The Birth of Critical Consumer Research: Contesting and Affirming Consumer Supremacy in Interwar America

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Abstract

This article argues that the origins of critical consumer research can be found in the Middletown Studies, written by social researchers Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd during the 1920s and ‘30s. In these studies, we find the first consistent attempt to study the long-term impact of consumer choices for the well-being of both the choosing individuals as well as for the well-being of the social communities that these individuals are related to through their choices. By tracing the historical origins of research into the socio-economic consequences of consumer culture to the first decades of the twentieth century, this article shows that critical consumer research never limited itself to the mere theoretical contestation of consumer supremacy. Instead, the Lynd’s also aimed at practically re-affirming alternative versions of this supremacy which focused much more on improving the frameworks within which consumers made their choices. The case of the Middletown Studies testifies to a radically different genealogy of market and consumer research than the one we have become accustomed to.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLes Études Sociales
Issue number169
Pages (from-to)93-108
Number of pages16
ISSN0014-2204
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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