Special Session Summary Commercial Cultures


Helene Brembeck, Karin M. Ekstrom, and Magnus Morck (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Commercial Cultures", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 317-320.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 317-320



Helene Brembeck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

Karin M. Ekstrom, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

Magnus Morck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

Our special session will focus on our own interdisciplinary research effort of business administration and ethnology in applying the concept of commercial cultures to a number of phenomena here in Sweden. The importance of cultural perspectives on consumption has gained more acceptance recently. However, still a lot remains to be done when it comes to integrating economic and cultural science. What kind of cultural analysis is in demand? What happens to economy if you accept the fact that it is culturally constructed, not made up of objective laws? If it is all about culture, what stops us from dealing with both production and consumption in the same study? Most research on consumption from the cultural side has tried to isolate producers and consumers, setting up the latter as uniquely creative in teasing out new creative meanings of mass produced goods (Gelber 1999, 1989). The conventional approach in cultural studies suggests that consumption is only meaningfully treated by the ethnography of resistant consumers. But this is only the simple reverse of glorifying business as heroically moulding passive consumers into desiring subjects. We like to contribute to the recent move towards ending the purely artificial division between production, marketing and consumption. This also, of course, means changing the narrativeBboth consumers and producers should be studied as interacting and creative in bringing about commercial cultures marked by both.

The concept of commercial culture has been used to sum up the essence of a number of complicated issues. As discussed by Peter Jackson, Frank Mort and Daniel Miller (Jackson et. al. 2000, Mor 1996), it has been taken to mean the integration of economy and culture by focusing upon creative acts by both producers and consumers. Commercial culture is a hybrid creature that accounts for the manifold outcomes brought about by changes in consumption. The impact of commercial cultures on everyday lifeforms is difficult to assess. There are no obvious borderlines demarcating an original popular culture from market promoted phenomena. By mobilizing the tools of ethnography we try to get into the details of how consumers and producers interact. A number of phenomena will be studied, like appropriating and intimization and the ritualizing of the consumption of anonymous massmarket products. Singularisation and de-commodification are ways to remove the anonymity of goods (Belk 1995, Osteen 2002). But this is only one way to approach consumption, one that still owes a lot to traditional demonization of consumerism. Goods are taken to be "bads" because of their commercial origin. The approach we would like to develop also includes the perspective of "fans", people who invest intimate feelings in brands as exponents of outright commercial cultures. In that case goods may be appropriated without either singularisation or de-commodification. We think there is a demand for studies that go into the true complexity of consumer-producer relations, without demonizing the many forms of consumption as one-dimensional consumerism. We have selected three examples to fully grasp these interactions. First we show intimate relations being formed in that most anonymous space, the McDonalds restaurant. Second is a case of high status consumption in the form of collections of medium value like vases. Third, we focus on relations created by giftgiving on the internet in a context of popular hobbies. These examples serve to bring out some important aspects of commercial cultures, the study of market impact on everyday life without either demonization or glorification. Hopefully we will move on to be able to integrate some exiting avant-garde perspectives that yet wait to be applied to consumption like the ANT of Bruno Latour (1999) or the Art-Culture system of James Clifford (1998).


Belk, Russell W. (1995), Collecting in a consumer society. London: Routledge.

Clifford, James (1988), The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press.

Fiske, John, (1989), Understanding Popular Culture. London: Unwin Hyman.

Gelber, Steven M. (1999), Hobbies. Leisure and the culture of work in America. New York: Columbia University.

Latour, Bruno (1999), Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the reality of sciencestudies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mort, Frank (1996), The Cultures of Consumption. Masculinities and social space in late twentieth century Britain, London: Routledge.

Osteen, Mark (2002), The Question of the Gift. Essays across disciplines. London and New York: Routledge.



Helene Brembeck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

A McDonald’s-restaurant is no doubt a commercial space. Inside very mundane activities take place, parents and children socializing while having a meal. The aim of this paper is to discuss a visit to McDonald’s not as a wholly commercial activity following the authors of the McDonaldization thesis (Ritzer 1993, 1998, Schlosser 2001) and not as pure popular culture, which might be the approach favored in Cultural Studies, celebrating the consumer as an artist using the offers of the restaurants for his or her own ends (e.g. Fiske 1989), but as commercial culture, an ongoing flow of interaction and influence including consumers and producers, artifacts and technologies, situated in time and space.

Fears of McDonald’s as a homogenizing force, which lays at the heart of the McDonaldization thesis, were followed by an interest in hybridity, creolization and glocalism (Featerstone, Lasch & Robertson 1995, Hannerz 1996), showing that these restaurants offer different experiences and are differently used in e. g. Moscow, Paris and Hongkong, one eminent example being James L Watson’s "Golden Arches East" (1997). Recently researchers inspired by post-structuralism have criticized ideas of hybridity and creolization, since they imply whole and stable cultures, that in different ways can be blended to special glocalized mixes. Instead culture should be understood as neither whole, stable and with no clear borders, but changing and in constant flux, approximating an understanding of culture similar to the one we adhere to in the Commercial Culture project. Different combinations of place and movement have been proposed as a better way to understand globalization. Well known exponents for this view from the field of anthropology are James Clifford advocating that places/locality is created where people’s routes meet (1997) and George Marcus inspiring us to track traces of people, artifacts, metaphors (1998), and from a more philosophical stand-point French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and FTlix Guattari questioning the very possibility of complete stability and coordination between central powers and localities (1988).

An interesting example from the field of consumer studies is provided by British geographer Philip Crang, investigating topics such as food and eating (1996). The consumer, Crang says, is always entangled in flows and nets of goods and services and it is the duty of the researcher never to get stuck at the local. A visit to a McDonald’s restaurant can, following Crang, be understood as contextual, but "where those contexts are recognized as being opened up by and constituted through connections into any number of networks, networks which extend beyond delimiting boundaries of particular places: where imagined and performed representationsB-Bsurround the various flows C and where customers (and other actors in commodity systems) find themselves positioned and position themselves in terms of their entanglement with these flows and representations" (1996: 47). This way a McDonald’s restaurant could be understood as a cross-road for of a number of tales about the company and its products, about modern men, women and children, that producers and consumers jointly create, flows and pictures, narratives, categories, technologies and artifacts that customers as well as personnel have to orient themselves within. If these tales are deconstructed biographies of humans and non-humans appear. Through and beyond the illusory shine from the Golden Acres a McDonald’s restaurant is also a place where it is possible to go to, get seated and have a meal, with its own localization in time and space, a place most Swedish families visit regularly. Ordinary man, woman and child are not devastated by the power of the brand. In the restaurant customers not only find themselves entangled with narratives, they are also entangled with embodied humans, artifacts and technologies. A lot has been written about the detrimental effects on relations when they are expressed through things and consumption, often in terms of a moral panic about human relations and love being replaced by things following the tradition of the Frankfurt school (e.g. Marcuse 1964, Adorno 1981, Horkheimer 1972), i.e. turned into something thoroughly commercial and commodified. The other extreme might be exemplified by Material culture studies, where artifacts are sometimes seen as completely ethereal turned into emotions or pure meaning (Miller 1998), i.e. as something thoroughly cultural. Inspiring ways to bridge these opposites are offered by e g Bruno Latour 1988, Donna Haraway 1991 and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari 1988. Things could be seen as extensions of people, but people could also be seen as extensions of artifacts and technologies bridging the human-artefact divide. An interesting exemplification from the field of childhood research is offered by British sociologist Nick Lee advocating that both children and adults are "becomings", i.e. never finished as individuals, and in need of extensions to "become" /individuals/. Such extensions could be language but also artifacts and technologies. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, Lee describes how children, artifacts and technologies form "assemblages", or "desiring machines" in this process of becoming (Lee 2001), a way of reasoning that could easily be used in analyzing the child at McDonald’s enjoying a Happy Meal. Following Latour (1988), however, also artifacts become using humans as extensions.


Adorno, Theodore, (1981), Prisms, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Clifford, James (1997), Routes. Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Crang, Phil (1996), "Displacement, consumption and identity" Environment and Planning, A 28: 47-67.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix (1988), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Athlone.

Featherstone, Mike, Scott Lash and Robert Robertson (eds) (1995), Global Modernities, London: SAGE.

Fiske, John (1989), Understanding Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman.

Hannerz, Ulf (1996), Transnational Connections: cultures, people, places, London: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge

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Latour, Bruno (1988), The Pasteurization of France, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lee, Nick (1991), Childhood and Society, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Marcus, George E. (1998), Ethnography trough Thick & Thin, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1964), One Dimensional Man, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Miller, Daniel (1998), A Theory of Shopping, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ritzer, George (1993), The McDonaldization of Society, Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge.

Schlosser, Eric (2001), Fast Food Nation. What the All-American Meal is doing to the world, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ritzer, George (1998), The McDonaldization Thesis, London: SAGE.

Watson, James (ed) (1997), Golden Arches East. McDonald’s in East Asia, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.



Karin M. Ekstrom, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

Collections are often highly private. Even though collectors display their collections in their homes in various ways such as vertical/horizontal, structured/unstructured (Belk et al. 188), the display is not always made visible. Some collectors show their collections or part of their collections only to certain selected individuals, while others like to keep their collections to themselves. To exhibit a private collection in a museum gives both the collector and the collection exposure in a public/commercial place. Collections can become part of the owner’s extended self (Belk 1988). An object may become part of the self when an individual appropriates the object (Belk 1988). Possessions are not only part of the self, but can also be seen as instrumental for development of the self (Belk 1988).

The purpose of this paper is to describe private collector’s experiences of exhibiting their collections in a museum. More specifically, the paper focuses on how collectors perceive themselves as collectors after the exhibition. Collections can state things about the collector which would be socially undesirable to express aloud (McCracken 1988). Is it possible that the collector perceives him/herself differently after seeing his/her collection displayed in relation to other collector’s collections. Collecting represents a highly individualistic activity, but also a collectivist activity in that the collectors often associate themselves to other collectors. The individuality is substantiated by the exposure received in relation to other collections as well as in relation to the absence of such collections.

The paper focuses also on how collectors perceive their collections before and during an exhibition of their collections in a museum, as well as after their collections have been moved back into their private homes. Collections are viewed and evaluated by people, collectors and non-collectors, and related and compared to other collections. Maybe the collection is transformed and the meaning of the collection changes after being displayed in a museum. The collection may become more legitimized after being displayed in a museum. The exhibit may result in a shift from profane to sacred or the opposite. What does the transformation of the collection into a museum symbolize for the collector? The views from the unknown public may affect the collector’s perception of his/her collection. For example, is the collection viewed as more romanticized or sterilized? The collections in a museum are arranged in different ways than at home. For example, in a more abstract, scientific criteria, in glass cases, and with guards, all of which may mark a distance from the objects (Belk 1995). Collectors viewing their collections in a museum may or may not experience this distance to their objects. Also, different rituals (e.g. McCracken 1986) related to acquisition, possession, and divestment may become affected after the collection has been exhibited in a museum.

The paper is built on written story-telling (e.g. Czarniawska 1999). The author who is a collector reflects upon experiences related to exhibiting her own collection of vases in a museum. Also, collectors exhibiting a variety of collections (representing different degrees of visibility) in the same museum have been asked to write down their feelings and experiences in retrospect and describe how they felt before, during and after the exhibition is over. Stewart (1995, p.31) states: "the arrested life of the displayed collection finds its unity in memory and narrative".

The paper is related to commercial culture in that a private collection is displayed in a public/commercial place where the collection is viewed by museum visitors who pay to see the exhibition. Collecting represents consumption in that collectible items are acquired, displayed, and disposed of. Collecting also represents production. A collector produces and redefines his/her collection over time, for example by arranging it differently. The collector also produces him/herself as a collector and relates him/herself to other collectors and collections. Collectors are embedded in consumer culture. Belk (1995, p.158) states "Rather than being manipulated pawns of marketers, collectors are proactive decommoditizers of goods who creatively wrest meaning from the marketplace. I do not mean in this assessment to vindicate consume society in general. But for the majority of collectors, their participation in consumer culture is perhaps less problematic than that of the majority of non-collectors". Furthermore, consumption is often visual (e.g. Schroeder 2002) and the exhibition of collections involves also visual display (e.g. Cooke and Wollen 1995). Recently there has been an upsurge in the study of museums and exhibitions (e.g. Wollen 1995).

Since collecting is linked to identity, the paper draws upon theories related to self and identity (e.g. Belk 1988, Gould 2001, Sirgy 1982). The paper is also inspired by literature on reflexivity (e.g. Giddens 1991). Marcus (1998) views reflexivity as a dimension of method. Reflexivity is also interesting to compare and contrast to literature on introspection (Gould 1991,1995; Wallendorf and Brucks 1993). Rabinow (1977) argues that the participant observer is influenced by the collection of cultural data. He made it scientifically legitimate to include the researcher’s own experience in a study.

This paper is part of a larger study which rather than viewing collecting from a single-site location, views collecting from multiple sites of observation and participation. Marcus (1998) describes the emergence of multi-sited ethnography in anthropological research. There are different techniques for conducting a multi-sited ethnography such as follow the people, follow the thing, follow the metaphor, etc. In this paper, the focus is on following the thing, i.e. tracing circulation of collections in different contexts.


Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-168.

Belk, Russell W. (1995), Collecting in a Consumer Society, London: Routledge.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf, John Sherry, Morris Holbrook, and Scott Roberts (1988), "Collectors and Collecting." In Michael J. Houston, (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research 15. 548-553.

Cooke, Lynne and Peter Wollen (eds.)(1995), Visual Display; Culture Beyond Appearances, Seattle: Bay Press

Czarniawska, Barbara (1999), Writing Management; Organization Theory as Literary Genre, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity; Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Gould, Stephen J (1991), "The self manipulation of my pervasive, perceived vital energy through product use: an introspective-Praxis perspective," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (September), 194-207.

Gould, Stephen J. (1995), "Researcher Introspection as a Method in Consumer Research: Applications, Issues, and Implications (Comments)." Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (March), 719-722.

Gould, Stephen, J. (2001), "O Self, Are Thou One or Many? An Empirical Study of How Consumers Construct and Perceive the Self," in Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, vol 28, 233-234.

McCracken, Grant (1986), "Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 13 (June), 71-84.

McCracken, G. (1988) Culture and Consumption; New approaches to the symbolic character of consumer goods and activities. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Marcus, George E. (1998), Ethnography through Thick & Thin, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, Paul (1977), Reflections on fieldwork in Marocco, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Schroeder, Jonathan (2002), Visual consumption, London: Routledge.

Sirgy, M. Joseph (1982), "Self-Concept in Consumer Behavior: A Critical Review;" Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 9 (December), 287-300.

Stewart, Susan (1995), "Death and Life, in that order, in the Worlds of Charles Willson Peale," in Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, (eds.), Visual Display; Culture Beyond Appearances, Seattle: Bay Press.

Wallendorf, Melanie and Merrie Brucks (1993), "Introspection in Consumer Research: Implementation and Implications." Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (December), 339-359.

Wollen Peter (1995), "Tales of Total Art and Dreams of the Total Museum," in Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, (eds.), Visual Display; Culture Beyond Appearances, Seattle: Bay Press.



Magnus Morck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden

Gifts and commodities are often interpreted as opposites, the first are recruited as proof of love and personalized empathy, while the latter only serve to bring out the contrast, massification and instrumental rationality (Belk 1993, 1995, Mauss 1966, Miller 1998, Osteen 2002). Gifts get associated with history, the familiar narrative of loss in the quality of life, brought about by the growth of the markets and commodity production. The cynic counterpart of the nostalgic scenario is economism, which effectively nivellates gifts to just another example of calculating exchange. If these rather predictable approaches is avoided, many interesting topics open up, the constant intertwining of gift-giving phenomena and the commodity form in the present day consumer societies. My own sub-study of the commercial culture deals with gifts and commodities in an internet environment. Collecting (Belk 1995, Gelber 1999), visual culture (Mirzhoeff 1999), the art-culture system of James Clifford (Clifford 1988) and Steven Gelbers analytic triangle of hobbyism as craft, collecting and consumption are main theoretical themes (Gelber ibd). Of great interest is also the engendering and degendering movements brought about by the articulation of femininity and masculinity in the diverse genres under study (Mort 1996, Kimmel 1997, Rogers 1999).

The trajectories of particular objects show switches back and forth along the continuum from the perfect gift to the perfect commodity. Commodities get singularised or decommodified and in the end may also get depersonalized once more in order to enter the second hand market (Appadurai 1986, McCracken 1988). A fair number of studies have tackled this problem, the cycle of life or biographic approach to things. My project deals with printable downloads from the internet of artifacts that can be made to appear in real space, if you just print the files and glue the parts together. This phenomenon has appeared as giftgiving, hobbyism and commodity production during the last few years. The motives are diverse, like display of craft skills or historical or other forms of factual knowledge. Hundreds of artifacts are available from the most diverse sources, both small scale actors like students and large scale ones like NASA, Canon and many other corporations and government agencies. This phenomenon is gendered as most of the artifacts appeal to traditional manifestations of masculinity: airplanes, ships, cars and buildings. Some female designers are active and tend to affirm conventional feminine interests like dolls houses and paper dolls. This means that printable artifacts on the internet engender, rather than degender a new social space.

The project has been running for about a year, trying to survey the artifacts and how they circulate on the web. Presently I am most interested in how moments of giftgiving and commodity production and exchange get integrated. The standardized quality of the files that can be reproduced digitally at no cost any number of times owes most to the commodity form. The artifacts reproduced are made up of simple and distinct forms and try to get universal attraction by appealing to well known object worlds. In the case of model buildings there is a large overlap with often reproduced sets of souvenirs, like the opera standing for Sydney or a New England barn appealing to American History values like simplicity and good taste (Margolin 2002). The object world of the internet shows an affinity with commodity production by appealing to already known artifacts and representing them as kits with parts that will reproduce the same likeness whether it is assembled in America or Japan. The consumption of these free gifts during leisure time actually resembles work at the tayloristic assembly line. Steven Gelbers critical theses on the work-orientation of hobbyistic leisure are in many ways confirmed (Gelber 1999). Indeed, competitive behaviour is richly manifested in the web-albums that are dedicated to the display of assembled artifacts. The motives for offering the files of various objects for free is decidedly not any homogenous manifestation of altruism. A large number of these gifts circulate as promotion or advertising of corporations that obviously have calculated their expenses. Many professionals in graphic design have examples of their skill available on their homepages for the same reason. But there also seems to be a lot of altruistic giftgiving in the strict sense that has been suggested by authors like Belk or Osteen (Belk 1993, Osteen 2002). The offerings are presented to anonymous consumers with few possibilities to gain instrumentally. The rhetoric that has been created by different actors and can be documented in email lists appeals to values of excess and generosity. Gratitude is shown through elaborations of a number of themes supposed to be manifested by the offer. Spontaniety, enjoyment and superfluity lie at the heart of the responses. It is constantly underlined that people give away the work of many hours, that in other contexts could have been marketed with a profit. The dimension of excess in digital no-cost copying comes close to the principle of expenditure in Bataille (Bataille 1988). But some cold distance is also appropriate in assessing this phenomenon, the prefect digital files that are downloaded are heavy with the esthetics of the commodity form. As the kits get assembled into various fragile and highly temporary paper objectifications personal thumbprints and mistakes creates singularisation. The ideal of the hobbyists is however not to personalize in this obvious way, but to create something clean and pristine and in this way commodity form is again and finally courted. To sum up, in this study, part of a cooperative research effort with marketing science, my ambition as ethnologist has been to transcend the conventional limits of my discipline to culture as the meaning of texts, to include the meanings brought about by manifestations of economic categories like giftgiving and commodity form.


Appadurai, Arjun (ed) (1986), The Social Life of Things. Commodities in a Cultural Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Belk, Russell W. (1995), Collecting in a Consumer Society, London: Routledge.

Clifford, James (1988), The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature,and Art, Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press.

Gelber, Steven M. (1999), Hobbies. Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, NewYork: Columbia University.

Kimmel, Michael (1997), Manhood in America. A Cultural History, New York: Simon & Schuster.

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Miller, Daniel (1998), A Theory of Shopping, Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

Mirzhoeff, Nicholas (1999), An Introduction to Visual Culture, London and NewYork: Routledge.

Mort, Frank (1996), The Cultures of Consumption. Masculinities and Social Space in Late Twentieth Century Britain, London: Routledge.

Osteen, Mark (2002), The Question of the Gift. Essays Across Disciplines, London and New York: Routledge.

Rogers, Mary F. (1999), Barbie Culture, London: Sage.



Helene Brembeck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden
Karin M. Ekstrom, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden
Magnus Morck, Goteborg University and CFK, Sweden


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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