2013 Consumer Culture Theory Conference - Part II

Day 2 was all sorts of awesome – not all conferences have their early sessions packed (but they don’t serve gigantic cookies during the coffee break either).
Session: Materiality Matters: Investigations of the (De)stabilizing capacities of material elements in consumption-related assemblages I co-chaired this session with Eileen Fischer (York University). We invited some colleagues who have been working with socio-material theories to present their work and discuss the usefulness of a socio-material perspective to illuminate a variety of consumption phenomena.
Socio-material theories provide a lens that differs from the social constructivist perspectives that have dominated CCT research. In contrast to the social constructivist’s metaphoric use of the term “construction,” proponents of a socio material perspectives adopt a realist social ontology that defends the literal meaning of social construction – or, as Manuel DeLanda explains, “building or assembling [the social] from parts”. In this sense, assemblages or actor networks can be defined as “wholes whose properties emerge from the interactions between parts.”
Socio material perspectives highlight the capacities, instead of properties, of elements that are part of assemblages or networks. While properties are given and can be listed at any point in time, capacities are not given – they might go unexercised if no suitable agent for interaction is around. Therefore, the whole is not explained by the properties of the elements interacting in it, but by the capacities these elements exercise when they come together. A second facet of socio-material theories is that they emphasize that assemblages or actor networks are not inherently stable or enduring. Thus, studies infused with these perspectives tend to focus on dynamics that lead to or impede the breakdown of social constructions. Finally, socio-material theories accord agency to material elements of social construction just as they do to human elements.

Assemblage theory was developed by Deleuze and Guattari. I must say I am yet to dive into their work (click here for 13 surprising facts about the lives of these two philosophers). I did find DeLanda’s introduction very helpful, and it was sufficient to get me started in questioning phenomena from a different perspective. I am sure I will end up going to Deleuze for more, but when it comes to a topic such as social complexity, it is comforting to start with a friendly little book.
“A new philosophy of society” .

Robin Canniford (University of Melbourne) and Avi Shankar (University of Bath) started the session presenting their study of betrayal and purification in consumption assemblages. They illustrate the practices of multiple actors engaged in overcoming betrayals in assemblages with data on the (de)stabilization of a surfing point in Portugal’s seashore.
Marie-Agnès Parmentier (HEC Montrèal) followed to present her research on the materiality of serial entertainment brands, describing the unfolding of narratives and materiality over time for the America’s Next Top Model reality show.
I then presented the study I’ve been working on with Eileen on the materiality of plus-size fashion. Extending our research on the plus-size fashion market, we explain how both the expressive and the material aspects of fashion matter to the consumption practices of consumers who do not “fit” the ideals of fashion marketers. Lots of beautiful pictures illustrated the entire session: wild nature, beaches, and models of all sizes.
Dannie Kjeldgaard did a great job as the session discussant, noting the importance of reflexivity when adopting a new ontology, and bringing important questions to the foreground (How are the boundaries of assemblages traced? Who decides what the preferred assemblages are? What is the role of the researcher in assemblage theory?).

Session: Consumer Identity Crossings This time I couldn’t quite resist shifting between two sessions and sat for a while at the session “Enacting, Imagining, and Promoting the Ideal Home, chaired by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder (both at Rochester Institute of Technology), where I saw Jonathan Bean’s (Bucknell University) presentation on the ideal North American home in the postwar era. A historical examination beautifully illustrated.
At the consumer identity crossings session, I caught Jenna Drenten’s (John Carroll University) presentation on coming of age consumption practices among adolescent girls. In her powerful voice, Jenna showed how her findings question conventional perspectives on rites of passage and point to many identity tensions that market-mediated milestones serve to alleviate.
In this session I also got to know Kyle Puetz (University of Arizona), whose really interesting study aims to understand (from a rather unexpected approach) different logics of taste that structure consumer identity. Kyle uses social network analysis tools (blackmodelling) to examine the issue, with data from critics’ preferred film selections. His research is one example of what David Crockett (University of South Carolina) mentioned in his commentary during the lunch plenary on day 1: consumer culture research can largely benefit from further exploring the tools of social network analysis.

Session: Consumer Engagement and Resistance This was a super interesting session about various forms of consumer action: David Crockett and Nicholas Pendarvis (University of South Carolina) presented a study of “Bank Transfer Day” as a consumer movement; Carla Walters (University Savoy) suggested using dance in social marketing campaigns promoting anti-consumption, and Marlon Dalmoro (UNIVATES) presented his work co-authored with Lisa Peñaloza (Bordeaux Management School) and Walter Nique (UFRGS) on the sustenance of the Gaucho culture in southern Brazil.
Marlon and his co-authors’ reflections on the role of consumption in market resistance draws from extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the south of Brazil. That is very close to home, as I am married to a “Gaucho” and have lived for almost 10 years in the southernmost state of Brazil. Most Gauchos are extremely proud of their culture, even though they might have never been in a farm or mounted a horse, and have no clue how to roast barbecue over a fire pit (in case you haven’t guessed yet, Gauchos are Brazilian cowboys). Marlon showed how consumers support an organized alternative market system in which their practices sustain local producers and reinvigorate Gaucho culture, without ever leaving the mainstream market.

Salons and an “Auto-Ethnographic Collective Experiment of Object Circulation” The second half of the day was set up a little differently. Rather than having several little breakout sessions to choose from, attendees could sign-up for one of 8 salons. Each room had been set up with two or three large round tables and salons were topped at 20 participants each. As the conference co-chairs Linda Price and Lisa Peñaloza proposed them, salons were set up to be “Imaginative, collaborative work-play spaces modeled after the creative theory spaces at HCR, the localized field encounters at EPIC, the highly coveted, artsy, politically charged tertulias in Latin America, and the literary-philosophic social gatherings in Europe – all so important in advancing the role of the public intellectual.”
Bernardo Figueiredo and I were hosting a salon, based on our project on object circulation. I will tell you more about this research project on a separate post, but let me say that the salon format worked really well to get people thinking about object circulation, exchange ideas about future directions for our study, and maybe plan studies of their own around issues we raised. In addition to the objects Bernardo and I set out to circulate before the conference, another one has started circulating already that has been created by participants of our salon. The salon format for CCT was debriefed during the awards brunch, apparently with very positive feedback from organizers and attendees.

Speaking of awards…
Although I missed the awards brunch (early flight – long trip back home), I was really happy to hear that the Sidney Levy Award went to Elif Izberk-Bilgin, University of Michigan-Dearborn, for her article “Infidel Brands: Unveiling Alternative Meanings of Global Brands at the Nexus of Globalization, Consumer Culture, and Islamism.” Published on the Journal of Consumer Research, in December 2012. Her paper investigates how the religious ideology of Islamism informs brand meanings among low-income Turkish consumers and identifies three discourses that construct global brands as infidels. A topic that would be relevant at any time, but that is now timelier than ever. The opening paragraph of the article, an excerpt from her field notes, is one of the best I have ever seen - it brings the reader right into her research context and illustrates the research problem so clearly that no doubt is left so as to the relevance of the study. Here it is:
“Infidel! Infidel!” cries the six-year-old boy upon hearing his mother mention Nestlé during our interview. The father, who has just returned from evening prayer at the local mosque, tries to change the subject quickly. He appears to be acutely aware of the symbolic meaning of my unveiled attire and our likely ideological differences. Despite the pro-Islamist government’s renewal of power and the relaxed attitudes toward expressing religious identity in Turkey, the father avoids commenting on the “infidel” remark, carefully weighing his words to prevent an ideological clash. The mother, on the other hand, who volunteers as a Quran instructor for the shantytown’s young girls, could care less about political correctness. As passionate as her son, she believes that Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are “infidels” because “they are killing Muslims in Palestine and now Iraq.”
Elif dedicated her award to those suffering in Turkey. The “best competitive paper” prize went to Becca Watkins and Mike Molesworth with an honourable mention to Janet Borgerson. The “best poster prize” went to: Anastasia Seregina (Aalto University) with honorable mentions to Aimee Dinnin Huff (moving soon to Oregon State University) and Sarah Wilner (Wilfrid Laurier University) as well as Andrew Smith and Pierre-Yann Dolbec (both my former colleagues at York University).
With that, the 2013 Consumer Culture Theory Conference came to a close – and we are all looking forward to the next one, to be hosted in 2014 by Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland.