What consumers do in a downturn

Dsc00111_6 Roughly speaking, consumers have two modalities: surging and dwelling.

In the surging modality,  consumers have momentum.  We have a vivid sense of forward motion.  Life is getting better.  Each purchase is an improvement onthe last one.  Clothes change with fashion.  The material world teems with new features, new things, new opportunities, new excitement.  We look ahead constantly, keeping one foot in the present, putting one in the future.  The good life is America is always a better life. That’s the fundamental promise of the consumer society. 

In the dwelling modality, the consumer is not forward looking, but concentrated on the here and now.  Now most of life’s pleasure comes from counting one’s blessings.  This is a dwelling modality, because the individual is no longer in transit, racing towards a better tomorrow.  Now the consumer is focused on what is good about what one has.  The consumer stops anticipating and starts savoring. 

We have to move from a surging modality to a dwelling modality when the economy suddenly "softens" and "goes south."  And there is no gear box.  There is no single or simple way of gearing down from "in motion" to "in place."  It’s one of those deals where the consumer must perform his own "interrupt" (to steal a term from Information Processing), see that the world has changed, see that something new is called, identify what is called for, embrace it fast, and hold it tight. 

It’s weird that in our economy/culture we go through the surging-modality transition something like once a decade, and you would think this would be enough to prompt us to formalize the transition.  I mean, shouldn’t we have a ritual or something?  But no. We leave to the individual to figure this out for him or herself. (Those who do not see that the world has changed, may get the news from Donny Deutsche or Suzi Orman.)

But there is a culture form that works especially while as a set of instructions for how to dwell.  It’s called "homeyness."  This is the set of instructions in an American’s head, the one that helps show them how to turn houses into homes.  As culture codes go, it is an amazingly detailed and helpful as a set of instructions.  I wrote about this in Culture and Consumption II.  Those who are interested in further details are urged to consult this essay. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Homeyness: a cultural account of one constellation of consumer goods and meanings.  Culture and Consumption II: Markets, meanings, and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 22-47.  Available from Amazon.com here.   


Thanks to Katie Rook for the question. 

8 thoughts on “What consumers do in a downturn

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  2. srp

    This is so right. You can almost feel the zeitgeist shift around you, like a change in air pressure.

    After 9/11, there was a brief period where everyone was feeling very “homey.” The Onion, of all places, had a poignant tale at this time (http://www.theonion.com/content/node/28148)about a woman in Topeka feeling the need to bake an American flag cake even though she knew that it really wouldn’t make things any better. The exceedingly gentle mockery of the homey sentiment was shockingly moving.

    Then we figured out that if we stopped “surging” and buying stuff the economy would stop and the terrorists would have won.

  3. Thom

    Fortunately, Thanksgiving is just around the corner and this time of year is conducive to making the kind of transition you describe.

  4. Massimo GIANNINI

    Consumers’s Dwelling and Homeyness is about simple “economics” and vice-versa: oeconomicus Greek oikonomikós relating to household management, equiv. to oikonóm(os) steward (oîko(s) house + nómos manager).

  5. ZBicyclist

    You and the commenters are more in tune with Matthew 6 than I think most people are:

    “25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”

    I think most people “worry” rather than “savor” during a downturn.

  6. Robert Miller

    I don’t have a television, and I rarely read newspapers.

    The only way I’ve felt the credit crunch is that butter, bread and milk are more expensive. I just budget more for food, and less on magazines.

    You people are weird. You read that there’s a “credit crunch” and then behave as if the world is going to end.

    Live a little! Stop being slaves to the media… It’s really very childish.

  7. Pingback: A Quiet Simple Life » Now I have a name for it: dwelling

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