Sociologist Schor on less materialistic American dream

Given the pessimism of Americans toward upward mobility, what evidence does sociologist Juliet Schor see for more Americans moving away from a materialistic American dream?

There’s a more sober attitude to consuming since the crash. A lot of people don’t feel as comfortable. I’m not talking about the 1 percent or the folks, who you know, just ordinary people are kind of less comfortable with showiness and excess at a time when so many people are suffering economically. There’s a kind of solidarity, or at least a sentimental solidarity, that comes up.

What I think we’re seeing is you have groups of highly educated, predominantly white young people living really different kinds of lifestyles. I’ve called it an “eco-habitus” using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—your sort of underlying sensibility toward things. This is the rise of things like CSAs and farmers’ markets. These are not necessarily low-cost lifestyles, some of them are. It’s a different sensibility. Again, that rejection of mass consumption, which has been there for a while, but rejection of materialism, advertising, people who are saying how do I raise my children in a way that’s not having them just sucked into this dominant consumer culture. That’s really mainstreaming and it used to be pretty niche.

We’re also seeing a validation of some of that kind of attitude among, not so much among the white working class, or the white poor, but more among inner city communities of color who are also engaged in alternative ways of provisioning around food or some of the more community-based approaches to provisioning. There are a lot of parallels with what’s going on with more affluent, highly educated consumers.

I do think there is a movement to transform the way we live to make it more ecological, more economically secure, less unequal, and more economically fair. And out of necessity you’re seeing this in some of the most depressed cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, where you just have a flowering of alternatives.

As noted in this article, Schor has a section on downshifting in The Overspent AmericanBut, it is difficult to get national data on this trend and Schor tends to use case studies or ethnographic work to make her case. (A related topic: if owning big homes is a big marker of a materialistic culture, why can’t we get better statistics on the number of tiny houses?) How many Americans are giving up materialism because they can’t spend as opposed to really are making significant life changes that they will continue for decades? And what exactly are they replacing their old materialistic ways with?

At this point, perhaps Schor’s reference to habitus is most appropriate. It will be within families and smaller groups dedicated to less materialistic lifestyles where these values are passed down and continued. Expanding this habitus to encompass more people is a more difficult task.

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