By Juliet Schor
As this year’s Section Chair, I welcome you to Consume This!—the new monthly blog of our Section. Over the coming year we will be featuring research and analysis by members of the section. In this opening blog I wanted to share some findings I’m developing with my research team at Boston College.
Transformations in the “Field of Lifestyles”
In 2011, I began working with a group of PhD students on what we called “Connected Consumption.” Within a year or two the sector we were studying had been branded as the “sharing economy” and it was rapidly re-organizing the provision of consumer goods and services, from transportation and lodging to food, goods, and personal services. At the beginning we focused on non-profit initiatives to transform how people consume, trade, and learn, such as time banks, food swaps, online courses and makerspaces. In 2013 we added for-profit platforms Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Turo. We focused on younger consumers (aged 18-34) and studied motivations, experiences, and how these sites were faring. While the success of these initiatives has varied tremendously—Airbnb is worth more than $25 Billion, while our food swap collapsed—they do share the common thread that most participants have been articulating a desire for a new kind of consumer culture.
One finding, detailed in our “Moral Markets” paper, is a yearning for more personalized and “real” economic exchanges. Rejecting the “fake nice” and sameness of hotel chains, industrialized food, and mass produced consumer goods, participants in makerspaces, time banks, and other connected consumption sites hope that by consuming differently they can change the nature of economic exchange. Rather than looking to politics, they put their faith in these novel markets, which they believe are more accountable and humane. A vision of domesticity underlies their participation. In contrast to the dominant trope of an insatiable market cannibalizing intimate life, our informants re-imagine the market being incorporated into the domestic sphere. In some cases this is literally true—Airbnb brings exchange inside the home, as do some of the food preparation platforms. But even when exchange happens outside, the model of social relations is the family. They aspire for trading relations which are personal, reciprocal and not dominated by transactional logics.
This preference for personalized exchange and proximate provision and consumption is one aspect of what we believe is a larger transformation of the field of lifestyles. The more than 200 participants we interviewed in our first seven cases are mostly high in cultural capital but not high earners. They are cultural innovators, on the cutting-edge of many consumer trends. And we find that they are inverting longstanding high cultural capital values and practices. In comparison to the analysis of the consumption field offered by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction, we find an emergent set of practices that value formerly low cultural capital ways of consuming. These include a preference for the local (although in a cosmopolitan, rather than parochial way), the valorization of manual labor, which was previously disdained by cultural elites, and an orientation to the materiality of goods. Our participants wax eloquent about the joys of immersing their hands in soil, whittling, or darning socks. They embrace DIY. They care deeply about the tactile and textural aspects of consumption. They want to eat and buy local and build face-to-face community. These super-highly educated informants want to fix thermostats and can vegetables.
While many of these practices have been dismissed (even ridiculed) as hipster chic, taken together they represent a rejection of the practices of earlier cultural elites. In a parallel finding to that of Johnston and Baumann’s analysis of changes in the culinary field, we argue that these shifts amount to a systematic re-ordering of the field of lifestyles. What was once low (local, material, manual, communal) is now high. What was high (cosmopolitan globalism, abstraction and idealism, brain work over hand work) is out of fashion. Years of “mining” working class culture to fuel novelty and innovation in consumer practices has fundamentally transformed the underlying binary oppositions of the field.
In a paper-in-progress (“Inverting the field”) we argue that this analysis helps to make sense of a phenomenon that has been something of a black box within the literature: the rise of the cultural omnivore. Omnivorousness, mainly studied in the context of arts and culture, represents a challenge to Bourdieu because it consists of high cultural capital consumption of low cultural capital genres. As Lizardo and Skiles have argued, most analyses have tried to reconcile the challenge by arguing that omnivorousness is a new way to pursue distinction, rather than situating it within the whole field. Our approach re-interprets omnivorousness as an early stage of what would eventually become a wholesale flip in high cultural capital tastes and practices.
We hope to have a paper ready by the end of this semester. We’re still trying to figure out what to call this new habitus—in an early version of the analysis we called it an eco-habitus but are not satisfied with that term. Meanwhile, we welcome your thoughts on what we’re arguing and the ways in which you think the field of lifestyles is changing…Comments section open for discussion!
*The Connected Consumption and Connected Economy project team currently consists of the following Boston College PhD candidates in Sociology—William Attwood-Charles, Luka Carfagna, Mehmet Cansoy, Isak Ladegaard, Robert Wengronowitz and Connor Fitzmaurice from Boston University.
Other works mentioned.
Pierre Bourdieu. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.
Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann. 2014. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
Omar Lizardo and Sara Skiles. 2015. “After Omnivorousness: Is Bourdieu Still Relevant?”Pp. 90-103 in Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage (eds), Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture. London: Routledge.
Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Her most recent book (co-edited with Craig Thompson) is Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest for Plenitude (Yale University Press 2014).
*The ConsumeThis! logo was designed by Spencer Charles.