Abstract: Consuming Interests by Orvar Lofgren

Posted on October 16, 2011 by

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Abstracted by Brian J. Delas Armas

In the vein of Mary Douglas’ “The Uses of Goods”, Orvar Lofgren argues that Swedish consumption of home products is an active site where culture was constantly being made and contested.  He argues against the ideas that social identity has been lost in this consumption, that consumers are shallow, mindless beings as opposed to conscious, moral beings, ideas advanced by and large by middle-class intellectuals.   He argues that contrary to some ideas about “the mindless consumer”, consumers have become more critical and sophisticated over the last decades.

To avoid this construction of the “mindless consumer”, he suggests that we may view the changes in home-making and consumption is as a continual process of deroutinization and reroutinization.  Some habits became normal while others simply did not, and it all had to do with individuals actively attempting to fit in with what they held to be their values, Swedish values.

In this article, Swedish consumption of home products and home-making are the sites of scrutiny: it was and is an arena in which Swedes statistically spend more on than Europeans, and has become a category from which a distinct Swiss tradition has been noted by outsiders.

He employed a life history perspective of individuals, which enabled researchers to look at the ways in which people learned consumer skills.  He found that there was an organizing principle of “now” and “then” when people narrated their life as consumers.  The interviews dealt with the acquisition of consumer skills, starting with the early memories of learning how to construct a list of Christmas wishes or becoming a collector of tin soldiers. These early memories had a certain novelty, which also shed light on their childhood consumption habits as a process of experimentation.

A theme in teenage consumer life had to do with learning the fine social distinctions.  Some had memories of hours spent in front of the mirror, trying out styles, clothes and poses in order to find forms of self-expression.  For some, the narrative stressed how one learnt how to make do with little and this often is meant as an (indirect) critique of the youngsters of today “who get everything for nothing” and who never learn to forsake desires or think twice about consumption.

A common perspective dealt with a narrative of having developed into a much more skilful and critical consumer:  The time of experimentation was seen as just that, and distanced from their personhood today.  Earlier habits and styles were “tackifed”; what was once most desirable, natural or elegant has been redefined into something hopelessly old-fashioned or comical.  The experience of a middle-class woman informant exemplified this turn:  as a teenager, she desired what her working class friends found fashionable and rebelled against her middle-class parents’ taste for simplicity.  However, in the end her parents’ tastes one out, and she tackified her tastes as a teenager.

Lofgren attempts to place these narratives within a broader history of home-living marketing paradigms within Sweden.  The 1920s introduced the idea of the kitchen as a domestic laboratory in Scandinavia;  however,  it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that modern living really caught on. With increased spending power and shorter working hours, the working class acquired new opportunities to attain a modern life with the aid of the growing range of commodities on offer.  Toasters, refrigerators, and radios were objects with a promise of the future.  According to the Lofgren, “During these years the importance of being modern became a standard argument in the marketing of everything from kitchen pans to ashtrays. In the advertisements the two most frequent adjectives used during the fifties and sixties were “new” and “modern”.  Although they adopted American products, the way in which they arranged their spaces were perceived to comprise a distinct Swedish style of living.

To adopt this Swedish style of living, this called for a disruption of previous routines, a “deroutinization.”  They established new routines of consumption.  For better or worse, it was largely individuals in the middle-class, (individuals who accuse others of mindless consumption) who established the new and popular routines of mass consumption. The market did not manipulate anyone;  it’s just that the home became a place where through the purchase of products, people tried out “different sides of themselves.”  The technologies were an extension of them as Swedes taking on Swedish identities and performing roles as family members, and members of genders.  For future research, he suggested the need to continue to look at the ways in which “the freedom of choice” had been staged or shaped by market interests.