Tag Archives: consumption

Selective Transparency in an Egg Marketing Campaign

Cross-posted in Portuguese at Conhecimento Prudente.

Philippa brought our attention to a recent ad campaign by the Egg Farmers of Ontario, an organization that promotes Ontario’s egg industry. The campaign, titled Who Made Your Eggs Today?, draws the consumer’s attention to the families engaged in producing Canada’s eggs. The images and videos focus on an idealized image of family farms, emphasizing tradition, family togetherness, and a connection to the land:

But as Philippa pointed out, there’s something noticeably absent here: the chickens themselves. There’s quite a bit of talk about chickens — how much the farmers enjoy working with them, how amazing it is that they produce an egg nearly every day, what they eat, and so on — but I didn’t see a single chicken in any of the videos listed on the Farm Families page.

This ad campaign seems to provide transparency into how food is produced; we get to see into the lives of actual egg producers in Ontario, and hear them speak about their lives and the process that brings eggs to the consumer. And for those of us concerned about how the conditions under which our food is produced, this is an important step, as most consumers have little or no direct experience with farming or the lives of people who raise food. The appeal of farmers’ markets , community-based agriculture, and other alternative food distribution outlets is not just the idea of getting environmentally sustainable produce, but also making a connection to a specific producer, and often a desire to support small-scale family farmers.

But the insight into the egg supply chain offered here is selective.  What is carefully avoided in the videos is any discussion of how the hens are treated. We never quite see into the barns to see how the chickens are housed; we don’t hear whether artificial lighting and other techniques are used to boost egg production in ways that cause physical stress to the hens; we don’t know anything at all, in fact, about the chickens.

We enter the story when the eggs have been separated from layers’ housing; we see clean, pretty eggs moving along on mechanized belts or being carefully placed into cartons by hand; our attention as consumers is directed to the people running the farms and away from discussions of the animals or larger concerns about sustainability. As Philippa says, “in giving the egg farmers a public face, the campaign is actually distancing the public from the product they are promoting.”

Also check out our post about Nathan Meltz’s artwork highlighting modern food production, including his Chicken Coup video.

The Commodification of the Ghetto

In this minute-and-a-half, sociologist Nikki Jones talks about the way that the idea of the ghetto has been commodified — especially in rap and hip hop — in ways that informs Americans who don’t live in inner-city urban areas, but potentially mystifies the reality of that life as well:

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

Why I’m Not Married

Earlier this month I read an essay that explained to me why I am not married. These reasons included:

  • I’m a bitch.
  • I’m shallow.
  • I’m a slut.
  • I’m a liar.
  • I’m selfish.
  • I don’t think I’m good enough.

I’m not kidding.

Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center released 2010 data showing that just 51% of all American adults were currently married. This is an all time low, down from 72% in 1960.

Comparing this data with the essay above is a nice illustration of the difference between “normative” and “normal.”  Normal is what is typical in a statistical sense; it is what actually holds.  Normative is what is believed to be good and right in an ideological sense; it is what it is believed does or should hold.

If you go by the essay, written by the thrice married and now single Tracy McMillan, marriage is an ideal state that we all should, or do, desire.  In her reality, if you aren’t married, it’s because you’re doing something wrong.  Marriage is normative.  In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried.

Only if marriage is normative does the non-normality of marriage become something that needs explaining.  McMillan jumps in with hateful stereotypes, but social science has much better explanations.

  • Low-income women often do not take-for-granted (as many middle class people do) that they can sustain a marriage through tough times.  Accordingly, they wait much longer before marrying once they meet someone they like (as long as 10 years or more), so that they can be as sure as possible about the match.  In other words, they take marriage very seriously and are reticent to just jump right in.  They know they’re “good enough,” Tracy; in fact, they value themselves and their relationships enough to really put them to the test.  (Read Promises I Can Keep for more.)
  • Other women get divorced because men don’t do their fair share.  Unresolved conflicts over childcare and housework are one of the top reasons that couples dissolve.  Women struggle to keep up when they’re working a full time job and doing 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the childcare and housework.  They may not see the data, but they may intuit that single mothers do less housework than married ones (it’s true).  So they divorce their husbands.  They’re not “selfish,” they’re just trying to survive. (Read The Second Shift for more.)
  • Other people aren’t married because they’re in love with someone of the same sex.  They’re not “sluts,” they’re discriminated against.

And, just for the record:

  • I’m not married because I don’t want or need the state’s approval of my relationship and  I certainly don’t want it interfering if we decide to part.
  • I’m not married because the history of marriage is ugly and anti-woman; because I don’t like the common meanings of the words “wife” and “husband”; and because even today, and even among couples that call themselves feminist, gender inequality in relationships is known to increase when a couple moves from cohabitation to marriage (and I don’t think I’m so special that I’ll be the anomaly).
  • I’m not married because I’m opposed to the marriage industrial complex. It’s exploitative, stereotypical, and wasteful.
  • I’m not married because I value the fact that my partner and I decide to be together every day, even though we don’t have to jump through legal hoops to do otherwise.
  • I’m not married because I don’t want to support a discriminatory institution that has and continues to bless some relationships, but not others, out of bigotry.
  • I’m not married because I don’t believe in giving social and economic benefits to some kinds of relationships and not others.  I don’t believe that a state- or church-endorsed heterosexual union between two and only two people is superior to other kinds of relationships.

After reading some of the great comments, I’d like to add that I’m not married because of several points of privilege:

  • I’m not married because I live in a society that allows women to work, keep their paychecks, rent an apartment, and have a bank account.  (And, frankly, I think it’s kind of neat to be in the first generation of American women who can realistically choose not to marry. I like the idea of embracing that.)
  • I’m not married because both my partner and I are lucky enough to have  a stable, full-time job that offers benefits, so we don’t need to get married so that one of us can get the other health insurance or some other benefit.
  • I’m not married because we are both U.S. citizens and don’t have to marry in order to live together.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is that when the normal and the normative don’t align it often leads to social conflict over the meaning of the gap.  Some people, like McMillan, may jump in to tongue-lash the deviants.  Others may revel in defending non-conformity.  In any case, it will be interesting to see how the conversation about marriage continues, especially if, as the trend suggests, married people become a minority in the near future.

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

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 co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. 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!