Academic journal article Trames

Coping with Consumer Culture: Elderly Urban Consumers in Post-Soviet Estonia

Academic journal article Trames

Coping with Consumer Culture: Elderly Urban Consumers in Post-Soviet Estonia

Article excerpt


The construction of large shopping malls and ever-widening advertising and branding are evidence that Western-style consumer culture has come to stay in post-Soviet Estonia. The main characteristics distinguishing it from the Soviet consumer world of shortage and homogeneity are freedom of choice, abundance of goods and shopping outlets. We assume that many consumers perceive a clash between the Soviet consumer culture and its current counterpart, and that this may be empirically studied.

We focus on Estonian urban consumers over 45 years of age. Since the Soviet period embraces their socialisation and decades of active adult lives, we assume that contrasts between the memory of 'then' and the representation of 'today' are the sharpest in their eyes.

The broader question we pose in our study is: what is the underlying system of concepts used by our informants to articulate today's consumer culture? More specifically, we seek comparisons between the Soviet past and today, both as accounts of personal experience (micro level) and as assessments of societal development on a larger scale (macro level).

On the one hand, we anticipate complex relations between the memories of the 'old' culture and today's experience of capitalist Westernized consumer culture, and on the other hand, between today's objective culture--that is new consumer goods, consumption practices, spaces as well as public constructs of some consumers as 'deprived' and 'excluded'--and its personal reappropriation or lack thereof, i.e. subjective culture.

Firstly, a theoretical outline is given, after which the selection of this particular sample--urban Estonians over 45--is explained. Secondly, some quantitative data about this group is provided. The bulk of the article is dedicated to qualitative analysis of interviews followed by conclusions and discussion.

Clash of the 'old' and 'new' consumer cultures

Consumer culture in post-Soviet Estonia is a complex set of interacting influences both on the spatial axis (East versus West) and temporal axis (the Soviet heritage versus contemporary Estonia). In order to inquire into the juxtaposition of Soviet and contemporary consumer culture by consumers themselves, we rely on various theoretical sources. Our overarching framework stems from Georg Simmel's concepts of objective and subjective culture, which are thematised with the help of several studies of societal transition and changes in the consumer world in particular (see Simmel, 1997 [1911, 1916]). We have been greatly inspired by anthropological studies by Verdery (1996) and Miller (1987, 1995), as well those of Patico (2002), Patico and Caldwell (2002), Rausing (1998), Chelcea (2002) and others. On the other hand, we rely to some extent on sociological work by, for example, C. Campbell (1987), Z. Bauman (1988, 1994, 2000), P. Sztompka (2000), M. Kennedy (2002) and J. Gronow (1997 and 2003). We find a multidisciplinary approach the only alternative in a situation where different research traditions give equally valuable insight into the phenomenon under scrutiny.

One of our starting points is that the Soviet consumer culture and its counterpart in contemporary capitalist Estonia are fundamentally different in various aspects. With the help of Miller's (1987) interpretations of Hegel and Simmel, we may say that, during the Soviet era, the objective culture of the consumer world could be divided into many layers. Firstly, there was the visible part of the official objective culture, consisting of the puritan ethic (see Campbell, 1987) of the communist leaders as well as the rhetoric of the fulfilment of the Soviet consumer's needs, which on actual shop counters meant a limited supply of 'grey homogenised goods'. The anthropologist Katherine Verdery sums it up by referring to John Borneman (1992): 'Capitalism ... repeatedly renders desire concrete and specific, and offers specific, if ever-changing, goods to satisfy it. …

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