Ethnography, Identity and Consumption among Immigrants

Julian Jefferies (Boston College) is presenting this research (see abstract below) at the Consumer Studies Mini-Conference: "THE CONTESTED TERRAIN OF CONSUMPTION STUDIES"


“Consumer Patterns of Undocumented Immigrant Youth: Constraints and Possibilities”


Consumer culture has become, in a post-traditional society, the most important way that individuals construct their social identity. As social status is no longer given or ascribed, individuals communicate their gender, social class, ethnicity, culture, nationality and various subjectivities through the act of consumption.

Instead of these being regulated by tradition, consumer goods become “crucial to the way in which we make up our social appearance, our social networks (lifestyle, status group etc.), our structures of social value” (Slater, 1997, 30).

For immigrant minorities living in the United States, consumption is a sphere that both contributes to class stratification, ethnic segmentation and status inequalities, while also presenting opportunities to minimize the stigma of lesser social and class status by the creation of meaning through diverse styles of consumption (Campbell, 2005).

Recent studies of minority consumers in the United States have looked how these populations may modify consumer products and processes to suit their own needs. Miller (1994) looked at how low-income consumers in stratified societies engage in ‘creative consumption’ that entail both ‘complementary and contradictory strategies’ (79-81).

In Davila’s (2001) comprehensive study of the impact of the American consumer economy on Latino ethnic minorities, the analysis focuses on the Hispanic marketing industry and its construction of a ‘Hispanic culture’.

For Campbell (2005), the consumer styles of working class Mexican-Americans on the border “embody a considerable degree of creativity, contradiction and hybridity” (207): while this population is able to create spaces of resistant cultural meaning within Anglo-American consumer fields, it is at the same time becoming “further enmeshed in a system of vastly unequal political and economic power” (207).

This study will report data from an ongoing ethnography of an all-immigrant high school in a northeastern city of the United States, taking as participants 12 undocumented youth currently attending or recently graduated from the school. The data was gathered using an ethnographic approach that included participant observation, interviews and the use of time diaries combined with phone recall (Heymann, 2000; Robinson & Godbey, 1997), and analyzed to produce thick descriptions (Geertz, 1973) of the structure and content of the participants’ daily lives as well as thematic analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994) of their consumer practices.

Preliminary findings start revealing a picture of the complex nature of how consumer patterns interact with the educational and professional prospects of this population.

Most of the participants in the study have a considerable disposable income, working as much as 35 hours per week, and despite contributing social remittances to family in their home countries (Levitt, 2001), rent, expenses and food money in their living situations.

Affected by their documentation status in the social institutions of work, education and the law, participation in the consumer economy is the only activity where they can interact in society without any barriers.

Furthermore, consuming allows them the perception of a more equal participation in society, albeit entering them into a system of vastly unequal relations of power.

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