“Toys to Hand Cream … Liquor to Blue Jeans”: A Brief Note on Rural Consumerism

Consumerism is now well spread into the rural, brought by increasingly fast-flowing goods, people, and ideas, “with luxury goods being far more prevalent.” (in Lynch 2005:134). Economically, it is a significant market for capitalist industries, and culturally, it has the power to reshape shared preferences and identities of rural people. Parallel with it the reemergence of recent debate on the disappearance of peasantry (Bryceson et. al. 2000). It is, therefore, extremely difficult to discount consumerism as a potential transformation driver of the rural communities.

Using the class-based approach to analyze rural consumerism, I will begin by describing how urban idea of consumerism managed to be adopted by the rural people. In doing so, I will present the implementation of Gramsci’s hegemony to explain the shifting rural people’s preferences, then to review political economic face of consumerism to show the movement of consumer goods within the global structure of capitalism, and finally discuss Bourdieu’s concept of ‘desire’, to elucidate the approach’s limitation.

On the other hand, consumerism is almost virtually absent in the Sustainable Rural Livelihood (hereafter: SRL) approach literature, albeit its intensive usage in rural development studies and practices. Therefore, it will be critical to re-examine the nature of the approach itself. It should then feasible to move forward to discuss different reaction towards the phenomenon between generations within rural communities. Finally, I will present a methodological tool of the SRL approach, namely ‘livelihood trajectory’, to show its potential to deal with this global trend.

I will draw, as evidences, some ethnographic studies from various rural settings: India, China and Egypt.

A Review from Class-Based Approach

Consumption as ideology

Here we will explore briefly how the urban-based producers-cum-retailers allow their products enter the rural areas by encouraging voluntary adaptation of urbanized lifestyle and ideas.

Let’s begin to see what consumerism is. An elaborate conceptualization of consumerism was presented by Gabriel and Lang (1995), within which they show five different meaning of consumerism. 1) as a moral doctrine in developed countries, considered as “Vehicle of freedom, power and happiness,” achieved through “consumers ability to choose, acquire, use and enjoy material object and experiences.” 2) as ideology of conspicuous consumption, through which people demonstrate affluence to distinguish their social status and prestige. 3) as economic ideology for global development, operate to put consumer into “pursuit ever higher standard of living” 4) as a political ideology, employed by the political parties to show their appreciation to “choice, freedom and the consumer”. 5) as social movement seeking to promote and protect the rights of consumers.

These definition imply an inherent power relation between countries (developed and developing), classes, political parties, actors in market chains. The act of consuming, thus, is socially constructed and related to political economic position of (collective) actors or institution; consumption can be used or abused in different ways, and to various ends.

For our concern, we will look at the first three definitions, which framed within the moral, social and economic ideologies. They are pivotal to understand the shaping of ideas of ‘better standard of living’ in rural south. There are signs that these values increasingly become a new vision of rural people in developing countries—mostly apparent to the youth and the haves.

Gabriel and Lang (ibid.) even predicted the end of the current phase of consumerism—beside its possibility to experience a major transformation—it is possible that “the center of gravity of consumerism is about to migrate from industrial West to the rapidly industrializing East.” Studies on consumerism and consumption pattern in rural China (Croll 2006) India (Johnson 2001), and Egypt (Bach 1998) confirm this prognosis.

Into the political economy

In ‘The Differentiation of the Peasantry’ Lenin distinguished the ‘personal consumption’ of both rural proletariat and bourgeoisie, and the ‘productive consumption’ of the later to cater for the capital accumulation. However, he did not explore the difference, in quantity and quality, of the ‘personal consumption’ between the two classes, and to which ‘personal consumption’ the capitalist produce goes. These questions become a big debate in later studies on political economic of consumption: who determine the consumption patterns and types of consumer goods production, mentally active but manipulated consumer or capitalist producers? (see for example, Miller 1995; Fine 1995; Rothstein 2005).

The recent global footloose movement of capitalist industries brings the consumer goods closer to the “industrializing East” massive population. At the same time consumerism constantly at show on urban-based TV and other mass media in rural areas. Advertising and promotion serve the multi-national capitalist to implant a kind of mental constrain towards the rural population. If we accept the modern capitalist as a ruling class in Gramsci’s early twentieth century term, then this mental frame can be called hegemony in his definition, “Ruling class does not establish and maintain dominance simply by force but by encouraging consensus among diverse social groups”. As a result, Johnson wrote his impression in rural India that “the spirit of consumerism is rapidly taking over village life and is probably the most significant change one notice upon entering the village.” (ibid.:151).

Yet, how actually this idea of consumerism operates and perceived as something valuable to adopt? To start with, Ben Fine (1996:219) reflecting Bourdieu’s concept of class-based ‘distinction’ of consumption pattern explain that “the better off are liable to distinguish themselves not only by their spending patterns but also by buying quality within those broad expenditure patterns.” This affluent class behavior then promoted through various media together with products to be sold. Thus, modern consumerism depends on a certain set of values that has to penetrate into a substantial number of people and become acceptable and comprehensible before certain consumer products can be at sale (Bocock 1993:54).

At the same time, the rural people actively construct their new identity through the act of consumption. Bach’s study in rural Egypt provides evidence where the purchasing of expensive commodity items become a tool for social distinction “…they signal affluence…modernity, education, and urban attitudes compare to the more subsistence-oriented consumption pattern of fellahin [peasant].”(Bach, op. cit.:197).

Bourdieus’ ‘desire’

However, Bourdieu’s concept of ‘desire’ can cross a class-based distinction of consumption behavior, they may have different purchasing power but not in longing for the goods. Some population might be in limited position due to economic structure, but their desire can cross out the boundary of their structure (ibid.:63). Thus, a domestic appliance like fridge might be an economically luxurious to some rural dwellers, and unable to purchase it, but the desire towards that consumer goods persists. A new ‘basic needs’ has emerges, preferences that cut across the class stratification has shifted to that of urban model.

The desire, however, cannot eliminate the class conflict in pursuit of consumer goods. In case of rural China, it is well known that some rural upper/ruling class employs their privileges to acquire certain consumer goods (Croll Op. cit.). Therefore, we can arrive to two simple conclusions here; first, the consumerism works for both rural upper and lower classes, as Ben Fine (1995) explained that “consumer preference are endogenised in a way that manipulate them towards what is required by monopolized capital” (138). Second, the capitalist is enjoying its gains from vast amount of rural population in the South. In rural India, for example, television has become a perceived need in the last 10-15 years, and the whole one billion people of the nation, out of which 75 percent live in villages, “has grown into one of the largest commercial television market in the world.” (Johnson Op. cit.).

Does Sustainable Rural Livelihood Has Something to Say?

An Incomplete Circle

SRL approach mainly explains the diversity of livelihood, or strategies to secure income and social cultural relation of the rural people, especially the rural poor. It is more optimistic in spirit and people-centered in nature, therefore, stress on what ‘the people have’ in articulating their assets or five capitals (human, natural, social, cultural, financial). These capitals would help to enhance the capacity of the rural poor to absorb shocks and anticipate seasonal trends, and to some extent accumulate material for better life or to improve their standard of living (Akram-Lodhi 2005?; Ellis 2000; Bebbington 1999).

In short, the approach put emphasis on how rural people manage to ‘earn’, heavily pay its attention on the production or income side the livelihood, and left behind the consumption side of the cycle. This nature of SRL generates other shortcomings in analyzing and to cope with the rural consumerism. First, the SRL approach fails to address the issue of urbanized consumption pattern, which now well into the rural areas. Some studies have shown how urban-rural movements increasingly intensify. As roads constructed for easier physical access, electric poles and satellite towers implanted to mediate non-physical movement, many more areas that are rural modernize and now enjoy access to services that was limited to urban environment. Massive migration of rural workers to cities, or rural students to urban schools, and the development of information and communication technologies escort the inflow of ideas that inspire new way of consuming (Croll Op. cit.; Lynch Op.cit; Johnson Op. cit; Bach Op. cit).

In a review on several books using SRL approach, O’laughlin (2004) mentioned that the livelihoods analysis should extend beyond the rural border or community boundary itself, meaning that complexity of the rural can only be fully explained by expand the analysis to national and global sphere. Consumerism, therefore, being a globally spread idea, and significant to rural social change, should be treated in this manner.

Second, as the consequence of the incomplete circle of the approach, being a pro-poor (materially and not culturally), it ended at the point of getting a ‘better life’ or better ‘standard of living’ (as in Bebbington Op. cit.; Ellis Op. cit.). Consequently, we could ask what kind of ‘better life’ or ‘standard of living’ this approach refer to, which unfortunately nowhere elaborated further in growing literatures of the SLR approach. Is it come from a genuine emic perspective of a particular rural ‘poor’ in a particular context? Or created against the standard of Western affluent society, or Western idea of ‘well-being’?

Meanwhile, urbanized ideas that flow to the rural areas can shape the type of desired goods, which represent a better ‘standard of living’. A study of consumption pattern in rural China shows that “New and rising aspiration have been fuelled over the past decades by an easy acquaintance with and the familiarity of modern life or lifestyle via television and other mass media.” (Croll Op. cit.:153-4). This new frame of reference especially appeals to the rural youth.

Rural Youth: A Clash of Habitus

Within the recent development of SRL approach there is a tendency to solve its problematic directions, such as the lacks of analysis of power relation and institution (O’Laughlin op. cit.). De Haan and Zoomers (2005) try to answer the weakness by proposing a new methodology called ‘livelihood trajectory’, which using live history method to identify emic view of experiences historically, and from there “try to penetrate into deeper layer of believes, needs, aspirations and limitations and especially need to be contextualized in relation to power and institution.” (ibid. 43). This proposed approach is resonance of tradition of participatory research.

Within the methodology, especially that of developed in the tradition of Participatory Action Research, the notion of Eurocentrism (Fals-Borda and Mora-Osejo 2003), is especially important for our context, for it is crucial to understand intellectual and cultural genealogy of the incoming (Western) concept of standard of living.

Sergei Latouche (1992) critically examined the concept of standard of living as a set of Western cultural value of material well-being that imposed to the Third World through many channels. He believes there are different ways of defining of poor and rich in different societies. He departed from a critique of the domination of material-based GNP and GDP as reduction of well-being indicator of a nation. According to him, it represent, and generated from, Westernization of concept of development which envisage linear historicism of growth from traditional lacking society into modern affluent one, a dominant model continued to be imposed to the ‘developing’ countries (see also Gilbert Rist 1979, 1999; Vincent Tucker 1999).

Recent debate on the concept of ‘well-being’ developed into a more anthropological set of basic indicators of ‘capabilities’ (a set of actual choices that people can access, do, and achieve). It sets basic standards of human well-being while respect various cultures expression on them and being critical to lavish types of consuming (Nussbaum 2000; Gasper 2002).

Perceptions that come from emic views of well-being now severely challenge by the coming of Western consumerism to the rural South, especially to the younger generation of the rural. The Study in rural Maharastra, India, shows how television mesmerizes the youngster’s eyes and shapes their ‘basic needs’ into that of the urban consumer goods. They are now fond of “toys to hand cream…liquor to blue jeans” (Johnson Op. cit.:151). In Egypt, the young women who just come back from school in cities, insist to use modern domestic appliances such as gas stove (Bach op. cit.). Meanwhile, just to see a more complete picture from the most recent study, we may pay a visit to Croll’s ethnographic note on rural China

 “Across much of rural China, the expansion of village horizon to embrace knowledge of consumer trends and the lifestyles of those in Shanghai, Hong Kong or other cities within China and abroad has redefined images of well-being and the ‘good-life’, especially but not only among the younger generations. They now aspire to improved material standard of living including new housing and to acquiring a wide range of consumer durables in the foreseeable future.” (Op. cit.:153)

These rural South pictures demonstrate how (Westernized) Urban modeling, to use Johnson phrase, indeed have deeply absorbed into the rural life, shapes not only their economic activities, but also their socio-cultural life. Looking at the study in Egypt, for example, it made younger generation of urbanized women run into conflict with their in-laws for rejecting to cook using traditional stove. While in Johnson’s study in rural India, the elders complain that,

 “People must learn to be satisfied with what they have and not want everything they see on TV. I have always been happy with what God has given me. I have worked hard and tried to provide for my family. TV is ruining these young people…they all want to have what they see on the advertisements, but that is for rich people and we are not rich.”(Op. cit.:152)

These clashes among generations within a family in rural community can be seen as a gradual convergence of ‘habitus’ between the elder and the youngsters. In this case, if we follow de Haan and Zoomers’ interpretation of Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’, which means “a system of acquired disposition, primarily through classes, which are acquired through socialization” (Op. cit.:41). Only that the socialization channeled through urban mass media and the coming of urbanized people, which cut across class stratification. The younger generation now has different ideas and desires, which might be seen as unrealistic, excessive, or lavish. On the other hand, the traditional values undermined and suddenly accused of being backward, closed or rigid relative to the youngsters’ newly imitated, but not necessarily fully understood, way of consuming.

Can Cultural Capital Cope With Consumerism?

Among the five ‘capitals’ of the SRL approach ‘cultural capital’ is important in this sense, which means shared believe, practices or participation (Bebbington op. cit.:2034). It supposes to be spearheading to deal with the consumerism. However, again unfortunately, both Bebbington and de Haan and Zoomers discuss the issue only in order to articulate them for gaining access to resources or livelihoods diversification.

Bebbington, however, did not fail to show its potential power to “enabling and empower” which range from starting self-organization activities to launch resistances, by “fostering certain forms of identity maintenance and particular patterns of interaction.” (ibid.:2034). However, these efforts have to face with the rural consumerism phenomenon; they could be weakened by the inter-generation clash of habitus, or can actually succeed in consolidating their communal sense of identity to enmesh the incoming trends. ‘Livelihood trajectories’ method could be functional in this sense because, if it is directed to do so, it can actually identify the political economic relation and cultural objections towards the rural consumerism.

On the other hand, if cultural capital is free from a reductionist and essentialist view of culture, meaning that culture is open to constant adjustment and locally controlled adaptation, it can be a strong device to defy the unrealistic act of consumption (of goods, service and ideas). It can be used to avoid being a committed copycat of urban way of life and completely detached from their own material and social context. And to check capitalistic intrusion intends to turn the rural population into a mere market for their alien product at the cost of local traditional productions and experiences.

Conclusion: Is it Geographical?

Class-based approach can reveal a rapid expansion of a global market structure of capitalism and their implication to the rural change. Sale has come to knock the villager’s doors through goods, people and ideas. Hegemony of urban taste has changed rural preference and in some way creates unrealistic desire as well as, in certain case, class-based conflict. However, it lacks voices from below, what really the rural people have to say about this phenomenon. The approach cannot detect how far the actors, regardless their class, being manipulated (as shown by Boudieu’s notion of the class crosscutting ‘desire’) or being able to resist the coming of consumerism, which derives from ability to articulate and consolidate cultural identity. Is it because there are not enough studies on consumerism in rural setting? Why is it matter when the rural people still have to come to cities for the consumer goods anyway?

Unfortunately, the SRL approach, being a people-centered and participatory in method, does not extend their interest toward the consumerism. To this point, we should raise two methodological questions, is it the pro-poor nature of the approach that inherently a Western model to ‘alleviate poverty’ which prevent it to anticipate a cultural poverty caused by the ‘cultural imperialism’? Alternatively, is it something to do with specific geographical site of the SRL implementation as mentioned by O’Laughlin (Op. cit.), “why Africa?”

Finally, why both approaches somehow pose geographical questions, is it due to the base of producer both pro-poor rural development ideas and consumer goods?


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