It is always pleasurable to combine an exciting tourist opportunity and a highly useful academic experience. Being in Porto on the ESA Consumption Midterm Conference, it was hard to resist the glorious sunshine, refreshing sea breeze and a wealth of cultural sights that are abound in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Still, amazing impressions is not my only take-away from the trip.
It was exciting to meet other researchers studying the field and get exposed to alternative theoretical and methodological perspectives on ethical consumption. Despite quite different approaches, I found that there were a lot of similarities in terms of the conclusions that academics drew from their studies (I will write a separate post about some of the most interesting – from my viewpoint! – presentations delivered at the conference). Today, however, I would like to discuss some insightful comments and constructive criticisms that my presentation received from the audience.
Firstly, the notion of reflexivity and my idea of ethical consumption as a reflexive project generated a lively discussion. Specifically, there seems to be a need to draw more or less definite boundaries on the extent to which consumers can and/or willing to be reflexive about their consumption habits. Does reflexivity start and end at the point of an individual’s choice of and subscription to a particular consumption practice? Is ethical consumption continuously reflexive? Can it be? Do consumers deliberate about the effect of their choices on their personal and social image, or does their reflexivity indeed go as far as to consider the impact of their habits on the larger social and environmental contexts? Those are all important questions that, albeit hard to provide a clear answer to, certainly need to be considered. My preliminary analysis, meanwhile, suggests that ethical consumers tend to exercise reflexivity when they are developing a particular consumption strategy to match their moral character and desired identities, but are significantly less reflexive at the moment of purchase which is when habits and routine step in to play a major role. In other words, consumers are reflexive when choosing a consumption strategy but not when selecting a particular item out of an array of goods with similar product characteristics and ethical attributes. The use of words “choice” versus “selection” is by no means a coincidence – in fact, this is another very important point that I took away from the conference. It was very helpfully pointed out to me by Alan Warde in a discussion about consumer agency and the degree of shoppers’ control over the choice of products.
In terms of the methodology, an important point was made regarding the effect of my chosen data collection methods on the research results. Is asking people about their actions bound to almost force them rationalize their choirs and, therefore, create an illusory impression of reflexive processes going on where habits, routine and unconscious predilections actually govern the scene? And albeit I feel somewhat guarded from this trap by taking a specific approach to conducting life history interviews and, importantly, complimenting them with participant observations, I still have to be aware of the limitations of my research methods and their inevitable impact on the study results.
Another comment was made about my use of Archer’s theory of reflexivity and, specifically, my application of her idea of a social action (as Concerns → Projects → Actions) to ethical consumption. Such a clear-cut sequence of steps that ethical consumers supposedly go through appears to be dangerously similar to a rational choice theory, which regards consumer choices as an outcome of a rational decision-making in terms of gains and losses. Given that my study shows consumers to be highly emotion-driven and values-led subjects, I feel the need to once and for all disassociate from the view of consumers as rational actors – I will leave it for now as it will probably be the subject of one of my next posts.
Finally, a very interesting comment was made by one of the conference attendees regarding the term “ethical” itself. Having admitted also struggling to come up with a holistic definition of ethical consumption, he proposed the word “conscious” as potentially a better term to rely on. Interestingly, I have myself been thinking exactly the same since the words “thoughtful” and “mindful“ started to come up in the participant interviews. Since one of the goals of my research is to provide a definition of ethical consumption as understood by consumers themselves, I too feel inclined to reconsider the title of my research project in the not too distant future.
In sum, the conference has been one of the most useful learning experiences that I’ve had to date. I now have a couple of days to enjoy sunny Portugal before coming back to more academic pursuits.