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 Jordan Foster ( or click here.

Scholars’ Conversations: From Very Important People to Videos Gone Viral

By Jordan Foster

I had the chance to interview Ashley Mears, Professor at Boston University, about her fascinating book Very Important People (Princeton University Press, 2020) and her experience doing field work within the Global Party Circuit. We also caught up on Ashley’s recent work on viral creators and the attention economy. 

Jordan: I had the pleasure of reading your latest work, Very Important People (VIP) and it was wonderful. Can tell us how you came to work on the project? 

Ashley: My first project was on the fashion model market and while I was doing field work, I had these promoters’ contacts. Promoters are relentless in trying to get girls to come out with them to clubs, because that’s you know, that’s their source of money; that is their career. And, I kept getting these text messages from promoters, even years after I’d left New York and begun working at Boston University. 

At that point, I was 30 years old and working as an Assistant Professor and was looking for my next project. I had in mind to do something on the global scouting network, and I had done interviews and a little bit of field work with scouts as they’re searching for models in Russia and in Latin America, but it was too close to my first project, and so I could see it becoming a paper, but not a major ethnography. 

All the while, I was getting text messages from these promoters who were like, ‘hey, baby, come for sushi dinner!’ As these text messages appeared, the recovery from the 2008 financial collapse was underway and we know that that recovery was uneven. So, there was, on the one hand, the spark of Occupy Wall Street and policies of fiscal austerity around the world and in Europe. And, on the other, there were these real, obvious displays of conspicuous consumption in the clubs where these guys were inviting me for a night out. I was curious about that, and of course I knew that models were a part of this economy, so that there was also some familiar territory that I would have going into a new field setting.

So, when the opportunity to travel back to and live in New York arose, I took it. I had these questions brewing and the connections were there. 

Jordan Foster: In the book you discuss some of the pressures and issues you had to navigate as an academic in a setting where there’s a great deal of focus on women, women’s beauty, and its value. How Did you navigate those pressures as an ethnographer and an academic?

Ashley: It’s easier to navigate the club space as a woman that conforms to the “look” that’s valuable in that setting. Having said that, I was much older than the other women, and that was an interesting source of data. That is, people found out my age and would really make a big thing of it: “oh, my God! I can’t believe you’re 30!” 

Elizabeth Wissinger, a fellow scholar of beauty economies, had told me when I was in grad school that ‘the worse people are to you in the field, the better your data’ and that always stuck with me. And it is good armor to remember especially in the face of comments about your age or your body. The ethnographer puts her body on the line—it’s a tool, a source of information. And so, how people react to your body and how your body reacts to the field are important and valuable data points. 

Jordan: What are some central takeaways you would like readers to leave with? 

Ashley: It’s always hard to pull out a single storyline, because the book follows multiple players with multiple interests that come together to produce displays of conspicuous consumption. But one of the core arguments is that women profit off of their looks, but not nearly as much as do the men who control the system of women’s circulation. That was one of the most surprising and interesting findings. 

When I was in the field, I confronted the way that girls function as a form of currency, but their value is worth more to men who can harness it than the women themselves and that gave rise to my concept of “girl capital” and the traffic of girls.

Another key finding is that conspicuous consumption gets normalized through all this invisible, backstage, labor, including the backstage labor of women and minoritized men. People who are the invisible support personnel for this grand show of consumption, which is fundamental to elite sociality.  This is a space where elites can signal their worth to one another and when you look at the global scene across which elites party together and jet set, it becomes really clear that being in these spaces is a mode of belonging in the global rich. 

Relatedly, the book follows a set of gender dynamics among the global elite and this is a set of dynamics that is often neglected. The global party scene functions as a great case to think about masculine domination and gender in part because it is so heavily dominated by men and,  because women provide so much support in the form of taken-for-granted labour. 

Jordan: This is such a fabulous book and we could spend a while longer talking about it, but I understand you’ve begun a set of new projects and I’m wondering if you can tell us more about them. If I have this right, you’ve taken quite a close look at viral content creators. You wrote, for example, a fantastic piece in the Economist on the subject. What has this work been like? 

Ashley: Thank you. Yeah, it’s interesting to talk with you about it, too, because you’re doing this research on a different platform and a different segment of the creator economy. This has been an interesting pivot downward, so to speak, from my last book, because I’m studying the bottom of the pop culture barrel.

I’m studying viral entertainment videos that are produced for Facebook. If they’re truly viral they tend to jump platforms and so many of these videos get shared on Snapchat and TikTok too. In a way, I’ve returned to my roots in cultural production by attending to the organization of labor and the motivations behind people who are making videos. These videos include viral birthday surprises, wedding proposals, everyday dramas—all stuff that looks like it could be authentic, user generated content. The stuff that your family and friends are posting on Facebook, you know? But these videos are deliberately constructed to look authentic—they are all scripted.

Jordan: How did you arrive at viral entertainment? 

Ashley: After VIP I wasn’t sure what I would be studying. I had some ideas for projects and others that were getting off the ground, but I was searching for something more. Now, VIP came out in May 2020 and you can’t imagine a worst time for a book about nightlife to come out—just 2 months into a global pandemic. But the book did well enough and reached a person I might not have connected with otherwise. He runs an online publishing company and he’s an expert in going viral. He’s also a big fan of sociology and ethnography. So, he read my book and reached out to say, ‘if you’re interested in the influencer economy, I could walk you through it.’ 

So, we had some conversations and I began to look at the work of creators; creators who are actually quite different from influencers. Whereas influencers deal in status—the capacity to influence others while having a positive reputation or a kind of renown—the creators I was given a look at were low in prestige and sometimes critiqued as a result. Sure, viral creators make a lot of money when their videos do well, but they are not symbolically powerful in the influencer economy. This tension between their economic and symbolic capital invited a closer look. 

Some creators, for example, were performing artists before the Pandemic. Amid the lockdowns, they turned to viral pranks and staged videos that jeopardized their credibility and status among their artistic communities, but that furnished them with significant views and likes, and money too. 

I’ve been thinking about how to use field theory to explain this experience, and bridge what are often disconnected literatures on social media and cultural sociology.

Jordan: Shifting focus for a moment Ashley, we like to ask our scholars what consumption means in their work. Can you tell us a bit about this?  

Ashley: Oh gosh, what a question! I think of consumption as so very basic to identity and markets. It is such a central and salient feature in contemporary capitalist life. In my work, it’s been a window into people’s values; to see the boundaries they erect between themselves and others and to see how they search for recognition. So maybe that’s the most fundamental thing about consumption, I think of it as a search for recognition, and that’s how I’ve used it in my work.

Jordan: What book or article about consumption has been most influential in your work? 

Ashley: Well, of course, Bourdieu, you know, Distinction. Viviana Zelizer’s work on consumption in The Handbook of Economic Sociology also comes to mind. Zeilzer’s work is especially useful because she shows us how relational consumption is. Juliet’s Schor’s work on consumption is also a must read! 

About the Interviewer: 

Jordan Foster is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Jordan’s research lies at the intersection of new media, culture, and inequality. His published work can be found in such venues as the Journal of Consumer CultureNew Media & Society, and Sociology



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