ESRC End of Award Research Report
Title: Consuming identities: Young people, cultural forms and negotiations in households
Current concerns about young people’s consumption centre on young people’s increased propensity for buying goods, their susceptibility to advertising and their ‘pester power’ over their parents. Research has found that young people define themselves, at least partly, by the messages they give to others through the goods they possess and display. Goods are consumed as much for what they signify as for their basic use-value -- hence the importance of brand names and 'designer' labels to many young people (Kenway and Bullen, 2001).
However, research on young people and consumption is not new. Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the construction of young people as a distinctive market of ‘teenage consumers’, and the increasingly significant and complex role that consumption plays in the constitution of youth identities (e.g. Abrams, 1959). While consumption is important as a marker of identity and in establishing position with their peers through style groups, there is considerable evidence that young people are not cultural dupes. They are aware that they use commodities to create 'images' which identify their peer group-influenced life-styles, but tend to regard others as inauthentic 'fashion victims' (Widdicombe and Wooffitt, 1995).
There remain gaps in our knowledge about young people’s experiences of consumption across a range of institutional and geographical contexts, their constructions of consumer meanings and how their consumption practices and identities are differentiated. Consumption is likely to be less open to some young people than others and this can contribute to the sense of social exclusion experienced by some young people. Young people living with their parents have to negotiate household resources for purchasing the signifiers of style (clothes, music etc.), while parents have to conduct such negotiations in a context where many may be anxious about parenting teenagers (Brannen et al., 1994). Relatively little is known about young people's perspectives on the part they play in such negotiations. Even less attention has been paid to the role of geographical location in shaping young people’s consumption patterns and the meanings of consumption as this intersects with dimensions of gender, social class, race and ethnicity.
In the present study we aimed to enhance understanding of young people's perspectives on the part they play, and the power they have as agents in such negotiations, especially in relation to specific youth cultural practices around consumption. In contributing to such understandings, the study aimed to contribute to what Miles (1998) argued was needed in a “new research agenda for urban consumption”. We have built on current theorizations of young people by viewing consumption not only as central to the construction of consumer cultures and identities, but as performative, relational, potentially contradictory and multiple (Martens et al., 2004).
Aims and Objectives
The study aimed to move forward understandings of the social, psychological and cultural processes involved in the relationship between consumption and identity for young people aged 12-13 years and 16-18 living with their parent(s). The data collected are extremely rich and data analysis and writing up are continuing. However, we have been able to meet our six main objectives in the ways addressed below:
(1) To contribute to theoretical understandings of the place of consumption in the construction of young people’s identities, especially regarding the value of recent cultural theory on the role of young people as active consumers, and the relationship between consumption and identity.
This objective has been met at all stages of the research via the collection and analysis of our extensive and varied data set, and increasingly as our analysis had proceeded. In several papers and presentations we develop analyses of the complexity of young people’s consumption identities (discussed more fully in the results section below).
(2) To investigate how young people and some of their parents consider that young people negotiate access to household income for their own consumption, and whether or not one parent is more frequently negotiated with than the other.
This objective was addressed in the family interviews and also in aspects of the data collected in the questionnaires, group discussions and interviews with individual young people in schools. The objective was met primarily through the analyses presented in the paper on negotiations in families, and additional papers currently being prepared.
(3) To examine the relationships between ‘race’, ethnicity, social class, gender and the negotiations of resources for consumption. To investigate whether young people with limited access to such resources feel socially excluded from common consumption patterns, with consequent impact on identity construction processes.
This was an explicit determinant of our research design in that almost all the schools used were mixed-gender, including schools in disadvantaged areas as well as more affluent ones, and in ethnically mixed as well as mainly mono-ethnic areas. A change to the research design to include schools in Oxford was designed to improve the ethnic mix of the sample since we found that schools in the Milton Keynes area were less ethnically mixed than the information about educational institutions had led us to believe.
Information about class, ‘race’ and ethnicity was not requested on the questionnaires since there is evidence that young people’s understandings of social class tend not to match with those of researchers’ (Phoenix and Tizard, 1996), and there were concerns that asking about ethnicity on questionnaires might reduce commitment in some of the study schools, Issues of class, ethnicity, ‘race’ and racism have been addressed directly in various interviews. Some of the data bearing on this objective has already been analysed (see the results section below).
(4) To compare the accounts and consumption-related cultural practices of young people living in rural, new town and city locations in the English Midlands, who have different access to retail outlets.
This objective was addressed via data collected in the questionnaires, group discussions and interviews with individual young people in schools as well as observational case studies in the different locations used. The addition of an Oxford school enabled the analysis of access to more diverse retail outlets than anticipated. This objective was met through the analysis of questionnaire data, interviews and observational case studies.
(5) To make accessible to parents, young people, teachers, youth workers, clinicians and those responsible for youth policy an analysis of the place of consumption in young people’s lives.
This objective was addressed partly via the involvement of non-academic users in the project Advisory Group and via discussions with teachers, parents and young people participating in the study. It was met primarily through sending a digest of results to each school and invitations to each to an end-of-award symposium for practitioners and researchers held on 13 July 2005. Papers have been planned for publications specifically aimed at practitioners and parents.
(6) To contribute to methodological innovation via a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods involving questionnaires, individual and group interviews and ethnographic case studies with young people in a longitudinal research design.
This objective has been met through the development of a range of research methods in the study design, in particular the use of visual research methods (disposable cameras) and observational case studies. This enabled analysis of how the young people construct their identities through consumption in relation to their peers and families anonymously on questionnaires, in interview contexts and as they perform consumption in a range of venues. The analysis carried out for the two research papers attached as nominated outputs to this report demonstrate how this objective has been met.
In order to meet the above objectives, the project addressed the following research questions:
1. Consumption and Identity: How do young people themselves define the relationship between their consumption of clothes, music, etc., their identities and their relationships with peers and specific youth cultural practices?
2. Negotiations within households: To what extent do young people feel they negotiate with their parent(s) for money to support their consumption of clothes, music, etc.? Where both parents are accessible, do they negotiate with both parents, or only one? How do they feel about such negotiations, and how does this relate to parents’ accounts of these negotiations?
3. Effects of social class, ethnicity, ‘race’ and gender: How do social class, gender and ethnicity intersect with the above issues, especially in relation to patterns of social exclusion?
4. Impact of differential location and access: Do young people in rural, new town and city centre areas of the English Midlands give different accounts of the psychological, social and cultural processes involved in the relationship between consumption and identity?
Research Methods and Analytic Procedures
A major concern in this research was to get a broad picture of young people’s consuming identities and to develop a methodology that gave young people opportunities to discuss and perform their consumption identities in groups and alone as well as providing understandings of their parents’ views on these issues. Our method built on recent innovative work on consumption, young people’s identities and on visual methodology (e.g. Gordon et al., 2000; Ribbens McCarthy et al., 2003; Miles et al., 1998; Prosser and Schwarz, 1998).
The project consisted of three stages: based in schools, households and related to young people’s specific cultural practices around consumption. Stage 1 provided information on young people’s consumption patterns and practices, sources of income and meanings of consumption in relation to specific products and practices. It involved two elements: the completion of semi-structured self-completion questionnaires (that included an open question) by pupils in Year 8 (aged 12-13) and Year 12 (aged 16-17); and a series of focus group discussions with young people in all participating schools. The schools were selected to provide a sample of pupils from a range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, both male and female. Schools were in the outer suburbs and in inner city areas of Birmingham, in the new town and in semi-rural areas around Milton Keynes. The study was extended to the city of Oxford in order to recruit a more ethnically diverse sample with a resulting increase in sample size and hence more value for money. Most schools were co-educational, some with and some without uniforms, and most had sixth forms. The two age groups were selected to include young people in their early teens (Year 8) who are entering adolescence, and those in their mid- to late teens (Year 12), who may be more independent of parents, but still live in the family home and have not gained full financial independence. [AAP1]
We also gave young people disposable cameras in the first stage of the project, asking them to make their own record of items that were important to them, and using the resulting photographs as a focus for discussion in the follow-up interviews with individual young people. This combination in Stage 1 of quantitative questionnaire-based information and more qualitative material from group discussions provided a basis for subsequent stages of the project, and a point of comparison with the results of recent research.
Stage 2 involved individual and joint interviews with young people and their parents, from urban areas (Birmingham and Milton Keynes) and semi-rural locations. The young people’s interviews covered the young people’s spending, earning and saving habits, and focused on the personal significance of commodities in young people’s lives. The family interviews focused on different accounts of negotiations over money and other household resources, pocket money, payment for housework and so on. We also considered family involvement in particular consumption practices (e.g. ‘shopping with mum’) from the perspectives of young people and their parents. Stage 3, building on initial analyses of material from Stages 1 and 2, involved ethnographic observational case studies of young people in specific contexts involved in a range of cultural practices related to consumption. These were selected to include both young women and men in urban and semi-rural areas from a range of social class and ethnic backgrounds, and from both age groups.
Questionnaire data were mainly pre-coded, but the more open-ended answers were post-coded and inter-coder reliability was established through joint coding of half the questionnaires and joint checking of a sample of the rest. Chi-square analyses were conducted on the questionnaire data. All interviews were tape-recorded with the respondents’ permission, and fully transcribed in anonymised form. Interviews were semi-structured and informal, using interview schedules and extensive use of open-ended questions to produce discursive accounts. The interviews were coded thematically using a coding scheme devised from the researchers’ repeated readings of the interview transcripts that aimed to capture the participants’ meanings. The research team then applied the codes to a subset of the interviews and together agreed the nuances of coding before the two research fellows finished coding the data set with frequent discussions of jointly coded interviews to check that they were continuing to code in the same way. Data were then analysed across codes and the connections between codes examined. The thematic organisation of the analysis was built up from these connections across codes. Narrative analyses were conducted on the observational case studies.
The questionnaire sample was drawn from 17 secondary schools in the state education sector in Birmingham (N=7), Milton Keynes (N=7) and Oxford (N=3). Questionnaires were completed by 1354 young people (631 boys, 652 girls, 21 gender missing; 853 aged 12-13 and 413 aged 16-17). Interview data were drawn from the same schools, plus an additional two schools in Milton Keynes, two in Oxford and one in Birmingham. We conducted 60 group interviews with 335 young people in groups of 4-6 (range of 3-9). 10 of these group interviews were with boys in single sex groups (8 in Birmingham and 2 in Milton Keynes/Oxford), 11 with groups of girls (a11 in Birmingham) and 39 interviews with mixed groups (9 in Birmingham and 30in Milton Keynes/Oxford). This involved groups of boys and girls from Year 8 (15 groups in Birmingham and 19 in Milton Keynes/Oxford), and Year 11/12 (13 groups in Birmingham and 13 from Milton Keynes/Oxford). Twenty-eight volunteers from those who had taken part in the group interviews were given cameras and 26 sets of film were later developed by the research team and formed the focus of photo-elicitation interviews. Twenty parents (19 mothers and one father) and 16 of their teenage children were then interviewed on their negotiations over household resources. Eleven ethnographic case studies were also conducted, mainly involving visits to local and inner city shopping centres with groups of young people.
Below we briefly report those findings most directly related to our original research questions, drawing on all our sources of data as relevant.
1.1. Consumption, style and identity: About half the respondents on the questionnaires viewed the image of the items they purchased and expressing their own style as important. The sharing of a style with others was not viewed as important in young people’s questionnaire responses where individuality was more emphasized. However, belonging to a style group was constructed as central to young people’s identities in the interviews.
1.2 The tension between “sticking out” and “fitting in”: For many young people who responded on the questionnaires, the relationship between consumption and identity took the form of continuous careful negotiations between “sticking out” and being individual and different whilst simultaneously “fitting in” with their peers, confirming the results of other studies in this area (Miles et al., 1998). In the interviews it was apparent that there were negative social consequences of not “fitting in”. Young people could be ostracised or belittled for having the ‘wrong’ clothes and more powerful style groups could be acerbic about less powerful ones. Boys, for example, often teased each other for wearing ‘girlish’ clothes or playing with girlish toys. Consumption therefore functioned as a method of social regulation amongst the young people, constituting a source of anxiety as well as pleasure.
1.3. Crafting complex identities from polysemic images Many young people who took part in the photo-elicitation interviews used their photographs as a means of claiming authentic identities that might otherwise have been disputed. The potentially polysemic nature of photographs enabled participants to read alternative, and sometimes oppositional, meanings into images, so the photo interview sometimes operated as a form of ‘post-production editing’ of images in order to enhance young people’s identities. In addition, the photographic image allowed the young people to introduce new and possibly contentious topics in ways that would not have been possible in a purely verbal exchange, by enabling them to expand on aspects of their experience that might otherwise have been inaccessible, eg. in talk about racialised and religious identities.
1.4. Commonly-identified style groups The symbolic meanings associated with consumption were perhaps clearest when young people were discussing different style groups. The most commonly-identified style groups in the study were ‘Sharons’, ‘Kevs’, ‘Skaters’, ‘Goths’, ‘Townies’ (or ‘Trendies’) and ‘Grebos’. These groups were overtly gender differentiated as well as being more implicitly racialised and differentiated by social class. In a number of interviews ‘Sharons’ and ‘Kevs’ were represented as complementary working class styles for male and female respondents.
‘Skaters’ (boys who liked skateboarding) were counterposed to ‘Kevs’ in many interviews. Skater style was mostly adopted by the middle classes and required the acquisition of expensive labels (particularly for skateboards) that were not generally known outside the style group. ‘Goths’ were often denigrated by those outside the style for their dramatic make up, dyed black hair and black and purple clothes. Male Goths were sometimes constructed as ‘gay’ ‘bisexual’ and ‘disgusting’ for taking on styles that many of the young people viewed as transgressing gender boundaries.
A common and overarching distinction polarised all style groups into ‘Grebos’ and ‘Townies (or ‘Trendies’), especially in Milton Keynes schools (see Pattman and Kehilly, 2004). These two groups were said to wear different clothes, like different types of music and have different orientations to dominant gender relations. ‘Grebos’ were said to transgress gender boundaries, with the boys and girls wearing the same kinds of clothes and sometimes make up, while the ‘Townies’ wore clothes that accentuated gender differences.
1.6. Clothes, CDs, DVDs and mini-disc players were the most recently-purchased items: On the questionnaires, clothing and electronic media were the most frequently mentioned purchases for all groups of respondents. Certain items were especially significant for particular groups of young people: for example, games consoles were popular consumer items amongst Year 8 boys, and fashion accessories were more frequently mentioned by girls.
1.7.Importance of quality and cost: On the questionnaires, young people frequently mentioned the importance of quality and cost to purchasing decisions, especially boys. As with brand names, certain shops carried style and identity implications. Although many young people noted that shops’ image had minimal impact on their purchases, many interviewees stated that they would not enter particular types of shops (e.g. charity shops). This could make it difficult for some young people to maintain the ‘right’ image on limited budgets.
1.8. High street shopping is common but produces its own pressures: Internet shopping was scarcely mentioned on the questionnaires: most goods mentioned had been purchased in high street shops. However, girls were statistically more likely than boys to say that they did all their shopping in fashion stores. In the observational case studies and the interviews shopping was constructed as a social activity (especially for girls) and this might explain why internet shopping has not overtaken trips to shopping centres as a central consumption activity for young people. It may also be, however, that they have limited access to debit or credit cards with which to pay for internet shopping.
In one observational case study involving a shopping trip to Birmingham city centre, one of the Research Fellows accompanied three 13-year-old girls (two Asian and one Vietnamese) from working class backgrounds, and it became clear that there are pressures on girls to buy goods. The girls discussed in depth their assumption that once they entered a shop, it was obligatory to leave carrying a (preferably large and elegant) bag bearing the shop’s name, hence proving that they had purchased something and affirming their identities as ‘respectable’ consumers.
2.1. Negotiations within households: Variations with age: Between Year 8 and Year 12 there was a reported reduction in parental contributions to young people’s purchases, since almost all the year 12 pupils interviewed had a paid part time job. Simultaneously, the influence of friends on spending decisions was said to decrease as young people got older. In the interviews, however, young people of both age groups appeared to show concern over what their friends thought, particularly about how they dressed.
2.2. Negotiations between parents and children over consumption: Both children and parents tended to draw on discourses of children’s entitlement to spend their own money and to have ‘free’ choice. However, many parents considered that their children (and sometimes they themselves) were inclined to spend too much. They therefore tried to inculcate what they constructed as important values about money and consumption. Many young people were sensitive to their parents’ financial circumstances. However, both parents and young people gave accounts of recurrent arguments about consumption in which various family members could all be positioned differently and divisively (with mothers tending to construct themselves as go-betweens).
2.3. Parental anxieties over children’s consumption: In making decisions about whether or not they should provide resources to buy particular products, parents made a distinction between what they viewed as their children’s ‘needs’ and their ‘wants’—a distinction also drawn by many young people. Many parents were sensitive to pressures on young people to conform to the consumption patterns of their peer group and were anxious that they should not be socially excluded, but should be happy. For some parents, limited economic resources posed a further problem.
Parents and young people agreed that parents were likely to disapprove of, and even veto, various items, especially for the younger age group. These included CDs, computer games and DVDs or videos with ‘parental advisory’ warnings. For young women, having their belly button pierced and buying ‘tarty’ clothes were a particular focus of negotiation, and mothers, rather than fathers, were reported to advise their daughters about appropriate and inappropriate (ie. overly sexual ways) of presenting themselves.
3.1. Effects of social class, ethnicity, ‘race’ and gender: Differentiating boys’ and girls’ consumption practices: In general, there were relatively few gender differences in girls’ and boys’ choice and description on the questionnaires of significant items they had recently bought. Girls reported making more ‘on the spot’ purchases than boys, although this could be a consequence of the higher cost of some of the items mentioned by boys. This was an area of lively debate in the interviews. In discussing shopping, girls and boys constructed essentialist gender differences. Masculinity tended to be associated with an instrumental orientation to shopping and femininity with a focus on the pleasures of shopping itself.
3.1.2. The importance of brands, designer labels and advertising: There were complex discussions about the role of branded goods in the interviews. Just under half the young people who responded to the questionnaires (more boys than girls) felt that advertising had an important influence on their consumer purchases. The questionnaire data indicated that brand names and designer labels were more frequently reported to be important for boys than girls in both year groups, and especially for Year 8 boys. These gender and age differences were highly significant and seem to result from the fact that the most commonly mentioned brands were for sports items (including clothes) that younger boys were most likely to report buying. Designer labels and brand names were used to signify ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and this was one reason that boys generally were said to be interested in designer labels. No one brand emerged as a ‘must have’ either on the questionnaires or in the interviews. This was because there were differences in which brands were considered high status according to the school attended and the style groups to which young people considered they belonged.
3.2. Variations due to social class and ethnicity: It was not possible to identify variations in young people’s questionnaire responses on the basis of their social class or ethnicity, because we decided not to include questions on parental occupation or on ‘race’ or ethnicity since we had some indications that asking about these issues in some of our less ethnically-mixed study locations might deter some young people from wanting to be involved in the study. However, some black girls commented in the open-ended questionnaire questions on the whiteness of the stereotypical ideal of beauty and a black young man linked his consumption identity with his racialised identity.
3.2.1. Social Class: As has been found in many other studies, young people tended not to identify themselves in the interviews in traditional class terms. However class emerged as an issue in relation to other schools that were perceived as ‘posh’, and in talk about the areas in which the young people lived. Those from disadvantaged inner city areas were acutely aware of the associated stigma. Almost all participants described themselves as ‘ordinary’ and the amount of money they had as ‘normal’. However very poor students who were described by others as ‘scruffy’ were stigmatised, and their failure to perform acceptable identities in terms of style and consumption was sometimes racialised (eg. as ‘gypos’) and perceived as akin to moral failure.
4.1. Impact of differential location and access: Variations in the responses of young people living in different areas: There were relatively few differences between the questionnaire and interview responses of young people living in the new town, large city or semi-rural areas. Year 8s had limited experience of shopping unaccompanied by their parents, and all young people tended to prefer shopping in larger urban areas with a greater variety of shops and up-to-date products. This suggests that young consumers in Britain are now part of the global economy, and some reported buying goods abroad or online from America in order to be the first to have a new branded item. However, when asked whether they could ‘get most things locally,’ some of the Oxford sample argued that they get new fashions later than Londoners do and some of those in semi-rural areas felt that they have limited access to clothes shopping because public transport to shopping centres is limited.
The research team have all been actively involved in networking and dissemination activities throughout the study. A list is provided in the Activities and Achievements Questionnaire.
Key findings written up for peer-reviewed academic journals, those aimed at practitioners working with young people (see section 2A of the Activities and Achievements Questionnaire for details).
Impacts on Policy and Practice
Since the project began, issues related to identity have been an increasing focus of recent policy initiatives aimed at children and young people, especially the influence of marketing and advertising on young people’s consumption of food and alcohol. The involvement of non-academic users concerned with relevant areas of policy and practice is discussed in the Activities and Achievements Questionnaire.
Future Research Priorities
There is now an expanding body of literature on young people, consumption and identity, much of it British research funded by the ESRC, and this area remains an important area for further development. For Dr Griffin and Prof. Phoenix, work on the Young Consumers study has informed their current research on two different projects for the Identities and Social Action programme, as well as several other studies, and their forthcoming ESRC Research Seminar Series on ‘Identities and Consumption’, which has a strong focus on youth, and should provide an important forum for discussion of future research directions in this area.
The association between consumption and identity and the central role this plays in young people’s lives is an important issue to be addressed in any future ESRC Research Programme related to young people. Research in this area needs to keep up with contemporary advertising and marketing techniques aimed at young people, such as the use of viral and embedded marketing and sponsorship rather than a reliance on traditional advertisements. It is particularly important to forge strong research connections between social psychologists, sociologists and other youth studies researchers, and those working in marketing and consumer research.
Different researchers appear to adopt different practices regarding the use of visual materials in research, and the research community needs to address this question in more depth, in close consultation with relevant non-academic user groups. Possible avenues for this debate include the ESRC Identities and Social Action Research programme, in which there are several projects using visual research methods, and the ESRC’s Qualitative Longitudinal Research Initiative.
Additional Materials (1):
(a) Croghan, R., Griffin, C., Hunter, J. and Phoenix, A. Reading the visual: Notes on the analysis and use of photo elicitation methods in a study of young people and consumption.
** Paper to be presented at the International Visual Sociology Association Conference, Dublin, August 2005, and submitted to the International Journal of Social Research Methodology in summer 2005.
(b) Hunter, J., Griffin, C., Croghan, R. and Phoenix, A. “Gotta buy”: Femininity, compulsory purchase & the ‘consumer/retailer contract’.
** Paper to be presented at the International Association of Research in Economic Psychology conference, Prague, September 2005, and submitted to the Journal of Consumer Culture in summer 2005.
Additional Materials (2): Annexes
(a) Recruitment materials
Letter to schools
Consent form for parents for interviews with young people
Consent form for young people for all interviews with young people
Consent form for young people in relation to use of disposable cameras
Consent form for parents for family interviews
Recruitment poster to parents of teenagers
Letter to parents prior to observational case study visit
(b) Research materials
Young Consumers Questionnaire for use in participating schools
Interview schedule for group discussions with young people in schools
Interview schedule for family interviews with parents and young people
Interview schedule for individual interviews with young people regarding photos
This study operated according to the British Psychological Society Ethical Guidelines. All research interventions employed in the project have been considered and approved by the Research Ethics Committees of the School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, and the Department of Psychology at the Open University. All of the materials listed above have been considered and approved by these Research Ethics Committees.
The applicants operated as follows:
1) All interview material was kept strictly confidential. Young people were only interviewed with permission from schools and parents. For those young people selected for the study, we discussed the purpose of the interviews, both group and individual, in person beforehand. Young people, and their parents, were free to withdraw from the study at any stage, should they so wish, and this was made clear to them. The feedback provided to schools was not about individual young people, but more general.
2) The quality of interviewing was subject to close scrutiny via regular monitoring of tape transcripts.
3) In order to ensure the anonymity of participants, neither the photographic material nor observational research field-notes have been included in the archived data from this project. We have pixilated out the faces of all individuals in photographs, because they did not give their consent to have their image displayed in the public domain and cannot be anonymised if their faces are shown. However, this did place some limitations on our analysis.
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