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'You just wear what you want don't yer'? an empirical examination of the relationship between youth consumption and the construction of identity

By Steven Miles


The social scientific debate over consumption is of increasing concern to\ud commentators addressing the cultural implications of socio-economic change.\ud All too often, however, the individual meanings that consumers have for the\ud goods they consume have been neglected by these commentators, notably in\ud favour of abstract discussions of the role of consumption in the emergence of\ud a 'postmodern' culture. Arguing that consumption provides the sociologist\ud with an invaluable means of addressing questions concerning the relationship\ud between structure and agency, this thesis attempts to move beyond the\ud limited conception of a fragmented self, picking and choosing his or her\ud identity from the menu of life, to begin to establish an empirical grounding\ud for the relationship between consumption and identity amongst young\ud people. Data were collected from a triangulated three-stage research process,\ud in the form of a series of focus group interviews, informed by Personal\ud Construct Psychology, a participant observation study in a sports shop, and a\ud Consumer Meanings Questionnaire. Arguing that young people's identities\ud are largely constructed in peer group settings, the evidence presented\ud suggests that consumption provides an everyday cultural framework, within\ud which young consumers negotiate some semblance of everyday stability in a\ud 'risk' society. In this sense, young people appear to pursue a dual task. First,\ud they are intent upon forming group-based identities. Second, they attempt to\ud construct a sense of individuality in this context. Hence, it is argued that\ud whilst young people choose consumer goods according to peer group\ud meanings, they tend to see their own choices as 'individual' and those of their\ud peers as being determined by media and marketing-created desires. As such,\ud whilst it would be misleading to see young people as dupes of the capitalist\ud system, neither are they free agents. Teenagers construct their identities\ud partially through the framework that consumption provides, but not with\ud products of their own choosing. Far from being whimsical consumers in this\ud context, I argue that essentially, young people are modernists, adapting to the\ud rational constraints upon their everyday lives and changing the character of\ud their consumption patterns accordingly. The situated realities of so-called\ud postmodern forms of consumption can therefore only be understood, it is\ud argued, through innovative triangulated research methods which address\ud consumer meanings in routine everyday settings and which, in turn, consider\ud the theoretical implications of such meanings, for both an understanding of\ud the ideological impact of consumerism and it's relationship to debates\ud concerning structure and agency

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