Tag Archives: consumption

A Hipster By Any Other Name

Cross-posted at The Hipster Effect.

I know, I know – you hate hipsters. Maybe somebody called you one once, but they were clearly mixing you up with the real hipsters. You know the ones.

Hipsters have beards. Or mustaches. Or neither. They wear skinny jeans. Or maybe they don’t. They’ve got thick-rimmed glasses. Or sometimes not. You may not be able to describe one offhand, but you know one when you see one. Right?

As elusive as a unicorn yet as common as an ant, the hipster seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. The only definite thing about a hipster is that nobody wants to be called one (yet pretty much all of us are guilty of having called other people hipsters). It’s become one of the worst insults you can bestow upon somebody (yet it’s also among the most common). If you want to completely discount a person and everything that they stand for, just break out the H-word and watch their credibility to go down the drain. Once you’ve been dubbed a hipster, you yourself become meaningless in that context.  You become one of those people and we all know what those people are like.

Or do we?

The definition of a “hipster” is at best a collection of vague cultural artifacts that we associate with a certain set of personality traits, very few of which actually exist in tandem. The prototypical hipster is a trust-fund baby who spends his days talking about art projects that he never gets around to starting. He drinks the cheapest beer available even though he can afford better. He does this ironically, and he wears his clothes in the same way. He judges you, the non-hipster, based solely on your appearance, quickly dismissing you as a non-member of the hip elite. He listens to bands you’ve never heard of and thinks it’s sad that you can’t keep up with his cooler-than-cool musical tastes. In short, the prototypical hipster is an asshole – but for the most part, he doesn’t even exist.

In a way, we’ve vilified the hipster archetype as a way of dealing with our own insecurities. Being cool was something most people never worried about once they graduated high school. Our internet-fueled society has since changed that, bringing the hunt for the newest and most interesting things into our day-to-day lives. There is a burden to be cool that now follows you into your 20s and 30s and beyond, whereas before these things were safely relegated to lunchtime cafeterias and high school auditoriums. And with the internet now spitting out a different concept of cool with each and every day that goes by, it’s almost impossible to keep up. Eventually we throw up our hands in exasperation and, whenever we see somebody who looks like they’re trying harder than us, we spit out the word: hipster.

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Sophy Bot is the author of the forthcoming book, The Hipster Effect: How the Rising Tide of Individuality is Changing Everything We Know about Life, Work and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Bot also runs The Hipster Effect blog, examining how identity, society and work have metamorphosed in the age of perpetual connectivity.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Status and Social-Evaluative Threat in Unequal Societies

In an earlier post we reviewed research by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showing that income inequality contributes to a whole host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of mental illness, drug use, obesity, infant death, imprisonment, and interpersonal trust.

In the four-minute video below, Kate Pickett argues that once societies develop the capacity to enable status-based consumption (as opposed to survival-oriented consumption),  status-consciousness among humans exacerbates inequality.  Meanwhile, being status-conscious in a highly unequal society creates stress, and all kinds of other negative outcomes, among those who are judged less-than.

See Dr. Pickett, also, on why raising the average national income in developed countries doesn’t make people happier or enable them to live longer. And see more about income inequality and national well-being at Equality Trust.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

On This Black Friday: Ritualized Consumption Dances

It’s that time of year when we savage the world with our unbridled consumerism. If it’s not a Black Friday stampede at Target, it’s a news story of a shopper who camped out in front of a Best Buy for over a week to score some discounted gadgets. Everywhere you turn consumers are whipped into a frenzy, children’s eyes are glazed over as they think of what gifts they’ll open, and romantic partners are stressed over what they will give their loved one to demonstrate the depths of their love.

When consumerism is exaggerated, as it is this time of year, it’s easier to see the cultural scripts and rituals that surround it. These cultural scripts tell us:

  1. How to feel when we come into a lot of money or even just get a good deal
  2. How to act when we receive a gift
  3. And how to impute love from inanimate objects.

1. The Rapturous Consumer Windfall

Next to presentations of sex and bad karaoke there is arguably no other scenario played out on television ad nauseam more than the consumer windfall. Turn on your TV right now, and find an advertisement or game show and you will almost certainly see someone falling to their knees, eyes full of tears, as they praise the gods of capitalism for blessing them.  Bob Barker (er, Drew Carey) play the role of Benny Hinn in this consumer revival smashing their open palms on the foreheads of game show contestants as they exclaim, “The. Price. Is. RIGHT!” (Watch at 0:51):*

Television advertising is a wellspring for this type of consumer exaltation. The best example of this consumer rapture is the @ChristmasChamp campaign from Target. Watch the video below and you tell me; is this woman having a consumer-gasm or what?**

Maybe it’s just me, but this ritualized consumer rapture gives me the heebie geebies.

2. The “Show Us What You Got” Photo

Leaning on the arm of your parent’s love, seat slightly sauced, your aunt turns to you and says lovingly, “oh show me what Santa brought you!” After you halfheartedly motion to the pile of loot on the floor she puts her glass down, grabs the family Polaroid and says, “Let’s take a photo to send to [fill in name of absentee relative].”

If we were to flip through your family photo albums I bet we’d find page after page of people cheesing with their unwrapped gifts held head level. This obligatory photo is the classic post gift exchange cultural script. Somehow a gift is only properly received when there is a photo to document it.

From my point of view, it is strange that we take photos of the things we receive during holidays which are tangible and will be around well after the event. But many of us don’t take photos of the moments with our loved ones that won’t linger and fill up our closets.

3. The Hand Dance of Love

Does he love you? Does your hand show it? The holiday season is a time when many will pop the question and boy do advertisers know it. While the issues surrounding jewelry ads are well documented on this site, I’d like to talk about the hand dance women are socialized to do after their love has been verified by an appropriately large shiny rock.

After a woman says “yes,” she walks around with one arm sticking out like a zombie for the next few months doing the hand dance. This cultural script dictates that women flaunt their recently acquired diamond ring and then all women in their surround give their requisite “Oh, that is GORGEOUS!” There is a sad sizing up that goes on here, where women are shamed or praised for the size of ring bestowed upon them.

In Conclusion

Most of these cultural scripts and rituals go unnoticed or at the very least unquestioned. These acts are the mechanisms through which we objectify the social world and alienate ourselves from our loved ones. So this year why not participate in Buy Nothing Day and double down on some quality time with your loved ones.

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* We should acknowledge that sometimes the people who are receiving these windfalls are desperate and totally deserving. I don’t want to shame or cast dispersions on anyone in this situation, but these are exceptions to the rule.

** Forgive me for sexualizing this, but I mean come on, that’s an apt description. While we are at it, this ad is chock full of sociology. We have an “empowered woman” who uses her power to consume; it’s the classic redirection of feminist energies into consumer. This woman, who appears to be the epitome of the middle class, white, privileged consumer, is flexing her muscles, exerting her power, and being aggressive enough to make Betty Friedan blush… ’cept she is using her power to purchase consumer goods from a capitalist system that creates and maintains her oppression. Maybe it’s just me, but I think feminist scholars would have a (justified) objection if I called this “champ” a feminist. I dunno.

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Nathan Palmer is a faculty member at Georgia Southern University, editor-in-chief of SociologyInFocus.com, and the founder of SociologySource.com.

Demystifying Commodities

In Capital, Karl Marx discusses how the products we buy are separated from any recognition of the people who produced them. If I want to buy a TV, I’m unlikely to be involved in any kind of interaction with the people who made it. I don’t see the factory where they worked, I don’t have any idea what the conditions were like, I have no specific idea where it was made, outside of “Made in  _____” written on the box. Instead, I exchange money for the TV at a store that almost certainly had nothing to do with manufacturing the TV; no one at Best Buy or Wal-Mart could tell me any more about the specific conditions of production than what I can figure out from reading the package.

Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. The social relations embedded in products — the fact that someone made that TV, under particular conditions, making a certain amount of money for their labor while producing profit for their employer — are obscured and workers become invisible. Instead, we focus on how much we pay for it, and which store charges the least. Marx argues that relationships between workers, employers, and consumers are presented to us simply as relationships between things; we exchange paper money (an abstract measure of our labor) for commodities, and we rarely pause to think about how the price of a TV is determined by the worth placed on workers in a particular place at a particular time.

Social activists concerned with working conditions, environmental impacts, and a range of other concerns often push back against commodity fetishism, attempting to make the social relations of production visible to consumers again. Craig Martin of Religion Bulletin provided an example from South Africa’s Apartheid Museum. This poster, produced during the struggle against apartheid, calls for a boycott on South African fruit (UPDATE: A reader found a larger image so you can see more detail; via):

The visual of workers soldiers superimposed on the fruit, with workers and protesters in the background, and the phrase “Every bite buys a bullet!”, remind consumers that items they buy having meaning for the world around them, and that they aren’t just exchanging money at a grocery store in return for that fruit; they are buying into a system of production that provides profits for a racist government, which uses those profits to buy military supplies used to enforce its brutal, unequal racist policies.

As Martin says,

In Capital Marx says that commodity fetishism presents relations between men as relations between things — and this poster is a powerful example of an attempt to demystify commodities and reveal that they are in fact relations between human beings.

China and the New Luxury Consumer

Cross-posted at Bytes of China.

Oh how this Toyota Highlander advertisment is reflective of the new global order.  I saw this picture in Guangzhou’s domestic terminal. A Chinese couple is getting out of their Japanese brand car into what appears to be a private yacht. A white male greets them, taking their travel items and appears to be eager in their service.

This advertisement reflects a new Chinese imaginary — one that is global, expansive, unlimited, and exploratory. It also tells us who has the power to live out this imaginary. Ten years ago or even five years ago, I don’t think this advertisement would’ve existed. But now companies have turned to the Chinese consumer, encouraging them to participate in this lifestyle. The entire global economy right now depends on the Chinese elite and middle-class to spend. But how long can this go on for until we see the next crisis? For how long can each system create “value”?

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Tricia Wang is an ethnographer, sociologist, and researcher. She is on a Fulbright in China observing how digital technologies are mediating new conceptions of information and desire among youth & migrants. She is a student at UC San Diego’s PhD Sociology program.  She blogs at Bytes of China.

Thanks to Benjamin B. for the tip!

Changes in U.S. Consumer Spending, 2007-2010

The Economist posted a graph, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, that shows how U.S. consumer spending changed between 2007 and 2010. The results provide a good snapshot of the economic trade-offs Americans are making (i.e., we’re buying more canned veggies and eating out less), as well as which industries are taking the biggest hit as consumers redefine their products as less essential.

The “nominal” numbers refer to the unadjusted overall changes in spending; the “real” numbers are adjusted for the fact that prices rose by about 5.2% on average, so consumers are getting less for what they spend. So the light blue bars tell you the absolute change in what we’re spending; the dark blue bars, the change in spending relative to how much we’re buying. When adjusted for price inflation, consumer spending fell by about 8%:

Via Talking Points Memo.

McWeddings


Time Magazine (2009) reports that McDonald’s has approximately 32,000 restaurants in 118 countries. Of those, only about 45% were in the United States. The key to success of the American restaurant chain in other countries is to adapt its business to the local culture.

For example, today McDonald’s operates approximately 1,000 restaurants in China.  In the book McDonald’s: Behind The Arches, Yunxiang Yun argues that it has been successful in Beijing because it has become a fun place to hang out. While it seems foreign to many Westerners, who think of McDonald’s as a place to buy cheap food quickly, many Chinese people eat there because of the atmosphere and service. More, the food isn’t associated with obesity, as it is in the U.S.

This perception of McDonald’s has made it a sought out location for weddings. Er, McWeddings.

A McDonald’s nuptial package in Hong Kong costs about HK$10,000 (US$1,300).   According to the New York Times, a McWedding…

…includes food and drinks for 50 people… a “cake” made of stacked apple pies, gifts for the guests and invitation cards, each with a wedding photo of the couple.

The ability to reinvent itself is the key to the Golden Arches’ success in China.  It also suggests that the associations Americans have with the chain aren’t inevitable, but specific to cultural context.  Projected to double the number of stores by 2013, it will be interesting to see what other adjustments McDonald’s makes down the road.

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Sangyoub Park is an assistant professor of sociology at Washburn University, where he teaches Social Demography, Generations in the U.S. and Sociology of East Asia. His research interests include social capital, demographic trends, and post-Generation Y.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Tracking Trash

What happens after we throw something in a garbage can? From the user’s perspective, it disappears once the trash collectors pick it up (if you live in an area with municipal trash collection, of course; I grew up in a rural area where everyone had to deal with their own trash). Where does it go? Sometimes items are taken to a dump not far from where it was thrown away and either buried, bulldozed into large heaps, or incinerated.

But Carlo Ratti, an architect who works with the SENSEable City Lab at MIT, directed a project to find out just how far garbage can travel, with the goal of helping us understand the “removal chain” that conveniently disappears our trash for us as well as we’ve come to understand the global supply chains that bring us items in the first place. His team asked 500 people in Seattle to tag items they would be throwing out anyway with small tracking chips. They tagged a total of 3,000 objects, everything from tin cans to cell phones to sneakers. And the results showed that some of the items we get rid of can go on a rather dramatic journey, traveling thousands of miles:

The Trash Track website contains information about the methodology and ideas behind the project.

Thanks to Dmitriy T.M. for the tip!