Living production‐engaged alternatives: An examination of new consumption communities

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In this study we draw on varied theoretical perspectives to explore and gain an alternative understanding of consumption at New Consumption Communities (NCCs). Intrinsic to the notion of NCCs is a sense of community between production‐engaged
  Consumption Markets & Culture Vol. 13, No. 3, September 2010, 273–298 ISSN 1025-3866 print/ISSN 1477-223X online© 2010 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/10253861003787015http://www.informaworld.com 510152025303540 Living production-engaged alternatives: An examination of new consumption communities Caroline Moraes a *, Isabelle Szmigin a  and Marylyn Carrigan  b a  Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK; b Open University Business School, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK  Taylor and FrancisGCMC_A_479223.sgm10.1080/10253861003787015Consumption, Markets and Culture1025-3866 (print)/1477-223X (online)Original Article2010Taylor & Francis133000000September 2010Dr CarolineMoraesc.moraes@bham.ac.uk  In this study we draw on varied theoretical perspectives to explore and gain analternative understanding of consumption at New Consumption Communities(NCCs). Intrinsic to the notion of NCCs is a sense of community between production-engaged consumers who question market practices deemed inadequateor unfair. Reported findings are part of a three-year ethnographic research projectand suggest that such communities have been overly perceived as presentingradical resistance to prevailing ideologies of consumer society. Collectively, theyare more interested in entrepreneurial positive discourses, practices and choices,than in acting against consumer culture or markets. This view is buttressed by their varied production-engaged practices, which in turn are problematized in relationto (perhaps outdated) notions of consumers, producers and their interrelationships.Finally, this paper attempts a fluid classification of the NCCs (Committed,Engaged Alternatives, Apprentices and Visionaries), and offers a view of alternative consumer behaviour that goes beyond the current “anti” discourses inthe extant literature. Keywords: anti-consumption; consumer culture; community; ethrography In this paper we present varied theoretical perspectives and findings from anethnographic study to explore and gain an alternative understanding of consumptionat New Consumption Communities (NCCs). NCCs have been conceptualized as thedevelopment of consumption communities that provide alternative forms of thinkingand being to an increasingly varied range of individuals (Szmigin and Carrigan 2003). NCCs are sustained around a sense of community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001) devel-oped over time, through an initial engagement in boycotts, voicing of concerns and “buycotts” (Friedman 1996), which in turn may be theorized as forms of consumer resistance. NCCs are encompassing, ranging from Fairtrade Towns (formed throughsteering groups of committed consumers and limited to fair trade issues), through tothose highly committed to various interrelated issues such as intentional and sustain-able communities (comprising lifestyle changes and production-engaged approachesto consumption). In their own ways, NCCs reveal perceived inadequacies of existingmarket systems, and represent responses to unwanted consumption and corporate behaviour deemed inappropriate or unfair (Szmigin, Carrigan, and Bekin 2007).At face value, the communities in this study may seem like an anti-consumptionresearchers’ paradise. Such communities, however, present a much more complex picture. Individual consumer resistance and communities of alternative consumption *Corresponding author. Email: c.moraes@bham.ac.uk  GCMC_A_479223.fm Page 273 Friday, July 16, 2010 9:02 PM  274  C. Moraes et al. 51015202530354045have been examined not only as anti-consumption (Craig-Lees 2006; Hogg, Banister,and Stephenson 2006; Zavestoski 2002) and attempts at consumer emancipation(Kozinets 2002; Giesler and Pohlmann 2003), but also as consumer activism and movements (Herrmann 1970; Hilton 2003; Kozinets and Handelman 2004; Lang and Gabriel 2005), political consumption (Micheletti and Follesdal 2007; Tormey 2007;Micheletti 2003; Dickinson and Carsky 2005; Shaw, Newholm, and Dickinson 2006;Shaw 2007) and countervailing responses to corporate co-optation (Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007).It is important to raise the question as to whether NCCs’ practices and discoursesreally should be theorized as anti-markets or anti-consumption. This is examined through a review of the extant literature and findings of a three-year ethnographicresearch project. A thematic exploration of seven UK NCCs is addressed, and thediscussion goes beyond the current “anti” literature and problematizes taken-for-granted dualisms and notions of consumers, producers, and their interrelationships.Finally, we develop theoretical implications for NCCs, consumer culture research, and marketing theory more broadly. Consumer resistance and related theories Consumer resistance, herein defined as consumers’ ability to withstand and respond to undesired market discourses and practices, is not a new phenomenon (see Brobeck 1997; Hilton 2003; Holt 2002; Lang and Gabriel 2005; Mitchell 1978). Severaltheoretical perspectives on consumer resistance have been developed, and a few arereviewed below. Consumer movements and activism Consumer resistance has been conceptualized by some scholars as a diverse socialmovement, which attempts to change aspects or, as put by Lang and Gabriel (2005),inadequacies of consumption and market practices. US and UK consumer movementcycles are said to have developed over four main waves beginning in the late 1800s(Forbes 1987; Frank 1997; Herrmann 1970; Herrmann and Mayer 1997; Hilton 2003;Kotler 1972; Lang and Gabriel 2005; Mitchell 1997). Consumers have mainly strived for fairer marketing practices, inclusivity and better information, and some groups(e.g. voluntary simplifiers) were interested in issues of excess materialism before theearly manifestations of consumer movements (cf. Rudmin and Kilbourne 1996). Thefirst wave (late 1800s to early 1900s) was marked by strong cooperatives and a desirefor social change, and capitalism was seen as something to be avoided. The workingclasses exercised both their power as workers and consumers; as early as 1844 inEngland (Lang and Gabriel 2005), and the 1840s in the United States (Frank 1994),the first consumer cooperatives were organized. The second wave (1930s) sought to provide consumer information so that people could operate more efficiently in themarketplace. This “value-for-money consumers” phase was the “first time thatconsumer activism saw itself as enabling consumers to take best advantage of themarket, rather than trying to undermine the market through cooperative action or  political agitation” (Lang and Gabriel 2005, 44); it offered no alternative envisioningfor society. The third wave (1960s), on the other hand, viewed capitalism and themarketplace as acceptable, but in need of much work to avoid its excesses and prob-lems (Lang and Gabriel 2005). It was during this wave that many US organizations GCMC_A_479223.fm Page 274 Friday, July 16, 2010 9:02 PM  Consumption Markets & Culture 275 51015202530354045gained strength; prominent consumer advocates such as Esther Peterson and Ralph Nader played an important role, which in turn prompted Lang and Gabriel (2005, 46)to call this the “Naderism” wave and position it as a particularly US phenomenon.Although Lang and Gabriel (2005) believe that European green consumerism has been the crucial factor to mark a new wave since the late 1980s, there have beenseveral major aspects contributing to the conditions for a new and diverse upsurge of consumer movements since then. One was the rapid proliferation of personal comput-ers and Internet access at the beginning of the 1990s (Berry and McEachern 2005;Shaw et al. 2004; Szmigin 2003). Additionally, there has been a rapid growth inconsumer organizations and coalitions (Herrmann and Mayer 1997). Westernconsumers’ concerns have become so encompassing that what has been termed “ethi-cal consumption” – that is, purchasing and consumption that takes into considerationsocietal, environmental and animal welfare concerns (Harrison, Newholm, and Shaw2005) – may be viewed as emanating from this long history of consumer movements.Current consumer concerns include corporate responsibility, development and fair trade issues, animal welfare, labour practices, WTO policies and globalization, as wellas issues more directly linked to global and systemic risks such as food scares, envi-ronmental degradation, and a questioning of the ethics of consumption and market practices more broadly. Herrmann and Mayer (1997) argue that consumer trust in business has diminished over the years, and Crane (2005) highlights the challengesfaced by organizations attempting to respond to consumers’ often contradictory moralgaze. Nevertheless, current consumer concerns have facilitated renewed cooperativeengagements; examples include ethical banking, community-supported agricultureinitiatives, box schemes and farmers’ markets (Lang and Gabriel 2005). In Lang and Gabriel’s (2005) view, such cooperatives offer critiques of productive structures,which in turn, it is argued, appeal to twenty-first-century consumers.From a historical perspective, Hilton (2003) highlights that although someacademic discourses drew on old theories to conceptualize consumers and their movements as manipulated dupes, others (i.e. cultural studies and early postmodernthinking) viewed the consumer as a liberated bricoleur   (Firat and Dholakia 2006;Hewer and Brownlie 2007), for whom commodities and resistance strategies arecultural resources for self-expression and experimentation. The problem with thiscelebration of the bricoleur   consumer, argues Hilton (2003, 9), is that first, the brico-leur   representation probably bears little, if any, relation to the everyday realities of most consumers; secondly, it assumes that all consumers are empowered or able tosubvert or devise acts of appropriation; thirdly, it resembles what marketing has beendoing for years (that is, championing the freedom and agency of the “sovereign”consumer); and finally, this “ideological convergence” has enabled many former counter-cultural activists to become foremost leaders in the current economic scene. Notwithstanding, it is worth reiterating the diversity intrinsic to such phenomena toavoid any overarching theoretical generalizations and interpretations about consumer movements.  Anti-consumption and consumer emancipation Kozinets and Handelman (2004, 692) also conceptualize consumer resistance asmovements, but position them against the “ideology and culture of consumerism.”They build upon new social movements theory to suggest that their case-studied consumer movements (anti-advertising, anti-Nike and anti-GM food groups) seek to GCMC_A_479223.fm Page 275 Friday, July 16, 2010 9:02 PM  276  C. Moraes et al. 51015202530354045reshape not only the principles, practices and policies of cultures of consumerism, butalso the fundamental ideology that sustains them. Although relevant, these authors’viewpoints are again difficult to generalize. While some groups may indeed be fight-ing consumer culture, others are still striving to ascertain basic consumer rights.Another issue is a lack of clarification regarding what is meant by anti-consumption,as previously highlighted by Craig-Lees (2006).In contrast, Kozinets (2002) explored the potential for consumer emancipation inwhat he termed an anti-market festival. Such theoretical conceptualization is in itself  problematic, particularly when we consider non/anti-consumption as within thesymbolic system of consumption (Connolly and Prothero 2003), whereby a consump-tion code is still used to achieve particular outcomes. Kozinets’s rich findings revealthat the examined community’s distancing drive was directed not at capitalism or markets  per se , but at large corporations and over-marketized practices that were seento weaken self-expression and social bonds. Anti-consumption communities arediscussed by Kozinets (2002) as empowering and corrective, and (artistic) gift-giving, bartering and sacrifice are viewed to re-enchant acts of consumption, self and commu-nity. Indeed, “community” was maintained through anti-market art and gift-giving,and as put by Kozinets, physical place was fundamental to their community.However, the amount of consumption that took place in this festival contradicted their anti-market discourse, something Kozinets explained by arguing that “festalexcesses” (Kozinets 2002, 34) are expected in such a context. But this highlights the point above that these communities are still using consumption as code and, as such,we should not ignore the role for theories addressing, for example, symbolicconsumption, social distinction, hedonism, as well as self, extended self and undes-ired self concepts (McEachern, Carrigan, and Szmigin 2007; Hogg, Banister, and  Stephenson 2006; Hogg and Banister 2001). Kozinets’s (2002) findings also highlightthe difficulty of positioning such communities as “anti,” and raises the question of whether, from a balanced emic/etic perspective, we should really be theorizing “anti”at all, a point to which we return below. Nevertheless, scholars increasingly seeconsumption as political (Micheletti and Follesdal 2007; Dickinson and Carsky 2005; Shaw 2007; Shaw, Newholm, and Dickinson 2006; Soper 2007; Tormey 2007), as discussed next. (Anti)consumption as political  Consumption may be viewed as political in that it presents an opportunity for directintervention, which would not be possible through voting (Micheletti 2003). Politicalconsumption has been defined as consumers’ conscious use of “their desire to changeobjectionable institutional or market environmental, political, or ethical practices asreasons for making choices among producers and products” (Micheletti and Follesdal2007, 168). In this way political consumption can be an umbrella concept encompass-ing diverse manifestations of individualized, micropolitical and, as put by Tormey(2007), everyday interventions, which collectively may have a positive impact onsocietal welfare. Thus, citizens take responsibility by using their virtues to evaluatethe politics behind the labels (Micheletti 2003).But these political perspectives are also controversial. As discussed by Micheletti(2003), although some may see this as the new neo-liberal discourse to suggest thatfree markets can and should solve all problems (consumer sovereignty), others willview it as the new left seeking to legislate free markets (consumers-as-dupes). As put GCMC_A_479223.fm Page 276 Friday, July 16, 2010 9:02 PM  Consumption Markets & Culture 277 51015202530354045 by Hilton (2003), however, “dupes” versus “sovereign” dualisms do not help. Instead,we should remember that “the consuming body is imbricated in wider systemsof power,” in which consumer activism plays a part, but not the only part (Hilton2003, 18).Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) also problematize such dualistic views.When discussing the assimilation of countercultural symbols and practices by themarketplace in the context of community-supported agriculture, they elaborate on the political ideology of such communities. The authors suggest that, although anti-globalization activists may seek market reformation through consumption activitiessuch as buying Fairtrade, this may generate a fear of corporate rhetoric amongcommitted consumers, who in turn will respond and direct their consumption choicesat localized alternatives such as community-supported agriculture. The idea of “coun-tervailing responses,” however, still rests on a dualistic notion of “corporate,” and “counter”; an entrapment in itself. This discussion begs a return to the point madeearlier about whether we should be theorizing “anti” at all. Going beyond anti and resistance Indeed, most of the literature reviewed above and previous studies of NCCs (e.g.Bekin, Szmigin, and Carrigan 2008; Szmigin, Carrigan, and Bekin 2007) have beenlargely based on dualistic framings. However, as suggested by our anonymous review-ers, “anti-consumption” and “resistance” facilitate the perpetuation of binary divisionsand oppositional theories – of inside or outside, power or resistance, monetaryexchange or gift-giving, passivity or creativity, pro- or anti-market(ing) – rather thanacknowledge the changing face of our (new consumer) culture.Kozinets, Hemetsberger, and Schau (2008), for example, conceptualize commu-nal consumer innovation and creativity in light of the collaborative world facilitated  by the diffusion of networking technologies. In doing so, they acknowledge thesocial (and marketing) significance of such transformations, and the changing natureof consumption: a participatory, collaborative and productive process, no longer characterized by the passivity of previous-century consumption. They suggest thatdistinctions between producers and consumers – now “prosumers” (Toffler 1981) – are dissolving, and that consumption in online environments is indivisible from production. Similarly, Cova, Kozinets, and Shankar (2007) problematize notions of consumption and consumer, and argue for a more participatory, creative, fluid,social and dialogical view of “prosumers” and their relationships with brands,commercial culture and firms. These new consumers are at once activators, doubleagents, plunderers and entrepreneurs (Cova, Kozinets, and Shankar 2007), at a timein which marketing is said to be evolving into a services logic (Vargo and Lusch2004). In this way, marketing becomes a facilitator for a new type of work-play,and “part of the cultural fabric of an ongoing community” (Kozinets, Hemetsberger,and Schau 2008, 352). Tapscott and Williams (2007) also discuss what they term“Wikinomics” (collaborative economics) and acknowledge the brave new world of technology-enabled, collaborative consumers as an unlimited and free R&Dresource, which in turn should be tapped into by companies (Tapscott and Williams2007).However, we would suggest that although roles may be shifting and merging,firms are still major/organized market players if compared to individual contributorsto communities of “collective intelligence” (Lévy 1997). As highlighted by Jenkins GCMC_A_479223.fm Page 277 Friday, July 16, 2010 9:02 PM
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