On Scenes and Budgetary Units as Conceptual Tools for the Study of Consumption: A Conversation with Erin McDonnell and Daniel Silver

Yaniv Ron-El, University of Chicago

The rising prominence of consumption as an area of sociological interest is evident not only in the growing number of scholars and students who put consumption at the center of their academic research, but also when sociologists whose main research focus resides elsewhere feel they are confronted with consumption-related issues and need to conceptualize the ways in which these matters intersect with their work. We brought two such fruitful and impressively thoughtful scholars into a conversation, to see what can the section members can learn from their recently-formulated innovative and brilliantly fascinating ideas: “Budgetary Units” (Erin McDonnell after Weber), and “Scenes” (Daniel Silver with Terry Clark et al).

Erin McDonnell is a Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. She is a theorist whose research engages organizational, political, cultural, and economic Sociology. Her work focuses on how social organization affects economic outcomes, from consumer groups to administrative capacity in African states. She is currently working on a book project about state capacity and development in Africa. Recently, she published in the American Journal of Sociology the article “Budgetary Units: A Weberian Approach to Consumption”, which rethinks organization within consumption.

Daniel Silver is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His research ranges from social theory to cultural and urban sociology, concentrating on the cultural life of cities and how the variegated cultural “scenescapes” of and within cities are associated with variations in economic growth, residential patterns, and political attitudes and affiliations. His articles have been published in a variety of journals, including Social Forces, Sociological Theory, Theory, Culture and Society, the European Journal of Sociology, The European Journal of Social Theory, Cultural Studies, The Canadian Journal of Political Science, and the Canadian Journal of Sociology.  His book (with Terry Nichols Clark), Scenes, will be published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press.

Yaniv: Erin, you published last year an AJS article about “Budgetary Units”, and you, Dan, with your collaborators, published extensively about the concept of “Scenes”. So the full explications of the concepts are out there, but perhaps you can summarize a short version of these ideas for the readers of the newsletter?

DSpicDan: Scenes emerged historically from a project in urban culture and urban studies back in 2005-2006, called the Cultural Amenities Project. Its main goal was to understand how collections of cultural amenities like theaters, operas, art galleries, etc. would be important factors in the development and growth of a city. While doing this, Terry (Clark, from the University of Chicago – YRE), who has been a main collaborator on this project, and I thought that treating those amenities in a kind of atomistic way made less and less sense, because in any given place you have a collection or a constellation of things which add up to something that is often more than any single one. There is a kind of atmosphere or aesthetics of a place, a culture of a place, and so “scene” became the word and the concept we used to capture that. So this is the historical development of it. Another way to explain it conceptually is through the idea of a kind of active consumption. We can think about the meaningful circumstances around the activity of consumption. When you are drinking a beer, you’re not just drinking a beer. You are drinking a beer in a place within a certain scene. There are certain things on the wall, certain sounds around, certain music, a certain way that people around you are holding themselves and walking, and that itself is surrounded by activities on the street, by other buildings, the architecture and an entire ambiance. And so scene, in a way, is an attempt to capture what are the qualities that define those circumstances and give that single act of drinking a beer a meaning that is the beer but also more than the beer.

EMpicErin: I can also describe from a historical perspective how I got to work on the idea of budgetary units, and from a more conceptual one about its meaning. My enduring interest in African migrants led me to consider remittances from African migrants who went to Europe and the US for higher education. I felt dissatisfied with how the immigration literature was handling the relevant economic units, using notions like family, which have multiple different meanings. At the same time, I was reading a lot of Weber (I always read a lot of Weber), and I came across his idea of the budgetary unit, which seemed clean and less encumbered by sedimentary layers of conceptualization that have gone on to other existing concepts like family. It had this wonderful richness in the way that Weber wrote about this unit of social and collective consumption, pairing it with his more extensive and well-known work on the firm as the social collective unit for production. That was the history of it. And so this idea that I am drawing on explores the logics of how groups socially organizing to engage in consumption as a primary economic activity, and how these logics may differ from the way we think about social organization for production, which has dominated most of the sociology of organizations from its inception. In the article I give the example of immigrants’ remittances, but I also demonstrate how the concept is applicable to other ostensibly dissimilar cases, such as Russian gangsters, an order of Catholic nuns, and child-support in low-income unmarried couples. I wanted to demonstrate the insights that can be gained when we employ a genre-transcending conceptual tool.

Yaniv: What I find particularly interesting is that both ideas conceptualize groups or localities that engage in consumption collectively. That is, they approach consumption as an activity done not only socially, within a social context, within a certain collective, whether assembled organizationally or spatially in a distinctive particular space. This may be contrasted to many of the theoretical approaches to consumption that are more inclined to focus on the individual. What do you think?

Erin: Well, it is a claim that I make in the article, but this is by no means to paint all of the consumption work with a broad-brush. I think there is a lot of really lovely work, especially some of the recent work about children as consumers that has engaged more with considering children’s relationship to others (like adults). So yes, I would say my work tries to identify within the historical development of the consumption literature, some of the reasons why this literature has been more preoccupied with individuals as consumers, but at the same time to build on that and some of the wonderful work that has been going in that direction.

Dan: In the case of Terry and myself, one of our main reference points in thinking about these issues was not necessarily the consumption literature per se, although we in conversation with it as well, but rather the urban economics literature, where people also study amenities. However, they would do it in an individualistic way, or maybe a better way to put it is, like I said before, in an atomistic way. They will treat one place at a time, like one café, one bar, without thinking of them as part of constellation. Today they recognize this problem themselves and some of the advanced work is moving in a more holistic direction, but they are very cautious, as they are more accustomed to an individualistic thinking.

Yaniv: We asked you to read each other’s work and I understand that you came up with interesting ideas about differences and continuities between Scenes and Budgetary Units.

Dan: Once obvious difference is that budgetary units have a higher-level organization, right?

Erin: Yes, intentional conscious coordination.

Dan: Exactly, and one can think of this as a variable quality of scenes. Some scenes can be rather unorganized; you have people doing all sorts of things that do not really involve intentionally relating to one another, but all of that nevertheless coalesces to a scene. But at other times at least some people get organized and claim to be able to act in the name of a scene going on around them. You can see this in some cases I have studied in Toronto.  These are neighborhoods with very striking scenes, which also have had for some time a few entities that would fit your description of budgetary units. There are hotels, bars, etc., and in and around them there have been people working together to provide consumption opportunities for themselves and others.  Generally they had relatively little consciousness of themselves as a scene, with common goals and interests. But the level of organization expanded.  The key event was a political conflict over a proposed condominium development that a lot of people thought would destroy the scene. This mobilized actors to organize themselves into agents of the scene, so to speak.  You had people getting together, forming an organization that was supposed to be operating in the name of the neighborhood and the scene, in order to continue to provide for the scene‘s continuation – politically, economically, and culturally. They had many goals, but one of them was to maintain the consumption environment in the place. You can think in this way of the formation of budgetary units as a political process, where out of a conflict many elements of the scene congealed into something resembling a budgetary unit. But that also implies that a well-organized budgetary unit of this sort doesn’t have to be the outcome, and there are interesting questions of when and why that does or does not occur.

Erin: Yes, the example Dan raises here thinks through the idea of a budgetary unit that attempts to speak on behalf of a scene. On the other hand, I was thinking about a process where a budgetary unit is both brought about by the scene, and tries to shape a particular scene. I used to live in Nashville and did some observation with a MOMS Club® there. East Nashville was this rapidly gentrifying area, with stores of all kinds of locally-made products, and many musicians who played and toured on major labels but didn’t get paid a lot lived there with their families. I don’t know under which of your specific categorizations of a scene that would fall.

Dan: You could probably call it Neo-Bohemian. Richard Lloyd is writing a book about it.

Erin: Yes, it probably was, and so there were ways in which this scene allowed for the emergence of a particular kind of MOMS Club. But also the women who comprise that club, once they were collectively organized into this budgetary unit, were seeking out opportunities for families in this scene, consumption of goods and services and experiences that met family needs. In this sense they also partly shaped the scene to be not just neo-Bohemian but also more amenable to families. For example, they inserted their family consumption agenda into funky events, like a Tomato Festival every summer. There was tomato art, music and all sorts of quirky tomato-type things, and it was not initially very amenable to children. This group actively organized some portion of the scene to include more children’s activities. They now organize the St. Patrick’s Day Parade now, so it’s not just beer and bars, but also some kind of family things.

Dan: You could think of that as a reciprocal kind of back-and-forth. If we had some kind of national data that showed scenes and then showed different types of budgetary units, we would think that certain types of budgetary units would thrive in certain types of scenes, and at the same time the activities of those budgetary units can react back and alter the character of the scene.

Yaniv: This brings me to another point of comparison. It seems that both of the concepts, although in different way, are not only theoretical but have some immediate methodological implications.

Dan: We have always been in a dialogue between theorizing and thinking about data that we could use as indicators. We looked for different types of data that could serve as at least rough indicators of the qualities that a scene might evoke, such as glamorousness or self-expressiveness or transgressiveness or traditionalism or neighborliness. Measuring that with the census is hard. Yet, we want to maintain the broad comparative standpoint that sources like the census permit. And this led us to try new sources like scraping or downloading online Yellow Pages sources, which have very fine-grain information about business categories, from dozens of types of restaurants and churches to fashion houses to yoga studios to hunting lodges and more. And of course today the data possibilities have come so much further. Right now for instance we are experimenting with using Yelp and the possibilities there are really exciting, because the information goes way beyond the names of the businesses or the business categories.

Erin: In putting the initial statement on budgetary units together, it was important to me to think about constructing budgetary units in a way that transcends conventional sub-disciplinary boundaries, because one of the problems that we have with theorizing more broadly about a social organization around consumption is that so many of the categories we use for social groups are sub-disciplinarily enshrined, like families in some parts of sociology and as I mentioned before, or churches in the sociology of religion. These terms operate differently in distinct literatures. As a first step, I wanted to move away from that and to showcase the capacity to apply a concept that crosses these divides, but is constructed in a way that is amenable to both qualitative and quantitative inquiry. But I think there’s much more methodological work still remains to be done. I tried to be thoughtful about formulating budgetary units in a way that would be amenable to quantitative work, even though I did not present quantitative data in the AJS piece. Although in the process of writing, I think several more articles got written and ripped out in revision, so perhaps someday something like that will happen.

Yaniv: Speaking of that, what should we expect from you in the coming future?

Dan: I have been going in a few different directions that are more closely related to the Scenes stuff, alongside other projects. One, we are trying to build up a more extensive international datasets to be able to do cross-national analysis. A second direction is to engage with political questions – thinking about scenes and voting patterns, or political activism, especially new social movements and the kinds of scenes in which they thrive. And as I mentioned the idea that is really new right now and we are still experimenting with is using Yelp as a way to measure scenes, and specifically one of our concepts – the idea of the “buzz” surrounding a scene, that is, the kind of excitement and interest, chitchat and talk around a scene.

Erin: An interesting question that came up while working on my article is how people choose budgetary units as an alternative to market-based provision or network-based provision. I have a longer-term plan to revisit that as a field research project, but as I am currently working on my book on how subcultures of quasi-Weberian bureaucratic effectiveness emerge and function embedded within what we typically think of as weak states, like Ghana. But in terms of consumption, currently one of my research directions is how people use and inflect moralistic meanings and cultural schemas in interpreting appropriateness in the market sphere, in the way that they engage as consumers with producers.

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