Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/2445/121108
Title: Consumer agency and social change: Experiences from post-World War South Africa
Author: Sadian, Samuel
Director: Wagner, Peter, 1956 setembre 18-
Keywords: Consum (Economia)
Canvi social
Bourdieu, Pierre, 1930-2002
Sahlins, Marshall David, 1930-
Consumption (Economics)
Social change
Issue Date: 12-Feb-2018
Publisher: Universitat de Barcelona
Abstract: [eng] This study proposes a novel approach to understanding the contribution that consumer action makes to social change, both at the level of conceptual generalisation and when applied to institutionalised practices in particular historical settings. Conceptually, I develop an anthropologically generalisable account of consumption, drawing especially on Marshall Sahlins’ pioneering Culture and practical reason (1976). Against economistic understandings of consumer agency, we do better to defend a more culturally self-aware and ethically articulate mode of explanation. From this perspective, I argue, it is the expressive potential of consumer practices that most fundamentally sets them apart from productive practices. In making this argument I nonetheless avoid the excessive culturalism that arises when ignoring both the effect of economic variables on consumer agency and the manner in which consumption is tied up with relationships of power. When analysing the institutional dimension of consumption, most existing literature approaches it as a form of action limited to the market, while taking the market to be synonymous with the economic domain as such. This way of approaching the subject draws attention to significant forms of consumption but obfuscates the historically specific and contingent complexity of human livelihoods even in societies in which market exchange and capitalist forms of market-oriented production are firmly established. In particular, such approaches tell us very little about how those poor in financial resources consume, both within societies characterised by comparatively high average income and beyond. Consumption is better approached as a form of action exercised within all three institutional spheres of the “human economy” discussed in Karl Polanyi’s later work: not only the market, but also redistribution and reciprocity. Prima facie significant fields of consumption can then be analysed in terms of their ability to create, alter or destroy widespread forms of social integration and political mobilisation, but such analysis must proceed in a manner that is fully alive to the peculiarities of given social formations. Drawing on both political-economic and ethnographic literature, I illustrate this approach by examining three fields of consumption in South Africa from 1948 to the present: clothing, housing and faith healing. These consumer practices have been dynamically bound up with both class and racial power dynamics, while leading to the formation of novel forms of solidarity of the sort commonly discussed in terms of sub-cultures, new social movements and sects or kinship groups. In light of these case studies, it is necessary to challenge three misleading but pervasive claims about consumption that continue to inform contemporary critical social theory. Firstly, the economistic dogma that the market form of integration, and market-oriented production in particular, has the capacity to systematically structure consumer practices offers little purchase on how people really behave when consuming. Secondly, conceptualising consumption as a form of reproduction of an entire social order is a functionalist canard that critical social theory still needs to disown. We encounter this tenet even in the sophisticated work of Pierre Bourdieu, which remains enormously influential throughout the contemporary social sciences and which is invoked in all major studies of consumption. A third problem, also perpetuated by Bourdieu’s thinking on the subject, is the critical tendency to reduce all consumer agency to a form of instrumental domination. This can only be sustained as a valid generalisation by offering a flattened account of consumer motivation that ultimately negates agency and that collapses qualitatively distinct ethical modes of evaluation and action into one another. While such an approach is of some limited use for unmasking the domination that reciprocity can entrench, the price one pays for generalising such claims is, ultimately, an inability to recognise the gift when one sees it.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2445/121108
Appears in Collections:Tesis Doctorals - Departament - Sociologia

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