Toward a Documentation of the Consumer Lives of Inner City Children


Elizabeth Chin (1992) ,"Toward a Documentation of the Consumer Lives of Inner City Children", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 102-109.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 102-109


Elizabeth Chin, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York


On a sparkling, cool day in early spring, nine-year-old Shenita and 'Talia (short for Natalia) walked me up the ridge of the hill that separates their poor and working class black neighborhood, Edgeville, from the wealthiest white neighborhood in the city. The Southern Now England city of Millbridge [In fact, many studies of children's consumption are based on Piagetian models which posit that children's ability to comprehend consumer concepts develops in stages related to their cognitive ability (see e.g., Mayor et al. 1978; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1977.)] is located in a state with one of the nation's highest per capita income figures, yet it is one of the ten poorest cities in the U.S. The city's contradictions are further reflected in its spatial organization, in which posh, exclusive neighborhoods abut the poorest areas. Homestead Avenue, where the girls and I had stopped, is lined with homes of mansion proportions on well-manicured and sometimes elaborately landscaped lots. Three blocks away, where Shenita's house stands, Edgeville (known as "the Edge") is a ragged patchwork of yards, empty lots, storefront churches, package stores, and multifamily homes - some immaculate and well tended, some ramshackle and some boarded up and empty. 'Talia and Shenita's school is surrounded by signs declaring it a Drug Free Zone.

My own home lies several blocks past Homestead and the two girls had gotten in the habit of escorting me out of their neighborhood, because I walked to and from their school when I went to visit it. Aside from the postman, few people who are not from Edgeville will walk through it. Although in my first weeks there I had convinced myself that it was I who was escorting Shenita and 'Taiia along their way home, this was clearly not the case. "Let's cross the street, I don't want to walk by those drug dealers," they'd say. This was their way of telling me that I wasn't paying close enough attention to where I walked and who I walked past. When we arrived at Shenita's house, she would tell me to walk on farther with Talia. When 'Talia and I arrived at her corner, she'd scan the street for someone walking my direction, saying, "Lookl You can walk home with her." On this day they both had walked me farther than usual, and we stood on the corner of Homestead chatting.

"Did you hear about the man who died in the motorcycle accident yesterday?" Shenita asked me. "He was doing a wheelie and he crashed." Shenita began describing the injuries that had happened to the motorcyclist, saying he died because his arm was all crushed and "his stomach bust open." Here she grimaced and had no words, but waved her arms over her stomach to describe the severity of the injuries. 'When your stomach is bust open like that,' 'Talia said, "they can't stitch it up, can they?" "He was a friend of my cousin's boyfriend," Shenita added, making a personal connection with the death.

"I didn't read the paper yesterday, so I didn't know about it," I told them. "I read the paper every day," Shenita said. "First I read the funny papers and then I look to see who died." Talia added "That's what I do, too. I read the funnies and then I see who died, to see if I know any one.-

After a moment 'Talia asked, "Do you listen to raps?"


The goal of the research described in this paper has as itsis to begin documenting the role consumption plays in the lives of children from urban, economically straitened, minority communities. The research is preliminary and many of the following comments and observations are pointers for future investigation rather than definitive "results.' Primary questions orienting the project have focussed on how those with few material resources participate in the consumer culture of the contemporary U.S., the relationship between the consumer sphere and culture at large, and the role of consumption in the social reproduction of society, both locally and globally.

Several researchers have noted that an anthropological perspective on consumption holds potential for illuminating a variety of issues pertaining to consumption in a way that more controlled studies cannot (cf., Belk 1984; Hirschman 1985). James McNeal (1987) writes in Children as Consumers:

The fact that children desire commercial products at ail cannot be adequately explained then on the basis of needs theory alone but is better understood by combining needs theory with a cultural or social perspective. Children quickly learn in our society that it is not only correct to satisfy most needs by going to the marketplace, it is a cultural requirement. Sometimes in their disgust with children-oriented advertising, parents tend to think that marketers started this system of need satisfaction rather than it being a part of the cultural fabric (p. 91).

Anthropological studies generally cast their nets wide, attempting to study cultures and communities in their entirety - endeavoring to understand practices and institutions such as consumerism as well as the way they are woven throughout what McNeal calls the "cultural fabric'. Spending long periods of time in the field, among those being studied, anthropologists use participant observation as one way to document, and hopefully understand, the daily lives of members of a culture. Participant observation can seem messy and inexact in comparison to elegantly controlled experiments where dependent and independent variables are clearly delineated. Yet such investigation can provide a depth and richness of understanding, gleaned from long hours (many of them frustrating) of day-to-day experience and observation of what people do and how they do it that could never be reproduced in an experimental setting. Recognizing that belief and behavior can often be in conflict, anthropological investigation has traditionally coupled in-depth interviews with detailed observation, among other methods, to assess the nature and relationship between the "ideal' and the "real".

A common result of anthropological research has been the unpacking of western analytical concepts conceived as having universal application. Hirschman (1985: 151-152) notes that:

... [consumer researchers] are unwilling to accept and utilize a research perspective that implies the existence of phenomena such as emotive ritual, ancestral tradition, spiritual attachment to concrete possessions, kin-based resource reciprocity, and all those primitively based beliefs, behaviors, and bequests that we believe ourselves to have boon civilized out of ... To adhere to such primitive practices, we believe, is not modem, not rational, and not scientific; so we deny their existence in ourselves and in others. We look for logical rationality only, and we find it only.

Hirschman's critique mirrors those developed in economic anthropology, where the universal legitimacy of such western, modernist notions of the rational actor and economic man found in formalist economic models has been challenged in important ways (Cook 1966; Donham 1981; Herskovits 1968; Polanyi 1957). A central point made in this debate is that cultural actors may -and often do - take into account factors that seem unrelated to . economics" in the process of decision making, something that pure economic theory has not addressed in depth. That is, the pure process of economics is culturally shaped and socially enacted. Donham additionally states that the formalist point of view does not adequately address issues of power relations, domination, and ideology. Such issues have been similarly downplayed in consumer research, though some recent scholarship has begun to explore how consumerism is socially, culturally, and historically constituted (Ewen 1976; Ewen 19M; McCracken 1988; McKendrick 1982; Mukerji 1983).

In researching the consumer lives and practices of urban, minority children, their perceived "non -rationality" as consumers looms large. Theirs is the double nonrationality of developmental immaturity and poverty: children are commonly viewed as lacking the cognitive ability to make rational evaluations of many situations facing them; in addition, the economically irrational behavior of anyone living in what is often called the innercity is a commonly hold - if not always stated - belief. Informants from more affluent neighborhoods in Millbridge have often asked me questions such as "How can people who are on welfare spend $130 on sneakers?' or 'Why do people who are poor spend so much money on clothes? I don't spend that much money on clothes?"

Class divisions in consumption are not simply neutral "lifestyle" differences, a characterization which emphasizes choice and, perhaps, self-expression over deeper issues. The social context in which consumption takes place alters its meaning and impact considerably. Conversely, consumption can be used as a way to alter the impact and meaning of the social context in which it takes place.

Consumption is not simply a world unto itself, but a cultural arena that is intimately connected with those of power, class, ethnicity, hegemony, and politics. This research views consumption a medium of social reproduction, and as such, as a cultural form through which people understand and shape the wider social, political, and economic setting. This concept has seen somewhat different definitions among, in particular, feminist theorists (cf. Laslett and Brenner 1989) and Marxist ones (e.g., Bourdieu and Passeron 19T7), and both perspectives are relevant here. As used here, social reproduction is loosely defined as the recursive everyday activities, practices, beliefs, and behaviors through which social formations are perpetuated. This view of social reproduction, like that exemplified by Laslett and Brenner, considers what they called 'the work of maintaining existing life and reproducing the next generation" as one of its central purposes. Feminist examinations of social reproduction have emphasized the importance of the reproductive work that takes place in the home, in addition to the already recognized and examined sites such as schools. Marxist analyses have tended to emphasize class differences over those of gender (Willis 1977), while the feminist literature have done the reverse. Recognizing that important gender differences in children's consumption exist, the focus of this work remains firmly upon class difference in the meaning and impact of consumption.

Conceptualizing consumption as a medium of social reproduction is a way to understand it as a social process that is dynamic, culturally constituted, and historically located. From this perspective, consumption is a complex social process including not only elements such as the desire for and buying of commodities but their use, social meanings, and social impact. Further, consumer knowledge and behavior can be seen as constituting what in Bourdiou's terms might be called 'cultural capital" (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). The few ethnographic studies of the social process of consumption as it operates in particular communities point to the far-reaching and transformative powers of consumption. Of particular interest are studies where consumer goods have been abruptly introduced to communities where they did not previously exist. Taussig's (1980) work in South America presents the startling social uses to which seemingly mundane American products can be put. Children's power in introducing consumerism cannot be underestimated, and their consumer demands have been shown to fuel deep conflicts over family, class relations, and tradition. Weismantel (1989) shows how in one Andean town, children's demand for store-bought bread as opposed to traditional foods strains not only finances but family and class relations. In detailing the symbolic associations and meanings in Zumbagua of traditional, indigenous foods versus store-bought dominant-culture foods (in this case, barley gruel vs. white broad), Weismantel traces how the changing role of consumerism involves power struggles at the material, social and ideological levels simultaneously. Similar changes and conflicts are at work in communities such as the city of Millbridge.


I came to Millbridge to study the consumer lives of fourth grade children, particularly children like 'Tasha and Shenita, who are of minority, working class background and live in areas of the city hardest hit by recent social and economic changes - the primarily black Edgeville neighborhood, and the mixed black and hispanic area known as K-town. it soon became clear that nothing could be learned about these children's consumer lives without also understanding how their lives are intertwined with the pervasive violence and drug trade that has come to dominate the street life and collective consciousness of ALL the city's neighborhoods, rich and poor. A city with a population of just over 100,000, Millbridge had a record 34 homicides in 1991. 12 of these homicides were classified by police as being drug related. Additionally, the great majority of the homicide victims were young: 20 homicides involved those under the age of 30; nine of those homicide victims were teenagers. The overwhelming number of homicide victims were hispanic and black. In an eighteen day stretch early in 1992, seven young people were killed on the city's streets, prompting city-wide protests and visits by activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Many people in Millbridge think that it is consumerism that drives kids to sell drugs, and from there into violence. Studies by Williams (1989) and Williams and Komblum (1985) have documented how consumer needs may push youth into illegal or drug-related activities. The executive director of the Millbridge Boys and Girls Club told me that:

The almighty dollar is the guiding factor. Kids as young as 9 got involved just to got a dollar to got what other kids have. The poor pressure is unbelievable, especially for material things. They wear gold chains, 120 dollar pump Nike Air sneaks, 300 dollar sweat suits. A kid who can't got those things suffers and is the center of tessing and whatnot.

This club director recently had to outlaw beepers - often used by those involved in the drug trade - at the Boys and Girls Club. A seventeen-year-old club member told me that in many ways, soiling drugs is a job, like any other. It's just illegal. For youth living in K-town and Edgeville, employment alternatives are not plentiful and consist primarily of fast food restaurants. Millbridge, like other once heavily industrial cities in the northeast, has in the past fifty or so years won the closing of the majority of its factories; the expansion of service-sector jobs; an influx of now residents speaking languages such as Spanish, Haitian Kreyol, and Korean; and a ballooning poverty rate. Hospitals and a large university are the primary employers in the city. Because these are non-profit organizations, however, they pay neither property nor income into the city's coffers; the city's already tight budget has become further strained by the flight of much of its middle class. The Millbridge population is increasingly poor; one member of the city housing board estimated that 77 percent of Millbridge residents are eligible for subsidized housing (personal communication). The shrinking of Millbridge's already none-too-large tax base has left the city strapped for funds, and unable to provide needed services to its changing population.

While the city has instituted cuts across the board, several changes have impacted children in Edgeville and K-town with particular force. The result of these changes has been, overall, to reduce or remove from these children the traditional away-from-home places where they spend time in afternoons and in the summer. Local public libraries have closed; pools have been lost to the community; parks are no longer maintained; after school programs have been seriously curtailed and rely heavily on volunteers and teacher overtime. The outcome of these losses has been to leave children stranded at home, with nowhere to go and little else to do but watch television. Fear of violence additionally drives children indoors. Katz (1991) has documented that in Now York City, as well, the threat of violence has made the streets, once a traditional play space for children, unavailable to them. This situation creates an ironic paradox where those with the fewest resources to buy spend increasing amounts of time engaging in consumer related activity, particularly television watching. Additionally, while teenagers from suburban areas may hang out in mails for social reasons, informants in Millbridge say that kids from K-town and Edgeville congregate in the downtown mail primarily because it is safer than gathering on the streets, where violence often - and unpredictably - erupts. What is the role of shopping and other consumer activity for children and teens who spend time in the mail or watching television under these circumstances?

It is clear from this preliminary work that in Edgeville and K-town, participating in the consumer world cannot be predicated on the ability to buy. On the contrary, consumption shapes the lives of people living in what is often labeled 'the inner city" in important and profound ways, regardless of buying power. it is the pervasive presence of consumer activities and imperatives in everyday life that makes it so powerfully implicated in the social reproduction of contemporary American culture.


I met Shenita in an after school program that I was teaching, an oral history project where the children were the researchers, constructing and then conducting interviews with adults about "what it was like when you were growing up." The main goals of the project were twofold: to begin outlining generational changes in the consumer environment and practices of the Edgeville community; and to document some of the themes in the consumer socialization process as it is conducted in Edgeville. Having the children construct and undertake the interviews themselves provided them with a positive educational experience and, because the interviews took place between children and adults, each was effectively a socialization incident. In fact, the interviews are far richer when viewed as documents of intergenerational dialogue about the meaning and impact of consumption than as quantitative measures of change in consumer behavior over time.

Thirteen third- and fourth-graders completed the project. All of the children were from black working class families living in Edgeville. Meeting for one hour twice a week, the students developed an interview (see Appendix A for interview text). All but four questions of the interview were written by the children themselves. They conducted group interviews at school, interviewing their Principal, the city's Mayor, the executive director of a local community outreach agency, the leader of a local ethnic dance company, and two professional African drummers. At home Oral History Project members taped interviews with parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, older siblings, and family friends. A total of eighteen interviews were recorded. The children proved to be surprisingly able interviewers, though they were freer and more comfortable In deviating from the set questions to follow up a line of questioning when working in groups rather than they were when conducting interviews on their own. The structure and effectiveness of the interview owes much to the students in the Oral History Project, who constructed an interview representing their concerns and interests, expressed in their vernacular.

These exploratory data from the Oral History Project are part of a larger study on children and consumption which will continue into the spring of 1993. The many hours spent working with the children to learn how to construct, and then conduct the interviews served as a sort of participant observation and were in some ways as instructive as the material yielded in the recorded interviews themselves. The following discussion, accordingly, is not limited to the interviews alone, but deals with events occurring during time spent with the children both in class and on the street.

As previously discussed, it became clear very early in the research that the current atmosphere of violence in areas such as Edgeville and K-town has a powerful impact on children's world view. During a session where we were working on the concept of "hypothesis" I asked the students to hypothesize about the ways in which life might have been different when their parents and grandparents were young, the students generated this list:

Troy: The world was better then

Carter: The world was worse

Bonita: The HIV thing wasn't out

Gerald: There weren't drugs

Shenita: There weren't drug dealers

John: There were no dirty bums

Davy: There was no drinking and driving

Marolle: There was no killing people

Shenita: There were no rap songs

Although this list was ostensibly about what the lives of project members' elders were like, what emerges is a powerful statement about how these children view their present surroundings and circumstances. Shenita told me in our first week that her mother was killed when drug dealers climbed into the apartment through a window in the Fail of 1991. This took place just before Shenita's birthday, which is in early October. "My mother said she'd be around for my birthday," Shenita said as we walked toward her home where she has lived since infancy with her grandmother and great-grandmother, 'but I guess things didn't work out like that.' Shenita's contribution to the list, "there were no drug dealers' is a pointed comment about how life is for at least one child in Edgeville today.

Several weeks later, during an informal session with five of the participating students (we were working to construct the background information section of the interview) I recorded the following exchange in my field notes:

Bonita suddenly announced, early on, that she had a dream last night where a man came into her house and started choking her mother. "So then I got a gun and shot the man," Bonita said, in the most matter of fact way. The conversation then focussed on how each child would protect their mother if she were in danger. Bonita said she'd do anything she had to, saying that her mother wasn't married, was a single parent, and that if something happened to her mother she wouldn't have any one to take care of her. This, also, was delivered in a matter-of-fact fashion, there was no pathos or high emotionalism about the way she was talking. Darlene then added that she would got a knife - no - she corrected herself, she would get a big butcher knife.... Carter also said he'd got a big butcher knife and sharpen it up, and kill whoever it was. "And then I'd go to kid jail," he said, with that roundcheeked, bright-toothed grin that he's got. Until now, Shenita, whose mother HAD been killed by intruders, had been coloring and playing with another girl, as if the conversation was not taking place, and even if it was, as if she were paying no attention to it. "No you wouldn't," Shenita suddenly piped up. 'You'd go to juvenile hall." 'Yeah, juvenile hail," Carter said. "My cousin is in jail," he added, as if placing a cherry atop an ice cream sundae.

Interviews recorded by the students revealed a similar concern with violence and the issue with which it is inevitably associated in Millbridge, drugs. Nearly every person interviewed for the project mentioned violence and/or drugs as a major issue facing children today, and as a change that has happened for the worse since they were children themselves. The drug trade and increasing violence impact children's consumerism in these communities in two primary ways. First, rising levels of violence mean that children are more and more being confined to their homes and cannot play outside or go to the store unaccompanied. As will be discussed later, children's independent sorties to local stores are an important part of their consumer lives. Nth this avenue severely restricted, Edgeville children's consumer patterns have changed drastically, and it is probable that independent store-going has been largely replaced with television watching. Second, the drug trade serves as a sometimes attractive - and sometimes necessary - way to earn money, Informants tell me that children as young as eight years old may be employed by local drug dealers to act as lookouts or runners. Ashana's grandmother stated that:

I think that nowadays for children it is really wild. It is worse. It is kind of hard to lot them out because there is so much killing, so much fighting between people in general. They can't even go outside to play because the mothers are afraid there will be a stray bullet coming through the yard. They're not able to go to stores like they used to and things like that. (Clara S.)

It is not only the mothers that Clara speaks of, above, who are worried about stray bullets. In fact, because of the possibility of stray bullets, children from the Edgeville Community Elementary school are no longer allowed to play outdoors during recess, even though the school has a large, fenced-in playground and playing field.

Moreover, as the Edgeville community has become less solidly middle class in its makeup, as the number of absent" landlords has risen, and as the drug trade has taken over much of the street life in the area, neighborhood stores and shops have moved out. A neighborhood woman who moved to Edgeville over 25 years ago noted that when she first arrived in the area there had been many stores, and ail her shopping could be done locally. Today, stores in Edgeville are few and far between: fried fish shops, package stores, and small (expensive) grocery stores dominate the scene. To buy clothes, hardware, or go to a supermarket, a trip downtown or even into the next town is required - at least a two mile trip each way. Not only are children in Edgeville increasingly unable to visit stores independently because of violence, there are also very few stores for them to go to, and a growing likelihood that the store may be too far away for the child to walk there alone, without an accompanying adult.

A common theme in nearly every interview was children's lack of respect, lack of responsibility, and for some, children's having become accustomed to taking luxuries for granted. While this often reflected on the poverty-ridden childhoods that four respondents spontaneously reported having, this emphasis can also be interpreted as a commentary on what is often viewed as the independence and precociousness of today's children. Some stated that children today do not get a chance to BE children; others attributed children's "attitude' to a faltering family and community network. Bonita interviewed a family friend who said:

I didn't think life would be hard. When grow up I did what I was told, went to school, studied, got good grades, and prepared for college. Life is worse for kids now. When I was growing up kids were more considerate of themselves and other people. Families were closer, you know kids, you know their families, you know where they came from. So if someone acted up, you could go back and tell their parents and they'd get in trouble. A lot of kids don't come from strong family backgrounds and don't have respect for themselves and other people. Its worse for kids today, there are a lot of bad negative things that kids are aware of. Kids can I be kids they way they could years ago. Kids carry guns to school now, you see them doing something they're not supposed to do and you're afraid to tell them not to because they might shoot you or beat you up. Kids have to mature before their time.

... (Now] kids have more concerns that they shouldn't have. They worry about things shouldn't have to worry about. Part of the experience of being a child is being carefree and living a child's life - play and have fun. Kids can't be friendly, they're afraid to be friendly -guard is constantly up. You shouldn't have to live that way ... Kids today aren't innocent as they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. You can't afford to be. Because if you're innocent it might cost you your life. (Sharon Richards)

A twenty-eight-year-old who lived in a Millbridge housing project until the age of twelve, Sharon Richards has lived through and soon first hand many of the dramatic changes that have swept through Millbridge in recent years. Even the youngest person interviewed, twenty-year-old Priscilla Reese, felt that things had changed for the worse for children since she was young. it should be taken into account that there is a possibility respondents may have been exhibiting a certain-sort of nostalgia for their own childhoods, and perhaps described them as being safer and more carefree than they actually were, in order to dramatize the current situation. However, when questioned on other occasions about when the tide of violence began to rise in Millbridge, a wide variety of informants place the change within the past ten to fifteen years. Taking this into account, Oral History Project informants' accounts are probably not overly "rose-tinted."

The growing importance of status and brandname clothing is another thing that has changed radically in recent years. Clothes have become a major consumer item for children of all classes in Millbridge, where competition over status clothing has prompted most public schools to require students to wear uniforms. However, neither public schools located in middle class neighborhoods nor schools with a large proportion of middle class students require their students to wear uniforms. As a result, in the public school system, uniforms have become a sign of the inner city school. Even in the non-uniform schools, fashion and clothes can create problems. Students at the local Arts Magnet School say that when wearing a particularly nice piece of clothing, such as a jacket, someone who is jealous of that item of clothing might try to intentionally ruin it by writing on it or ripping it.

Well aware of the role of clothing in children's social life today, interviews often went into detail about the care that their own mothers lavished on their meager wardrobes when they were young. Respondents also noted that they were just grateful for the clothes they had. In effect, these moments served as a sort of attempt on the part of elders to make children aware of their relative privilege in having as many clothes as they do. With status sneakers, such as Air Jordans (kids' current overall favorite) costing about $130, putting children's wants and needs into some sort of perspective is important for the people who the children go to when asking for those sneakers - or considering asking for them. Take, for instance, the following exchange between Reggie Major and his grandson, Troy:

Troy: What kind of clothes did you wear?

Reggie: In elementary school days, khaki pants, almost like work pants. My mother used to starch them, put a crease in them in was almost like a piece of cardboard it was so stiff.

Troy: Did you like your clothes?

Reggie: Yes. My mother was very immaculate and very clean and would spend hours and hours pressing and washing our clothes. For Easter my mother might buy me a coat. Usually she would buy my older brother a now coat and I would have to take his old coat and I didn't like that. In high school I worked, I got a paper routs, and used to buy a lot of clothes, I used to love clothes when I was in school.

Troy: Did you wear fancy clothes?

Reggie: Not fancy. My clothes were nice but relatively conservative.

Troy: Did your mother ever make you wear clothes you didn't want to?

Reggie: Once in a while. When I came home I used to have to take off my school clothes and put on my play clothes.

Troy: Did you like your play clothes?

Reggie: [laughing] No, I used to want to keep my other clothes on.

Troy: Did the children ever talk about your clothes?

Reggie: If anything, they complemented me. My clothes weren't expensive. The khakis used to cost about $2.95.

Troy: Two dollars and 95 cent?

Reggie: Two dollars and 95 cents you could buy a pair of khaki pants, you know, but they were neat. And clean. And pressed. And that's the thing that people were always impressed about and complemented me on it.

Not surprisingly, project interviews show the most evidence of elders trying to socialize their child interviewers about consumption on issues of money and toys. Research on allowances has focused on middle class, usually white, families. The preliminary data on the use of allowance and attitudes toward it among a working class, minority population shows that allowance and children's access to money is viewed very differently in this community than it is among middle class whites. When asked whether they themselves had received allowances as children, several respondents who had come from impoverished backgrounds gave responses such as 'What allowance? I didn't know what allowance was[' (Carol H.) or 'There was no such thing. I did not got an allowance." (Sharon Richards) Out of the eighteen people interviewed, only two reported receiving regular allowances as children. More commonly, they reported working to got money by taking on paper routes, doing farm work, shining shoes, or doing household chores. Neither did they seem concerned to give younger generations a different sort of access to money. Of eleven OHP students answering a short survey, none reported receiving a regular allowance, though Shenita earns money around the house, and Renee said she gets $5.00 "If my report card is real good," and Siana reported that she "gets money "very day". By and large, CHIP students reported asking (and in one case, begging) for money from their parents when they want something.

A striking theme, centering on parents' ability to be effective caretakers of their children, emerges in looking at respondents' answers to the allowance question. Although nearly every person interviewed spoke of violence in the community as a change affecting children for the worse, the connection between this violence and parental (or caretaker) protection of children was not made -except to note in some cams that those who committed violence had not been cared for properly by their parents. The linkage of caretaker competence with the issue of allowance - or more generally, money - is an unexpected finding. Understanding why caretaking seems to be linked with children's handling money will take further, direct research.

When asked "How much did you got for your allowance?" several people commented that if parents are providing for the needs of children, those children should have no real need for money, and therefore do not need an allowance. Conversely, these respondents said that the reason they didn't got an allowance was because their parents were taking care of them, so they didn't need money. Take, for instance, Renee's father Jerome Brown:

It depends on how much work I did for money. A lot of the work I did was not for money. We did not got allowance - because our needs were pretty much taken care of - see More's no use giving a child a big allowance when he has no real need for money. So we had no real need for money we were given an allowance only through doing small jobs, we established a paper route quite early when we were young, my brother and I we had our first paper route and we would keep 8 dollars in our pocket but what more do you need when you're young like that? That's all you really need to go and buy little things you may sea that you want, you know? Water guns, un, maybe a hat, you save up two weeks if you want something really expensive. You wanted a bike, we'd save up a little bit for, not really for a bike mom and dad would buy the bike. There was no need for an aflowanoe. When we needed something we would ask mom for a little money here and there. We worked for our money. [emphasis added]

Reggie Major, Troy's grandfather, had this to say:

I didn't got an allowance. My mother would give me money, we weren't rich. She would see that in the afternoons, the ice cream man would come by and a popsicle, we would have to break it in half and she would buy two or three but you could only eat one hall and then eat the other half the next night. My mother gave me money for the things that were needed for school.

Both Reggie Major and Jerome Brown's comments focus on the fact that because their parents were taking good care of them, an allowance was not needed. In fact, by making purchases for their children, or by giving children money for things they needed, these men's parents were actually demonstrating their competence as caretakers. McNeal (1987) points out that consumption is generally seen in this culture (and probably in others, as well) as an adult activity. When children engage independently in consumer activities, and particularly when children are spending money, they are often seen as doing something grown up. This sort of grown up activity seems to be views as inappropriate at least by some in Edgeville. However, this attitude does not imply, I think, an attempt to keep children sheltered or sequestered. Rather, by not giving children a 'traditional" allowance, encouraging them into marketplace independence at a young age, parents and other elders in Edgeville are sending the message to children that they will be taken care of, and perhaps more importantly, protected. The problem of protecting children is a very, very immediate one in Edgeville. Children need to be protected from guns, knives, intruders, and attackers, as Sharon Richards noted earlier. And yet, truly providing protection is beyond the control of even the most vigilant parent. Severall times a yew children in Millbridge are struck by bullets as they sit or sloop in their homes. Perhaps parents and community elders take steps to protect children in the consumer arena because they have relatively more ability to do so in comparison to protecting children from street dangers. The connection between children, money, and violence is not too obscure. In Edgeville, the most visible cases of children with money are those engaged in the drug trade which is closely associated with violence. Throughout the city, those children are seen as having been failed somehow, by both family and community. In other words: children whose families protect and care for them do not need money -their needs are not provided for. Children with large amounts of money are riot being cared for and protected as they should. This idea was expressed one afternoon when, while visiting a Puerto Rican family in the K-town area of Millbridge, Nellie, a mother of three, and I fell into conversation with Nellie and Theodore, who have three young children. When we began to talk about children involved in the drug trade, Nellie became quite feisty:

"You know what they need?" Nellie asked. "They need someone to go over there and spank them on their butt! I passed some boys over there (indicating a nearby corner -how near, it was unclear) and they were about Jose's age [Jose is about ton years old]. I bet if someone would just go over to them and give them a good spanking ... " 'You want to try that?" her husband Theodore interjected knowingly, but with good nature. 'They'd pull out a gun and shoot you.' Nellie got a look on her face that said she knew he was right at a level, but she still wanted to make her point. 'Their problem is that their own mothers never bothered to tell them right from wrong. They just need two good spankings on their butt." "Okay," Theodore said in my direction, as I was nodding at him in near agreement, "I'll drive you over there and drop you off and you can try it." (Field notes 4-4-92)

In both K-town and Edgeville, older generations find it of extreme importance to give children the message that THEY ARE THE CHILDREN, and that it is the adults' job to take care of them. Verna Rogers, Principal of the Edgeville Community Elementary School where the Oral History students attend, gets on the school's public address system every afternoon, and often as not, delivers that message in some form to the school's children. One afternoon, as I sat in the school office, she announced, "Need I remind you, students, that you are the children. As children it is your job to give your elders your attention, and respect. It is our job to teach, and to take care of you.' The message can't get much more explicit than that.

In communities like Edgeville, where money is often tight, consumption is not an individual issue, it is a communal one. As an impromptu experiment one day, I had the Oral History students each go into a comer with a tape recorder and talk into it, saying what they would do if they had twenty dollars. Because they could barely contain their excitement over being able to handle the tape recorders, only five children remembered to record this message (despite my repeated entreaties which can be heard on the background of many!). Of those five children, four said that if they had twenty dollars they would give it to their family. Troy, for instance, had this to say:

What I would do with twenty dollars. It I had twenty dollars, I would do a few things, not many. Most of my money would go to my family. Everybody should spend money on their family. 'Cause other people do spend stuff on you. They help you, why shouldn't you help them? If I was you, I would help somebody with your twenty dollars even if you had like, ton dollars. At least give like some to the poor. Or, give some to your mother to put up. Or, and, you could spend a little money on some clothes. You shouldn't spend too much money on junk, I'm telling you that. If you spend all your money on junk, just think what you would feel like. I'm toiling you. You don't want to. If you do, boy would I feel sorry for you! [several children begin yelling in the background] Do you hear those dudes yelling out there? They crazy. They spend all their money on junk. So don't end up like them. Spend your money right. That's the end of my story.

Troy's response is particularly interesting because it seems to take on the form of a public service message, like those shown on television, toward the end.

In contrast, when I conducted three group interviews with fourth grade classes at a local private school, less than five children said that they would give any portion of the money to their families. Instead, nearly every child in every class, a total of over forty, said they would put most of the twenty dollars in the bank. Clearly, among the children from Edgeville, money has a social meaning that is very different from that of the private school children. It is a meaning which implies deep obligations to family, as Troy's remarks show, rather than personal prerogative.


The idea that children need to be protected from consumption is not now. In fact, this idea drives much consumer research, such as studies trying to determine whether children can distinguish commercials from television programming (Bearden et al. 1979; Mayor et al. 1978) and is the raison d'etro of several agencies, notably the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau and the soon to be defunct Action for Children's Television. The question remains: what are children being protected from? What are the consequences of their status as consumers and their practices of consumption? In Edgeville, as this preliminary data shows, those consequences can be dramatic. The executive director of the Millbridge Boys and Girls Club tells of seeing a brand-new Mercedes pull up to a curb in front of a popular sporting goods store. Inside the car were two sixteen-year-old boys who she recognized as active drug dealers. The store's owner came to the curb, carrying two boxes of now sneakers and hand-delivered them to the waiting boys.

While the consumer practices of the ton-year-olds in this study have not nearly approached what happened in the above scene, parents and caretakers work hard to avert such a future for their children. In the social and economic context of the Edgeville community, parents' statements about children's need for money take on a significance that would make no sense in more affluent neighborhoods. One study found that until the age of 12, lower class children have a weekly income higher than upper class children (McNeal 1987). The suggested interpretation for this is that parents from the lower class are more willing to give their children 'instant gratification,' a concept loaded with culture of poverty type judegements. Because parents in Edgeville tend to give children money 'for things they need" rather than on a regular basis, like an allowance, it is possible that they may end up giving more money during the week. The reasons behind this strategy are more complex, it would seem, than simple instant gratification. Rather, because children who control sizeable amounts of money are considered as not being properly cored for, since that money is usually gotten through illegal activity, caretakers take steps to control children's independent access both to money and spending. Children's wants, then, must be filtered through negotiation with a caretaker. In this process, caretakers are also demonstrating to children that they are protected. It is also a practice reinforcing the communal, rather than individual, aspect of money.

Likewiss, children in Edgeville have an understanding of the significance of money that stresses community obligations rather than individual benefits. Although not discussed hors, participant observation among the" children has found that they have elaborate and powerful social rituals which are built around the sharing and borrowing of candy, pictures, and other objects. The interconnections between consumption, social reproduction, and a social setting such as that of Edgeville remain largely uncharted. The social and economic changes which have transformed what might be called the consumer environment of children - loss of public away-from-home space for example - were only sketched in this paper, but have profound influence on children's consumer practice. Clearly, consumption in Edgeville resonates with the promise of dangers which are at best metaphorical for the majority at Americans. But then again, so does life. Ethnographic research hold promise for further understanding the role of consumption - symbolic, political, material, and reproductive - in contemporary communities.


Bearden, William 0., ot al. 1979 "Family Income Effects on Measurement of Children's Attitudes Toward Television Commercials." Journal of Consumer Research 6(Dec): 308-311.

Balk, Russell W. 1984 "Manifesto for a Consumer Behavior of Consumer Behavior." in Advances in Consurner Research, Thomas C. Kinnear, ed. Vol. 11 : Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Bourdiou, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron 1977 Reproduction in Education, Society, and Cuiturs. Translated by R. Rice Beverly Hills: Sage.

Cook, Scott 1966 "The Obsolete Anti-Market Mentality." American Anthropologist 68:323-M.

Donham, Donald 1981 "Beyond the Domestic Mode of Production." Man 16:515-541.

Ewen, Stuart 1976 Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. Now York: McGraw-Hill.

Ewen, Stuart 1988 All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. Now York: Basic Books.

Herskovits, Melville 1968 [19521 "Economizing and Rational Behavior. reprinted in Economic Anthropology, E LeClair and H.Schnoider, eds.

Hirschman, Elizabeth 1985 "Primitive Aspects of Consumption in Modem American Society." Journal of Consumer Research 12(Sept): 142-154.

Katz, Cindi 1991 "A Cable to Cross a Curse: Everyday Cultural Practices of Resistance and Reproduction Among Youth in New York Qty." Socialist Review.

Lasieft, Barbara and Johanna Brenner 1989 "Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives.' Annual Review of Sociology 15:381-404.

McCracken, Grant 1988 Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McKendrick, Neil, Joann Brewer, and J.H. Plumb 19112 The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commomalization of Eighteenth-Century England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McNeal, James U. 1987 Children as Consumers: Insights and Implications. Massachusetts: Lexington Books,

Meyer, T.P., et al. 1978 "How Black Kids See TV Commercials.' Journal of Advertising Research 18(5):51-62.

Moschis, George and Gilbert A. Churchill 1978 "Consumer Socializaton: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis." Journal of Marketing Research 15:599-609.

Mukerji, Chandra 1983 From Graven Images: Patterns of Modem Materialism. Now York: Columbia University Press.

Polanyi, Karl 1957 'The Economy as Instituted Process." in Trade and Market in the Earty Empires, Karl Polanyi, C.M. Arensborg and H.W. Pearson, eds. pp.243-270.

Rutz, Henry and Benjamin Orlove 1988 "Thinking About Consumption: A Social Economy Approach." in The Social Economy of Consumption, Henry Rutz and Benjamin Orlove, eds. pp. 121-138. Now York: Routledge.

Taussig, Michael T. 1980 The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Wackman, Ward, Daniel Wartella and S. Ward 1977 "Learning to be Consumers: The Role of the Family." Journal of Communication 27:138-151.

Weismantell, Mary J. 1989 'The Children Cry for Broad: Hegemony and the Transformation of Consumption." in The Social Economy of Consumption, Ben S. Orlove and Henry J. Rutz, ads. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Williams, Terry 190 The Cocaine Kids: The Inside Story of a Teenage Bing Ring. Now York: Addison W"oy.

Williams, Terry and William Komblum 1985 Growing Up Poor. Lexington, MA. Lexington Books.

Willis, Paul 1977 Learning to Labour. Now York: Columbia University Press.



Elizabeth Chin, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Worse is Bad: Asymmetric Inferences on Items and Assortments From Logically Equivalent Comparisons

Yoel Inbar, University of Toronto, Canada
Ellen Evers, University of California Berkeley, USA

Read More


Corporate Social Responsibility and Dishonest Consumer Behavior

In-Hye Kang, University of Maryland, USA
Amna Kirmani, University of Maryland, USA

Read More


Brands as Mediators: A Research Agenda

Philipp K. Wegerer, University of Innsbruck, Austria

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.