Let’s talk about ‘lifestyles’.
Yesterday I found myself invited to a “lifestyle and shopping event for professional bloggers” called RegentTweet organised by some clever marketers over on Regent Street. I signed up for a chance to attend through London Girl Geek Dinners, a group which should be pretty self-explanatory. I didn’t think I’d get selected for this, as it’s mostly for fashion bloggers, but in my eternal quest for being Frequently a Bit Silly, I’m always one to put my name down for a new experience. (I do sometimes write about being a girl geek.)
When I found out I was going, questions swarmed in my mind. First and foremost, what is a “lifestyle event” anyway? For that matter, what is a ‘lifestyle’? Do I even have one of those?
Fortunately, sociology (and anthropology!) is here to help us interrogate these sorts of questions. ‘Lifestyle’ appears to be one of those words (much like ‘culture’) which is very difficult to define in the Sociological Phrasebook. (Very similar to the Anthropological Phrasebook…sometimes I think of myself as a sociologist and sometimes an anthropologist. But that, dear reader, is a question for another day.)
A blog-sized definition of ‘lifestyle’ might be that it’s the manner in which people choose to dispose of their leisure time and spend their capital–be that fiscal or cultural. And if we are discussing cultural capital, we of course must be discussing Bourdieu. To be fair, I didn’t actually use much Bourdieu when looking at flows of cultural power and transfer of cultural products in my PhD, I was more of a Foucault kind of girl. But my Big Important Thought about constructing a theoretical framework is: you don’t know where to look or what you should be looking for, until you do. And I actually think (unlike a lot of people) that these two theorists can be used as complimentary texts. There is no Academician’s Death Match to be the One True Theorist to describe structures of consumption and power; they can be used hand-in-glove. But some excellent critics would disagree, calling them “fundamentally incompatible in many ways“.
So anyway. What are we talking about when we use Foucault and Bourdieu to describe notions of consumerism? Food Studies author Emily Contois brilliantly encapsulated their overarching theoretical frameworks in an analysis of the different marketing strategies of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. Please go read it. I’ll still be here when you get back.
In essence, Bourdieu posits that the defining factor of the upper classes isn’t just money on its own: it’s a concatenation of time, fiscal resources, prior educational history and knowledge, and just general savvy which allows them to pursue products and experiences that are “rare, unique, and forms of self-expression“. These people like Starbucks, with its relaxing couches, its endless menu options, its personalized names on each order. In contrast, the Dunkin’ Donuts people are consuming coffee because it is a necessary part of Foucaultian bodily discipline in order to be a good worker and a good citizen. It’s no-nonsense, it’s down-home, and it smacks of distrusting the decadence of the leisure classes.
Other forms of consumer culture often strike me as uneasy marriages between the two: when I think of women’s fashion marketing, I perceive both an attempt to make me feel as though I’m achieving a form of personal self-expression through rare or indulgent experiences, and a bodily policing that succeeds more often than it should in making me feel as though aspects of my body are not sufficiently disciplined. (For example, I wake up in the night and secretly watch ads for women’s hair removal products. Bad feminist. NOTE: I do not actually do this.)
Dieter Bogenhold posited that “The logic of how people organize their leisure time and how they spend their income is not a simple mirror of income level but must be regarded as being embedded in social behavior” (“Social Inequality and the Sociology of Life Style: Material and Cultural Aspects of Social Stratification”, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol 60, no. 4, Oct 2001, p.830.) In other words, some of us have champagne tastes and a beer budget (or vice versa) depending on what we want to say about ourselves and who we want to socialize with. The Starbucks people and the Dunkin’ Donuts people aren’t necessarily basing their consumption choices on what they can afford, but on what they want to be seen as. The same is true for other brands–and the brands, of course, know this. They know this very well indeed, though they might articulate it in slightly different terms.
RegentTweet and its participating brands certainly know it–who wouldn’t want to be invited to an exclusive little day hobnobbing with the In Crowd, with little talismans allowing the participants to gain access to experiences denied to the hoi palloi? Nobody. Nobody wouldn’t want that. Which is exactly what the retailers are banking on: that the mere sight of all of us traipsing up and down Regent Street with our tote bags and our little cards, ‘checking in’ at each store and tweeting endlessly about our merry japes, will fuel the desires of others. It works, too: one brand employee told me that her store had record trading days last year and this year on RegentTweet day. We, the RegentTweet bloggers, are both consumers and the architects of consumption culture; we are Bourdieu’s cultural-capitalists and Foucault’s disciplinarians at one and the same time.
And what did I learn about myself on this epic ‘lifestyle’ day? I reaffirmed what I already knew: that I care about experiences, especially those which make me feel as though I have accessed something rare and wondrous. The standout moments of the day for me revolved around food, drink and theatre tickets (do stay tuned for a review of Jean Brassard at the Crazy Coqs.) I enjoy (for the brief periods that I can pretend to be doing so) living the high life, the Bourdieusian ‘upper class’ sort of life, though I am also made uncomfortable by my desire for it. But perhaps this desire includes my very discomfort with it; perhaps it is just my ‘habitus’ coming to the surface.