Go Forth and Teach!

szukin headshot

Sharon Zukin, Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center

I am glad to see during my first months as the consumption section chair that we are both a growing group and a very responsive community.

We grew our membership to 314 after the mini-conference and annual meetings in San Francisco, thanks to generous financial contributions from our members to subsidize student membership, and to a genuine outpouring of interest from new members. More than 100 members signed up immediately to inaugurate our new interactive email list, CONSUMERS_DISCUSSION@LISTSERV.ASANET.ORG. According to ASA, that is a phenomenal response. I am sure that everyone’s ability to post announcements, ask questions and hold conversations throughout the section will benefit us all.

I am also glad to note that we are a young section in two senses: we are the newest, and therefore youngest, section of ASA, and half of our members are graduate students. This proportion is not common in ASA sections. But, it gives me hope that not only our membership, but our field of study will continue to grow.

Despite our enthusiasm, the sociology of consumption is not widely recognized as a part of the “core” of the discipline. This is a curious gap that we must overcome, especially when two of the fastest growing ASA sections focus on economy and culture, our closely allied substantive fields.

Legitimizing and institutionalizing a new field takes time, of course. But we also confront a deep disrespect of consumption as both a social practice and a field of study. Is it because consumption is often taken to mean “shopping,” which is regarded, even by sociologists, as a frivolous and often gendered activity? I speak from my own subjective experience, as the author of a critical history of shopping in the US and the coordinator of a transnational research project on local shopping streets. Often I have heard other sociologists jump to the conclusion, “If it’s about shopping, it’s not serious sociology.”

I start the first class of my graduate course on consumer culture and society by stating that consumption, along with work and politics, is one of the three primary public spheres of modernity. This provocative assertion places consumption on the conceptual map where it belongs. It opens the door to studying state policies that shape consumption, to examining state-subsidized and personal consumption as a major strategy of social regulation and integration, and to understanding that all kinds of inequalities are both created and reproduced by consumption patterns. Talking about these issues uses structural and institutional frameworks that are basic to the sociologists’ toolkit, along with more specialized concepts like tastes, intermediaries, and distinction.

The best way to grow the sociology of consumption is to teach it. The fact that we have so many student members gives me hope that, individually and together, we will soon put many more courses on the sociology of consumption on the books. This is a field of study that both undergraduates and graduate students find absorbing. Courses on consumption connect to analyses of environmental sustainability and, like all sociology, ground a reflexive view of everyday life.

As we often say in class, these points need concrete examples. So I am posting on our section website, in our just launched Digital Pedagogical Archive, my most recent graduate and undergraduate syllabi for Consumer Society and Culture. These syllabi include required readings and assignments, and although you may disagree with the way I have organized the course, please consider it a permanent work in progress.

There are many ways to teach a course on consumer society and culture, and I have asked Fred Wherry, our chair-elect, and Nicki Lisa Cole, our newsletter editor, to share their syllabi on the website, too.

I hope this will encourage all of you who now teach courses on consumption to send your syllabi to Nicki at nickilcole@gmail.com, so that we can build an ever-growing digital pedagogical archive.

Most important, develop your own course. For sociologists who are working outside of academic institutions, please bring your real world experience to part-time teaching, or giving a guest lecture, in a sociology department.

In other words, go forth and teach!

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