with despair had started well before Trump conjured up the new politics of cynicism). At the time I began by casting a wide net in search of people engaged in life-giving activities who know what genuine, applied hope looks like. After several tries, I came across the emerging social movement related to sustainable agriculture, healthy consumption, and food justice.

Fast forward five years and I have had close encounters with some fifty people who actively work to create a food system that uses regenerative agriculture, produces nutritious food, fosters food security, values culinary arts, supports vibrant community, and promotes a broad understanding of how these activities are all necessarily linked to one another. The conventional understanding of the economy, which emphasizes production, distribution, and consumption, sees humanity as visiting natural settings so we can remove resources for our use. This view is linear, antagonistic, acquisitive, and transactional.

During my research, I have interviewed farmers, restauranteurs, chefs, clergy, teachers,
non-profit managers, for-profit managers, medical personnel, artists, and WWOOFers (i.e., people who participate in the World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I have listened to presentations given by government officials, lobbyists, researchers, educators, and activists. Collectively, these engaged sustainers, as I call them, have taught me a contrasting way to think about the most fundamental resources in our world, one that is cyclical, harmonious, synergistic, and covenantal. As I got to know them, I realized these are folks who do things, whose lives are characterized by vigorous verbs.

They participate in harvesting, reaping, picking, slaughtering, milking, washing, milling,
refining, preserving, and, of course, cooking. They work with supermarkets, food hubs,
restaurants, hospitals, and schools. They are invested in conservation, waste management, “buy-local” organizations, food sovereignty, labor unions, and animal rights. They also work to communicate about the connections between all these activities by way of education, research, and marketing.

At the center of all this work, both as cause and effect, is a changing pattern of
consumption. Researchers interested in consumption will recall Juliet B. Schor’s seminal 1999 essay, “The New Politics of Consumption.” In it she outlined seven basic imperatives that could form the basis for new politics and culture related to consumption patterns. What I learned from engaged sustainers is that the sustainable food movement has in fact moved the needle relative to Schor’s hopes. Her first goal, “a right to a decent standard of living” (p. 459), is a strong part of this movement. Most importantly this requires the reduction of food insecurity, living wages, safe working conditions, and making farming a viable vocation.

Second, emphasizing “quality of life rather than quantity of stuff” (p. 459) is near and
dear to the hearts of people I interviewed. I never witnessed any interest in fancy material items like cars or houses. I did encounter investment in the life-giving qualities of nature and neighborliness. Schor’s third theme, “ecologically sustainable consumption” (p. 460), is the raison d’etre of the sustainable food movement.

The aspiration to “democratize consumption practices” (p. 460), her fourth element, clearly relates to food sovereignty. Many sustainers believe that the inherently relational quality of food should be negotiated in a community. The growing convergence of interests and efforts related to regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty is one of the most compelling developments I discovered in this research.

The fifth goal is the promotion of a vibrant “cultural environment” (p. 461) and protection of it from the corporate domination and the commercialization of social life. I visited several farms that have become popular visitor destinations with prepared food, live music, adult beverages, educational programs, event venues, playgrounds, and birthday activities for kids – all lively and rich cultural settings.

The new politics of consumption will “expose commodity ‘fetishism’” (p. 461), the sixth
point. Schor is referring to the kind of hyper-consumption that sacrifices quality of life and important relationships. This sort of superficial materialism does not really involve the respect of things, but rather ephemeral encounters with them. The new culture, Schor hopes, will penetrate the fog of this orientation that is the life-blood of corporate marketing. Some elements of the sustainable food movement are effective in this regard.

Finally, Schor calls for a robust “consumer movement” that will effect smart government policy. Consumers are actively involved in building such a movement around food. Local, state-wide, and regional efforts are under way, supporting regenerative farming, making production practices and labelling more transparent, facilitating more direct sales from farmers to consumers without corporate skimming in the middle, and bringing greater integrity to quality control.

What the long term results will be remain to be seen. One other aspect of this budding movement is especially noteworthy. To a person, every engaged sustainer I encountered evinced a kind of wonder related to their endeavors. Something about working with elemental forces of earth, sun, water, air, plants, and animals leads people to make connections between here and there, now and later, our grandparents and our grandchildren, earthworms and saving the world, and the mutual creatureliness humans share with other species.

Their work – which is always a vocation or avocation, never just a job – is deeply meaningful. For some, that meaning is explicitly religious. A number of Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and Jews I interviewed consider their work related to food as sacred. For others, the activity is inherently spiritual, whether it is linked to Mother Earth, Gaia, or something less definable. Several folks sounded like atheists or agnostics but expressed profound reverence for the connections they have to elemental forces.
Most all of them are relentlessly pragmatic.

After all, their success is measured in dollars, acres, yields, calories, nutrients, carbon miles, and other stubborn facts. Nevertheless, they live in a world loaded with meaning, perhaps an enchanted world, in which the relationships among people, and between humanity and nature are necessarily interlocked, beautiful, and mysterious. Social movements based on such powers are hard to put down. It is a hopeful thing. Even in the age of Trump.

References

Schor, Juliet B. 1999. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review. Summer

About The Author

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John Brueggemann is Chair and Professor in the Department of Sociology at Skidmore College. His teaching and research interests revolve around food, social movements, inequality, and religion. His most recent book (coauthored with his father, Walter Brueggemann) is entitled Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.

 

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Scholars’ Conversations: Jen Smith Maguire and Nate Chapman

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. This month, two faculty members, Nate Chapman and Jen Smith Maguire, talk about their work on the consumption of craft beer and wine.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Tim Rosenkranz (roset997@newschool.edu) or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Jen Smith Maguire and Nate Chapman

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Jen: I was just looking back through my files and—time flies!—we are coming up to five years since we first connected through a mutual research interest in beer. Your call for chapter proposals for what became Untapped had a deadline of 1 January 2015. That was fortuitous timing (apart from the actual deadline), because I’d just wrapped up the data collection for a project on microbrewers, working with four colleagues at the University of Leicester (Jessica Bain, Andrea Davies, Maria Touri and Natasha Whiteman—my younger son dubbed us ‘The Beer Ladies’).

We were exploring the role of stories in the cultural production of a market for small-scale ‘craft’ beer, and focusing on microbreweries in the East Midlands, UK. We were interested in the stories told by the brewers and brewery sales managers (about their brewery, beer, market peers and consumers) and what that might tell us about the strategic and unintended roles of storytelling in the marketing of, and market making for, small-scale beer. The project linked into recurrent conceptual interests of mine, but the empirical focus on beer was a departure from my usual (personal and professional) interests in wine. What was your way in to studying beer?

Nate: I had been a craft beer drinker since my days as an undergrad. Fun fact, I completed a 100 beer club at a local bar in Charleston, SC when I was a freshman at College of Charleston! That experience sparked my passion for craft beer, and certainly set the stage for my research. My research on craft beer started when I was working on my dissertation at Virginia Tech. I had just finished my area exam in the Sociology of Culture and was trying to decide on a dissertation topic. I was very interested in Richard Peterson’s (1990) Production of Culture perspective.

In this framework, Peterson suggests that laws/regulations, industry structure, organizational structure, markets, technology, and occupational careers all work in concert to constrain and stimulate the production of cultural products. Given my interest in craft beer, I found that no one had really engaged with craft beer from a sociological perspective. I thought the Production of Culture perspective may be able to shed some much needed analytical light on the topic.

I was particularly interested in explaining how craft beer emerged and the rise of the industry and cultural phenomenon it is today. While I was finishing up my dissertation, I began working with Slade Lellock and Cameron Lippard (both of whom I still collaborate with) on Untapped. At the time, I could not have imagined the impact that volume would have on my research and career, and in the broader sense, the impact it would have on craft beer scholarship. That work created a social network of beer scholars that had previously not existed, and in some ways gave legitimacy to studying craft beer as a cultural product.

Has your work on beer informed your current work in any way?

Jen: The beer focus was a one-off, but the project really underlined to me how the aesthetic regime of fine wine continues to diffuse through consumer culture. It’s not that craft beer and wine are the same—they’re not—but there are so many parallels in terms of how craft beer is being legitimated and made available as an object of connoisseurship by a range of cultural producers and intermediaries. At the time of the project, that was wonderfully captured by Peter de Sève’s New Yorker cover ‘Hip Hops,’ which depicts the classic “Would you care to taste the wine?” dance that attends wine choice at fine dining restaurants.

In de Sève’s piece, however, the sommelier patiently presenting the bottle is a hipster archetype, with wool beanie, plaid flannel shirt and on-trend facial hair; the two patrons deliberating on quality—he, swirling a taste in his mouth; she, inspecting the label—are bedecked with artful lower back, neck and arm tattoos. The bottle and specialist glasses would suggest they’re sampling a Belgian wheat beer to go with their burger and fries. It’s a great snapshot of how beer—or rather, some beers—are shifting positions within Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘hierarchy of legitimacies,’ through appropriations and adaptations of various features of the wine field that wield legitimacy not least because of their seeming perdurance (I mean, really…the Court of Master Sommeliers claims a 700 year history!).

I’m especially interested in the terroir-ization (that’s pretty ugly!) of consumer goods—how notions of terroir are made legible through provenance stories, deployed for making and protecting markets (as in “My wine’s better than yours, and you can’t make wine like mine because you haven’t got the same soil and savoir faire”), and implicated in how those goods are made and brought to market. You can certainly say some of it is just marketing bumf, but terroir is also a potentially powerful device for disrupting established hierarchies of legitimacy, as it is for wines from emerging regions where terroir is being “invented” (in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense!) or its reputation rehabilitated.

Nate: As a craft beer enthusiast—and white male with a beard and an affinity for plaid—I am constantly confronted with the “white hipster guy with a beard in a plaid shirt” trope. In the U.S., where craft beer consumption is still on the rise, larger firms such as ABInBev have actually used that stereotype to market products like Bud Light and Budweiser. Most of these commercials juxtapose a mustachioed hipster with a snifter in one hand, with a group of “all American” Budweiser drinkers. These ads also feature implicit and explicit themes and symbols that suggest that drinking craft beer is somehow “less patriotic” than drinking domestic beer. One prominent ad attempts to emasculate a craft drinker who is drinking from a snifter at a bar next to several rowdy men who are clanking bottles of Budweiser and high-fiving each other. The messaging is clear, and quite problematic.

On the one hand, they are attempting to cast all craft beer drinkers in the same mold—that of the pretentious hipster. But on the other hand, they are also suggesting that drinking craft beer is less “American” or “manly” than drinking Budweiser. While their essentialist view of craft beer drinkers may seem a bit tongue in cheek, the data on craft beer consumption actually supports some of this. Craft beer in the U.S. is overwhelmingly consumed by white males aged 21-34, who have a college degree and make over $50,000 annually. One goal of my research is to highlight the lack of diversity in the consumption as well as production of craft beer, while also debunking the “hipster” myths surrounding craft beer. I find it endlessly fascinating that something as innocuous as beer can tell us so much about structural issues surrounding race and gender, as well as provide new frontiers for research into consumption practices and the formation of cultural tastes.

Jen: Agreed! There is a definite upside to using the innocuous and everyday as your point of entry for researching and teaching. But what about the downsides? When I first started my wine research, a friend warned me that I risked killing my love of wine by turning it into work. That hasn’t proven entirely true, but she had a point. What would you say are the occupational hazards of researching beer?

Nate: Before I started researching craft beer, I was very interested in subcultures, particularly music scenes and music subcultures. I remember one of my advisors warning me that researching a group I was highly involved with—in this case Deadheads and Phish fans—may change my view of the scene. The same was true for my beer research. There are certainly methodological hurdles one must navigate when studying something they are passionate about, but for me those challenges helped me to see outside my own experience and to be more critical in my consumption, my participation in the culture, and in my research. I think the most difficult part of studying craft beer is defending the scholarship as a legitimate field of research.

I am constantly asked by colleagues, “Oh you study craft beer, I bet you must drink a lot of beer,” or referring to drinking craft beer as “research” with a wink and a nod. While not an occupational hazard per se, I do find it somewhat frustrating trying to explain to colleagues, outside of culture and consumption studies, that craft beer is an excellent lens with which we can view a host of sociological issues. In terms of my love of craft beer, my research has allowed me to better understand the larger structural mechanisms of production, marketing, and taste formations within the industry and the attendant craft beer culture. I certainly think that craft beer scholarship is becoming more accepted by sociologists outside of culture and consumption, and scholars are beginning to see the value in studying cultural products more critically.

Jen: Like you, I’ve run up against the wink-and-a-nod brigade. That started early: my PhD was on the cultural production of the field of physical fitness. Anything sport-related seems to be treated as a second-rate area of cultural research (and culture), which is ridiculous given how fundamental it is to people’s identities, rituals, values (not to mention expenditures). With wine, I run up against a deep suspicion that if your research involves pleasure it must surely be superficial.

Once, near the end of a job interview one of the panelists snidely quipped that he could “just imagine” my next research topic: the micro-economics of Polynesian 5-star resorts. (I was fuming, but part of me also thought, “That has possibilities!”) That said, those have been blips in what’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience of working within supportive research communities (including our Consumers and Consumption section) and research collaborations. I really value collaboration; it shares the load but there’s also so much more fun to be had with bouncing ideas around, joint analysis and co-writing, and that sense of fun really drives motivation and creativity. Plus, I find it easier to write “we” than “I.”

Nate: I prefer to collaborate on projects as well. I find that bringing in different perspectives—in terms of a researcher’s social location, as well as different theoretical perspectives—strengthens a project in that it forces me to view things outside of my own familiar lenses. My collaborations have led to long-lasting research partnerships and access to social networks that have expanded my research in craft beer, while also opening up new fields of study.

One issue I have with my research is finding the time to answer all of the questions I could not address in an article or chapter. Even after I turned in my second book manuscript, I found myself thinking, “OK, so what’s next?” So, what is next for you? What do you have on the horizon, or what project would you most like to get started on?

Jen: My project list tends to make me feel like a plate spinner—too many good ideas/projects/collaborators; not enough time! I’m collaborating with Rich Ocejo and Michaela DeSoucey on an analysis of how forms of trust get produced and circulated for artisanal goods, such as natural wine. We presented a draft of the argument last summer at ASA and we’re now trying to contain our exuberance within the confines of a journal submission. And, I’ve just started working with an outstanding group of wine scholars (Steve Charters, Marion Demossier, Tim Unwin, Denton Marks, Jackie Dutton, Graham Harding) to assemble a massive Handbook of Wine and Culture for Routledge. That’s given me a great excuse to connect with a range of people whose work I’ve been admiring from a distance. I’ve also been building some research in South Africa’s Cape Winelands on provenance and sustainability; that’s a slow burn but I’m really excited about it.

What about you—what’s next?

Nate: Given the number of new questions/ideas that emerged from my book project, I don’t see myself moving away from craft beer research anytime soon! There is still so much to explore and analyze within craft beer scholarship, so that should keep me busy for the next few years. My other projects are a bit all over the place. I recently published a piece in Sociological Inquiry that looked at the Phish fan subculture and jamband scene through the lens of Anderson’s (2015) “white space” framework. I am currently collecting data on the demographics of the scene fans’ attitudes about race. While I don’t have any projects on this subject in mind per se, I have been reading a lot (probably too much!) about cult films. I am hoping to develop a course on the Sociology of Cult Films. I am particularly interested in the ways in which race, class, and gender are depicted in cult films. I hope to carve out an article from some of that research as well.

What a great conversation! While I have most certainly enjoyed learning more about your research and your career as a scholar, I have also been fascinated by this whole process. It is so cool to sit down and plan out exactly you want to say, or what questions you want to ask, rather than thinking on your feet in a normal face to face conversation. I look forward to continuing this conversation and starting new ones at ASA this year!

About the scholars:

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Jennifer Smith Maguire is a professor in Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University (UK), where she leads the Culture, Health, Environment, Food and Society (CHEFS) research cluster. Her research focuses on the intersection of processes of cultural production and consumption in the construction of markets, tastes and value, primarily in relation to wine (although she’s been known to also publish about the super-rich, sustainability, Starbucks, fitness, and even Star Trek). She is past-chair of the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption section.

 

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Nathaniel G. Chapman is an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas Tech University. He also serves as the Director of the Center for Undergraduate Research. His research focuses on issues of race, class, and gender in the craft beer industry and its attendant culture. His other work examines the ways in which breweries and brewers construct identities and how the notion of authenticity affects craft beer consumption. He is also co-editing a volume on spaces and places of craft beer consumption.

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Consume This! The Politics of “Feeding the Planet”

This month’s post features work from two of our student members, Alana Stein and Nadia Smiecinska, from their research on how nations use a “citizen-consumer” discourse at the 2015 World Expo on food security.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

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Consume This! The Politics of “Feeding the Planet”

By Alana Haynes Stein and Nadia Smiecinska

“You Are What You Eat,” the famous cliché of the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, was chosen by South Korea to be the central theme of their presence at the 2015 World Expo. At World Expos (or World’s Fairs), countries construct pavilion buildings to showcase their exhibits, which seek to display their achievements and solutions related to the Expo theme. From May to October 2015, the World Expo themed “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” took place in Milan, Italy, where countries were asked to address issues of food security.

By focusing their pavilion on this quote, South Korea directed visitors to consider adopting a healthy lifestyle in order to create a healthy planet. This saying, along with other popular proclamations like “vote with your dollar,” represent a rhetoric that pushes people to be ethical consumers and improve the world through their individual consumption choices. By asking consumers to create change through the products they consume, this discourse expands the role of consumption to also include values related to citizenship, creating “citizen-consumers” (Johnston 2008).

The rhetoric surrounding citizen-consumers has largely been propagated by corporations and typically targets affluent shoppers who are told they can make the world better by purchasing “superior” products (Johnston 2008). Additionally, food activists have taken up the citizen-consumer discourse as a route to “eco-social change,” although they still focus on individual consumption practices that take place in the market (Kennedy, Parkins and Johnston 2018: 149). Through examining the 2015 World Expo, we found that countries are also advocating for the citizen-consumer as a policy solution.

When the citizen-consumer discourse spreads from corporations and activists to nations, the meaning of citizenship in the citizen-consumer hybrid changes. The responsibility for addressing food security shifts from the state to the consumer, and thus, the citizen is fully embedded in the citizen-consumer hybrid. We found that many of the national 2015 World Expo pavilions and websites promoted solutions for global environmental and hunger problems that invoked the role of the citizen-consumer. Below, we outline some of the different ways that countries at the Expo individualized the problem of world hunger and environmental degradation, pushing the burden onto the consumer.

Photo of Swiss Pavilion by Michael Wahl, usage license CC BY-SA 2.0

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Both Switzerland and Senegal focused on how the country could educate consumers to reform their consumption habits, ignoring the role of the State as mitigator of equitable, ecologically-sound resource use. The Swiss pavilion was dominated by four imposing glass-sided towers, each filled with a different “local food product” – instant coffee, dried apple rings, alpine salt, and water. The pavilion’s premise was that visitors could take as much of each good as they wanted, but that the goods would not be replenished during the 6-month duration of the Expo.

Through this interactive experience where visitors could watch the falling levels of resources, Switzerland encouraged visitors to see the effects of their consumption habits and contemplate finite resources. In doing so, Switzerland pushed the burden of addressing food security to the citizen-consumer, overlooking both income and access to resources. Similarly, Senegal’s Expo website discussed the importance of its educational initiative, which aims to change the behavior of food consumers by urging them to buy “local produce” because of “its long-term benefits.” Interestingly, the state’s role in improving access to good, nourishing food ends at teaching individuals what they may do. We argue that economic inequality should be a central focus when addressing food security rather than relying on educational initiatives that try to reform supposed consumer deficits like ignorance and greed.

Photo of an art exhibit at the South Korean Pavilion that encouraged visitors to contemplate their consumption taken by Fred Romero, usage license CC BY 2.0

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While Switzerland and Senegal sought to educate and push political responsibility onto the citizen-consumer, other countries further politicized this directive by incorporating gastronational sentiments into the role of the citizen-consumer. Gastronationalism is the incorporation of “nationalist sentiments” into all parts of the food system: production, distribution, consumption, and marketing (DeSoucey 2010: 432). Several countries at the Expo advocated that their own foods and culture are a blanket solution to the world’s food problems, simultaneously invoking national pride in their food and claiming the superiority of their food and culture.

Greece, South Korea, and Austria all featured their cuisines and food production models as paragons of health and sustainability, which both individualized the issue of “Feeding the Planet” and displayed gastronational ideals. For instance, Greece claims that the mere “adoption of the Greek diet” has the capacity to address the global issues of food allergies, obesity, malnourishment, and environmental sustainability. South Korea also promoted its own food as a global solution, asserting its culinary tradition can be applied “to resolve challenges for the whole of humanity.” In these cases, the countries advocate that consumers’ adoption of their national cuisine can be applied to a global context to serve as a convenient solution to the simultaneous problems of environmentally unsustainable food production, food scarcity and over-indulgence.

Photo from Austrian Pavilion by Luca Nebuloni, usage license CC BY 2.0

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Instead of  featuring its own cuisine as the main solution, the Austrian citizen-consumer rhetoric focuses on the globalized idea of good food, invoking organic food as the global cosmopolitan ideal for consumer citizenship (Grosglik 2017). Austria prioritizes its many sustainable choices available to consumers, highlighting that its “range of organic products available to consumers in supermarkets is higher than anywhere else in Europe.” By advocating that its superior retail choices embody Austria’s leadership in a more environmentally viable food system, the role of consumer is put at the forefront while the country distances itself from responsibility, except to establish its own superiority and national pride.

By analyzing the case of the 2015 World Expo, we find that as countries addressed the issue of “Feeding the Planet,” they continually offloaded their own responsibility for addressing world hunger onto the market and the consumer. This privatization promotes the discourse of the citizen-consumer and incorporates nationalism into the political projects that the citizen-consumer should take up. Countries implied that individual consumers’ improvement of their own diets would solve the issues that the countries were tasked with addressing. Thus, the consumer is told that they can (and should) express their national pride through their food choices, as they also seek to remedy global problems of environmental degradation, malnutrition, obesity, and food scarcity.

Note: Direct quotes that are not cited are taken from the English versions of the countries’ official Expo 2015 websites, which have since been taken down.

This is part of an ongoing research project that examines how countries portray solutions to world hunger through neoliberal, gastronational, and eco-modernist ideologies.

References

DeSoucey, Michaela. 2010. “Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union.” American Sociological Review 75(3):432–55.

Grosglik, Rafi. 2017. “Citizen-Consumer Revisited: The Cultural Meanings of Organic Food Consumption in Israel.” Journal of Consumer Culture 17(3):732–51.

Johnston, Josée. 2008. “The Citizen-Consumer Hybrid: Ideological Tensions and the Case of Whole Foods Market.” Theory and Society 37(3):229–70.

Kennedy, Emily Huddart, John R. Parkins, and Josée Johnston. 2018. “Food Activists, Consumer Strategies, and the Democratic Imagination: Insights from Eat-Local Movements.” Journal of Consumer Culture 18(1):149–68.

About The Authors

Alana Haynes Stein — PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses in the areas of political economy, food, stratification, and consumption. She also studies inequities in the private food assistance system.

Nadia Smiecinska — PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include consumption and economic de-growth, political economy and social transformation in post-socialist societies of Central Eastern Europe. Previously, she spent over a decade working inside international nonprofits focused on climate change mitigation and poverty alleviation in emerging economies.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Christopher Andrews and Craig Lair

This conversation is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. This month, two faculty members, Christopher Andrews and Craig Lair, talk about their work on outsourcing, overworked consumers, and invisible consumption.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Tim Rosenkranz (roset997@newschool.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Christopher Andrews and Craig Lair

Christopher Andrews: I feel like you and I share so many interests and influences, in part, because we were classmates in the same graduate program at Maryland and took courses with many of the same professors. We’ve also collaborated on several occasions—most recently in an article examining job postings on Craiglist. But I don’t think we ever really discussed how we actually arrived at our research topics.

Somewhat serendipitously, I ended up deciding to focus on self-service and self-checkout lanes after a weekly trip to the local supermarket. I had been taking classes on theories of consumption with George Ritzer and work in the “new economy” with Bart Landry, and the self-checkout lanes being introduced in stores raised all sorts of interesting questions. Why were companies outsourcing work at a time when so many Americans were desperate for work during the recession? Would self-checkout lanes eliminate jobs and contribute to the “end of work”? And what was the appeal to consumers who were ostensibly being asked to “labor in” for free?

TheOverworkedConsumerCoverThose two courses provided me with a sociological toolkit of concepts and theories that essentially laid the foundation for what became my dissertation, and later, my book The Overworked Consumer.

Chris: How did you end up focusing on outsourcing? 

Craig Lair: I ended up focusing on outsourcing because George Ritzer suggested it as a dissertation topic after seeing a presentation by Arlie Hochschild.  In my dissertation, I tried to understand the trend of outsourcing personal and family affairs from the perspective of reflexive modernization theory. One thing I noticed was that there tended to be distinct literatures on outsourcing in the business realm, the government, and in intimate and family life. So after my dissertation, I did work that argued that if we see outsourcing as a distinct form of social interaction, then we should see some common patterns wherever outsourcing occurs (Lair 2012).

In other words, I tried to show there were common features in business, government, and personal/family outsourcing.  I have returned more recently to my interest in outsourcing in the personal and family realms. Part of this has been work on how employers will advertise exploitative (Lair, MacLeod & Budgar 2016) and/or highly precarious expectations of nannies on Craigslist (Lair & Andrews 2018). The other part has been on how people use outsourcing to make them appear in certain ways. For example, I did research on companies you can hire to inscribe greeting cards for you, but where these companies try to hide their involvement in this process (Lair 2016). The result is that an individual can outsource the act of inscribing a card but the recipient of it will not know an act of outsourcing occurred.

Chris: Arlie Hochschild has always been one of my favorite sociologists. It’s interesting that you both find American families adopting the same business practices as large corporations. It seems that much of what I’ve read on the “gig economy” emphasizes the role of new technologies such as apps and smartphones, but isn’t outsourcing also a major factor driving the growth of such fragmented and precarious work? After all, where is the demand for these services coming from? The last bit you mentioned about hiding or masking the use of outsourcing—to me that also suggests there is a moral dimension to outsourcing. How do you see moral factors limiting or shaping the use of outsourcing? Is there a moral ethic to outsourcing? Sorry for bombarding you with some many questions all at once!

Craig: I definitely think that personal and family outsourcing is one of the main drivers of the gig economy and work that is all too often highly precarious. What technology has done has allowed individuals to connect with the providers of these services in new and efficient ways. So there is a symbiotic relationship between technology and outsourcing that is fueling the gig economy.

In terms of morality and outsourcing, I do think that concerns regarding the former helps to shape the practice of the latter. In my work on the outsourcing of greeting cards, and in more recent research on what I am calling “invisible consumption”—situations where a company provides an individual with a good or service but promises this provisioning will not be detected by others—, I see people acting as, what Goffman calls, “merchants of morality.”  Goffman argues that people are so concerned with being seen as someone who upholds the moral standards of a particular social order that if, for some reason, they cannot uphold these standards they will engineer the impression that they are actually doing so. I have argued that outsourcing is one means of engineering this kind of impression. For example, the outsourcing of a greeting card inscriptions allows the individual to appear as the kind of person who performs this kind of personal act for another when, in actuality, they were not the person who inscribed a card. So yes, I think morality does influence this kind of outsourcing in some significant ways.

Craig: How did you see moral concerns influence the use and reception of self-checkouts?

Chris: I think one could also argue that the relationship between providers and consumers of such services is a symbiotic relationship since each benefits from interacting with the other. On the other hand, I could see an argument being made that companies like Uber or DoorDash are parasite since they essentially extract a percentage of workers’ wages and/or tips as a cost of doing business. Some people might deem this justifiable in a 20th century brick-and-mortar business in which there is considerable overhead and fixed capital, but many of these on-demand, crowdsourced apps have comparatively little of either. Perhaps that’s why there was such an outcry when the news recently reported that DoorDash and Instacart customers’ tips were not going directly to the workers but were used to subsidize base pay. American consumers clearly have views about how payments for these transactions should be handled and this is perhaps why other companies, like Grubhub and Seamless, allow drivers to keep 100% of their tips.

As far as self-checkouts, one of the biggest concerns I saw regarding the morality of their use concerned job loss. Specifically, some customers I interviewed criticized them and avoided using them because they thought the technology was being used to eliminate jobs. That was actually one of my initial working hypotheses that I later discovered was in fact not true. Even when we control for population growth and the number of stores, the introduction of self-checkout lanes has not significantly reduced the number of cashiers working in the supermarket industry. Why? I won’t address that here but you can read about it in the Consume This! post introducing my book.

Jobs aside, I think a second moral issue concerns whether these machines deliver what they promise; for example, several experiments have demonstrated that self-checkout lanes are not in fact faster than conventional checkout lanes. And there is the criticism that self-service is yet another form of shadow work, beckoning consumers to perform even more unpaid work. When Clarence Saunders invented the modern supermarket, he thought customers would be willing to do more of the work picking up and carrying items to the cashier if they received lower prices in return. And they did. But today, I don’t see stores, airports, or other businesses offering any measurable economic incentive for consumers to labor in. The only advantages I encountered were that doing so allowed customers to avoid face-to-face interactions, but historically American consumers have tended to view personal service in positive rather than negative terms.

Chris: What’s next for you in terms of research?

Craig: I am currently studying companies that sell fake college diplomas, transcripts, and other bogus credentials and how they explain their services. In general, these companies offer plausibly legitimate reasons for why someone would need a fake diploma (e.g., you lost your diploma and want a new one but your alma mater has since closed), but they also tend to indicate that their fake credentials can be used for less legitimate purposes. For example, they will say things like even though their fake diplomas are intended as novelties, they are so realistic that no one will know they are inauthentic.

They also emphasize that nothing on the degree will indicate that the degrees they sell are fake except for an easily removed sticker with the word “novelty” on it. Other companies emphasize that in no way should their products be used for the purpose of getting a job, but later note that most employers do not verify the credentials employees claim to have, showing how, “in theory,” one could use fake academic credentials to get a job. I refer to this kind double talk as “winking” since a number of companies use the winking emoji when talking about these things.

What’s next for you, and what is your guilty pleasure in terms of consumption? For me it is iced cookies. Even though I know they are not good for you, if we have them in the house I just cannot stop myself from eating them. Thus, I have to pretend to not see them in the store otherwise they end up coming home with me.

Chris: I’m focusing on the ongoing moral panic over automation and anticipated job loss. Interestingly enough, the fears over technology and work we are currently witnessing have occurred several times before. For example, the “great employment controversy” over the potential effects of automation in the 1960s led to a Presidential commission that found that technology eliminated jobs, but not work. Economic historians reveal that while the number of jobs in agriculture and manufacturing declines, the number of jobs in services dramatically increased. Yet, today books about automation, robots, and AI eliminating work are national bestsellers. What gives? This becomes especially puzzling when we start to examine employment data on the sectors and jobs that were predicted to be most affected by these innovations. For example, the introduction of ATMs and self-checkout lanes have not significantly reduced the number of cashiers or bank tellers—in fact, they’ve only continued to grow, even when we control for things like population growth and number of establishments.

My guilty pleasure in terms of consumption? The tiramisu at the local store—it’s decadent but small enough in size that seems reasonable. The best part is that because it is so popular sometimes they sell out, meaning that when it’s there I feel justified in buying it and when it’s not I tell myself that maybe—just maybe—it will be there next time. Adds a little magic and uncertainty to the shopping adventure!

About the Scholars

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Dr. Christopher Andrews is Associate Professor of Sociology at Drew University. He is the author of The Overworked Consumer: Self-Checkouts, Supermarkets, and the Do-It-Yourself Economy (Lexington, 2018). His academic articles appear in Sociological Inquiry and Sociological Spectrum. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park.

 

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Dr. Craig Lair is Associate Professor of Sociology at Gettysburg College. His academic articles appear in Sociological Inquiry and Sociological Spectrum. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Consume This! The Evolution of Luxury 

In this month’s post, Ian Malcolm Taplin draws from his new book, The Evolution of Luxury, to provide a much-needed historical analysis and contextualization of high-end consumption to show how goods and their meanings have transformed.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

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Consume This! The Evolution of Luxury 

By Ian Malcolm Taplin

Perhaps like others I have often found luxury products intriguing and even at times alluring. As a special treat for some achievement we might indulge in an expensive product or experience. We sometimes gaze with a mixture of envy and barely suppressed anger at an ostentatious residence, massive private oceangoing yacht, or six figure watch. Perhaps implicitly we wonder why some have these things and not me? Contemplating these contradictory sentiments led me to think about the history of luxury; especially how it was experienced and rationalized in the past and how that might have changed with the onset of an industrial, capitalist consumer society. Is luxury in some way different now from how it was embraced and viewed in the past? Has it become less discrete and more pervasive than in previous centuries, used now by the super-rich as a way to not just differentiate themselves from the majority but as a positional marker that broadcasts their status? This book is the outcome of these ruminations.

As the title suggests, The Evolution of Luxury offers an analysis of how the manifestations of luxury have changed through the ages, and with that the role and actions of both suppliers and buyers of luxury products. Luxury was and continues to be used by the wealthy as a way of furthering their status relative to others. Meanings associated with luxury frequently focus upon how luxury goods are experienced, by those who have the financial means to acquire them as well as those who do not but nonetheless recognize what they represent. Luxury has always been a mark of success, status, and wealth, and as such is the very embodiment of inequality. But the way luxury was implicitly justified in the more rigidly hierarchical societies of the past is different from its current overt expressions of individual achievement.

This book examines this changing narrative paying particular attention to how currently a global class of ultra-high net worth individuals are the driving force behind the growth and profitability of luxury goods firms in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They have replaced the aristocrats of the past whose hereditary elite status that enabled luxury consumption was accepted providing they adequately displayed gestures of public munificence.

Whereas in the past luxury could have been seen as avarice and morally corrosive, now it is viewed in more virtuous terms as the inevitable outcome of structural changes that legitimize the acquisition and display of wealth. Pre-industrial hierarchies cloaked inequality in various secular and sacred guises to mitigate its presence; capitalism justified and reified inequality as a measure of individual success and initiative through interdependent market behavior. Wealth displays are now seen as an expression of individual effort and thereby worthy of celebration. The result of this transformation is that luxury status markers have become aspirational tools as hierarchies became porous and self-identity less ascriptive. As a consequence, we have witnessed a shift from criticism of luxury to its implicit acceptance; changes that signify fundamentally different notions of what constitutes the basis for social order.

The early chapters of the book examine the role played by luxury goods in previous societies. From the Roman elite whose justification for indulgence was mitigated by their provision of certain public spectacles to Renaissance Princes who used patronage of artists as a way of securing sacred favors. With industrialism came a new group of wealthy – those for whom income was generated by manufacturing initiatives. But they too sought material refuge in many of the pursuits of their aristocratic forbears, whether it be in stately homes, art, or high fashion. By emulating the lifestyle of an earlier elite they assumed this would accord them the appropriate status to which they now felt entitled. In recent decades, the growth of ultra-high net worth individuals globally has provided a new group of luxury consumers. Perhaps less secure in their elite status, many in this group use luxury as a way of projecting their newfound power.

The second half of the book looks at three sectors which are emblematic of luxury: fashion, art, and wine. As the business of fashion emerged in the mid-19th century and became a commodity with the growth of the Department store and mass production, a niche market of expensive, high quality, and difficult to obtain goods nonetheless persisted. As twentieth century consumers were able to shape their own identities, a mass market for clothing coexisted with a high end fashion industry that catered to the wealthy. Increasingly dominated by a group of major ‘brands’ that offer referential lifestyles for the new rich, these firms are global conglomerates who use economies of scope as well as integrated supply chains to retain production flexibility and an aura of exclusivity and status for their products. With high rates of profitability and an apparent immunity to business cycle downturns, a core group of luxury firms has successfully built global brand recognition as the embodiment of sartorial luxury.

By tracing the transformation of art markets during the past centuries, one can identify ways in which art has been used as a status good as well as a public good in a sacred setting. But as art markets became consolidated and commodified in the last 100 years, mega galleries, art consultants, and auction houses now transform hitherto aesthetic aspects of art into investment grade commodities.

Finally, fine wine has increasingly become a status product rather than a beverage to complement a nice meal. In examining the growth of wine from Napa, California, one can see how the pursuit of oenological excellence among a small group of wineries has resulted in high price, limited availability products that only a select few are able to acquire. It has become the quintessential luxury beverage for the super-rich.

As demand for high priced and scarce goods in these sectors increased, in each case key actors manipulated markets to purposefully either consolidate their pre-eminence or manufacture the requisite scarcity that affords them canonical status. The demand for and supply of luxury goods is global; consumers seek validation and affirmation of their status while producers engineer scarcity. Luxury is seen not only as good; it is virtuous, its demand possibly insatiable and for producers extremely profitable.

About the Author

Ian Malcolm Taplin — Professor of Sociology, Management and International Studies at Wake Forest University. He is currently writing a book on the organization of the wine industry in Napa, California.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Clayton Childress, Under the Cover

This interview is part of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Tim Rosenkranz (roset997@newschool.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Clayton Childress, Under the Cover

By Tim Rosenkranz, The New School

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I had the great opportunity to interview Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at The University of Toronto. His book Under the Cover (Princeton UP, 2017) won the 2018 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture from the ASA Culture Section.

Childress here follows the novel Jarrettsville from its creation, through its production, to its reception by reviewers and readers. We talked about his research and consumption. We also talked about exhausting projects, truckers, inspiring misunderstandings, and Rorschach inkblots.

 

Tim Rosenkranz: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?

Clayton Childress: In my work consumption is either about market transactions or about the taste for and evaluation of goods that comes before or after those transactions. This spans everything from organizational theorists studying the relationship between category blending and market attention, to those working in the traditions of Bourdieu or Peterson studying the relationship between taste and social stratification, to smaller-scale studies of taste formation or practice.

That said, consumption, both analytically and as a research area, is I think the study of activities that takes place in a particular location in the creation, production, and reception of objects. That a Hollywood studio executive is “consuming” scripts when considering them for production is of course true, but the scare quotes I’m using for that are, I believe, very important, as the setting, context, and purpose of that consumption is very different from the types of consumption we study when we say we’re studying consumption. I don’t mind talk of reception being a “second production” or production being a “first consumption” for the purposes of thought experiments, but for what we’re actually interested in, I don’t find that those types of thought experiments push us forward as frequently as we’d sometimes like to believe they do.

Likewise, in my own work I hold consumption as analytically distinct from reception, which for me is expressly about meaning making. In my darker moments I sometimes worry that a lot of meaning making might just be post-hoc justifications for evaluation, but to even express that fear I’m clearly thinking of consumption and reception as siblings of the same parentage rather than as the same thing.

Tim: Your research in the fields of literature and publishing uniquely connects the processes and practices of production and consumption. How did you come to the work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this?

Clayton: My career and research interests can be explained through two anecdotes. The career anecdote is that when I was an undergraduate Bill Hoynes mentioned to us in passing that he subscribed to a bunch of magazines, and his job was basically to sit around and read magazines all day. To me, that sounded amazing. It wasn’t until later that I learned that by magazines he of course meant peer-reviewed journals and he was just translating what those were for us young undergraduates, but I was already hooked. Upon my graduation Bill told me that if I wanted I could go to grad school and become a professional sociologist, but I thought I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know that they basically pay you to get a PhD, which was mindboggling to me. It took me a couple years to build up the confidence that Bill had in me and to apply to PhD programs, but that’s how I got on the career track.

The research area anecdote is that when I was about seventeen or so DVDs hit the market and I suddenly had access to the thing I had always liked more than movies: directors, and screenwriters, and actors talking about making movies on the commentary tracks on most DVDs. I’ve never had any interest in making art, but I wanted to make a career out of hearing and telling stories about art making, and eventually, art sense-making in reception processes too. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I wasn’t just studying production and reception, but also had to, as Wendy Griswold has written, “rediscover that forgotten soul, the author” to really understand cultural creation, production, and reception from start to finish.

This is all to say that I think I would have tried to do some variant on what I’m doing no matter what, but it’s because of Bill Hoynes that I’m doing this type of stuff as a professional sociologist rather than doing it on nights and weekends or trying to eke a living out of it in some other context.

Tim: Your book Under the Cover follows the novel Jarrettsville from the author, through the publishing industry, to the reader and back. As you say, Jarrettsville in this process had to become many things. Take us through your research process: Where did you start research? How did you decide where to go from there?  What actors to include and when to stop?

Clayton: I went in knowing I wanted to follow a cultural object all the way from its initial conceptualization through its reception, but even what type of object I’d eventually study changed over time. My first few starts were false starts, which greatly benefited the project in the end. I also decided to delimit my study to those people along the way who at least somewhat cared about the object beyond its existence. By that, I mean that while it’s true that a trucker has to deliver shipments of books, I didn’t study those truck drivers, because my dad was a trucker and I already knew that beyond what it meant for his income he didn’t care what was being pulled behind the truck he was driving.

As for the twists, turns, mistakes, and times I had to satisfice or start over during this project, that’s too long of a story for this venue, but I tell what is pretty close to a full version of it in the appendix of my book. Like most good but ultimately self-aggrandizing academic advice stories, it’s a “don’t do what I did” story that still has a happy ending.

Tim: How long did you take in publishing this research since you first conceived the project?

Clayton: I first conceived of the project while talking to a friend in 2005. Like any decent idea I’ve ever had, it emerged out of a conversation, and was developed through many more conversations with many more people. My work on the project finally came to a close with what I assume will be my last two papers from these data (Childress & Nault 2019; Rawlings & Childress 2019), which came out this year. In all that’s 14 years. Along the way I’ve fallen in love, gotten married, had a daughter, moved to a new country, and learned to be less hard on myself sometimes. After 14 years I’m glad to be mostly numb to this project. I’m still proud of it, but if I’m being honest it feels like the accomplishment of a different person that I happen to know extraordinarily well.

Tim: After 14 years you have exhausted this research project. Do you mind giving us a short teaser of what you are working on now and what to look forward to?

Clayton: To be fair I think this project exhausted me more than I exhausted it, but that’s probably the way it should be. Right now I’m working on three things. With Dan Silver, Monica Lee, Adam Slez, and Fabio Dias I’m working on a paper on the relationship between unconventionality in genre combinations and popularity for about 3 million bands in the United States. With Shyon Baumann, Craig Rawlings and Jean-Francois Nault I’ve spent the past few years creating, launching, and analyzing a survey.

At ASA this year we presented a paper from it on the configurations through which individuals balance democracy and distinction in their cultural tastes, which seemed to be well received, and which we’re all very excited about. Saving what might be the biggest for last, with Erik Schneiderhan I’ve spent the past two years collecting data in Johannesburg, South Africa for a project on the creation and production of Nelson Mandela’s two autobiographies. Just last week we signed a book contract for that project. I’m very excited about it, but also overwhelmed and a little scared about the scope of it. At this stage in a project this big I think a little bit of fear is a good thing.

The running theme on these three projects is that my interests remain my interests, but I prefer collaborating, mostly because I think it makes the work better, but also because it’s an outlet to spend time with people. The romantic ideal of a simple, independent, isolated Walden Pond-style life is for me bullshit. When compared to his actual life even for Thoreau it was mostly bullshit.

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Clayton: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s a whole generation of us who have made careers off of DiMaggio (1987). The terrifying brilliance of that piece is best seen by the fact that so many of us have been able to make different careers off of it. For my own work and thinking about consumption, it’s probably that piece and the work of Wendy Griswold that have been most influential. She has kept her feet firmly planted in what she thinks is the right way to do things as different paradigms and trends have fallen in and out of favor, which is both admirable in itself, but I probably also find particularly admirable because I believe her to be right. Terrence McDonnell’s Best Laid Plans, which is a massive achievement in our subfield, has led to the most recent shift in my thinking on consumption and reception.

Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption: What are the areas that need more attention; or what are some new/emerging phenomena that have to be studied?

Clayton: Somewhere along the way I think meaning making in reception processes hit somewhat of a methodological and theoretical roadblock. I’d like to see more work that really pushes our thinking forward on reception and meaning making processes, as we’ve seen with studies of taste and evaluation in cultural consumption. My recent paper with Craig Rawlings was an attempt to do that. Rachel Sherman’s last book, Uneasy Street, does that. Michaela DeSoucey’s last book, Contested Tastes, does that. Claudio Benzecry’s last book, The Opera Fanatic, does that. I also think, or at least hope, that the era of treating cultural objects as if they’re Rorschach inkblots in evaluation and meaning making processes is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean that every study has to formally take into account the constraints of objects or the general directions that objects pitch us in, but when not formally taking those into account, I hope having not done so will have to be acknowledged as the limitations that they are.

Despite wanting more attention paid in these areas, I really don’t think there’s a shortage of great work out there, just as there’s not a shortage of really smart and inspiring scholars of consumption out there. While I do want those things, If everyone was doing what I wanted I wouldn’t have anything to complain about or to contribute to, and I’d also lose access to some of the great stuff that people are doing that pushes my own thinking forward.

Photo credits: Neda Maghbouleh (portrait); Amanda Weiss (book cover)

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research

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Consume This! The Meanings of $4 Croissants

In this month’s Consume This!, I present a short essay based on my current, ongoing project on the plight of small cities in the twenty-first century. This piece focuses on the role consumption plays in shaping how people experience gentrification. Understudied in the gentrification literature, I hope to give consumption a more central role in this analysis.

— Richard E. Ocejo (Section Chair)

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Consume This! The Meanings of $4 Croissants

By Richard E. Ocejo

Grace is a 24-year-old black transwoman who has lived in Newburgh for 85% of her life. She left for a time to attend high school in Poughkeepsie, another small city in New York’s Hudson River Valley. She had to, she says, because of family reasons, and no one knew who she was in Poughkeepsie. Grace could find herself and transition there. She tells this story, and about what it was like growing up in Newburgh, an impoverished, post-industrial city of 30,000 people, and what it was like coming back. On this latter subject, she talks about how the city is getting “gentrified up,” and croissants.

 “On Liberty Street there’s a bakery that just opened up. A thing—what’s the name of it?—it was $4! It was like a little pastry thing, whatever it was. Four dollars! For that! Who is spending $4 on that? Who the hell? One macaroon a dollar-fifty. I can get a 50-cent juice and two bag of chips, like—and not saying that that’s a healthier choice or anything like that, but it’s just like just where people’s mindset is here that they can spend more on the new shit that you bringin’ in. And you got to spend so much on it. For what reason? We don’t need all that.

Chef Mike grew up in Cornwall, a small town near Newburgh, and worked in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller in New York City after attending the Culinary Institute of America. That’s typically a career path to cooking stardom, but he wanted to return home, where he wouldn’t have to live the harried lifestyle of a big-city chef. Gentrifying Newburgh proved to be the best fit for his French-influenced restaurant, Liberty Street Bistro. From the jump he was frustrated that he couldn’t get good bread nearby, and saw an opportunity to open a high-end bakery, in a convenient location down the street from his restaurant. Along with a variety of breads, Flour Shop offers high-quality baked goods, like croissants and pain au chocolat (Mike bristles when people call them chocolate croissants), made in artisanal ways. People started lining up outside the door before 7 a.m. the day of its grand opening. The croissants quickly sold out.

Some people can defend the cost of a $4 croissant or a $1.50 macaroon, if they know the type of ingredients and labor that go into them. They should and have to cost that much, or the owner will lose money. Simple. Others just see the cost attached to the product: $4 for one item—where’s the value in that? Baked good are normally larger, come in plastic, and cost $1.

A lot about the gentrification experience, and of how people make sense of urban change more generally, is filtered through the lens of consumption. Housing costs are foremost in the discussion, and rightfully so. Cost of everyday living—new stores offering expensive products, new restaurants with unusual cuisines, “free” events with high-priced art—tend to get less attention, but offer their own harms. Call it “gentrification without displacement”: even low-income people who remain in their homes or neighborhoods feel as if they are displaced, as the new stuff is neither marketed to them, nor of any benefit to them. Rising rents are gentrification’s injury, new amenities the insults.

Small cities like Newburgh were once microcosms of the urban industrial era: productive, successful, middle-class with a blue-collar ethos—just smaller, often more niche. While they declined in all the ways large ones did—deindustrialization, white flight, brain drain, suburbanization—they have recovered more slowly in the twenty-first century, if they’ve recovered at all. They lack most of the tools that large cities have used to grow today: no cutting edge industries or jobs in the “new economy” to attract an educated workforce, few cultural institutions or amenities, few global connections or networks, less diversity.

But Newburgh is in luck, in a way: it happens to be located near enough to New York City, which happens to be rather expensive to live in.

I just saw the writing on the wall: the financial and emotional unsustainability of being a working artist in New York City,” says David, a 29-year-old blues guitarist. “And trying to find spaces where I could do the work that I’m interested in and feel a sense of community and all of that, and be in a place for a long term, not for a two-year apartment, and it just got so frustrating. I saw that as a possibility here.”

Newburgh also happens to resemble many areas in New York City: old brick buildings, warehouses and factories, gridded streets, and in general a gritty urban industrial texture that the middle class started falling in love with in the 1980s. “It reminds me of [fill in whichever gentrifying neighborhood in New York City they’re most familiar with] from X years ago,” is a common statement. The city’s proximity to the big high-priced metropolis, its built environment, and its affordable historic houses have drawn a good number of urban middle class residents to resettle there. Like David above, newcomers cite being an actual stakeholder in a community —an integral member and producer—as a goal upon their arrival. And once they arrive, the city’s expanding social infrastructure—the restaurants, cafes, the bakery, and the hangout-friendly retail stores—offers the spatial foundation they need to feel and perpetuate that sense of community.

In typical examples of gentrifying neighborhoods, the “pioneering” businesses often open on shoestring budgets or without much concern for the quality of the products. Newcomers need a bar or café to hang out in—just serve whatever you got. Those days are over, and Newburgh is a perfect example. Its pioneering businesses have started out with the tastes of the discerning urban middle class consumer in mind: craft beers, artisanal foods, handmade soaps and candles, natural wines, third wave coffee shops (the craft distillery is opening soon). At the center of their experience of Newburgh and social project of constructing community are these spaces of high-end consumption.

For existing residents like Grace, it has been a sudden and rapid transition: five years or so of watching a section of the city completely transform after decades of neglect. These residents often speak about appreciating the new developments, and welcoming improvement to their city. But a lack of consumer options—not being able to afford the products, let alone the housing—shape their experiences of these changes. For newcomers, however, being able to buy their homes and go to businesses offering products and services that seem tailor made for them, all in an actually authentic-looking city (just small), is a dream come true.

About the Author

Richard E. Ocejo—associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY), John Jay College and the Graduate Center.

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Consume This! Consuming Global Borderlands

In this month’s Consume This!, Victoria Reyes examines how a special economic zone is intertwined with its host nation state, highlighting the tensions around notions of sovereignty, responsibility and desirability in modern, global consumption imaginaries. It’s a great introduction to her forthcoming book, Global Borderlands.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Consuming Global Borderlands

By Victoria Reyes

Global borderlands are legally plural places controlled by foreigners, or people not from the host country. They are places like overseas military bases, special economic zones, embassies, port cities, and all-inclusive tourist resorts – where the rules of law and socio-economic life differ from those outside their walls.

They are also sites of critical tensions that arise between and among nation-states and are built on seemingly contradictory claims: as symbols of imperialism versus cosmopolitanism or of foreign penetration into society versus ways to achieve a “good life.” These contradictions explain their staying power and get at the heart of what it means to live, work, and play within and around a global borderland.

In my forthcoming book, Global Borderlands: Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines (September 2019), I analyze these contradictions and the mechanisms underlying them – that of culture, power, law and stakes. From military agreements and taxes, to high profile crimes, intimate relations, the plight of Amerasian children, work and consumption, I take the reader on a tour of six arenas of social life where these cultural contestations, negotiations and imaginations are most visible.

Take, for instance, negotiations around who pays for water and energy consumed on particular premises. Exchanges between the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. military reveal how these seemingly minor decisions are entwined with understandings around sovereignty – the question of who rules – and revolved around whether particular military bases were considered U.S. territories or Philippine land that the U.S. used. These discussions were important because each came with particular rights and responsibilities bundled with it, such as who controlled access to roads and buildings and who paid for utilities, among others.

So, too, are the seemingly mundane rules around imports, exports, and tax-free status entwined with understandings of sovereignty. Who imports or exports what can often be tightly regulated, and courts rule whether containers of rice or equipment fall under a businesses’ tax-free incentives and whether a personal motorcycle, or a luxury vehicle purchased by a business official, are afforded the same. These rights and responsibilities are not guaranteed, and even those living within, or who own businesses within, the Subic Bay Freeport Zone may not realize these distinctions. Many people I spoke with would complain about taxes on gasoline, cigarettes or other goods, not realizing that things bought within the Freeport Zone would necessarily be sold tax-free.

Finally, people delineate symbolic and social boundaries – in the vein of Mary Douglas’ and Michèle Lamont’s and Virág Molnár’s, respective works – through decisions on where they buy food and why. Shopping inside one of the Freeport Zone’s supermarkets versus a palengke (local market) is retold as a matter of buying “clean” food versus “dirty” food – where both places and food are categorized as one or the other, depending on who is asked. So, too, is shopping and even visiting Harbor Point mall versus the SM Olongapo City mall – which are located across from one another, on either side of the Freeport Zone’s main gate – reconfigured to differentiate the rich and the poor and who aspires to modernity and who does not. These differences reinforce inequality through what Marco Garrido calls a “sense of place.”

These are just a few of the aspects of social life in Subic Bay that highlight how global borderlands are built around consumption imaginaries. Charles Taylor defines imaginaries as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” Consumption imaginaries relate to how people tie their consumption decisions – what foods they buy, the places they shop, the type of transportation they take – to their identities and their relationship to the broader world around them. Scholars have long recognized how consumption relates to identity, from Bourdieu and Veblen to contemporary scholars like Warde (2015) and Zukin and Smith Maguire (2004) to name a few, and for many living, visiting, and working in the SBFZ offers an opportunity to be a part of a modern, global community. One that is in contrast to the city right outside its gate.

About the Author

Victoria Reyes— Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside and a 2019-2020 AAUW American Postdoctoral Fellow. She studies culture, borders and empire and her book, Global Borderlands: Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines is forthcoming (September 2019) from Stanford University Press.

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Consume This! The Joy of Waste: Minimalism and its Ecological Consequences

In this month’s blog, Jennifer Sandlin and Jason Wallin examine Marie Kondo’s brand of decluttering as both an attempt at re-enchanting the object, and a failure to appreciate that our responsibility for objects extends beyond our domestic spaces.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Photo Credit: Nicolas Lampert, United We Consume

Consume This! The Joy of Waste: Minimalism and its Ecological Consequences

By Jennifer Sandlin and Jason Wallin

Minimalism is having yet another cultural moment, as evidenced by the popularity of blogs, podcasts, books, magazines, and documentaries focused on tiny houses, decluttering, simplicity, and the like. A recent survey found that while most Americans (65%) have no desire to be or become minimalists, 10% stated they already think of themselves as minimalists, and the remaining 25% strive to become minimalist, meaning that 1 in 4 U.S. adults are or hope to become minimalists.

What minimalism actually means to the people surveyed, or more generally as the idea circulates through media and is taken up in practice, is difficult to discern. The idea is ripe for commodification, and even a cursory glance at many of the current “minimalist” trends—many of which are for sale through books, magazines, or speaking tours—indicates the extent to which, as New York Times Columnist David Pogue declared, “Simplicity Sells!

Enter Marie Kondo. The buzz around her KonMari decluttering method and lifestyle movement has been described as “nothing short of a cultural moment.” While she does not call herself a minimalist, she has been swept into the larger cultural trends described above and has become a lifestyle celebrity in North America and across the globe. Her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. That and her second book, Spark Joy, have been published in 42 countries.

In 2015 she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and has grown even more popular since the January 2019 launch of her Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. She has parlayed this popularity into a booming lifestyle business, which includes a blog, a training program for tidying consultants (at $2700 per training, plus $500 annual re-certification fee), and more books (including a tidying book written for children). She has entered the almost $11.8 billion home organization market by selling her own brand of organizational materials such as a set of three boxes for $89 through her company KonMari, and has also recently launched a campaign to raise $40 million in venture capital funding to further expand her business.

It’s difficult to understand the appeal of Kondo without understanding the broad role of consumption in the Western industrialist capitalist world. Slater argues that consumer culture is inextricably bound up with the rise of modernity, which carried with it the “idea” of “modern social subjects” who were free to craft their own self-identities. Individuals now had to become who they were or wanted to be, and did so increasingly through consumption. Lifestyle choices and consumption patterns thus help create people’s senses of identity rather than their work or family roles.

Consumption is also a social and cultural activity that helps assimilate individuals “into a specific social system and commits them to a particular social vision”, as well as political, as it “represents a site where power, ideology, gender, and social class circulate and shape one another.” In our analysis below, we focus on how participating in the KonMari phenomenon helps individuals orient themselves to particular affective and aesthetic investments in some objects and consumptive practices while helping them ignore their own complicity and participation in the ecological harm that results from generating and discarding mounds of no-longer-wanted goods. The investments and abjections facilitated via the KonMari method, and many “minimalist” practices more generally, constitute social and cultural practices with profound political and ecological consequences.

The popularity of Marie Kondo’s method is ostensibly symptomatic of a new consumer relation to objects of consumption. In his germinal Symbolic Exchange and Death, French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard develops the object’s transformation from its status as a sacred metaphysical referent in pre-modern society to the evacuation of such significance via its forced equivalence to money in late capitalism. In the wake of this transformation and the disposable culture it catalyzed, Marie Kondo’s method dramatizes a seemingly compelling reversal, one that re-infuses objects with meaning. The KonMari method is not just a how-to guide to decluttering one’s home.

Embedded in the method is a philosophy that veers more towards self-help genres focusing on mindfulness; she states in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that the method “is not a mere set of rules on how to sort, organize, and put things away. It is a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person.” She encourages her audiences and practitioners to carefully consider what objects to keep, focusing on those that “spark joy” and gently thanking and saying goodbye to those that do not.

In Kondo’s world, objects ostensibly once again hold and give meaning. To apprehend this reversal necessitates recognizing how we today live in an era of cheapened objects. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up arrived to U.S. markets in 2014, at a moment in which “many people seemed to have reached a tipping point of clutter in their lives.” The book also coincided with—or, some say, further bolstered—an increase in donations to thrift stores. The vast majority of these donations cannot be resold, and much of it is actually trash or junk; some estimate that 85% of what is donated ends up landfills.

At the same time, Americans are shopping more than ever, having spent twice as much in 2017 ($240 billion!) as in 2002 on consumer goods and personal care products. They also spent 20% more in 2017 as they did in 2000 on clothes. Houses keep getting larger, while at the same time the number of self-storage units continues to grow. We are generating more environmental waste, as well—in 2015 Americans tossed 16 million tons of textiles and 34.5 million tons of plastics.

This kind of rampant shopping, landfills overflowing with the detritus of civilizational over-consumption, and such contemporary phenomena as the great pacific garbage patch symptomize the contemporary socio-ecological impacts of capitalism’s two-fold cheapening of nature. As Moore articulates, objects are cheapened not only through their equivalencies to money, but via the disappearance of their ethico-political significance by which they are remitted to the conceit that we can do anything we’d like with them. The relational significance of the object is eroded through its forced equivalence to capital, but further, through its emplacement within the circuits of consumer circulation where the fate of all objects is to become garbage.

In an era of cheapened objects and disposable culture, Marie Kondo’s self-help philosophy aims to ceremoniously rehabilitate the object’s significance. Such rehabilitation is performed through the re-enchantment of the object’s relationship to the consumer. Drawn from its cheapened and disposable status, Kondo’s method recasts the object as worthy of our respect and care. Kondo’s reality television series, for instance, repeats across its episodes the ritual of giving thanks to objects destined for disposal. Ostensibly repairing the degraded relationship between consumers and objects symptomatic of late capitalism, the object is rehabilitated into dignified relation to the consumer, creating the surface impression of an ethics of care and responsibility. Thanking the object is meant to dramatize reverence and dignity, returning to the often dispassionate scene of consumption and disposal a sense of respect, honor, and decorum. No longer of any use, the object is given dignified passage unto the trash heap.

The re-enchantment of the object in Kondo’s method is enacted through the projection of anthropomorphic sentiment wherein the object is made to assume significance for us. As Kondo explains in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “There is a reason why each one of your belongings came to you…Everything you own wants to be of use to you.” Such anthropomorphism is aptly demonstrated through the importance Kondo’s method ascribes to ‘joy’, where ‘joy’ refers to those ‘happy affects’ that the object evokes in the consumer. Kondo’s method aims here to re-enchant the object and hence liberate it from unthinking, mindless modes of consumerism. Such re-enchantment however symptomizes a more contemporary attitude toward the object, which is simply submitted to the attention of our affection.

Objects that fail to ‘spark joy’ or otherwise bring a sense of interest to the consumer are fated to become detritus. Kondo’s anthropomorphic conceptualization of human-object relations reifies the object in relation to its meaning and significance for us. Failing this, the object is ever more consigned to become refuse, but under the guise of having ‘once cared’ for the thing. The object is herein inserted into a sentimental performance, where our having once cared for objects becomes a sufficient ground for their disposal.

No longer relevant for us, the object is disposed but with the added aura of symbolic gratitude. Such symbolic gratitude evinced in both the ‘joyous’ arrangement of human-object relations and the quasi-religious thankfulness intimates a reversal of the object’s cheapened status in late capitalism. Following the anthropomorphic impulse of the KonMari method however, the sentimentality and aura of ‘specialness’ attributed to the object do little to alter the fate of objects that fail to be special ‘for us’. The ritual thanksgiving of the KonMari method is squarely for us. It is a vehicle that mediates the transformation of the object from its joyous relation to the consumer into something abject. What this process obfuscates however, is a two-fold perpetuation of consumerism in late capitalism.

On the one hand, the KonMari method functions as a contemporary fulcrum for the ‘happy’ disposal of objects. In an era where waste, pollution, and pollutants are ecologically ubiquitous, there is both a growing awareness and concern around the production of waste. In North America the production of waste tethers to new anxieties around climatological impact and change, and in this context the KonMari method’s ‘caring’ relinquishment of objects operates as an antidote via its simulation of relationship and symbolic enchainment.

The dispensation of objects is hence no longer that of dispassionate abjection but neo-spiritual relinquishment. The KonMari method herein constitutes a feel-good post-consumption practice replete with ‘happy affect’—Kondo writes, “My clients always sound so happy, and the results show that tidying has changed their way of thinking and their approach to life. In fact, it has changed their future. Why? . . . Basically, when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.” This happy affect displaces the kinds of worry and anxiety that are entirely warranted in this moment of profound ecological disruption.

Herein, the aspiration to ‘declutter’ obscures a second fidelity to consumerism. That is, despite the re-enchantment of human-object relations dramatized in Kondo’s show and writing, the object is nonetheless fated to become garbage. While Kondo’s method revels in the ideal of harmonious decluttering, it obfuscates the fate of the object to planetary landfills, garbage dumps, and an eternity of decay. While the very philosophy of Kondo’s method is meant to bring about harmony in one’s domestic space, its stealth cost pertains to the unseen burden such dispositions places on both local and global ecologies. This horrific aspect of the ‘minimalist’ resurgence is today intimate to the sentimentality of bourgeois consumerism, which centers on the happy abjection of burdensome objects without confronting the significant ecological costs that accompany such lifestyle attitudes and practices nor having to resolve to buy less in the future.

Kondo’s method intersects with an obfuscated impulse of contemporary consumerism. While each focus on ‘happiness’ and the ‘spark’ one feels for objects, both the KonMari method and consumerism in general cover over the object’s predestination as garbage. As we learn via Kondo’s show, one ought to make room for only a paucity of objects. Yet, the obscuring of the object’s fate as trash runs afoul of the true symbolic enchainment Baudrillard attributed to the object. To paraphrase Baudrillard, we cannot do whatever we like with ‘things’. Such a state of affairs should be glaringly apparent today, when the true symbolic enchainment of people to objects is writ large in climate change research, which articulates how the object’s destiny is not simply to become trash, but to return via such horrific contemporary challenges as waterway contamination, chemical and mineral leachate, and the proliferation of garbage.

This is to say that despite the ideals of minimalism and ‘decluttering’, there is no escaping the object. Where the KonMari method aims to re-enchant the object, such orientations fail to apprehend how the object today returns as an ecological problem. The ethics of the object in the KonMari system seem again to extend only to the meaning objects have for us, reifying the consumer disposition of denying the object’s relation to other, broader ecologies.

The KonMari method of course focuses only on the organization of the domestic space, perpetuating a diminishing sense of care toward ecologies that are not for us. Perhaps there is good reason for this, given that our living space is one of few that remain under our immediate aesthetic control. As a salve seeking to naively protect consumers against the complex imbrication of human life with objects that Donna Haraway dubs the Chthulucene, a renewed focus on the arrangement of objects within the domestic space is symptomatic of consumer narcissism and disavowal co-extensive with the vast ecological issues that humans today face. The refashioning of the domestic space is less a renewal of human-object ethics, but tantamount to a cynical disavowal of objects that fall outside our realm of concern or sense of satisfaction.

Herein, the KonMari method becomes synonymous with a general disavowal of abjected objects emblematic of consumerism, where the fate of ‘cheapened’ objects already destined for disposability is of only passing concern. The vast trash heaps of civilization are for the contemporary consumer sublimated by the more immediate reference to status, social mobility, and spiritual rectitude conferred by the domestic space, its ordering and curation. To combat the lull of ecological denial and myopic circuit of consumption and disposal, Stacey Alaimo in her book Exposed, highlights a number of activists and artists who are revealing the ecological apocalypse we are currently living in, including Chris Jordan, who creates photographic evidence of the awful ecological effects of human consumption. Alaimo urges all of us toward these practices of exposure, that is, to reckon with rather than disavow both the ecological crises that are happening all around us and our own complicity in helping to (re)create them.

The authors would like to thank artist/academic/activist Nicolas Lampert for graciously providing the stunning cover art, entitled United We Consume.

Please check out his work, much of which focuses on capitalism and consumer culture, at https://www.nicolaslampert.org and https://justseeds.org/artist/nicolaslampert/, and read his brilliant book, A People’s Art History of the United States.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sandlin—Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. She is an avid declutterer and is still eagerly awaiting the promised peace and happiness.

Jason Wallin—Professor of Education at the University of Alberta, where he continually fails to be either a tidy or decluttered subject.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Kjerstin Gruys and Ashley Mears

This interview is part of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Victoria Reyes (vreyes@ucr.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Kjerstin Gruys and Ashley Mears

Professors Kjerstin Gruys and Ashley Mears had a conversation about their overlapping interests in the areas of consumption, markets, gender, and beauty. The following conversation miraculously unfolded over a series of emails between two sociologists who are also, these days, each caring for their new babies.

Ashley: Kjerstin, I feel like you and I may share similar narratives about how we ended up studying aesthetics, labor, bodies, and consumption. I came to it through direct experience and, well, confusion about what I experienced in my college years. In my case, I worked as a model in Atlanta as a teenager and later as a college student at the University of Georgia.

I was living the teen dream doing photo shoots and fashion shows at the mall! It was in this context that I became attuned to issues of embodiment, the impossibilities of femininity, and the role of aesthetics in labor markets, really by grappling with the demands of a punitive and precarious workplace that transformed the glamorous dream of fashion into, at times, the nightmare of self-scrutiny and rejection.

My language here foreshadows your first book, Mirror, Mirror, which grapples with these issues in a personal and poignant way. How did you come to study aesthetics so personally?

Kjerstin: I started grappling with bodies, aesthetics, and consumption several years before thinking about the sociology of work. Like you, my academic interests started with direct experience. I struggled with an eating disorder in my teens and early 20s and my recovery coincided with a sort of feminist awakening while in college. Taking a number of sociology and gender studies classes helped me reframe my eating and body image troubles as being tied to social and cultural phenomena (rather than only medical and/or psychological). I started to shift my self-understanding away from shame and more towards anger and, eventually, research and activism.

After graduation I took a detour from academia, working in the fashion industry for a few years. I’d worked in clothing stores throughout college (buying more clothes than I sold!) and spent a lot of my free-time reading fashion magazines. After graduation I worked as a merchandiser in the corporate office of Abercrombie & Fitch, and later worked for Gap Inc. In these jobs, I was intimately involved in the clothing production process, including working with designers to identify upcoming trends, communicating with factory reps during garment manufacture, styling outfits for catalogue marketing, and tracking sales and profits.

Like you, Ashley, I enjoyed the creativity, glamour and—frankly—the status associated with working in fashion. But I also saw its ugly side. Ultimately the rampant sexism, racism, elitism, and fat-phobia had me missing sociology’s critical lens. I also became more aware of the problematic work conditions that proliferate in this industry, particularly for garment factory workers, retail workers, and unpaid interns.

Ashley: Oh fascinating! I hadn’t realized you actually worked at Abercrombie, the icon of troubled aesthetic workplaces for both front-facing employees and those in the corporate backstage.

So how was the process of transforming your experiences into a research question and a project?

Kjerstin: In my first semester of grad school I worked as a salesperson in a women’s plus size clothing store, “Real Style,” as an ethnographic project for my qualitative methods class. I didn’t really have a research question beyond “What interesting stuff about bodies, gender, and fashion happens here?” I assumed I’d study how customers talk about their bodies while shopping, but the more interesting story that emerged was about work, and about aesthetic labor more specifically.

I found that, despite being a “plus size” clothing store, thinner workers (including myself!) were more likely than plus-sized workers to be in jobs with higher pay, higher status, and greater autonomy. Additionally, sales associates had to constantly indulge both customers and managers when they complained about their bodies through “fat talk,” which I argue is a demeaning form of emotional labor. The managers, who were all standard-sized, gave a lot of mixed messages about body size, such as by organizing a weight-loss contest for the sales staff, and then buying pizza for the winners!

Ashley: Wow, you really held a number of positions in the fashion industry to sharpen your analytic eye on it.

Kjerstin: It feels like a lifetime ago! Ashley, I’d love to know more about your early experiences with research. What was your first publication and how did it come about?

Ashley: My first publication is also instructive. In my case, I luckily took an undergraduate seminar my senior year at UGA on Work and Occupations taught by James Coverdill. He had us reading all kinds of ethnographies of work, such as by Kathy Newman and Robin Leidner, and that was when I first had the idea to study the fashion modeling industry ethnographically. From there, William Finlay, another sociologist of work in the department, supervised my independent senior project based on interviews with models I had been working with in Atlanta. We later co-authored an article based on those interviews which became my first publication, explicitly engaging with literatures on emotional and embodied labor, published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. It came out in 2005. A good four years after the idea emerged in that fateful undergrad class. I’m so grateful for Coverdill for showing me ethnographies of work at that crucial time, and to Finlay for showing me how to ride out the long peer review process to ultimately land a journal publication.

An early version of that paper was my writing sample when I applied to grad school, and again in a stroke of luck I went to NYU, which was exactly the right department and city in which to expand an ethnography of the fashion modeling industry.

Kjerstin, how about you? What’s the backstory to Mirror, Mirror?

Mirror MirrorKjerstin: My book, Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall, is a sociologically-informed memoir of a year I spent avoiding mirrors. In the midst of collecting data for my dissertation I was also planning my wedding. When I tried on wedding dresses I found myself feeling insecure and hypocritical—a body image expert with a body image problem. Avoiding mirrors was a way to push back at a consumer culture telling me (1) that my wedding should be the most important day of my life, and (2) that my appearance would be the most important aspect of it. I started blogging and ultimately wrote a book about the project. It’s amazing how much writing a person can accomplish while avoiding her dissertation!

Ashley: Tell me about the process landing your first journal publication, your paper on plus-size retail in Social Problems which, by the way, won the Best Student Paper prize from the Consumers and Consumption Section.

Kjerstin: That paper was such an important experience for me. It was based on the ethnography I described above, of a women’s plus-size clothing store. I submitted it to Social Problems because it drew heavily from an article published there by Christine Williams, theorizing the “glass escalator” that men who work in feminine occupations ride to the top of their fields. I was proud of my paper but nervous to learn what reviewers thought. The editor offered me an R&R… along with comments from SEVEN (!) reviewers. I was thrilled that people wanted to read the article, but completely overwhelmed. It took me over a year to resubmit. Ultimately it was accepted (and much improved thanks to all of the feedback). These days it takes an especially mean reviewer to phase me! This paper ended up being one chapter of my dissertation, which examined “aesthetic labor” across three case studies. A second dissertation chapter, “Making Over Poor Women: Gender, Race, Class, and Body Size in a Welfare-to-Work Nonprofit Organization” was just published in Sociological Forum.

Ashley: Congrats on publishing this in Sociological Forum! Kjerstin, it’s interesting that though we are both sociologists of work, we are also highly attuned to consumption. How does consumption come into your work?

Kjerstin: I was interested in consumption before I was interested in work. That feminist awakening I mentioned earlier gained a lot of momentum after I watched Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne and then read Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth. Neither of these women are sociologists, nor terribly empirical, for that matter, but their critiques linking consumer markets to women’s body-image and mental health were scathing and relevant to my own experiences.

I’m still fascinated to see how markets produce consumers just as consumers sustain markets. I’m exploring this in my current project, on the world of clothing size standards in the U.S. ready-to-wear fashion industry. Ready-to-wear fashion refers to clothes that everyday people buy at stores like Target or JCrew, which are made in factories and literally “ready-to-wear” off of the sales rack (compared to high fashion that is custom-made to fit a particular elite consumer’s body). Clothing size standards interest me because they give people information about their body size and shape, bodily characteristics that are deeply connected to identity and status, especially for women.

I’m in the messy planning part of this project, so I have more questions than answers. That said, I’m following Joshua Gamson’s “tripartite model” for linking (1) cultural texts to (2) their production, and (3) their reception. Standards and standardization aren’t typically analyzed as cultural texts in the same way that, say, a painting or piece of music might be, but I still find this framework extremely useful. How have clothing size standards, themselves, changed over time? To what extent do fashion firms intentionally fiddle with their standards to attract and retain body-conscious consumers—and what gendered, racialized, classed, and ageist assumptions about embodiment go into these processes? Finally, how do clothing size standards impact consumers, women in particular? Addressing this last question, I recently published an article in Gender & Society with Katelynn Boyle and Maddie Evans, titled “Sized Out: Women, Clothing Size, and Inequality.” Our data show that clothing size standards and the retail spaces in which women navigate them create social, psychological, and material inequities that harm women, especially those with bodies outside of “standard” sizes.

Ashley, Who are some of your favorite theorists and writers on consumers and consumption?

Ashley: That’s funny I too devoured The Beauty Myth when I was 20. And I love your new project, which strikes a chord for the catwalk, because one popular strategy that activists try in the fight against “size zero” fashion models is to advocate changing the standard sample sizes which are very small (size 2-4) and travel across multiple markets, even globally, with the fashion shows. If we could make more than one sample garment for the shows, or make it in a size 6-8, we might be able to achieve some size diversity. I think sample sizes are just one point in the size-zero problem in fashion, but an important and overlooked one.

pricing beauty.jpgOn my theoretical inspirations: Pricing Beauty was very much about labor and the production of value in beauty in the context of cultural production. It has a lot of Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu in there as background to help me think through the work of producing fashion, as both art world and as a field, but the central theoretical storyline is Viviana Zelizer’s circuits of commerce. I love her way of doing theory through the careful unravelling of empirical problems, and I found in circuits the right balance of micro and macro analysis to understand how markets come together through work practices and cultural beliefs.

My new book, Very Important People, is an ethnography of the global party scene catering to the world’s rich and mobile “VIPs,” and the women who are recruited to adorn them. It’s a case of conspicuous consumption and the production of value in a setting ostensibly about leisure, though so much of the ethnography documents all of the work (gendered, emotional, embodied) that it takes to make the scene.

Here I’m using consumption in the old sense of the word, when it meant waste, because in the VIP party circuit, clubs organize the night in the hopes of mobilizing rich people, mostly men, to drop thousands of dollars on champagne. Sometimes they buy so much champagne they end up gifting bottles to strangers in the room. Or they shake up the bottles and spray them, or just pour them out for everyone to see. It is shameful behavior, everyone agrees after the fact, but in the moment, the ritual display of conspicuous waste makes perfect and pleasurable sense. That’s quite the organizational accomplishment.

Kjerstin: Wow, that’s intense! How do you make sense of these behaviors?

Ashley: When trying to make sense of these wasting rituals, I started with Veblen’s conspicuous consumption: in our time of ballooning economic inequality, we should read Veblen much more carefully than we do. The Theory of the Leisure Class is a satire, sure, and Veblen himself was a quirky person, but there are valuable insights there. Sociologists of culture have been occupied with Bourdieu’s cultural capital and the mechanisms of cultivating legitimate taste among the bourgeoisie and professional classes in pursuit of distinction. But Bourdieu always acknowledged that the very top of the upper classes can use money to showcase their power, irrespective of cultivating taste. Just think about Trump, and you see the theoretical limitations of cultural capital as distinction.

To make sense of conspicuous waste, I went back to older economic anthropologies and theories of abundance—Marcel Mauss, George Bataille, Franz Boas. Boas had documented wasting rituals called potlatch among Pacific Northwest tribes, which influenced Veblen’s satire in which he likened elites to tribal elders. Again, Veblen was a funny guy, but this was and remains a great insight: here are these titans of industry, supposedly captains of a highly rational capitalist economic system, spraying champagne onto one another in a timeless quest for status via consumption. I’ve been working on an article for a long time now that tries to revive the potlatch as a useful metaphor to describe contemporary forms of wasteful consumption rituals. And when I say this article has been taking a long time, I look back to my first article publication experience with William Finlay as easy breezy.

What about you, Kjerstin? What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your works?

Kjerstin: In addition to Jean Kilbourne and Naomi Wolf, who I mentioned above, I’ll echo your appreciation of Bourdieu and Veblen. My research on service interactions is very much in debt to Christine Williams for her book Inside Toyland: Working Shopping and Inequality, which helped me tune into the interactional side of consumption, as did Amy Hanser’s 2012 article “Class and the Service Encounter: New Approaches to Inequality in Service Work” and Rachel Sherman’s book Class Acts as well as her 2011 article “The Production of Distinctions: Class, Gender, and Taste Work in the Lifestyle Management Industry.”

Last but definitely not least, Ashley, your work has been very influential for me, not only for its theoretical contributions but also more personally. Some scholars consider fashion and beauty to be frivolous topics, but your work has deservedly changed that perception while paving the way for scholars such as myself. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything that you’ve published and can’t wait to get my hands on your new book, Very Important People!

Ashley: Thanks, Kjerstin! That’s a very high compliment from a colleague whose work I also admire. Although seriously, by now, what sociologist could think that the $3 trillion dollar global fashion industry is frivolous? It’s one of the most profoundly important industries for self-expression, the reproduction of globally unequal labor practices, not to mention its catastrophic environmental impacts! As a case, fashion now speaks for itself.

So perhaps we should take this opportunity before we end our conversation to give a nod of thanks to the Consumers and Consumption Section for giving us space and recognition to pursue our work on topics historically considered “frivolous” in sociology, like fashion, beauty, and even consumption.

Kjerstin: 100% agreed. This has been fun! I hope to see you at ASA in August.

 

About the Scholars

Kjerstin Gruys is Assistant Professor at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery, 2014). Her academic articles appear in Social Problems, Gender & Society, Sex Roles, Sociological Forum, and Social Science & Medicine. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA.

Ashley Mears is Associate Professor of Sociology and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University.  She is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press, 2011).  Her forthcoming book (Princeton University Press) is an economic anthropology of VIP consumption.  Her articles appear in Poetics, American Sociological Review, and Social Forces, and she has written for The New York Times, ELLE, and The Week.  She received her Ph.D. from New York University.

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Consume This! Understanding Political Parties’ Leading Role in the Debate over Islamic Clothing

In our June edition of Consume This!, Emily Laxer examines the intersection of political parties, secularism and the consumption of symbols of collective identity, by comparing how Islamic veiling is framed within French and Québécois political landscapes.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Understanding Political Parties’ Leading Role in the Debate over Islamic Clothing

By Emily Laxer

We live in an era of tremendous political instability, upheaval, and divisiveness.  From Latin America to Europe, from the United States to parts of Canada, a populist wave is washing over our political systems, affecting policy domains as varied as the economy, migration, the environment, and national identity.

One of the defining characteristics of this tumultuous political moment is the proliferation of highly politicized debates over whether and how to restrict the wearing of – primarily Islamic – religious coverings in countries’ public spaces and institutions.  Through these debates, questions of consumption, clothing, symbols and identity become central objects of a larger political struggle over ways to negotiate the parameters of secularism and religious expression.

France has been at the forefront of those debates. In 2004, the country banned the wearing of ostentatious religious signs in public schools, citing the legal principle of laicité, or secularism.  Then in 2010, policy-makers responded to controversy over the Islamic niqab and burqa by prohibiting the wearing of facial coverings in all public spaces.

Canada, too, has witnessed a growing preoccupation with Islamic religious coverings, primarily – though not exclusively – in its French-speaking province of Québec.  Just weeks ago, that province’s centre-right Coalition avenir Québec government tabled a bill that, if approved, will prohibit the wearing of religious signs by civil servants in positions of authority, including judges, police officers, crown prosecutors, and – most controversially – teachers.  Subject to intense challenges from two of the province’s three main opposition parties, this proposal is only the most recent in an almost two decade-long debate over religious accommodations in Québec.

In trying to understand how countries have chosen to address (mainly Islamic) religious signs in public spaces and institutions, and how the ensuing debates have redefined the secular landscape across various settings, scholars have told different but complementary stories.

One of these is a story about race. Several works point to the deep-seated colonial systems of meaning and relations of power in which attempts to exclude Muslims from the body-politic are inscribed. This story is especially salient in France, where the term ‘Islamophobia’ is used to capture how colonial belief systems empower racialized representations of the veil as signifying the ‘otherness’ of French Muslims.

There is also a story of gender. Indeed, laws attending Islamic signs have become key venues in which differently-positioned feminists are debating what constitutes women’s dignity, agency, and equality.

A third tale to emerge from scholars’ grappling with the Islamic signs debate is a tale about migration.  Indeed, for many, attempts to curtail the visibility of Islam are just one manifestation of the retreat of liberal multiculturalism in states and of the related rise of citizenship policies that aim to enforce newcomers’ conformity to prescribed national ‘values’.

A fourth prominent story in the canon attends to the role of historically-rooted narratives of nationhood and secularism and the ways these inform contemporary responses to religious diversity.

And finally, there is a story about law, with scholars asking how advocates of restrictive legislation have been able to fit it into existing legal and constitutional frameworks.

In my new book Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Québec  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), I aim to add a new story to this patchwork, one that takes seriously the role of political parties in bringing about varied and unexpected developments in the Islamic signs debate. That story stems from my attempt to answer a series of questions. How and why – or why not, as the case may be – do parties take up the issue of Islamic signs and, very often, make it central to their electoral brands? What determines the stances that parties adopt as they reckon with this issue at a given time or in a given place?  What are the implications of parties’ actions and interactions for Muslim women’s access to citizenship and belonging in the nation?

Answering these questions is a necessarily interdisciplinary endeavour.  I am a sociologist by training. But until quite recently, political parties have been cast as background characters in sociological analyses of politics.  To the extent that sociologists did focus on parties, they tended to frame them as conduits for pre-existing public opinions and cleavages.

But recently, a new approach has emerged, which attends to the constitutive role that parties play in articulating – and not simply reflecting – collective goals and identities.  Drawing insight from this approach, I attempt in the book to shed light on the ways that institutionalized narratives around race, gender and nation, policy-discourses around citizenship, and established legal frameworks are interpreted and activated by political parties as they seek electoral dominance.

The cases I draw from to shed light on these processes are those of France and Québec.  Bound by a historical colonial relationship, these two French-speaking societies share a number of linguistic and cultural features.  Recently, moreover, both have seen the proliferation of debate over whether Islamic veiling constitutes a threat to established institutional and discursive notions of secularism.  Yet, I argue, the unfolding of that debate has differed significantly in these two settings, in part because of the way parties within each have responded to their respective landscapes of electoral competition.

In France, that landscape has historically been marked by contestations of class.  Indeed, from the late 1970s until very recently, voters at the French ballot box were given a choice between traditionally left-wing candidates advocating for state redistribution to alleviate class inequality, and right-wing parties touting the equalizing powers of the free market.  But since the 1980s, a new political contender – the ultra-right Front National (renamed Rassemblement National in 2017) – has upset these politics-as-usual, siphoning votes from the right and the left on the basis of an explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.

I argue that the debate over Islamic signs – including the ‘consensus’ that politicians have projected over religious restrictions – bears the marks of mainstream parties’ struggles to deflect this ultra-right political threat. And, although it is very much contrived, that ‘consensus’ has had real and damaging effects for France’s Muslim minorities.

Meanwhile, a different set of political processes marks the unfolding of the debate over the incorporation of Islamic signs in Québec. In that setting, I observed a far more conflict-ridden political landscape, in which politicians and other leading figures directly challenged one another’s very legitimacy in managing this issue.

I propose that the persistence of nationhood rather than class as the basis of electoral contention has contributed to this outcome, rendering parties in Québec far more reluctant than their French counterparts to proclaim a ‘consensus’ around this issue.  Indeed, after nearly two decades of debate, the question of whether and how to restrict such signs remains highly politically divisive, even after three successive governments have considered turning restriction into law. And it is my contention that this intense divisiveness reflects the fact that the main parties have hitched their political wagons to near opposite images of Québec’s national past, present, and future.

In a nutshell, parties play a leading – and under-appreciated – role in the Islamic signs debate.  They interpolate and creatively re-define established ideas and institutions in order to draw distinctions between national ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  As scholars, we should take notice.

 

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About the Author

Emily Laxer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Glendon College, York University, and the author of Unveiling the Nation: The Politics of Secularism in France and Québec (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).

|Twitter: @emily_laxer |Website: laxeremily.wordpress.com

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Consume This! Alternative Urban Consumption and Chile’s Shopping Malls

In our May issue of Consume This!, Liliana De Simone takes us on a tour of the research around—and social implications—of Chile’s shopping malls, and introduces us to the work of the Observatory of Consumer, Culture, and Society (OCCS UC), at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Alternative Urban Consumption and the Right to the Mall in Chile

By Liliana De Simone

In early 2009, at the P. Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC-Chile), we started a project called ‘No hay mall que por bien no venga,’ directed by my dearest friend and mentor, the late urban sociologist Rodrigo Salcedo (1969-2017), and with the kind advice of Joel Stillerman. The project name, translated, is a rephrasing of a Latino saying ‘There is no mall (as malo=bad) that comes with no good.’ Through it, we aimed to study an emerging phenomenon surrounding shopping centers in Santiago’s urban periphery.

We discovered that the formerly suburban shopping malls were becoming urbanized, in their architecture as well in the consumer practices that took place in their surroundings and interiors. The city fabric had engulfed some malls, and the mall owners had responded with a very openminded approach, blurring their physical and symbolic boundaries, and melting with the practices of a Latin American city.

Chile is the country with the most square meters of shopping malls per inhabitant in Central and South America. They are mostly urban, located inside dense city centers. Even though they are quite recent, in thirty years they have become significant places in the daily routine of millions of Chileans. They are not public spaces, but neither they are entirely private.

Scholars all over the world have approached malls as places of social control, exclusion, and surveillance. There is also a general impression that malls are a cause for why many public places are now empty. The malls have always been a suburban artifact, and mainstream academia said that malls were supposed to be a non-place, a globalized form of inauthentic consumption. In fact, the business of shopping malls started to show strong signs of deacceleration in the USA, and many European cities were making strict laws to avoid shopping centers in downtown. But recent research shows us there are alternative urban retail cases, with greater socio-political implications, in which Chile can be compared with other Latin American countries or European cases.

In Chile, scholars noted a domestication and appropriation  of consumer places that was enacting a new kind of pseudo-public space, where people gather, socialize and interact. Whereas the typical anchor for the North American mall was historically a department store, the Chilean malls included hospitals, museums, universities, Metro stations, and even State offices. We hypothesized that this had to do with recent socio-political Chilean history. The first mall arrived in Chile in the early 1980s, in the middle of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, at a time when the militarization of the streets and the curfew discouraged any kind of use of the public spaces in the city.

We also knew that the shopping malls were seen as a symbolic weapon for political discussion in a very repressed political arena. In the 1980s and ‘90s, leftist intellectuals used the figure of the mall to attack and denigrate the neoliberal agenda of the regime. Conservatives saw it as an immoral, unchristian show of opulence in a poor country. Right-wing supporters saw it as confirmation of the success of the neoliberal reforms that were leading Chile to an American way of life seen in US movies and sitcoms.

Thus, the mall meant many different things at once, and its effects in Chilean urban culture were a way to understand the impacts of higher socio-politics processes. To that end, I proposed the concept of Metamall to grasp its complexity. I started studying malls as a lens on experiences and phenomena linked with gender studies (how women see the malls as safer places than public spaces in vulnerable areas); legitimization studies (how corporative discourses of retailers tend to communicate an institutionalized vision of retail industry as a public plaza for the commons); and urban studies (how shopping malls, when located inside city centers, tend to develop a kind of city fabric mediated thought consumer practices, that transform citizens into consumers of space, and malls as producers of urbanity).

How did the mall become part of Chileans’ urban imaginary? Why has it flourished when there are simultaneous examples of retail and commerce organizations, such as Amazon and Alibaba, turning their backs to the city and ‘real’ space? My most recent research addresses three possible reasons for how and why the globalized consumption form of the shopping mall has developed in such a distinctive way in Chilean cities.

First, there is an urban reason. Malls in Chile are clean, secure and comfortable urban places, in areas where there is a lack of suitable public spaces. Even if they are private places and have rules of conduct, in which the economic means determine the possibility of access to the malls,  they are seen by users as a safe and pleasant space to develop a social life, located in well-connected areas inside the cities, where the accessibility to hospitals, state offices, etc. help to mitigate the private dimensions of consumer space.

Second, there is a geo-political dimension. Chile is a very long and narrow country, with a capital city that has 40.5% of the national population; it is therefore a challenge for the State to develop territories in the extreme north and south. In this, the private sector has taken a lead role. Developers and retailers have managed to spread shopping malls all over the country, claiming their malls bring urbanity and progress to every territory, and providing a symbolic presence even in remote territories where people often feel isolated from and forgotten by the central government. People in remote islands of Patagonia in the rainy south, or Arica in the northern desert, have claimed what we have named as ‘their right to have their own mall.’ The right to the mall is seen as the right to participate in a global consumer culture, ‘just like any other Chilean citizen.’

And third, there is a symbolic aspect. Contemporary Chilean society has set a promise of integration through consumption, in which the access to goods is perceived and signified as an integration with the rest of the world. People in Chile feel that the ‘global way of life,’ seen in TV and movies, is finally here, for everyone. And this symbolism in Chilean retail is spreading to other countries of the region, as developers are building a transnational business of retail.

However, further research is needed on how shopping malls are reshaping consumer society in other Latin American countries, and how this could be useful for understanding other consumer cultures around the world. So, in 2017 we started the Observatory of Consumer, Culture, and Society (OCCS UC), located at the Faculty of Communications at PUC-Chile, with the mission to reunite interdisciplinary research and comparative studies on consumer society in Latin America. We want to engage in a global conversation about the sociology of consumption and consumer cultures.

At OCCS, we are starting a 3-year research project, funded by FONDECYT Nº 11180678, and we want to bring global experts to share ideas with us. The project aims to study the urban restructuring brought by shopping malls recently built in dense areas, how this process impacts citizens imaginaries on urbanity, and how media discourses shape the installation of retail in Chilean cities. Even more, we want to start a networked discussion on consumer practices, sociology and urban communication.

We will be thrilled if we can share these findings in other universities and make partnerships to study alternative consumption in a comparative manner. If you want to engage, discuss or collaborate with us, please contact us at occs@uc.cl.

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About the Author

Liliana De Simone—PhD in Urban Studies. Assistant Professor, Faculty of Communications, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Director of the Observatorio de Consumo, Cultura y Sociedad OCCS UC.

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Consume This! Eating for Taste and Eating for Change

In our April blog, Emily Huddart Kennedy, Shyon Baumann and Josée Johnston explore the intersection of status, ethics and aesthetics in relation to food preferences, and provide a fascinating prompt for a ‘cultural capital 2.0’ research programme for the sociology of consumption.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Consume This! Cultural Capital 2.0? Eating for Taste and Eating for Change

By Emily Huddart Kennedy, Shyon Baumann and Josée Johnston

In July 2018, the three of us enjoyed a meal together at one of the most-talked-about restaurants in Victoria, Canada. At each course, our wholesome and down-to-earth server brought us small portions of artfully-prepared plates that were explicitly and implicitly presented as local, artisanal and ethically-sourced. Each course was delicious—and minimal! At the end of the meal, Shyon joked how it was fitting that the restaurant’s odd name meant “Hungry” in the local patois.

Farm-to-table restaurants are now a staple of the fine-dining scene in restaurants across North America, Europe, and Australia. Boasting local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients, diners here can enjoy a carefully crafted meal created by a renowned chef. But what’s more, they can also enjoy the feeling that they are helping local farmers practice organic agriculture, and that the meat they eat has been raised humanely.

In the world of fine-dining, this attention to the ethical credibility of ingredients marks a turning point. Although conscientious eaters have been drawn to vegan and vegetarian cafés since the 1960s, ethical eating only recently earned gourmet cachet. What does this mean for sociologists who study consumption? Early on in this project, we were inspired by the work of Carfagna and colleagues.

The authors refine the concept of an “eco-habitus”, which builds from Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, the embodied orientation we develop in line with our place in the social hierarchy. The eco-habitus captures the idea that those with considerable cultural capital are increasingly drawn to ethical consumption choices, like hybrid cars, eco-friendly cleaners and Ocean Wise seafood. In other words, the taste preferences of high cultural capital consumers seem to be oriented to products that contribute to social justice and ecological sustainability.

But many practices that convey a commitment to justice and sustainability seem at odds with high status. Freeganism, which involves recovering waste from restaurant and grocery store dumpsters, is free and more counter-culture than high-culture. Eating a basic vegetarian diet (substituting meat for low-cost bean and legumes), can be relatively affordable, and isn’t necessarily high-status either. Until recently, gourmet discourse routinely mocked vegetarians for their pleasure-denying ways. What kind of brown-rice eating ascetic denies themselves pork belly or pancetta? The question we ask in this paper is under what conditions is ethical eating a high-status practice?

Josée designed a survey to measure people’s food preferences and social status. The food preference questions captured an aesthetic orientation to food (e.g., I know about the latest food trends and hottest restaurants) and an ethical orientation (e.g., My food choices are making a positive difference to environmental quality). To measure social status, we asked survey respondents questions about their income, educational attainment, employment status, and occupation. Graduate students stood in front of a variety of grocery stores (e.g., premium stores like Whole Foods, discount stores like No Frills, and regular stores like Safeway) and farmers’ markets, and encouraged 1200 people to fill out the survey. We were able to do our analysis on a sample of 828 respondents who were not missing any data for our key measures.

To answer our research question, we began by conducting a k-means cluster analysis, which is used to find groups of similar cases. We used our questions about aesthetic and ethical orientations to food to identify four groups of food shoppers:

  1. One group, that we call Neither Ethical nor Foodie, score very low on items measuring both an aesthetic and an ethical orientation.
  2. The second group, Foodies, score highly on items capturing an aesthetic preference, like, “I seek out foods from different ethnicities and cultures” and low on items capturing an ethical orientation, like “I trust the organic label”.
  3. The third group, Ethical Eaters, score consistently low on the aesthetic orientation items, and high on the ethical orientation items.
  4. The last group, Ethical Foodies, score highest on almost all aesthetic items and also on the majority of the items measuring an ethical orientation.

The cluster analysis shows us that there are segments of food consumers who approach the culinary world with distinct preferences. But it doesn’t tell us anything about social status. To address that question, we conducted multinomial logistic regression analyses. Our results are quite striking: compared to the “Neither” category (which we treat as the reference group), all other categories have higher status. Foodies have significantly higher occupational prestige and are almost four times more likely than the Neither group to have a college diploma. Patterns are similar for Ethical Eaters, though they have significantly lower incomes.

Importantly, the Ethical Foodies, who value aesthetic and ethical foods, have higher occupational prestige, are six times likelier to earn over $100,000 (our highest income category), and are over six times more likely to have a graduate degree. The ethical foodies are distinctly more elite than all other groups on these standard measures of social status. So, to answer our research question, ethical food consumption acts as a high-status practice when it is combined with an aesthetic orientation.

To corroborate this finding, we also wanted to see if there are any differences where people buy food across the four clusters. Do these four groups tend to shops in places that reflect the differences between them? The answer was yes. We found that Ethical Foodies are least likely to get food at a discount grocery store or fast food restaurant and most likely to procure food from a farmers’ market, premium grocery store, or home garden.

The strong associations between the Ethical Foodies cluster and our measures of status suggest there is evidence of a new variety of cultural capital — or what Michaela DeSoucey jokingly described as “Cultural Capital 2.0”, when we presented this paper at the 2018 Consumers and Consumption Mini-Conference. The term Cultural Capital 2.0 nicely captures our argument that while high cultural capital consumers in Bourdieu’s French sample were likely primarily motivated by aesthetic taste preferences, ethical considerations may now be equally important in defining the contours of distinction in the domain of food consumption.

How generalizable are these patterns to other domains of consumption? Or, in other words, does Cultural Capital 2.0 also shape tastes in music, art, clothing, architecture, and so on? Anecdotally, we see considerable evidence that many people are drawn toward consumer experiences that deliver aesthetic sophistication alongside moral commitments. For instance, we see evidence of cultural capital 2.0 in architecture, where high-status designs showcase beautiful structures built with the latest energy-saving green-technologies and certified wood products. The wine world has also seen the emergence of a new field of high-status wines that are sustainable, biodynamic and delicious. We would love to see future scholarship exploring whether the people most wedded to sustainable, socially-just choices are also high-status individuals who seek “only the best” in various consumer domains.

Our data contains a striking irony: the richest, most privileged in society seem best positioned to present themselves as culturally sophisticated – and ethical. They appreciate the finer things in life (e.g., artisanal butter!), and they also care about helping other people and the planet (e.g., artisanal butter sourced from a local, grass-fed dairy operation). (Of course, social elites do not have a monopoly on refined tastes, but they do have the cultural and economic capital to advance their own tastes as the benchmark for refinement.)

So what is the transformative power of a cultural capital 2.0? On one hand, as scholars like Laura J. Miller have demonstrated, many environmental and social justice movements throughout history have contained relatively privileged people – people who have fought to make the world a better, more humane, less toxic place. It would be simplistic (and unnecessarily fatalistic) to discount the political possibilities for an emerging eco-habitus.

But, if we view our data through the lens of Bourdieusian cultural analysis – or Gramscian hegemonic common-sense – it seems that wealth and power are working to give a cultural and moral glow to those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid. The striking contrast to this privileged high-end eater is a low-income mother (who we have interviewed in other research), who feels unable to even get enough food on the table – let alone meet standards for serving an eco-friendly, gourmet meal.

This report is based on our article, “Eating for Taste and Eating for Change: Ethical Consumption as a High-Status Practice.”

 Sources:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1983. “The field of cultural production, or: The economic world reversed.” Poetics 12(4-5): 311-356.

Carfagna, Lindsay B, Emilie A. Dubois, Connor Fitzmaurice, Monique Y. Ouimette, Juliet B. Schor, Margaret Willis, and Thomas Laidley. 2014. “An Emerging Eco-Habitus: The Reconfiguration of High Cultural Capital Practices among Ethical Consumers.” Journal of Consumer Culture 14(2):158–78.

Gramsci, Antonio. 2011. Prison Notebooks, Volumes 1, 2, & 3. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.

Miller, Laura J. 2017. Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Authors

Emily Huddart Kennedy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of British Columbia.

Shyon Baumann is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Josée Johnston is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Joshua Sbicca, Food Justice Now!

This interview is part of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Victoria Reyes (vreyes@ucr.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Joshua Sbicca, Food Justice Now!

By Erik Withers

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In this interview, Joshua Sbicca talks about his past, present, and future endeavors as a social justice focused scholar. At an early age, he started volunteering to provide food for the homeless, which eventually launched an interest in better understanding the food system.

Currently, Sbicca focuses on the nuanced ways that social inequalities develop and persist within food systems and the heterogeneous practices of food justice. In his new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle, he deploys a historically informed comparative case study that uncovers how carceral, labor, and immigration crises intersect with food politics. Sbicca’s scholarship serves as a notable example of how sociology can meet the needs and desires of people committed to social change.

Erik: When did you take up consumers and consumption as an area of research and why did you do so?

Joshua: When I was a kid, my mom would take my brothers and me to a local soup kitchen in urban San Diego to volunteer. From a young age, I was able to see that not everybody ate the same things or ate the same way, but everyone had preferences. I noticed people who were hungry but still wanted their food to taste a particular way. Like, if it wasn’t salted enough, we would hear about it.

So that was something that carried into my adult life. When I was in college I did a lot of work with the homeless doing things like meals on wheels in the San Jose area. It was right after the ‘dot com’ crash, and there were people living underneath bridges. We would be giving out food, and hearing stories about our economic system. And so, I started to draw connections between structural realities as the causes of these disparities.

I took it a step further in graduate school when I started to become really curious about how people were trying to solve these problems of lack of access to healthy and affordable food. I worked on a case study of an organization called People’s Grocery, and I started to learn more about food justice and the food justice movement. And so that led me to complicated sociological questions about how food came to be, how groups were impacted, and in what ways by our current food system, and how food can be tied to social change as well.

Erik: How do you see consumption as a lens through which to investigate and integrate social inequalities?

Joshua: I would begin by saying that consumption is—by no means—a neutral or isolated act. As somebody who studies the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of food, there are many inequalities in who can access healthy food, and, at the same time, exert particular cultural foodways. The American food system, for example, is obviously a capitalist system to the core. It is really predicated on producing social divisions in order to maximize profit. As a result, I am always tickled, to some degree, when we talk about the “standard American diet” or the “S.A.D.” diet for short. It’s not funny in terms of who experiences the S.A.D. diet, but in the U.S. we have diets that are commonly high in refined processed foods, starches, and meat. So, this has forced me to think about how capitalism operates through racial, gendered, class, and other divisions.

This shows us as scholars that it is important to pay attention to particular group experiences and cultures. And, as this pertains to food, the political and social implications are quite vast. For example, we can consider the history of colonialism and its disruption of different foodways. Or, the irony that food chain workers are more likely to need food assistance than other workers. Or, the role that food and bodies play in producing social and symbolic boundaries, which takes place in many ways. And so, these examples just show that there are many opportunities to interrogate social inequalities through consumption studies.

Erik: Can you give me a little bit of a backstory to your new book Food Justice Now!: Deepening the Roots of Social Struggle?

Joshua: It goes back to my master’s research and the case study I did with People’s Grocery. One of the takeaways from that experience was how the activists who worked in this organization talked about food justice through the lens of anti-oppression. It got me thinking that the practice of food justice needs to address all forms of oppression. Essentially, oppression is not a bottomless experience or process, it’s variegated based on things like we were talking about: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etcetera.

Then the question becomes: what does this look like in practice? How do you move from an analytical place, to what people are actually doing on the ground? I wanted to develop a social history and comparative case study that would help me determine the diversity of food justice and food justice practices and politics. So that was part of the intellectual impetus.

But then there is also a personal backstory. My own history as an activist and organizer informed a more heterogeneous view of food justice. For example, when I was in college I was involved in a campaign to support food workers. I was in college when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched their first major boycott of Taco Bell, which was their first national boycott of a big food company. The goal was to get them to sign onto the Fair Food Agreement, which would get Taco Bell to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes picked in Immokalee, Florida.

One of their strategies was to get college students on board and use universities as sites for education and then also for political organizing. So, I started thinking more about the justice implications of the hands that feed us. And then I was working post-college with a group of close friends that were starting a food justice non-profit, which became one of the cases that I highlight in my book: Planting Justice. They were linking very closely their food justice work to carceral politics and prison reform work—so I began working with formerly incarcerated people. Some of that history informed me wanting to take a more heterogeneous approach and look at the practices of food justice.

Erik: What is something in your research that you are currently really excited about?

Joshua: There is a strong commitment by scholars and activists to apply what we learn by studying food justice to pressing needs. One of the ways that I try and do this is in the conclusion of Food Justice Now!, and I hope is one of the ‘take homes’ that people reading the book really sit with a little bit. I think through the parameters of what a food justice national policy or plan might entail. I argue that this should include equity related to land, labor, urban and rural community development, and sustainability.

One of the things I think is really interesting is that we have some unique political opportunities that have been opened up by the release of the Green New Deal, and the resolution that has been proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. What I found by reading through the resolution is that it includes strong justice language and a focus on the food system. So many of my colleagues and I who are paying attention to this are excited because there is an opportunity for us to think through how to tie some of our work and research to the shifting political landscape

Erik: What are some of the challenges you face in your research?

Joshua: I’ve sometimes had challenges balancing academic pressures to produce rigorous scholarship with the ethical obligation to develop sociological research that meets the needs and desires of people. While studying topics like social movements and food politics it becomes beneficial to work alongside activists who have their own unique view of what social change should look like and have their own view of what information they need. And then there is the pressure that I have in my academic life to produce rigorous scholarship that meets a particular academic standard. This is a challenge that I grapple with.

One way that I’ve worked with that is finding partnerships with non-profit and grassroots organizations, troops on the ground working towards some kind of change effort, to leverage some of my skills as a researcher and scholar to produce knowledge that is requested and desired.

Erik: What is a book or article, academic or non-academic, that has influenced your scholarship?

Joshua: My list is long [laughs], which I am sure is the case for others. But one book that continues to influence me is the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci. I first read this book as a senior in college as part of an independent study, and it was the first time I was exposed to ideas like hegemony and thinking about capitalism beyond just a means of production to include its ideologies and really the production of culture. In more recent years, it has formulated some of my ideas in Food Justice Now!. I revisited Gramsci and I found that his conjunctural analysis is a really helpful approach to unpack how crises create the conditions for many forms of social change.

I also like the Prison Notebooks because in it Gramsci suggests that there is an important role for scholars in analyzing problems, recognizing human agency, and engaging social change efforts. So as somebody who continues to study consumer food politics, I am reminded of the opportunities that I have to do this in my own research and teaching.

I want to end by giving a quote from Gramsci that I think really encapsulates this. And it encapsulates a lot of my approach in Food Justice Now!. He wrote in the Prison Notebooks: “The most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of forces is the following: that such analyses cannot and must not be ends in themselves…but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particular practical activity, or initiative of will.” I really like that because it puts the onus on scholars to actually solve real-world problems.

About the Scholars

Joshua Sbicca is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University. He is the co-editor (with Alison Alkon and Yuki Kato) of a forthcoming NYU Press edited volume on food and gentrification.

Erik Withers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida and will begin as an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin River Falls in the Fall of 2019. His research focuses on racial, ethnic, and gendered representations and inequalities within consumer cultural settings. Erik’s scholarship has been published in the journal Sociology Compass, and in two edited volumes on sociology and craft beer. He is co-editing an upcoming special edition Humanity and Society, titled: “Inequalities in Contemporary Cultural Spaces.”

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Consume This! Why “Eating for Change” Won’t Fix the Food System

In our March issue of Consume This!, Sinikka Elliott, Joslyn Brenton and Sarah Bowen draw from their recently published book, Pressure Cooker, to highlight some of the many tensions between holding individuals responsible for ‘eating for change,’ and the need for collective solutions to the ills of our contemporary food systems.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Why “Eating for Change” Won’t Fix the Food System

By Sinikka Elliott, Joslyn Brenton, and Sarah Bowen

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

— Anna Lappé, food activist and writer, in O Magazine (2003)

Sometimes Greely Janson feels like her whole life revolves around food. As the owner of a pay-what-you-can restaurant, she works with food all day. At home, her efforts to provide and prepare “good food” for her family take on the magnitude of a second job. For Greely, every bite can literally, and symbolically, change the health of individuals and the nation.

Greely’s food philosophy involves making meals from scratch, using mostly organic ingredients, on a daily basis. This requires shopping at a variety of places. “We get meat at the farmers’ market,” Greely explains.

They have more vendors who have sustainably raised meats. We usually get our eggs and meats and some of our produce from there, and then Whole Foods as well. When the farmers’ markets are in season, we try to get more produce from there.

Greely’s husband is “an involved father,” but she does most of this work on her own: planning meals, budgeting, and comparing options at different places.

Pressure Cooker coverAs we describe in our new book, Greely is part of what scholars call the “eating for change” movement, centered on the idea that individuals have the power to change the food system by paying attention to what they put on their plates and where they put their money. The “eating for change” message is one of “consumer citizenship,” notes sociologist Norah MacKendrick. The idea is that we can engage in political action through our shopping decisions.

While Greely finds her intensive food efforts personally rewarding and environmentally necessary, not everyone has the money to vote with their fork. This approach may also inadvertently reproduce stigma and inequality. When shopping for organic or local food is seen as a sign of good parenting and ethical consumption, it can divide us—becoming an indicator of who is, and who is not, caring and thoughtful. Emily Kennedy and Julie Kmec find that “feeding ideals” shape people’s judgments of parents’ capabilities, and even their morality, with mothers judged more harshly than fathers for what they feed their children.

We spent five years talking with 154 mothers of young children about their food decisions and conducting in-depth observations with 12 families as they shopped, cooked, and ate meals together. What we learned challenges modern messages about how to change our relationship to food and the food system. Lots of people are doing their best, every day, to get meals on the table that their kids will eat and that will nourish them and help them grow.

Lots of people are “voting with their forks” to support the small farmers in their areas, many of whom struggle to get by themselves. These are all good things. But they all rely on individual people somehow managing to work better, try harder, and commit more. The solutions to the problems in our food system cannot rest solely on individual kitchens and efforts. Families are already trying very hard. And it’s not enough.

Voting with her fork gives Greely a sense of power in a food system she thinks is unhealthy and unsustainable. It’s critical not to dismiss the power many women exercise through their food practices, argue Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston. Women have long used their household purchases as a way to assert political power, but voting with your fork also takes a lot of time, energy, and effort.

Although many of the most visible advocates of “voting with our forks” are male chefs, farmers, and activists, it’s usually women who do the bulk of the shopping and cooking for their families. And Rebecca Som Castellano finds that women who engage in alternative food practices exert more physical labor in food provisioning than women who don’t adopt alternative food practices.This creates a gendered solution to the problems in our food system, whereby female foodies like Greely are the ones doing the actual work—shopping at multiple stores, searching for new recipes to make use of seasonal produce, spending extra time chopping vegetables—required to make the movement successful.

Moreover, because people can only vote with their forks through their food purchases, it’s the people with the most money who have the most votes. And even Greely cannot always cast as big a vote as she would like. “I would like $250 a week to spend on groceries,” Greely says with an embarrassed laugh. Greely’s household income is above the median in the United States and they try to stick to a budget of $150 dollars each week on groceries to feed their family of three, but it isn’t enough.

For many of the poor and working-class mothers in our study, voting with their forks was impossible. After Melanie Richards’ husband was diagnosed with a chronic degenerative illness and stopped working, Melanie had to learn to feed their family of five on a budget of $75 a week. “If we could afford to buy things that were organic, with less hormones, absolutely [we would],” she says.

“I’d love to have chickens of our own. And we would buy a lot more fruits and vegetables…We’ve thought about joining a co-op where they deliver you a box every week, but it’s like $90 a month. That’s a lot of money—it’s too much.

Poor, middle-class, and wealthy Americans express similar levels of interest in eating organic food, but middle- and upper-class consumers are more likely to actually buy it.

We can’t keep asking people to do better, or do more.

Trying to solve environmental and health ills by calling on individuals to take responsibility for buying organic, sustainably-produced foods is unrealistic. It is a weight of responsibility that will most likely be felt by the women who tend to occupy this space already and a solution that will further exacerbate the already gaping food and health inequalities between rich and poor households in America. It can also make those with fewer resources to vote with their fork feel as though they are failing at food and failing their families. While it is not a bad thing to be thoughtful about what we buy, we need to rally together for collective solutions that serve all of us.

About the Authors

Sinikka Elliott is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Joslyn Brenton is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College.

Sarah Bowen is Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University.

They are authors of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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Scholars’ Conversations: Meredith Katz and Jeffrey London

This conversation is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. This month, two faculty members talk with one another about their work and how each came to study consumption.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Victoria Reyes (vreyes@ucr.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Meredith Katz and Jeffrey London

What does “consumption” mean in both of your works? How do they compare?

Meredith: In my work, consumption is really about the entire process, from production to the point of purchase. I am interested in both the labor behind our products, as well as the political or ethical choices people make when deciding to consume. My work focuses on two interrelated topics: anti-sweatshop organizing and political and ethical consumerism. In both areas, I am interested in how consumers can and do choose to leverage their consumption choices to bring about social change or a desired political outcome.

 Jeff: My work considers the role of the music scene in Portland, Oregon, and the adjustment of actors to rapid gentrification there. It is centered at the intersection of urban change, the urban imaginary, and the branding of cities. Therefore, my focus is on the city as a growth machine, utilizing cultural products and DIY consumption and scaling it up to sell the city in the global marketplace of cool. Within this process, I uniquely focus on the makers and producers of music and art subcultures in the city, and their negotiation with the forces of the new creative economies that follow city growth spurts that revolve around culture.

Finally, I am intrigued by the political partnerships in neighborhoods that arise in response to the gentrification of spaces of consumption. Consumers in the city can, similarly to Meredith’s approach, choose to opt in or out by relating or not relating to a commodified cultural economy. In essence, borrowing from Portlandia, they can put a bird on it, or not.

What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in each of your works?

Meredith: For me, it was two books. The first was The Overspent American by Juliet Schor and the second was No Logo by Naomi Klein. My mother was a department store apparel buyer who always said two things when I was growing up: 1) We do not freely advertise for brands and 2) Do you know how much that piece of clothing cost to make and how much they are charging you? Both No Logo and The Overspent American identified sociological concepts to these two mantras I was wrestling to name.

I knew there was some connection between consumer choices and social justice, but I did not know of many sociologists talking about that early on. Juliet Schor, of course, was. Her work was fundamental in providing me with a holistic view of the consumption process, from the work-and-spend cycle to why lifestyle politics matter. Naomi Klein’s work helped me understand the global exploitation of labor further and just exactly why my mom said we would not freely advertise for brands with our clothing choices.

Jeff: A combination of scholarship in and around consumers and consumption themes have influenced me. Sharon Zukin’s Naked City mapped the landscape of desiring that permeates neighborhoods in New York. She analyzes the way that media and real estate entities capitalize on a kernel of truth about a place until the consumer culture swoops in to replace a more authentic cultural production and consumption landscape. In addition, Rich Ocejo’s book Upscaling Downtown has been invaluable as a model for understanding and interpreting the feelings and judgments of longtime residents and scene actors in negotiating new frameworks of consumption in a gentrifying moment.

How did you both come to work on this topic (i.e. the topic of the book/article)? What sparked both of your interests in this?

 Jeff: I have been both a producer and consumer of “small batch” music for a long time, and I was interested in understanding the role of the culture industry on “authentic” local culture. Although less concentrated then what Adorno and Horkheimer had postulated, this industrialization of production, even though an intellectually self-aware television show like Portlandia, can have distorting effects on the continuity of real life in a place culture.

Meredith: As I mentioned earlier, the topic of how consumers could leverage their purchases for ‘good’ was something I thought about for a long time. However, I vowed to never get involved with the anti-sweatshop movement because I thought it was too elitist. Life is funny like that. But when I learned about the solidarity model of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), that all changed. After being involved with the anti-sweatshop movement in graduate school, and running successful USAS campaigns on campus, I saw first-hand how consumers could leverage their purchases to make changes, particularly as they related to labor rights of workers. My experience with USAS led me to my second area of research looking more broadly at how consumers may opt into various forms of political or ethical consumerism including boycotting, buycotting, and/or lifestyle politics.

How was the process of transforming both of your curiosities for these topics into research questions and projects?

 Jeff: It was challenging and daunting at times. I was continuously compelled to tell the story, and it took me some time to see what I needed to find out, and what needed to be known. It was, in fact, important to categorize how people were differently situated in the creative economy, including those that Guy Standing et al. (2009) call the ‘creative proletariat.’ Scholars like George Morgan also helped me map the way in which creativity gets bifurcated in the new creative economy, and how certain tastes and ways of producing are relegated to a nostalgic outpost of the collective memory of places.

Meredith: Similar to Jeff, it was challenging at times. It still is. Mainly I knew I had a topic that was worth studying, and one that I remain passionate about, but I had not seen much sociological work on political consumers when I began (that has since changed, which is wonderful). It was a bit of a hodge-podge for a while piecing together previous research from political science, marketing, and business to establish a firm understanding of the concept of political consumerism.

Are concepts such as identity or place key variables in your understanding of contemporary fashions and patterns of action in both subcultures and culture in general?

Jeff: The broader implications of a focus on consumption or the consumption/production nexus serves to illustrate how this mode of analysis is fast becoming crucial for our age. I think the point of purchase is where the rubber meets the road between the social and the individual, and especially how the digital mediates our relationship with the external world. Focusing on collective engagement and social practices in spaces such as bars, music venues, and the like served as my benchmark historical work in Portland. However, when looking at new initiates in Portland I focused on young people consuming cities around the globe and consuming identity in the disneyfied landscape of app centered consumption. That moment of the click is the distilled moment of commitment to the new city and the new forms of power and exclusion that form there. The way we like and look at culture informs the way the lived city is rebuilt to meet up with our tastes.

Meredith: For my work, identity is extremely important within a cultural context. There has long been a critique that engaging in political consumerism, or anti-sweatshop activism for that matter, are privileged forms of engagement. After all, who has the money to boycott certain superstores or buycott local ones that serve fair trade or organic clothes or food? In a recent piece I published on the history of political consumerism in North America in The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism, I note how that is only half the story. There are many other stories of people with less privilege advocating and organizing for fair labor conditions in this country and others. However, as the face of the buy local movement remains similar to the people from Portlandia, we have some work to do about broadening the faces of the conversation.

How do you see the sociological study of consumption as important to reducing social inequalities? How do distinctions and determinants of meaning (class, race, gender) frame your analysis?

Meredith: For me, my interest in consumption was precisely because I viewed consumption choices as a means to reduce inequality, particularly between producers and consumers. With my anti-sweatshop activism work, there is a direct link between successful campaigns (specifically Worker Rights Consortium affiliations) and increased labor protections, and often wages, for garment workers. For ethical or political consumers, this opportunity also exists through their purchasing decisions. As markets are increasingly larger than specific geographical boundaries, and often do not have to adhere to the labor standards of the countries of the consumers, working at the point of consumption to mitigate any injustices at the point of production is a key way to reduce inequalities.

Jeff: The study of consumption often reveals the secret code for class consumption, echoing Veblen’s ironic take on conspicuous taste and the false equity of consumer freedom. When we say you are what you buy, consumption is often embodied and embedded, especially when it comes to clothing or food. Meredith’s research illustrates the hidden costs of style decisions that are inexpensive due to labor exploitation. Raising consciousness to the level of understanding the connection of consumption to values requires both theory and analysis.

I teach a course Leisure, Recreation, and Sports, where we take the social constructions of race, gender, and class to reveal where cultural capital is distributed, acquired, and denied. When the denigration of certain ways of consuming are undercut that limit monetary opportunity and life chances. From that vantage point, the door opens for studies of consumption that not only reflect situated meaning in shopping place and temples of leisure, but also for using cultural relativism as a means of reorienting consumer power towards social change.

About the Scholars

Dr. Meredith Katz is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work focuses on the collegiate anti-sweatshop movement and political consumerism. She recently published the chapter “Boycotting and Buycotting: Political Consumerism in North America” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism.

Dr. Jeffrey London is a lecturer of Sociology at CUNY-Hunter College. He has published articles on Portland, Oregon, Portlandia, consumption and the city in City & Community, and Metropolitics.

Featured

Consume This! Diversity Capital and Corporate Cultural Patronage

In this month’s blog, Patricia Banks develops the concept of “diversity capital” to unpack how patronage of the black cultural sector operates as an instrument of corporate communication and impression management.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Diversity Capital and Corporate Cultural Patronage

By Patricia A. Banks

In 2011, Aetna, a health insurance company, announced a $1.275 million dollar donation toward the effort to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. Aetna is not alone as a corporate supporter of black culture. Other companies, such as Boeing, Toyota, and BMW have supported various black cultural causes like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Harlem Fine Arts Show. These and other black cultural institutions and initiatives partly owe their existence to donations and sponsorships from modern corporate Medicis.

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Although the black cultural sector relies on support from corporations, we have little understanding of the benefits of this type of patronage for firms. The sociological research on corporate support for the arts offers some clues. As sociologist Victoria D. Alexander shows in her research on corporate patronage, business support for the arts is a form of enlightened self-interest. On one hand society benefits from corporate cultural largesse. But, firms also receive an advantage from these arrangements. On the self-interest side, one benefit is that firms that support culture can project an image that they are good corporate citizens. While this observation is informative, it offers limited understanding of how firms profit from specifically supporting black cultural initiatives.

To address this gap in knowledge I set out to study why businesses support culture associated with blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities. Drawing on a range of archival and ethnographic data, I am gaining insight on how black cultural patronage pays for businesses. I am finding that for businesses black cultural patronage functions as a form of what I term diversity capital. I define diversity capital as cultural practices and values that allow organizations to solve problems and leverage opportunities related to race and ethnicity and other social differences. Before elaborating this point, it is useful to refer to the broader sociological research on race and cultural capital.

Although cultural capital as originally conceived by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his colleagues emphasizes how the culture of dominant groups functions as a resource, researchers have increasingly turned attention to how the culture of non-dominant groups, such as African Americans, yields returns. For example, in her research on black urban youth, Prudence L. Carter developed the concept of black cultural capital to describe how the consumption of black culture is used to regulate who is accepted as authentically black. Similarly, in my own scholarship on support for the arts, I show how black cultural patronage, such as collecting art from the African Diaspora and supporting African American museums, is used by the black upper-middle and upper-class to articulate and nurture their racial identity.

In my research on corporate cultural patronage, I am extending the insight that black culture is a mechanism of racial identity construction for individuals and applying it to organizations. I argue that one way that black cultural patronage operates as a form of diversity capital is its use in communicating that businesses value diversity and are committed and connected to African Americans. In this way, black cultural patronage is an instrument for corporate impression management around race.

Research on race and organizations asserts that in order for corporations to maintain an appearance of falling in line with contemporary racial norms and values, they engage in practices that signal that they are diverse and inclusive (e.g. seeBerrey 2015, Collins 2011, Dobbin, Kim, and Kalev 2011, Edelman 2016, Leong 2013, and Skretny 2013. Through content analysis of corporate cultural patronage documents—e.g. public relations documents that companies use to publicize their patronage such as press releases about cultural donations and sponsorships—and diversity documents—e.g. public relations documents that firms use to publicize their diversity efforts such as diversity reports—my research reveals how black cultural patronage is one such tool that companies use to communicate their inclusivity. Corporate cultural patronage documents construct a narrative of companies being diverse and connected to African Americans. In addition, corporate diversity documents use black cultural patronage as evidence of a corporate commitment to inclusivity.

For example, when fundraising for the MLK memorial was taking place, several businesses stepped up to help pay for the multi-million dollar initiative. Aetna publicly announced financial support for the project in 2007 and 2011. In PR about this patronage, the company notes that it embraces the values epitomized by the civil rights leader through its “longtime commitment to diversity, equality and the African American community.”

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Fundraising for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, overlapped with the MLK memorial. In the case of the NMAAHC, the fundraising plan called for half of the expected $500,000,000 cost to be raised from the private sector. Along with individuals and foundations, corporations helped fundraisers to meet this goal. One of the companies that gave was the insurance company New York Life. With a million dollar gift to the NMAAHC, they are designated as a “founding donor.” To publicize their commitment to African Americans, the company created an “African American” timeline that notes important developments in their racial history. The firm’s seven-figure NMAAHC gift is listed on the timeline.

McDonald’s, the fast food company, also signals their commitment to African Americans through black cultural patronage. In particular, the company’s sponsorship of gospel music is central to their public representation as a firm that is closely linked to the black community. Each year McDonald’s sponsors the “Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour” which has featured vocalists such as Yolanda Adams and Erica Campbell. The tour is promoted on “365Black,” which is a special section of the McDonald’s website dedicated to African Americans.

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These companies’ support for culture illustrate how black cultural patronage is used to manage the racial identities of businesses. I am also finding that cultural patronage associated with other racial and ethnic groups plays this role, albeit in distinct ways. Corporate patronage of Asian, Latinx, and Native American culture is used to signal a connection and commitment to Asians, Latinxs and Native Americans, respectively. For instance, in publicity about their sponsorship of the Annual Gathering of Nations Powwow, Ultra Health, a cannabis company, affirmed that they are “committed to fostering positive relationships with Indian tribes.”

USMC Veteran Designs National Native American Veterans Memorial for National Mall

Major fundraising projects in the ethnic cultural sector continue across the United States. For example, millions are being raised to build the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee and the National Native American Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There are also pushes to establish a National Museum of the American Latino and National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian. As these efforts are underway, it is especially critical to develop greater understanding of how ethnic cultural patronage allows businesses to do good while doing well.

 

 

O-g51hQP_400x400.jpgAbout the Author

Patricia A. Banks is a CASBS Fellow at Stanford University and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class and Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums. In her research on corporate cultural patronage, Banks extends her investigation of race and cultural capital to organizations.

 

Website: http://www.patriciaannbanks.comEmail: pbanks@mtholyoke.edu | Twitter: @PatriciaABanks

List of Images

Figure 1: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial / © Patricia A. Banks
Figure 2: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre / Knight Foundation
Figure 3: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial / © Patricia A. Banks
Figure 4: National Museum of African American History & Culture / © Patricia A. Banks
Figure 5: Artist rendering of The National Native American Veterans Memorial / Petty Officer 2nd Class Anita Ne

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Scholars’ Conversations: Richard Ocejo, Masters of Craft

This interview is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Victoria Reyes (vreyes@ucr.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Richard Ocejo, Masters of Craft

By Rachel Rybaczuk, UMASS Amherst

coverThis is the second installment of the Scholar Interviews, a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website. I had the chance to interview Richard Ocejo, associate professor of sociology at John Jay College, and member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Ocejo’s most recent book, Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (Princeton UP, 2017), explores the ways in which low-status occupations like bartenders, barbers, distillers, and butchers became “cool” jobs in urban creative hubs like New York. He previously published Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton UP, 2014). We talked about urban culture, gentrification, Brooklyn, and the making of his latest book.

 

Rachel Rybaczuk: When and why did you become interested in consumption as a field? What drew you to pursue research in this area?

Richard Ocejo: My interest in consumption started in graduate school. My adviser was Sharon Zukin, who has extensively studied consumerism in an urban context, and who played an important role in starting up the ASA section. At the time I met her, her book, Point of Purchase, on retail shopping and American culture, had recently been published and she was starting work on what would become Naked City, on urban authenticity. For my dissertation I was conducting fieldwork on people and places in a gentrifying area, and I still primarily consider myself to be an urban scholar (if I had to choose).

My focus was on the bars and nightlife scenes of downtown Manhattan, and how commercial cultures and growth policies were shaping conditions for people within these neighborhoods. From my observations, my conversations with Sharon, and my reading of the urban culture literature, I came to analyze the importance of consumption in people’s everyday meaning-making, whether for the purpose of community formation (like the regulars at the bars I was studying) or identity formation. So I came to consumption through a back door and have kept it in the mix ever since.

RR: Given the various ways people approach consumption studies, what does consumption mean in your work?

RO: In my work I’d say I’ve looked at consumption by focusing on production, or people who construct spaces of consumption, who form and disseminate meanings of consumption, and who shape consumer tastes. I’ve examined these foci empirically by studying business owners and workers, mostly culturally hip urbanites. My aim has always been to embed consumption spaces, meanings, and practices in the sociospatial contexts where they take place, and in my case I’ve focused on gentrifying places in cities. Examining how gentrifiers consume in their neighborhoods and why—e.g. where they shop, what they buy, what types of architecture and housing they prefer—has helped my understanding of this type of urban change.

My current project, which looks in part at a group of middle-class New Yorkers who feel they have been displaced from the city due to its unaffordability and move to an “affordable” (i.e. poor) small city nearby, is an example. Right from the jump, my interviews with them revealed how important the industrial urban form was to them: the old brick buildings, the grit, the density, the warehouses, the diversity. The very texture of the place spoke to them. They wanted to become stakeholders there as they weren’t able to or no longer could be in New York City in part by becoming homeowners (sometimes of multiple properties) and getting involved politically. I’m finding that their tastes and preferences for a particular brand of urban living and their contextual buying power (which is turning them into small-scale developers—i.e. producers of urban space), then, are having an outsize influence on the social and political environment in the city.

RR: What book or article has been particularly influential for you?

RO: When talking to colleagues and students about their work I seem to often reference Michele de La Pradelle’s Market Day in Provence. It’s such a lovely book that I first read toward the end of grad school, around when it seemed “authenticity” was really becoming a popular topic. (I was also shifting my own shopping habits at the time to greenmarkets and such from supermarkets, so it was enjoyable on a personal level.) I can’t recall the finer details right now, but she was an anthropologist who studied an old public market in southern France, where locals go every week to buy produce. At first glance it’s a very traditional, time-honored endeavor of residents buying their food from small, local farmers, as their ancestors have probably been doing for generations. Nice and authentic. But De la Pradelle finds the whole thing is a collective drama, a deliberate performance by both the buyers and sellers.

The buyers know that the vendors aren’t what they say they are (some are from Paris, some buy their goods from wholesalers, etc.), and the vendors put on an act of adding dirt to their vegetables to make it look like they just picked them out of the ground and inflating the price because they know people want to haggle. Everyone knows what’s going on is remarkably “inauthentic,” but they participate anyway, every week, like they’re in a play, and they love it. There are some larger points about market economies and the performance of consumption in there, and about identity and immigration (I believe there’s a group of African immigrants who sell their wares near the market who the locals kind of ignore).

The book was influential to me because her writing style is remarkable. She serves as the personal guide and makes herself an unsuspecting character who learns about the machinations of the market as we do. I like that form of narration. It’s wonderful ethnography.

RR: I think it would be interesting for people to read about what inspired Masters of Craft and what sparked your interest in this particular group of people (the bartenders, butchers and barbers). How did you narrow it down to this group given the many types of “people who construct spaces of consumption,” particularly in New York City (and Brooklyn)? 

RO: I began the research for Masters of Craft while I was still a grad student, and still conducting fieldwork for my dissertation. Since I was studying conflict and nightlife scenes, I visited a lot of bars (no judgements), especially ones that nearby residents were really upset about and protested. I wanted to see them for myself, meet and interview their owners, chat with the bartenders, etc. Two of these bars were high-end cocktail bars called Milk and Honey and Death & Co. To be perfectly honest, when I first walked in I was blown away by them as both a sociologist and a consumer (fine, judge).

They had hidden front doors, one had a reservation policy, both had no standing policies, one had a crazy menu with bizarre drinks, one had a verbal menu (with bizarre drinks), I didn’t recognize most of the bottles on the backbars, the aromas were incredible, they were super dark and played jazz, and, most importantly, the bartenders were amazing: wearing shirts, ties and tie clips, vests, and arm garters; methodically following processes to make drinks; and being hyper-focused. When I’m doing fieldwork, everywhere I go I ask myself “What’s going on here?” I had never experienced a bar like them before, and I couldn’t come close to answering that question after those first visits. I had to learn more. So I kept going back. It really started that innocently. Whatever instincts I had at the time were buzzing, so I followed them.

Once I eventually figured out that my focus would be on work and workers in these types of specialized occupations (see below answer), I had already pretty much finished collecting data on cocktail bartenders and bars and craft distillers and distilleries. So when looking to expand it by finding more cases, I wanted to avoid another alcohol/drinks-related one. That meant no craft beer, and no coffee, which were and still are rather popular topics and products. I did some theoretical sampling and wanted to look at other cultural industries. I was aware of men’s fashion and grooming trends, especially with shaving, so I looked into barbers and barbershops (which are great places for conducting fieldwork—you just sit there while the show unfolds before you). I wanted a fourth case in another industry, and food was the obvious one. But I didn’t want to study the most obvious occupation that would fit the bill: chefs.

Quite simply, kitchens are horrible places for fieldwork, and after the bar stuff I was done with late nights. I was aware of the “whole animal” trend and the butcher shops that were promoting it, and after speaking to people at a few places I realized it would be very feasible to do, and it would provide another relevant case. I only realized in hindsight that I had one manufacturing job (distillers) and three service-oriented jobs, and that all four were traditionally masculine. I now wish I had balanced it out more, but once I realized the project I had designed I tried to work these aspects into the analysis. But if I could retroactively design the project, I’d probably do it differently.

I’m glad you mentioned Brooklyn. Brooklyn became “cool” in the late ‘90s and ‘00s, essentially. But the first waves of these businesses all began in lower Manhattan, which is where I did the bulk of my research. (Craft distillers are an exception—due to the spatial needs of distilling, the liquor laws at the time, and the expense of starting and running a distillery, the first craft distilleries in New York State were all outside the city, so that’s where I went to do my fieldwork. Months after I left the distilling field, the laws had changed, and distilleries started opening in Brooklyn, one down the street from where I was living at the time. That annoyed me.) That said, Brooklyn’s become synonymous with this kind of activity, so I certainly could’ve done all my fieldwork there.                   

RR: What was the process of transforming your curiosity for this topic into a research question and a project?

RO: At first, the project was about the craft cocktail scene, in New York City, the US, and even around the world. NYC was a central node in the global circuit. Part of this endeavor was the rise of craft spirits, which all the cocktail bartenders were into because it gave them more ingredients and flavors to work with. That’s how I started studying those folks. Three years went by, during which I finished my dissertation on a totally different topic and started my job, and still didn’t really have a clear focus or research questions in mind. I just kept “following the thing” of the cocktail, as anthropologist George Marcus says. I was reading a lot, mostly literature on cultural intermediation and social fields, but I wouldn’t say I was comfortable with my focus.

But after nearly three years I finally stood back and thought more carefully about what I was really interested in. I realized out of everyone I had met and studied and all that I had seen, I was most interested in the folks who were at the main point of cultural production—the workers themselves at the cocktail bars and distilleries. They made the stuff, they created the actual meanings, and they spread them all around to consumers, mostly interactively. They were the ones who devoted themselves to these low-status jobs, despite having other options given their educational and professional backgrounds. I wanted to focus on them and others like them. So it became a project about the people behind certain occupational and cultural shifts.

RR: How long did you take to publish since your first conceived the project? What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you handle them?

RO: I’m slow. Or at least I think I am. My dissertation took four years of fieldwork and then the book that came out of it was published six years later, and Masters of Craft took six years of fieldwork and then the book came out four years later (some of the lengthy writing process had to do with having a kid—children slow down production), with other publications coming out along the way. Like I said, it took me nearly three years to figure out what the project’s real focus and questions were. To be honest, that time wasn’t a waste at all, even though a lot of the early data didn’t make it into the analysis or book and will probably never see the light of day. I’m not someone who can just neatly plan out a project and then implement it. I need to wade around for a while. My lines are never straight. I’ve accepted that. (I’m almost two years into my new project and I think I figured out the focus last month. Hopefully.)

Having a child aside, the writing presented a challenge. I had written a book before, but it was based on a dissertation, which is a book-length manuscript that had been evaluated by my committee. How to start from scratch? I decided to join a writing group with some friends and colleagues, which was really helpful to get the ball rolling. I also knew I wanted to be more expressive in my second book, which helped me approach the writing differently. I like it when I hear how musicians and actors and artists place limitations and obstacles on themselves to make their work, like only using certain types of instruments or themes in lyrics.

I’m hardly like those kinds of folks, or even creative (or a good writer), but I decided to break the frame of writing academically, so to speak, to help me figure out how to proceed, by putting some obstructions in place. A key one was never mentioning the name of a scholar or author, or having any direct quotes, in the text. “As Peterson said…” and block quotes from citations were verboten (they’re in the endnotes). I wanted to avoid all the academic shorthand we use, which challenged me to explain our concepts in other language and not rely on what we take for granted. It really helped ease me into the writing and even make it fun. My editor talked me out of some of these exercises at the end (and she was right), but some stayed in the final version.

About the Interviewer

Rachel Rybaczuk is Ph.D candidate in the Sociology program at UMASS Amherst.

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Consume This! Plumbing of Capitalism: Credit as “Ordinary Consumption”

This month, Léna Pellandini-Simányi and Zsuzsanna Vargha make use of the practice theory concept of ‘ordinary consumption’ to consider the consumption of credit, and demonstrate the power of thinking through metaphor—in this case, plumbing!

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Revisiting the Plumbing of Capitalism: Credit as “Ordinary Consumption”

By Léna Pellandini-Simányi and Zsuzsanna Vargha

Household debt has risen all over the world in the last decades. In Switzerland, Denmark or Australia, it amounts to more than 100% of the GDP and over 75% in the US. Most of this debt is from mortgages. How do households end up with such massive amounts of debt?

Sociology and anthropology of debt and consumer behavior research suggests that for indebtedness to grow, it must be de-stigmatized and become morally acceptable. In our research into the sudden rise of mortgage debt in Eastern Europe, we expected to find such a shift in the moral meaning of debt.

Yet moral dilemmas barely featured in the stories borrowers told us of how they acquired their loans. Instead, they talked about how they started a family, moved to a new city or got divorced. They recounted how they chose the color of the walls and the floor carpeting. Mortgages were a vague memory of which most could not even recall the basic features, such as how much they were supposed to repay and what factors might change their interest rate.

Getting credit, in our interviewees’ accounts, was not a morally loaded project. It was more akin to having the plumbing sorted and getting the electricity up and running.

Indeed, the experience itself of consuming credit appeared to be more similar to that of consuming utilities, like water. We found that the concept of “ordinary consumption” in practice theory  (associated with the work of  Theodore Schatzki, Alan Warde and Elisabeth Shove) was most fitting to describe people’s relation to credit. In contrast to the meaningful consumption practices, expressive of identity or class, that is most theorized in consumption studies, “ordinary consumption” refers to consumption that does not have meaning on its own but facilitates other practices that do. For example, using water facilitates the meaningful social practice of cooking; but water would not commonly be an object of collective meaning-making.

Picture1.pngOrdinary consumption, according to practice theory, escalates through a process of co-evolution of the meaningful practices for which it is used and the infrastructure that supplies it. For example, the expansion of the water network and plumbing system went hand-in-hand with changing cultures of bathing and cleanliness. Over time, the latter necessitated further expansion of the water network, the increased capacity of which enabled further practices with even higher water demand.

In this process, morality and the meaning of consumption are central in two instances: initially, when a resource is new or when there is a breakdown. For example, as Elisabeth Shove shows, for running water to proliferate, first the fears that it might spread typhus – an actual problem of earlier water networks – needed to be alleviated. Similarly, meanings come to the forefront when the plumbing leaks or at times of drought. However, for the most part in between, ordinary goods become taken-for-granted and devoid of meanings – a process that Richard Wilk has called “naturalization.

In an article entitled ‘How risky debt became ordinary: A practice theoretical approach’, forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Culture (in the special issue Postsocialist Moral Economies), we argue that mortgage debt grew through a similar process of co-evolving mortgage infrastructure and ideas of a normal life which were centered on the home. This is how increasing debt was “naturalized”: not so much by shifting its meaning but by making it devoid of meaning. The credit infrastructure expanded first with the Hungarian government’s Housing Program in 2000, targeting young couples. Interviewees recalled how this influenced their decisions to get married earlier, to have a baby, and to maximize the subsidy by moving to the largest possible house. This program started to move forward the age at which people were expected to become “independent”, elevated the living standards associated with social status and shifted the norms of what it means to be a “couple”, by linking “couple-ness” to moving away from the parents.

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Changing practices that involved acquiring bigger homes prompted further expansion of the credit infrastructure. When subsidies were cut in 2003, banks broadened lending by easing conditions and offering mortgages in Swiss Franc and Euro that were riskier than local currency ones, but were available at lower interest rates. These Forex mortgages opened new horizons of even larger and nicer homes, until new standards of a “normal” life filled, and even overran the limits of the newly-expanded credit infrastructure. As one borrower recounted: “Originally, we took out 25 million [Forints] and we increased this up to 35 million in order to be able to finish everything. So, that’s what it had become in the end; it wasn’t possible to take out more.”

Credit consumption grew in a process similar to water consumption: through the co-evolution of the mortgage infrastructure and escalating norms related to the meaningful practices centered not on credit, but on the home.

The analogy with utilities does not stop here. To use resources, such as water or electricity, households must acquire “interfaces,” equipment that connects them to the national water supply network or the electricity grid – such as household plumbing or electric wiring. These decisions are typically not taken by households alone but with the help of experts. Mortgages in Hungary were experienced in a very similar way: for most people they were an obscure, yet necessary piece of interface that would connect them to the credit infrastructure; and they entrusted the largest part of the choice to experts.

This explains the puzzling phenomenon of how risk-averse first-time buyers ended up with high-risk foreign currency mortgages (documented in our project’s large-scale survey). They treated bank sales personnel and mortgage agents akin to plumbers: as qualified people who know the technical details best and call their attention to the key differences between the main options. This assumption granted great power to the sales interaction.

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Unlike plumbers, however, bank agents did not assume responsibility for the technical details. This ambiguity around who is responsible for certain aspects of the risks of a mortgage allowed mortgage borrowing to grow.

This warns us that financial consumption and the system that enables it is not inherently invisible, ordinary consumption. It becomes a background infrastructure for consumers partly because of the way we access financial services. Our interviews revealed that the mortgage selling process, from initial brochures and comparison tables to the signing of the contract did much to de-emphasize the significance of this commitment, and discouraged reflection.

Consequently, consumer financial protection initiatives that focus on information disclosure and financial literacy are inadequate for credit products. Notions of financial empowerment that make individual citizens responsible for financial decisions assume that credit is, or can be turned into, a meaningful, “main” practice. Using our water analogy, it expects consumers to become expert plumbers! Our research shows that this is not only politically problematic, as critics have argued, but also unrealistic.

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We propose an alternative, which is to take seriously the post-crisis metaphor of the financial system as the “plumbing system” of capitalism. If consumer-borrowers relate to credit less through calculation or morality, we should regulate financial services similarly to ordinary consumption goods like utilities.

This perspective would emphasize regulating the credit advisors, quasi-experts that connect households to the financial grid; and it would refocus the debate on who should bear the risks of the financial system.

 

About the Authors

Léna Pellandini-Simányi is Assistant Professor at the Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, Switzerland, and author of the book Consumption Norms and Everyday Ethics.

 Zsuzsanna Vargha is Associate Professor at ESCP Europe Business School, Paris, France and an economic sociologist working on markets and expertise in marketing, accounting and finance.

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Consume This! Cultural Participation and Professional Wrestling

 

In this month’s Consume This!, Gary Yeritsian gives us a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the world of professional wrestling, suggesting how WWE’s use of social media for highly-scripted, sanctioned forms of audience participation nevertheless creates possibilities for contestation and disruption.

 —Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Cultural Participation From Above and Below: The Case of Professional Wrestling Audiences
By Gary Yeritsian

‘Participation’ has become a buzzword in much of the recent academic and popular discourse regarding media and culture. The widely read work of Henry Jenkins is especially noteworthy in this regard. New media, for Jenkins, are the harbinger of a ‘participatory model of culture, one which sees the public not as simply consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined’ (2013: 2). In particular, the shift from the one-to-many logic of mass media to the many-to-many logic of social media has blurred the distinction between audience and content provider.

Yet, Jenkins concedes that media producers ‘also seek to shape and direct our participation into forms that they see as serving their own interests’ (2015: 14). Such direction often takes the form of ‘brand communities’ consisting of committed, active, and most importantly, loyal, consumers (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001). Cultural industries have seen social media as prime space for the construction of brand communities given the enhanced opportunity for consumer engagement. Contemporary brands aim to capture the value generated by the autonomous sociality of consumers (as opposed to the older dynamic of brand messages being ‘dispensed’ to consumers via broadcast media).

What emerges in contemporary work on branding and consumption, I argue, is a logic of contestation at the heart of cultural participation. On one hand, the brand aims to foster ‘from above’ forms of managed, controlled, and sanctioned engagement and participation. On the other hand, there exists the capacity ‘from below’ of members of the brand community to individually and collectively voice their own perspectives and potentially affect the brand’s behavior and orientation. In a recent article in Journal of Consumer Culture, I develop these concepts empirically through a case study of professional wrestling.

Wrestling has been a linchpin of American popular culture since the latter half of the 20th century, with the largest company, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) – which effectively exercises a monopoly in the United States – valued by Wall Street at US$5B and drawing millions of television viewers and sellout crowds.

The genre represents a ‘strategic’ case study for a number of reasons. First, audience participation is indispensable, given that shows are produced to arouse particular reactions at critical dramatic moments: enmity toward a villain who betrays a friend, shock and excitement at a surprise return, triumph when the protagonist overcomes the odds, and bemusement in comedic moments of the presentation. The conventions of the genre are straightforward, featuring soap opera style narratives in which ‘babyfaces’ (protagonists) and ‘heels’ (antagonists) fight it out in simulated contests over either a personal issue or a championship title.

The presence of a live audience encouraged to react loudly and enthusiastically to the content makes wrestling more inherently participatory than other cultural forms. Television and film audiences may tweet or blog about their favorite shows but at a significant spatiotemporal distance from one another and from the performance. Contemporary theater audiences may laugh or gasp, but they are certainly not encouraged (or allowed) to react as dynamically as wrestling audiences. Sports audiences are perhaps the most comparable, insofar as they are boisterous and loudly engaged, but legitimate sporting events cannot be scripted to arouse particular reactions.

Wrestling shows are built around ‘sanctioned’ forms of participation, as live audiences are supposed to cheer the protagonists, jeer the antagonists, and react enthusiastically to storyline surprises and climaxes. Moreover, with WWE developing an elaborate social media strategy, such participation takes place online as well, as fans follow performers’ social media pages, tweet using official hashtags, and vote in polls via the company website. Executive Stephanie McMahon has trumpeted WWE’s primary social media objective as not disseminating content outwards but rather engaging fans, and ‘listening and responding’ to their engagement. The company uses social media to extend its televised stories online and generate a 24/7 fictional environment in which fans can immerse themselves.

However, fans can use those same media to critique the direction of existing storylines and offer alternatives. These unsanctioned forms of participation in turn manifest themselves at live arenas, with increasingly unruly groups of ‘hardcore’ fans who react to the product presented to them in unpredictable ways (e.g. booing a top protagonist, or raucously cheering performers who they feel are talented but underutilized).

In recent years, the company’s key storylines have been impacted in crucial ways by expressions of unsanctioned audience participation ‘from below.’ Most notably, in 2014, fan protest forced management to insert Daniel Bryan, an immensely popular though undersized former independent wrestler whom the company did not view as a top attraction, into the main event of its biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania.

Earlier that year, fans largely anticipated that Bryan would be the winner of the Royal Rumble – a 30-man match whose winner goes on to headline Wrestlemania – given that he was immensely popular and riding a wave of momentum. However, WWE had different plans. When Bryan turned out not even to be a participant in the match, the fans turned against the show, booing vociferously the rest of the way. Moreover, they gathered in online forums to vent their disillusionment and to develop an autonomous critique of the storyline.

As documented in Dave Meltzer’s insider Wrestling Observer Newsletter, when faced with the intensely negative fan response, the company found itself having to change course. It entirely rewrote Wrestlemania around Bryan, to the thrill of the audience, online and offline. After Bryan won the world championship in the culmination of the show, 70,000 fans unanimously jabbed their fingers into the air and chanted his catchphrase: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It was a moment of victory not only for the underdog wrestler but also for popular ‘participation from below.’

In the years since, WWE has continued to make critical concessions to its audience as it struggles to anticipate, manage, and get ahead of fan participation. It seems that wrestling’s status as soap opera has two facets. Not only will ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters continue to battle one another indefinitely, so will management and the fans, over the creative direction of the stories being presented. In so doing, they will continue to demonstrate that cultural participation contains within it the potential for both popular empowerment, on the one hand, and managerial incorporation, on the other.

Gary Yeritsian is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at UCLA. His work has been published in Critical Sociology and the Journal of Consumer Culture.

References

Jenkins H, Ford S and Green J (2013) Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins H, Ito M and boyd d (2015) Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Muniz AM and O’Guinn TC (2001) Brand community. Journal of Consumer Research 27(4): 412–432.

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Consume This! Cultural Intermediaries, Emotion, and the Craft Beverage Industry

In this month’s Consume This!, Erik Withers takes us along to a craft brewery tour, highlighting the role of cultural intermediaries as frontline storytellers in contemporary consumer settings, and the power of emotions, nostalgia and place in those stories.

 —Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Cultural Intermediaries, Emotion, and the Craft Beverage Industry: Reflections from the Field

By Erik T. Withers

It’s 4 pm on a Saturday afternoon; a subtropical storm is about four hours away from pummeling the west coast of Florida. I find myself sitting alone with my participant “Stephen” in a broken down 1960’s era Airstream RV that is parked in the backyard of a local brewery in a small rural town. I am visiting the brewery that day to shadow Stephen who is a representative of the brewery. He has agreed to take me on a tour of the empty (but usually packed) brewery—apparently nobody else is crazy enough to visit a craft brewery right before a subtropical storm.

Stephen sits comfortably in the back “wrap around” style bench seat of the RV. He has one arm draped around the back of the seat and he holds a pint of beer in the other. We hear the sound of distant thunder coming from the rapidly approaching storm. Stephen takes a swig of his beer and says: “Well, let’s get started before this storm rolls in and we are stuck back here.”

He asks me if I want him to go through the tour as he normally would, or if I want to just ask him a series of questions seeing that it is just us sitting there. I tell him I want the full experience. He takes another swig of his pint of beer, takes a deep breath, and launches directly into a story about the owners of the brewery and how their path to starting a brewery all began with an old Airstream RV (similar to the one we are sitting in). He tells me that this is why he always starts out the tours outside in the old broken-down motor home. The RV is equipped with a beer bar, DJ booth, and a vintage 1950’s refrigerator that Stephen tells me “still works.”

The motor home seems to be kept up well, but over the years that it has been parked in the backyard of the brewery, it has picked up an old-musty smell. I take a deep breath in through my nose and the familiar scent takes me back to my childhood when my cousins and I used to play around in an old broken-down motor home that my grandparents had parked in their backyard. I feel a sense of nostalgia; I feel comfortable.

Stephen is a professional storyteller, like many of my participants. They draw in audiences and customers by telling them stories about products, practices, and selves—forging connections between consumer products, histories, values, and places. My participants are what many scholars have considered “cultural intermediaries.” Cultural intermediaries play a large role in assigning meaning and value within consumer spaces. Examples are sales representatives, marketers, event specialists, and brand ambassadors. These market agents attach meanings to objects, spaces, products, and practices in order to construct value and legitimacy within markets. In this sense, they turn consumer “spaces” into market “places” by co-creating an environment along with producers and consumers that is meaningful and attractive.

In my dissertation work, I use ethnography and in-depth interviewing to explore the intersectional aspects of cultural intermediary work in the craft beverage industry. Over the course of a year, I’ve interviewed and observed sales people, marketers, and event specialists who work within this industry. My research has uncovered some of the nuanced ways that race, ethnicity, and gender structure the meaning and value making processes that these folks engage in within this industry. However, one of the things that has struck me the most during my time in the field is how emotions are woven throughout their work.

I have visited lazy beach town wineries that make “Florida themed” wines like orange flavored Muscatel and key lime pie flavored sangria (not my favorite by the way, but still worth a try). I’ve been to sophisticated downtown craft cocktail bars where one can enjoy in-house made bacon infused whiskeys and fancy cocktails mixed with frothed egg whites for texture. And, I’ve traveled to rural craft breweries where one has to drive down miles of winding forest lined roads before they arrive to enjoy a hoppy IPA. At each of these sites I’ve witnessed my participants craftily deploy nostalgic stories, aesthetics, and forge relationships in ways that expose deep interplays between emotion, place, client, and product.

I am sure that most consumers would not be surprised by the fact that their favorite bottles of craft beer, fine wine, or craft spirits have gone through many “hands” on the way from “grain/grape to glass.” But, it may be a surprise to many if they knew the amount of heart and soul that has gone into this process along the way. For example, I’ve witnessed one participant captivate her customers by eloquently telling heartwarming family stories about her grandparents’ brave immigration voyages. I’ve cracked up laughing at a tasting event when my participant used the analogy of a “nun fart” while explaining how to properly open a Champagne bottle. I’ve seen a brand representative arrive to find their customers angry that an order didn’t show up, and leave sharing smiles, friendly hugs, and kisses on checks. The role of emotions in the work of the cultural intermediary is strong and undeniable.

As many sociologists have found, emotions always interact with other social structures such as race, gender, and class. This is an important fact that the craft beverage industry must take into account while attempting to diversify their customer base beyond a primarily white/male consumer. Cultural intermediaries can be useful agents in diversity efforts within the industry because of their ability to incorporate and center the stories and histories of marginalized populations. For instance, during my fieldwork I’ve had great opportunities to work with folks who organize events and programs directed towards representing women and African Americans within craft beverage culture. In order for the industry to grow, the stories and histories of marginalized populations (who have helped make this industry possible in the first place) must be represented.

That day with Stephen at the rural brewery, I was treated to a number of stories about the brewery, the products, the people, and the town. Stephen was a fantastic tour guide. He told me jokes, put on funny hats, gave me demonstrations of brewing practices, and introduced me to everyone at the brewery. He was funny, knowledgeable, and charismatic. In the end, I would go back to that brewery in a heartbeat to grab a pint. But, I realize that this is not because of the beer. Although the beverage in my glass was fantastic, I would return because of the nostalgia that I felt there, the stories that I related with and the experiences that I had there that day with Stephen on the tour. In this sense, “taste” is never completely about the actual taste of a product; rather, tastes are preceded by a system or constellation of events that have made it possible for the product to be in front of the consumer in the first place.

Author Bio

Erik Withers is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida. His research focuses on racial, ethnic, and gendered representations and inequalities within consumer cultural settings. His dissertation, Selling Whiteness: An Intersectional Analysis of Cultural Intermediaries in the Craft Beverage Industry, is an ethnography that explores the nuances of race, ethnicity, and gender within the cultural work of the industry.

Published Work

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “Whiteness and Culture.”Sociology Compass. 11(4): 1-11.

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “Brewing Boundaries of White/Middle-Class/Maleness: Reflections From Within the Craft Beer Industry.” Pp 236-260 in: Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of the Craft Beer Revolution. Edited by: Nathaniel G. Chapman, J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “The Impact and Implications of Craft Beer Research: An Interdisciplinary Literature Review.” Pp 11-24 in: Craft Beverages and Tourism, Volume One: The Rise of Breweries and Distilleries in the United States. Edited by: Carol Kline, Susan L. Slocum and Christina T. Cavaliere. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Laura J. Miller, Building Nature’s Market

This interview is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Nino Bariola (nbariola@utexas.edu) and Victoria Reyes (vreyes@ucr.edu), or click here.

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Scholars’ Conversations: Laura J. Miller, Building Nature’s Market

By Nino Bariola, UT Austin

I had the amazing opportunity to talk with professor Laura J. Miller (Brandeis) about her book Building Nature’s Market: The Business and Politics of Natural Foods (Chicago UP, 2017), and her work about consumer culture more generally.

Building Nature Market.jpgProfessor Miller received the 2018 Consumers and Consumption Section’s Best Publication Award for Building Nature’s Market. The book traces with rich detail the intricate history of “natural foods” in the U.S.—how they went from a thing of hippies, body builders, and zealous religious sects to having an almost ubiquitous presence in elite grocery stores and popular supermarkets. More than a third of foods produced in America, Miller says, have a label that invokes some form of “naturalist” language—yes, this includes that organic coffee you’re drinking, the all-natural granola bar you’ll enjoy later, and all those things without additives or preservatives you prefer.

Miller reminds us that natural foods were not so long ago mocked or ignored by most. How then did these foods find their way into the everyday diet of many Americans? Using a wealth of data from archival research and interviews, Miller makes a compelling argument that challenges the conventional wisdom that puts social movements and market actors inextricably on opposing sides: In the case of natural foods, committed individuals and business organizations collectively mobilized to promote cultural and social change.

Nino Bariola: How did your interest in the natural foods industry emerge?

Laura J. Miller: I started working on the topic when I was in graduate school. I took a social movements seminar with Joe Gusfield. He had a particular interest in the natural foods movement, especially the nineteenth century, which at the time I knew little about beyond the fact that my father was in the health food business. So I wrote a paper on this. I was really struck by the idea of a “lifestyle movement,” a social movement that aims to build and legitimize a particular lifestyle. But I didn’t see the project as having any real connection with the research I was doing for my dissertation then, so I dropped it for over ten years.

NB: And your dad, as your say in the preface, was an important source of “impetus” for the project.

LJM: Yes. When I was starting to see the end of my first book, Reluctant Capitalists, I had the opportunity to apply for a small research grant for a new project. I wasn’t sure at the time what my next project should be. But my father was getting older, and I really liked the paper I had written about health food businesses way back. So I thought it was a great opportunity to do an oral history with my dad while he still had memories about the industry. I figured at the time it would just be an article and nothing more. But I ended up finding it much more interesting and complex than I realized at first.

I started noticing parallels with the work I had done about the book industry in Reluctant Capitalists: The ways in which small businesses were all of a sudden in an environment in which large corporations were threatening them; the ways in which people in these industries were very much committed in a moral and political sense to what they were selling. So I began thinking it would be an article, and I actually ended up doing years and years of research. We scholars have grand ideas about how research develops. But in many cases it is just a series of accidents.

NB: Even considering your father was part of the businesses you study, it is clear throughout the book that you remain distant from the industry’s goals and ideals. In a moment in which there is a conversation about objectivity in the discipline, I think your book provides an interesting example of how can we can aspire to produce objective knowledge about very personal issues.

LJM: Well, my father got involved in the health food industry when he was fifteen years old. This was during the Depression. His father had died, and the family was fairly destitute, so he quit school in need of a job. He had an interest in health foods—which was very quirky at the time. He got a job at one of the few health food stores that existed at that time in New York. After WW II he moved to California, and by then he had some contacts in the industry over there, so he became involved with different companies, and then with a health food distribution business. He worked in the industry as a consultant even after retiring because he just couldn’t leave it behind.

However, my siblings and I never had any intention of joining his business. When I told him I was thinking of doing research about natural food businesses, he was happy to help in any way he could—and he did so primarily by supplying a long list of contacts who knew him in the business or knew his company’s name. It was wonderful, because people remembered him, and it led to people who were not necessarily publicly visible but had years of experience and important perspectives. And because I had grown up in that world, I knew some health food references, which helped put them at ease. I’m not a fan of work based on autoethnography. I never had any intention of doing anything like that. In my case, I was in a position where I understood enough about the topic to be “fluent” with these folks. But, as I say in the book, I wasn’t particularly invested in any specific outcome of the story.

NB: You visited more than ten archives for the project—including one here at UT Austin—, and you also did interviews. How did you combine data coming from these different sources?

LJM: Interviews are great for helping us understand the meanings people attribute to particular phenomena. They can be also helpful for providing some clues about historical developments. But people’s memory is fallible, so you can’t just rely on it alone—especially when trying to provide a detailed account of events. So the archival work I did was just as important as the interviews in shaping the argument and narrative of the book. I found—as often happens when doing historical research on business—that for the natural foods world there is not a lot a documentation out there.

That’s why I relied on diverse repositories, and I was not joking in the book when I say that I relied on eBay. I actually got so much material there—a lot of commercial ephemera, which up until very recently libraries were not very interested in collecting. So it was really about piecing together a lot of different strands, from both the interviews and archival work I did. A lot of it involved using trade literature to the extent that I could as well. This kind of research can be very circuitous, but I find it enjoyable. It’s very time consuming though. It can be kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack.

NB: It’s indeed like finding a needle in a haystack. But in doing archival research one usually has to confront the issue of figuring out even where to begin. There are lot of haystacks, so where to start searching for the needle? How did you know where to begin?

LJM: It’s somewhat easier now than when I began this project, because there are databases like ArchiveGrid, which are great for searching materials across multiple repositories. But when I started this research, I did a lot of footnote chasing. Footnotes, of course, aren’t always reliable, and I sometimes discovered inaccurate information that over time has been repeatedly reproduced. But through well-researched older books I learnt for instance that Michigan State had a great number of materials. It’s about being persistent and trying every avenue you can.

NB: How did you come to be interested in issues of consumption?

LJM: When I was in graduate school I took a class outside of the sociology department on the culture of consumption. I was really fascinated by it. It started my thinking about how central consumer culture is to understand the American condition, and, of course, the whole world. I think it’s really important when thinking about cultural change as well as cultural obsessions. However, this wasn’t the theoretical frame I used in my dissertation—the research that later became Reluctant Capitalists. It was only after graduate school, when I began building on that research towards the book, that I realized that a consumer culture frame really made sense for understanding what I was most interested in. And I have taught courses on consumer culture ever since. It remains a central part of my interests.

NB: What has been particularly interesting about consumers in the industries you have studied? What would you say has been the role of consumers and consumption in your work?

LJM: For me, what has been consistent is an interest in the relationship between consumption, culture, and politics. There are many questions about consumption that I’m fascinated by, and that I teach about. But in my own research I tend to be especially interested in the role of producers and sellers of consumer goods in helping to shape the meanings of consumption. I don’t focus so much on the really obvious point—they want people to buy more goods. To me that’s so obvious that it is not very interesting, and it diverts us from more interesting things: the ways in which consumer goods can be intertwined with ideas about human nature, moral commitments, utopian and dystopian visions.

I think also that the relationship between consumption and politics is not so obvious. Consumption can be a motivating force for engaging in self-conscious political activity both on the part of consumers, and on the side of producers of consumer goods. But beyond that, it really help us understand how mundane, everyday life is inherently political. Consumption is so central in our everyday lives since we have no option but to be consumers to some degree. Consuming in that sense shapes our understandings of who we are in fundamental ways.

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Consume This! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Craft Beer

In our October issue of Consume This!, Nathaniel Chapman and Slade Lellock consider ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of craft beer and offer a great example of how personal consuming passions can lead to research projects!

Nate and Slade highlight some of the particular paradoxes and tensions around issues of authenticity, diversity and inclusivity, and invite us to consider future avenues for craft beer research.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire ( Section Chair )

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Craft Beer

By Nathaniel Chapman and Slade Lellock

What began as a couple friends and craft beer enthusiasts passionately discussing their favorite beers over long lunch breaks in graduate school, eventually culminated in Untapped…,[1] the first explicitly sociological volume on the cultural aspects of craft beer production and consumption.

The resulting volume shed light on the emerging field of craft beer scholarship, but also generated many new questions. Given the rapid growth of the industry these issues are becoming more and more visible. As sociologists we should attend not only to the “good” within the field of craft beer, but also the bad and the ugly — areas to which sociological inquiry is especially well suited. In what follows, we identify areas of craft beer research that scholars have given significant attention to (the Good), areas where more work needs to be done (the Bad), and, finally, areas that require highly critical examinations in order to address issues of inequality within the industry and culture (The Ugly). We begin with the Good.

The Good

Craft beer offers a good (great!) focus of research for sociologists interested in culture, taste, and consumption. The field has provided a starting point for socio-cultural scholars—sociologists, historians, economists, media scholars, geographers, anthropologists—to examine issues pertaining to consumption, culture, identity, authenticity, space and place, representation, and value. Craft beer is linked to the local food movement and community revitalization. Breweries provide spaces within which people come together and that give local communities a sense of identity as well as a sense of pride. While craft beer does not necessarily threaten the economic stature of “big beer”, it has certainly shaken American’s understanding of the value of beer, highlighting the ongoing construction of meaning for the consumption objects of everyday life. The meteoric rise of craft breweries around the US and worldwide has given consumers more choices and thus more opportunities to try different types of beer, tapping in to the interests of millennials in particular. As Chapman et al note[2], college-educated white males aged 21-34 make up the majority of the craft beer consumption market. With over six thousand craft breweries to choose from in the US, craft beer consumers not only have myriad options available to them, but also simultaneously have the potential to reject the “big beer” of their parents—a generational joust fought through beer.

The Bad

While craft beer offers a good entry point for research, there is also a considerable amount of confusion and obfuscation at work in the marketplace. In order for a brewery to be classified as “craft” it must be small (producing no more than 6 million barrels per year), traditional (utilizing traditional and innovative brewing ingredients and techniques) and independent (not more than 25% owned by shareholder who themselves are not involved in the craft industry). Mirroring the period of acquisitions and mergers during the 1960s post-prohibition era, craft breweries are currently under attack by the large conglomerate ABInBev. ABInBev, a multinational behemoth, has made a practice of buying up craft brands dozens at a time. Once a brand is acquired, ABInBev begins to produce the brand on a much larger scale. This effectively takes the local product out of its community and makes it readily available to consumers nationwide. On the surface, this would seem like a good thing. All of a sudden my local beer is available everywhere for people to enjoy. However, when one considers why someone chooses craft beer over a domestic brand, it is often the localness, or small batch scale, or unique-to-the-area qualities of the beer that drive the purchase of craft options. By purchasing these breweries, ABInBev are technically nullifying their craft credentials, as defined by the Brewers Association.

Additionally, the industry giant produces many “craft-like,” or “faux craft” brands such as Goose Island. These “craft-like” brands meet the requirement of traditional, but fail to meet the requirements of small and traditional. This leads to confusion among consumers as to whether the beer they are drinking is in fact craft. Both of these actions have driven the Brewers Association to adopt a stamp that craft breweries may use on their packaging, only if they meet all three requirements: small, independent and traditional. This challenges our notions of local and authentic, two qualities that made craft beer so popular in the first place.

The Ugly

In addition to confusion and misleading claims around issues of authenticity and local-ness, the craft industry has a real problem with diversity. With regard to gender: while recent reports suggest that women are increasingly drinking craft beer, Chapman et al and Darwin[3] contend that women are often discouraged from drinking craft beer and the beer itself has become gendered. Women also face significant gate-keeping and are more likely than men to be required to prove their knowledge in spaces of craft beer consumption. Recently, a brewery has come under scrutiny and canceled several tours of its facilities for its use of sexist memes to advertise the festival.[4] This type of marketing, and the hyper-masculine behavior of some men in the industry and culture, leads to feelings of exclusion among women, and discourages women from participating in the culture. The craft industry has tried to address this issue, but not from a sociological perspective. To combat this exclusion, women have founded women’s-only brewing societies such as the Pink Boots Society, as well as featured women at beer festivals, highlighted the work of women in the industry, and actively sought to market more effectively to women drinkers.

The craft beer industry and culture also has a race problem. As Anderson[5] observes, the modern craft brewery is a predominantly “white space”. While women represent a growing segment of craft drinkers, people of color, particularly African Americans, have not seen a rise in consumption. Dating back to the 1960s, the beer industry marketed malt liquor (a beverage viewed to be inferior to regular beer and characterized by higher alcohol contents and large format bottles) and other “less-than” beers to the African American community. Today, the marketing of some craft labels resorts to appropriation of African American culture. A popular brewery in Torrance, CA Monkish is known for using rap lyrics as names for their beers. In a recent interview, the late Anthony Bourdain lamented that craft beer culture as nothing more than a bunch of hipsters writing tasting notes and listening to 90s hip hop. African Americans are not represented in the industry either. Currently, there are fewer than 50 African American-owned breweries operating in the US. Given the rapid growth in the industry, and the sheer number of breweries opening each year, this is a tremendously disproportionate representation in the industry. This has trickled down to the culture as well. Less than two percent of craft beer is consumed by African Americans, a growing problem for a craft culture that promotes the idea that beer is without race or gender.

The Future

Such issues of gender and race/ethnicity offer sociologists a unique opportunity to examine craft beer through a more critical, analytical lens of diversity, inequality and inclusion. In response to these issues, women have started women’s-only beer groups and homebrewing clubs. African Americans have sought to claim their space in the industry and culture. In September of 2018, Fresh Fest debuted as the first ever Black Brewers festival in Pittsburgh. Additionally, blackbrewculture.com is scheduled to debut later this year as the first African American craft brewing website. It also features a monthly newsletter that is geared towards highlighting the emerging Black brewing culture. Festivals and organizations such as these are providing a voice for underrepresented demographics in the culture. It is now our task as sociologists to analyze the structure and role of social institutions in perpetuating these inequalities and to further promote a diverse and inclusive craft beer culture of production and consumption.

Sources:

[1] Chapman, Nathaniel G., J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard (eds). 2017.

Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Craft Beer. WVU Press.

[2] Chapman, Nathaniel G., Megan Nanney, J. Slade Lellock, and Julie Mikles-Schluterman. 2018. (forthcoming) Bottling gender: Accomplishing gender through craft beer consumption. Food, Culture,

and Society.

[3] Chapman et al 2018. (forthcoming); Darwin, Helana. 2018. Omnivorous masculinity: Gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture. Social Currents. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329496517748336; Darwin, Helana. 2017. You are what you drink: The masculinization of cultural legitimacy in the New York craft beer scene. In Untapped: Exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer, edited by Nathaniel G. Chapman, J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

[4] Castrodale, Jelisa. 2018. “Ohio Brew Tour Cancelled After Organizer Posts Sexist Meme About Women.” Munchies. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/ev748z/ohio-brew-tour-cancelled-after-organizer-posts-sexist-meme-about-women

[5] Anderson, Elijah. 2015. “The White Space.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1(1):10-21.

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Consume This! Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times

Hello all, and welcome to September. As the current Chair of the Consumers and Consumption section and in keeping with tradition, I’m delighted to contribute the September Consume This! essay. In this issue, I expand upon an article I recently completed on media representations of the nouveaux riches, taking a tour through the theme of vulgarity and the work of Norbert Elias to consider the connections between consumption and civility.

I had the pleasure of presenting some of this research at our section’s mini conference, ‘Consuming In, and Consumed By, A Trump Economy,’ held August 10th at University of Rutgers-Camden. It was great to have so many people engaging in the event and at the ASA sessions in the days after, and to see so much fantastic evidence of the vibrancy of the section and our research.

A few of the many themes that particularly caught my attention: the discourses within and through which consumption unfolds, including craft, authenticity, risk, and nationalism; the lived experiences of the cultural production of consumption (from those working in marijuana dispensaries and craft breweries, to home stagers, museum curators and fundraisers, and artisanal food producers); the contested performances of elite connoisseurship; and the multifarious ways in which consumption is bound up with the experience and reproduction of inequality.

— Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

 

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Consumption, Vulgarity and Vulgar Times

By Jennifer Smith Maguire

Over the past few months, I have been thinking about the connections between civility and consumption, prompted by writing an article for a Cultural Politics special issue on ‘Questioning the Super-Rich.’ Meanwhile, over the past few years, it has been difficult not to contemplate the fragility of civility in contemporary society, if only by virtue of its conspicuous absence in the practices and politics of the current President of the United States. As a Canadian living in the UK, I’ve had the relative luxury of observing his vulgarity with some psychological and geographical distance, but this has been little consolation given the global repercussions of his actions, and the parallels that are unfolding elsewhere, including on my doorstep here in Brexit-land.

When it comes to issues of civility and vulgarity, my go-to sociologist is Norbert Elias.[1] His work was an attempt to understand both how human interdependencies—from interpersonal interactions up to societal figurations—are contingent on the gradual development of forms of self-restraint (the ‘civilizing process’), and how the emergent forms of behaviour are then used as symbolic resources in prestige claims and social differentiation (the discourse of civility). Elias readily noted that civility and civilization are tricky concepts, their ascriptive and evaluative usage closely linked to the history of colonialism and the legitimation of dominance. Thus, to study civility is both to consider the long-term social development of humans, and to unpick the links between power, discourse and stratification.

In the article, I examine how a discourse of civility shapes media representations of the nouveaux riches, as articulated by and for the Western professional middle class over the past five years. How is that discourse implicated in the macro organizational dynamics of making and remaking symbolic boundaries around and within the upper middle class? This, in a period marked by (among other distinguishing features) an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few and changes in the geo-political balance of power. These global dynamics were palpable in the media sample, which consisted of discussions of the new rich emanating almost entirely from (some) emerging economies, and disproportionately from China and Hong Kong, despite the continuing concentration of global ultra-high-net-worth individuals in the United States and Western Europe.

Despite my focus on contemporary media, the interconnections between civility and consumption go back much farther in time. Social conventions and moral panics related to consumption have long focused on issues of respectability and refinement. Across time and space, middle class respectability has been fashioned through consumption goods and practices in opposition to the ‘profligate’ and ‘morally suspect’ ways of the working class and upper class.[2] More broadly, concerns with respectability have been nested within the very long-term development of civilized codes of conduct (associated with foresight and deferred gratification, elaborated forms of manners and etiquette, values of politeness and prudence, and affective self-control).

Elias traced the development of these codes from the Middle Ages, first within the European upper classes and then spreading from the 19th century onwards ‘across the rising lower classes of Western society and over the various classes in the colonies.’[3] Over time, established groups (those with greater capacity to claim group status and ascribe inferior positions to ‘outsiders’) have repeatedly colonized outsiders via these codes of conduct (imposed by the established; emulated by the outsiders), and then, finding their position of dominance subject to unwanted challenges, have sought to consolidate barriers between groups through more elaborated codes of conduct, legitimating dominance through the badge of civility and naturalizing others’ oppression through the epithet of vulgarity.

Unsurprisingly, few of the media representations in my sample framed nouveau riche consumption as ‘civilized’; such positive framings were largely restricted to instances that complied with established repertoires of elite cultural capital. Whereas, a full three-quarters of the sample framed nouveau riche consumption as vulgar: in some way lacking in decorum, refinement or self-control, or otherwise consisting of morally and/or aesthetically illegitimate behaviour. A recurrent trope in this regard were stories of ‘vulgarians’. In addition to the stories in my media sample of the new rich behaving badly at art auctions, fashion shows and horse races, consider the following vulgarian case in point: a Chinese ‘tycoon’ shopping with his robot maids.

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Chinese news and content site Toutiao reported in 2016 on the scene,[4] describing the man as ostentatious and ‘tuhao’. The term tuhao exploded in 2013 on Chinese social media (over 100 million references in September and October alone[5]), used for describing those with new money who lacked sophistication. The man was thus represented as (perhaps) knowing what to consume (in this case, expensive jewelry and luxury goods) but not how to consume. This was repeated across my media sample, with the new rich depicted as spoiled by their new money and despoiling the established cultural fields into which stumbled.

More perniciously, vulgarity resonated through the lexicon of adjectives that trickled through the sample: acquisitive, rapacious, voracious, unscrupulous, excessive, extravagant, garish, gaudy. It was beyond either my aims or data to consider the lived experience of media reception, but I can attest to the cringing delights in reading such language—not unlike the pleasure/pain of eating a ‘Toxic Waste’ sweet (‘extreme’ sour candies, highly recommended by my children). Each framing of vulgarity is offered to the reader as a sour bonbon, to be sucked and savoured for visceral sensations of self-affirmation. One’s ‘good sense’ and ‘decency’ are potentially confirmed via juxtaposition, if not with the ostentatiousness of the tuhao, then with the incivility of intolerant snobbishness, colonial condescension and racism that courses through the media reports.

Ultimately, the argument I put forward in the article is that representations of the nouveaux riches serve as anchors for a range of established group ambivalences and anxieties associated with transformations in capitalism and shifting global hierarchies. Such representations are implicated in the cultural constitution of a global upper middle class, through the circulation of a transnational discourse of civility and through the policing of symbolic boundaries between established and outsider groups. I suggest how ascriptions of vulgarity to nouveau riche consumption, in conjunction with other framings and tropes related to civility and order, work to construct a framework of ‘civilized stratification’ that places different groups in relative positions of worth, while simultaneously naturalizing and legitimating that hierarchization in ways that do not jar against a culture of liberalism and cosmopolitan tolerance.

It would be remiss of me not to at least briefly turn, in closing, to the more overarching theme in Elias’s work of the civilizing process, at this particular moment in our time ‘when demagoguery and nativism, like sea levels, are everywhere on the rise’ and ‘cosmopolitanism is an endangered value.’[6] Elias reminded us that the discourse of civility is the descendant of the long, slow and uneven civilizing process, by which humans have developed modes of self-restraint in combination with forms of external restraints that allow them to live in increasingly complex, interdependent relationships and figurations. He noted that the process has been so long and slow that people have tended to forget that it is a process, and instead adopt a position of certainty that their modes of behaviour are not only best, but also securely, inherently, genetically theirs: an assumption—a fallacy—that ‘once civilized, always civilized.’[7]

However, civility is not a trait that once selected through evolution will necessarily persist, like bipedalism. Humans are entirely capable of decivilizing and regressing to barbarism, at times quite rapidly and deeply. Indeed, for Elias (whose mother died in Auschwitz), the Holocaust was evidence of the precariousness of the forms of internal self-restraint that humans had developed. What is important, therefore, is to understand the conditions under which the thin ‘veneer’ of civilization cracks. To that end, Elias offered the following:

The armour of civilized conduct would crumble very rapidly if, through a change in society, the degree of insecurity that existed earlier were to break in upon us again, and if danger became as incalculable as once it was.[8]

There are manifold current conditions under which the degrees and forms of insecurity have increased—including for those who work, write, teach, research and experience everyday life from positions of relative privilege, as I do. Developments within finance, banking, high tech industries and celebrity culture—and more generally the financialization of capitalism—have generated new tiers of wealth, exacerbating the income and education gaps between the wealthiest and the rest.

The occupational prospects, rewards and autonomy of the middle class have been sharply reconfigured through neo-liberalism and globalization: the expanded demand for services has pulled their occupations into increasingly managerial and bureaucratic structures (including in academia), and intensifying off-shoring of professional services has placed them in competition with emerging economies’ middle classes. Compounding these sources of insecurity are the existential threats posed by record temperatures, extreme weather and environmental crises, by failed, failing and rising states, and by the flouting of the rules of civilized—if not also legal—conduct by leaders of ‘enduring’ states.

It is therefore unlikely that Elias would be surprised at the current intensification of vulgarity, and not only because he thought of us as ‘late barbarians.’ [9] In an effort to quash the dual sense of depression and dread that has been percolating over the past few years, I try to bear in mind the importance Elias saw in education, as a key means to ward against regressions to barbarism, and to help ourselves and others see through ‘the lies, the propaganda tricks and the deliberate use of falsehoods.’[10] Now, more than ever, the world needs reality congruent knowledge, sociological imaginations, crap detectors,[11] and a firm commitment to civility as a form of good citizenship that is tolerant, respectful, and inclusive in its pursuit of collective futures.

Jennifer Smith Maguire is Associate Professor of Cultural Production and Consumption in the University of Leicester School of Business, and the chair of the American Sociological Association Consumers and Consumption section. Her article, ‘Media Representations of the Nouveaux Riches and the Cultural Constitution of the Global Middle Class,’ will appear in March 2019 in a special issue of Cultural Politics (vol. 15, no. 1) that she has co-edited with Paula Serafini.

Featured Image Credit: @consumerlife; Michelle Weinberger

Notes:

[1] See especially Elias’s essay ‘The Breakdown of Civilization’ (published in J Goudsblom & S Mennell (eds) The Norbert Elias Reader, 1998, Oxford: Blackwell), and S Mennell ‘Civilization and Decivilization’ in Norbert Elias: An Introduction (1992, Oxford: Blackwell). Also useful: extensions of the theory of the civilizing process in contemporary, particularly American, contexts: S Mennell The American Civilizing Process (2007, Cambridge: Polity); essays in C. Buschendorf, A. Franke and J. Voelz (eds), Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes (2011, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars). Indispensable: N Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners ([1939] 1978, Oxford: Blackwell); N Elias, State Formation & Civilization ([1939] 1982, Oxford: Blackwell), and the more recent edition N Elias, On the Process of Civilisation ([1939] 2012, Dublin: University of College Dublin Press).

[2] For example, see the case studies in R Heiman, C Freeman and M Liechty (eds), The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography (2012, Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press).

[3] On the Process of Civilisation (ibid, p. 470).

[4] MA Russon. 2016. ‘Chinese tycoon goes gold shopping with eight humanoid female robots to showcase wealth.’ https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/chinese-tycoon-goes-gold-shopping-by-eight-humanoid-female-robots-showcase-wealth-1555819

[5] BBC Trending. 2013. ‘Tuhao and the Rise of Chinese Bling’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24677113

[6] R Mead. 2018. The Return of the Native. The New Yorker (20 August, p.26).

[7] The Breakdown of Civilization (ibid, p. 119).

[8] The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners (ibid, p. 307).

[9] In R van Krieken. Norbert Elias (1998, London: Routledge, p. 9).

[10] The Breakdown of Civilization (ibid, p. 121).

[11] N Elias. What is Sociology ([1970] 1978, London: Hutchinson); CW Mills. The Sociological Imagination ([1959] 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press); N Postman & C Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969, New York: Dell Publishing).

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Give the gift of section membership!

Want to help others join the Consumers and Consumption section? Why not offer them a gift membership?

ASA members can gift an ASA membership for students or section memberships for any membership type at https://asa.enoah.com (Login required).
 
To purchase a gift ASA membership for students
Once logged into the member portal, please click “Purchase a gift membership for a student” under the Contribute/Give heading. Students can be searched by name through the online member database. A new contact record can be created by the member if the student is not found in the database.
Your gift will be redeemable by the recipient for a ASA student membership (or a $51 discount on another membership type). Your gift recipient will receive their gift credit via email immediately after your purchase. Gift memberships are not refundable if unredeemed by the end of the 2018 membership year, September 30, 2018. Gift memberships are not tax deductible.
The deadline for a 2018 gift ASA membership for students is July 31, 2018.
 
To purchase a gift section membership
Once logged into the member portal, please click “Purchase a gift section membership” under the Contribute/Give heading.  Select the section and search for your recipient by name. Section membership requires 2018 ASA membership. Only 2018 ASA members who do not already have a membership in that section are eligible to receive a gift. Your recipient will receive an e-mail immediately after your payment notifying them of the section gift. (Your name will be included in this message). If the recipient declines the gift within 30 days of receipt, you will receive a refund by mail. Gifts are not tax deductible.
The deadline for a 2018 gift section membership additions is July 31, 2018.

Help us grow our section!

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Congratulations to the 2016-17 section award winners!

ASA Section on the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award for 2017 

Winners: Kristie O’Neill and Daniel Silver, “From Hungry to Healthy: Simmel, Self-Cultivation and the Transformative Experience of Eating for Beauty” 

Honorable mention:  Nathan Wilmers, “Does Consumer Demand Reproduce Inequality? High-income Consumers, Vertical Differentiation and the Wage Structure”

 

ASA Section on the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Student Paper Award for 2017

Co-winners:

Nathan Wilmers, “Does Consumer Demand Reproduce Inequality? High-income Consumers, Vertical Differentiation and the Wage Structure”

Hannah Wohl, “Signature Styles: The Production of Uniqueness”

 

Please join us in congratulating our section award winners and in thanking our award committee members for their dedicated work.

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Consume This! The End of Work (or More Work)?

Christopher Andrews’ May blogpost takes up a question that is sure to get increasing attention: is automation and artificial intelligence going to significantly reduce the number of jobs? What is the future of work? Andrews looks at self-checkout lanes in supermarkets—one of the biggest and most obvious candidates for job elimination—and has surprising and very interesting findings. I won’t spoil things by revealing his answer. All I’ll say is that this is a must-read.

And on a personal note: Having written books called The Overworked American and The Overspent American myself, I’m delighted that Christopher’s forthcoming book is tentatively titled The Overworked Consumer.

– Juliet Schor

SelfCheckout
Source: Associated Press, 2011.

 

The End of Work (or More Work)?

By Christopher Andrews

Unless you grow your own produce, you’ve probably recently visited the grocery store, many of which increasingly offer self-checkout lanes where you can “do it yourself”. Similar forms of self-service technology can be found throughout the service industry (e.g., ATMs, ticketing kiosks), as companies increasingly beckon consumers to engage in what has been characterized by sociologists as “shadow work” or “prosumption”. Accordingly, critics predict that these technologies threaten to displace paid labor with the unpaid labor of consumers (or prosumers), resulting in significant job loss.

To a certain degree, these concerns reflect a recurring fear of technological unemployment; examples include “the great employment controversy” of the 1950s and “deskilling debate” of the 1970s. Yet, if technology eliminates jobs, economic historians note, it also creates opportunities and demands for others; for example, the decline of agricultural jobs coincided with the growth of the service industry, while similar declines in manufacturing jobs coincided with the digital revolution.

In some respects, these recurring fears of technological unemployment might be characterized as moral panics in which technological innovations are depicted by the mass media as folk devils that threaten the economic security of American workers. Recent bestselling books such as The Second Machine Age (2016), Rise of the Robots (2016), and Race Against the Machine (2012) depict not-so-distant futures in which automation results in job loss and technological unemployment. But if such technology threatens to eliminate work, as many suggest, why are there still so many jobs?

I decided to explore this question by examining the introduction of self-checkout lanes in the retail food industry. Why supermarkets? First, they employ a majority of the kinds of workers most likely to be affected by these kinds of self-service technologies. Supermarkets employ more cashiers than any other industry – almost twice as many as the next two industries combined – with cashiers representing nearly a third of all store employees. There are also strong incentives for supermarkets to automate by reducing labor costs. Unlike retail stores and fast food restaurants, supermarkets frequently employ unionized workforces, exposing them to rising labor costs and work stoppages; the 2003 UFCW strike cost the retail food industry an estimated two billion dollars. And with nonunion competitors (e.g., WalMart) entering the retail food industry, supermarkets face increasing pressures to reduce labor costs.

Yet, while the number of stores offering self-checkout lanes has increased dramatically – from six percent in 1999 to ninety-five in 2007, with most stores averaging four self-checkout lanes – there are actually more cashiers today than a decade ago, even when we control for the number of stores. To paraphrase the Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Solow, you can see the effects of self-checkout lanes everywhere except in the statistics.

One of the reasons why self-checkout lanes have not eliminated cashiers is theft. Despite built-in security measures, retailers reportedly lost 44 billion dollars in 2014 due to theft, with rates of theft reported to be as much as five times higher in self-checkout lanes compared to cashier-operated lanes, while a national survey revealed that one in five shoppers admitted to regularly stealing from self-checkout lanes.

Another reason self-checkout lanes are not eliminating jobs is because they cannot operate independently, a problem that appears to have plagued efforts to automate supermarkets from the very beginning. In 1937, Clarence Saunders attempted to further cut costs in his pioneering self-service stores by replacing cashiers with an automated checkout system, yet customer difficulty, mechanical breakdowns, and soaring labor costs for electricians led him to close the store after just one year. Today, technical problems continue to limit stores’ ability to fully automate; self-checkout lanes unexpectedly “freeze”, unwanted items have to be manually voided, and paper for receipts has to be replenished.

Yet, perhaps the most important reason self-checkout lanes have not eliminated jobs is because of customer service. Home Depot learned this lesson the hard way when former CEO Robert Nardelli attempted to cut costs by replacing cashiers with self-checkout lanes; frustrated customers fled to archrival Lowe’s whose stock price subsequently doubled while Home Depot slipped to last among major U.S. retailers in the University of Michigan’s annual American Consumer Satisfaction Index. Profit margins in the retail food industry are also razor-thin – often less than one percent due to the abundance of competition – so stores carefully limit and monitor their use for fear of losing customers.

In short, whether self-checkout lanes and similar forms of self-service will eliminate jobs depends on a series of technical, social, and political factors. Many supermarkets currently employ unionized workforces that have collective bargaining agreements stipulating that employees may not be replaced by machines; however, growing public acceptance of self-service technology – as well as increasing competition from non-union competitors like WalMart – may erode unions’ ability to secure such provisions. Moreover, surveys of younger shoppers find an increasing willingness and desire for self-service, suggesting that younger cohorts may be more willing to “do it yourself” precisely because they have been socialized to do so from an early age.

While the introduction of self-checkout lanes may not be eliminating jobs, they have contributed to an expansion of unpaid work. Similar to the “second shift” that working women face at home, the growing use of self-service technology may help to explain why Americans increasingly report feeling overworked despite empirical evidence to the contrary, as unpaid work encroaches on what little remaining leisure time Americans enjoy.

Indeed, it would seem that the notion that “the customer is always right” is quickly being supplanted by a notion that customers can (and perhaps should) “do-it-yourself”, an idea that fits well alongside American virtues of rugged individualism and self-reliance. Historically, for many Americans service has meant having someone else perform a job for you; with self-service, “service” may come to mean something Americans choose to do for themselves. Caveat emptor.

 

Christopher Andrews is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Drew University. He is currently working on a book about self-service, consumers, and unpaid work tentatively titled The Overworked Consumer under contract with Lexington Books.

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Consume This! Art in the Chilean Living Room

In recent years, the influence of Pierre Bourdieu on U.S. sociology has increased substantially. Jeffery Sallaz and Jane Zavisca did an analysis of Bourdieusian concepts in major journals between 1980-2004, finding both increasing influence as well as an expansion of concepts, from cultural capital to habitus to field. Since that analysis the use of his approach seems to have only grown. However, in the area of consumption the bulk of the Bourdieusian-inspired literature has been confined to North America and Europe. There is relatively little of this work from the global South, although a few prominent exceptions come to mind, such as Douglas Holt and Tuba Ustuner’s work on Turkey. Joel Stillerman’s work is another one. This month’s blog reports on his research on Chilean consumption. Taking on the question of class based differences in art, Joel revisits early work by David Halle which was critical of Bourdieu’s analysis of art. Joel’s findings are far more supportive of Bourdieu. This research raises important questions: Does class structure consumption more in global South countries than in the global North? Is class differentiation in consumption isomorphic across countries?

What do you think of this debate? Please comment!

– Juliet Schor

 

Art in the Chilean Living Room By Joel Stillerman

Chilean living rooms are a fascinating site of cultural consumption, which provide an excellent case for revisiting the debate Pierre Bourdieu began about class and taste, but that still remains unresolved. My work in Chile supports Bourdieu’s (1984) identification of a class-based taste hierarchy, identifies some limitations of David Halle’s (1993) critique of Bourdieu, and questions the applicability of the “omnivore thesis” to the visual arts. I am currently developing a book on social mobility and class reproduction among middle class Chileans. I am interested in how individuals’ family, educational, and occupational backgrounds affect their choices in the fields of education, housing, home decoration, and cultural consumption. The project utilizes 68 interviews with 77 adults (both spouses participated in some interviews), photographs of 31 living rooms, and participant observation. Upper middle class individuals had college or technical educations and incomes in the 60th-90th percentiles, while lower middle class individuals had high school or technical educations and incomes in the 40th-50th percentiles of the income distribution. I have published an overview of the project (Stillerman 2010) and an analysis of school choice (Stillerman 2016). Here, I outline ongoing research on household art.

The project engages with debates on Bourdieu’s (1984) work on class and aesthetic taste. He argues that businesspersons prefer established art while artists and intellectuals favor avant garde works. Middle class individuals consume minor artworks, while working class people use everyday categories to evaluate artworks due to their lack of artistic training. Additionally, Bourdieu (1984: 267-183) notes that businesspersons purchase artwork and attend gallery exhibitions, while artists and educators accumulate artistic knowledge through museum visits or study, reflecting their different endowments of economic and cultural capital.

David Halle’s (1993) study of art in upper-middle class and working-class living rooms in the New York metro area challenges Bourdieu’s argument. He found little difference in these two groups’ artistic knowledge or tastes, and argued that wealthy families’ display of abstract and primitive art did not reflect any specialized knowledge of art. Peterson and Kern’s (1996) work on the “cultural omnivore” also challenged Bourdieu’s thesis by arguing that the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow taste have dissolved, and today affluent omnivores consume both elite and popular music. Others extend this concept to various cultural fields.

In my work in Chile, I found clear differences between individuals hailing from bourgeois families, educators and civil servants, private sector professionals, and lower middle class adults. Those with upper class backgrounds displayed original artworks produced by family members that were consecrated Chilean painters. Their comments focused on their family ties to celebrated artists. Some visited studios of artist friends but did not attend museums or assert artistic knowledge. Miguel, a physician, remarks, “These paintings are by my relative, Samuel Román Rojas, who won the National Art Award. People who know about art recognize his work.”

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Samuel Roman Rojas painting, title unknown. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

Teachers and civil servants displayed reproductions of consecrated European impressionist and modernist painters as well as renowned Latin American artists. A few own original paintings they purchased. These individuals attended museums and galleries, and identified their favorite artists. Morgana, a teacher, comments: “I like Klimt and Van Gogh a lot. I don’t care much for Velazquez – his work is too dark—or Rembrandt.   I like Picasso, Roberto Matta [Chilean surrealist painter], and Dalí. It’s not that I’m an art expert, but I follow painters that I like.”

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Morgana’s Matisse reproduction. Photograph by Joel Stillerman.

Private sector professionals display art produced by family members who paint as a hobby, regional Chilean artists, or landscapes and still life paintings purchased at garage sales or fairs. They did not mention favorite artists or museum visits. A few apologized that their paintings were “not by famous artists.” Ingrid, a retail supervisor, comments, “My friends gave me these oil paintings. I used to have a lot of paintings because my ex-mother-in-law paints. However, when I separated, my ex-husband took the paintings with him.”

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Ingrid’s landscape by unknown painter. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

In contrast, lower middle class individuals, who often come from working-class families, display framed magazine images or artwork they or their children produced. They made no mention of consecrated art or museums, and exhibited a DIY ethos evident in their own or their children’s work. Iván, a former teacher working for a direct sales company, comments, “I plan on repainting the walls. My daughter is helping me decorate in the meantime. She made those paintings.”

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Painting by Iván’s daughter. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

These differences illustrate a hierarchy of tastes among individuals with different endowments of economic and cultural capital, as Bourdieu argued. This may reflect Chile’s aristocratic heritage that it shares with France and that distinguishes it from the U.S. Additionally, it underscores complex divisions within the middle classes that Bourdieu observed and that Halle’s study glosses because it does not disaggregate different segments of the middle classes. Finally, it suggests that visual art is one of the most exclusive fields of cultural consumption and hence may be less subject to the shift to omnivorous taste found in more diffuse fields like music (Bennett et al. 2009). In my book, I hope to determine the extent to which these taste differences among Chilean middle class families correspond to their distinct investments in the fields of education, housing, and cultural consumption.

References

Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Halle, David. 1993. Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore.” American Sociological Review 61, 5: 900-907.

Stillerman, Joel. 2016. “Educar a niñas y niños de clase media en Santiago: Capital cultural y segregación socioterritorial en la formación de mercados locales de educación.” EURE 42, 126 (mayo): 169-186.

Stillerman, Joel. 2010. “The Contested Spaces of Chile’s Middle Classes.” Political Power and Social Theory 21: 209-238.

Works Cited: Jeffrey J. Sallaz and Jane Zavisca, 2007 “Bourdieu in American Sociology 1980-2004,” Annual Review of Sociology 33:21–41.

 

Joel Stillerman is Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach (2015, Polity) and numerous articles and chapters on consumer culture and labor activism in Chile, Latin America, and the Global South.

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2018 Section Awards: Call for submissions

ASA Section on the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Distinguished Publication Award for 2018

The ASA Section on the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award goes to the author(s) of the best published book that makes a significant, original contribution to the understanding of ideas about, and practices of, consumption.  The sociology of consumption, broadly defined, includes subjects dealing with theoretical and/or empirical questions related to consumers, commodities, and/or consumer markets, and engages with a larger body of research on these topics. (Please note that each year the Distinguished Publication Award alternates between articles/book chapters and books. In 2019 the award will go to an article/book chapter.)

Section members may nominate books and edited volumes published in 2016 to 2017. Self-nominations are welcome. Authors must be members of the Consumers and Consumption Section at the time of nomination. Send a nominating letter, including a description of the book and its significance, along with the book to each committee member, listed below. Nominations that are not accompanied by a nomination letter will not be considered for the prize. The deadline for receipt of all materials for this award is March 30, 2018.

Send nominations to: 
 
Juliet Schor (chair) juliet.schor@bc.edu
Boston College
Department of Sociology
531 McGuinn Hall
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Max Besbris
 mb89@rice.edu
Rice University 
Department of Sociology
 6100 Main St. – MS 28 
Sewall Hall, Room 376
Houston, TX 77005 

Ken Kolb
  ken.kolb@furman.edu
Department of Sociology
Furman University
Greenville, SC  29613

ASA Section on the Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Section Student Paper Award for 2018

The Sociology of Consumers and Consumption Section Student Paper Award goes to the graduate student whose paper makes the best original contribution to the understanding of ideas about, and practices of, consumption.  The sociology of consumption, broadly defined, includes subjects dealing with theoretical and/or empirical questions related to consumers, commodities, and/or consumer markets, and engages with a larger body of research on these topics.  As long as the central focus is consumption, the paper may be influenced by other disciplines and sub-fields (e.g., sociology of culture, sociology of the body, environmental sociology, political sociology, economic sociology). The competition is open to both published and unpublished article-length papers (roughly 25 pages in length, not including tables or references) written by a graduate student in the last two years (2016 to 2018). The committee will accept sole-authored and multiple-authored papers as long as the applicant is the lead or senior author.  No student-faculty collaborations can be accepted. The author must have been a student at the time the article was accepted for publication. The Committee will select the paper that demonstrates the most thoughtful, competent or innovative analysis of a theoretical or empirical issue bearing upon some aspect of the sociology of consumption.  Please submit all papers via SocArXive by March 30, 2018.

Nominations can be submitted through SocArXiv, by uploading the paper to the archive and sending an email with the link to the award committee chair. For instructions, see this tutorial: http://bit.ly/2y7hHn3. You only need to follow Step 1, “Sharing your paper,” to generate the link for submitting a nomination. If a paper submitted to SocArXiv wins a section award, notify socarxiv@gmail.com and SocArXiv will give the authors $250.

Nominations can also be sent via email to each of the committee members. 

Send your SocArXiv link to Ashley Mears (chair) (mears@bu.edu

The Student Paper Award Committee is:
 
Ashley Mears (chair)
Boston University
Department of Sociology

Mark Pachuki
UMass Amherst
Department of Sociology

Hannah Wohl
Columbia University
Department of Sociology

 

PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL NOMINEES MUST BE REGISTERED MEMBERS OF THE ASA and CONSUMERS AND CONSUMPTION SECTION TO BE CONSIDERED FOR SECTION AWARDS.