Ensouling Consumption: a Netnographic Exploration of the Meaning of Boycotting Behavior

Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University
Jay Handelman, University of Lethbridge
ABSTRACT - Boycotting behavior has been theorized as a collective effort to coerce corporate change. In this exploratory netnographic research, we analyze 14 cyber-interviews and 68 Usenet postings with the aim of understanding the subjective meaning of boycott participation. Two themes emerge to challenge traditional views of boycotts. First, boycotters see their involvement not merely as part of a collective effort but as a complex emotional expression of their individuality. Second, boycotting serves as a vehicle for moral self-realization.
[ to cite ]:
Robert V. Kozinets and Jay Handelman (1998) ,"Ensouling Consumption: a Netnographic Exploration of the Meaning of Boycotting Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 475-480.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 475-480


Robert V. Kozinets, Northwestern University

Jay Handelman, University of Lethbridge


Boycotting behavior has been theorized as a collective effort to coerce corporate change. In this exploratory netnographic research, we analyze 14 cyber-interviews and 68 Usenet postings with the aim of understanding the subjective meaning of boycott participation. Two themes emerge to challenge traditional views of boycotts. First, boycotters see their involvement not merely as part of a collective effort but as a complex emotional expression of their individuality. Second, boycotting serves as a vehicle for moral self-realization.

Some consumers resist. Although they realize they are an inextricable part of the consumer culture, they oppose it in a myriad of ways. They independently read, research, and disseminate information about products and corporations. They check labels, send letters, point the finger at multinationals, and maintain "hot-lists" of companies. Most intriguingly, they refuse to buy. They engage in conspicuous acts o anticonsumption: they boycott.

Boycotts, along with other forms of "consumer resistance," are both on the rise and of interest to contemporary consumer research (Herrmann 1992, Pe±aloza and Price 1992). Traditionally, consumer boycotts have been conceptualized as collective acts of consumer resistance. Consumer theory has viewed the intent of such boycotting behavior as focused on the practical aims of either enacting a functional change in a company’s marketing mix, or a structural change in the entire system of marketing and commerce (Garrett 1987, Friedman 1991).

Consistent with this view of boycotts as a collective consumer act, the few empirical studies that have been conducted in this area have focused on their potential impact on the target organizations. For instance, Pruitt and Friedman (1986) found that the mere announcement of a boycott can have a negative effect on an organization’s stock prices. Garrett (1987) and Putnam and Muck (1991) noted that boycotts negatively affect an organization’s image, and divert managerial resources towards increased public relations aimed at damage control. Miller and Sturdivant (1977), in a rare empirical study examining boycotting behavior from a consumer-oriented position, still had attitude toward the company, an organizational outcome, as their focus.

Strategies of consumer resistance have been mentioned by researchers such as Holt (1997), and Thompson and Haytko (1997), who have drawn on de Certeau’s (1984) opposition between the "official" and "everyday" meanings ascribed to material objects. Acts of consumer resistance can take many forms, including collective or individual manifestations (Pe±aloza and Price 1992), and ranging from the less activist behaviors described by de Certeau (1984) to very overt-even militantCactions such as boycotts.

A boycott can be defined as "an attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace" (Friedman 1985, p. 97). Among boycotting behaviors are those that vary in their place considerations (e.g., a boycott of a local Shell gas station vs. a global one of all Shell gas stations), in their time considerations (e.g., those with a defined time limit vs. those that "would never end"), in their objectives (e.g., to get Monsanto to stop producing CFCs vs. to drive Monsanto out of business), and in their targets (e.g., boycotting a country such as China vs. boycotting a company that uses predominantly Chinese labor) (see also Friedman 1985, 1991).

In contrast to the more phenomenological conceptions of consumer resistance revealed by Holt (1997) and Thompson and Haytko (1997), boycotts have traditionally been conceptualized and empirically examined exclusively as a collective effort. In consumer research, boycotts have not yet been investigated from the subjective perspective of the individual consumer. With this phenomenological objective, we set out to empirically examine the personal meanings attached by individual consumers who are involved in boycotts (hereinafter referred to as "boycotters") to their boycotting behavior. After describing the research method we used to examine this research question, we discuss two interrelated themes deriving from our analysis. We follow this with a discussion of the implications of these exploratory findings on our understanding of consumer behavior.


Data Collection

Congruent with the exploratory nature of this research, we utilized a netnographic interpretive methodology. Netnography has been described as the textual output of Internet-related field work (Kozinets 1997). This Internet-based methodology was appropriate for researching our topic area because it provided us with an excellent vehicle for both unobtrusivel observing and contacting people with a diverse array of interests and therefore a diversity of perspectives related to boycotting. More importantly, it permitted an extra level of anonymity that suited the sensitive "political" nature of the topic matter. [It is worth noting that several respondents were extremely concerned about their anonymity, and required extra assurances before they would consent to be interviewed about their boycotting behavior. As well, the first author was "flamed" publicly in a newsgroup for being a "tool of Babylonian mind-control" after posting a polite request for interviews about boycotts. Clearly, there are social desirability concerns at work in this topic.] This work also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the utility of netnographic methodology for researching general consumer behavior topics (i.e., aspects of consumer behavior not necessarily related to the Internet).

We observed individual postings in eleven different Internet newsgroups for a two month period (from January to March 1997). The Usenet is "an electronic bulletin board shared among computer systems around the world" which "facilitates discussion" on "government, commerce, and culture" and a variety of other interests and thus offers "an incredibly rich resource" for conducting research (Jenkins 1995, p. 51-2). The Internet groups were chosen for their prevalence of boycott-related postings, which had been revealed by a major search engine. There were four groups devoted to sports interests (rec.running, alt.sports.college-ohio-state, alt.sports.basketball.nba.chicago-bulls, and alt.sports.hockey.nhl.phila-flyers), three groups devoted to music (alt.punk.straight-edge, alt.music.beatie-boys, and rec.music.artist.reb-st-james) and four devoted to political discussion (alt.activism, misc.activism.progressive, alt.society.labor-unions, and talk.politics.theory).

Among the discussions of these newgroups’ members, we found a range of behaviors that fall into the conceptual domain of boycotting behavior, including boycotts that varied in their place, time, objectives and target considerations. From the 11 newsgroups, we downloaded all significantly boycott-related postings that comprised our qualitative data set. In total, the 68 postings drawn accounted for 44,880 words, or approximately 136 single-spaced pages of data. A frequent criticism of ethnographic research has been its reflexive quality. This aspect of our research overcomes this criticism by observing a base of data completely unaffected by our research efforts.

Because these unobtrusively observed discussions were wide-ranging and thus not necessarily directed at informing our research question, we extended this observational research by soliciting on-line "cyber-interviews" in the above-mentioned newsgroups and from boycott-related home pages which we had "surfed" over the preceding two month period. Cyber-interviews were conducted during a two-week period through on-line e-mail contact, were more research question-driven then the observational information, and were structured as a series of four open-ended questions that were in some cases followed by other clarifying questions.

The result was fourteen interviews conducted wholly over the Internet, resulting in an additional 22,612 words, or approximately 101 pages, of single-spaced text. Interview respondents were requested to provide informed consent, were guaranteed anonymity, and were not monetarily compensated. As in ethnographies, detailed demographic and AIO information was not requested. [However, the names provided from the interviews indicated that 54 percent of the cyber-informants were male. E-mail addresses indicated that the informants all lived in the continental United States.] It is important to note that this work is ethnographic in nature, and thus statistical issues such as "sampling representativeness" are not directly relevant. Thus, while it is possible that the findings presented below may have wider applicability to the phenomenon of boycotting in general, it is important to emphasize the "social specificity" of the discourse that occurs over Internet groups and thus the limitations associated with extrapolating that discourse to any other public.

The relatively short time span allotted the cyber-interviews led to a lack of opportunities for probing, understanding cultural nuance, extended discussion, emotional engagement, and researcher immersion and participation. These limitations are not intrinsic limitations of netnographic data collection and research, but rather of netnographic research conducted over a relatively short time span. Thus, the short period of contact, combined with the vagaries of computer-mediated communication, resuled in interview responses that were generally more superficial than they might have been either in person or in a more extended computer-mediated exchange.

We attempted to overcome some of these constraints by conducting three telephone interviews with new respondents contacted through e-mail exchanges. These interviews, which each lasted between forty-five and ninety minutes, resulted in an enriched understanding of the phenomenon and allowed increased opportunities for interchange and immersion. We also used them to test our interpretations and refine our emerging themes. However, these results should be read with the caveat that they resulted from only a very limited immersion in the lives of boycotter interviewees. Given the above limitations we feel it important to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the potential usefulness of our exploratory interpretations, particularly when attempting to apply them to groups outside the context of "cyberspace". [Two other points may be relevant here. First, that the Internet community itself is interesting and worthy of study, and that this research contributes to a growing body of research that investigates on-line activity with a focus on its consumer behavior (e.g., Fischer, Bristor and Gainer 1995, Muniz 1997). Secondly, that with over 35 million users in early 1997, and a user base growing at incredible rates, Internet participants may be increasingly representative of "the mainstream."]

Analysis and Interpretation

Following established qualitative data categorizing procedures (e.g., see Spiggle 1994), we each independently analyzed our section of the data set (we had each independently downloaded materials). The body of the entire text was read through several times. A priori ideas and emergent conceptualizations were altered on successive readings in the familiar iterative process of qualitative analysis (e.g., Glaser and Strauss 1967). We coded the interviews for themes using the NU*DIST qualitative data package.

To maintain a high ethical research standard, we contacted all individuals quoted directly in the research and obtained their permission to be included. No respondents declined, although one person was unreachable and we therefore removed the quote of their Usenet posting. As a final methodological step to ensure that boycotters felt our interpretation faithfully portrayed their perspective, we offered our initial conclusions to all of the individuals interviewed and quoted in the research for their comments. In total, nine complete and unaltered copies of the final text were sent out. Four culture members returned comments. These members’ comments were very supportive of the research conclusions, and they also noted that: (1) the adversarial nature of boycotts might, for some, limit their potential as personal growth tools, (2) the individualism of boycotts is tied to rebellion and "regaining freedom of thought," and (3) the notion of "ensouling consumption" was ideologically analogous to religious consumption laws. We revised the text to attempt to reflect these further insights.


In our iterative analysis and discussion of the data on boycotts, we were driven by the three central research questions we had asked our cyber-interview informants. These questions asked about the influences on their decision whether or not to become part of a boycott, the personal and emotional ramifications of being involved in a boycott, and the changes to consumer behavior that boycott involvement precipitated.

Several observations violated our previous expectations. We had anticipated, in answer to our questions, to find that boycotters were heavily influenced by their membership or affiliation in a particular community, and that they were "crusaders" who used boycotts to seek widespread social change. Our interpretive analysis of the data complicated these presupposed positions, informing us of additional dimensions to boycotting behavior.

Contradicting our expectation that boycotters would interpret their boycotting action as a consequence of their identification with particular interest groups or communities, we found that boycotts also act as expressions of individual uniqueness. Rather than pursuing "consumer resistance" solely as a means to enact the goal of widespread scial change, many boycotters seem to also view boycotting behavior as an intrinsically satisfying activity, an end in itself. On a deeper level, this self-expression seems to be motivated by a drive for moral self-realization. We thus explore two related aspects of the behavior: boycotting as an individualizing behavior, and boycotting as morally transforming behavior. In the first, expressing selfhood is described as an extrinsic, or other-focused, process by which individuals utilize boycotts to distinguish themselves from other people, largely through external claims of adherence to a set of moral personal values. In the second, consumers use boycotts in an inner process that assists them in (re)discovering transcendent morality within an amoral commercial culture.

Boycotting as Individualizing Behavior

Boycotters consider their boycotting to be a personal, rather than communal, act. As this posting demonstrates, boycotting is valued more for its ability to convey the boycotter’s uniqueness, their lack of conformity.

Anyway, boycott whatever the heck you want but do it for yourself and not because someone else told you to. ("Darren," [In order to guarantee anonymity, pseudonyms are used for the names of all informants and Usenet posters.] posted on alt.music.beastie-boys, 01/09/97)

While the information conveyed by community groups, Internet newsgroups, and the mass media are welcomed by informants, the receipt of this information acts only as the first stage of awareness. The influence information will have is weighted by personal concerns as they then individualistically weigh this information and scrutinize its sources.

How do I find out about these companies? I used to read talk.guns.politics, and this topic would come up sometimes, although one must be careful to filter out the incorrect information ("Anthony," cyber-interview, 03/02/97).

The most important information, the most critical facts, are those which a boycotter determines for herself (although many boycotters seem to share a familiar Western cultural frame of overemphasizing their own agency in these decisions). The information with maximum impact is that which is perceived as the most legitimate and with the most emotional ramifications. For instance, several informants spoke about their protest of Nike by emphasizing first that it had been featured on network news, and then emphasizing their empathy with the suffering workers. The general rule seemed to indicate that the more "mainstream" (and thus "legit") the media coverage, the more heinous or personally affecting the information, the more the likelihood of the individual engaging in boycotting behavior.

When a company works against my own personal values, or engages in activity that I find abhorrent, I boycott them. ("Lee," cyber-interview, 03/04/97).

In this interview, Lee went on to list the companies he currently boycotts, and his personal reasons for boycotting them. His reasons generally revolve around social issues involving values of (in)tolerance, (in)equality and personal freedom. He boycotts Domino’s Pizza and Chick-Fil-A because their owners support anti-abortion causes. He boycotts the Boy Scouts of America because they "hypocritically" refuse to admit non-religious and homosexual boys, "despite claiming to promote tolerance and inclusion."

For very immediate personal reasons ("for no civic or moral reason"), Lee has "boycotted" McDonald’s for over ten years-because "their food simply sucks out loud." Finally, in what might stand as a warning to enthusiastic Internet marketers, his most recent boycott is of "any company or commercial venture" that sends "unsolicited commercial email" or advrtising to his personal mailbox. [This boycott was also spontaneously mentioned by one other cyber-informant, demonstrating an interesting use of the Internet medium to spread community-relevant activism.]

A number of other informants also provided personal boycott lists. In one case, "Catherine" focuses her personal efforts on a web of issues united by the theme of "cruelty to sentient beings." She says she avoids cruelty-based products such as "meat, leather, and snuff films." She only buys "vegan brands" of soap and shampoo "from companies which do not test on animals" (cyber-interview, 03/02/97).

Through the purchases consumers engage in, they express their extended self (Belk 1988). This extended self is expressed not only through the meanings that inhere in the goods themselves, but through the moral knowledge that comes from grasping their wider socio-political affiliations. As Lee and Angelique’s examples demonstrate, each boycotting list is not only an accounting of companies and the values they have violated, but a differentiating portrait of the individual, their personal values and standards. For these people, anti-consumption has become a powerful vehicle for self-expression.

Boycotting as Morally Transforming Behavior

A new dimension extending beyond boycotting’s functional image as a "protest tactic" (Herrmann 1993) or "coercive strategy" (Garrett 1987), is that of its personal significance as a tool for self-elevation and realization. Boycotting behavior allows a consumer to differentiate herself from "the crowd," to stand above them, particularly in terms of defining a personal morality that has "evolved" beyond hedonistic commercial interests. Some boycotters perceive themselves as a different type of person, one that has been able to use boycotts as a tool to "place themselves outside the [economic] system, the robotic 'buy-sell-buy-sell-buy-sell’ system," the "self enslavement to television advertising" ("Gabriel," telephone interview, 04/04/97). Boycotters thus partake in a form of "awakening," a "new awareness" denied to those who are not similarly involved.

While some boycotters believe that "everyone has buried deep down inside themselves a compassion and a kindness" ("Zach," telephone interview, 03/03/97), boycotting is one way in which these aspects of the ideal self can become activated. Through the incorporation of daily acts of anticonsumption, an ideal self become tangibilized through rituals that assert morality against an otherwise amoral and profane world (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989; Rook 1985). The action of boycotting, subjectively experienced, seems akin to a hygienically cleansing process.

"There’s so much out there that is synthetic and toxic and responsible for different kinds of wastes and chemicals being used that I think you have to take a broad look at boycotting in terms of just trying to move away from synthetics. . . . to move away from synthetic things, and pesticide orientations, and move into natural orientations. . . ." ("Zach," telephone interview, 03/03/97).

I join boycotts largely because of the personal effect. In many cases they have very small effects on the targets (the firms), but I see them as a sort of mental hygiene. ("Andrea," cyber-interview, 03/14/97).

A number of boycotters stress that the boycotting action is intrinsically valuable. The struggle against immorality-perhaps even again amoralityC is a constant one. For many, the struggle transcends any particular boycott, issue, or company, becoming a moral activity enshrining ceaseless vigilance. The effects of boycotting, while important, are often considered secondary. It is the act of boycotting that is transformative.

For me, most of the boycotts I participate in will never end (e.g. my boycott of the meat industry). ("Catherine," cyber-intervew, 03/02/97).

Even if everyone at your school (like mine) or wherever wears Nike and you think what you do isn’t going to hurt these corporations, I think you should still boycott these companies as a personal stand against cruelty. ("Barry", posted on alt.punk.straight-edge, 02/11/97)

Boycotts appear to result from a desperate urge to reclaim capitalism, to salvage morality from it, and to reconnect through it to a range of other issues. Their element of personal sacrifice and their air of social justice combine to elevate them beyond the mundane sphere into the transformative as boycotters use them to eschew commodity commercialism in search of enhanced personal power, moral human destiny, and utopia.

"To me, the so-called spiritual element is the whole point of it all. If there isn’t that, then why the hell bother with any of this [boycotting behaviour]?" ("Gabriel," telephone interview, 04/04/97).

Although boycotting may be seen as adversarial, and thus perceived as not as "positive" as some "non-adversarial" actions, it nonetheless acts as one important method some people use to inscribe morality into the minute actions of their daily lives. In another alternative economic activity, flea market shopping, Sherry (1990, p. 27) found the "re-embedding of market relations in social relations." So too do we find the re-embedding of market relations in moral relations (see also Soiffer and Herrmann 1987).

Knowing that their purchases are "free from guilt," as much as possible or at least as much as personal convenience permits, may lend a moral "extraordinariness" to daily life in the commercialized world of the consumer. Boycotters spoke frequently to one another of "waking up," "growing" and "realizing." They are speaking of awakening their conscience and their sense of personal control, growing more aware of the socio-political relations underlying economic exchanges, of realizing that their actions are supporting a system that they do not believe is ethical. The drive toward these interrelated individuating-moral realizations undergirds and impels their actions.

Yes, i feel empowered, i feel that even tho it’s only me i can in fact stand on my own two feet and stand up to corporate greed and not participate in the fleecing of america. i do think about what i’m buying, I think twice before going into a Wal Mart store that has devastated all the mom and pop stores and driven small town businesses into extinction. I think twice about buying something that says 'made in china’, i wonder if the slaves who made that product went to bed hungry on a hard mat on a dirt floor. ("Jacques," cyber-interview, 03/06/97)

after participating in this boycott, i feel that i have learned a lot and realized a lot. one certain thing i realized during the boycott was how dependent i was on corporations. i practically lived my entire life relying on what "they" were selling me, making me think and do...i finally realized that "they" own us...and i also started to ponder about boycotting as many corporations as i can... ("Amy," posted on alt.punk.straight-edge, 02/09/1997)

Significance for Consumer Research

This research links and extends four important streams of consumer research: the interest in consumer resistance, the cultural critiques of researcher such as Belk and Pollay (1985), the sacred consumption literature of Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989), and the critical theory stream of Murray and Ozanne (1991) and Hetrick and Lozada (1994).

First, this research begins to empirically explore an area delineated by Pe±aloza and Price (1992) and Herrmann (1992. As Pe±aloza and Price (1992, p. 124) note in their conceptual overview of the topic: "Our challenge is to incorporate more fully human agency and subjectivity in our research [on consumer resistance] at both the individual and collective levels." This research has begun to follow their suggestion by incorporating a phenomenological perspective, explored through field research.

This research also links with consumer culture critiques such as those which have examined the dangers of materialism and the social impact of advertising upon it (e.g., Belk and Pollay 1985). While these critiques have largely focused on morally negative aspects of consumption, this study had demonstrated how consumers utilize an economically-based (anti)consumption tactic, boycotting, in order to symbolically combat and perhaps even transcend these "dark side" aspects (Hirschman 1991).

The theme of moral transcendence relates to the growing body of field research confirming the wide applicability and explanatory utility of the sacred consumption concept (Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989). In this particular context, we link the concept of the "sacred" with the concept of "morality," moving the secularized theme closer to a religious orientation. For, rather than particular goods and services being considered sacred by these consumers, boycotters find the elimination and absence of morally repugnant production practices (a finding that goes considerably beyond the "ordinariness" of the "profane") to sacralize consumer behavior.

This emphasis on the close link between productive and consumptive practices links the research to the application of both postmodern thought and critical theory. Whether envisaged as "a discourse in which both production and consumption are problematized simultaneously," (Firat and Venkatesh 1995, p. 258), as "a systematic critique of social conditions" (Murray and Ozanne 1991, p. 129) or as "a neo-Marxist critique" of capitalist society (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, p. 549), this research indicates that a number of people do indeed "consume in ways that express their social values," and explicitly details this "emancipatory" and "liberatory" behavior.

Finally, this research also details and demonstrates the utility of netnography. However, examination of the limitations of this exploration elaborated the shortcomings of short data collection time spans when combined with the method. Longer periods of immersion, researcher participation in the culture, and the expansion of the method to include related types of data collection such as the use of personal and telephone interviews, and home pages, will likely enhance the credibility, richness, and utility of future netnographic research.

Boycotts represent people working within the capitalist system yet actively seeking to reduce its oppression of themselves and others. Boycotters struggle against dominant corporate forces in order to pursue social betterment, a utopian project of "consumer praxis," which we might conceptualize as "consumer behavior with virtue." [The authors would like to acknowledge Steve Arnold's conceptual work as the inspiration for this term.] This research on consumer praxis thus begins to contribute not only to a literature on consumer resistance, but to our empirical understanding of the role of ethics and morality in everyday consumer behavior, an area of investigation that we (along with many others, e.g., Hirschman 1991) believe warrants considerable further attention.


Jean Baudrillard (1970) said that in the postmodern age people were increasingly surrounded by objects instead of people. This "fundamental mutation" leads to our disaffection, our depletion, our vacancy because these objects are commercially fecund, but morally void-they exist as free-floating signifiers, full of the furious sounds of marketing, yet signifying nothing.

This research finds consumers striking back at this morally void sstem. Drawing on de Certeau’s (1984) conceptualization of "everyday" consumption practices as re-signification systems, many prior empirical investigations of consumer resistance have examined less invasive, more passive, forms of consumer resistance. This research draws our attention to an interesting other extreme: the activist attempt by some consumers to reconfigure not the semiotic significance, but the material configuration of the production system feeding their consumption.

This study of boycotting behavior may thus point to a fundamental re-understanding of consumers’ attempts to re-connect commercial objects with human actors and human morality. As such, the study of boycotting behavior is conceptually related to the study of groups such as the Amish, and such distinctive consumer actions as voluntary simplicity and environmental purchasing. [The authors wish to than an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this insight.] Boycotts reconnect objects with people-the managers and executives who make and market them, the shareholders who profit from them, the laborers who toil to manufacture and harvest them. They may even connect them to the nonhuman animals and the natural environment from which they were harvested and which their production, use and disposal affect. We can imagine this act of reconnection as a struggle between different institutional players, an action inscribed in the fluid dance of organized and individual behaviors that make up marketplace exchanges.

The now-archaic word "ensoul" means to endow something previously soulless with a soul, that which transcends the material. Boycotts begin in consumer society, but for those engaged in them they provide a way of life that takes the culture of consumption and moralizes it, transcending its barren materialism, thereby ensouling it.

The two themes described in this research are linked in that they describe boycotts as a form of consumer resistance allowing moral self-expression. They become actions that remind and connect the individual to their deeper moral self, while also distinguishing them from "less aware" and perhaps less compassionate others. Boycotters use consumption to connect not merely to an endless proliferation of profane commercially branded goods but, through an alchemical act of consumer praxis, to a hidden moral universe of other lands, other beings and other lives.


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