Scholars’ Conversations: Andre F. Maciel, Space and the Politics of Consumer Identity

This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Andre F. Maciel, Space and the Politics of Consumer Identity

by Tim Rosenkranz

I had the fascinating opportunity to interview Andre F. Maciel, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Introducing his most recent article on knitting as consumption practice, published with Melanie Wallendorf in the Journal of Consumer Research, Andre and I discussed the importance of understanding space as a resource that structures the politics of consumer identity. We talked about knitting, ripping-off, and restitching as well as about the academic relationship between marketing and sociology in consumers and consumption research.

Tim: Your recent article Space as a Resource in the Politics of Consumer Identity (2021) approaches the “consumer’s intentional use of space.” How do you conceptualize space in the study of consumers and consumption?

Andre: That was a crucial question for the article. In consumer research, space is often treated as a setting where things happen, or a site to conduct ethnography. In our work, we conceptualize space as an affordance of social structure rather than merely a setting. In this view, space is an aspect of social life that constrains and enables action—much like money, knowledge, and symbols do. 

Specifically, we analyze space as a resource that consumers intentionally use to re-negotiate stereotypes associated with their identities. More succinctly, we study how consumers use space to engage in identity politics. We show how they assert the value of their identities across various sites, from their homes to public venues. Each of these types of space has different affordances; accordingly, we show how consumers enact complementary yet distinct identity practices in them. 

Tim: You use a very interesting methodology in your fieldwork connecting interviewing and netnography; you even learned how to knit for your participant observation. How did you get into this project and how did you decide on your approach?

Andre: In my early days as a Ph.D. student, I was interested in consumption activities that involve creating tangible products, like crafts, homebrewing, and gardening. I chose knitting as the focus of this project because of a particular empirical paradox: knitters and knitting carry the stereotype of being dull and backward; nevertheless, this hobby was experiencing a renewed popularity when I was deciding on my dissertation topic.

As often happens with ethnography, the methodology was emergent.  We didn’t set out to study the role of space in the politics of consumer identity. We incorporated different methods gradually, as we sought to expand our understanding of consumers’ engagement in identity politics across the various spaces that constitute their lives.

The primary method was participant observation at a local yarn shop. Learning the fundamentals of knitting was essential to show my genuine interest in the social world of my informants (I was a male researcher amid a primarily female clientele). Luckily, my co-author (then advisor), Melanie Wallendorf, is an occasional knitter and taught me the basics. Learning how to knit was also a source of embodied knowledge. I had to rip off and re-stitch many hats and scarves, gaining insight into the skill that goes into making handknit pieces, a type of object often devalued in the larger culture. 

Participant observation was vital to learn about my informants beyond their activities as consumers. I visited their homes, went to coffee shops with them, and chatted about their lives in general. In important ways, most were exactly the opposite of the knitter stereotype as backward and dull. They were well-educated, intellectually curious, and professionally active, left-leaning on the political spectrum, and interested in clothing design. And they were much aware of the systematic devaluation of cultural expressions that are historically feminine (romance novels, soap operas, fiber crafts, canning, jamming, etc.). 

That’s when I decided to conduct in-depth interviews, and later a survey, to better understand how these knitters relate to their hobby in light of the stereotypes surrounding it. It became clear that these women are reclaiming a devalued gendered identity, but they are not simply doing so subjectively. At home, they overtly assert the value of their hobbies to their domestic partners, claiming leisure spaces that are the feminine counterpart to the more popular “mancaves.” At coffee shops and libraries, they display their knitting and have conversations with strangers about patriarchy. And in the public sphere, many conspicuously work on knitting projects in quite unusual places and times, like baseball games, while some join initiatives to cover public statues in yarn (an initiative called yarn graffiti). Many have also contributed multiple pussyhats to the Women’s Marches that occurred during the Trump administration. In a way, these knitters are turning their needles into small swords to make their identities more visible and fight some stereotypes that apply to multiple feminized cultural expressions.

The netnography was added to the methodology because we wanted to confirm that our findings extended beyond a local community. Our informants quickly suggested that we looked into ravelry.com. It’s a site where millions of fiber crafters from all parts of the world, but mainly from the US, discuss a wide variety of issues, from craft projects to gender issues. After finding similar data in this larger forum, we started to theorize the use of space in the politics of consumer identity. Finally, we conducted a media analysis to quantify how the consumer uses of space we conceptualize has impacted public discourses about knitting over the last four decades.  

Tim: What book or article about consumption has been particularly influential in your work?

Andre: So hard to pick only one! Can I mention two, one for consumption and one for space? 

For consumption, I’d choose Janice Radway’s (1982) Reading the Romance. This book helped me realize how a mundane practice (in that case, reading romance novels) can say so much about sociocultural forces. I read it in my first years in the Ph.D. program, when I was starting to dive into the sociology of culture and gender. This book that made me see my data in a much more critical way.

For space, I’d go with David Storey’s (2012) Territories: The Claiming of Space. Our work is significantly informed by Foucault, Giddens, and Lefebvre, who are probably the pioneers in highlighting space as an affordance of social structure.  But while these authors operate on a more abstract level, Storey focuses on the importance of space for the identity of individuals and social categories. The book is an excellent entry for non-geographers into the insights that cultural geography can have for the analysis of consumers and consumption.

Tim: You’re an Assistant Professor of Marketing. How do you think Sociology approaches marketing and what could be done better?

Andre: For the most part, I see sociological research referring to marketing as a business activity only. However, marketing is an academic field, too. At business schools, marketing scholars have backgrounds in a wide range of disciplines, and a productive group of these scholars is trained in sociology and anthropology (as a little secret, I took more doctoral credits in my minor area, Sociology, than in my major, Marketing). This group of marketing scholars study Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) and are members of the Consumer Culture Theory Consortium (CCT-C). 

Like many sociologists, CCT researchers study issues of culture, power, inequality, and stratification in market relations. Our premier journals are the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. We also publish often in Consumer Markets & Culture and Marketing Theory, in addition to the Journal of Consumer Culture, which is a common forum with sociologists of consumption affiliated to sociology schools and departments.  

Tim: What is next for you? What can we look forward to in your work? 

Andre: I’ve been studying crowdfunding with my colleague Michelle Weinberger. We’re particularly interested in the types of consumer agency that crowdfunding enables. By funding new business ventures, consumers can decide which offerings are worth existing in the market in the first place, instead of simply buying what is already available to them.  

With a former doctoral student, Abigail Nappier Cherup, I’m also studying consumer discrimination in retailers. Her dissertation focused on an understudied group with a stigmatized sexual identity, known as bi+. We’re focusing on this group to conceptualize how consumers “read” a retail store regarding its inclusiveness, and how retail managers can design spaces where consumers feel recognized and accepted. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

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