Indifference in a Culture of Consumption

  • Elizabeth Nixon

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


In attending to consumption as a defining feature of life in Western societies, existing consumer research has tended to envisage, construct and reproduce ‘the consumer’ as either enthusiastically embracing the delights of the market, or as actively resisting or rebelling against its evils. The extant research has therefore tended to assume a high degree of reflexive conscious engagement in consumption as the norm. In this research, I argue that this might have inadvertently obscured the possibility of non-participation in various aspects of consumption through disinterest. This appears within the field as a theoretical space where people relate to consumption opportunities with rather less reflection or emotion and allows for the choice not to buy to be part of an accepted and unreflected-upon aspect of existence; a diverse shadow-realmof consumer inactivity in which feelings of indifference may be significant. Though a general lack of interest in various aspects of consumption may constitute an ontologically common experience, indifference has remained a largely unnoticed and under-theorised element of social reality in a consumer culture. In this study, I explore the possibilities of indifference in a consumer culture, not as a psychological construct or symptom of pathology but as a livedexperience, understood in different ways and constituted through different discursive contexts.In this research, I draw on 29 phenomenological interviews to offer an empiricallygrounded interpretation of what it means to be indifferent to consumption. From the stories the informants shared with me, I articulate how the experience of indifference can appear as a genuine blindness towards a spectacular world of consumption, underpinned by other socioculturalnarratives that construct the marketplace as a remote, unfamiliar or unappealingdomain. In other stories, experiences of indifference appeared to be maintained by a constant and taken-for-granted adherence to a classification system that denotes consumerism as a powerful source of physical and spiritual pollution. Whilst in other narratives, a general lack of interest in various aspects of consumption revealed a paradoxical desire for a personal identity forged from a dismissal of consumption; a culturally-shaped performance of pseudoindifference that involved refusing ‘consumer activity’ in order to construct a defiantly nonconsumer self. In addressing the cultural narratives and contexts that seem to account for nonconsumption through indifference, this study contributes to wider debates on processes of disengagement and less material living, and invites consumer researchers to develop a greater sensitivity to indifference within sociological accounts of consumption.
Date of Award30 Jun 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorYiannis Gabriel (Supervisor) & Avi Shankar (Supervisor)


  • disengaggement
  • consumerism
  • inactivity
  • apathy
  • consumer culture

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