As capitalism has been transformed in the United States and elsewhere in the past several decades, consumption has moved to the center of the relationship between political economy and social identity. Previously, social identities were linked to economic structures mainly through workers’ position in the labor market and their potential for social and economic mobility. In the current global economy, however, the labor market, along with capitalism itself, has become diffuse and flexible (Harvey 1989) and so identities based on traditional economic systems, such as social class, are no longer as stable as they once were. At the same time, consumption has become a primary means of forming identities through the intensive global marketing of niche lifestyles (Lury 2004). In a variety of contexts, people are being invited to reimagine themselves as consumers first and foremost (Bartlett et al. 2004; cf. Collins 2001; Fairclough 1993).
One indication of this shift is that young people are heavily targeted by advertisers despite their marginal position in the labor market (Klein 2000; Quart 2003; Milner 2004; Schor 2004). Youth are a focus of corporate attention not only because they increasingly have access to disposable income but because they are seen as the initiators of new street-based styles that can be commodified and marketed to a mass public (including other young people). Although the commercialization of youth culture is widely recognized by researchers, commentators, and the public at large, the issue has been examined primarily from an adult perspective. Consequently, commentators typically take a critical view of the relationship between youth and consumption. American sociologist Murray Milner, for example, argues that “the status systems of high school … are an important contributing factor to the creation and maintenance of consumer capitalism” (2004:8). He maintains that teenagers’ consumption-based status is a problem that can be solved through a range of substantial changes in U.S. schooling practice, including school uniforms, random lunchroom seating assignments, gender-segregated schools, and mandatory national service.Similarly, economist Juliet Schor considers advertisers’ targeting of the youth market to be extremely harmful to children’s development as social persons:
Marketing is … fundamentally altering the experience of childhood. Corporations have infiltrated the core activities and institutions of childhood, with virtually no resistance from government or parents. Advertising is widespread in schools. Electronic media are replacing conventional play. We have become a nation that places a lower priority on teaching its children how to thrive socially, intellectually, even spiritually, than it does on training them to consume. The long-term consequences of this development are ominous. (2004:13)
Schor goes on to link the targeting of children as consumers to a range of highly sensationalized problems confronting contemporary American youth, from obesity to attention deficit disorder to bullying to psychological disorders.
There is no question that the drive to market to children and teenagers and the consequent emphasis on consumption among youth have a number of pernicious effects, but at the same time the strongly deterministic view taken by these and similar researchers fails to look closely at how young people engage with commodities in their everyday lives. Such a view may therefore overlook the fact that youth do not simply fall into a predetermined economic script written by corporate marketers. Rather, young people take up complex and ambivalent relationships toward consumption that are primarily based in locally relevant social concerns rather than global market forces.
Unlike most previous work, an ethnographic and interactional approach to consumption does not impose the analyst’s perspective but highlights the ways in which teenagers, as members of a culture, jointly make and make sense of their social worlds, moment by moment. Ethnographic studies of youth and consumption, though still scarce, enrich theoretically and politically driven accounts both by taking youth seriously as social actors and by demonstrating the variable meanings of consumption among youth in different cultural contexts (e.g., Liechty 2003; Wulff 1995). Such an approach enables researchers to acknowledge that the grasp of the new global economy is far-reaching but not all-encompassing, and to recognize that local processes of meaning making are still the best defense against the workings of power. These processes are closely tied to language use and social interaction, and as discussed further below, they are also bound up with gendered practices and identities.
Within language and gender studies, relatively little attention has been paid to the language use of consumers (McElhinny 2002, 2003). On the one hand, ethnographically based studies have tended to focus on economic production, examining the role of gender in workplace discourse (e.g., Holmes & Stubbe 2003), and how gendered language use is structured by social class and the labor market (e.g., Gal 1978; Milroy 1987; Nichols 1983). On the other hand, analysts of gender and discourse who focus on consumer culture generally do not take an ethnographic perspective. Such studies highlight the imperative to consumption created through advertising discourse and the reproduction of gender ideologies through consumer media (e.g., Benwell 2003; Machin & Thornborrow 2003; Talbot & Morgan 1999), but they usually do not document how social actors negotiate and give meaning to practices of consumption on the ground, in local ethnographic contexts. In addition, some language and gender research (Bucholtz 1999a, b; Cameron 2000) documents the commodification of language itself in gendered contexts of production and consumption.
The situation of youth makes clear the importance of an ethnographic and interactional perspective in linguistic research on consumer culture. Language mediates young people’s consumption practices in both the top-down, social-structural fashion that is the focus of cultural studies scholars and in the bottom-up fashion favored by ethnographers, which emphasizes local contexts and the agency of social actors. At the level of social structure, language encourages consumption through advertising, which links commodities to youth cultures by tying them to an ideology of coolness (Frank 1997). In this process, a rapidly shifting set of trendy products is targeted at specific niche markets: music, clothing, personal grooming products, sports equipment, even food. At the level of individual agency, however, language may be even more important than the actual acquisition of commodities in the local construction and differentiation of youth cultures. Such identity work takes place not only through the semiotic use of linguistic markers—phonological, syntactic, and lexical forms—that index specific youth styles, but also through interaction about consumption.
Language and gender researchers have explored both of these dimensions. Research on teenagers’ reception of popular media demonstrates that as girls move into adolescence they become increasingly enmeshed in the gendered discourses of media and consumer culture (Coates 1999), and studies of gender and youth style in the United States show that young people’s linguistic practices converge with gendered semiotic practices that are closely tied to consumption, such as clothing choices, in order to produce distinctive local categories of identity like jock, nerd, or gangster (Bucholtz 1999c; Eckert 2000; Mendoza-Denton 1999). In addition, a small amount of research has been done by language and gender scholars on how adolescents and preadolescents orient to and negotiate consumer products such as cosmetics for their own ends (Eckert 1996; Mendoza-Denton 1996). Such studies lay the foundation for more extensive interactional research on how young people use talk about consuming to make social sense of commodities and their own place within late capitalist society.
Interactional analysis, like ethnography, focuses on the local sociocultural meanings of the practices in which social actors engage. It therefore provides a firm empirical testing ground for theoretically or politically derived claims about the social world. Close analysis of social interaction as it unfolds allows researchers to show how large-scale social phenomena like class or identity are produced in real time rather than residing in free-floating “discourses,” ideologies, or structures that are not closely tied to specific social actors and situations.
In my own ethnographic and interactional research among American youth at a California high school that I call Bay City High (Bucholtz forthcoming), I show that through discourses of consumption—talk about where they shop and what they buy—young people positioned themselves as economic agents while locating themselves as particular kinds of classed, gendered, and racialized subjects. This process was supported by teachers’ discourse concerning identity, in which teenagers were encouraged to acquire and display an individual style created through commodities. It is thus through the combination of top-down workings of corporate advertising and the bottom-up cultural practices and discourses of consumption among youth and those they interact with that the styles and subjectivities of youth cultures come into being.
At Bay City High, like most other U.S. high schools, students’ lives were permeated and structured by commodities throughout the school day (see also Klein 2000; Schor 2004). They ate fast food from national chains at the school canteen and purchased soft drinks from corporate-sponsored vending machines on campus, a longstanding fundraising arrangement in many public schools. While the integration of corporate advertising into public schools is a nationwide phenomenon, the need for such corporate support is especially acute in California. In 1995, when I conducted my research, California was one of the twelve wealthiest states in the nation, but ranked 48th with respect to per-student funding in elementary and secondary schools, a trend that continues today. As a result, teachers and administrators have been forced to turn elsewhere for educational materials. At Bay City High, materials donated by corporations and emblazoned with their logos appeared throughout the school, from record-company posters advertising the latest releases by popular music groups, which lined the walls in several classrooms, to the Coca-Cola logo on the scoreboard in the football field.
Yet even when the financial constraints of the school did not demand reliance on corporate resources, teachers often encouraged students to orient themselves to commodity culture. For example, in a health course that was mandatory for all sophomores at the school, the teacher had the students decorate their own three-ring paperboard binders with images and slogans from advertisements and articles in mass-market magazines to create a collage representing the kind of person they felt themselves to be. Most students clipped captions and photos from fashion and sports magazines, although some subverted the assignment by leaving their folder unadorned or by taking images from unsanctioned sources like the pro-marijuana magazine “High Times.” Despite these few exceptions, students tended to acquiesce to this activity, for it further naturalized what was already a familiar experience to most teenagers: defining one’s identity through discourses, images, and ideologies of consumption.
Given that most American high schools, by necessity as well as by choice, are steeped in consumerism, commodity talk can be undertaken in almost any interactional context in school settings. Speakers regularly compliment one another on their acquisitions, comment on their own and others’ possessions, and jointly recall past and plan future acts of consumption. Indeed, talk about shopping was so prevalent among Bay City High School students that although my research was not primarily concerned with this topic I soon added it to the list of issues that I inquired about during ethnographic interviews. I did not conduct fieldwork on students’ actual shopping practices; however, talk about such practices is a rich source of information about language and consumption in its own right, for regardless of whether students were accurately reporting their buying habits, their decisions about how to represent their own and others’ consumer activities in interactions with me and their peers revealed a great deal about the identity positions they claimed for themselves and assigned to others.
A frequent practice in teenagers’ talk about consumption was branding, or the association of brand names with social groups. This term has been used in nonlinguistically oriented cultural studies to describe the top-down processes in which corporations create and impose a semiotics of commodities on consumers, especially the highly desirable youth market (e.g., Klein 2000; Lury 2004; Quart 2003). Naomi Klein, the most influential critic of the global branding phenomenon, traces the practice back to the beginnings of mass production, when the uniformity of goods demanded symbolic differentiation through the creation of brand images. Branding later extended to the corporation as a whole, in part due to the shift of production overseas and hence the need to highlight the corporation over the commodity, which it was no longer producing directly. Branding is accomplished via relentless advertising to reinforce the brand and to penetrate the distracted awareness of prospective consumers whose lives have been saturated by marketing. In order to do so, striking language and images and new advertising venues are used to present the brand as not simply a logo but a total way of life. Nike in particular is identified by Klein and other writers as one of the quintessential success stories (or horror stories, depending on one’s view) of marketing the brand rather than the commodity. Klein characterizes current branding practices as “the project of transforming culture into little more than a collection of brand-extensions-in-waiting” (2000:31).
However, such a perspective is overly deterministic, missing the ways in which consumers themselves engage with commodities in local symbolic and material economies—engagements that are not always anticipated or embraced by marketers. My own emphasis is therefore on how young people respond to the hypercommodification of youth culture within interaction.
At Bay City High School, the brands and labels that students wore and discussed are a clue to youth cultural style. This local practice of branding, as the counterpart of global corporate branding, discursively associated social groups with corporate trademarks and thus provided a commodity-mediated means by which social identities could be claimed. Self-branding allowed for a range of stances from pride to (mock) shame. For some students, self-branding was a practice akin to patriotism or rooting for a sports team, involving symbolic acts of loyalty as well as financial acts of economic support through regular purchases of the company’s products. Nike and Polo were among the brands that attracted this sort of loyalty among teenagers at Bay City High during the period of the study.
For some students, especially those for whom trendy fashion was an integral part of their identities, branding was synonymous with social identification. The examples below illustrate this situation. The examples are taken from an ethnographic interview I conducted with two European American boys, Willie and Brand One, who based their close friendship in large part on their shared fashion aesthetic, which they called “pretty-boy.” Although these teenagers’ fascination with fashion may be considered gender-atypical by outsiders, it should be noted that many boys at Bay City High were deeply interested in clothing and it was not generally considered unmasculine to display such an interest. Indeed, it is some indication of the shift in gender ideologies among California youth over the past several decades that Brand One and Willie were able to maintain an intensely homosocial relationship, to dress and wear their hair nearly identically and share each other’s clothing, and to proudly and openly describe themselves as “pretty boys” without being the targets of homophobic suspicion among their peers. However, the degree of interest these two boys showed in clothing and fashion was unusual among the male students in my study.