Theory and Society

, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 229–270 | Cite as

The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market

  • Josée JohnstonEmail author


Ethical consumer discourse is organized around the idea that shopping, and particularly food shopping, is a way to create progressive social change. A key component of this discourse is the “citizen-consumer” hybrid, found in both activist and academic writing on ethical consumption. The hybrid concept implies a social practice – “voting with your dollar” – that can satisfy competing ideologies of consumerism (an idea rooted in individual self-interest) and citizenship (an ideal rooted in collective responsibility to a social and ecological commons). While a hopeful sign, this hybrid concept needs to be theoretically unpacked, and empirically explored. This article has two purposes. First, it is a theory-building project that unpacks the citizen-consumer concept, and investigates underlying ideological tensions and contradictions. The second purpose of the paper is to relate theory to an empirical case-study of the citizen-consumer in practice. Using the case-study of Whole Foods Market (WFM), a corporation frequently touted as an ethical market actor, I ask: (1) how does WFM frame the citizen-consumer hybrid, and (2) what ideological tensions between consumer and citizen ideals are present in the framing? Are both ideals coexisting and balanced in the citizen-consumer hybrid, or is this construct used to disguise underlying ideological inconsistencies? Rather than meeting the requirements of consumerism and citizenship equally, the case of WFM suggests that the citizen-consumer hybrid provides superficial attention to citizenship goals in order to serve three consumerist interests better: consumer choice, status distinction, and ecological cornucopianism. I argue that a true “citizen-consumer” hybrid is not only difficult to achieve, but may be internally inconsistent in a growth-oriented corporate setting.


Consumer Choice Ethical Consumer Social Reproduction Ethical Consumption Consumer Sovereignty 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Numerous people helped in the construction and conceptualization of this article. A special thanks to Shyon Baumann for his helpful suggestions and insightful feedback. Valuable research assistance was provided by University of Toronto graduate students Norah MacKendrick and Tara McMullen. The article benefited from comments received at the ASFS/AFHVS meetings, the Consumer Studies Research Network conference, the Schulich School of Business Research Colloquium at York University, as well as from the constructive critiques and suggestions provided by the Theory and Society Editors. This research is part of a larger project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, as well as the Connaught Research Fund at the University of Toronto.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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