This conversation is part of a new feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) are interviewed by graduate students or other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. This month, two faculty members talk with one another about their work and how each came to study consumption.
Scholars’ Conversations: Meredith Katz and Jeffrey London
What does “consumption” mean in both of your works? How do they compare?
Meredith: In my work, consumption is really about the entire process, from production to the point of purchase. I am interested in both the labor behind our products, as well as the political or ethical choices people make when deciding to consume. My work focuses on two interrelated topics: anti-sweatshop organizing and political and ethical consumerism. In both areas, I am interested in how consumers can and do choose to leverage their consumption choices to bring about social change or a desired political outcome.
Jeff: My work considers the role of the music scene in Portland, Oregon, and the adjustment of actors to rapid gentrification there. It is centered at the intersection of urban change, the urban imaginary, and the branding of cities. Therefore, my focus is on the city as a growth machine, utilizing cultural products and DIY consumption and scaling it up to sell the city in the global marketplace of cool. Within this process, I uniquely focus on the makers and producers of music and art subcultures in the city, and their negotiation with the forces of the new creative economies that follow city growth spurts that revolve around culture.
Finally, I am intrigued by the political partnerships in neighborhoods that arise in response to the gentrification of spaces of consumption. Consumers in the city can, similarly to Meredith’s approach, choose to opt in or out by relating or not relating to a commodified cultural economy. In essence, borrowing from Portlandia, they can put a bird on it, or not.
What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in each of your works?
Meredith: For me, it was two books. The first was The Overspent American by Juliet Schor and the second was No Logo by Naomi Klein. My mother was a department store apparel buyer who always said two things when I was growing up: 1) We do not freely advertise for brands and 2) Do you know how much that piece of clothing cost to make and how much they are charging you? Both No Logo and The Overspent American identified sociological concepts to these two mantras I was wrestling to name.
I knew there was some connection between consumer choices and social justice, but I did not know of many sociologists talking about that early on. Juliet Schor, of course, was. Her work was fundamental in providing me with a holistic view of the consumption process, from the work-and-spend cycle to why lifestyle politics matter. Naomi Klein’s work helped me understand the global exploitation of labor further and just exactly why my mom said we would not freely advertise for brands with our clothing choices.
Jeff: A combination of scholarship in and around consumers and consumption themes have influenced me. Sharon Zukin’s Naked City mapped the landscape of desiring that permeates neighborhoods in New York. She analyzes the way that media and real estate entities capitalize on a kernel of truth about a place until the consumer culture swoops in to replace a more authentic cultural production and consumption landscape. In addition, Rich Ocejo’s book Upscaling Downtown has been invaluable as a model for understanding and interpreting the feelings and judgments of longtime residents and scene actors in negotiating new frameworks of consumption in a gentrifying moment.
How did you both come to work on this topic (i.e. the topic of the book/article)? What sparked both of your interests in this?
Jeff: I have been both a producer and consumer of “small batch” music for a long time, and I was interested in understanding the role of the culture industry on “authentic” local culture. Although less concentrated then what Adorno and Horkheimer had postulated, this industrialization of production, even though an intellectually self-aware television show like Portlandia, can have distorting effects on the continuity of real life in a place culture.
Meredith: As I mentioned earlier, the topic of how consumers could leverage their purchases for ‘good’ was something I thought about for a long time. However, I vowed to never get involved with the anti-sweatshop movement because I thought it was too elitist. Life is funny like that. But when I learned about the solidarity model of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), that all changed. After being involved with the anti-sweatshop movement in graduate school, and running successful USAS campaigns on campus, I saw first-hand how consumers could leverage their purchases to make changes, particularly as they related to labor rights of workers. My experience with USAS led me to my second area of research looking more broadly at how consumers may opt into various forms of political or ethical consumerism including boycotting, buycotting, and/or lifestyle politics.
How was the process of transforming both of your curiosities for these topics into research questions and projects?
Jeff: It was challenging and daunting at times. I was continuously compelled to tell the story, and it took me some time to see what I needed to find out, and what needed to be known. It was, in fact, important to categorize how people were differently situated in the creative economy, including those that Guy Standing et al. (2009) call the ‘creative proletariat.’ Scholars like George Morgan also helped me map the way in which creativity gets bifurcated in the new creative economy, and how certain tastes and ways of producing are relegated to a nostalgic outpost of the collective memory of places.
Meredith: Similar to Jeff, it was challenging at times. It still is. Mainly I knew I had a topic that was worth studying, and one that I remain passionate about, but I had not seen much sociological work on political consumers when I began (that has since changed, which is wonderful). It was a bit of a hodge-podge for a while piecing together previous research from political science, marketing, and business to establish a firm understanding of the concept of political consumerism.
Are concepts such as identity or place key variables in your understanding of contemporary fashions and patterns of action in both subcultures and culture in general?
Jeff: The broader implications of a focus on consumption or the consumption/production nexus serves to illustrate how this mode of analysis is fast becoming crucial for our age. I think the point of purchase is where the rubber meets the road between the social and the individual, and especially how the digital mediates our relationship with the external world. Focusing on collective engagement and social practices in spaces such as bars, music venues, and the like served as my benchmark historical work in Portland. However, when looking at new initiates in Portland I focused on young people consuming cities around the globe and consuming identity in the disneyfied landscape of app centered consumption. That moment of the click is the distilled moment of commitment to the new city and the new forms of power and exclusion that form there. The way we like and look at culture informs the way the lived city is rebuilt to meet up with our tastes.
Meredith: For my work, identity is extremely important within a cultural context. There has long been a critique that engaging in political consumerism, or anti-sweatshop activism for that matter, are privileged forms of engagement. After all, who has the money to boycott certain superstores or buycott local ones that serve fair trade or organic clothes or food? In a recent piece I published on the history of political consumerism in North America in The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism, I note how that is only half the story. There are many other stories of people with less privilege advocating and organizing for fair labor conditions in this country and others. However, as the face of the buy local movement remains similar to the people from Portlandia, we have some work to do about broadening the faces of the conversation.
How do you see the sociological study of consumption as important to reducing social inequalities? How do distinctions and determinants of meaning (class, race, gender) frame your analysis?
Meredith: For me, my interest in consumption was precisely because I viewed consumption choices as a means to reduce inequality, particularly between producers and consumers. With my anti-sweatshop activism work, there is a direct link between successful campaigns (specifically Worker Rights Consortium affiliations) and increased labor protections, and often wages, for garment workers. For ethical or political consumers, this opportunity also exists through their purchasing decisions. As markets are increasingly larger than specific geographical boundaries, and often do not have to adhere to the labor standards of the countries of the consumers, working at the point of consumption to mitigate any injustices at the point of production is a key way to reduce inequalities.
Jeff: The study of consumption often reveals the secret code for class consumption, echoing Veblen’s ironic take on conspicuous taste and the false equity of consumer freedom. When we say you are what you buy, consumption is often embodied and embedded, especially when it comes to clothing or food. Meredith’s research illustrates the hidden costs of style decisions that are inexpensive due to labor exploitation. Raising consciousness to the level of understanding the connection of consumption to values requires both theory and analysis.
I teach a course Leisure, Recreation, and Sports, where we take the social constructions of race, gender, and class to reveal where cultural capital is distributed, acquired, and denied. When the denigration of certain ways of consuming are undercut that limit monetary opportunity and life chances. From that vantage point, the door opens for studies of consumption that not only reflect situated meaning in shopping place and temples of leisure, but also for using cultural relativism as a means of reorienting consumer power towards social change.
About the Scholars
Dr. Meredith Katz is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work focuses on the collegiate anti-sweatshop movement and political consumerism. She recently published the chapter “Boycotting and Buycotting: Political Consumerism in North America” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism.