Can you recommend a great online-article on consumerism?
September 16, 2008 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Can you suggest interesting--but not too long--articles on consumerism, for the College Writing class I teach?

I'm looking for essays on the manipulations/advertising, contradictions, hypocrisy, unsustainability and ethics of consumer culture, where people spend more than they have to buy more than they need at a price too cheap to treat workers (and the environment, etc.) fairly. While this question (the assignment itself) is biased, I'd like to think it's getting them to think critically about their life and assumptions, since we live in a first world, pro-consumer culture. Pro-consumerist articles won't be ignored though.

Ultimately, my students will be writing an essay answering this question:
To what degree—if ANY—do we, as consumers, have an obligation to educate ourselves and spend our money more wisely or ethically?

So far, they’ve read—and summarized or responded to—these articles (and one or two others):
1. The Science of Shopping by Malcom Gladwell:
2. The Coolhunt by Malcolm Gladwell:
3. They Say by D. Ruskoff
4. Two Cheers for Materialism by James Twitchell:
5. The Singer Solution to World Poverty by Peter Singer:
NOTE: Some common responses to Peter Singer's argument (and rebuttals of those responses) are here--but you don't have to read them:

ANY ideas, recommendations, suggestions, opinions, etc., will be GREATLY appreciated. Thanks in advance. (note: I don't post to askmefi or mefi very often--I hope this isn't too self-serving. If so, I suppose it'll be erased and I'll be sorry.)
posted by whatgorilla to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by fellion at 1:39 PM on September 16, 2008

Have a look at the work of Barry Schwartz (list of publications and pdfs here, with more recent work at the bottom), particularly "The Tyranny of Choice."

Schwartz argues that, above a certain level, more consumer choice is detrimental rather than beneficial to our quality of life. He is unusual in that he backs up his arguments with substantial examples from his and others' empirical work.
posted by googly at 1:44 PM on September 16, 2008

Also: not a print article, but you could also have your students watch either of these PBS Frontline specials: The Persuaders, or The Merchants of Cool.
posted by googly at 1:47 PM on September 16, 2008

Just about any chapter from David Brooks' book "Bobos in Paradise" will do nicely.
posted by BobbyVan at 1:58 PM on September 16, 2008

Bill Brown's "Thing Theory," Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art..." and especially Georges Perec's novella "Things" all get at something a little deeper than "wow maybe lots of stuff is bad." Each explores the way people interact with things, which is crucial to any kind of thinking about consumerism. Perhaps a bit long, but not outside the scope of a college course (that's where I was introduced to them). IMHO, Perec focuses most directly on consumerism, but Brown is the most profound of the three.
posted by ecmendenhall at 2:32 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might assign them chapters from Paco Underhill's book Why We Buy. After reading that book I never looked at advertising displays the same way again.
posted by peacheater at 2:50 PM on September 16, 2008

Heh, Paco Underhill plays a major roll in their first reading assignment, The Science of Shopping, by M. Gladwell, from The New Yorker. Thanks for all the suggestions--I neede to find stuff fast and don't have time to read through EVERYTHING. Great suggestion about watching Persuaders / Merchants of Cool (both amazing!).
posted by whatgorilla at 5:53 PM on September 16, 2008

Please don't do this. I had an awful experience with an undergraduate writing course which the prof appropriated as a forum to push her political beliefs. Believe me, your students have enough politicized classes already. Writing is an important skill, and you're only diluting the substantive lessons you impart by filtering your message through this anti-consumerist filter.

With that said, and in order to help find an answer, if you insist on this topic then have them read Nation of Rebels: Why counterculture became consumer culture for an impressive explanation of the incoherency of most anti-consumerist critiques.
posted by ewiar at 8:14 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

ewiar: I don't think this is about my political (or economic) beliefs so much as getting them to look at the other side of an issue they MAY NEVER have looked at. If you ask a class of college freshmen what percentage of the adult population of the world owns a car, they generally guess 75-90%. Is it pushing my beliefs to have them THINK about consumption for the first time in their life?!
posted by whatgorilla at 3:44 PM on September 17, 2008

Is it pushing my beliefs to have them THINK about consumption for the first time in their life?!

In a writing class? It absolutely is.

You're not there to open their eyes to the evils of late capitalism. You're there to give them the skills they need to express themselves in a cogent, convincing manner. There are many classes where awareness-raising like this is wholly appropriate. But writing class is not one of them.

I've TA'd university-level courses, and I've marked first year papers. Trust me: they'll need all the help you can offer when it comes to the basics of grammar and simple sentence structures. Focus on giving them writing skills. Don't worry about the political enlightenment, they'll get plenty of that in their other classes.
posted by ewiar at 4:15 PM on September 17, 2008

Hey jOE,

- Trey
posted by trinarian at 7:55 AM on September 23, 2008

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