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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Language & Power Student Projects

In my teaching, I’ve been experimenting more and more with inviting my students to use a variety of formats for communicating their research projects, and not necessarily to produce a standard academic essay. My reasoning, heavily influenced by pedagogical blogs like The Tattooed Professor, is that the central skill I am helping them to develop is not “write an academic essay”, but “develop, organize, and transmit your thoughts about a topic”. Depending on their post-undergraduate goals, they may benefit from learning how to do this in, for example, a podcast form, or as an informative website, or as a video. They may benefit most from developing their essay writing skills, in which case, they are encouraged to write an essay, but it’s entirely up to them whether that’s the approach they want to take.

In my advanced seminar on Language & Power this term, I included an “unessay” option for presenting their research project results. Reader, the outcome was wonderful. As a

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The “suppotter” (supportive otter) became the class mascot to mark the emotionally and intellectually sustaining environment the group created for themselves. (Suppotter artwork by Amanada Cole

colleague said on Twitter – it’s amazing what students will do if you let them. Since a few of their projects were web-based, or easily shareable on the web, I’ve asked for and received permission to link some of the great work that they did here. Another principle I’ve been working on encouraging, inspired by a talk given by Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof) at MacEwan’s Faculty Development Day this past August, is sharing their work with people other than me, as their professor. It truly is tragic how much pedagogical effort goes in to an exchange of information between two people – the individual student, and the professor grading their work. The students whose work is linked here are fully on board with this idea, have been developing their ideas in collaboration with one another all term, and have expressed to me that these two premises have helped them to learn more from this class than from any they’ve previously taken – which I consider to be the highest possible student praise, and I’m immensely glad to be able to share their work through this medium.

 

  1. Hear My Words. This is an ethnographic film produce by Daliso Mwanza (@prophetdali) and Megan H. about “how artists of colour experience double consciousness…in a society that speaks in a dominant white voice”. It’s an extremely ambitious project to have undertaken in a one-semester course, and well worth watching.
  2. Deconstructing Constructs. A tumblr by Delainey Neddow (@apatheticpotate)  about the language of sexual violence, inspired by and drawing heavily on the news stories from the last few months and the #MeToo hashtag campaign (read backwards, of course).
  3. Broification. A tumblr by Shannon Jubinville (@shannjub) about the linguistic construction of  “bro” culture and identities. She investigates how this playful piece of language is an important part of the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic (hetero)masculinity.
  4. Language Standardization zine. This Twitter thread includes the digital form of a zine produced by Ruth Werbiski that examines the various ways in which language standardization and standard languages constitute tools for upholding unequal power dynamics. As I have told Ruth, I find this project to be particularly strong as a possible teaching tool to use in my introductory linguistic anthropology classes, because it captures so many themes in concise and accessible ways.

This is just a sample of some of the topics and approaches that students used – I also received podcasts, presentations, an invented Twitter account with analysis, and many more. The success of this semester makes me suspect this type of post will become a semi-regular thing, so stay tuned for more in April.