Drifting Away From Excessive Consumption: a New Social Movement Based on Identity Construction

Helene Cherrier, University of Arkansas
Jeff Murray, University of Arkansas
ABSTRACT - Voluntary simplicity, frugality, downshifting, sustainable lifestyle, are related topics invading bookshelves, the World Wide Web, special journal editions, conferences and class syllabi. Although growing in popularity, voluntary simplicity lifestyles are not well understood by consumer researchers. Why are these lifestyles becoming popular in a consumer culture? Why are some consumers choosing to consume less? Do these individuals consume less or just different types of products?@ What types of discourses are used to learn about and justify this lifestyle? In an effort to better understand these consumers, this article uses new social movement and identity theories from cultural studies to analyze the forces influencing individuals to choose a post-materialist lifestyle.
[ to cite ]:
Helene Cherrier and Jeff Murray (2002) ,"Drifting Away From Excessive Consumption: a New Social Movement Based on Identity Construction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 245-247.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 245-247

DRIFTING AWAY FROM EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION: A NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENT BASED ON IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION

Helene Cherrier, University of Arkansas

Jeff Murray, University of Arkansas

ABSTRACT -

Voluntary simplicity, frugality, downshifting, sustainable lifestyle, are related topics invading bookshelves, the World Wide Web, special journal editions, conferences and class syllabi. Although growing in popularity, voluntary simplicity lifestyles are not well understood by consumer researchers. Why are these lifestyles becoming popular in a consumer culture? Why are some consumers choosing to consume less? Do these individuals consume less or just different types of products?" What types of discourses are used to learn about and justify this lifestyle? In an effort to better understand these consumers, this article uses new social movement and identity theories from cultural studies to analyze the forces influencing individuals to choose a post-materialist lifestyle.

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

Some people say: "Money doesn’t buy happiness", others say: "Money doesn’t buy happiness, so give it to me!" Research has shown that people with a definite lack of money are definitely less happy. They cannot fulfill all their needs and consume for physiological survival (Hill and Stamey 1990, Koretz 2000). But once a certain level of consumption is reached, extra money does not always make people any happier (Lane 1991, Easterlin 1995). Away from financial restraints, some consumers may decide to escape the consumption spiral and engage in plain living and high thinking. How can those consumers that want less, labeled here "voluntary simplifiers," resist the consumer driven society? Why do voluntary simplifiers believe that possessing more does not necessarily improve their well-being? Concerned wth those two main questions, this paper approaches voluntary simplifiers in the light of the new social movement theory, which captures a central place in "identity construction" (Offe 1985; Roth 1985; Touraine 1980; Melucci 1980).

The first step to accept voluntary simplicity as a new social movement is to perceive its one common denominator, which is the choice to resist what we would call the new millennium Descartes: I shop therefore I am. Voluntary simplifiers perceive different environmental and/or social threats present in the consumer driven society. Some examples of those threats include pollution, over population, waste, dehumanization, and stress. Following this perception of a society at risk, they modify their lifestyle in order to seek a more meaningful existence. They decide to act according to their personal beliefs and to resist ideological manipulation. This first step highlights three main goals of voluntary simplicity as a new social movement: perception of a society at risk, self-conception, and individual autonomy.

The second step to consider voluntary simplicity as a new social movement is to reflect on its fragmented, diffuse, and decentralized character. As a "commitment to the non-material aspect of life" (Zavestoski 1998), voluntary simplicity is widely commercialized. Several books, magazines, journals, and schools candidly diffuse the strategies for a "simple life." Moreover, because the means to "live simply" are not explicit, voluntary simplifiers use virtual communication such as the Internet and chat rooms to interact across space, culture, and class regarding their beliefs, values and concerns on the voluntary simplicity movement. This second approach depicts the voluntary simplicity movement as fragmented between submerged network communities and commercialized communities.

Because the affiliation to new social movement is strongly related to the production and recognition of the self, we apply Plummer’s (1995) framework of identity construction to the voluntary simplicity movement’s formation. In his analysis of "Sexual Stories," Plummer developed four stages of identity construction: sensitization, signification, subculturalization, and stabilization.

Voluntary simplifiers are reflective individuals. They become sensitized to the question of "consuming or being consumed?1" through the (commercialized) subculture of the voluntary simplicity movement. Dissatisfied with the "Society of The Spectacle" (Debord 1983), voluntary simplifiers move from an externally identified self to an internally identified self (Gergen 2000). They become sensitive to their internal identity, which is where the meaning resides. For voluntary simplifiers, the identified self involves the "decomposition of existing identities into their constituent components, and their recombination into a new identity" (LTvi-Strauss cited by Uzzi 2000). Through reflection, voluntary simplifiers become aware that they do not want to be miniature reproduction of their societies. It is the (commercialized) voluntary simplicity subculture that allows voluntary simplicity to perceive the risk society and acknowledge a lifestyle that may be different from the "norm."

Because voluntary simplifiers consider that pursuing more does lead to happiness, they respond to the systematic colonization of consumption by rationalizing commodification and materialist society. Voluntary simplifiers modify their consumption lifestyle to bring significance to an inauthentic, disenchanted consumer society. By modifying their lifestyle, they express a personal transformation and affiliate themselves with the voluntary simplicity movement and with its submerged network communities. Those submerged networks create a feeling of belonging and solidarity in relation to its members "by allowing people to discover common interests and experiences" (Verta Taylor 2000).

Through interactive communication, voluntary simplifiers claim collectively their right to realize their own identity: "the possibility of disposing of their personal creativity, their affetive life, and their biological and interpersonal existence" (Melucci 1980). This subculturalization process is where one recognizes himself/herself as a voluntary simplifiers through involvement with others. It is at this stage that the divisiveness of difference produced by the new social movement may help the individual to discover unity in diversity. In one-way, the multiple values and beliefs of voluntary simplicity emerge from its members’ interactions. In the other way, its members’ identity is constructed and strengthened by group solidarity activated through submerged networks.

Finally, for voluntary simplifiers, the stabilization stage relates to individuals who engage into the voluntary simplicity lifestyle away from the commercialized subculture. They are completely autonomous individuals, totally immersed in the movement itself, and realize that their desirable goals are not based on economic growth, consumption and technological advance but on happiness and well-being.

This study of voluntary simple consumers leads us to believe that consumer behavior should expand the study of consumers’ needs through the concepts of identity construction. Throughout our analyses, identity construction appears as a process that interconnects perception of a society at risk, self-conception and individual autonomy. This process of identification is also interrelated to the interpretation of the movement’s codes (commercialization) and the immersion within the submerged networks of the movement.

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