Making it easy to resist: How being a consumerist choice-maker marginalises our capacity as political agents. Dr Richard Scullion, Media School, Bournemouth University
AbstractThe chapter is premised on the view that we live in and through a largely consumerist ideology where the mediated landscape perpetuates and legitimises this through various ideological apparatus. My central argument is that our contemporary consumer culture is sufficiently full of meaning that it leaves little space for salience to be attached to the political sphere. I take a holistic perspective of contemporary British culture that positions individuals as consumer-citizens. I draw from interpretations of a large phenomenological study carried out that generated accounts of both consumer and political choice experiences. I outline three macro-contextual strands that form the conceptual basis of my central argument, these are, concerns about political (electoral) engagement, the marketisation of politics, and the apparent dominance of a consumer choice-orientation being used when making political decisions. These strands serve to articulate the central issue to which this chapter makes a contribution: to better understand the impact of a culture where the dominant discourse is consumerist, on the nature of political participation and engagement. I do this by focusing on a fundamental elements of consumerism; choice. A key interpretation is that the political arena is consistently perceived as an agency-poor context compared to the consumer sphere. Flowing from this six main discourses emerge of the participants’ accounts of their choice experiences, these are: as a way of creating and sustaining self-identity, as a demonstration of moral status, as a form of personal rationality, as a means of gaining pleasure, as a way of managing contingency, and finally, as a way of creating and sustaining routines. I illustrate how individuals afford meanings to their political choice experiences based on these dominant discourses serving to marginalise this sphere in their everyday lives. This exacerbates the distancing of politics, and further diminishes its salience, reinforcing the opinion that consumer choice practices serve as a conservative force in the participants’ lives by generating a sense of permanence about their current everyday lives.
Making it easy to resist: How being a consumer choice-maker marginalises our capacity as political agents.
Dr Richard Scullion, Media School, Bournemouth UniversityIntroduction My starting point is that we live in and through a largely consumerist ideology that features a mix of characteristics with the purpose of legitimising certain types of power relations (Eagleton 2000). The mediated landscape perpetuates and legitimises this through various ideological apparatus (Herman and Chomsky 2002) as part of the wider ‘cultural industries’ that helps generate a consumerist hegemony (Artz and Yahya 2003). The notion that the media has a major socialising influence, as carrier of culture and a source and communicator of ideological values and norms, is not new. In the context of my research it means that at an institutional level the media carries preferences infusing its social constructionist role; this is manifest in the production and perpetuation of a broadly capitalist worldview (Couldry 2003). Media is important as a key connector to others, – broader society and to public institutions – it is problematized in terms of engagement between citizens and political institutions, because mass media coverage is ‘biased against certain types of hope’ (Richards 2007, cited in Scullion et al 2013). As I have argued with colleagues elsewhere, empowerment is contingent upon hope that one can exercise power and influence, thus this media bias leads to lower political self-efficacy and increased salience of what might be called ‘civic consumerism’ and the zeitgeist of personal choice. Picking up on qualitative concerns about the nature of political engagement in contemporary Britain – part of the ‘democratic deficit’ – my aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the meanings individuals attach to political choice. My entry point is a highly situated one that recognises and values the dominant cultural discourse of consumerism. Thus I posit that my participants face and make choices primarily as consumers and this ‘mind-set’ transfers significantly to civic and political spheres. I draw on the literature that considers choice as a meaning-making device as the principal way of conceiving consumer culture in order to investigate relationships between choice-making in the consumer and political sphere. This chapter reports pertinent interpretations of a larger phenomenological study carried out in Britain over a period of eighteen months. It is a none-politically-centric way of interpreting culturally-embedded forms of political engagement, identified as a an important approach by Hay (2002). My central argument is that our contemporary consumer identity is sufficiently full of meaning leaving little space for salience to be attached to the political sphere. This insight is situated within three core contextual strands, these are, concerns about political (electoral) engagement, the marketisation of politics, and the apparent dominance of a consumer choice-orientation being used when making political decisions. The first contextual strand is the veracity of what has become known as a ‘democratic deficit’ (Pattie and Johnston 2001, Lilleker 2005) in many Western liberal countries. That is, a concern about the extent and nature of engagement with, and in, the political process. The second part of the context focuses on societal-level trends that lead to contemporary culture being widely considered consumerist in nature; where, to paraphrase Bauman (2001), contemporary life is guided by a consumer ethic where our identity is now firmly based on being a consumer. The third contextual strand can be seen as an outcome of the first two, whereby the marketisation of politics is a response to concerns about the ‘state’ of electoral participation where democratic principles adapt to a marketing paradigm, equating pluralism to market competition (Kotler and Kotler 1999) and, crucially equates voters to consumers (Ingram and Lees-Marshment 2002). This marketisation of politics gave rise to political marketing as both a set of contemporary practices, and as a scholarly discipline to help us understand what is happening in the political arena (Henneberg, 2004). These strands serve to articulate the central issue to which this chapter makes a contribution: to better understand the impact on the nature of political participation and engagement of a culture where the dominant discourse is consumerist. I do this by focusing on a fundamental elements of a consumer discourse; choice.
Consumer choice as meaning-makingThe most important reading of the consumer behaviour literature is how it increasingly takes a perspective on choice that sees it as a meaning-making activity, (Arnould and Thompson 2005). I outline a case for privileging a meaning-making perspective for consumer choice, and comments on various strands of meaning that are already afforded to consumer choice in the literature. Such a change in the way that choice is conceived also sees research consideration move away from a preoccupation with the process of making choices to one which places emphasis on agency, and how individuals attempt to realise this through consumer choice-making, (Thompson et al 1989, Thompson et al 1990, Kilbourne 1991, Bauman 2007). I argue for a more explicit transfer from what we know about consumer choice as meaning-making, to help us understand political choice – in effect, revisiting and updating the case made in Dermody and Scullion (2001). I concur with scholars such as Gadimer (2006), from philosophical hermeneutics, and within consumer behaviour, those such as Belk et al (1988), Thompson (1989 et al), Sherry (1991), and Firat and Dholakia (1998) who argue that individuals adapt cultural symbols and meanings through their everyday practices, in order to give their own lives a specific meaning.
Consumer choice-meaning: A sense of controlGiven that consumption is considered a prime site for the negotiation of competing and conflicting life themes, tensions exist in this sphere. Elliot (1997) argues that the process of working through these tensions helps explain how individuals grasp a sense of control of their own lives. Certain polarised, heuristic devices help unpack the tension between freedoms and control in consumption sites. The consumer dialectics make up the materiality of the struggle which consumers engage in, so that they are able to experience a sense of establishing and retaining control of their lives. For example, knowingly having the capacity of self-determination, and being able to act in such ways in consumer spheres, affords consumer choice the capacity to signify ‘success’, (Desmeules 2002). Goods become ways of making sense of an otherwise complex, confusing existence; consumption choices develop into a “highly-varied, symbolically-charged, set of meanings” (Douglas and Isherwood cited in Gabriel and Lang 1995 p54). Mick and Buhl (1992) support this meaning-making approach, positing, “consumers construct a variety of meanings’ as outcomes of a personal interest-driven, culturally-situated act” (p317). Increasingly, we see in consumer spaces fragmented, plural, and fluid offerings that have enabled individuals to access a rich resource, from which they can make sense of their world (Kozinets 2001). This ‘unruly bricoleurs’ as Holt (2002) calls it, which consumption generates, allows the marketplace to be full of symbols at the centre of how we make sense of our lives. There are strong parallels between this type of meaning being attached to consumer choices, and the idea of empowerment, and we see a plethora of literature pronouncing on the apparent enhanced-sovereignty of contemporary consumers, (Pires et al 2006, Denegri-Knott et al 2006), and on their increased access to information and ever-more choices, (Schwartz 2004). Even more pertinent are those studies that demonstrate how consumers generate their own meaning, and how this contributes directly to a sense of increased empowerment, or what Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, (1981) refer to as fulfilling an implicit or explicit self-contract. One author who has consistently investigated the specificity of this theme of linking consumer choice to notions of a sense of freedom is Craig Thompson. His contribution to researching the behaviour of consumer’s in the last twenty years has helped demonstrate the insightfulness of the approach used here, that affords value to my participants’ own descriptions of their everyday experiences (phenomenological). Thus to appreciate the actual lived meanings of free choice, we have to understand how individuals incorporate their choices into the rest of their lives. One reading of apparent free choice in consumption is consequently about our ability to get closer to a sense of our ideal, and so we need the ability, if not to determine, at least to influence, what we mean by this term ‘ideal’. Reaching this state of influence – or what might be referred to as efficacy in political studies- is itself contingent on having a degree of free choice. For Thompson it is about in control/not in control, unrestricted/restricted, deliberate/captivated. A crucial point emerging from his studies is that free choice is not always located in a context where the person feels in control, unrestricted, and able to act deliberatively.
Consumer and political life spheresThe argument linking a consumerist appreciation of choice to the political arena is as follows. We afford crucial significance to our being able to personally determine the meanings of our consumer choices, as this allows us to express our autonomy and experience a sense of agency and control. It is because of the perceived self-determining nature of our choices in consumption that this sphere takes such a central part in our everyday lives. Significant meaning is created in consumption that resonates throughout people’s everyday lives. In order to understand contemporary political behaviour, we first need to understand the meaning(s) ascribed to political behaviour, (Dermody and Scullion 2001). This is so because the attribution of value “goes beyond material objects to include non-tangible experiences, for example the outcome of election promises and other political product offerings”, (Dermody and Scullion 2001 p1088).
Research methodologyThe study from which this chapter’s analysis is based looked at political participation through a ‘consumer choice-maker’ lens thus more closely reflecting everyday practices. The methodological approach embraced the ‘cultural turn’ in consumer studies acknowledging the importance of capturing the regularised layers of cultural meaning that helps to structure actions in any given context, (Thompson and Troester 2002). This interpretative study offers rich descriptive accounts of everyday practices and experiences, with a broader understanding of the shared cultural meanings and social relations found, and indeed constructed, in the specificity of individuals lives, (Sherry 1991, Penaloza and Gilly 1999 and Penaloza 2001). A phenomenological methodology allows us to gain a first-person description of the actual lived experience of participants. This is so because, accepting pre-given cultural meaning, such a stance acknowledges that there is uniqueness about how individuals incorporate their cultural and historic baggage into their particular lives, (Dahlberg et al 2001). Several consumer studies have employed this method; Mick and DeMoss (1990), O’Guinn and Faber (1989), Thompson et al (1990), Thompson (1994), Woodruffe-Burton et al (2002), Belk et al (2003), and Stevens and Maclaren (2005). These studies share common ground with each other, namely a desire to capture the actual experiences of those being investigated. Thus I am using an increasingly valued methodological position to a political context. The universe for this study was ‘independent adults, in the sense that they were in a position to make their own consumer and political choices. The only strict criteria used to aid recruitment was that they had to be British Citizens who had been eligible to vote in at least the British General Election of 2005 and/or 2010. I purposefully excluded using any criteria of a direct political character (i.e. political party members), because my intent was to investigate a political phenomenon from a non-political perspective. A largely non-purposive sample was used, as is the norm in phenomenology, where a critical criterion is the participants’ ability and willingness to recall, and talk in detail about their experiences of the phenomena being studied. This is so because the aim was to generate the nuanced narratives that contain within them the ways people account for their everyday experiences of choice. In order to recruit participants I asked my own acquaintances for recommendations of people whom they knew. I generated data using the long interview technique, which is only ‘weakly’ structured (McCracken 1988), collecting over 60 hours of recounted experiences of the participants over a period of eighteen months between May 2007 and December 2008. I meet each of the participants on several separate occasions over this time in order to generate reflection about our prior conversations. The fact that a series of experiences were gathered from each participant helped to avoid the moment of recounting having undue influence on the totality of the text being interpreted. Engaging multiple data-gathering time-periods meant I gained access to the various meanings of their choice-making within their lifeworld, enabling me to locate politics in a broader context offering insights into how this everyday sphere was related to their political choice experiences.
Overview of findingsFor brevity I am not able to offer either the depth or breadth of the participants own words here, nonetheless reflecting on the accounts of their lives, I include examples of the dominant discourses that emerged from the research. Figure 1 provides a holistic overview of my interpretation of the data, and how it might be seen to fit together. I present this with a deliberate tentativeness, since I do not wish to over-impose on the data, nor do I want to suggest that there is such clarity in the participants’ accounts of their choice-making that a single over-arching ‘model’ can capture the essence of my findings. This overview aims to respond to an obvious question asked of my research– what does it collectively mean? I start with this synoptic impression of how all of the findings ‘sit together’ in order to help unpack and separate out what are inherently co-constructed issues. There are three levels; the first locates the context in which the experience is grounded, the second outlines the meta-meanings ascribed to choice-making by the participants, and the third delineates the six discourses used to account for their consumer choice-making experiences. The arrows represent connections between the different aspects, arrows thickness illustrating the robustness of the association. Figure 1 about here please
Perceptions of the context that choice is situated in is keyAll experiences are grounded in particular sets of circumstances (Jessop 1996); crucially, my participants were generally able to distinguish between circumstances that were perceived to have high potential for their actions to have an impact on how that situation might develop, and those where little, or no such potential was perceived. My participants’ accounts of their own choice-making suggest they had the capacity to see the structures within a set of circumstances they faced as both enabling and constraining, adapting the manner of their individual engagement accordingly. They made judgements about how much scope or latitude the context appeared to offer in terms of the participants’ personal conduct. The conceptualisation of the participants locating the situation they faced on a one-dimensional continuum using one polar axis is an over-simplification. However, it helps illustrate their belief that they possessed choice, and the reflection they engaged in when accounting for their choice practices. This subjective sensing of the potential in any given situation was often the starting point for participants to account for their choice-making. In perceived agency-rich contexts, choice tended to take on a greater significance in reinforcing the person’s sense of self, supporting the idea that contemporary life is based on an individualised ontology (Campbell 2004). This also suggests a self-fulfilling phenomenon took place – in situations perceived as agency friendly, the participants made more effort to assert themselves. Some participants purposefully sought out the contexts where they believed they would experience more meaningful types of choice. In contexts perceived as agency-poor, participants tended to talk about ‘finding themselves in’, or feeling ‘pressured into’ situations. Here, choice was usually considered an externally generated obligation, and a challenge, with subsequently less resonance for many participants. Many decisions made in these contexts were seen as part of the routines of life that simply had to be made.
The primary meanings afforded to participants’ experiences of choiceBeyond the participants’ perception of the context in which choice is experienced, there were three primary meanings afforded to their choice-making practices. These were; becoming/maintaining self-identity, a taken-for-granted, and an imposition. The first presides mainly in relatively agency-rich contexts, whilst the remaining two preside mainly in relatively agency-poor contexts. At an existential level choice is thus crucial because the participants staked their sense of who they were on its outcome. And in a somewhat circuitous manner, choice was also how they came to experience their self-identity. A dual process was apparent, where through self-fulfilling practice choice was used to simultaneously create and sustain their self-identity. This resonates with Gabriel and Lang (1995) who argue that self-identity is something to be worked at and achieved, and that the individual is conscious of their uniqueness, which subsequently provides them with their anchoring into the here and now. The discourse of choice as reinforcement of self-identity in agency-rich contexts left open the possibility for change, and was thus not considered to be restrictive. This was very evident with some of my participants, where choice signified an opportunity for them to move closer to becoming their ideal-self. For others choice was seen to offer a chance to redeem a situation. Choice as self-defining certainly had the characteristic that Nozick (2002) refers to as ‘originative value’, where the course of action chosen is validated by the act of it being made. This first primary meaning of choice as creating and maintaining a coherent self-identity fits our consumer culture well as it offers a fragmented and fluid fabric, enabling individuals to access resources from which they can make sense of their world (Kozinets 2001). Indeed, consumer culture theory argues that contemporary consumers attach a polyvocal fluency of meanings to their choice-making (Arnold and Thompson 2005). The second primary meaning of choice was as a ‘taken-for-granted’, to the point that it occupied the background of their recalled experiences. It was afforded the status of something that was simply expected, taking on the qualities of a ‘natural’ phenomenon. In these situations choice was so familiar to the participants that they easily, and often, ignored it. This is partly explained by the power of two particular cultural discourses; firstly, the notion of the autonomous individual that Rose articulates (1993), and secondly, by rational choice (Hargreaves-Heap et al 1999). Both help individuals to believe there is a ‘right’ approach to making choices, and that it is their responsibility to get on with making them. One consequence of considering choice in these ways is that it takes on an air of inevitability, making it easier for the participants to avoid spending time reflecting on their capacity as choice-makers. Treating choice in this way meant they did not have to complicate their lives by becoming embroiled in reflective processes, risking creating distance from their day-to-day existence. Many of the participants engaged in what Cohen and Taylor (1976) refer to as a strategy for the ‘mental management’ of everyday life. Situations that jeopardised this were often avoided. This leads to the final primary meaning afforded to the participants’ experiences of choice – as an imposition, and for some, a burden that had to be dealt with. Choice took on an authority of its own, sometimes experienced as an external, mandatory aspect of their life. In these situations choice was considered a challenge that either required effort to ‘get to grips with’, or to be avoided. Conceived in this manner, choice was rarely welcomed, chiming with Schwartz’s (2004) notion of having too much choice, where he suggests a satisficing strategy is adopted in decision-making, where individuals knowingly ‘make do’ with less than the best or ideal option. This satisficing approach was especially apparent in situations where the participants believed contingency was an essential part of the experience (Bull 2000), and where they were in a state of apprehension about what might occur. In other situations where choice was considered an imposition, the participants often knowingly lacked the motivation, or ability required to make a valued decision. In such contexts choice-making was considered an unwelcome challenge, here, we are likely to readily give-in to our lack of enthusiasm to bother with potentially burdensome choice, so avoiding it. This helps explain why many choices seen as requiring hard work were categorised in a negative way, as adding to the toil of the participants’ everyday lives, and so they used several strategies in an attempt to avoid contexts where such choices were likely to occur. One such strategy very evidently employed was ‘routine practices’. Such routines often made them feel dependant on following conventions in ways that practice theory (Warde 2005) suggest. They accepted a set of appropriate standards to steer their behaviour, and so many of the decisions they made and the choices they faced were not primarily driven by the individual. Rather, participants felt they were already shaped, even determined, by the ‘rules’ that applied to any given social practice, including politics.
The discourses used to account for their choice-makingThere are six main discourses that emerge through a critique of the participants’ accounts of their choice experiences. These are: as a way of creating and sustaining self-identity, as a demonstration of moral status, as a form of personal rationality, as a means of gaining pleasure, as a way of managing contingency, and finally, as a way of creating and sustaining routines. These are apparent, albeit manifest in different ways, and with different degrees of strength, in the experiences of all of participants. I briefly outline what the six discursive themes are, before offering an analysis of my findings in relation to the theme of this edited collection – implications for political participation, therefore democracy. I start with what appeared to be the most agency-rich discourse; choice as a way of creating and sustaining self-identity. Participants hold a clear and largely singular sense of self; the important general point here is that all of the participants expressed confidence in knowing who they were (and in some cases who they wanted to become). Choice was thus used as a vital part of how they reinforced their sense of self, by acting accordingly. Their clarity of self-identity resulted in the participants using a discourse that, in effect, meant that they self-imposed restrictions on the options they perceived they had – many possibilities were dismissed as simply ‘not for them’. Secondly, choice was an expression of the participants’ sense of having a moral code, itself part of the participants’ self-identity. For some, this was a strong discourse, for others it was vague, and at times, contradictory. Nonetheless, all of the participants attached a moral/ethical dimension in accounting for their choice practices. Thirdly, many participants acknowledged that some form of responsible, rational decision-making should be, and usually was, part of what their choice-making was about. However, crucially here, it was a form of rationality determined by appropriateness to the participant’s self-identity, and suitability to their moral code. At times, these three discourses merged, so that a multi-stranded, highly robust sense of ‘rightness’ was associated with their choice. Put anther way participants believed that an option was most fitting in relation to their sense of identity, to their moral code, and to their view of what was logical to do. Fourth, the participants used choice as a way to bring pleasure. This experiencing of pleasure was usually derived from the participant making a successful choice related to one of the other discourses already outlined; for example, taking a course of action that reinforced their self-identity also bought pleasure. However, at times, pleasure in itself was what choice meant to them, for example by generating an immediate sense of satisfaction of a desire, which took on momentary significance. Occasionally, pleasure came from the participants simply knowing that they had options. Fifthly, choice was about the careful management of contingency. All of the participants used this discourse with varying degrees of intensity and in three distinct ways; by trying to control it, reducing its salience, or by embracing it. However, the important point being made here is that all developed preferred strategies to cope with the uncertainty and potential powerlessness of a life where ‘things happened to them’. Finally, and clearly aligned to the prior discourse of managing contingency, significant discourse of choice was about constructing routines, and determinedly staying within the comfort zones they provided. These routines sometimes developed into habits, akin to the idea of unreflectively accepting reality (Cohen and Taylor 1976). But it was also evident that, for some, the routines allowed them room to experience a sense of control – what I refer to as ‘routines of freedom’.
The meanings the participants attributed to choice-makingIt was clear that the participants’ perceptions of the particular set of circumstances that constitute their everyday lives, where they distinguished between ‘agency- rich’ and ‘agency-poor’ contexts was their starting point in attributing meaning and worth to their choices. This is consistent with the work of Thompson et al (1989, 1990, 1994) in that they argue control is a central theme of consumer behaviour in their investigations of freedom and choice in the consumer sphere, and, to my participants the very characteristics of freedom were context dependent. Consideration of all six core discourses of choice practice used by the participants suggests that participants used their self-identity as a key determinant of how they engaged with any given situation, and their self-identity contained, albeit vague, notions of sovereignty. Yet they all also recognised cultural influences as both potentially constraining and enabling their choice-making practices. Critical though, especially given the purpose of this chapter, was how most of the participants had internalised a discourse about what it meant to be a choice-maker; as consumer, and this led to self-disciplining behaviour in a manner consistent with the arguments about power by Denegri-Knott et al (2006). Elliot (1997) argues that consumption dialectics are the moments where the tensions between conflicting life themes of freedom and constraint are most played out. From the analysis of my participants, the perceived differences between freedom and constraint are often small; therefore tensions are usually easily reconciled. However, reflecting on my findings, it is more likely that that the key tension experienced is in a set of dialectics, not directly referred to by Elliot: namely between a perceived self-identity ‘rich’ in agency and one that is ‘poor’ in agency. How this tension is worked out – with close reference to their self-identity – appears to shape the specific combination of elements that constitute free choice to them (Thompson et al 1994). Surprisingly, given the dominant view of choice and freedom in contemporary consumer studies, most participants prioritised the ability to act deliberatively, over their wanting to feel in control, and wanting to be unrestricted in their choice-making. This suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that choice has come to have a restraining impact on their behaviour, and when this is transferred into the political sphere, consumer choice practices seem to generate a rather conservative force. Choice was most commonly used as a way of limiting further exposure to an ever- expanding range of future options, by creating clear comfort zones that were individualised and had supple parameters, making their perception of their routines sufficiently personalised – this is consistent with previous findings in a political context (Scullion 2006).
Linking the meanings afforded to the participants dominant choice practices to the political sphereThe political arena was consistently perceived by all participants as an agency-poor context relative to many other spheres of their everyday lives, and specifically, compared to their consumer sphere. There are multiple reasons why this is the case, Millar’s polemic (1998) arguing that ‘shopping really does matter’, finds support in my study. Millar declares that in the political sphere we believe we have little power, whilst in shopping we believe we have far more power. This is so because our sense of empowerment, or personal efficacy (Dermody and Hamner-Lloyd 2005) is located in settings where the perceived degree of choice is highest. My analysis adds further depth to this argument by suggesting that feelings of efficacy are also highest in contexts where certain types of choice-making practices – and therefore types of meanings – are considered to be available. Millar argues that individuals seek to attach importance to those parts of their lives that they feel they have some control over; in my study the participants were successful in attaching meaningfulness to their consumer choices, even when they felt they had little control over the situation. Analyses of my participants’ views of choice suggest nearly all held a eupsychian view of progress and change, that is belief for a transformation of the individual in order to create any sustained improvement in society as a whole (Cohen and Taylor 1993). Thus perceptions of potential change were located primarily in agency-rich contexts, and here they attributed importance to their role in the outcome. This perpetuated their existing belief that meaningful change is driven by individuals, for example through notions of ‘self-improvement’ and personal responsibility a poor fit with much that characterises political engagement. The participants all had established a clear sense of self-identity, perhaps long before they considered themselves to be members of the electorate. This may help explain why all, except one, had self-identities that were devoid of any overt political character. Their identity possessed a sense of its own agency, which meant a self-fulfilling process occurred where they used choice to strengthen, and highlight to others, their existing (largely non-political) identity. Their view of themselves fuelled their choice practices that perpetuated such self-characterisation. Little worth or perceived need was attached to the political sphere in relation to the single most important discourse they used to account for their choices: namely, development and sustaining of their own identity. Firat & Dholakia (1998) claim the whole world has been marketised, arguing that in late modernity the only remaining legitimising force and therefore the structure with the power to ascribe value is the market. This helps to explain why the participants felt able to generate meaningful choices in the consumer sphere, yet not in the political sphere. The locating of politics as an agency-poor context, the participants’ overwhelming sense of a eupsychian view of progress and change, and their overwhelmingly non-political sense of self-identity have profound implications for the meanings attributed to political choice. They exacerbate the distancing of politics, and further diminish its salience. They also reinforce the opinion widely held that consumer choice practices serve as a conservative force in the participants’ lives by generating a sense of permanence about their current everyday lives. The main meanings attached to political choice are those associated with an agency-poor context, namely as a ‘taken-for-granted’ choice that is readily ignored, and/or, as a burdensome imposed choice. Although the discourse of choice as a ‘taken-for-granted’ was used to account for political choice-making, it was often applied in a different manner than in the consumer sphere. The lack of salience that such choice possessed for identity building, its infrequency, and its apparent lack of immediate consequence, all meant that the nature of the ‘taken-for-granted’ status of electoral choice was manifest as one of a vague duty, or more often, as a choice easily-disregarded. The salience of consumer choice-making was reinforced by its very practice; the opposite was the case for political choice, where its remoteness sustained its lack of salience. Thus the prime way in which participants framed political choice was as externally-imposed, and as an additional, potentially burdensome decision, that others, remote from their everyday lives, expected them to make. This framing served to emphasize to most that such choice was taking place in an agency-poor context. This overwhelming sense of political choice being considered as an imposition meant such experiences were referred to in words that externalised and objectified them.
The major point is that, for my participants, political choice was categorised as chore-like, requiring them to make an effort that they felt no compulsion to make.Considering political choice through the dominant discourse that characterise everyday choice-making. All of the participants wanted to preserve a coherent sense of self, and the best way to achieve this was to marginalise contexts that might jeopardise it. Consequently, they attributed negligible importance to choices that did not serve this crucial role. Indeed political choice, with its perpetual talk of change, threatened disruption to most of the participants’ desire for a stable identity. Additionally, the ability to use consumer choices to satisfy self-identity denied a potential entry point for politics to appear anything other than episodically and marginally relevant. Even those with a fragile self-identity found the consumer context relatively accommodating, whereas the political context was described as abrasive, and full of uncertainty. Dreams of a better-life were largely considered to be a shinier version of their current situation, and it was as consumers that they sought to achieve their individualised progress, not through any politicised programme. A further potential entry point for politics to be relevant in the participants’ lives was diminished. The moral dimensions of choice-making had limited resonance for the participants’ political engagement, whilst most felt they had a civic responsibility (though it was not usually expressed in these terms), none articulated any clear view of what this duty meant, or why it was salient to them, beyond vague reference to concern for others. For all of the participants, a concern for others was a key reason that their choice-making had a moral quality, but this was usually confined to their intimate circle, any wider sympathies were peripheral. Participants were able to express sufficient consideration and care through the choices they made in local contexts that affected family, friends, and acquaintances, and this was frequently achieved, at least in part, through their consumer choice practices; for example through gift giving and self-gifting. The participants were accustomed to accounting for their choices with recourse to a personalised rationality linked closely to them occupying contexts where they were clear about the level of their own efficacy, (usually in the consumer sphere). Some participants chose to inhabit situations where they were confident of exerting influence – certainly not in the political sphere. Others, with little belief that they could exert control in most situations, made efforts to dwell in contexts where familiarity meant they knew what types of contingent elements they were likely to encounter – again, not in the political sphere. Those participants who created routines as a way of restricting and regulating the types of choices they subsequently faced were accustomed to avoiding and marginalising events outside these routines. Political engagement simply possessed too much potential indeterminateness, and was considered a threat to many of the participants’ well-developed ‘zones of immunity’. This meant that for many political choice was, in effect, routined-out of having any meaningful existence. For others who did participate in the political sphere it remained a marginal experience, rather than an important part of one of their routines. There is very little to say about choice as ‘pleasure generating’ in the political sphere as so little emotion towards such choice was expressed other than a generalised sense of complaint about a distant ‘them’. The discourse of choice ‘managing contingency’ was found to be valuable in understanding political engagement. Politics and elections were viewed as generating yet more contingency, to be treated with caution. None of the participants believed they could manage this form of contingency by taking control of it, as it was simply too big, complex and remote from them. The participants managed political and electoral contingency by compartmentalising it into a sphere of their lives that they attached low salience to. This mental differentiation meant that the participants created typologies of choice – consumer choice being associated with limited responsibility to self and close others, whilst political choice was characterised as one requiring broader, more complex consideration, and where the outcomes were less certain. Most importantly, the participants’ ability to successfully compartmentalise allowed them to create a satisfying refuge from the political sphere in a more privatised space – consumption – which afforded them a voice that most were confident in using. Overall then, my analysis suggests that the entire political context is categorised in ways that help people to distance it. This is, in effect and compensated for, or balanced-out, by the participants attributing far richer meaning to the choices they make in other spheres of life. Further reinforcing their desire to partition the political sphere from their everyday lives, the participants rarely linked aspects of their consumer life-sphere with the political sphere, nor did they appear to engage in what Thaler and Sustein (2009) call ‘choice mapping’ that might have revealed inherent associations between a political choice and its potential consequences in other spheres. So, for example, moving house, being recently made redundant, and discussing rising prices in the shops, were not connected directly with mainstream politics or their electoral choices.
Concluding remarksConsumer dominated discourses of choice, perpetuated by an ideologically infused media landscape, marginalises the political sphere and makes it easy to resist enacting practices as a political agent. It appears that individuals perceive themselves to be relatively empowered as consumers and this, inadvertently or otherwise, weakens the prominence of another life sphere that is all about influence – politics. The ability to personally account for their everyday consumer choices in the ways they do, offering the detail they do, , and with the degree confidence expressed, reinforces the idea, widely expressed in consumer behaviour studies, (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, Belk et al 2003, Arnould and Thompson 2005), that consumption spaces are a key location where meaning generation takes place. Many social theorists have express concern over the implications of such a state of affairs for political and civic culture, (Bauman 1993, 2007, Beck 1992, Beck and Beck–Gurnsheim 2002). articipants’ compartmentalised their life spheres in a way that suggests they recognise the differences between the consumer and political spheres. Without needing much deliberation, they readily accept that these contexts are substantively dissimilar in ways that made them want to maintain a sense of separateness. This process allows them to ‘make invisible’ the features that might actually serve to connect the two spheres. My study suggests that consumer choice practices serve as a conforming force in the participants’ lives. They generate a sense of permanence about the everydayness of consumption, to the point where it is often un-reflexively taken-for-granted. These practices also engender a belief that it is through being a consumer that they can improve and develop. This manifestation of a eupsychian view of progress is similar to Campbell’s reference to the phenomena of the ‘wannabe’ (2004), where the future is considered to be contained in such individual consumer-oriented wishes, propagated by other elements of consumer culture that joyously inform us that we can be, and can do anything we want, as long as we believe it. Indeed other literature demonstrates how individuals often focus on those consumer activities that bring their dreams closer, (d’Astous and Deschênes 2005) and protect their precious sense of an ideal future, (McCracken 1988). Hope, an important component of what is promised by politics, is for many, located and realised in the consumer sphere, a space rife with ontological possibility. Understandably then, the contemporary electorate are dismissive of politics serving any useful role beyond supporting the continuation of the current system. The consumer sphere creates, especially for those with confidence as consumers, no obvious need to look outside the consumption sphere in order to have meaningful experiences. Those less confident find their own ways to cope within consumption, and in any case, they have little self-belief that they could manage in other less familiar contexts. In other words, consumer choice appears to offer almost ‘everything’, by defining what our idea of ‘everything’ is. In this way we can maintain a sense of being in control of our lives, precisely because we come to depend on making choices of worth as consumers. Such choices are not, then, the “emancipatory moment in the flux of everyday” that Lefebvre 1991 (cited in Bull 2000) suggests. Rather, such choice has come to be a dominant form of habitual freedom that soon stops feeling like anything much more than everyday choice. Yet it is precisely this ‘taken-for-granted’ nature of consumer choice that makes us so protective of it, and in contrast, indifferent and at times wary of engaging in a sphere that is not considered part of our everyday lives -politics.
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Is a senior lecturer in marketing communications at Bournemouth University. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics on the meanings that consumers ascribe to their consumer and political choice practices. His research to date has focused on advertising, consumer choice and how consumer culture and civic culture inter-relate. He has published in a range of international journals including Advances in Consumer Research, European Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Marketing Management.