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Consume This! Using Consumer Culture to Teach Sociological Thinking

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Congratulations to Josée Johnston, Kate Cairns, and Shyon Baumann on their new book. The appearance of an Introductory Sociology textbook using “stuff” as its focus is evidence of at least two important ways in which the world has changed. First, that consumption and possessions have become so central in the lives of college students that they are a powerful window into studying the wider social world. And second, that our sub-discipline of the sociology of consumption has produced enough work to make a text like this possible. It’s a fantastic coming-of-age statement for our field. As they describe in this month’s blog (adapted from the preface to the book), they’ve abandoned the conventional paradigmatic approach (functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interaction), organizing the material instead around three major axes: material v cultural, structure v agency, and micro v macro. What do you think? Do you have an experience teaching intro? Please comment!

– Juliet Schor

Using Consumer Culture to Teach Sociological Thinking

By Josée Johnston, Kate Cairns, and Shyon Baumann

Anyone who has taught an introductory sociology class knows that this can be a formidable task. Standard textbooks often introduce material in a dry (dare we say boring?) manner that is disconnected from students’ lives. And it can be challenging to teach students to think structurally after years – or even a lifetime – of socialization within a culture of individualism. Sometimes the Nike slogan – Just do it! – seems to resonate more in the classroom than Marx’s famous aphorism that “men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Sometimes, just introducing topics like Marx, history, or structure feels like a challenge.

In our new book, Introducing Sociology Using the Stuff of Everyday Life, we suggest that one way to tackle these issues is to connect sociological thinking to the stuff of everyday life – stuff like cars, hamburgers, and basketball jerseys. The book aims to showcase the utility of a sociological toolkit for understanding the world around us, starting with the cultural and material stories of our stuff. We believe that the best way to spark students’ sociological imaginations is to invite them to see the strangeness of the familiar stuff in their everyday lives: the jeans they wear to class, the coffee they drink each morning, or the phones their professors tell them to put away during lectures.

The book’s central premise is that we can understand sociology – and sociological thinking – by looking at everyday consumer stuff. We took inspiration from common consumer items, like toys or cars, as well as larger consumer phenomena, like shopping trips, white weddings, or sports fanatics. By featuring these examples in the form of case studies, the book aims to engage students’ interest, before proceeding to analyze the consumer item using key aspects of a sociological tool-kit. Teaching Marx or Durkheim in a vacuum can go in one ear and out the other. By introducing material on consumers and consumption alongside sociological theories and methodological tools, students have a context for understanding the relevance of sociology in their everyday lives.

googlingbeautyA sample image from Chapter 11, “Looking Good: Ideology, Intersectionality and the Beauty Industry”.

Many students feel a sense of authority in various areas of consumer culture, and they often enjoy sharing their knowledge. One student has a vast understanding of sneaker culture, another is an expert on online make-up vloggers, while another can give an impromptu lecture on car modifications. Opening up the sociology classroom to discussion of these topics validates students’ expertise on their own life-world. We, in turn, gain insight from the goods, services, and cultural expectations that shape their lives. (e.g., Josée learned from her students how the word “basic” is associated with UGG boots, pumpkin spice Starbucks lattes, and white femininity. She also learned that masculine car owners talk about “modifying” their cars, and certainly do not “accessorize” them.) These insights provide us with valuable entry points to explore questions of agency (e.g., how much power do you have to resist an effective marketing pitch?), technological determinism (e.g., has your iPhone changed the world on its own?), as well as gender and social class (e.g., what car brands communicate wealth, masculinity and status?).

Beyond the thematic focus on consumption, a key feature that sets the book apart from other introductory texts is the three “thinking frames” that unify sociological content across the chapters. Instead of organizing chapters around the classic ‘trifecta’ of functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism – which might not resonate with how many of us conceptualize our field – we designed the book to focus on three core tensions or dualisms that are central to virtually all sociological thinking:

1) the relationship between material and cultural analyses of social life;

2) the tension between an analysis of social structure and individual agency; and

3) the different sorts of inquiries and insights made possible by microsociological and macrosociological research.

At the end of each chapter, we present a chart that relates the three thinking frames to the sociological case study and invites students to draw additional connections. This may involve reflecting upon the material and cultural dimensions of a commodity like jeans, questioning the extent to which individual consumer actions can promote social change, or investigating the relationship between broad economic patterns and everyday social interactions. These are challenging sociological questions, but the consumer case studies help to ground them in the context of everyday life.

thinkingframes

An excerpt from Chapter 1, “A Day in the Life of Your Jeans: Using Our Stuff to Discover Sociology.

By engaging students through their stuff, we seek to move beyond teaching about sociology (e.g., simply memorizing the names of scholars and theories), to teaching the practice of sociological thinking. Consumer goods like toys, fast food, and smartphones present us with vivid examples of stratified labor systems, life choices, and consumption patterns. Linking sociology with the study of stuff can help students think through, and make sense of the vast, multi-faceted inequalities that characterize our social world.

We hope that the book provides a resource to enliven the sociology classroom, expands teaching and learning about consumers and consumption, and inspires students to look anew at the stuff of their everyday lives. We also hope that our experiment with reimagining the nature of the introductory sociology textbook is not only pedagogically effective, but also makes for a rewarding and spirited teaching experience.

Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann are Associate Professors of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Kate Cairns is Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. This post is adapted from the preface to their new book, Introducing Sociology Using the Stuff of Everyday Life (Routledge 2017).

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One thought on “Consume This! Using Consumer Culture to Teach Sociological Thinking

  1. Pingback: Kate Cairns

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