Document Type

Conference Paper


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Publication Details

Accepted for Child and Teen Consumption (CTC) conference, Norrkoping 2010.


Despite the fact that ‘a consumer culture of childhood stands as a ubiquitous fixture in public life’ (Cook, 2004: p1), there are few theoretical accounts of young people’s specific negotiations and ‘styles of agency’ (James and Prout, 1996: p47) as they mediate the intricacies of their lived experiences and social contexts within contemporary consumer culture. Within the realm of children’s consumer culture theorists, Martens et al (2004: p161) contend that ‘relatively little is known about how children engage in practices of consumption or what the significance of this is to their everyday lives and broader issues of social organisation.’ Similar attestations of empirical dearth appear in the articulations of child sociologists who argue that despite their prevalence in other theoretical domains, children within sociology have been regarded very much as a ‘muted group, i.e. unperceived or elusive’ (Hardman, 2001: p502). James & Prout (1997) explore this point further by arguing that it was not so much that children were absent from social studies research but that they had been rendered silent. Rather than focus on children as worthy of study in their own right, ‘children have been studied indirectly within sociology via the sub-disciplinary areas of family, gender, health and education’ (Brannen & O’Brien, 1995: p729). As a result, much is still unknown in relation to ‘the variety of forms of engagement which children have with the hierarchies, the boundaries and other features of the social situations in which they are located’ (James and Prout, 1996: p49). This paper attempts to readjust the lens of focus from the socialization perspective most frequently adopted in studies exploring childrens’ relationship with consumption and understanding how children grow up with consumer culture. Thus, as opposed to focusing on the ‘effect’ of consumption on children, we aim to explore children’s agency and consumption ‘in the very moment that children themselves are learning about and coming to grips with the constraints and possibilities of the very differently structured environments they encounter’ (James and Prout, 1996: p46). Studies by Waerdahl (2005), Russell & Tyler (2005) and O’Donohue and Bartholomew (2007) have already begun embracing this ‘doing childhood’ epistemology which steps away from Sisyphean dichotomies, socialization theory and rather embraces the notion that children are ‘inextricably entwined with consumer culture’ (Buckingham, 2000: p166). Furthermore, in line with Cook’s (2008) perspective on ‘commercial enculturation’ as an alternative theoretical framework to consumer socialization, this paper aims to respond to the call for theoretical and empirical insight into the lived experiences of young people as they mediate the shifting milieus of their social lives specifically through engagement with a myriad consumption practices. We thus explore not how children become socialized into becoming one specific kind of consumer but rather the manner and specificities of childrens’ ‘entering into a social relationship with and through goods and their associations’ (Cook, 2008: p9). Focusing on the tween, we aim to theorize not only in relation to children’s own experiences with consumption, but also to engage with the consumption practices of tweens conceptualized as those in the interstices of socio-cultural organization; those who are liminal (e.g. Turner, 1967). The following paper details specific aspects of a longitudinal research project which explores the consumer culture of this liminal group – tweens, using the anthropological theory of liminality as a lens of analysis. Constructed by child sociologists and historians and reinforced by the marketplace as the epitome of an interstitial existence, the lived experience of a tween is explored using personal diaries, in-depth interviews, e-collages and accompanied shopping trips, in line with Richardson’s (1994) ‘crystalization’ perspective on multi-method interpretivst research. Using empirical data gathered as part of a larger study on tween consumption, a theory of liminal consumption is outlined which aims to encapsulate the consumption practices of these social neophytes when ‘relatively stable points of cultural and social interface begin to shift’ (Russell and Tyler, 2005: p225). One specific element of our conceptualizations of liminal tween consumption – the theory of metaconsumption - is presented, concluding that those in a shadowed reality, those social neophytes no longer children but not yet teens engage with consumption practices and spaces particular to those who must exist mid-way between two spheres of identity. Thus this shadowed reality, this socially indiscernible identity belies agentive consumption and active engagement with signifiers of a duality of mediated selves

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