Adversaries of Consumption

Topics: Social movement, Sociology, Consumer protection Pages: 34 (11651 words) Published: December 10, 2012
This article focuses on consumer movements that seek ideological and cultural change. Building from a basis in New Social Movement (NSM) theory, we study these movements among anti-advertising, anti-Nike, and anti-GE food activists. We find activists’ collective identity linked to an evangelical identity related to U.S. activism’s religious roots. Our findings elucidate the value of spiritual and religious identities to gaining commitment, warn of the perils of preaching to the unconverted, and highlight movements that seek to transform the ideology and culture of consumerism. Conceiving mainstream consumers as ideological opponents inverts conventional NSM theories that view them as activists’ clients.


ocial movements are intentional collective efforts by activists to transform the social order (Buechler 2000). This article focuses on consumer movements, which are particular kinds of social movements that attempt to transform various elements of the social order surrounding consumption and marketing. As consumption has come to play an increasingly central role in contemporary society, consumer movements have arisen to challenge and transform aspects of it by propagating ideologies of consumption that radicalize mainstream views. As we seek to increase our understanding of the dynamics and complexities of consumer culture, we need theory that conceptualizes consumer movements and their ideological role. As we follow the historical trajectory of a culture of consumerism that seems in many accounts to be globally ascendant and apparently unstoppable, conceptualizing consumer movements that stand in opposition to it may be viewed as increasingly important. Sklair (1995, p. 507) terms the mutually reinforcing integration of consumer culture and consumerist ideology the “culture-ideology of consumerism” and concludes that it is a “fundamental institutional support of global capitalism.” The purpose of this article is to arrive at a theory-based understanding of con-

*Robert V. Kozinets is assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, School of Business, 975 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706; e-mail:; Web page: http:// Jay M. Handelman is associate professor of marketing at Queen’s University, School of Business, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, K7L 3N6; e-mail: The authors thank Marc Ventresca, John Meyer, Richard Scott, Eileen Fischer, and John Sherry for their many insightful comments and suggestions. The authors thank the editor, associate editor, and three reviewers for their comments and helpful suggestions. They are also grateful for the contributions of the consumer activists and consumers who were observed and interviewed for this article.

temporary consumer movements that seek to change this elemental institutional foundation. We can conceptualize any social movement’s ideology as consisting of three core representational elements, in which the movement’s activists publicly portray (1) their goal, (2) themselves, and (3) their adversary (Melucci 1989; Touraine 1981). Considerable theory development has taken the goal of consumer movements to be changes in the principles, practices, and policies of organizations, businesses, industries, and governments. This orientation is present in the historical conceptualization of management sociologist Rao (1998), who asserts that there have been three eras of consumer movement in the United States: an antiadulteration movement, the rise of nonprofit consumer watchdog organizations, and an era of legal activism. Activism in Rao’s (1998) account and related other theoretical accounts of consumer movement history (e.g., Gabriel and Lang 1995; Tiemstra 1992) accept consumption as central to modern society and present businesses as the targets and consumers as the clients of activist’s efforts. Consumer movements are portrayed as organized around goals that...
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