Consume This! Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Sociology of Consumption


Meredith Katz’s engaging and informative blog this month raises questions that many of us face in our teaching. Thank you Meredith for getting this conversation going. It would be great to have some section discussion via the comments section. Here are a couple of questions I thought about after reading…

There is a lot of debate within sociology about how much responsibility consumers have for the kinds of problems Meredith is focusing on, with many arguing that corporations, the state or capitalism are far more important drivers. How do we strike the right balance in our classes? How do you handle this issue in your classes? Do you have thoughts about Meredith’s approach?

In her post Meredith addresses the challenge of teaching about the ecological catastrophes we’re facing, the scale of global exploitation, and the problems associated with consumerism. Students can easily feel overwhelmed and paralysed. How can we avoid that while still educating them honestly about the severity of what is occurring?

– Juliet Schor


Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Sociology of Consumption

By Meredith Katz

I begin my Sociology of Consumption course every semester with this slide.


Students laugh. I ask how many of them ever thought about critically studying consumerism in a sociological context. A few hands raise. The rest often remark they are not quite sure what the class is about, but it sounded interesting. In this post, I’ll discuss a few best practices that have worked for me teaching the Sociology of Consumption; sample assignments; and feedback students provided when I told them I was writing this post.

In my experience, and likely in yours, many students know about consumerism, have even heard the phrase consumer society, but may or may not have a sociological understanding about consumers and consumption. In my class, we begin the semester discussing the history and shift towards a consumer society. In addition to pre-defined course topics covering marketing and advertising, fast fashion, political and ethical consumerism, among others, I ask students what topics they are interested in. These suggestions become the basis for discussions later in the semester. Students frequently comment they enjoy having some input into the course material covered. Based on suggestions this semester, we added discussions about cultural colonialism; alternative economies; and the global impacts of disposable cultures.

One of my main goals of this course is to empower students to make more informed choices in the midst of living in a consumer society. For one course assignment students keep a spending diary for 10 days. During that period students keep track of every penny they spend (including if they swipe their university id for an on-campus purchase). At the end of 10 days, students total the amount spent in various categories, including fixed and variable expenses, and also write a critical reflection about their spending habits. Almost every student begins their paper with, “I had no idea I spent so much money.” Students routinely say this was a beneficial assignment for them, as many of them rarely keep track of their spending. They also remark how this exercise made them realize how much of their social lives revolve around consuming–restaurants, shopping, coffee. In the midst of this very discussion last week, I proposed an alternative. What if, the next time they asked their friend to meet to take a walk, rather than for coffee or to go out to eat. They laughed. We discussed why this was funny, and how, in many ways, consuming is so normalized in our society that disrupting it, at times, is literally laughable.

Spending Diary (example from class)

Fixed Expenses Cost in 10 Days Monthly Payment
Insurance $25.00 $75
Rent $231.67 $695
Phone Bill $12.00 $25.00
Hulu $2.66 $7.99
Netflix $2.66 $7.99
Student Loans $16.67 $50.00

Total amount spent in fixed expenses in 10 days- 290.66

Variable Expenses Cost Comments
Clothes $58.89 A pair of rain boots, Pajamas, and pants (1 of each)
Eating Out $43.91 All fast food
Groceries $46.06 Enough to last roughly 1 to 1½ weeks
Pet Supplies $5.24 Lizard food for 2 weeks
Craft Supplies $14.98
Gas $21.15 Full tank

Total amount of variable expenses spent in 10 days- $190.23

I told students I was writing this post and asked for their insight on the class thus far. One student said, “I like that you’re not too pessimistic, nor optimistic. You’re practical.” One of the greatest challenges I have teaching this course is to present the enormity of the problems (sweatshop working conditions; mounding landfills full of trash; the problematic nature of donations abroad) while also inspiring a sense of optimism in students this can change if we each individually, and collectively, make better choices. This, of course, does not mean corporations are not responsible for their part, but as individual consumers, we need to take some responsibility, too.

Mid-way through the semester students begin to remark they are overwhelmed with the enormity of the issues we discuss in class. Sometimes they are unsure how they can best respond, especially given the financial and time constraints of being a college student. Should they never shop again? Never buy coffee in a to-go cup? Never donate their old clothes? My response to them is simple. Start somewhere. Perhaps it is buying fair or direct trade coffee, as we discussed this week. Perhaps it is not supporting fast fashion retail giants. Perhaps it is starting a United Students Against Sweatshops chapter on campus, as students from the class last fall did. Whatever it is, start somewhere.

What strategies and assignments have worked in your consumption classes? Comments section is open for discussion.

Meredith Katz is Teaching Faculty in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her areas of interest include political and ethical consumerism, labor rights, and the student anti-sweatshop movement.







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