On consumer agency

adult-18774__340Much has been said on consumers – the “idols” around which the industrial society is claimed to revolve. The very terms “consumerism”, “consumer culture” and “consumer society”, which are so often used to describe cultural, economic and social aspects of contemporary world, suggest the centrality of a consuming individual and consumption activities to the experiences of modern life. Consumer has come to be seen as a major economic agent whose wants and needs drive production and shape marketing as well as an active societal agent – somewhat awkward split of the terms “citizen” and “consumer” into a now much popularised notion of the citizen-consumer implies that the latter possesses the power to enact social and political change and shape objective conditions of living. Yet, in sociological theory the agential power and deliberative potential of an individual consumer far from unquestionable. I have recently become familiar with two sociological theories suggesting divergent views on the agential potential of an individual consumer and would like to reflect on this.

The first viewpoint comes from Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, a prolific writer and an author of a number of influential sociological ideas. The most well-known concepts associated with his name are that of reflexivity, field, capital and different forms thereof (economic, social, cultural, later – symbolic) and, of course, habitus. It is precisely the concept of habitus that has preoccupied my mind during the last couple of weeks as I was trying to determine the extent of the power of human agency, the scope for reflexive capacity and the degree of rationality of an individual consumer. It is hard to define the concept of habitus without resorting to Bourdieu’s own definitions of it (see, for example, Distinction1, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology2), yet, all of them seem too confusing for an unprepared mind to digest. The simplest interpretation of a much contested and complex idea of habitus reduces it to the notion of “the structure of mind”, which is formed out of life experiences and at the same time pre-determines future life experiences of individuals.

To come a step closer to Bourdieu’s own definition, habitus is a collection of personal dispositions (that is, attitudes, opinions, expectations), which are determined by an individual’s societal position and which, by shaping the course of his or her social actions and life choices, come to reproduce the very same societal positions out of which it was born. To put it simply, when confronting a choice or a situation, individuals semi-unconsciously choose the course of action which is most “appropriate” for their social position and living conditions thereby excluding an opportunity for a life change. So, working class parents would not send their children to a college on the grounds that this is not something that working class children are supposed to do. Likewise, middle class people would only engage in social activities which are deemed “appropriate” for their hierarchical position and which would accord with their societal status. This theoretical view leaves no room for reflexive deliberation, rationality and intentionality on the part of an individual (and, for that matter, individual consumer) since all his/her choices are pre-defined by the habitus, the “unchosen principle of all choices”3 – Bourdieu’s own definition in which the essence of the idea seems to be most well-captured.

The second theoretical position comes from the late-modernist tradition and one of the greatest exponents of it – Anthony Giddens, who argues in defense of reflexive capacity of individuals and, moreover, suggests that in late modern social world individual reflexivity has greatly increased and come to define personal biographies, life histories, identities and life styles. It is suggested that due to the decline of traditionalism and disintegration of common norms and rules of behaviour, individuals are increasingly required to self-construct their personal and social identities and define their distinctive life styles. Importantly, consumption has a central place in this process of self-formation since identities are negotiated through the choice of particular goods, commodities and services. Because these choices have to be made out of a variety of available options and form a coherent narrative about an individual, this process requires increased reflexivity, intentionality and rationality on the part of a consuming person. The view of a consumer as a reflexive identity-seeker and an active chooser is at odds with Bourdieu’s notion of individuals subjugated by the power of their own unconsciously internalised life orientations.

Although Bourdieu’s approach has by now somewhat fallen out of grace, late and postmodernist view of a consumer as a wilful agent, not susceptible to the power of structural forces and contextual factors, is somewhat problematic as well. If neither of these theoretical arguments leaves you satisfied, see Margaret Archer’s Making our Way through the World4 which provides a constructive critique of both Bourdieu’s prescriptive and proscriptive idea of habitus and over-extension of the agential power of individuals and offers a more balanced approach to personal reflexivity. Since I feel like delving too deep into sociological theory, I will conclude with a link to documentary which presents its own distinctive view on the contemporary consumer culture. Enjoy.

References:

1. Bourdieu, P. (2013). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Routledge.

2. Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (Eds.). (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago Press.

3. Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (Eds.). (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago Press. p. 137

4. Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge University Press.

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