Are consumers free?, asks a new “Epistemic Session” at the Association for Consumer Research this Friday morning. I’m delighted to be on a panel session organized by David Mick of U. Virginia, along with Tom O’Guinn of UW-Madison and Lisa Penaloza of EDHEC.
It’s a tough question, philosophical, maybe a bit abstract. As soon as you scratch the surface of that question you begin to encounter the fact that the values of the collective group are manifest through the thoughts, meanings, and actions of the individual, and the collective is made up of amassed individual influences. Culture, the market, the community, the collective–whatever you want to call it–it’s a big part of being us, and it constrains what we do as surely as pretty much as securely as our genetics do. Despite our shared need to differentiate and strong culture of rugged invididualism, it turns out that we’re pack animals after all. Solid primates, one and all.
Five years ago I published an article whose title asked “Can Consumers Escape the Market?” The answer: nope. Not really. Not if by consumers you mean people and by market you mean our entire culture and civilization.
Of course, there are degrees of freedom. This all hearkens back to what’s called the “Structure versus Agency” debate, which asks pretty much the same thing: how free is the individual to make choices and act in our society? The answer is contingent on many things, and its become pretty clear that people in our society are neither wholly free nor completely oppressed, but somewhere interestingly in between.
The Session and its core question is spurring some very interesting discussion on the Association for Consumer Research web-site, which I believe is publicly accessible here. There are lots of great posts. One of my favorite ones so far is by my friend and colleague Russ Belk, who talks about a classroom exercise he conducts in order to illustrate some of these points. He says:
“When I teach an introductory marketing course I have students do an in-class exercise to create their own economy by focusing on specific cases of what consumers in their economy will and will not be allowed to freely choose. I begin by soliciting the amount of support for allowing free choice for each member of such pairs of consumer goods as:
1. Guns and knives
a. Handguns and rifles
b. Butcher knives and switchblades
2. Firecrackers and hand grenades
3. Cigarettes and marijuana
a. For children and adults
b. For the poor and the rich
4. Alcohol and heroin
5. Motor-scooters and Hummers
6. Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and hardcore pornography
7. Prostitution and child pornography
As a result of these straw polls we get some interesting splits (e.g., knives are okay, but guns, or at least handguns, should be outlawed). So then I ask “Why will you allow choice A, but not choice B?” Although a few libertarians insist that all of these things should be freely available, most believe that there must be some freedom of choice but also some restraint where having total freedom of choosing would result in negative individual or social consequences.
So after a day of these guns versus butter sorts of arguments we begin to further consider how to create a fair, just, and humane society, how much is enough, how much is too much, who is responsible for addressing problems like global warming, and so forth. Finally, having hopefully sensitized class members to social versus individual interests, we circle back to the earlier choices and I ask are consumers really free to choose or really precluded from choosing each of these things in our own economy. . . .What these exercises suggest is that underlying the behavioral questions raised here are philosophical questions with important political, moral, environmental, and economic implications.”
So, illustrating the characteristic way he brilliantly inverts questions, Russ is drawing our attention to the flipside. Although the question tended to lead us to where consumers were constrained and might need more freedom, Russ is leading us to consider where consumers are free and might need more supervision or restraint, and also to consider why we aren’t so free–why there are social controls where collective forces restrict individual urges.
And while I’m plugging the ACR session on Friday (wake up early, it’s a 8 am), I may as well plug the CNN Special “A Planet in Peril.” It premieres tonight at 9 PM EST. It’s being hyped pretty effectively already, but I’m going to lend my WOM voice and blog to the chorus. I think Ted Turner and CNN aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues, which are our species’ environmental impacts, the legacy of our current age and its consumer culture and lifestyle. He’s been raising awareness of the issue for almost two decades now (does anyone else remember Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel “Ishmael“), and this looks like it could well be a milestone documentary, a great eye-opener in the tradition of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The two topics–the Epistemic Session and the Planet in Peril– are intimately connected.
As Citizen Consumers, how are we free to help the planet and how are we deeply, systemically restricted? As Citizen Consumers, what sorts of actions would have the biggest impact in reducing planetary devastation the quickest? That’s not an ivory tower exercise. That’s the Great Challenge of our times.