Struggling for Consumer Competence in Media-Saturated Everyday Life

Struggling for Consumer Competence in Media-Saturated Everyday Life

Margit Keller and Bente Halkier  

Browsing the news on a smartphone app before dozing off at midnight (even though the blue screen is supposed to prevent good sleep), keeping an eye on what friends up to on Facebook (as a perfect substitute for preparing tomorrow’s lecture), glimpsing at shared media links, occasionally reading a longer feature in the weekly cultural paper and trying – in vain most of the time – to regulate kids TV watching and advertising bombardment, is part of an average “media diary” of a middle aged female academic in a media-saturated society where messages from both mainstream and grassroots media are ubiquitous has become a daily normality. But do media also have the power to challenge what consumers do, by questioning existing normalities of eating, transport, media-using etc.? And can these public questionings lead consumers to notice their routine activities, discuss them and perhaps even change them?

The last ten years have seen a proliferation of studies – especially in the area of sustainable consumption – based on theories of social practice, where the analytic focus shifts away from the individuals’ attitudes and behaviour onto collective patterns of activity. This makes one see everyday life as built from a multiplicity of socially organized and intersecting practices, such as fetching take-away food, parenting teenage kids, office working and car driving. The enactments of these practices are carried out by individuals, but the patterns are not characteristics of the individual. Each practice gets done, redone and slightly differently done on a recurring basis and is socially recognizable (Keller & Halkier, 2014). Basic questions to be asked here are:  what sorts of everyday practices engender what sorts of ways of competent consuming (does being a good parent entail feeding a toddler exclusively organic food or is the ordinary supermarket vegetable still all right?) and how do different practices hang together?

Alongside these analyses there is a rich field of discussion about the ways and potentials of changing consumer behaviour in a more low-carbon direction. These tend to revolve around whether shaping consumer attitudes – mostly through persuasion – would do the trick. A response informed by social practice theory would be “no”. Social practices as collective habits and normalities need much more complex and versatile methods of intervention than public awareness campaigns that offload responsibility to a reflexive and sovereign individual consumer (often an imaginary one). To offer a simple example – by just telling people to buy organic because it is good for health and the planet alone will not suffice (not least because evidence suggests some organic products to be more or less sustainable or healthy dependent on the contexts in which their consumption occurs!). Organic food must be readily available for busy people along their usual pathways of shopping at accessible prices. The consumer would need the skills to cook from perhaps untried ingredients. Eating organic food needs to fit into the matrix of existing practices. However, telling and persuading happens anyway in the overloaded information space consumers are embedded in – be it initiated by health promoters, eco-activists, corporate marketing professionals, policy-makers or journalists, let alone those Facebook friends and constant posters on  the online Mums’ forums, who share their tips and experience almost 24/7.

How can we make sense of this all? Most of the scholarly studies based on theories of social practice deal relatively little with social interaction and the role of media in everyday consumer practices. If we were to take the practice–theoretical premise seriously, how could we explain how media discourses become part of contested consumption, and how media messages are used by consumers within the complexities of their everyday lives? Of course, the role of media consumption has been conceptualised under many different labels before, such as cultural consumption, audiencing, media use and social marketing. However, what these different understandings have in common is a tendency to analyse media consumption as a discrete activity in itself that can be separated from its context. This is incompatible with the practice-based understanding of everyday life.

To carve a way out of this conundrum we search for some operative concepts for understanding the relationships between consumers, media discourse and everyday habits.  Years of media audience research make it safe to say that ordinary consumers draw upon media as symbolic resources when going about their everyday routines and when negotiating normative expectations for conduct. Yet this connection seems messy and multi-directional.

In our view, media discourses become a part of everyday consumption, when they are used as resources for locating selves and others in relation to everyday performances of routine (and sometimes more extraordinary and reflective) activities. Here we draw an the concept of “performance positioning” :  how the consumers’ self and others are positioned in relation to ways of performing activity Harré and Van Langenhove (1999 and 2003)

Thus in the context of the question about whether media discourse can change consumer habits, we are interested in people drawing on media resources to adopt positions that explain or justify maintaining or changing habits. Performance here becomes key. “Positioning” is not about personal identities or social roles, it is about interaction.

We can place performance positionings for our purposes in two ideal types of social interaction: namely a practice maintenance position and a practice change position. Our ideal types are analytical categories, which rarely exist in pure form in empirical data, let alone in fuzzy everyday lives. There are all sorts of adapting, negotiating and improvising, meaning that positions can be rather fluid and temporary. Nevertheless, practice change and practice maintenance are the two poles between which most of the positionings occur.

In the practice maintenance position, the media discourse can be used as a resource in social interaction (e.g. a conversation between parents) to consolidate the existing practice and support for the established routines and habits. As one Mum pointed out in a focus group:

Actually, those advertisements come in your mailbox and actually you do go shopping based on them. And, in my case, I choose a work day when I have time, and then I take a free bus, go to the shop and I do not even use any fuel.

In the practice change position, the media discourse can be seen as contradicting the existing ways of doing things. It can either be adopted and agreed with the aim of changing one’s habits or resisted as an unwanted intrusion. The following extract from a focus group interview with parents, who were encouraged by a consumer education initiative in a kindergarten to make a “savings plan” illustrates these intricate negotiations:

Mother 1: I made a savings plan. I wrote down what we have, how my daughter has all old clothes, second hand. But we do not save at all. Every child has two or three hobby activities and we have two cars. Overall, I do not know how I can save with a child. Shall I let her go without food or let her do homework in the dark? I don’t know. It is very difficult to save if you have small children or children at school. I do not know how I can save.

Mother 2: But you can include it in your list if you grow something yourself, for example.

Mother 1: Well, what shall I grow myself? I am not a farmer. It is more expensive to garden than to buy things from a shop…And after all the economy needs boosting. Here they tell you every night [referring to evening TV news] how we consume so little and soon we will consume nothing and this is such trouble . . . overall trouble [laughter] …Well then, what can I save? I have been saving for twenty years to make ends meet somehow.

As the examples show, there is no neat relationship and direct media usage. Media discourse interweaves into everyday practice-related interaction in a complex nexus. Thus, media discourse can become a resource for a position resistant to social control, can become a resource for supporting existing everyday agendas (be that for change or reproduction), and can become a resource for pragmatic adaptation. However, the dynamic and often messy trajectory of how consumers reach those positions in their activity, as well as the multiplicity of positions offered by a media discourse, shows that various institutional interventions, including marketing aimed at awareness raising or, most ambitiously, behaviour change, occur on an ever-changing and complex terrain. It is aiming at a moving target. In addition, whether the media discourse is resisted, agreed to or adapted to, as a resource, people tend to position themselves as competent, especially parents when talking about their family and child-related consumption routines. At least in semi-public encounters, parents are keen to maintain their self-positioning as skillful consumers regardless of their current relationship to a particular media representation or normative discourse. So for better or worse, neither the sustainability promoters nor for-profit marketers can count on comfortable and easy ways of “telling them what to do”, and neither can the sociologist hope to find a waterproof explanation of the framing power of media, which remains elusive at best.


Further Reading
Halkier, B. (2010), Consumption Challenged: Food in Medialised Everyday Lives, Farnham: Ashgate
Harré, R. and Moghaddam, F. (2003) ‘Introduction: The Self and Others in Traditional Psychology and in Positioning Theory’, in R. Harre ́ and F. Moghaddam (eds) The Self and Others. Positioning Individuals and Groups in Personal, Political, and Cultural Contexts, pp. 1–11. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Harré, R. and Van Langenhove, L. (1999) Positioning Theory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Keller, M. and Halkier, B. (2014) “Positioning consumption: A practice theoretical approach to contested consumption and media discourse”, Marketing Theory, 14(1):35-51.
Warde (2005) “Consumption and Theories of Practice” Journal of Consumer Culture, 5 (2), pp. 131–153
Welch and Warde (2015) “Theories of Practice and Sustainable Consumption” in Reisch, L. and Thøgersen, J. (eds.) Handbook of Research on Sustainable Consumption. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp.84-100


Margit Keller is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, Estonia. Her research is on everyday consumer practices, interventions and social change. She chairs the Research Network of Sociology of Consumption in the European Sociological Association. Recent publications include: Vihalemm, T., Keller, M., Kiisel, M. (2015) From Intervention to Social Change Farnham: Ashgate. Bente Halkier is Professor in Communication at Roskilde University, Denmark and her research focuses on food and media in everyday life. She is currently a partner in the EU funded comparative project ‘Food, Convenience and Sustainability’ (FOCAS).  Margit Keller and Bente Halkier are co-editors of a special issue of Environmental Policy and Governance: ‘Environmental Policy and Governance meet Everyday Life: the (im)possibilities of sustainable consumption in Europe’.