Hugh Mackay, ed.: Consumption and Everyday Life (1997 London: Sage)

Layla Al-Zubaidi (lalzubai@hamlet.ucs.indiana.edu)

 

This interdisciplinary volume portrays the variety and complexity of consuming practices that are embedded in the context of everyday life. The contributors cover a broad range of cultural consuming patterns drawing on material as well as symbolic resources with case studies from different parts of the world. Studied practices include shopping, personal narratives, music and performance, the imagination of identities and places, media and audiences as well as domestic communication technologies.

These cases counter both traditional images of a passive, powerless consumer and the postmodern glorification of consumers as "creative artists", but rather illustrate the varying balance between constraint and creativity, and the role of consumption within the cycle of production, regulation, representation and identity.

In the introduction, Hugh Mackay explains what is understood under the term cultural consumption, and gives an interdisciplinary and historical overview of the most significant approaches to consumption, their accomplishments and weaknesses. He outlines what contribution this book has to offer to the study of consumption and everyday life, summarizes each chapter briefly, and discusses what they have in common, and in which respect they are differentiated from each other.

In his chapter, Daniel Miller explains the concept of appropriation and illustrates it with his own fieldwork on English kitchen furniture in state-provided housings, U.S. American soap operas and Coca-Cola in Trinidad. He traces back anthropological approaches to the relationship between persons and objects and problematizes the strict distinction between "gift-societies" and "commodity-societies", and the popular association of commodities with modernity, as opposed to gifts that are connected to a pre-modern, lost community. He questions theories of modernization that assign consumption a central place in the fall from community life by demonizing it as a fetishist obsession with material goods. With examples from shoppers in London he tries to move the debate from moral evaluations to a perspective that does not divorce the embeddedness of objects in social relations, and transcends the opposition between "commodity societies" and "gift societies".

Ruth Finnegan contributed two chapters, the first of which is concentrated on personal narratives and cultural identity. She outlines how personal narratives create multiple cultural identity. Countering the notion that cultures produce only one coherent type of identity, she votes for a complex plurality. By consuming conventional "scripts" that are only available in a limited range within each culture, people act as their own "unofficial biographers", trying to create meaningful stories covering the past, present, and future. Her second chapter focuses on music and performance as collective cultural activities, based on the informal everyday networks of people. She points out how music resembles other cultural activities that are meant to tie communities and create collective identities. This chapter was least clear to me in the sense how it is related to issues of consumption. It rather focuses on everyday activities rather than on consumption, and even did not mention consumption very often. However, this shows how sketchy the concept of consumption still is, and how difficult it is to draw boundaries to other activities. Yet, I believe that it would help the study of consumption more to define its object more clearly, in order to avoid creating a concept so broad that it becomes impossible to capture at any more in any meaningful sense.

In his chapter, Nigel Thrift stresses how places are invested with cultural meanings, through which identities are daily constituted. Through new communication media "the world is shrinking", and the images of the "other" are created as exotic entertainment for audiences to consume. On the other hand, communities are actively engaged in forming new identities. Notions of place have radically altered and multiplied, whether from the perspective of the tourist, the refugee or the Internet user. Thrift illustrates how seemingly trivial modern technologies, such as electric light provide people with new imaginative resources, for example the image of cities at night. New forms of publicness lead him to the question what is meant by the concept of "home" and the spatial dimension of "local" identity in a modern world where experiences are disembedded or dislocated from the particularities of place.

In his paper on electronic landscapes, Shaun Moores describes broadcasting as an institutionalized feature of cultural consumption in everyday life. He points out three dimension of consumption: that of the message, the medium, and the objectivation of the audience as a commodity. He shows how television is characterized by the flow of program schedules that become interwoven in the rhythms of daily life and by informal and familiar modes of address that differentiate it from for example cinema and other rather spectaculous forms of entertainment, but rather result in the conversationalization of public discourse. Instead of concentrating on the semiotic reading of "texts", Moores focuses on the significance that reception practices have in the everyday and private context of the household, and points at the uneven distribution of cultural competencies necessary for viewers, whether differences may be based on gender, culture or other criteria. This leads to the concept of relational uses of communication technology and their implication of power relations within the domestic sphere, or what can be also called the "politics of the living room".

Hugh Mackay concludes this discussion with his final chapter on domestic technologies. With case studies on leisure technologies he intends a broader understanding of the technologization of culture. He aims at deconstructing notions of technological determinism by making understand how technologies are consumed and made sense of in active usage, replacing it with the concept of the social shaping of technology. He tries to outline how technologies themselves, not only their usage, have no existence unattached from social life, but are products of creativity and human imagination. He points at the gendered consumption patterns of technologies such as the telephone that transcend the boundaries domestic sphere, but also make the home attractive as a site of leisure and freedom. He problematized nostalgic notions of the household as a "safe" place and thus counters critiques of technologies as necessarily destroying family life. He reminds that the home for many people is rather a dangerous place, especially for women and children as various forms of abuse prove, contending that the concept of "home" and "family" has to be seen as cultural and historical, rather than as a natural feature of human life. He also questions the opposite direction of thought, in which new technologies are seen as the adventors of global understanding and harmony. Rather, he reminds not to neglect the potential of conflict that communication carries as well.

The book elevates consumption from a secondary activity and rather examines the mutually constituted nature of production and consumption. Qualitative and ethnographic analyses explore the spatial dimension of consumption and link local practices at the home to larger processes and the public sphere. The contributors assess the implications of domestic consumption for gender relations, community identity and family activities. They point out the home as a central locality of contemporary identities and a site of contestation over access to resources. Hereby, the authors draw from a range of concepts and theories from debates on consumption. All of them seem to have written extensively on consumption issues, and their contributions reflect their high standard of knowledge of the topic, as well as with its central conceptual problems and regional complexity and diversity. All papers are based on empirical work, acknowledge cultural particularities, and all cover different regions. They provide the reader with approachable empirical studies rather than abstract theorizing, and thus narrow the broad field and theoretical of consumption to possible local sites of study.

The book is written in an accessible language and style, with key-concepts set off and explained in a very comprehensive way. Each chapter is followed by selected readings and includes questions and activities to the readers, thus creating the perquisites for an active reading (supporting their angle on consumption as active rather than passive). I recommend this very useful book to everyone interested in the cultural dimension of consumption. It might be an excellent introductory textbook, but be also of interest to advanced students and researchers across a range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, media studies, communication, cultural studies, and economy.