Consumption through the looking glass: a post on consumer culture theory

A Buy Nothing Day poster from Adbusters. It's not a logo, per se, but it's certainly a symbol

“Consumer culture” – let’s loosely define it as the enjoyment of shopping and the positive identification with the acquisition of consumer goods –  has generally not got the greatest press in recent times amongst progressives, liberals and left-wingers. It’s fair to say there is an ambient suspicion, disdain and even fear of consumer culture amongst many cultural theorists, commentators and academics that dates at least as far back as Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and indeed clearly earlier. In more recent times, the likes of Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank, Kalle Lasn and Joel Bakan (writer of the documentary The Corporation) have waged full-frontal assaults on the consumer behaviours associated with market capitalism. The political slogans advanced with these agendas include attacking the brands of corporations, and their symbolic expression, logos, as well as the act of consumption itself (“Buy Nothing Day“).

The reason I mention all this is that it mystifies the academics who study consumer culture in business and marketing schools. In fact, many cultural theorists may be surprised to discover that there is a sophisticated literature exploring what Eric  Arnould and Craig Thompson, in a 2005 review article on the subject in the Journal of Consumer Research, describe as “a flurry of research addressing the sociocultural, experiential, symbolic, and ideological aspects of consumption.”

As Douglas Holt of the Harvard Business School helpfully explains in a 2002 paper for the same journal, “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding”,

Viewed from within the confines of the discipline of marketing, this potent new movement is inexplicable. Academic marketing theorizes away conflicts between marketing and consumers. Such conflicts result only when firms attend to their internal interests rather than seek to meet consumer wants and needs. The marketing concept declares that, with the marketing perspective as their guide, the interests of firms and consumers align. The most puzzling aspect of the antibranding movement from this vista is that it takes aim at the most successful and lauded companies, those that have taken the marketing concept to heart and industriously applied it. Nike and Coke and McDonald’s and Microsoft and Starbucks—the success stories lauded in marketing courses worldwide—are the same brands that are relentlessly attacked by this new movement.

Holt then goes onto to propose a dialectical theory underpinning the rise of the culture jammers and buy nothings, giving a quick precis of the work of the Frankfurt School and explaining a little about the work of Firat and Venkatesh, who advocated a theory of “liberatory postmodernism”  in 1995 (Firat and Venkatesh’s paper itself reads rather datedly in 2009, as they announce the re-enchantment of consumption and argue for an anti-realist “epistemology of consumption”).

Arnould and Thompson point out that most marketing graduate students are taught  “microeconomic theory, cognitive psychology, experimental design, and quantitative analytical methods” – not anthropology, sociology or ethnography, which have come to define the corporate pursuit of consumer culture, as for example MTV’s famous employment of ethnographers to research its teenage viewers. Hence, according to Arnould and Thompson, the harder quants in the field have tended to view consumer culture theory as a bit soft and descriptive.

So what is consumer culture theory anyway?

In a nutshell, it is the study of “the symbolic, embodied, and experiential aspects of acquisition behaviors and the sociocultural complexities of exchange behaviors and relationships.” Arnould and Thompson identify four main research programs in the field:

1) consumer identity projects

2) marketplace cultures

3) the sociohistoric patterning of consumption

4) mass-mediated marketplace ideologies and consumers’ interpretive strategies.

I’ll try and have a look at some of these research programs in future posts.

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