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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Alternative Hedonism and the Theory and Politics of Consumption

This project explored some media indices and theoretical implications of an emerging disaffection with ‘consumerist’ consumption, a sense of its negative by-products for consumers themselves. This ambivalence was seen to function not just in alternative or marginal spaces but in a wide range of contexts. Our research conceptualised ‘alternative hedonist’ revisions of thinking about human fulfilment and the ‘good life’, and speculated on the possible role of these new forms of self-interest in promoting sustainable consumption.

This project ran from October 2004 to September 2006

image illustrating findings

View the findings summary sheet for this project>>

Project team
Kate Soper award holder
Lyn Thomas

Professor Kate Soper
ISET, London Metropolitan University
Tower Building
166–220 Holloway Road
London, N7 8DB

+44 (0)20 7133 2761

Publications include:

Soper K. ‘Re-thinking the “Good Life”: The Citizenship Dimension of Consumer Disaffection with Consumerism’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(2) (forthcoming, 2007).

Soper K. ‘Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning’, Cultural Studies (forthcoming, 2008).

Soper K., and Trentmann F. (eds.) Citizenship and Consumption (Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming, 2007).

Soper K., Thomas L., and Ryle M. (eds.) Counter-Consumerism and its Pleasures(Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming, 2008).

Thomas L. ‘Alternative Realities: Downshifting Narratives in Contemporary Lifestyle Television’, Cultural Studies(forthcoming, 2008).


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


'Alternative hedonism' encapsulates the sense that a growing number of consumers are unhappy with the by-products of affluent consumption and are beginning to revise their idea of the 'good life' and to consume differently in this light. Although many who turn to greener and more ethical consumption do so because of concern for the impact of affluent consumption on less privileged communities and on natural resources, the research focus is on the more self-interested motives for the shift: the more negative aspects for consumers themselves of a high-speed, work-dominated consumerist life-style (the noise, pollution, danger, congestion, stress, health risks, and aesthetic impact on the environment).

This focus is in line with our view that pressure for sustainable development is unlikely to be applied in the absence of a seductive alternative to existing patterns of affluent consumption. Hence the importance of theorising the desires implicit in current expressions of consumer anxiety, and of highlighting the alternative structure of pleasures and satisfactions to which they gesture. This theoretical exercise will be underpinned by a media study aiming to explore how far, and in what forms, this range of concerns and their related alternative desires are present in news media and selected lifestyle television and magazines.

The project will contribute to the debate on the interpretation and implications of the turn to green and ethical consumption, and also aims to challenge the view that a more 'sober' consumption in the materialist sense is a less sensually pleasurable consumption.

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The project will be concerned with the social and ecological repercussions of affluent consumption and the possible role of consumer pressure itself in altering their structure and dynamic. It aims to consider how far ambivalent responses to the consumerist life-style may be said to be in evidence in contemporary British society; to track some of the cultural and media manifestations of their formation; and to provide a theoretical framework organised around the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’ within which to assess their quality and implications.

The theoretical context for the research will be provided by debates on consumer sovereignty and identity. It will make a case for viewing ‘alternative hedonist’ consumption as instantiating choices that are both ‘constructed’ through current discourses on health, nature, the environment, etc., and ‘authentic’ in the sense of being resistant to, rather than passively moulded by pressures to consume, and thus as manifesting a more reflective and political form of consumer agency. Our approach will therefore differ from theoretical positions centred around ideas of consumer manipulation in focussing on the emergence of ambivalent needs as a consumer check on consumerism and in drawing attention to the longer-term political and cultural implications of consumer pressures.

The initial objective will be to chart signals of consumer disaffection and their interpretation. The media study aims to explore to what extent the shifts in ideas and practices addressed by the philosophical enquiry now have a register in the current cultural context. It will ask how and in what forms discourses of ambivalence and dissatisfaction with consumerism, and indeed alternative hedonisms, might be circulating in mainstream British media. We will also survey relevant data from other sources on changing consumer practices and attitudes in areas such as migration to rural areas; purchase of Fair Trade goods, and organic and non GM foods; concerns about health and interest in ‘alternative medicine’; opposition to the predations of the ‘car culture’ and expansion of airflight; growing concern about long hours and stress at work.

Building on this discussion of changing representations and consumer practices, the second major objective will be to refine the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’. The differing interpretations to be placed on the shifts to greener and more ethical life-styles will be considered, with a focus on those that can be described as more ‘self’ oriented (deriving from a sense of dissatisfaction) and their changing perceptions of well-being and personal fulfilment. In this connection attention will be directed to the ways in which alternative consumption can both restore pleasures that have been lost to the high-speed, materially encumbered cultures of affluence, and also provide for some others that have yet to experienced and even envisaged. In this respect ‘alternative hedonism’ will be presented less as an attack upon the exorbitance and luxury of contemporary consumption than as a pointer to the potential of a post-consumerist order to cater to unprecedented forms of respect for both sensual and spiritual fulfilment.

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  • What representations and discourses of 'the good life’ indicative of ambivalent responses to the perceived excesses of Western consumerism are to be found in dominant media forms ? What is their import ?
  • What are the changes in consumer practice that indicate dissent from prevailing ideas and norms on need satisfaction and the ‘good life’?
  • What are the alternative conceptions of fulfilment and well-being motivating or implicit within these changes ?
  • What role can ‘alternative hedonism’ play in exerting pressure for sustainable consumption and fostering human solidarity?

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The proposal is interdisciplinary and reflects the researchers’ backgrounds in philosophy (Soper) and cultural / media studies (Thomas). It is innovative in bringing together environmental philosophy, political and social theory, cultural analysis and media studies. The theoretical component will engage with and develop existing theories of need and consumption and will relate to current debates on the formation and political autonomy of the subject. The media study will focus both on news and entertainment (lifestyle) media. It will be linked thematically to the philosophical enquiry, through the analysis of documentaries and news items (TV, press and radio) dealing with health scares, food, transport and environmental issues and work-life balance. A case-study of selected lifestyle programmes and magazines will explore how such texts not only engage with dissatisfactions and ambivalence in relation to consumerist lifestyles, but also mobilise more utopian desires for contact with nature, aesthetic pleasures, and time and space to nurture human relationships. Our aim in both parts of the media study is to offer a profile and analysis of discourses circulating in dominant media forms.

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The research will offer the first full-length reflection on the ways in which a significant trend in current consumption can be illuminated through the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’. In addition to the book, we will produce a number of conference papers and articles. The theoretical and textual outcomes will be complemented by a number of events designed to provide opportunities for developing the concept of ‘alternative hedonism’, and for connecting with potentially interested users of the research, both academic and non-academic. These will include seminars and a two day international conference on ‘Religion, Secular Spirituality and the Critique of Consumerism’. This is designed to explore the idea of alternative hedonism as a possible meeting ground across denominational differences and the religious/atheist divide.



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