Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Consumer Citizen: The Constitution of Consumer Democracy in Sociological Perspective

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Consumer Citizen: The Constitution of Consumer Democracy in Sociological Perspective

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Currently, we are witnessing a resurgence of academic as well as political interest in the consumer. In view of the obvious problems of governance under conditions of a global market society, the question arises whether there is evidence for an emerging consumer democracy where consumers assume civic responsibility and exert a civilizing influence upon the economic realm. Consumers are traditionally associated with the private sphere whereas citizens are viewed as belonging to the public sphere. The figure of "consumer citizen" challenges such a clear-cut distinction (Negt/Kluge [1972, 7] already questioned it long ago). Yet, at the same time, the hybrid notion of "consumer citizen" perpetuates the distinction of public and private. Rather than rendering the distinction obsolete, it points to shifting boundaries and the lines of demarcation between public and private being redrawn as an outcome of continuous social struggles and negotiations.

Benjamin Barber (2007, 126, also 294 ff.), who sees a threat to democracy in widespread infantilization spurred by consumer industries, fears a dilution of the concept of citizen by lumping it together with the notion of consumer. (1) The political sphere, he claims, is experiencing a loss of autonomy--an autonomy that emanates from public deliberation and the setting of collectively binding norms, the sovereignty of which must be asserted against the economic domain. For this reason, Barber wishes for self-confident citizens of a democratic polity, whose individual mastery of life involves the ability of maintaining the differentiation of societal domains. Nonetheless, he too must take consumption as a facet of lifeworlds and life practices into account along with the problems it poses for civic involvement. We are at once consumers and citizens and hence have no choice but to somehow reconcile the two sides that make up our personality--be it through strict separation or by other means. The conception of consumer citizen serves to shed light on the forms such reconciliation may take--including the range of historical and empirical manifestations--not more and not less. (2)

In this article, I approach the question of whether and how consumers as "consumer citizens" establish consumer democracy by drawing on various theoretical building blocks from sociology. I will make use of the different dimensions contained in the notion of constitution, starting with the constitution of the social through action, through the politico-legal or institutional conditions constituting the consumer citizen, to the current state of the consumer citizen. Specifically, I will briefly discuss the consumer citizen in five steps: from the angles of general social theory, socialization theory, the theory of modern society, from the view of current social trends, and in the light of considerations from the theory of democracy. The Internet, as a new means of consumer networking, will serve as an empirical research area for exemplifying and specifying the theoretical considerations.

2 Social theory: the consumer citizen as a form of constituting the subject in everyday practice

At a first and general level of social theory, the question of how actors constitute the social will be addressed, which, as we all know, has been an object of considerable controversy in sociology. Approaching the issue from a theory of constitution (for instance Giddens 1984) implies that consumer democracy cannot be conceived simply as a self-sustaining institutional order; rather actors, in this case consumer citizens, must constantly produce and reproduce the structures of such an order.

This said, we must first of all note that from the perspective of social theory consumption would be gravely misconceived as a passive, heteronomous activity. Rather consumption practices involve elements of active action, just as the domains of work and politics do, which are much more likely to be associated with exerting influence, exercising power, and with change. …

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