The ‘Accidental’ Citizen: Some reflections
ECCG at Bournemouth University
An account of the relationship between citizen and consumer affords key difference to the two notions. They are considered at some levels in very ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ terms, one good the other bad, one worthy the other of dubious character, one suggestive of a progressive society the other of a break-down in civil society. But, just as and serious reading of Stevenson’ tale appreciates the layered allegory, so too should we recognise a dialectic that connects the two notions, and, I argue, allows us to understand some of the nuances of what it means to be a consumer and a citizen in our everyday lives.
Citizen and consumer: the black and white version
Citizenship is predominately considered about the legalistic relational arrangements between a subject and the state, Hinich and Minger (1997) Pattie and Seyd (2003), with a focus is on appropriate entitlements and responsibilities. The concept is considered to be something beyond individual self-determination because, as Turner (2001) makes clear, the benefits of citizenship result largely through the collective development of a civil society. Decision-making involves due consideration to justice, equality and the widest possible consequences whilst individual agency is manifest through having a voice. Seen in direct opposition, the consumer is considered a free choice maker in the market, Slater (1997) emphasis is on rights and limited obligations, agency is realised through exit strategies and choice is based on individual preference. Lasch (1978) argues the two positions develop different cultural values and norms. This position of contrast is important because as the established position in the literature, Hay (2002), it has served to restrict our thinking about how the two may actually coalesce in the everyday lives of individuals.
Consumer as the preferred mode of operating
More recently the dominance of consumption has emerged with Cohen (2003) arguing that people are now “bringing market expectations to their appraisals of the Government itself – judging it by the personal benefits they, as segmented purchasers, judge consumer offerings” (pp344). The market offers a non-discriminatory veneer, (Edwards 2000), and has come to be a major legitimising force, (Kozinets 2001). Individual agency is frequently and perhaps most tellingly, demonstrated to each other through the autonomous choices we face and make, as evidenced in our consumer culture. Our notion of free choice is well matched to market environments, for example, very little consumer choice is perceived as obligatory. Sovereignty as consumer is manifest in a sense of continually renewed power and importance each time we make a decision. Meaningful engagement is found in spaces where a sense of proficiency in the discourse exists, in markets rather than political sites.
Combining notions of citizen and consumer
I adopt what might be called a hybrid position where I suggest we look beyond difference to understand the relationship between citizen and consumer. Several ways in which consumer and citizen may coalesce have been articulated in Clarke (2004); each alters the traditional view of citizenship and of consumption. Citizen as consumer where what one has come to understand and expect as a private consumer ought to be extended to all life spheres. Consumers as multiple-identity holders, including that of citizen, indicate that we can choose when and where to act as a citizen thus changing in quite fundamental ways what the notion means. Miles agrees with this combined conceptualisation by arguing that “consumerism offers apparently democratic value structures” (1998 pp10). Here the apparent freedom through our choice- making is equated to democratic values. Being a citizen is now equated with being a socially-aware responsible consumer who “thinks ahead and tempers her decisions by social awareness…..and who must occasionally be prepared to sacrifice personal pleasure to communal well-being” (Gabriel and Lang 1995 p175). Thus we start to witness a merging of consumer literacy with political literacy. Connections between consumer choices and their potential wider social consequences are now part of the prevailing discourse. There are many examples of political consumption ranging from personally-oriented decisions not to be involved in certain practices (e.g. the eating of meat) through to collectively-oriented acts that attempt to change other actors’ beliefs and practices (e.g. protesting outside livestock establishments), see Follesdal (2004). Consumption then, is a political site because it is where preference can be and frequently is expressed. As Arnold and Thompson (2005) argue, there is much evidence pointing to theatres of consumption as emancipation spaces where the consumer makes a critical contribution to what happens.
A merging of our consumer and citizen roles in our everyday experiences
The market will treat us in almost anyway we wish so long as we engage in it. If we want to politicise our consumption acts so be it and just because most of the potential political quality remains dormant, it remains. Both the consumer and brand owner know that they can activate it and at times it is revealed. For example brands come to represent icons of capitalism, whilst groups who seek societal change attack and subvert the advertising messages of consumer brands that have come to represent a certain lifestyle. Sections of society come to be defined by their consumption patterns e.g. the Pink Pound and DINK’s. At the same time, brands increasingly use politicised market positioning – for example, eco labelling, philanthropic acts, and ethical production processes. Politicised agency is thus inadvertently offered to consumers and producers as a result of the contemporary importance afforded to brands. There is added civic qualities to consumer choice with their plethora of calls to demonstrate our ethical, green, wise and moral stance through what and how we consume. It is increasingly hard not to face political choices as we make our way down the supermarkets aisles or drive onto the petrol forecourt to fill up. This adds another layer to our consumer sovereignty…. allowing us to feel that we are good citizens through being wise consumers. Authentic brand positioning, exposes the consumer to its corporate roots, and reveals its history. We are not just buying the product but also its ethos, its processes, its stance in the world, thus affording consumption yet more of a political quality. This desire for authenticity accidentally invites consumers to take on the role of social and ethical critic too. Our expanded knowledge of brands and their corporate position on, for example, equal rights for gay and lesbian employees, or their involvement in ‘sweat-shop’ practices, and our ability to differentiate market offerings based on such political positions, mean our consumer choices take on a citizenly quality. Zwick et al (2007) demonstrate that participation in the stock market can generate a ‘politicisation’ of investors. Their online buying and selling of personal shares becomes the site of “reflexive, socially responsible and moral consumer behaviour” (pp181). In my main articles I draw on many examples from everyday mediated experiences, not only serve to support the concept of the Accidental Citizen, a crucial outcome of this fusing of consumer and citizen is that we increasingly see and experience the connections – the politics of being a consumer.
The emergence of the ‘Accidental Citizen’
A ‘politics-lite – rooted in being a consumer-citizen, rather than politics-heavy – rooted in being a citizen-consumer characterises much of contemporary culture. A political gesture in the market is attractive, as it is quick, easy, accessible, and offers a visible output. And consumption acts can connect us to politics without requiring us to adopt a traditional citizenly role, (Eliosoph 1998). Thus, from buying healthy options for your child’s lunch, the lack of a sports field at their school may emerge as salient and you become involved in a longer-term politicised action. Rather than denying citizenship, being a consumer can offer outlets where actions and decisions take on civic qualities and can lead us to consider broader public issues, in essence the ‘Accidental Citizen’. Many politicised consumer acts require a high degree of co-ordination and cooperation; hence in consumption there is often a requirement for a bonding and recognition of mutuality of benefit in order to succeed – in other words a civic-ness. The market as a site for political discourse and action is not new, what is different is the shift in the perceived location of power from public to market sphere and our awareness of this change contributes to the blurring of what it means to be a citizen and to be a consumer in contemporary society. A vital question the full articles address is whether the ‘Accidental Citizen’ a catalyst for politicised agency? To help me answer this I use social theories that demonstrate how the idea of self-identity is increasingly one rooted in consumption, (Bauman 2000, Giddens 1998, Beck 2002).
For a fuller development of these arguments see
Scullion, R. (2008) The Impact of the Market on the Character of Citizenship, and the Consequences of this for Political Engagement. In Lilleker, D. and Scullion, R (eds) (2008) Voters or consumers: Imagining the contemporary electorate. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Scullion, R. (forthcoming) The emergence of the ‘Accidental Citizen’: Implications for Political Marketing. Journal of Political Marketing.