The closer I am approaching the writing phase in my PhD, the more I think about how my understanding of my research topic has changed over this past 2,5 years . The phrase “ethical consumption” has come to mean something completely different to the original idea with which I set out to investigate individual ethical food practices. Meeting ten unique persons, each with his or her own idea of what food ethics are and how one should live them out, has presented me with a challenge of conceptualising an ethical consumer in a comprehensive way. I am still uncertain as to whether one should even aim at universality when it comes to defining such a broad (and contested) notion as ethical consumption or such a multi-dimensional and often elusive character as an ethical consumer. By no means do I want to suggest that ethical consumer identity can be construed in terms of a fixed set of predefined features and prescribed actions that anyone who claims to be a mindful eater should be able to match. This, of course, would be a mistaken argument easily confuted by the diversity of ways in which individuals conceive of and enact ethical consumption and the sheer creativity with which they approach their dietary commitments. Indeed, no two ethical consumers I’ve met through my research could be possibly squeezed into one personality type. Understandably so, for all of them came from different walks of life, developed different concerns about the world and faced different enablements and constraints on the way towards their moral ideals. Yet, despite all the idiosyncrasies of their ethical foodways, there are certain properties and traits that the participants of my research share and that, I argue, represent their essential characteristics as reflexive agents and, more specifically, reflexive consumers.
The ethical consumer of my research is an emotional, morally concerned, and value-driven individual. He does not conform to the view of ethical consumption as a self-satisfying pursuit of the subjects who do good not in order to be good but rather to feel good about themselves (as, for example, Soper’s (2008) idea of alternative hedonism suggests). While his projects are not void of rational considerations (since all people have to continuously evaluate their commitments not only in terms of their moral worth and emotional appeal, but also their practical feasibility and accompanying costs), his practices are not an outcome of a cost-benefit analysis of a “risk discounting and profit-maximising bargain-hunter” (Archer, 2000, p. 55), but an expression of deeply held moral values and beliefs. Contrary to the rational choice theory’s model of a social actor as a preference-driven agent “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Archer, 2000, p. 4), my research upholds a human being who has ultimate concerns that are “not a means to anything beyond them, but are commitments which are constitutive of who we are, and an expression of our identities” (Archer, 2000, p.4).
The ethical consumer of my research is “the author of his own projects in society” (Archer, 2003, p. 34). She is not an over-socialised subject all of whose qualities are supplied by the social reality, whose values are neither individually developed nor personally possessed, and whose practices are determined by commonly shared ideas and norms. The primacy of societal discourses over personal thoughts assumed by the social practice theory fails to account for the diversity of ways in which different people understand and perform various practices, including ethical consumption. Such an account calls for a vision of an ethical consumer as “the ultimate and effective cause of social practice” (Archer, 2003, p. 134), which is shaped as much by the socio-cultural influences as by agential subjectivity – people’s personal concerns, values, and goals. And it is this image that the participants of my study clearly display.
The ethical consumer of my research is a reflexive, self-conscious person. She cannot be a Bourdieusian actor, whose subjective dispositions are merely a reflection of objective positions and whose ways are guided by the habitus, which is nothing other than internalized social structures and facts. She cannot be denied self-awareness or the capacity to reflexively determine her courses of actions for, in pursuing her ethical food commitments, she has to incessantly evaluate both her subjective concerns and objective circumstances. Her ethical food practice is composed of reflexive, creative acts over which she has conscious mastery.
Finally, the ethical consumer of my research is an intentional agent. He does not fit the image of a “constructed” consumer whose practices are not actively chosen and reflexively developed, but a result of the “governing of consumption” (Barnett et al., 2010), that is dictated by the system of collective provision and controlled by a variety of strategically oriented actors with vested interests. Instead, he is an agent of active choice whose ethical practices are reflexively conceived, morally inspired, and goal-directed.
In this post, I offered a description of distinct personalities of ethical consumers as I came to know them. I hope to have been able to demonstrate their conceptual misfit with the models of a social subject supplied by the rational choice theory, social practice approach, Bourdieusian’s notion of habitus or Foucauldian governmentality. To conceptualise ethical consumers as distinctive, diverse and multifaceted, while necessarily emotional, self-aware, and intentional agents is a key goal I aim to achieve in my work.
Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.
Archer, M. S. (2003). Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge University Press.
Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2010). Globalizing responsibility: The political rationalities of ethical consumption. John Wiley & Sons.
Soper, K. (2008). Alternative hedonism, cultural theory and the role of aesthetic revisioning. Cultural Studies, 22(5), 567-587.