Toward a Cultural Theory of Class Consumption: the Social Construction of the Turkish Hand-Knitted Sweater

Tuba Ustuner, Harvard University
Douglas B. Holt, Harvard University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - In this essay, we use an ethnographic case study to extend theories that explain how social class patterns consumption. Existing theories propose that two mechanisms cause social class to structure consumption. Economists, influenced by Veblen’s (1899) classic work The Theory of the Leisure Class, have focused on how classes use consumption as an economic signal. They propose an emulation mechanism: classes seek to rise to a higher status (trickle-down theory) and conversely, to avoid being left behind by one’s own class (keeping up with the Joneses). Economic signaling is generally a more reflexive and strategic mode of class consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Tuba Ustuner and Douglas B. Holt (2003) ,"Toward a Cultural Theory of Class Consumption: the Social Construction of the Turkish Hand-Knitted Sweater", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 282-283.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 282-283

TOWARD A CULTURAL THEORY OF CLASS CONSUMPTION: THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF THE TURKISH HAND-KNITTED SWEATER

Tuba Ustuner, Harvard University

Douglas B. Holt, Harvard University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

In this essay, we use an ethnographic case study to extend theories that explain how social class patterns consumption. Existing theories propose that two mechanisms cause social class to structure consumption. Economists, influenced by Veblen’s (1899) classic work The Theory of the Leisure Class, have focused on how classes use consumption as an economic signal. They propose an emulation mechanism: classes seek to rise to a higher status (trickle-down theory) and conversely, to avoid being left behind by one’s own class (keeping up with the Joneses). Economic signaling is generally a more reflexive and strategic mode of class consumption.

Alternatively, sociologists, also influenced by Veblen, emphasize the social conditioning of tastes. Most influential is Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984), which argues that class-based tastes become naturalized to reflect historical social relations and material conditions as experienced in family upbringing, education, and work. These consumption patterns are reproduced, pragmatically, as the outcome of tastes and desires.

This study draws upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted in a squatter neighborhood outside of Ankara, Turkey. A squatter is a ramshackle home quickly constructed from cheaply available materials. Squatters formed in Turkey, just as they did in many other global cities in less-developed countries, as rural peasants migrated in large numbers. These dynamic diasporas formed by the forces of globalization, have become a dominant aspect of social life for the world’s poor. But this new globalized lower class formation is rarely studied in consumer research.

Our case examines the immense popularity and value assigned by women in the squatters to making and dressing in hand-knitted sweaters. We analyze the social construction of the hand-knitted sweater, tracing its uses and meanings from village life to the squatters. We trace the uses and meanings of sweater-making from previous life in the village to new life in the squatters.

From the ethnographic analysis, we build a formal model consists of four social constructionist processes:

1) Historically-specific class conditions create particular class contradictions that are experienced by the class as existential dilemmas and as alienation. The migration of villagers to a large city, sequestered in squatter neighborhoods, is a class-specific consequence of the forces of globalization.

2) These historic conditions and contradictions lead the class to collectively construct an ideological framework that makes sense of their new reality. This framework is organized into a discourse built around the city:village binary. The squatters’ idea of themselves as "villagers" was constructed in large part only after the squatter migration began, which created an external point-of-comparison to objectify how they had once lived. This result is analogous to Wilk’s finding that the Belizians’ reflexive construction of a Belizean identity through culture, began with the onset of dynamic migration patterns. Ideas of "village" and "city" were produced based upon the comparisons forced by their new class-based experience of Ankara from within the squatters. The ways in which the squatters understand and experience Ankara-as a threatening space that strips them of their identity and traditions, as a place of strangers, of overwhelming diversity-accentuate particular aspects of the village that had once been taken-for-granted (e.g., intimacy of knowing people and places well, behavior norms as a form of security). Squatters use the discourse as a key resource to make sense of their new lives, and guide their actions within (i.e., it serves as a cultural model). This construction of city:village differs considerably from the discourse that predominates amongst the classes above the squatters.

3) The contradictions of the new social context of the squatter life likewise creates particular ideological desires that seek to reconstruct a viable class identity. Squatters use the city:village discourse to impute new types of value to things and activities. Through this process, particular consumption objects (and associated practices) are selected to perform symbolic work.

4) Consumption objects and practices are chosen based upon their viability as a symbolic resource to fulfill ideological desires. The squatter women collectively "selected" hand-knitted sweaters over other possible goods and activities that were also part of their former village lives because sweaters signified the village in a particular way based upon their historical uses. The meanings of sweaters shift as the women moved from village to squatters. But, this doesn=t mean that the previous village meanings are irrelevant. Rather the particular associations of making sweaters in the village served as a crucial cultural "raw asset" that squatter women used to create a powerful ritual "antidote" to the alienation of city life. What Barthes calls myth-second-order connotations in which are buried potent socio-political content-proves crucial in the creation of class consumption patterns. Squatter women selected hand-knitted sweaters as an object with which to perform symbolic work, not because the sweaters embodied the village, but because they do so in particular ways.

REFERENCES

Barthes, Roland (1972), Mythologies, New York: The Noonday Press.

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality, New York: Anchor Books.

Burawoy, Michael (1991), Ethnography Unbound, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge: Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Census of Population Provisional Results 2000, State Institute of Statistics Prime Ministry Republic of Turkey, Ankara.

Census of Population Social and Economic Characteristics of Population 1990, State Institute of Statistics Prime Ministry Republic of Turkey, Ankara.

Erman, Tahire (2001), " The Politics of Squatter (Gecekondu) Studies in Turkey: The Changing Representations of Rural Migrants in the Academic Discourse," Urban Studies, 38 (7): 983-1003.

Geertz, Clifford (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Holt, Douglas B. (1998), "Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 25 (June):1-25.

Holt, Douglas (1997), "Poststructuralist Lifestyle Analysis: The Social Structuring of Consumption in Postmodernity," Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (June).

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1992), Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Veblen, Thorstein (1926), The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: Vanguard Press.

Wilk, Richard (1994), "Consumer Goods as Dialogue about Development: Colonial Time and Television Time in Belize", in Consumption and Identity, edited by Jonathan Friedman, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers.

----------------------------------------