consumption

I love this episode on Supreme and streetwear from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, especially for the explainer on conspicuous consumption with a nod to “O.G. Hypebeast” Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a classic on how people use wealth and taste to make status, and conspicuous consumption is a good way to explain how hype happens. It got me thinking about other classic sociological explanations for how luxury brands blow up.

Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is also important for understanding luxury brands and other Veblen goods. While conspicuous consumption focuses on why people buy, this idea gets to the core of how these goods get associated with status. We often venerate all the labor that supposedly goes into a luxury product, like a fancy watch, or we venerate the creative processes in branding or appropriating ideas. For Marx, the important part is that we transfer the value of that labor into the product and treat the product like it just has that value on its own.

This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself…There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

Karl Marx. 1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1

Marx goes on to compare this process to the development of religious beliefs, and here we could also look at Émile Durkheim and collective effervescence. Part of the reason these products get hype is that they create big social events around shopping. The long lines and limited edition “drops” force people to get together in large crowds at special times to get the product. This makes shopping less of an individual experience and more of a collective one, where just being in the crowd contributes to the excitement.

All these theories make an important point about the social dynamics of popular products. As Matt Powell says in an interview earlier in the episode, you can’t take hype to the bank. But maybe you can; the generation of hype isn’t just an ephemeral, “fake” thing, but an example of a core truth in sociology—if people define hype as real it is real in its consequences.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston (Fall, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter.

In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.

To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Content Note: This post discusses racist memorabilia in sociological context and provides an image of one collection critical of this memorabilia below the page break.

Why do some people collect racist memorabilia and artifacts? Objects depicting African Americans in derogatory and stereotypical ways are commonly referred to as “black memorabilia” or “black Americana,” although scholar Patricia Turner more aptly names them “contemptible collectibles.” 

As documented by David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, these artifacts include everyday objects like toys and games, household items such as cookie jars, and postcards. Although usually associated with the Jim Crow era, many of the items are still produced or reproduced today, and all draw on racial caricatures, such as the “mammy,” “Tom,” “picanniny,” and “brute,” among others. 

Not without controversy, “contemptible collectibles” have different meanings to different people. Some collectors embrace the racist meanings attached to the items. Others buy the objects with the intent of destroying them. Still others hope to “liberate” the artifacts from their previous racist history and hold the objects in “high esteem” instead.

Les Whittington, the grandson of an enslaved person and whose life history is the focus of my recent research, has another reason for collecting. Ignorance or denial of the history of African Americans—especially in Appalachia, where he is from—motivates him to document the existence of slavery and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Part of Les’s collection includes multiple “mammy” figurines, which he displays in a case, where they look like a small army of racist caricatures. The objects are shocking to see, not just because such iconographic pieces of racist memorabilia are disturbing, but also because seeing so many together is a reminder of the objects’ pervasiveness in the past.

This history may seem long past, but not to Les for whom the legacy of slavery is immediate. His grandfather, “John Myra” Stepp, was enslaved, and died the same year that Les was born.

Les himself grew up in a mostly racially segregated world. Though Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, it wasn’t until 1966, when he was in the sixth grade, that Les’s school became the first middle school in his hometown to fully integrate. And another of his relatives, Barbara Hawkins, also one of John Myra’s grandchildren, was one of four Black students to attend the newly integrated high school in 1965.

His family members faced adversity with great resolve, and Les has told me, “And no matter what, they persevered. They were resilient. And they were smart. Because even though they had all those obstacles in front of them, they were still a success.”

But don’t mistake Les’s comments for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Nor should his comments be taken as a way to obscure past or present racism and white supremacy, as Robin Di’Angelo argues is far too common. Instead, as Les has explained to me, his collection is “physical documentation of a lot of hate,” and represents “a history that doesn’t need to be forgotten, [. . .] even though it’s painful to people.” 

Les also acknowledges that the objects are relevant to today, a message repeated by more well-known collectors, such Alan Page (a former NFL player) and his wife Diane Page. Echoing Les’s concerns about the objects, Diane has noted that “contemptible collectibles” are a “constant reminder that we have to be vigilant,” especially because “people have become more comfortable of late expressing racist views publicly.”

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston (Fall, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter.

The rise of craft beer in the United States gives us more options than ever at happy hour. Choices in beer are closely tied to social class, and the market often veers into the world of pointlessly gendered products. Classic work in sociology has long studied how people use different cultural tastes to signal social status, but where once very particular tastes showed membership in the upper class—like a preference for fine wine and classical music—a world with more options offers status to people who consume a little bit of everything.

Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez (Flickr CC)

But who gets to be an omnivore in the beer world? New research published in Social Currents by Helana Darwin shows how the new culture of craft beer still leans on old assumptions about gender and social status. In 2014, Darwin collected posts using gendered language from fifty beer blogs. She then visited four craft beer bars around New York City, surveying 93 patrons about the kinds of beer they would expect men and women to consume. Together, the results confirmed that customers tend to define “feminine” beer as light and fruity and “masculine” beer as strong, heavy, and darker.

Two interesting findings about what people do with these assumptions stand out. First, patrons admired women who drank masculine beer, but looked down on those who stuck to the feminine choices. Men, however, could have it both ways. Patrons described their choice to drink feminine beer as open-mindedness—the mark of a beer geek who could enjoy everything. Gender determined who got “credit” for having a broad range of taste.

Second, just like other exclusive markers of social status, the India Pale Ale held a hallowed place in craft brew culture to signify a select group of drinkers. Just like fancy wine, Darwin writes,

IPA constitutes an elite preference precisely because it is an acquired taste…inaccessible to those who lack the time, money, and desire to cultivate an appreciation for the taste.

Sociology can get a bad rap for being a buzzkill, and, if you’re going to partake, you should drink whatever you like. But this research provides an important look at how we build big assumptions about people into judgments about the smallest choices.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston (Fall, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter.

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day is this Friday, December 15th. Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater or even been invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. How do we account for this trend and its call to “don we now our tacky apparel”?

Total search of term “ugly Christmas sweater” relative to other searches over time (c/o Google Trends):

Ugly Christmas Sweater parties purportedly originated in Vancouver, Canada, in 2001. Their appeal might seem to stem from their role as a vehicle for ironic nostalgia, an opportunity to revel in all that is festively cheesy. It also might provide an opportunity to express the collective effervescence of the well-intentioned (but hopelessly tacky) holiday apparel from moms and grandmas.

However, The Atlantic points to a more complex reason why we might enjoy the cheesy simplicity offered by Ugly Christmas Sweaters: “If there is a war on Christmas, then the Ugly Christmas Sweater, awesome in its terribleness, is a blissfully demilitarized zone.” This observation pokes fun at the Fox News-style hysterics regarding the “War on Christmas”; despite being commonly called Ugly Christmas Sweaters, the notion seems to persist that their celebration is an inclusive and “safe” one.

Photo Credit: TheUglySweaterShop, Flickr CC

We might also consider the generally fraught nature of the holidays (which are financially and emotionally taxing for many), suggesting that the Ugly Sweater could offer an escape from individual holiday stress. There is no shortage of sociologists who can speak to the strain of family, consumerism, and mental health issues that plague the holidays, to say nothing of the particular gendered burdens they produce. Perhaps these parties represent an opportunity to shelve those tensions.

But how do we explain the fervent communal desire for simultaneous festive celebration and escape? Fred Davis notes that nostalgia is invoked during periods of discontinuity. This can occur at the individual level when we use nostalgia to “reassure ourselves of past happiness.” It may also function as a collective response – a “nostalgia orgy”- whereby we collaboratively reassure ourselves of shared past happiness through cultural symbols. The Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes a freighted symbol of past misguided, but genuine, familial affection and unselfconscious enthusiasm for the holidays – it doesn’t matter that we have not all really had the actual experience of receiving such a garment.

Jean Baudrillard might call the process of mythologizing the Ugly Christmas Sweater a simulation, a collapsing between reality and representation. And, as George Ritzer points out, simulation can become a ripe target for corporatization as it can be made more spectacular than its authentic counterparts. We need only look at the shift from the “authentic” prerogative to root through one’s closet for an ugly sweater bestowed by grandma (or even to retrieve from the thrift store a sweater imparted by someone else’s grandma) to the cottage-industry that has sprung up to provide ugly sweaters to the masses. There appears to be a need for collective nostalgia that is outstripped by the supply of “actual” Ugly Christmas Sweaters that we have at our disposal.

Colin Campbell states that consumption involves not just purchasing or using a good or service, but also selecting and enhancing it. Accordingly, our consumptive obligation to the Ugly Christmas Sweater becomes more demanding, individualized and, as Ritzer predicts, spectacular. For examples, we can view this intensive guide for DIY ugly sweaters. If DIY isn’t your style, you can indulge your individual (but mass-produced) tastes in NBA-inspired or cultural mash-up Ugly Christmas Sweaters, or these Ugly Christmas Sweaters that aren’t even sweaters at all.

The ironic appeal of the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party is that one can be deemed festive for partaking, while simultaneously ensuring that one is participating in a “safe” celebration – or even a gentle mockery – of holiday saturation and demands. The ascent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater has involved a transition from ironic nostalgia vehicle to a corporatized form of escapism, one that we are induced to participate in as a “safe” form of  festive simulation that becomes increasingly individualized and demanding in expression.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kerri Scheer is a PhD Student working in law and regulation in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She thanks her colleague Allison Meads for insights and edits on this post. You can follow Kerri on Twitter.

Flashback Friday. 

Outlet malls are often in the middle of nowhere, in places that are hard to get to, or in places that you wouldn’t think of as retail magnets. For instance, you’ve got the outlet mall in Barstow, California:

Barstow is roughly mid-way between L.A. and Las Vegas, so locating it there might be a smart move to try to get some of the weekend traffic between the two cities. And there are some logical reasons you might want to locate outlets in places like Barstow: by putting them in outlying cities, you make sure they don’t overlap too much with the customer base for the main stores, potentially stealing customers who would otherwise pay full-price for new products rather than going to the outlet. You want the outlet to be complement the regular store, not compete with it.

And aside from that, surely real estate is cheaper in Barstow than in either L.A. or Las Vegas, which would keep costs down for building or renting retail space.

That’s part of the story. But there’s some interesting psychology going on, too, as Ellen Ruppel Shell explains in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. It turns out that being difficult to get to is, in fact, part of the appeal of outlet malls. The fact that they often require a drive of an hour or more signals to consumers that they must have really good deals. That’s the payoff for inconvenience — it’s harder and more time-consuming than going to your local mall, but in return you’re getting a great bargain. Right?

Well… not really. I remember driving two hours once to go to this outlet mall I had heard so much about — friends would go and come back with bags full of clothes, telling me about all the money they’d saved. I got there and was shocked by the prices; they didn’t strike me as particularly cheap at all. I ended up going home without buying anything, trying to figure out how I had missed the great sales racks.

According to Shell, though, that’s pretty typical of outlet malls: they often don’t really provide great bargains. Instead, they provide the illusion of bargains, and a motivation for thinking you’re finding them.

It turns out that the more trouble people go through to get to an outlet, the more they overestimate the amount of savings compared to prices at regular stores. The very fact that it was hard to get to convinces people that it must provide something fantastic; if you aren’t saving a lot of money by going there, why on earth would it be so far out of the way? And the more remote it is, the cheaper the products must be!

Our efforts to understand the placement of outlet malls actually leads us to think we’re getting better deals than we are, because we must be. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense for them to be where they are. And so the location of outlet malls becomes proof that they’re cheap. Why else would they be there?

We have another powerful motivation to believe this. If you’ve driven an hour or more one-way to get great deals at the outlet mall, you are primed to believe you’re getting bargains because otherwise you just wasted a lot of time, effort, and gas for nothing. Once you get there, you’re psychologically motivated to believe your effort was worth it, and you do that by buying stuff and thinking the price is a steal.

As a result of these two factors, research shows that people perceive merchandise found at out-of-the-way outlet malls as being more of a bargain than they do if they see similarly-priced items closer to home. We overestimate what the original value of the item must have been and focus on the difference between that hypothetical price and the outlet price, rather than on the objective price itself. And consumers tend to discount the cost of getting to the outlet, not including the cost of gas and their time into the price of the items they buy.

So the placement of outlet malls isn’t just a simple reaction to real estate prices or an effort to not compete with the regular-priced store. The placement itself is an important element of marketing, signaling to consumers that wonderful bargains await those who are willing to accept a little inconvenience. When you combine this with the meaningless discount, you have a powerful marketing tool, a way to convince consumers they are saving more money, or getting higher-quality products, than they actually are.

Originally posted in 2010.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

2 (1)Our Pointlessly Gendered Products Pinterest board is funny, no doubt. When people make male and female versions of things like eggs, dog shampoo, and pickles, you can’t help but laugh. But, of course, not it’s not just funny. Here are five reasons why.

1. Pointlessly gendered products affirm the gender binary.

Generally speaking, men and women today live extraordinarily similar lives. We grow up together, go to the same schools, and have the same jobs. Outside of dating — for some of us — and making babies, gender really isn’t that important in our real, actual, daily lives.

These products are a backlash against this idea, reminding us constantly that gender is important, that it really, really matters if you’re male and female when, in fact, that’s rarely the case.

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But if there were no gender difference, there couldn’t be gender inequality; one group can’t be widely believed to be superior to the other unless there’s an Other. Hence, #1 is important for #3.

Affirming the gender binary also makes everyone who doesn’t fit into it invisible or problematic. This is, essentially, all of us. Obviously it’s a big problem for people who don’t identify as male or female or for those whose bodies don’t conform to their identity, but it’s a problem for the rest of us, too. Almost every single one of us takes significant steps every day to try to fit into this binary: what we eat, whether and how we exercise, what we wear, what we put on our faces, how we move and talk. All these things are gendered and when we do them in gendered ways we are forcing ourselves to conform to the binary.

2. Pointlessly gendered products reinforce stereotypes.

Pointlessly gendering products isn’t just about splitting us into two groups, it’s also about telling us what it means to be in one of those boxes. Each of these products is an opportunity to remind us.

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3. Pointlessly gendered products tell us explicitly that women should be subordinate to or dependent on men.

All too often, gender stereotypes are not just about difference, they’re about inequality. The products below don’t just affirm a gender binary and fill it with nonsense, they tell us in no uncertain terms that women and men are expected to play unequal roles in our society.

Girls are nurses, men are doctors:

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Girls are princesses, men are kings:

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4. Pointlessly gendered products cost women money.

Sometimes the masculine and feminine version of a product are not priced the same. When that happens, the one for women is usually the more expensive one. If women aren’t paying attention — or if it matters to them to have the “right” product — they end up shelling out more money.  Studies by the state of California, the University of Central Florida, and Consumer Reports all find that women pay more. In California, women spent the equivalent of $2,044 more a year (the study was done in 1996, so I used an inflation calculator).

This isn’t just something to get mad about. This is real money. It’s feeding your kids, tuition at a community college, or a really nice vacation. When women are charged more it harms our ability to support ourselves or lowers our quality of life.

5. Pointlessly gendered products are stupid. There are better ways to deliver what people really need.

One of the most common excuses for such products is that men and women are different, but most of the time they’re using gender as a measure of some other variable. In practice, it would be smarter and more efficient to just use the variable itself.

For example, many pointlessly gendered products advertise that the one for women is smaller and, thus, a better fit for women. The packaging on these ear buds, sent in by LaRonda M., makes this argument.

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Maybe some women would appreciate smaller earbuds, but it would still be much more straightforward to make ear buds in different sizes and let the user decide which one they wanted to use.

Products like these make smaller men and larger women invisible. They also potentially make them feel bad or constrain their choices. When the imperative for women is to be small and dainty, how do women who don’t use smaller earbuds feel?  Or, maybe the small guy who wants to learn how to play guitar never will because men’s guitars don’t fit him and he won’t be caught dead playing this:

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In sum, pointlessly gendered products aren’t just a gag. They’re a ubiquitous and aggressive ideological force, shaping how we think, what we do, and how much money we have. Let’s keep laughing, but let’s not forget that it’s serious business, too.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.