From edition

Review: Citizenship and Consumption.

Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann (Eds.)

Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

‘Save the Climate! Go Vegan!'[1] One of the questions Citizenship and Consumption addresses is whether this slogan represents a contemporary way to express political engagement and participation. The anthology, edited by Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann, addresses the notion of consumer citizenship from different disciplines and generates a broader discussion around two key signifiers in current political discourse: citizenship and consumption.

If we look at commonly used definitions, the notion of citizenship refers to the status of being a citizen; a concept that is usually determined by law and associated with particular rights and duties (see for instance the Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2008): ‘Consumption however, refers to the spent utilization of goods and services. In the classical economical understanding, consumers are expected to demonstrate effective management of their finances, in order to negotiate satisfactory purchasing.’ (Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2008)

Nonetheless, these types of descriptive definitions can be quite limiting, as they neglect to mention many obvious commonalities encompassing the nature of being a citizen and a consumer. When it comes to contemporary discourses about public issues, both concepts seem to converge and to be intertwined. A current Eurobarometer (2008) survey on Europeans´ attitudes towards climate change shows that to actively influence the situation, a purposive shift in the consumption habits is perceived as indispensable by many of the respondents. Although these references to changes in consumption habits (as a response to environmental problems) can be expected, interestingly, the more traditional channels of expressing political engagement such as protests, petitions, or participation in civil society-based initiatives, are not mentioned at all[2]. This raises questions about our traditional concepts of citizenship, and whether the notion of consumer citizenship reflects a new form of political participation, which affects broader social strata? And furthermore, it does raise the question if the consuming citizen might in the future become the only democratic citizen-actor.

The anthology is trying to reconcile the two seemingly mutually exclusive notions of citizenship (which is community-oriented) and consumption (which is individual/self-oriented). The editors claim that this often-used assumption of binarity does not reflect the complexity of consumer culture. Therefore the collection is designed to broaden the terms of the debate in order to inspire a more holistic understanding of the ways in which consumption and citizenship are interconnected. A dominant premise throughout the book is the suggestion that there is a need to theoretically reflect upon and evaluate new waves of consumer activism, such as the ‘Go Vegan’ campaign.

In their introduction, Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann outline the conceptual challenges by presenting the contemporary discussions about the two concepts, and by providing an overview of dominant research traditions, contemporary norms and practices. This approach reflects the threefold structure of the book: The sections Retrieval, Talk and Action, and Prospect move from the past to the present and highlight future civic prospects of consumption. The anthology includes contributions from distinct scholars from various disciplines, which are as diverse as the scholarly nuances within the research on consumption and citizenship. The authors include sociologists (Zygmund Bauman), political scientists/political economists (Mark Bevir, Michele Micheletti, John O´Neill), media and communication studies scholars (Nick Couldry, Ferenc Hammer, Sonia Livingstone, Tim Markham), and academics working in the fields of history (Karl Gerth, Matthew Hilton, Frank Trentmann), philosophy (Kate Soper) and law (Michelle Everson, Christian Joerges, Bronwen Morgan). These academics embarked on their venture at a two-day workshop in Cambridge, focusing on (not surprisingly) ‘Citizenship and Consumption’. Their main aim is to provide a forum for a broad and multi-layered debate, rather than to defend concepts or paradigms.

The first part of the book, entitled ‘Retrieval’, focuses on the development of the relationship between consumption and citizenship, by reflecting on key moments in modern history. It shows how consumption has nurtured civic life. The spread of consumption coincides with emerging challenges to societal hierarchies and is thus connected to a considerable expansion of the social terrain of citizenship. Direct, liberal and radical politics generated a new sense of consumer rights as for instance the civil action against ‘Free Trade’ shows. It also contributed to the construction of a new ‘consumer’ identity. Within this new concept of the consumer-citizen, consumption is no longer seen as the act of a private, self-seeking individual, but has been merged with a more civic identity.

The ‘Retrieval’ section aims to further expand the scope of citizenship and civic traditions. It reflects upon non-European traditions of citizenship in China, on material politics in socialist Hungary, as well as on progressive ideals in liberal democratic societies. The articles in this section range from a general overview of perspectives on rationality, consumption and citizenship (Mark Bevir and Frank Trentmann), to more specific reflections on certain historical developments in distinct social contexts. To illustrate: Karl Gerth explores the continued tension between citizenship and consumption in China. He analyses a situation which is deeply embedded in history and underpinned by consumption in the name of national interest, culminating in the demand to ‘buy Chinese’ as an expression of nationalized consumer culture in the 20th century. Additionally, Ferenc Hammer discusses representations, practices and consumption strategies regarding blue jeans in Hungary from 1960 to 1980, showing that wearing a blue jeans was a type of grass-roots activity. Both articles highlight that consumption can be understood as politics, concluding that the relationship between both notions is not only characterized by a transition from citizenship to consumption, but that they are to be considered co-existent.

The second part of the anthology ‘Talk and Action’ is devoted to norms and practices in the scope of consumer citizenship. The book section presents consumption as a social practice, which is ultimately processual and dynamic. By analyzing mostly mundane and non-conspicuous forms of consumption, the articles build on a broad understanding of the notion of consumption, including both material and immaterial products. These activities may include listening to the radio, taking a bath, commuting by car, gardening and home improvement; as well as watching sports and surfing the internet. Consumption becomes defined as people performing certain tasks with the help of material or immaterial products. This rather broad and general understanding includes media consumption as quintessential consumption practice (Nick Couldry, Sonia Livingstone, Tim Markham). This part also questions the functioning of ordinary or ‘banal’ consumption as a vital source for political action (Matthew Hilton), and analyses relatively new forms of political consumerism (civil disobedience/payment boycotting/disloyal exit) (Bronwen Morgan). Michele Micheletti looks at consumption’s and capitalism’s capacities to take control of the life improvement of others.

The third and last part of the anthology is looking at the future, in combination with a global perspective on consumption and citizenship. It includes four articles, which question the conditions that both constrain and empower consumer citizenship. Globalisation is seen to have a significant impact on the citizenship dimensions of consumption. This section addresses concerns about the ‘good life’ and specific agents, such as the next-door-neighbor. It deals with questions like: how does the ‘good life’ look like? And how might it be improved by altering work conditions, life priorities and differing patterns of consumption?

Zygmunt Bauman criticizes consumerism from within his framework of fluidity. His rather critical discussion on consumerism and its potential for citizenship, makes this an exceptional chapter. He claims that consumer markets and technologies are symptoms of citizens withdrawing from public engagement. This significantly contrasts with the contributions of most of the other authors who view consumption and citizenship as locked into a potentially positive relationship. This last book section also discusses the legal conditions of consumerism within a national, supranational (European Union) and international (World Trade Organization) framework (Michelle Everson, Christian Joerges). John O´Neill stresses the importance of rearticulating the indicators of individual well-being, in order to combine prosperity with the notion of intergenerational citizenship, linking the individual and the community. Kate Soper summarizes and concludes the discussion by pleading for the abolition of the polarity between citizen and consumer. She introduces the notion of alternative hedonism, which combines pleasure with an interest in the well-being of others as a way to deal with future challenges; boldly asking if the consumer will become the only democratic citizen-actor within future societies.

The anthology provides us with a fundamental insight into the contemporary discussions on the relationship between consumption and citizenship. Particularly, the introductory chapter (Kate Soper and Frank Trentman) and the concluding article (Kate Soper) frame the discussed issues in a comprehensive way. The editors achieved their aim of affording the reader an opportunity to develop a broader understanding of the relationship between consumerism and citizenship. The authors contribute to the reader’s comprehension of contemporary conceptions by disentangling them from the new developments in political consumerism and consumer citizenship at a theoretical level. However, as is usually the problem with compilations and anthologies: seen as an entity, they are only as good as the worst article and they often contain contributions, which are not that interesting for particular readers. The multidisciplinary approach and the diversity of articles risk producing a too specialized volume, which might become incomprehensible for a broad (academic) readership. But the two framing articles excellently help to overcome this problem. Nevertheless, the structure could have used some improvements. In fact, the used structure creates confusion between the different theoretical levels dealt with in the book; for example, the article by Matthew Hilton on the banality of consumption would perfectly fit into the ‘Retrieval’-section and would then be read in a completely different and probably more adequate context.

In conclusion, the book reflects on an enigmatic discussion without being prescriptive. It enables the reader to get at least a glimpse of how different disciplines are dealing with similar issues and how they can contribute to each other’s scholarly work.

Notes

[1] This is one of the slogans of vegan activists (see www.veganactivist.net).

[2] 39% of the interviewees support the statement ‘you are reducing your consumption of energy at home’, 33% ‘you are reducing your consumption of water at home’; 24% ‘you are reducing the consumption of disposable items’ when it comes to the question ‘which of the following actions aimed at fighting climate change have you personally taken?’ (European Commission, 2008).

References

‘Citizenship’ (2008) Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9082718.

‘Consumption’ (2008) Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9106212.

European Commission (2008) Special Eurobarometer 300. Europeans Attitude towards climate change. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from European Commission, Public Opinion Analysis: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_300_full_en.pdf.

Bio

Anne Kaun is a PhD student in Media and Communication Studies at Södertörns University College, Stockholm, Sweden.

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