Disciplinary Power and Consumer Research: an Introduction

ABSTRACT - This paper draws on Michel Foucault’s conception of Adisciplinary power@ to explore some of the ways in which consumer research is implicated in modern forms of social control. According to Foucault, power in western societies is characterised less by the exercise of physical force and violence than by discipline and training. It operates by subjecting individuals and whole populations to normative regulation through mass surveillance, social categorisation and corrective treatment. The origins of these disciplinary techniques, Foucault argues, lie in the human(agement) sciences such as consumer research. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to explore those disciplinary techniques invested in this discipline (marketing research, segmentation and communications) for governing consumer behaviour.



Citation:

David Marsden (2001) ,"Disciplinary Power and Consumer Research: an Introduction", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 54-60.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 54-60

DISCIPLINARY POWER AND CONSUMER RESEARCH: AN INTRODUCTION

David Marsden, Napier University Business School, United Kingdom

ABSTRACT -

This paper draws on Michel Foucault’s conception of "disciplinary power" to explore some of the ways in which consumer research is implicated in modern forms of social control. According to Foucault, power in western societies is characterised less by the exercise of physical force and violence than by discipline and training. It operates by subjecting individuals and whole populations to normative regulation through mass surveillance, social categorisation and corrective treatment. The origins of these disciplinary techniques, Foucault argues, lie in the human(agement) sciences such as consumer research. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to explore those disciplinary techniques invested in this discipline (marketing research, segmentation and communications) for governing consumer behaviour.

INTRODUCTION

'It seems to me that the real political task in society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight them’ (Foucault, 1984, p. 6)

Consumer research has traditionally described itself as a neutral and independent institution. It has invested heavily in the idea of itself as a rational, value-free scientific discipline that simply reflects the objective facts of consumer behaviour. Indeed, consumer research is celebrated as a liberating project in which the knowledge it generates about consumer behaviour is used to benefit peoples lives. In contrast, a small number of critical perspectives have recently emerged in the field that have radically called into question this traditional self-image, most notably Marxism and postmodernism. For example, Marxism (and its derivatives) maintains that consumer research reproduces relations of capitalist exploitation and oppression by subjecting people to the ideological domination of the market (e.g., Alvesson and Willmott, 1992; Hetrick and Lozada, 1994). Postmodernism also deconstructs the scientific truth claims of consumer research, although it rejects the manipulation thesis of Marxism in favour of a much more liberatory view of consumption (e.g., Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). A general weakness of this emerging critical body of work, however, is that it tends to adhere to a dualistic "repressive\emancipation" understanding of power.

On the one hand, Marxism’s emphasis on the repressive, manipulative and exploitative forces of consumer research fails to recognise the way in which power can be productive in the sense that individuals actively co-operate and connive in their subjection to it (Thompson and Hirschman, 1995). On the other, postmodernism’s romanticism of the liberating potential of consumption as a means of individual empowerment and expression masks the high levels of policing that governs consumer behaviour, not least by consumer researchers themselves (Gabriel and Lang, 1995). In an attempt to transcend this dualistic mind-set this paper draws on Michel Foucault’s alternative conception of power set out in Discipline and Punish (1977). Here, Foucault argues that modern western societies can be understood in terms of the shift in the mode, or operation, of power over the last two hundred years or so. Among the modes of power that have become salient today, Foucault argues, attempts to control the behaviour of people through the mechanisms of discipline and training are far more typical and routine than an older form of sovereign power based on violent and coercive methods of domination and repression. As Hindess (1996, p. 113) explains:

'[Disciplinary power] is exercised over one or more individuals in order to provide them with particular skills and attributes, to develop their capacity for self-control, to promote their ability to act in concert, to render them amenable to instruction, or to mould their characters in other ways'

As we shall see, disciplinary power operates by subjecting the psychological strivings and motivations of people to "normative regulation" through mass surveillance, social categorisation and corrective treatment. Foucault maintains that the origins of these control mechanisms can be found in the human(agement) sciences, such as consumer research, that are concerned with mental measurement and social administration, what Rose (1990) refers to as the "psychological complex". However, Foucault’s ideas have yet to be fully explored by critical consumer researchers which is surprising considering the growing body of literature outside the field that explores the interrelationships between disciplinary power and consumption. Although Foucault’s work is frequently cited by postmodern marketers, his concept of disciplinary power has been largely ignored. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to introduce thi theoretical body of work and illustrate some of the ways in which the techniques of consumer research are implicated in it.

DISCIPLINARY POWER & CONSUMER RESEARCH

According to Foucault disciplinary power characterises the way in which the relations of inequality and oppression in modern western societies are (re)produced through the psychological complex. Summarised in Figure 1 below, it can be contrasted with an older form of sovereign power in terms of its aims, site, target and mode of operation.

FIGURE 1

SOVEREIGN & DISCIPLINARY POWER

Aims of Power

Disciplinary power both shaped and was shaped by the problems and opportunities brought into being by the industrial revolution, particularly with regard to the management and planning of the enormous output of goods and services (McNay, 1994; Rabinow, 1984). As the forces of economic production expanded governments and organisations had to manufacture mass markets in order to consume their mass-produced goods (Miller and Rose, 1990). In contrast to sovereign power that was aimed at the domination and submission of the populace, therefore, disciplinary power centred on the expansion and regulation of the productive capacity of labour power both inside the factory and outside in the market place (Barker, 1998). And it was this need to acquire and produce knowledge about market behaviour and how to regulate consumption that saw the rise of the human(agement) sciences (the social and management sciences) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Wickham, 1997). As Engel et al. (1995, p. 30) point out, over the last fifty years: 'The central concern of businesses, consumer economists, and others was to find more effective strategies to influence and shape [market] behaviour’. And it was from these specific historical conditions - the change from an agricultural to industrial economy, the professionalisation of the social sciences and cultural industries - that enabled a distinctive type of person to rise to prominence: the "self-as-consumer" (Aldridge, 1994; Falk, 1994; Turner, 1996). This is the person we feel today to be inhabited by motivations and values, possessed by certain traits and personality characteristics seeking to maximise the worth of their existence through personalised acts of consumption (Du Gay and Salaman, 1992). As Knights and Morgan (1993, p. 225) explain, one of the disciplinary effects of marketing knowledge and the discourse of the self-as-consumer has been to naturalise the link between consumption and self-identity:

'In modern western societies it is through consumption that individuals are continuously transformed into subjects who secure meaning, personal significance and a sense of identity through socially mediated relation, with the object or symbol consumed’

By stimulating the self-as-consumer individuals and whole populations could be tied to the needs of the market, simultaneously enabling governments and organisations to address them in a very personal way. Specific questions about their consumption behaviours could now be transformed through the methods and techniques of consumer marketing into technical questions resolvable by calculation and administration. If consumer behaviour was to be predictable, therefore, it is in part because it would be made predictable through disciplining and training people in the consumption habits that correspond to what should happen in the market place, making people calculating and therefore calculable (Allen, 1998). As Brownlie et al. (1998, p. 8) observe: 'The marketing gaze constructs consumers as objects, as rational, sovereign, self-actualising actors whose identity is reduced to the ownership of commodities and all social relations are conceived in market terms’. And as we shall see below, this is arguably one of the distinctive features of modern consumer research - its capacity to produce dispositions and consuming energies in people, to transform them into self-disciplined subjects equipped with the necessary skills and behaviours to fully participate in the market, a central site of disciplinary power.

Site & Nature of Power

Up to the eighteenth century sovereign power was centrally located in the state which, like a pyramid, flowed from the top-down into the bottom of society. It was a power visibly embodied in an individual, group or institution (the monarch, military, judiciary, church and so on) and was something that could be seized, possessed and accumulated much like a substance or commodity. In contrast, Foucault argues that modern forms of disciplinary power are neither centralised in the state apparatus nor work solely through an imposition from above. Rather, he was concerned to examine how power relations are (re)produced through a network of institutions, agencies and authorities dispersed across a spectrum of sites in society. As Foucault (1977, p. 93) maintains: 'Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society’. In other words, disciplinary power is not an attribute or "thing" belonging to an individual, group or state institution. Rather, it characterises the relation amongst them: relations to oneself, relations to others, relations to authority and modes of thought which count as "truth". Likewise, disciplinary power does not flow from one direction, the top-down, but circulates around the bottom of society 'weaving itself into our slightest gestures and most intimate utterancespersonal relations and routine activities’ (Eagleton, 1991, p. 7). And it is in this sense that Foucault argues disciplinary power is embodied in everyday "discourses" that permeate all levels of social existence - those ways of thinking and speaking (clusters of ideas, images, forms of knowledge, conduct, practices) that define and construct how we see the world and ourseles in it, whether it be the self-as-sinner in sovereign times or the self-as-consumer today. Again, this change in the dominant discourse of the self has its origins in the industrial revolution when authority passed from the social institutions of religion, magic and monarchy into the present-day bearers of "truth" - human(agement) scientists (Lien, 1997; Rose, 1990). Located at a distance from the formal organs of the state, the power invested in economists, psychologists, educationalists and, of course, consumer researchers is essentially hidden and obscured from public view. With the stamp of "science" to legitimate their knowledge claims and practices disciplinary power is essentially productive in that people freely subject themselves to them. And it is the ways in which the ostensibly beneficient and scientific forms of knowledge such as consumer research actually oppress, rather than benefit, peoples lives that we now turn.

FIGURE 2

DISCIPLINARY MECHANISMS OF CONSUMER RESEARCH

Target & Style of Punishment

Whereas the target of sovereign power was the physical "body" and the style of punishment its destruction and repression, Foucault argues that the target of disciplinary power is the "soul" and its productive capacities (Rose, 1990). By the soul, Foucault means what has variously been called the human psyche, consciousness, subjectivity and personality that disciplinary power not only mobilises but also controls through normative regulation - defined as the set of standards, values and performance criteria that individuals must reach and maintain in performing certain tasks (Ransom, 1997). In terms of consumption, normative criteria are set into play by surrounding and enmeshing people within a network of scientific forms of marketing knowledge and consumer discourses that communicate social expectations about their market behaviour (Willmott, 1998). As Foucault (1997, p. 223) explains, disciplinary power encourages people to compare, evaluate and correct themselves against various "objective" standards or norms: 'The disciplines characterise, classify, specialise, they distribute along scales around a norm, hierarchise individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate’. In this sense, disciplinary power is productive rather than repressive in that it is not mobilised or experienced by individuals in directly coercive ways. Indeed, repression is evidence of a lack of power, it is used when the limits of power have been reached. Slavery, for example, is a very unproductive form of labour - such domination only destroys its target along with its capacities to act. In contrast, the most effective and efficient form of power is that which displays itself most and hides itself best as Hoskin and Macve (1986, p. 106) maintain, 'the most pervasive power is that which makes its subjects co-operate and connive in their subjection to it’. Unlike the physical constraints of sovereign power, therefore, Foucault (1977, p. 93) argues that there is no limit to the ways in which a person’s soul can be isolated in a grid of types and made the object of normalising judgement:

We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power i negative terms: it 'excludes’, it 'represses’, it 'censors’, it 'abstracts’, it 'masks’, it 'conceals.’ In fact, power produces, it produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’

In short, disciplinary power does not operate by making people do what others want them to do, but to make them want to do it for themselves and to do it as others want them to with the desired tools, efficiency and order (Allen, 1998). It does not work by telling people what to think, but by giving them things to think about - it orders the field of possibilities within which people have to choose and act by providing them with advice, moral support and certain knowledge or skills. And fundamental to the understanding of how normative regulation actually operates are those methods and techniques of discipline and training, the stock in trade of the human(agement) sciences such as consumer research.

Methods & Techniques of Power

Normative regulation operates through three interrelated mechanisms: mass surveillance, social categorisation and corrective treatment. As noted earlier, before the soul can be regulated to meet certain economic/political needs it first has to be made visible as a distinct object or dimension of reality. Likewise, to meet the consumption needs of production under capitalism it is first necessary to define and conceptualise the self-as-consumer; to represent its processes, functions, causes and effects in ways that render it amenable to detailed examination and intervention. One of the main examination techniques of disciplinary power is that of "mass surveillance" which is a form of power internalised by those who are watched, who come to watch and govern their own behaviour according to the prevailing standards of normality. As we shall see in a moment, numerous surveillance mechanisms have been developed by consumer researchers to encourage people to observe their consumption behaviour, to get them to ask questions about themselves and to adjust their behaviour accordingly (Thompson and Hirschman, 1995). As Foucault (1977, pp. 29-30) makes clear, the power of surveillance is that it encourages people to regulate themselves through a constant introspective self-evaluation and examination:

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of constantly being seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection’

The process of surveillance generates an immense amount of information that can be used by consumer researchers to form "categorisation systems" that divide individuals into domains of value and utility, another disciplinary technique (McNay, 1994). Social categorisation, the heart of market segmentation, makes possible the 'description of groups, the characterisation of collective facts, the calculation of the gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given population’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 190). And it is the creation of social categories that legitimate numerous "treatment programmes" for those who fall within their boundaries, i.e., guidelines, commentaries, recommendations, plans, recipes and exercises designed to continually remind people to assess, observe and correct their attitudes and behaviour in relation to the "norms" of each category. And as we shall also see, this is central to the functioning of marketing communications which encourage people to evaluate and change themselves through the consumption of goods and services.

CONSUMER RESEARCH & DISCIPLINARY POWER

We have seen that from a Foucauldian perspective the aim of consumer research is to harness, optimise and regulate the economic consumption of individuals and whole populations in relation to the needs of the market. Summarised in Figure 2 below, to meet these needs consumer researchers have developed numerous disciplinary methods and techniques for observing (market research), classifying (segmentation) and correcting (marketing communications) consumption behaviour.

Market Research & Surveillance

It was noted earlier that surveillance is central to the exercise of disciplinary power in that it enables numerous aspects of peoples lives to be observed, documented and recorded (Hillyard and Percy-Smith, 1988). By its very nature, surveillance involves disclosure by rendering the behaviour of individuals more thoroughly knowable or known by others. As such, it circumscribes and constrains personal freedom through the inability of individuals to remain unidentified in society, leading them to act as if they were being watched at all times, forcing them to govern their behaviour continuously (Reynolds and Alferoff, 1999). Today, surveillance is ever more anonymous, automatic and entrenched in what Poster (1984, p. 163) calls the "information mode" of modern western societies:

'Surveillance is accomplished by setting in place a flow of information from the object under scrutiny to the authorities and to the collection of that information in files and memory banks. The existence of this network of information and the awareness of it by the scrutinised population constitutes a technology of power’

And when we look at consumer research there is undoubtedly an increasingly complex interaction going on between the use of information and communication technologies, electronic consumption tracking devices and mass surveillance techniques. For example, new information technologies have enabled consumer researchers to construct sophisticated electronic systems for monitoring consumer behaviour (Allen, 1998). An immense amount of information can now be yielded from just a few traces of a person’s consumption behaviour - credit cards, loyalty cards, responses to special offers, competitions and prize draws, loan applications, income transactions, library records, entry codes, ID numbers, credit ratings, and so forth. As Laurent and Pras (1998, pp. 251-52) note: 'There are scanner data for frequently purchased goods...but also on banking behaviour, on insurance, on telephone usage, on medical expenses, on going the opera, on travelling behaviour, etc’. A vast array of interview techniques, questionnaires, motivational analyses, psychological experiments and personality tests have also been developed for extracting and quantifying peoples consumption beliefs, attitudes, habits and behaviours so that they can be grasped in thought and acted upon in reality by commercial organisations (Du Gay, 1997; Miller and Rose, 1988). In this sense market research does not simply reflect the objective facts of consumer behaviour but rather 'constitutes, conditions, affects, alters, influences, implicates, distorts and re-directs the very thing it purports to represent - and vice versa’ (Brown, 1995, p. 302). In other words, knowledge about consumer behaviour is something that is demanded by the very activities of market research which themselves promote the idea that consumer behaviour is 'out there’ to be had and measured (Osborne and Rose, 1999).

Another way in which consumer researchers observe and build up information on consumers is from the use of video technology and the design of buildings. The video camera, which was used initially in maximum-security prisons and other enclosed security situations, has become a generalised disciplinary technology found in most sites of consumption today (Ransom, 1997). For example, the shopping mall with its security cameras may only incidentally be a place for shopping, but instead serve as a highly productive surveillance machine that enables areas to be over looked and monitored (Ainley, 1998). Similarly, supermarkets use video cameras not just for security purposes alone, but to also follow shoppers’ progress through the stores so they can observe what routes people take. This information enables shops to rearrange their stores so that people buy more, through the control of lighting, smells and colours, the design of shelf space, the strategic positioning of mirrors, the choice of background music, different sized floor tiles, the placement of interrelated goods close to one another and the location of "indulgences" (e.g., alcohol, soft drinks, cakes) on the furthest aisles from the entrance (Crace, 1996; Drummond, 1994). And according to Longhurst (1998) the use of space, time and layout in shopping centres are purposely designed to continually remind women of their roles as objects of feminine beauty and subjects of consumption. The clothes that are sold, the advertising images on shop windows, the body shapes of the display manikins, the age, appearance and scripted attitude of shop assistants all reinforce the notions of beauty as slim, youthful, sexy, and so on. In all the above cases we can see that surveillance is built into the very physical structures of consumption sites, organised to enhance visibiity within them.

Market Segmentation & Social Categorisation

Since the 1960s consumer researchers have generated literally hundreds of consumer types and categories through the marrying of sophisticated computer, information and communication technologies (Hearn and Roseneil, 1999). The development of market segmentation technologies have enabled researchers to aggregate, plot and profile groups of consumers by merging and overlaying demographic and lifestyle data from a number of government and commercial sources as Middleton (1994, p. 215) observes: 'The growing ability to research, store, retrieve and analyse data on hundreds of thousands of individuals...have revolutionised the ability of producers to obtain a detailed knowledge of consumer segments’. Once again, the disciplinary impulse of normative regulation is at work here because as McKinley and Starkey (1998, p. 8) make clear: 'The use of electronic trading devises to track streams of purchases by narrowly defined consumer segments deepens the intimacy of corporate knowledge of consumption’. Thus, the methods and techniques of market segmentation have facilitated the process by which organisations endow goods and individuals with an interrelated set of properties and discourses that motivate or trigger a consumption relation between them (Dale, 1997). For example, people defined as "belongers" are said to prefer fads, "emulators" popular fashion, and "subdued" people porridge and margarine (Engel et al. 1995; Heylen et al. 1995 respectively). Moreover, these labels are not socially neutral but carry a powerful evaluative component (Lury and Warde, 1997). In terms of Heylen et al.’s (1995) typology of consumer behaviour, for instance, most people, given the choice, would clearly prefer to be labelled "energetic" and "assertive" rather than "introverted" and "subdued". Other pejorative labels consumer researchers have attached to people to regulate their market conduct include laggards versus innovators, emotional versus rational decision makers, old versus young consumers and emulators versus achievers (taken from Engel et al. 1995). Again, all of the latter mentioned labels are highly honorific in our culture. The disciplinary power of market segmentation technologies, then, is that they provide consumer researchers with detailed information to label people and develop special "micro-marketing" practices to police their boundaries, what Foucault would term corrective treatment programmes.

Marketing Communications & Corrective Treatment

Marketing communications are key sites for the exercise of disciplinary power in modern western societies, where the self-as-consumer is formed around regimes of normative consumption (Eagleton, 1991). Advertisements, for example, embrace and amplify the notion of the self-as-consumer by offering people sets of (self)concepts, expressions, terms and statements to frame their view of reality and place in it - how to eat, dress, conduct oneself in the market place, and so on. Advertisements surround people in a network of ideas, activities and behavioural expectations, continually reminding people who they are, who they could be or can become through the market place (Wickham, 1997). As Rose (1996, p. 146) explains: 'New modes, techniques and images of self-formation and self-problematisation are disseminated, spatialised in new ways according to market segments and lifestyle choices’. Furthermore, advertisements thrive on normalising judgement, continuously comparing the good and the bad (Turner, 1996). Although they are sometimes entertaining, at a more subtle level advertisements promote and reinforce various racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes as Alvesson and Willmott (1992, p. 12) maintain: 'Instead of reflecting peoples diverse needs and wants, marketing produces (people as) consumers as it divides them into market segments, thus producing social stereotypical categories (such as gender and youth)’. The portrayal of such normalised images in marketing communications media act as a standard against which individuals measure, judge, discipline and correct their consumption behaviour through the techniques of self-examination and self-surveillance. In terms of the representation of gender, for instance, Bordo (1993, p. 197) argues that marketing communications celebrate standardised discourses of youth, health, choice and self-empowerment: 'Such normalisation is continuously mystified and effaced in our culture by the rhetoric of choice and self-determination which plays such a key role in commercial representations of diet, exercise, hair and eye colouring and so forth’.

Furthermore, dietary constraints are frequently placed on young women to eat non-fattening foods in order to appear slim as Thompson and Hirschman (1995, p. 144) observe: 'In contemporary consumer culture, consumers’ perceived responsibilities include careful monitoring and controlling not only of the physical appearance of their bodies, but also the various foods, substances, and environmental conditions to which their bodies are exposed’. Similarly, in terms of men’s consumption habits, an object of increasing scrutiny (economic opportunities) by consumer researchers, even apparently pro-consumer publications such as Which? attribute to and cultivate in its readers a set of masculine personality traits which encourage a self-as-consumer who is 'rational, goal-oriented, forward looking, disciplined, time consistent, ascetic’ (Aldridge, 1994, p. 911). And if either men and women deviate from these arbitrary standards and disobey the unwritten rules of consumer culture they risk disapproval by the media, acquaintances, peers, friends, loved ones and even strangers (Longhurst, 1998). Now that some of the methods and techniques used to regulate consumer behaviour have been outlined, the final section discusses some of the implications of Foucault’s work for resisting the disciplinary power of consumer research.

DISCUSSION

Whilst consumer research has undoubtedly advanced social control in everyday sites of consumption, it has simultaneously opened up a space for numerous tactics and strategies of resistance. This is because disciplinary power is not deterministic in that it represents a totally enclosed system of control; on the contrary, because people are the very agents of its exercise it always presupposes some degree of freedom on their part to adopt, reject or reverse its effects. And it is this freedom that means just as power is an inescapable feature of all human behaviour, including consumer behaviour, so too are resistance and evasion. As we have seen however, for Foucault there is no centralised target of power that is fixed and stable. There is nothing to take hold of or to use as an instrument against it and neither does power just come from having access to the formal organs of the state. As such, Foucault does not advocate universal strategies of opposition or totalising schemes of resistance (McNay, 1994). Instead, his concern is with concrete, everyday struggles of resistance at the micro-level of society where power has definite socio-historical conditions of existence and where its effects are most intensely experienced B in the modes of thought and forms of "discourse" which frame the relations we have with ourselves, others and authority.

Given that there are always a number of discourses surrounding an event, such as self-as-consumer, each offering an alternative view of it, it follows that the dominant or prevailing discourses are continually subject to contestation and resistance. They are always under implicit threat from counter discourses which can dislodge them from their position of truth. Indeed, there would be no need to continually reaffirm and assert the truthfulness of the prevailing discourses if it were not for resistance (Barker, 1998; Hindess, 1996). Whilst discourse transmits and produces power, therefore, it also exposes and undermines it. This is what Foucault calls oppositional or "reverse" discourses which can block the circulation and transform the intended effects of disciplinary power (Ransom, 1997; Rose, 1990). For example, scientific categorisation provides groups of individuals with a coherent identity from which resistant "counter-identities" may be formulated. Thus, the discourse of the self-as-consumer originally deployed by organisations to regulate market behaviour is increasingly being re-deployed by individuals to counter the very practices of organisations themselves. It has begun to speak on behalf of itself, to demand that its legitimacy and "sovereignty" be acknowledged in the market place. This has produced alternative conceptions of the self-as-consumer including the rebel, activist, green and ethical consumer among others (see Gabriel and Lang, 1995). By breaking down the idea that the self-as-consumer is somehow a fixed and ahistorical category, therefore, Foucault’s work opens up a space for developing other ways of thinking about ourselves as consumers, and consumer researchers, making available alternative discourses from which we may fashion new identities and social relations.

Reverse strategies of resistance also facilitate bringing to the fore previously marginalised voices whose accounts of life cannot be heard within the scientific categories of mainstream consumer research. That is, those groups disempowered on the grounds of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. Analyses of these marginalised voices are important sources of resistance for us all, Foucault says, because they not only challenge the legitimacy of the scientific categories that exclude these voices but also those categories through which the rest of us understand ourselves. For example, women’s rejection of their object status within the dominant discourses of advertising have also encouraged other oppressed groups, particularly ethnic and gay minorities, to construct oppositional strategies and progressive visions for change (van Zoonen, 1994). Indeed, the coming together of different single issue groups around the environment, corporate power and third world debt is a characteristic feature of the growth of the anti-capitalist movement post-Seattle. However, whilst Foucault recognises the creative potential or agency of people to resist the effects of disciplinary power this is never abstracted from an understanding of 'the constraints of culture, ties of history, and the material reality of the body’ (Thompson and Hirschman 1995, p. 151). The aim of future studies, therefore, is to build detailed accounts of the modes of governance and resistance around specific sites of consumption. In practice, this means that analyses must proceed within a concrete rather than abstract methodological framework. At the macro-level of analysis, detailed socio-historio-graphic case studies are required that identify the objective social structures and historical processes that have shaped particular sites of consumption and their disciplinary regimes of control. And at the micro-level, in-depth interpretive studies that account for individual subjective experiences and resistance practices across different consumption sites are also required. It is argued that such detailed case studies based on localised sites of consumption could open up a space among critical consumer researchers for discussing the complex ways in which consumer research is both a positive and negative social force. However, it has only been possible in this paper to abstract a limited set of Foucault’s ideas which are not without their own problems. Nowhere is Foucault as bleak in his vision of modernity as in Discipline and Punish. Furthermore, his analysis of disciplinary power is based on older institutions such as prisons, army camps and hospitals. An understanding of the way disciplinary power operates in modern institutions, such as museums, world’s fairs and department stores, would be a more appropriate framework within which to develop a critical understanding of consumer research.

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Authors

David Marsden, Napier University Business School, United Kingdom



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001



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