Keeping Up Appearances: Consumption and Masking Poverty - Kathy Hamilton


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Dr Kathy Hamilton, from the University of Strathclyde, talks about the role of consumption in masking poverty.

The Whose Economy? seminars, organised by Oxfam Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland, brought together experts to look at recent changes in the Scottish economy and their impact on Scotland's most vulnerable communities.

Held over winter and spring 2010-11 in Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and Stirling, the series posed the question of what economy is being created in Scotland and, specifically, for whom?

To find out more and view other Whose Economy? papers, presentations and videos visit:

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Keeping Up Appearances: Consumption and Masking Poverty - Kathy Hamilton

  1. 1. Keeping Up Appearances: Consumption and Masking Poverty Dr Kathy Hamilton Whose Economy? Seminar Series: Addressing Stigma: solidarity vs the social logic of consumerism 10 March 2011
  2. 2. Low-income Consumers <ul><li>Low-income consumers are individuals whose financial resources or income results in them being unable to obtain the goods and services needed for an “adequate” and “socially acceptable” standard of living </li></ul><ul><li>(Darley and Johnson 1985) </li></ul>
  3. 3. Consumer Culture <ul><li>“ Consumer culture denotes a social arrangement in which the relations between lived culture and social resources, and between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend are mediated through markets” (Arnould and Thompson 2005, 869). </li></ul><ul><li>“ a ‘normal life’ is the life of consumers…the poor of a consumer society are socially defined, and self-defined, first and foremost as blemished, defective, faulty and deficient – in other words, inadequate – consumers” (Bauman 2005, 38) </li></ul>
  4. 4. Model of Impoverished Consumer Behaviour Hill and Stephens 1997
  5. 5. Method <ul><li>30 low-income families </li></ul><ul><ul><li>25 single parent families </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Average income: £150 per week </li></ul><ul><ul><li>In-depth interviews </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>16 individual interviews </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>14 family interviews </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Hermeneutic approach to data analysis </li></ul></ul>
  6. 6. Experiences of Poverty in Consumer Culture <ul><li>Emma : I think it’s a lie that money doesn’t buy you happiness. Whenever you get paid or whenever you have money you feel better, you feel great going into town, you feel great if you have something in your purse, you know what I mean. Whereas if you’re sitting and you have nothing you’re saying to yourself ahh, you get depressed, I don’t care what anybody says, nobody’s going to bring you out of it (36, 2 children). </li></ul><ul><li>  </li></ul><ul><li>Melissa : money makes so much difference. If I don’t have money I feel like crap, if I go down that road and I don’t have a pound or £2 or a fiver in my pocket I feel like crap, it’s hard but there is so much emphasis on it (31, 5 children). </li></ul>
  7. 7. Feeling Stigmatised <ul><li>Janice: “ I know people do judge you, there are people who look down on you for what you wear and the way you talk, there are people who will look down on you for any reason ” </li></ul><ul><li>“ My friends back home all have jobs and houses and cars. My mum has a big house, my brother who is four years younger than me has his own house and car, and I feel like I’m stuck on the outside .” (23, lone parent, two children). </li></ul>
  8. 8. Masking Poverty from Outsiders <ul><li>Strong social pressure to ensure that children do not stand out as being different to other children </li></ul><ul><li>Lorraine: “ It seems to be that it’s the done thing to dress your kids in brand name clothing, I have to do it now; she has reached that age. For years I avoided brand names, but I was never going to make her stand out from the rest of them” (43, three children). </li></ul><ul><li>Sarah: “ If I buy them cheap stuff they won’t wear them, they’re only going to be laughed at in the street, you buy stuff for the kids so as they’re not going to be bullied ” (46, six children). </li></ul>
  9. 9. Masking Poverty Within the Family <ul><li>Family consumption is often structured around children </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ I eat kids’ food, I don’t eat adult’s food, I just eat what they’re eating. ” </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>“ he [2 year-old son] gets a lot of my shopping money, he gets a lot of clothes. I can’t afford to buy clothes for me and him.” </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Kochuyt (2004) suggests that resource distribution can create affluence amidst poverty. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Rational or Irrational <ul><li>Given their financial situation, it may be assumed that the poor would be cautious shoppers and, consequently, actions that are not aimed at minimizing expenditure may be viewed as irrational. </li></ul><ul><li>It may seem irrational to spend £40 on a pair of branded training shoes for a child, who may shortly outgrow them and in order to buy these trainers, savings may be made by serving ‘crap food’ to the family. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ You’d have to cut back, maybe instead of having a full dinner, you’d have maybe beans and toast or egg and chips” (45, three children) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Andreasen (1993) argued that people act rationally given their own circumstances . In this study one of the overriding aims of buying expensive branded goods and services is the protection of children in terms of potential stigmatization, social difference or bullying from peers, a rational decision given the circumstances. </li></ul>
  11. 11. Visible and Invisible Consumption <ul><li>Distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary </li></ul><ul><li>Spending on branded clothing and footwear is non-discretionary whereas with food spending, in terms of quantity and quality at least, there is some discretion. </li></ul><ul><li>Distinction to be made between visible and invisible goods. Spending on visible goods and services that enable children to ‘fit in’ with peers are non-discretionary for it is through them that poor consumers present themselves to the world, giving added meaning to conspicuous consumption. </li></ul><ul><li>On the other hand, there is some discretion in invisible spending, which applies to goods and services consumed in the privacy of the home. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Good Motherhood : Independence <ul><li>Julie: “ I’ve had to really work for what I’ve got and at times get into hard amounts of debt and a lot of stuff that I have got is all through me , no-one else. My parents aren’t supportive at all. I’ve had to save for everything that I’ve got so I appreciate money a lot more… sometimes I would go to bed and just think, oh my God, how did you get through all that, it amazes me how I can find the money to pay for some of the bills that I have. ” (24, one child) </li></ul><ul><li>Amy: “ I’m a very independent person, I’ve been living on my own since I’ve been 16 so anything I’ve ever done, it has all been put up by me or put together by me. I would never have anybody turn around and say that I owe them anything .” (23, one child) </li></ul>
  13. 13. Conclusions <ul><li>‘ Love’ and ‘sacrifice’ as drivers of family consumer behaviour – </li></ul><ul><li>goods are purchased, albeit reluctantly, to ensure social inclusion of their children </li></ul><ul><li>Bahr and Bahr (2001:1234): “The naming of love and sacrifice as essential concepts, even root metaphors, strikes the modern student of families as quaint, for neither term plays much part in today’s family theory.” </li></ul><ul><li>Poverty constructed as a social problem : stigma and stereotypes </li></ul><ul><li>General perception that poor consumers are in a bleak position BUT they ‘manage’, exhibit consumer creativity, find a degree of independence and self-esteem from coping in adversity and from being good parents </li></ul>
  14. 14. <ul><li>Thank you for your attention! </li></ul>
  15. 15. To view all the papers in the Whose Economy series click here To view all the videos and presentations from the seminars click here