Afighting Culture@ - Mobile Phone Consumption Practices As Means of Consumer Resistance

ABSTRACT - The paper provides a culturological account of the role of mobile phone consumption practices as forms of consumer resistance. Using fieldwork conducted in Finland as a basis and consumer resistance as the interpretive framework, this paper provides a commentary on the consumers’ ability to oppose cultural ideologies. We first note how the constant need for mobility and omnipresence operates to induce a sense of oppression, and second how consumers attempt to oppose these oppressions through their consumption practices. In the discussion we consider how consumption practices actually contribute to the consumers’ ability to resist cultural ideologies embedded in practices.


Risto J. Moisio and Soren Askegaard (2002) ,"Afighting Culture@ - Mobile Phone Consumption Practices As Means of Consumer Resistance", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 24-29.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 24-29


Risto J. Moisio, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

Soren Askegaard, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark


The paper provides a culturological account of the role of mobile phone consumption practices as forms of consumer resistance. Using fieldwork conducted in Finland as a basis and consumer resistance as the interpretive framework, this paper provides a commentary on the consumers’ ability to oppose cultural ideologies. We first note how the constant need for mobility and omnipresence operates to induce a sense of oppression, and second how consumers attempt to oppose these oppressions through their consumption practices. In the discussion we consider how consumption practices actually contribute to the consumers’ ability to resist cultural ideologies embedded in practices.


How do consumers consume new technologies such as the mobile phone? Currently, little systematic understanding of the uses and meanings of mobile phone consumption exists, although it has been estimated that in few years roughly one billion mobile phones will be in use [Jorma Ollila, Nokia Chairman and CEO, in his key note speech at the Telecom99 / Forum, Nokia.]. It is argued by marketers that these new technologies have the capacity to enrich our lives and to improve it in many ways. However, mobile phones might also have a set of spurious effects on the well-being of consumers that may be less considered. These questions remain a significant issue for researchers from various disciplines, and perhaps in particular to consumer researchers, given that it is often assumed that we live in a"consumer culture".

In this paper we will approach one "dark side of consumption" (Hirschman, 1991), focussing on the oppressive aspects of mobile phone consumption practices and the ways consumers cope with them. Departing from a culturological [Hence we conceptualize the phenomenon as sociological and anthropological of nature rather than as psychological.] perspective that considers consumption as a cultural practice (cf. Sherry, 1986, 1991), we approach the oppressive features of mobile phone consumption using consumer resistance as our interpretive framework. We articulate some empirical illustrations based on an ethnographic study conducted in Finland and attempt to demonstrate how consumption practices operate to form the building blocks of consumer resistance and discuss consumers’ abilities and capacities to resist oppressive consumption practices.


Consumer resistance has been classified along bipolar dimensions, ranging from collective to individual, from reformist to radical, from tactical by aiming at attacking the marketing mix to tactical altering the meanings of products, and from institutional forms of consumer resistance to non-institutional forms of consumer resistance (PeĀ±alosa and Price, 1993). Elsewhere consumer resistance has been conceptualized along a "resistance continuum", where forms of consumer resistance have been mapped on basis of their intensity, their involvement, hence their capacity to influence market mechanisms and institutions (Fournier, 1998). In the same fashion, consumer resistance has been treated to vary along the dimension of market participation, ranging from mere rejection of purchases and boycotts to more systematic refusals of the market (Ritson and Dobscha, 1999).

In our view, these previous viewpoints do not pay enough explicit attention to the fact that the different forms of consumer resistance differ along an ontological dimension, representing very different views on the consumer, consumption as well as the relationship between consumers and their resistance practices. In our view, the meaning of the term "consumer resistance" can be divided into at least three generic classes of meanings, reflected in earlier research.

First, consumer resistance of one type is resistance to adoption or purchase of products and services or propensities of consumers to engage in alternative forms of collective action (cf. Bagozzi and Lee, 1999; Herrmann, 1993). This type of consumer resistance can be viewed as a form of rational or emotional response to market conditions. Second, consumer resistance of another type is reflected in distastes for particular classes of products and services. This type operates to form symbolic boundaries between groups of consumers, demarcating boundaries between them (Bryson, 1996; Derbaix et. al., 2001; Englis and Solomon, 1995; Wilk, 1997a, 1997b). Third, consumer resistance of a third type can be viewed as a micro-political act, as retaliation against prevailing cultural practices and forms (Bourdieu, 1984; de Certeau, 1984). Here we approach consumer resistance in the third sense of the term.

In the third use of the term, consumer resistance refers to consumption practices as retaliation against cultural hegemony. Hegemony is a form of social authority that shapes consent so that power can be exerted, a form of power that is both legitimate and natural (Clarke et. al., 1976). It exists through ideologies that operate beyond everyday knowledge and consciousness, beyond explicit recognition. It reproduces itself in all aspects of culture, in all aspects of social life, naturalizing itself through the procss of "normalization". Using the reproductive everyday practices that reflect ideologies, it enables itself to transform into sets of accepted, taken for granted assumptions and practices. Hence, ideologies "come to constitute a lived #reality as such" (Clarke et. al., 1976, p. 38-39). As a consequence, ideologies become part of the daily lives consumers live, becoming "spontaneous", a "second nature", "definitions of reality institutionalized" (Clarke et. al., 1976, p. 38-39). In consumer research, Elliot and Ritson (1997) have noted how advertising operates as an ideological power, reproducing ideologies by using various ideological strategies. Consumers, according to de Certeau (1984) can use what he terms strategies and tactics, of which consumption practices exemplify tactics.

The everyday tactics attempt to replace the interpretive schemes imposed by marketers with the consumers’ own social-cultural ones and thereby alter the meanings of consumer goods and services. According to Mary Douglas (1997), "consumption behavior is continuously and pervasively inspired by cultural hostility" (p. 17). However, either purposely or as a consequence of the altering of meanings, the consumer comes to challenge the cultural hegemony of dominant culture when tampering with the meanings. Thereby, in effect, the everyday tactics become micro-political acts (Bourdieu, 1984), as they explicitly reject the prevailing meanings and attempt to replace them with alternative ones. However, two types of consumer resistance can be recognized.

One type of consumer resistance that is directed at cultural hegemony is of the tacit, taken-for-granted type. PB’s study of the French society (Bourdieu, 1984) is perhaps the clearest example of a tacit type of resistance, occurring through pre-reflexive level of consciousness objectified in everyday life routinized interactions. Douglas (1996, 1997) views all consumption as motivated by the distaste, a hate for the "other", other cultures. Another example is the studies by the center for contemporary cultural studies in Birmingham that point out how youth subcultures in Britain take their positions against dominant culture (Clarke et. al., 1976), seen for instance in the study of punk subculture (Hebdige, 1979). Hebdige argues that the challenge to cultural hegemony is not issued directly by consumers but rather on the level of semiotic signs, sign referring to forms of representation that have a connotative meaning, in this case oppositional to the meaning endowed by the hegemonic powers.

The other type of consumer resistance that is directed at cultural hegemony is of a more reflexive, critical type. This form of reflexive resistance that is articulated in discourses and can be seen in the work by Dobscha (1998), Holt (2000) and Thompson and Haytko (1997), to name a few. In these studies consumers explicitly acknowledge their antagonism towards commercial "consumer culture", and through their conscious choices in consumption they attempt to oppose the meanings endowed by the market mechanisms. These consumers question the premises of their daily practices and alter their daily life as a consequence of these reflective practices. Given their high degree of awareness and knowledge of the consequences of their practices this form of resistance represents the more conscious, reflexive type.


According to critical theory, ideologies reproduce themselves in even the most mundane of everyday practices (Murray & Ozanne, 1991). Consequently, the following presentation focuses on consumption practices, as advocated by Douglas Holt (1995, 1997).

According to the view adopted here, consumption meanings cannot be assigned to goods and services based on uniform, nomothetic categories of meanings (Holt, 1994, 1997). Consumption practices, as advocated by Holt (1995), provide a suitable analytical construct to analyze instantiations of cultural meanings and lived experience. They enable viewing consumers as active meaning-makers that construct meanings through their daily practices. Practices in this view are significant as they have ontological significance, they (re)construct and reproduce consumers everyday realities (cf. Bauman, 1999). Consequently, we follow this approach in this paper and analyze instantiations of consumption practices.

In the spirit of market/consumer-oriented ethnography (Arnould, 1998; Wallendorf and Arnould, 1994), the data used in this paper was generated through a naturalistic participant observation study conducted in a small rural city in Finland. During this study in total 23 consumers were studied, out of which 11 formed the substantive focus. They were observed, photographed, autodriven and interviewed more extensively than the remaining consumers. Following the "Grounded Theory" framework (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), all materials were first decomposed into sets of open codes, and later reconstructed in the context of an emerging, hermeneutic interpretation (Thompson, 1997, 1998; Thompson et. al., 1994). Here we report a subset of the data and attempt to decipher the meanings they have and in particular the symbolic consequences consumption practices have for the everyday categories of thought and practice, categories that constitute social reality and thereby also the consumers’ (dis)ability to resist symbolic domination.


Consumption in everyday life is not without conflicts and contradictions. In fact, the ability of the mobile phone to continuously "escape" place and thereby to enact a form of omnipresence is felt as oppressing by many of the consumers in our study. Whilst providing liberation from the coordinates of time and space the mobile phone also stands for its opposite, the category of being constantly in reach (Kopomaa, 2000). Kopomaa notes that as a consequence of this constant presence of the mobile phone in the consumers lives, consumption gains characteristics of compulsive consumption (cf. Faber et. al., 1987; Hirschman, 1992), omnipresent at almost all times and places (Kopomaa, 2000; Roos, 1994). In earlier works this kind of phenomenon finds its kin in the context of Sony Walkman and in what Paul du Gay et. al. (1997) termed the cultural imperative of mobility. Consequently, the consumers in his study found the increase in the control somewhat oppressive, being subject to a cultural imperative of availability. In addition to this, the perpetual linkage (potential) creates a new form of consumer anxiety, the anxiety of missing something. In a Foucauldian sense, the mobile phone communication system uses consumers as its means of power, making them crave for a continuous need to be in contact with the outside world at all times and in all spaces. Like Kopomaa (2000) notes, consumers have become awareof the possibility that the world could pass by without one noticing and thereby providing the satisfaction and pleasures of everyday life to someone else.

Consumer reflections on this relationship can be illustrated by a quote from Sirpa, a single mother in her early 40s. Asked about the benefits of the mobile phone she refers to a paradox of the mobile phone: in order to be reached, the mobile phone has to be in reach and that again translates into a form of oppressive omnipresence, that she would like to "run away" from the mobile phone, to escape it:

Sirpa: Well, you can be reached quite easily. Sometimes too well. I almost feel sometimes like running away... to switch it off but.... On the other hand it is very nice to be

Interviewer: What do you mean by "running away"?

Sirpa: Sometimes it would be nice not to be reached by anyone at all so that you could be on your own and stuff. Like during holidaysright now for example

Like other informants in our study, Sirpa communicates the anguish, the oppressing discomfort that the awareness, the constant state of being alert about the presence of the mobile phone creates. In particular, we note the asymmetric power relationship in the way she conceptualizes her relationship to the mobile phone: she has to "run away" from it. This is the price to pay for being on the receiving end, for participating in the mobile, omnipresent consumer community.

This paradox of desire and rejection is found incomprehensible by many of them, impossible to be resolved and balanced. An account from Sisko, a woman in her mid 40s, illustrates vividly the commonly shared notions of a paradoxical desire to simultaneously crave and refuse consumption. In her quote she talks of the mobile phone as a double-edged sword, as the "hardship of modern civilization"an addictive and magical technology:

Sisko: (...)Coffee can be sort of a hardship of the civilization, since you always have to get more of it. So you get addictedand then you stay awake all the time...when you drink a lotso the mobile phone has a similar hardship of always have to make sure that you have taken it along. You always have to carry it from one place to another. You can’t leave it in the car, since for sure someone will phone then...if you leave it in the car when you go to the store. So it is that kind of ..

Interviewer: You can’t leave it there?

Sisko: No, you can’t. It is like someone had casted a spell so that someone will phone for sure...exactly at that time when you leave it in the car. For sure, someone will call...and it is sort hasn’t developed that way that it would be easy to carry it along without worries. You always have to check that it is there in the always have to check that it is there....

Living through the hardship that the mobile phone imposes on the consumer leaves the consumer with a strong bond that will be difficult to escape. Sisko compares the possession of a mobile phone to addiction, a sickness. Consequently, she has to live a life capitulated by the mobile phone, taking care of it at all times, checking that she has it along. Consequently, she like other informants of our study, ended up with feelings of worry and paranoia. Someone will always phone when she fails to have it along. Like the argument put forth by Sisko, the mobile phone possesses some supernatural, magic-like qualities (cf. Arnould and Price, 1999) outside the control of the consumer, only managing to promote the conception that she lacks control.

To fight this loss of control, consumers of our study engaged in various consumption practices that aimed at re-instituting a feel of control that made them feel consonant with the oppressing features of the mobile phone. This ideal of control is a thought embedded deeply in the western, idealized technocratic constructions held by consumers in the Western world (Thompson, 1994). The way to gain a feel of control of the mobile phone was realized through a set of consumption practices that we will discuss below.


In our interpretation, consumers use what we term immobility practices in order to counter the feelings of oppression and lack of control they experience. Mobility and availability as the defining feature of the mobile phone’s oppressive dimensions serve thereby to form the principal means to "fight back" the control exercised by the mobile phone. This is to argue that mobility practices offer one viewpoint to view the phenomenon and we do not wish to exclude others as potential candidates. We have taken this interpretive point of view, however, given that we consider it as illuminative of the micro level interactions of everyday life that construe and construct everyday consumption realities.

Here we will argue that two particular types of immobility practices have the capacity to form the means of retaliation. The former type of practice is what we have termed a "docking station", whereas the latter is a practice that in effect strips away the problematic element of the mobile phone, its capacity to be "mobile".

The "docking station" was a place where the mobile phone was left upon returning home and picked up on departure. This "docking station" served the symbolic function of working as the node for the trajectory of the mobile phone. The mobile phone was picked up from this place when leaving the house and left there when returning to the house. It was a space defined and constituted through consumption practices that constitute and embody the homology between mobility and immobility, use and disuse, on and off, work and leisure, and perhaps at best affirmation and negation.

Riikka comments below during her autodriving session on a photo portraying her usual spot for the mobile phone, the "docking station". She emphasizes the aspect that the same spot has stabilizing powers, meaning that the stability of the location of the mobile phone enabled her to create a context of certainty and thereby a steady marker for other daily practices, namely he movements in and out of the house:

Riikka: ... Well, this is the place where I recharge it the most. I always recharge it there. So, there...I haven’t recharged it anywhere else. So it is sort of a habit. I try to leave it there always....I always pick it up from there...So that you can have sort of a place...When I leave for the store, I remember to pick it up so that you can find it...find it there...

This practice can be best understood by the concept of disposition: a tendency, propensity or an inclination, the result of an organizing action (Bourdieu, 1977). The "docking station" is the direct reversal of the practices that constitute the notion of mobile phone. It has to be kept in mind that the mobile phone does not gain presence unless consumers, through their practices, keep it moving, mobile. That is, in a postmodern fashion the production of the concept of mobile phone is inherently linked to its consumption (cf. Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). This equals the constitution of a set of new everyday guiding, constraining, and organizing practices linked to the "docking station", a space defined by the mobile phone’s immobility. As such, they produce a space free from practices conducive to foster oppression, where new practices replace old ones and consequently redefine the everyday notion of the mobile phone.

However, apart from having an organizing, a constitutive capacity in the sense defined above, the category also has other concrete consequences for the consumers. Mika, a man in his mid 30s, comments on the photo taken at his home on the "docking station" shown in exhibit 1. The quote comes from an autodriving interview session and points out that the lived experience of the "docking station", understood in a phenomenological sense, is socially significant and constitutive of the feelings of relief and comfort:

Mika: ... it has turned out to be sort of a meeting spot so...the kitchen table is sort of a place where we meet many times during a day.... or pass by ...(...) is somehow the ease and laziness place the mobile in a spot where you are passing by anyway....

The account communicates the ease and continuance in the way the practice is exercised, hiding away the logic that drives it. The disconnective practices of immobility echo bodily experiences, a feel for freedom and liberation, signifying a sense of momentary freedom from the oppressions of the mobile phone. The "laziness", the strive motivated by bodily mediated feeling of uncomfort, motivates Mika to remove the mobile phone from the waist or taking it out from the pocket or bag and placing t on the table. It is the signifying power, the capacity of this practice to reconstitute previously existing categories of practice through the new technology. The practices demarcate categories of mobility and immobility, use and disuse, corresponding to the relationship between control and non-control, work and relaxation.

These practices would not be so significant unless they were related to the bodily and mental domination exercised by the mobile phone, the pain and moments when freedom is craved. Carrying the mobile phone in the pocket or bag is felt as a preoccupation, a practice that stands for the alertness consumers "have to" engage in, given an access, an ability to participate in the global communication system. Consequently, a way to symbolize a particular distance to this preoccupation is the removal of the mobile phone from this mobile, communication context and placing it in a new context where its meaning is altered, the context of the "docking station".





Sets of alternative consumption practices separating the mobiles phones from their owners fulfil a different symbolic function. This alternative practice is objectified in practices that treat the mobile phone like a traditional, fixed telephone. This practice is illustrated in exhibit 2. The photo illustrates a situation where Eija, woman in her early 30s, receives a phone call and consequently moves towards the "docking station", the kitchen table where the phone is placed, picks it up and begins the telephone conversation. However, rather than doing what would (from an outsider’s perspective) appear most logical and appropriate, i.e. moving to another room, something else happens. Instead of exiting the room so as to pay attention to the children, according to the husband, are greatly affected by the mobile phone call, the husband makes the move and takes the younger child outside the room where Eija talks on her mobile phone. The only "mobile" consumer is Mika who consequently decides to take the crying child outside the room, rather than suggesting Eija to move elsewhere.

Why can’t Eija move? This particular social interaction reveals a fundamental point: Both Mika and Eija appear to have constructed a shared, symbolically defined, space reflected through the practices that reproduce the symbolic categories of "mobility" and "immobility". The fact that Eija is not leaving the room with her mobile phone represents at best the reality of social categories of thoughts and practices that at the same time both define and orient everyday life. They legitimise a form of immobile space, externalising the shared notion of immobility into sequences of bodily practices, which again helps to constitute, enact an immobile phone as an inherent property of this space. In this way, they both negate the mobility of the mobile phone, negating the defining feature of this technology, its capacity to escape place.

This little story attempts to illustrate how the use of the mobile phone is construed around the everyday notion of the immobile phone. The practices are unreflexive, they do not embody negative emotions, but rather the reproduction of a former script that used to guide telephone behavior. They have come to select in a pre-reflexive way a frame of life where the behavioral sequences related to uses of a traditional telephone are reconstituted. The consumers’ consumption practices construct the mobile phone in ways that make the immobility a legitimate or perhaps even a prescribed mode of consumption practice. The practices help to decontextualize the mobile phone from its mobile everyday context and recontextualize it in the meaningful context of immobility, a context suitable for releasing feelings of oppression characterizing the everyday consumption.

By engaging in consumption practices that either limit or entirely eliminate all forms of mobility, the consumers can be seen to obtain a sense of "control", a feel of comfort, free from the need to check the screen for a potential sign of arriving phone calls and missed SMS messages. Immobility is a direct attack, a negation of the unction of the mobile phone: Immobility practices deny the very basis upon which the constant control and alertness is founded.


In this paper we have argued that the informants in our study reported a feeling of uncomfort and a general conception of a lack of control. We made the point that these experiences are a consequence of an oppressive cultural ideology that prescribes a form of omnipresence realized through continuous consumption of the mobile phone. The mobile phone uses consumers as its instrument of power. The consumption practices the consumers engaged in managed to either deny the aspect that is responsible for this feeling or constructed the mobile phone in a social context where this property of the phone was absentBthe mobility. This division in the practices is homologous to the division in resistance, as we understood in the third meaning of the term, consumer resistance as retaliation against cultural hegemony.

The types of resistance hint at the division we set out in the beginning of the paper. We articulated two main types of resistance: A tacit type and a more conscious and reflexive one. Although some awareness existed about the discrepancies between prescribed cultural uses of the mobile phone, we can hardly claim to conceive our informants in the terms engaging in a mode of consumer resistance as outlined by de Certeau (1984), Dobscha (1998), Holt (2000) and Thompson and Haytko (1997). The consumers portrayed in these studies are far more "professional ones", having the necessary competence to make a concerted attack on oppressive consumption practices. In this study we find the tacit form of consumer resistance more consistent with our field study. The consumers engaged in oppositional practices on a pre-reflexive, tacit everyday level. This form of consumer resistance was consistent with the Birmingham cultural studies’ conception of consumer resistance as everyday practices (Clarke et. al., 1976; Hebdige, 1979).

Crucial to the discussion, however, remains the significance of these types of consumption practices for their ability to oppose "the system of domination". Previously, Ritson and Dobscha (1999) and Gabriel and Lang (1995) have considered the influence of the consumer rebel on the market mechanisms and capitalist systems. They argue that the "marketing heretics"’ reliance on the market system defies their desired ends (Ritson and Dobscha, 1999), consumers who attempt to transform the meanings imposed by the marketing system through their consumption practices do not actually manage to provide necessary freedom required for evading the market system. In effect, they help to enact its social significance and capacity of consumption to continue domination. We would like to close this paper with reflections on this subject by the thoughts of a seminal thinker, Max Weber. His views on the notion of legitimacy and the means of obtaining legitimacy can shed light on this issue.

According to Weber (1978), the existence of a legitimate order needs not to be validated only through convention or law. A legitimate order may also be enacted through everyday practices that have a basis for their existence in the acceptance of the prevailing order. In fact, he even goes further to argue that the form f order that has "a customary basis" (p. 31) is more stable than the one based on pure rational expectations. Weber provides as an example the case of the thief: "a thief orients his action to the validity of the criminal law in that he acts surreptitiously. The fact that the order is recognized as valid in this society is made evident by the fact that he cannot violate it openly without punishment." (p. 32). Thus, in effect the tacit, the rules of the society that the thief undermines, and fails to acknowledge lead to the fact that the thief fails to challenge the order and even worse: He comes to reproduce it through his practices.

Taking the parallel to the case of consumption and in particular the case of mobile phone consumption, it becomes evident from the above that the validity of an order is not erased or even minimized through evasive behavior if those practices have a strong basis in prevailing "customary order", to use Weber’s terminology. The anti-practices objectified in the immobility practices in our study come to validate the order rather that to escape it. The subtle, tacit acknowledgment of its superiority, and hence its legitimacy, objectified in practices defined dialectically through the prevailing order thereby fails to challenge the order and only reproduces the consumers’ "structure of domination". Immobility is after all, only a negated version of mobility. Mobility is a concept that is always defined through its opposition, and therefore immobility can hardly be said to effectively pose a fresh alternative to the forms of oppression that the informants were motivated to escape.


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Risto J. Moisio, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
Soren Askegaard, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2002

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