A New View of Consumption

When her first book came out, Allison Pugh hoped it would create a stir but feared no one would notice.

Her hope won out. Longing and Belonging has been honored by the American Sociology Association with both the 2010 Distinguished Contribution Award from the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association and an honorable mention for the 2010 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book in the Culture Section. In addition, the book is a finalist for the 2010 C. Wright Mills Award and it’s being assigned to all introductory sociology students for the next school year at Furnam College. She will likely find out whether she has received the C. Wright Mills award in July.

“All of me is heartened,” says Pugh of the praise her work has received. Pugh is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

Longing and Belonging takes a fresh look at a frequently analyzed topic—consumption.

“This is really not about materialism,” Pugh says. “What it’s really about is how kids construct their own culture around commodities and what parents do about that.”

The book shows how children’s desires stem less from striving for status or falling victim to advertising than from their yearning to join the conversation at school or in the neighborhood. Most parents respond to children’s need to belong by buying the particular goods and experiences that act as passports in children’s social worlds, because they sympathize with their children’s fear of being different from their peers. Even under financial constraints, families prioritize children “feeling normal”.

Pugh said her inspiration for the book came from her own children, who were in first and third grade when she was writing. Pugh noticed how different families adapted consumption-promoting cultural practices such as giving presents on Christmas and being visited by the tooth fairy.

“It struck me as kind of odd that this sort of had to be individually scripted,” she said, adding that consumption is more than just a selfish activity. Parents engage in consumption for their children. “Diagnosing it as an individual vice doesn’t help to explain it … People don’t just walk in lock step to Wal-mart.” She said she wanted to explain consumerism from the consumer’s perspective, not just from the angle of marketing strategies.

Pugh’s next project, which she will complete while she is on fellowship at the United States Studies Center in Sydney, Australia, looks not at consumption, but production. She says she is researching the changing notions of work. Her question: What is the relationship between instability in the work place and at home? She describes this relationship as the “fascinating gymnastics the economy forces on family.”

“Even in this job insecure world, [some people say] ‘I’m willing to commit to this company,” Pugh observes, while noting that others jump job-to-job.

2 thoughts on “A New View of Consumption

  1. I find this subject fascinating. The idea of kids learning consumption as part of their social development. It makes me think of how many people we are training to be consumers of certain goods because it makes them feel safe and part of the family.

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