Tightening the belt – The Anthropology of Consumerism

Did you spend too much over the holidays trying to spoil your dearest and nearest friends and family? Did you decide to travel to see loved ones? Eat out more than usual? Grab a drink with an old friend or new somebody?

Spending on travel, eating out and gifts during the holiday season is increasingly putting Canadians into debt; According to a national cross-generational survey of 1000 participants in early October (2018), Canadians planned to “spend an average of $1,563 (for the 2018 Christmas season), up 3.7 per cent from $1,507 in 2017” (CBC October 3, 2018).

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Christmas Shopping in Hamburg – CCO

In the latest publication of the Annual Review of Anthropology (2018, Vol 47), Anne Meneley defines consumerism as “a matter of concern or crisis in the contemporary neoliberal, globalized world (which can be) characterized as capitalism unbound” (emphasis my own). She describes 5 topics of contemporary consumerism: (a) excess, (b) waste, (c) connectivity, (d) fair-ish trade, and (e) the semiotics of self-fashioning, some of which have a particular resonance after this most recent holiday season. Her article provides some interesting insights into consumerism – especially over the holidays.

In relation to excessive spending (surely evident during Christmas), Meneley notes that consumerism is increasingly framed as a problem, and one that is often related to under/mis-education of the lower classes. Meneley also identifies how excessive consumerism has become medicalized as new obsessive-compulsive disorder (hoarding), where fetishized objects are thought to contain residues of the owner and can therefore, not be thrown away. In addition, she describes the new attention paid to the storage and organization of things, which, if disorganized, may now require professional intervention (e.g. professional organizers – check out Netflix’s Tidying Up with Mary Kondo) to realign the relationship between human being and thing.

Perhaps you’re feeling exhausted now that the holidays are over? This might be because you’ve spent more time than other members of your household preparing for it.

Using ethnographic research, Meneley describes the shopping experience as an(other) example of unpaid labour for many women. She identifies the “considerable amounts of time (spent on the shopping experience), especially when the shoppers are employed, care givers, or on restricted budgets that require bargain shopping” (2018). Examples include how women are required to spend time purchasing meaningful gifts to fulfill their kin-keeper obligations, or plan, purchase materials, and serve home-cooked meals throughout the holidays that follow recent cooking trends or health-guidelines. Meneley goes on to note that if the shopper can be thrifty (with time – for example through online shopping – or money spent), this may add further significance to their purchases but this also may take additional time.

Meneley concludes her article with a list of ways in which consumerism is encroaching into the academic world: paying for access to journals or subscription services, measuring citation indices and impact factors, and the continued trend toward under-paid and -supported adjunct faculty to staff universities. She calls for greater attention to the encroaching ‘problem of consumerism’ into academic practices, a call that already feels old and tired.

At the outset of the article, Meneley defines consumerism as “an unremarkable part of quotidian existence, as a patriotic duty at various moments, as an indicator of social class, and as a means of semiotic self-fashioning” (2018, 117); yet, in my reading, Meneley’s work also includes ‘thoughtful consumption’ as a practice, an act of which implicitly requires the passage or importance of time (spent). Although she does not address the topic of ‘time’ overtly, Meneley describes time as being precarious, fleeting, expensive (i.e. time spent finding the cheapest, most meaningful, most nutritious goods). Throughout the article then, time becomes remarkably interconnected with the act of consumerism and is likewise involved in everyday acts of consumption as both an indicator of social class and personal branding (what she calls ‘semiotic self-fashioning’).

Perhaps for this new year then, when we’re told to tightening our belts (to spend less), those of us who gave a lot (whether that be time or gifts, etc.) could pay more attention to our use of time and/or put effort into thoughtful consumption as a way of clawing back some of our own resources (such as time, space, and energy). This approach could provide further evidence of ‘connectivity’ in consumerism which Meneley describes as the efforts of consumers to connect to the producer of goods (and where certain products make this impossible) as seen in ‘follow-the-thing ethnographies’ (and her discussion on ‘fair-ish trade’ products and cultures of circulations) or, as they relate to the growing importance of ethical consumerism that focus less on the ‘life of things’ and instead explore participants’ experiences of a ‘life with things’.

To read more about Consumerism in the Annual Review of Anthropology by Anne Meneley follow this link: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102116-041518

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