A Conversation with Daniel Cook


dan_cookDaniel Cook, founding chair of the section on consumers and consumption, is Professor of Childhood Studies in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University. Dan was a founding organizing and director of the Consumer Studies Research Network prior to his efforts to bring this section to life. His research focuses on the rise of children as consumers in the United States, presently and historically. In particular, he explores the various ways in which tensions between “the child” and “the market” play themselves out in various sites of children’s consumer culture, such as advertising, food, rituals, clothing and media. He is the author of The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer and an Editor of Childhood, A Journal of Global Child Research. Along with John Wall, Dan is editor of Children and Armed Conflict. He is author of numerous articles and chapters on children in American culture.

Nicki: Your sociological career has focused on issues of consumption and consumerism as they relate to childhood. How did you become interested in this area, and why have you continued to focus on it?

Dan: I became intrigued by what seemed to be the rising social prominence of children and childhood in public culture, in part, from my job as a proofreader for a fashion trade publication, Kids’ Fashions, which was devoted to the children’s wear industry. This was the late ‘80s. On a daily basis, I was confronted with the extensive marketing, planning, design and effort that went into creating the clothes, looks and promotions in fabricating  the “child.” In those publication I was able to see part of the cultural circuitry of how the child’s image was created, deployed and traded as commodity and currency among those in industry as well as for the public.

On entering sociology at Chicago, I struggled with the idea of writing on this topic. Initially, I could find little guidance from most research and thinking that would invite one to combine childhood studies and consumer studies together with the cultural-historical sociological approach I was pursuing. Indeed, these fields in many ways did not yet exist as coherent bodies of knowledge. In the end, I succumbed to the omnipresence  of the child consumer and devoted my doctoral research to investigating the rise of the children’s wear industry in the US. It is in the historical materials of the early 20th century where I encountered the depth and extent to which the child had been discussed, elaborated upon, and planned for as a consuming subject who knows about and acts upon the word of goods in a myriad of ways, rather than narrowly as an object of commercial invention or maternal social display.

Researching children, childhood and consumption remain fruitful because they prove to be generative sites of social life and consumer culture. Children’s agency and ways of knowing are problematic. They necessarily reside in and emerge from states of economic and material dependence, and so do not fit neatly into models of the “consumer” often presumed in social research. The inclusion of the “child” into general theories and approaches to consumption often proves to be disruptive to conceptions of the individual/ individualized commercial actor—a model which, I claim, is still rampant even among many culturally oriented researchers. Thinking with and through the child has kept me inquiring about the boundaries and extensions of what is considered “consumption” and whether this notion differs, if it does, from co-consumption

The challenge and trick, I have found, resides in resisting the cultural reflex to sequester or marginalize kids’ practices as diminutive, inconsequential appendages. Absent children and childhood, there is no sense of a “generational order” thereby short-circuiting consideration of the arc of the social lifecycle and leaving us with caricatures of social processes and practices. Without inclusion of children and childhood into our approaches, we are left deficient in our ability to investigate the place of material goods and commercial activity in social lives, broadly construed.

Nicki: From your point of view, what are the pressing issues around kids and consumerism today?

Dan: Every issue of consumption presses on some aspect of childhood, and childhood informs, directs, and engages practices in the world including those we call consumption. If the habit of thought persists—in social theory and social life—to ignore or otherwise not see the various, multi-leveled connections between commercial life and childhood, then studies and public attention will be content to locate issues surrounding children’s consumption in neatly packaged and politically digestible bundles like “obesity” or “dangerous media” or “improper clothing.” Many of these concerns often involve implicit and sometimes explicit imputations regarding the practices and morality of women, people of color and those economically disadvantaged, but are couched as “children’s issues.”

That said, many of the pressing issues identified with children and childhood can be fruitfully engaged through the lens of consumption. Notions of what constitutes the “good life” in many majority world, Global South contexts tend to focus on the material well-being of children—often in relation to global brands and popular culture—as measures of “progress.” It is telling that many children and youth who seek entry into the wealthier countries through migration often imagine future lives in terms of consumption such as sports teams, uses of and access to digital, electronic media and lifestyle generally. One of the key stated motivations for parents who migrate outside of their home country for work, sometimes living in another country for years, revolves around the hope of creating educational opportunities for their children who can then hopefully obtain well paying jobs and move into some semblance of middle class life. One can see similar dynamics in U.S. middle class contexts where choice of housing by families (who have a choice) strongly revolves around the kind of school, and thus the kind of cultural habitus, made available to their children. “Consumption” must be seen, at once, as a measure, a practice and a mode of engaging with futures; thus, inequalities of consumption become inequalities of life trajectories.

Without going on and on, I think it important to emphasize that the changing dynamics of consumption and childhood interlock and mutually inform each other in ways that can be fruitfully engaged when neither is confined or relegated to the other.

Nicki: As someone who has championed the study of consumers and consumption in the U.S., what do you hope comes of sociological research focused on these issues?

Sociologists who take consumption, and all of its extensions, as the primary framework for addressing social life find themselves in a position to re-imagine social issues, problems and concerns in ways that enable social action. For many sociologists “consumption” can easily be relegated to an interesting, but ultimately, contingent aspect of existence. The sociological mindset, generally speaking, remains oriented toward a productivist and economistic perspective, now increasingly naturalized in an era of neoliberalism.

Once one recognizes and puts forward the necessary, non-negotiable place of goods, material culture, and various forms of value (exchange, symbolic, political) encoded in and enabled by transactions and exchanges, then one is in a position to speak to the interlacing aspects of  power and intimacy, of inequality and mutuality, of identities and positionalities. In so doing, one must be on guard against elevating the agentive, innovative “prosumer” bricoleur as cultural hero and deliverer from global capital domination (or from local commodity enticements for that matter), while at the same time being attentive to the vitality of everyday practices and social relationships made through and by consumer life. What was considered “consumption” 20 years ago differs from what many think today. What doesn’t change is the necessity of purposefully and critically engaging with these changing definitions and relations.

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