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Interaction Ritual Chains and the Mobilization of Conscientious Consumers

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Abstract

Markets for “socially responsible” products are comprised of activists who lead protests, organize boycotts, and promote the consumption of these goods. However, the ultimate success of these movements is dependent upon the support of a large number of consumers whose self-professed values often contradict with their own purchasing patterns. Consumer support of socially responsible products cannot be explained by consumer culture theories, which privilege identity, attitudes, and behavior, or mass consumption theories, which emphasize location and advertising’s influence on consumption patterns. These perspectives are informative but unable to explain why some consumers will only buy socially responsible products while others with similar value systems possess much more contradictory consumption patterns. I extend Collin’s theory of “Interaction Ritual chains” to show that rituals and emotions—more than identity or coercive advertising—explain how ethical consumers are mobilized. I show how face-to-face interactions between consumers and producers produce solidarity and motivate support for the Fair Trade movement. This paper employs a micro-sociological approach to contribute to studies of ethical consumption in three notable ways: 1) it emphasizes the importance of “contexts” and is able to explain contradictions in consumer behavior; 2), it contributes to our understanding of “brand communities” by describing the micro-sociological processes that both help to build these communities and create value within the products that organize these groups; and 3) it offers the potential to develop a predictive model for the purchasing patterns of consumers.

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Notes

  1. While the origins of FT extend over 60 years, in the last 8 years there has been a dramatic increase in FT sales throughout North America. In 1998, approximately 76 thousand pounds of coffee was certified as FT in the US, but by 2006 over 100 million pounds of coffee was certified (Chettero 2006). Increased coffee sales have led to increased sales of other FT products. In 2004, there were about 150 products certified as FT, but now there are over 1000 (Purvis 2006). Prominent examples of FT products include: coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, chocolate, handicrafts, jewelry, and textiles.

  2. Slater (1997) describes these two views as the consumer “hero” and consumer “dupe” perspectives. A post-modern view of contemporary consumers has also been established (Featherstone 1991) and subsequently revised and reframed as the “craft consumer” (Campbell 2005). To date, these views have not become as widely applied as the consumer culture and mass-consumption approaches.

  3. Driver makes a distinction between ritualization and ritual: “The former (ritualization) emphasizes the making of new forms through which expressive behavior can flow, while the latter (ritual) connotes an already known, richly symbolic pattern of behavior, the emphasis falling…more upon the valued pattern and its panoply of associations” (p. 30).

  4. See Arnould and Thompson (2005) for discussion of importance of contexts on consumer purchasing decisions.

  5. When Independents was founded in 2003 it was comprised of four coffee shops: The Greenline Café in west Philadelphia, Joe Coffee Bar in Center City, Mugshots in the art museum area, and Infusion in Mt. Airy. The cooperative has expanded, but I collected the bulk of my data from these four shops.

  6. I volunteered as a retail clerk for about 4 hours each week. Volunteering gave me the opportunity to recruit consumers for in-depth interviews. At Ten Thousand Villages and Independents I targeted interviewees who are regular customers of the stores. Whenever possible, I tried to target customers who explicitly shop for FT products, rather than people who know little or nothing about FT.

  7. I was hired by the Fair Trade Resource Network, a leading educational organization, to interview national leaders of the FT movement. Two other interviewers and I conducted 25 interviews over the phone. These interviews are not as in-depth or as rich as face-to-face interviews, but they still provided insight into the major conflicts in the FT movement. A major theme involves whether the integrity of the FT movement can be maintained as large companies begin to sell FT products. The remaining interviews were conducted face-to-face with customers, managers, volunteers, and FT store owners. Most interviews lasted between 1 and 2 hours and each was tape recorded.

  8. These reality tours are designed to bring FT activists in contact with producers and to better educate activists about the merits of FT. Participants on the Global Exchange trip lived in the homes of farmers in a Nicaraguan FT coffee cooperative.

  9. Only one-fourth of the Conscientious Consumers said that international travel inspired or motivated their support for FT.

  10. Equal Exchange provides the majority of the FT coffee to the Independents coffee shops. They imported the first FT coffee beans to the US and are currently the largest for-profit FT company in the country. A number of other FT organizations host similar tours to places where FT products are produced.

  11. There is a desire on the part of consumers to meet and interact with the poorest and most downtrodden FT producers. This was made apparent to me and a group of consumers during a presentation conducted by a farmer from Peru who wore nice khaki pants, a dress shirt, and black leather shoes when meeting consumers at a FT store in Philadelphia. Oftentimes the local leaders of cooperatives are brought to speak in the US and the image presented by these producers is incongruous with the desires of consumers to see seemingly more authentic displays of impoverished producers.

  12. IFAT’s mission is to “improve the livelihoods and well being of disadvantaged producers by linking and promoting fair trade organizations, and speaking out for greater justice in world trade” (IFAT website 2007).

  13. The presentation is what Goffman (1959) referred to as a “focused interaction.” The IFAT logo captured the group’s attention. The lights were dimmed in order to promote increased attention on the logo.

  14. I was randomly selected to bring in the banner as a representative of the volunteers.

  15. Thirty six of the forty Conscientious Consumers, compared with only 18 of the 50 Promoters that I queried, mentioned shopping or gift giving as one of the ways they began supporting FT.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank David Grazian, Debbie Becher, Randall Collins, Robin Leidner, William Bielby, members of the Culture and Interaction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania, and two anonymous reviewers from Qualitative Sociology for their insightful suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Keith R. Brown.

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Brown, K.R. Interaction Ritual Chains and the Mobilization of Conscientious Consumers. Qual Sociol 34, 121–141 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9188-3

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