Politicizing Consumer Choice

Ethical Dimensions of Consumerism in the United States

by Christian Gunkel (Author)
©2015 Thesis 134 Pages


This book investigates various forms of political and ethical consumerism in the United States and delivers a comprehensive conceptualization of the consumer’s role in the marketplace. Both aspects, the potential impact of market-based activism on corporations in America and the socio-structural dynamics that may prevent the possibility of far-reaching social change through forms of alternative consumerism, are equally important in this regard. The historical ties between politics and consumption in America, and the diminishing role of the government as a regulatory force in the market since the end of Fordism, has spawned a unique form of consumer politics directed at the corporate world. The underlying question to be answered is whether the consumer is truly a force to be reckoned with.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Theorizing the Consumer
  • 2.1 A Theoretical Outline of Alternative Consumption
  • 2.1.1 ‘Ordinary’ and Alternative Consumption
  • 2.1.2 Consumer Reflexivity and Decision-Making
  • 2.2 The Myth of the Passive Consumer – The Consumer as Social Actor
  • 2.2.1 The Private-Public-Dichotomy – Consumption and Political Action
  • 2.2.2 The Relationship between the Individual and Consumer Society
  • 2.2.3 The “Currency Model”
  • 2.3 Distinction, Cultural Capital, and Alternative Consumption
  • 2.3.1 Keeping up with the Joneses, or Sticking out from the Crowd?
  • 2.3.2 On the Importance of Consumer Goods
  • 2.3.3 The Dynamics of Distinction and Alternative Consumption
  • 2.4 A Question of Choice
  • 3. Politicizing the Consumer in America
  • 3.1 The Historic Roots of Political Consumerism
  • 3.1.1 From the Revolution to the Rise of Fordism
  • 3.1.2 Consumer Politics during the Depression and World War II
  • 3.2 From Post-World War II Era to the Rise of Postmodernism
  • 3.2.1 Post-War Affluence and the Emerging Opposition to Materialism
  • 3.2.2 The 1960s and the End of Mass Culture
  • 3.2.3 Consumption and Postmodernism
  • 3.3 Lifestyles and Consumption
  • 4. Mobilizing Consumers
  • 4.1 Alternative Consumption in the Age of the Superbrand
  • 4.2 Consumption as Civic Participation
  • 4.3 Targeting Corporations and the Quest for Alternatives
  • 4.4 Who are the Alternative Consumers?
  • 4.5 Culture Jamming – A Special Case of Consumer Activism
  • 4.6 Postmodernism and Alternative Consumption
  • 5. Conclusion
  • 6. Bibliography

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I am grateful to a number of people for their advice and support. To begin with, I would particularly like to thank Professor Astrid Franke of the University of Tübingen for her support and for writing the foreword.

I would also like to thank my friends: Nils Wiegand for bearing me company in the library and during our coffee breaks, Jonas Gasthauer whom I could turn to with all sorts of theoretical questions, and Daniel Gietz for encouraging me to publish my thesis. I am also grateful to Ina Schreiber for her patience with me as the deadline came closer. And finally, I want to thank my parents for their support.

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By Astrid Franke

Boycotting Starbucks, buying Fair Trade products, being involved in the No Logo movement – are these genuinely political activities or rather private ethical consumer choices? Can they threaten a capitalist organization of the market or are they always already part of the market – perhaps even a new type of economic engine? Beyond the hopes and fears one may have vis-à-vis general developments of the political economy, there are important historical experiences and theoretical traditions behind these two possible stances towards consumerism. On the one hand, there is the American cultural memory of a boycott of British consumer products, most notably tea, as part of a political move towards independence: The so-called Boston Tea Party, just like Gandhi’s boycott of British clothes or the Montgomery Bus Boycott are cases where the refusal to buy certain services or products can undoubtedly regarded as genuine political action. On the other hand, the decisions to buy ‘organic’ has sparked off new brands and product lines, new supermarkets, and new food chains – it is just as undoubtedly a decision that has led to a diversification of the market. While these consumer choices might be ethically motivated they might also satisfy a desire for distinction amongst consumers that can easily be exploited by marketing strategies. Here, the descendants of theoretical traditions in which the consumer is regarded as a victim of manipulation and/or deprived of choices – notably the Frankfurt School – would come to the fore and claim that consumption cannot be a site of resistance or be regarded as political action. Or was this, perhaps, possible once but is no longer?

The following inquiry takes a rather skeptical view towards many current forms of consumer activism but is nevertheless rejecting the view of the easily manipulated consumer without agency. It does so, first, by a theoretical discussion of the consumer as agent or ‘dupe’ and second, by a historical survey of political consumerism from the American Revolution to the present in order to show the changing preconditions of political consumerism. Thus, the consumer is conceptualized in a way that should ← xi | xii → overcome the dichotomies between private consumption and political action, social manipulation and free agency. Drawing, amongst others, on Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen, David Riesman, and particularly on the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of Habitus, consumption is regarded as socially oriented action. While, depending on the kind of product and the historical moment, sheer need may play a role, too, our choices as consumers might increasingly be regarded as forms of communication, signaling to others how we want to be seen, what groups we want to belong to an, more importantly even, who we do not want to be associated with. And the closer we get to our present moment in history, the less satisfying it is to identify that ‘group’ with traditional status or even class, measurable through income and assets.

Inevitably, the question arises to what extent Bourdieu’s findings which are predominantly based on research in France, can be transferred to the U.S. – a country which historically lacks a nationally acknowledged cultural center and a clear dichotomy of high versus low culture. As becomes clear in the discussion, however, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the desire for distinction as a driving force for social processes goes a long way in explaining contemporary consumer culture – particularly when it is seen as a continuous process of seeking non-conformity rather than as an effort to just distinguish oneself from the one status group below. One decisive step then is to think of the social space as not only structured vertically but horizontally as well, and to recognize how time is included in the model: whatever seems hip, cool or simply distinctive ceases to be so when too many people have caught up with it. Those in search for non-conformity will then move on to something else. While one may see the idea of “currency” by Grant McCracken or Douglas Holt’s “lifestyle” as a modification of Bourdieu, one might also note that the dynamics thus described actually resemble the mechanisms in the field of art as described by Bourdieu in the field of cultural production: Every avant-garde tries to establish a new position in the field and to distinguish itself from others, and “to introduce difference is to produce time”; the more people strive for non-conformity, the faster, the more ephemeral the field appears to be.1 ← xii | xiii →

To what extent this model then captures consumerism at a particular historical moment and what this may entail can be seen in a survey of the historic roots of political consumerism from the American Revolution to Fordism in Chapter 3: Here, the experiences of the American Revolution, the beginnings of the women’s movement and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement form a tradition that may still inspire confidence in today’s citizens to choose a form of activism that is directed at the producers and vendors of goods. Yet, there is another aspect to consider in today’s setup: Inasmuch the state took an active role in the market, foremost in the New Deal and its aftermath, the citizen-consumer could plausible act in a triangle between the state and the market. Ralph Nader, who may be seen as the paradigmatic example of the consumer activist would thus seek a genuinely political arena and lobby for consumer protection, his effort being crowned with the formation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1972. But as the state increasingly withdrew its regulatory force from the market, traditional consumer advocates loose their counterparts. Without a genuine political forum and its concomitant activities such as lobbying, voting, or campaigning for legal changes, activists now attempt to turn their buying decisions themselves into political acts, facing corporations as directly as they can. Inasmuch as their buying decisions are inevitably acts of distinguishing themselves, however, the ‘alternatives’ they envision can easily be incorporated into the system, as the examples of Trader Joe’s, Burt’s Bees or Odwalla may easily demonstrate. Not surprisingly then, this book ends by noting how corporations “have discovered the benefits of corporate social responsibility,” profound changes addressing issues of sustainability, human rights or labor conditions have been elusive so far. They demarcate, perhaps, the limits of the politics to be made through consumer choices and the need for another addressee.

Prof. Dr. Astrid Franke is professor of American Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

1 Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York: Columbia University Press, 106.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Konsumismus Fordismus Konsument Postmoderne
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. XIV, 134 pp.

Biographical notes

Christian Gunkel (Author)

Christian Gunkel studied American Studies and Sociology at the University of Tübingen (Germany). He is currently working for the university’s American Studies Department as an instructor and researcher focusing on green consumerism in the United States.


Title: Politicizing Consumer Choice