Exploring Consumption’s Pedagogy and Envisioning a Critical Pedagogy of Consumption—Living and Learning in the Shadow of the “Shopocalypse”1
Jennifer A. Sandlin and Peter McLaren
In a world where Michael Jordan is paid more for a single Nike advertisement than the combined wages of workers in a Southeast Asia Nike factory, is it any wonder that Mattel has brought out a new ‘Cool Shoppin’ Barbie,’ the first doll with a toy credit card. The offspring of a Mattel and MasterCard initiative to secure a future generation of lifetime credit card addicts (similar to the way that the Joe Camel advertisement was designed to addict a generation of children to cigarettes), Cool Shoppin’ Barbie is a shameless exploitation of children in a country in which 1.35 million people filed for bankruptcy in 1997 because of the easy availability of credit. Is this any more ethically repulsive than the media’s glorification of wealth, or celebration of violence, or its anointing of high-priced consumer items with a sacerdotal status, and its overall linking of consumption to identity? Is it any wonder that gun-obsessed children are feeling alienated and blowing away their classmates with high-powered rifles and then complaining that they can’t order pizzas in their jail cells? Should we blink an eye at the fact that the former president and chairman of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was paid one million dollars by Pizza Hut to play his character on a TV commercial, where he is praised by the Russian people for introducing them to the delights of pizza, democracy, and Western-style freedom.
(McLaren, 2005, p. 79)
This opening quote sets the stage for this book, as it describes the current state of consumption in our hypercapitalist world, and its oppressive cultural, social, economic, and ecological consequences. In this book, we take the acts and processes of consumption as our starting place—being ever mindful of consumption’s inextricable links to capitalist production—and explore how education and learning are impacted by, grounded in, implicated with, and tied to consumption. This edited volume focuses on the connections between consumption, education, and learning. It explores the present context of consumer capitalism and the various implications our current times hold for lifelong education and learning; it also examines how consumption is tied to learning and identity development. In this book, authors explore the learning and education that are located in the hegemonic aspects of consumption, as well as those that are situated in the more playful, ludic, creative aspects of consumption. Finally, this book explores educational
sites of contestation and resistance—both formal and informal—where learners and teachers are enacting critical pedagogies of consumption.
The ideology of consumerism is currently one of the most dominant forces in society; we undoubtedly live in a consumer world, and we enact processes of consumption in almost every aspect of our lives. Scholars of consumption, however, take various perspectives on consumption. Some scholars focus on the destructive economic, social, and cultural impacts of rampant overconsumption, while others, like Twitchell (1999), praise consumption as a creative way of forming identities and materialism as a form of freedom. Our own theoretical perspectives on consumption are more complex, lying somewhere in between these two views (see the section later in this introduction where we briefly discuss our own conceptualizations).
Regardless of one’s theoretical perspective on the meanings and consequences of consumption, many argue that consumer behavior, “rather than work or productive activity has become the cognitive and moral focus of life, the integrative bond of society” (Usher, Bryant, & Johnston, 1997, p. 16). Usher et al. (1997) assert that contemporary consumer capitalism—for better or worse—encourages and requires both consumption and “people who develop their identities through consumption” (p. 16).
Given the omnipresence of consumption in our lives, Usher et al. (1997) insist that it is currently impossible to understand education and learning “without a conception of the part played by consumption and consumer culture,” (p. 18) and urge educational researchers and practitioners to begin taking consumption seriously as a site of education and learning. We, in turn, call upon educators to not only consider consumption as a space of education and learning, but also to critically analyze what it might mean to resist consumerism and overconsumption. This activist work exists both inside of schools and in more informal spaces of learning such as the broad and diverse social movements focused on resisting consumerism and consumption, which include groups working towards labor rights and opposing global sweatshops, fighting against globalization, advocating for fair trade, and fighting against the ecological destruction that accompanies massive overconsumption.
We, in this introductory chapter, and the other contributors in this book, in their chapters, reiterate these calls to educators to begin to take consumption seriously as a site of learning and education, and as a potential site of production and resistance. In order to facilitate this engagement with consumption’s pedagogy and to work towards envisioning what a “critical pedagogy of consumption” might look like, we believe it is important for educators to understand various perspectives on consumption, and to get a sense of the many ways in which education, learning, and consumption intersect. In explicating these issues, we hope to convince educators to more vigorously begin discussing, reflecting upon, learning about, teaching, and researching consumption and its intersections with education, learning, and resistance. While there is a small but growing interest among educators in issues of consumption, learning, and education (Haiven, 2007; Hoechsmann, 2007; Jubas, 2007; Kenway & Bullen 2001; Molnar, 2005; Sandlin, 2005; Sandlin & Milam, 2008; Spring, 2003), this work is only just beginning to build an understanding of the kinds of learning and education that are
intertwined with the processes of, participation in, negotiation of, and resistance to, consumption.
Historicizing, Defining, and Theorizing Consumption
The practices and processes of learning and education exist within a context of consumer capitalism that is increasingly structuring how social, political, and economic life around the world is organized (Finger & Asún, 2001). Consumption is defined by McCracken (1990, p. xi) as “the processes by which consumer goods and services are created, bought, and used” and has become perhaps the most significant organizer of twenty-first century life. And Paterson (2006) argues that individual acts of consumption are embedded in larger processes of consumption. That is, a particular act of consumption is part of a series of processes that extend beyond processes of production. An individual act of consumption, then, has “taken account of branding, images, [and] notions of self-worth,” has “responded to themes and signs that trigger elements of the sensory consciousness and the nonconscious states,” and has “exercised the temporary satisfaction of a desire or felt need” (Paterson, 2006, p. 3). Others within the field of critical environmental economics position consumption as the “using up” of natural resources, and focus on the “commodity-chain approach,” which sees consumption decisions as being “heavily influenced, shaped, and constrained by an entire string of linked choices being made, and power being exercised, as commodities are created, distributed, used, and disposed of” (Princen, Maniates, & Conca, 2002, p. 15). Princen et al. (2002) craft what they call an “ecological political economy” of consumption— which combines an analysis of the effects of consumption on the environment with a look at the social and political dimensions of consumption, especially the ways in which power benefits some and harms others. Thus, they place environmental concerns within the context of issues of “community, work, meaning, freedom, and the overall quality of life” (Princen et al., 2002, p. 3).
It is widely posited that contemporary “consumer society”—and, along with it, a new era of consumer capitalism—has its roots in the post-World War II era, where there was an “explosion of consumption in the industrialized nations,” as “many industries, such as automobiles, chemicals, domestic appliances, electrical and electronic goods, took off, fueling as well as feeding off a culture of consumerism” (Gabriel & Lang, 1995, p. 12). This new “consumer capitalism” involves “a shift towards consumption as a central social, economic and cultural process” as well as the globalization of capital and proliferation of multinational corporations (Bocock, 1993, p. 78). As this frenzy of consumption has moved from the modern into the postmodern era, the meanings of consumption have shifted accordingly, and have become tied much more to identity formation. Within current times, lifestyle choices and consumption patterns have come to shape people’s senses of identity, rather than their work roles, a change Bocock (1993) sees as ushering in a new phase of capitalism. Indeed, Bocock (1993, p. 77) argues that consumption is “the characteristic socio-cultural activity par excellence of late twentieth-century post-modern capitalism … Consumption is a, even the, major characteristic of post-modernity.”
Consumption is sometimes described as a process—a “set of social, cultural, and economic practices” (Bertelsen, 1996, p. 90), which in capitalism is supported by the ideology of consumerism which “serves to legitimate capitalism in the eyes of ordinary people” (p. 90). The promise that the ideology of consumerism makes is that “consumption is the answer to all our problems; consumption will make us whole again; consumption will make us full again; consumption will make us complete again; consumption will return us to the blissful state of the ‘imaginary’” (Storey, 1996, p. 115). While some sociologists and cultural studies theorists who study consumption focus on the “negative” ideology of consumerism that they assert underlies all processes of consumption, others seek to remove the tone of “condemnation” (Sassatelli, 2007, p. 2) inherent in many descriptions of consumption, and focus more on the complexity of actual, contextualized, consumer practices.
Within the sociology of consumption, there are various theoretical perspectives on consumption (Martens, Southerton, & Scott, 2004); these various theoretical perspectives are in turn categorized differently by different authors (see, for example, Giles & Middleton, 1999). Drawing upon these various ways of categorizing different approaches to consumption within the sociology of consumption, we briefly discuss four different perspectives on the meaning of consumption. The first perspective is grounded in critical theory and conceptualizes consumption from the vantage point of the sphere of production. This perspective focuses on how consumer culture helps reproduce capitalism (Kenway & Bullen, 2001) and is grounded in Marxist and Frankfurt School approaches to the study of culture and consumption. This approach views “individuals as trapped within a system of exchange over which ultimately they have little control” (Giles & Middleton, 1999, p. 220). Storey (1996) explains that for Marx,
This approach is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (1944/2000), who focused on the “culture industry” and how it mass-produced homogenized and commodified culture, art, and entertainment to be consumed by a manipulated public. In this view, “late capitalism, through the entertainment and information industry, promotes an ideology of consumption which generates false needs which function as control mechanisms over consumers” (Sassatelli, 2007, p. 76), all for the benefit of furthering consumer capitalism. From this point of view, the system of production drives the system of consumption; the culture industry—which is made up of television, advertising, the entertainment industry, and commercial culture of all kinds—creates false needs in individuals in
order to sell products. Individuals then seek to fulfill those manufactured needs through consuming the products they see advertised through these various media. From this perspective, consumers have very little agency to resist the culture industry.
A second perspective on consumption, exemplified early on by the work of Veblen (1899/2000) and more recently by the work of Bourdieu (1984) and others who have pursued Bourdieu’s line of research (see, for example, Holt, 1998), as well as those who take more anthropological approaches to consumption (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979, for example) pays more attention to modes of consumption and consumption as a means of...