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20 January 2021
Consuming Happiness: Aspirational Practices in Global Perspective
If happiness is what we wish for, it does not mean we know what we wish for in wishing for happiness. Happiness might even conjure its own wish. Or happiness might keep its place as a wish by its failure to be given. (Ahmed, 2010: 1)
While Sara Ahmed wrote from the question, “what does happiness do?”, it is equally important to consider how does happiness do, as wish, will and want (Ahmed, 2010: 2). Critical consumer culture studies is perfectly poised to devote this attention to the ‘doing’ of happiness. Though it has received much attention in psychology, both social and popular (Myers and Diener, 1996; Rosenblatt, 2006) the concept of pleasure, in relation to consumption, deserves further critical attention. While administrative marketing scholars might take for granted the notion that consumption and brand engagement produces positive affects in consumers, such as enjoyment and thrill, more critical enquiry is needed in order to shed light on what that satisfaction and pleasure means in the context of an increasingly unjust and unequal world. This question is particularly pressing in terms of exploring consumer cultures in the global south. While critical scholars of consumption have succeeded at exploring in some detail how material practices link to structures of power and exploitation, more work is needed to consider, with nuance, what notions of a good and fulfilling life mean both to individual consumers and to the societies in which they participate, especially when those societies are characterised by inequality and poverty alongside wealth and elite consumption. Drawing on Sarah Ahmed’s theories of emotion and affect (Ahmed, 2010, 2013) and Eva Illouz’s work on emotional capitalism and the happiness industry (Cabanas and Illouz, 2019; Illouz, 2013, 2017) this special issue proposes to devote its attention entirely to the notion of happiness and its consumption-oriented pursuit, and to focus specifically on the social practices and discourses, in global perspective, linked to that project. Happiness in relation to postcolonial cultures in general is undertheorized (Kabir, 2016), even more so in relation to consumption and markets; as such the intention here is to give equal, if not more, attention to the global south case studies as to those from the global north.
Consumption, of course, is broadly defined as the set of activities that human beings practice as part of their existence within market economies. It refers quite directly to forms of purchase and acquisition, but for this project the expanded understanding pioneered by Consumption Markets & Culture is preferred, that takes in the affective practices of aspiration to social mobility, hopes and dreams for a better life, and engaging with desires invited by public discourses of marketing, branding, wealth, and luxury. These are concerns relevant to people all over the world, but arguably they carry specific resonance in global south settings (Iqani, 2016). In this special issue the spotlight is placed on consumption practices, that is, the various forms of social action including communication and marketing that are implemented in everyday life, in relation to the market economy, with and through it. Through this focus on practices of seeking and consuming happiness, it will become possible to explore in detail what happiness then means in relation to consumption in very practical terms. This flags an interest in what bodies do, and how they do it in relation to the material aspects of a happy and fulfilled life, how objects and discourses are recruited into those activities, as well as turning a critical lens to social practices of communication, branding, and marketing. While happiness is to an extent an individualist project, certainly in the context of neoliberalism, this project is also interested in the ways in which happiness plays into how social relationships are forged, be they between lovers, families or communities (of practice, belief or acquisition).
The focus on happiness should not be taken as an attempt to flatten out the complexity of human experience in relation to consumption. Of course consumption-motivated and -produced happiness cannot be understood apart from other, more negative, emotional experiences. Consumer practices carry with them a wide variety of affects, including deprivation, stress, burdens of responsibility, anger, and anxiety, among others, and these are related in complex ways to positive affect. Still, the political aspects of pleasure, in relation to material practices, remains under-theorized. This special issue will use the notion of happiness, and its pursuit, as a shorthand for recognising the multiple positive emotions that both drive, and reward, consumption. Also, it explores how certain hopes and aspirations, linked to the goal of a happy life, are commodified. Arguably, these concerns are more crucial than ever. At the time of writing, most of the countries in the world have experienced or are experiencing some form of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the planet enters what some project will be the biggest economic decline since the Great Depression, it is likely that many received wisdoms about what consumption, markets and consumer cultures mean for individual and collective life, will need to be reconsidered. One argument might go that pleasure and happiness, no matter how fleeting, are more crucial than ever, if we are indeed facing massive economic suppression across the globe in the years ahead and the entrenchment of dystopian scenarios, for the foreseeable future, in both rich and poor countries and communities, though doubtless the pain will be experienced more acutely in the latter. For if individuals and communities have nothing to rely on but small and fleeting pleasures in the absence of collective social welfare safety nets, can neoliberal culture claim to offer us anything at all?
As the Comaroffs famously argued, the kind of precarious life associated with highly unequal neoliberal societies, as feature across the global south, is “coming for” the global north (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2012). Climate change, pandemics, and other calamitous anthropocenic events (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016), both planned for and unforeseen, may indeed thrust the secure and wealthy nations into new forms of precarity and unrest. From this perspective, consumers and societies in the global south have some sense already, of what lived and material experiences might come to characterise other parts of the world. Luxury, wealth and privilege exist alongside poverty, hunger and begging for a crust of bread in the street. Well-heeled politicians and celebrities sip champagne and enjoy luxurious holidays while their compatriots struggle to feed, clothe and educate their children; each in plain sight of the other. Is the joy of one more valuable? Does the happiness of the poor mean less than the pleasure of the rich? What, indeed, does consuming happiness mean, in practical, lived, experiential and phenomenological terms, for both the rich and the poor, and those precariously situated in-between, especially outside the west and north but increasingly also within it? This special issue therefore takes a global perspective, and aims to put case studies from both global north and south into dialogue with one another.
Finally, it is taken as foundational the role that intersectional identity categories play in various practices of pleasure-seeking consumption. Race, class, gender, caste, sexuality, among other key indicators of status and power: all are constitutive of both opportunities for, and motivations to, consume. As such, we also take them as central to the practices of pleasure and quests for happiness that play some role in every human being’s life, to some extent or another. All consumer practices and identities function within particular subject positions, and we anticipate that gender, sexuality, race and class will form key prisms through which the empirical and intellectual work of understanding how happiness is consumed will take place (as our list of proposed papers clearly indicates).
This proposed special issue will be the first in the journal to explicitly engage with how happiness and consumption, markets and culture are interrelated. It will however build on and extend existing debates that have been initiated and sustained in Consumption Markets & Culture, both through special issues and non-thematised contributions. In relation to the project of theorising the emotional aspects of consumption, the proposed special issue speaks to articles on playfulness (Mikkonen and Bajde, 2013), music and emotion (Hesmondhalgh, 2008), the links between emotion and mundane objects (Kuruoğlu and Ger, 2015), as well as the affective aspects of reality television (Bonsu et al., 2010). The special issue will also engage with the foundations laid down in terms of work on identity and difference in the special issue edited by Jonathan E. Schroeder (Schroeder, 2015), and gender and consumption in last year’s special issue on ‘Gender after Gender’ (Tissier-Desbordes and Visconti, 2019), both of which are only indicative of the deep and wide discussion to do with identity and gender that have taken place in the journal. Finally, the special issue will explicitly build on relevant field-defining work about consumption practices in the global south, for example Africa (Bonsu, 2009; DeBerry-Spence and Izberk-Bilgin, 2019) and India (Baas and Cayla, 2020; Parameswaran, 2015), that have been published in Consumption Markets & Culture.
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