Teaching about consumption is one of the primary ways we “do” a sociology of consumers and consumption. In this blog post, Charlotte Glennie describes an assignment that has students making changes in their own consumption habits and reflecting on the many sociological factors that affect people’s abilities to implement such changes – and their wider social impacts.

– Laura Miller, section chair

Consume This! Teaching about Consumption with Autoethnography

By Charlotte Glennie

Consumption is one of the most accessible entry points for many sociological topics, such as stratification, the sociology of culture, and environmental sociology. In my research on urban agriculture and food justice, consumption plays a clear role in motivating people’s everyday behavior as well as their involvement in organizations and movements. Because it connects to so much in social life, consumption can provide a powerful basis for student engagement—for Introductory Sociology, as Johnston, Cairns and Baumann’s (2017) textbook demonstrates, and also for sociology courses on specific topics.

When I teach Environmental Sociology, I encourage students to engage with the persistent tension between individual-consumerist and social-structural strategies for bringing about sustainability. In this regard, autoethnography works well to connect students’ own lives to the theoretical concepts and broader research findings they are learning about. After surveying major environmental problems and their social causes, students in my Environmental Sociology course choose a lifestyle change to implement for two weeks; they are tasked with taking notes during the experience and then analyzing how feasible and effective this change might be as a strategy to reduce environmental damage, if implemented at a large scale. 

Dietary changes: resource use for different foods
Photo credit: World Resources Institute, https://www.wri.org/research/shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

Students can choose any type of lifestyle change; almost all involve ethical consumption. I emphasize that their grade is based on the quality of their description and analysis rather than whether they succeed or fail in maintaining their change for two weeks. Results from three of the most common lifestyle changes selected—dietary changes, waste reduction, and alternative transportation—provide a window into the value of this assignment for exploring how social aspects of consumption relate to environmental impacts.

When adopting a more ecologically conscious diet, students often describe health benefits and improved energy; at the same time, they report experiencing the most direct social resistance to their lifestyle change. Friends and family who are used to sharing meals with these students sometimes express skepticism about the impact that the change will really have on the environment, unwillingness or frustration over the need to accommodate their dietary change, and even occasional derision about the change itself. 

The relatively strong social resistance that students often face when they make a dietary change seems indicative of how much our identities and culture are bound up in the consumption of food, as Johnston, Szabo and Rodney (2011) have shown. Some students have described the difficulty of missing out on favorite dishes that were prepared at family gatherings during their trial period. Conversely, a few students have also reported building a deeper connection to their culture as they learned to make family recipes that accommodated their lifestyle change.

Students who attempt a plastic-free or zero waste lifestyle frequently express a profound new awareness of how ubiquitous plastic is in our lives, in particular the volume of packaging associated with typical consumption habits. They also tend to report much more positive affirmation from others.

One student captures this well:

“I went out to eat at a restaurant with family members twice within the two weeks of the change. I brought a food container with me because I normally am not able to finish all of my food. I felt somewhat nervous taking out a container from my purse, since I have never seen another individual bring a container to a restaurant. Luckily my family was supportive when I told them I was making an effort to decrease the amount of waste I produce.”

Students have reported that family members, friends, and even cashiers sometimes express a desire or sense of responsibility to decrease their own plastic usage. This response suggests that many people consume plastic packaging beyond our own desire for it, rather than being emotionally or culturally invested in plastic consumption the way we are with food. 

Despite their support for reduced plastic use, many people—both students and those they interact with—seem to feel powerless regarding their consumption of plastic packaging and waste.

As one student put it:

“Although I think enough people could actually make this change [switching to reusable shopping bags], I do not think it would significantly reduce our society’s environmental impacts…. In order to make a significant impact, corporations would have to completely stop producing paper and plastic bags. This will probably not happen in our lifetime, due to the fact that corporations are making money off this production.” 

The lifestyle change that seems the hardest for students to maintain is to stop driving. Students attempting this lifestyle change have reported various situational complications, such as time constraints on their commute, an unexpected medical appointment, or lacking anywhere safe to store a bike. These complications speak to the ways in which our physical and social infrastructure is organized around automobile use, making it relatively difficult for individuals to ­­­­decrease fossil fuel consumption through their own lifestyle choices (as with plastic waste). Yet, as Trentmann (2007) notes, while infrastructure strongly influences consumption practices, consumption also helps to shape infrastructure systems over time. Students’ views on the transformative potential of car-free living vary accordingly.

While some students have anticipated identity-based challenges in giving up driving, most have found unexpected benefits to the change. As with dietary changes, students cutting down their driving frequently report health improvements (from extra exercise), cost savings, and even socio-psychological benefits from chance encounters with friends and nature as they circulated through their community outside of a vehicle. In their papers, some students also note the reality that many Americans (and many people around the world) live without a car all the time; thus, they acknowledge that the challenges they encountered during their trial period are daily occurrences for many.

Overall, students have expressed enthusiasm for the lifestyle change project both during the course and in their evaluations afterward. As I’ve refined the assignment, I’ve added elements that have made it more successful. I provide lots of lead time to contextualize the assignment during lectures and let students prepare to make their chosen change. I also assign a short proposal assignment that enables early feedback, as some students may choose lifestyle changes that won’t work well for the timeline of the project.

Finally, my assignment instructions emphasize analyzing the social circumstances involved—i.e. what about students’ own positionality contributes to the challenges or benefits that they experience and how different social circumstances might lead to more or fewer challenges for other people attempting this lifestyle change. My hope is that students come away from the project with a deeper appreciation for society-environment relations and for the socio-structural factors influencing our consumption.

About the Author:

Charlotte Glennie is a Sociology PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. Researching food justice and urban political economy, she seeks to build understanding of the ransformative power of social movements. She is also committed to the transformative power of teaching and learning.

Photo Credits:

Alternative transportation: biking instead of driving

Photo credit: Kyle Gradinger, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kgradinger/4080724020/

Dietary changes: resource use for different foods

Photo credit: World Resources Institute, https://www.wri.org/research/shifting-diets-sustainable-food-future

Plastic-free or zero waste: plastic pollution

Photo credit: Piqsels, https://www.piqsels.com/en/public-domain-photo-zceyw

Published by Carla Cunha

Carla is an aspiring Sociologist with a Bachelor's degree in Sociology and a Master's degree in Business Administration from Montclair State University. She has over 8 years of digital marketing experience and works as a Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Faircom New York. Her research interests are consumer philanthropy, lifestyle choices, and anything revolving around the digital world.

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