Critical account of ideology in consumer culture: the commodification of a social movement
Rome, Alexandra Serra
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The study of ideology has long interested sociologists and consumer researchers alike. Much consumption research has approached ideology from various macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis. However, many studies fail to address the dialogical interplay among these three levels of analysis when examining how ideology manifests in, and interacts with, consumer identity projects. Many consumption-based studies examining ideology provide descriptive and normative accounts, affording practices of consumption emancipatory potential. In response, this research adopts a critical marketing perspective in order to draw out the macro and political implications of meso cultural production systems and micro consumption experiences and identity projects. Focusing on the contemporary American feminist movement, and on discourses around sex and sexuality, it explores how hegemonic (patriarchal) and counterhegemonic (feminist) ideologies are communicated in the marketplace, through the media, to understand their role in regard to consumers’ lived experiences and interactions with advertisements. Working within the consumer culture theory tradition, this thesis employed a variant of phenomenological interviewing that explored female emerging adults’ sexual narratives and their interpretations of sexualized ads. By generating data on a specific type of experience, inferences were drawn about how young women experience and relate to the contemporary feminist movement. In total, 14 American women, aged 20 to 31, were interviewed twice and also created media collages of what they considered ‘sexy’. Implementing a multi-step hermeneutic analysis, the data were analyzed through an iterative process, moving back and forth between the idiographic cases and theory. Through multiple iterations, micro, meso, and macro level inferences were made. This study suggests that young women foster diverse and temporary identifications with feminism in the pursuit of two, often overlapping, goals: ontological security and status. This results in a micro process of ‘ideological shifting’, which has depoliticizing effects, insofar as (anti-) feminist brands and identities were readily appropriated and discarded depending on specific contexts and situations. Thus, contrary to much work in the consumer culture theory tradition, which presents consumption as having transgressive and liberating effects, this study finds that while the young women had the power to dialogically interact with marketized (meso level) ideologies that constitute the marketplace, they failed to intercept the macro level processes of marketization and commodification and consequently did not challenge the hegemonic (patriarchal) ideology at large. In adopting a critical perspective, this study offers valuable insight into the relationship between ideology and consumer behavior. Ideology is shown to be disseminated via hegemonic processes of commodification and marketization. Because these processes occur at a macro level, counterhegemonic ideologies are hegemonized and subsequently depoliticized before even reaching the consumer on a micro level. By examining ideology across all three levels, this study finds that consumer agency is largely relegated to the realm of the marketplace, where consumers’ dialogical interactions and consumption practices do not challenge the macro ideologies or oppression at large, but merely alter their marketplace expressions.