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.
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Scholars’ Conversations: In Critics’ Own Words
By Jordan Foster
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Phillipa Chong, Associate Professor of Sociology at McMaster University. In this conversation, we discuss Phillipa’s book, Inside the Critics’ Circle, her forthcoming projects, and her scholarly interest in the study of consumption.
Jordan Foster: What are you working on? How did you come to the topic?
Phillipa Chong: My latest book is called Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times. It explores how books get reviewed, including which books are chosen for review in the first place, how critics think about their roles and responsibilities, and what makes a review positive or negative – including sociological factors that go beyond the book itself. So it’s all about how book reviews – a material form of aesthetic judgments – get produced.
My focus on arts criticism stemmed from my interest in understanding mechanisms of inequality. As a graduate student, I read a lot of studies about how different workers and their efforts are valued unequally. I found it fascinating that arts critics had to state very clearly why they thought things should or shouldn’t be valued in their reviews. There aren’t many gatekeepers who have to justify their judgments so explicitly and publicly. Also, critics talk about things like race or gender in ways that I didn’t see in other gatekeeping contexts. For instance, my article, “Reading Difference,” illustrates how critics explicitly use authors’ race and ethnicity as criteria for evaluating their books in their reviews. Building on that, Inside the Critics’ Circle widens the focus to look at all the different ways in which critics make and justify their evaluations by examining not the reviews themselves, but the critics’ own words from interviews too.
After the book came out, it was widely reviewed in the mainstream media. And it certainly evoked some strong reactions – some good, some bad, and some just plain ugly! After one particularly nasty review, I got emails from many colleagues offering their condolences, sharing their own stories of nasty reviews, and telling me to just ignore the haters. I appreciated their advice and had actually been told “don’t read reviews” when interviewing people for the book. It was definitely kind of weird for me, as someone who just spent years writing a book about book reviews, to be told over and over again that I should just ignore them!
However, those ideas led me to my current research project, which is about how we generate and utilize feedback. We generate so many judgments and evaluations every day. You know, there’s so much data; there are so many evaluations. But what are we really doing with them? Do people use them? So now I’m writing a book called Feedback, investigating how feedback gets generated in different fields, and how (and whether) that feedback gets used – or “consumed” so to speak. I’m also about to release a four-part podcast series called NO COMMENT on related questions of how we should respond to unhelpful feedback (specifically, crappy book reviews).
Jordan: What does consumption mean in your work?
Phillipa: Consumption, to me, is about understanding all the factors that shape what we choose to purchase, engage with, or otherwise make use of in our lives. And I take a very broad view of what that social object under consideration can be: it could be a book, a piece of formal advice or feedback, or the services of a non-profit organization. For example, one of my current projects looks at how community members choose between different social-service providers when seeking help in the context of COVID-19. And I think the consumption perspective is needed, because we live in a time when more and more social entities are thinking of themselves as “brands,” or their audiences as “consumers.”
My central interest is revealing how consumer choices that seem highly individual, and even a matter of personal taste, are actually tied to structural factors. I’m especially interested in how the individual and structural are linked through social-psychological and cultural mechanisms like identity dynamics, perceptions of risk and reward, and notions of morality. In my book, I show how reviews aren’t just a matter of “personal taste.” Instead, critics’ self-concepts as professionals, their personal and professional vulnerabilities, and informal power structures in publishing shape not only which books get reviewed, but also how. When someone writes a published review, their own identity meets that of the author, and there’s a lot at stake for both of them. So, a review isn’t just a neutral opinion; it has a real emotional and moral charge to it, too. And from a consumption perspective, the case of reviewers is doubly interesting because not only are they consuming subjects, but the reviews they produce are also a key tool by which other consumers (i.e., readers) make their own selections.
Jordan: What is one reading that you would recommend for those who are interested in consumption?
Phillipa: A reading I love to teach in my sociology of culture courses comes from Wendy Griswold’s textbook, Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. In it, she offers an extended discussion of bread as a cultural object, and how starting from this seemingly bland and inert commodity you can expand out to think about commodity chains, different cultural and religious uses of bread, branding, ethical consumption, and so on. I love using this example as a really counterintuitive, yet relatable way to understand how such a seemingly innocuous consumer decision is shaped by multifaceted social milieux.
I think that’s wonderful. And in my own work, I like to begin by centering on a particular object and then creating the consumptive world around it. For Inside the Critics’ Circle, I began by analyzing book reviews as a cultural object. And then I broadened out to understand how those five little inches of newsprint are shaped by so many other social factors that can teach us about journalistic ideals, integrity, taste, professional boundaries, fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and so on. In Feedback, I start with where people get feedback in their lives, and then explore the surrounding worlds of meaning and structure to understand what they actually do with it.
I think it’s vital to understand the social process of how we make choices about what to consume – and, by extension, what is “worthy” of being consumed. The better we understand it, the more clearly, we can see the particularly insidious and unobvious ways in which inequality more generally is reproduced and perpetuated.
About the Interviewer: Jordan Foster is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. His research lies at the intersection of consumption, new media, and inequality.
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