SJMC Faculty Publish “Communication, Consumers, and Citizens: Revisiting the Politics of Consumption”


After a brutal financial crises and subsequent “great recession,” our contentious politics are saturated with economic debates—witness Wisconsin protests over workers’ rights, Occupy Wall Street and lifestyles of the “haves and have-nots,” and ongoing tensions over taxation, national and personal debt. These issues saw citizens moving beyond periodic, dutiful civic action to explorations of new terrain found in lifestyle politics and confrontations with the market. Recognizing these tensions and the need for research around them, five faculty from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Dhavan Shah, Lewis Friedland, Chris Wells, Young Mie Kim, and Hernando Rojas, first organized a conference in March of 2011 and then collected the research in the most recent issue of the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (

Published since 1889, the ANNALS offers a venue for sharing ideas across disciplinary boundaries.  The contributions to this volume are diverse, and add to conversations spanning multiple fields. One of the volume’s major themes is that of choice–the ability of citizens to choose how they engage with their world. Lance Bennett frames this theme as one of the ‘personalization’ of politics–and important contribution to contemporary debates over the nature of civic participation. Similarly, the article by Lee et al., describe how this choice translates to the expression of identity, both consumer and political, and structures social position.

While choice is important, the volume also emphasizes that what may appear unlimited choice is, in reality, an illusion for those without the economic resources to make major choices. More specifically, several articles from the volume make clear that rising inequality has relegated many citizens to a position where choices are visible–but not available. The article by Paulson and O’Guinn demonstrate the advertising images have continued to portray working Americans as happy and content even as their economic positions have steadily worsened over several decades. Similarly, Hyman’s well-researched and provocative account of the rise of consumer credit deeply indicts both the finance industry and the government for fueling a bubble that enabled standards of living to rise even as wages stagnated.

Scholars of citizenship and the various modes it can take will be interested in the contributions from Stolle and Michelletti, Gotlieb and Wells, Atkinson, and others. Each of these considers the relationship between consumer civic action and more traditional forms of civic engagement. Gotlieb and Wells, for instance, show that the two are closely related–but only for those citizens who understand their consumer activity as part of a larger collective. For a large number of conscious consumers who anticipate only personal benefits from their choices, ‘consumer politics’ in fact has very little to do with formal politics.  For a full listing of the entries and a table of contents, see  All entries should be downloadable for a short period of time, after which database access will be required.