Category Archives: Consumerism

Sociologist Sharon Zukin Discusses Her Love/Hate Relationship with Consumer Culture

szukin headshotSharon Zukin, chair-elect of the section on consumers and consumption, is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She started out as a political sociologist, became an urban sociologist, and now combines those interests with studies of institutions, spaces and cultures of consumption. She has received the C. Wright Mills Award, the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for career achievement in community and urban sociology, and the Jane Jacobs Award for urban communication. Her most recent book is Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, and her most recent article looks at restaurants and racial identity in a gentrifying area of Brooklyn.

Nicki: You began your academic career in political science. How did you come to study consumer culture and its implications?

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Understanding Radical Peer-to-Peer Consumption: An Interview with Emilie Dubois

 “I have one chance at a career, and I want one with an impact for people that I really care about.”

Emilie-Duboiscopy-239x300Emilie Dubois is destined to be a change-maker. Driven by her working class roots and experience growing up in the post-industrial community of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, she is revolutionizing how sociologists approach and understand the phenomenon of “connected consumption.”

Emilie, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Boston College who works closely with Juliet Schor, was driven to our field by class inequities. She took her first sociology class at Columbia University while working in admissions at Columbia Business School. Appalled by the directive to give preference to wealthy candidates, Emilie sought conceptual tools to help her understand the situation she found herself in. She enrolled in “Power and Politics in Organizations,” experienced in her words a “massive consciousness shift,” quit her job, and applied to graduate programs in sociology.

Now, Emilie is in the midst of her dissertation research and works on Schor’s research team for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network. The team is studying the phenomenon of “connected consumption,” which Emilie explains is a new system of exchange premised on “economic connections that are not mediated by an organization in a demonstrative way.”

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Closing the Loop: iPhones in Production and Consumption

On Friday, September 20, the new iPhone models 5S and 5C were presented for sale at Apple stores around the world. An onslaught of media coverage of customers waiting on line for and purchasing the new devices ensued. Yet, we have still seen very little coverage of the report published by China Labor Watch on July 29 that documented rampant abuse of laborers and violation of Chinese labor law at Pegatron Shanghai, where these new iPhones are produced. The photo pairings that follow–each composed of a photo from media coverage of Friday’s iPhone launch and a photo from the China Labor Watch report–are meant to close the loop between production and consumption. The information included with each pairing is taken from the photo captions provided by the Los Angeles Times, and from the China Labor Watch report titled “Apple’s unkept promises: cheap iPhones come at high cost to Chinese workers.” They are presented without editorial comment for your thoughtful consideration.

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Apple’s Seductive Brand Promise: Cultural Capital & Social Mobility

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Despite the recent scandals regarding Apple’s business practices, it has succeeded at cultivating a brand to which we feel positive emotional attachment. In three previous posts, I showed that the company accomplishes this with commercials that associate its products with playfulnesssentimentality, and cool youthfulness.  The most prominent theme, however, and I suspect the most powerful aspect of the company’s emotional branding strategy, is the hope it cultivates in each of us of who we could be by virtue of using the company’s products. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.

Be Young, Be Cool, Be Happy… As an Apple Consumer

Screenshot_117I cannot watch this 2003 Apple iPod commercial without shaking my hips, even in the midst of delivering a lecture or conference presentation. In fact, I struggle deeply to refrain from jumping around in an ecstatic dance of joy.

This commercial moves me. But, why? Yes, it has rocking music and popping colors. But, I suspect, more importantly, it has hip young things gyrating to the music, lost in the euphoria provided by an iPod and earbuds, with seemingly no cares in the world. For four years Apple aired a string of these, which became known as the “Silhouette” commercials, each featuring a different soundtrack and style of dance. In my previous posts, I’ve focused on two important elements of Apple’s brand promise: whimsicality and  sentimentality. In this post I spotlight another key finding from our research: the association of Apple products with coolness, hipness, youth, and a carefree attitude. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.

Sentimental Consumerism, the Apple Way

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In a recent post on the Apple brand and its cultural significance, I drew on my study with Gabriela Hybel of over 200 Apple television commercials aired between 1984 and the present to argue that Apple excels at what branding experts refer to as “emotional branding.” I pointed out that Apple commercials cultivate happiness through whimsical depictions of products and their users. In this post I focus on another key finding from this research, which is the prominence of sentimentality in Apple commercials. Both of these things — whimsicality and sentimentality — are key parts of the promise that Apple makes to its customers. To this end, an important part of the promise that Apple makes to its customers is that using their products will strengthen the customer’s relationships with loved ones, and that the customer will experience positive emotions because of this. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.

Fair Trade & Ethical Consumption in Global Context: A Short Film

A guest post by Manya Janowitz

fair-trade-shopperI was raised in a liberal, progressive community, and my parents and friends were aware of the issues surrounding globalization. My family shopped primarily Fair Trade when possible, bought produce from the CSA farm right next door, and my mom even took part in the Seattle WTO protests when I was young. Yet, while I was very familiar with the Fair Trade logo, I didn’t actually understand what fair trade was: I didn’t look past the label.

My lack of real understanding of an alter-globalization movement prompted me to study Fair Trade and more personally, my role as a consumer of ethical products. I wanted to understand what fair trade really means, and I was curious if other people too had only a surface understanding of the movement. In my research, conducted for the class Sociology of Globalization taught by Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole at Pomona College last spring, I found that this was largely the case. Most people knew that Fair Trade was “fair”, “ethical”, perhaps that it “guaranteed farmers a living wage.” But, few people had any deeper knowledge of the fair trade movement or the many Fair Trade organizations that compose it.

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Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain

Ipod-NanoSuicide at Foxconn. Poisoned workers. Colluding to inflate the price of e-books. Tax evasion (albeit, legal). Shady suppliers who can’t toe the line of labor or environmental laws in China. Apple’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, but it sales have continued to climb. How does Apple maintain its economic dominance in light of such powerful scandals? With an exceptionally strong brand that taps into our hopes and cultivates positive emotions. Read the full article at Sociological Images: Seeing is Believing.

Unpacking the Balikbayan Box: Transnational Pilipino Families in Global Perspective

A guest post by Kimberley Africa

Standing next to the balikbayan box my parents just sent in June 2013.
Standing next to the balikbayan box my parents just sent in June 2013.

Ever since I can remember, I have watched my mom and dad fill a huge box with clothes, towels, Spam, shoes, nonperishable foods, and a countless number of other things until they could fit no more. I remember looking into the box and wishing that the huge container of Nesquik were in my hands instead of being cradled by Tang and powdered iced tea. My parents explained that they sent the box to my cousins in the Philippines because they didn’t have all that we had. I always frowned at this, because we definitely did not have chocolate milk mix in the cupboards.

Space is precious. Once my parents made sure that there was no empty crevice left in the box, they would start the closing process. This is a ritual that I have watched so many times: my mom’s and dad’s hands work simultaneously to close the box. Sometimes they ask one of us kids to help. Their experience in packing boxes is clear in their quickness and accuracy. But, taping the top of the box is just the beginning. My dad then grabs a black permanent marker and writes his brother’s address on each side of the box, save the bottom. Then, he wraps the entire surface of the box in clear packing tape to ensure its security on its transoceanic voyage.

“Do they make you tape the entire box?” I once asked. “No, but this is how I can make sure your cousins get everything,” my dad replied.

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The Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Apple

Workers assemble iPhones at a Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China.
Workers assemble iPhones at a Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China.

Blame Mike Daisey. He drew me into this mess of a research project with his appearance on This American Life in January 2012. Like many, I was enraptured and sickened by his description of the work conditions and lives of young Chinese laborers at the Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China that assembles iPhones, and now iPads. What I learned in that podcast made me angry, as both an owner of Apple products and as a critical sociologist who focuses on globalization and labor. Daisey’s account of conditions at Foxconn and the experiences of Chinese workers sparked my initial cursory investigation into Apple’s supply chain and their stance on corporate social responsibility, by way of the their annual Supplier Responsibility Reports. Then, a couple of months later, This American Life aired a retraction episode that revealed that Daisey had fictionalized his account. While host Ira Glass noted that nothing Daisey said was actually untrue, he had not seen all that he said he had, but rather had folded into his monologue the documented accounts of others. Glass, and many Apple consumers, seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and the affair was rather quickly swept under the rug by the consuming public and the press.

These events made me deeply curious about the brand power of Apple. I wondered, how does a company that receives such bad press persist in its popularity? How could it be that, rather than taking a hit in the aftermath of a vicious exposé of labor conditions at their suppliers, Apple revenues surged and broke records throughout 2012? So, I embarked on a really big research project–bigger, more complex, and vastly more difficult than any project I have ever delved into before. I seek to identify all of Apple’s suppliers, map their supply chain, illuminate their financial structure, and understand their brand power here in the US and around the world. While I have a couple of lengthier and more in-depth pieces on this research in the works that will be published in a few months, I wanted to share with you some highlights from the research thus far. Here we go.

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