Critical Pedagogies of Consumption: Living and Learning in the Shadow of the "Shopocalypse"

reviewed by Terhi-Anna Wilska - January 03, 2011

coverTitle: Critical Pedagogies of Consumption: Living and Learning in the Shadow of the "Shopocalypse"
Author(s): Jennifer A. Sandlin and Peter McLaren (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415997909, Pages: 304, Year: 2009
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This book is a collection of 22 essays written by scholars from a wide range of disciplines (e.g., different types of education at different age levels, art, communication studies, home economics, sociology, and cultural studies). Some of the articles have appeared elsewhere. The aim of the book is to critically explore consumption, media, and marketing and their relation to learning, identity formation, and education. The book also focuses on the resistance of consumer capitalism and aims to envision how this resistance could be engaged to the pedagogy of consumption. The book is divided into four parts, after the stage-setting introductory chapter, written by Sandlin and McLaren.

The introduction analyzes different perspectives on consumption from the point of view of education and learning. The main perspective of the chapter, and also the underlying ideology of the whole book, is critical theory with Marxist and Frankfurt School approaches to consumption. This approach sees individuals as victims of [the] “culture industry,” which reproduces capitalism and manipulates consumers by mass-produced, homogenized, and commodified goods and services. The introduction also brings forth postmodernist views of identity-creation by consumption, as well as consumption as reflexive practices. The main argument is that consumption helps shape identities, and the market, families, and institutions act as consumer educators in various ways. Therefore, the writers want to develop what they call “critical pedagogy of consumption,” urging educators to begin to make more connections between consumption, education, and learning. The overall agenda of the writers is “socialist education” which is described as an organ, through which the mutually beneficial reciprocity between the individuals and their society becomes real. According to Sandlin and McLaren, the welfare state or the government cannot solve the problems created by capitalism. Therefore the only solution is the abolition of value production itself (p. 16).

The writings in the first part can be described as conceptual and ideological. Titled Education, Consumption and the Social, Economic, and Environmental Crisis of Capitalism, this section mainly reflects theories and the history of consumption in relation to education and learning (Hoeschman, Usher). It also focuses on crises connected with consumer capitalism, such as environmental problems (Kahn) and economic and political crises including U.S. imperialism (Farahmandpur). Unlike the introduction, most essays are descriptive rather than normative, despite their critical and ideological tone. However, in his essay “Teaching Against Consumer Capitalism,” Ramin Farahmandpur offers educational advice for teachers in developing critical consumer literacy skills. The essay criticizes heavily the commercialization and corporatization of public education. Farahmandpur also argues that the crisis of global capitalism is a result of imperialistic politics, and it has also set the stage for the return of Marxist theories and concepts.

The second part, Schooling the Consumer Citizen, is the most homogenous part of the book. The chapters concentrate specifically on the role of educational institutions in consumer socialization in the U.S context. The writers reflect the history of consumerism and consumer education from the viewpoint of age, gender, race, and space of consumption, from the 19th century to the present. Sue McGregor focuses on the past 50 years of public consumer education in the U.S. and Europe and points out particularly the political and moral dimensions. Joel Spring argues that the result of the “wedding of education, advertising, and media” is that all public places have become advertising opportunities. Moreover, the policymakers’ promise of increased levels of schooling is not greater happiness, but increased levels of consumption, not only in the U.S., but also globally (p. 80). Other essays highlight the commercialization of higher education in particular: how consumerism manifests itself in schools (Molnar, et al.), how the privatized dimension of entrepreneurship education indicates the commoditization and commercialization of the post-secondary academy (Mars), and how prototypes about higher education as a commodity for capital reproduction are formed and presented in opinion-editorials in newspapers (Fischman, Haas).

The third part, Popular Culture, Everyday Life, Consumption and the Education of Desire, contains the most interesting essays of the book. They mainly focus on informal sites of consumer education. Particularly popular culture, advertising and sales promotion, corporate marketing, and everyday life practices are regarded as important forms of consumer education. Joe L. Kincheloe writes about the role of McDonalds in socializing youth consumers into a seemingly “American” lifestyle, but in reality into “cold and malicious” consumer culture, represented by “heroes” such as Ronald McDonald and Ray Kroc. According to Kincheloe, the culture of McDonalds undermines traditional family values and customs, such as family meals when targeting to segmented individuals, who eat quickly and leave. In her sarcastic essay, Shirley Steinberg writes about the 50-year old Barbie as an American role model for both children and adults. Steinberg describes how Barbie has changed over the decades along with social and global changes, but how she (and Ken) still embody dominant capitalist consumerist ideologies.

Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen write about the commodification of women’s skin. The authors analyze how capitalism and what they call postfeminist culture have made women’s relation to their skin and skin care controversial. The consumer society has created “perfect skin” as the norm and imperfect skin as the “abject.” The consumer-media culture aims to erase the demographics of skin, such as signs of maturing and aging as imperfections (hair removal, plastic surgery). On the other hand, hegemonial ideals of feminine beauty and related consumption are marketed (and absorbed) as free lifestyle choices - signs of success and happiness. Anne-Marie Todd analyses in two specific campaigns how marketing and advertising commodify food production by creating an illusion of close contact between the marketed food and nature. Lydia Marten’s insightful essay on “Baby Shows” in the U.K. illustrates how the market acts as a pedagogical device to create good parents who are necessarily consumer-parents, and who consume ethically and health-wise the “right” way. Finally, David Greenwood explores the political, ethical and economic relationship between his own consumption and global inequalities related to the production of chocolate, in particular.

The last part of the book is probably the most fragmented and least “academic” section of this collection of essays. Unlearning Consumerism Through Critical Pedagogies of Consumption consists of chapters that focus on sites of contestation and resistance to consumerism. Of those sites the field of cultural production, in particular, is addressed. Stephen L. Brookfield writes about Paul Robeson’s anti-consumerist education via popular culture, Valerie Scatambulo-D’Annibale writes about “culture jamming,” David Darts and Kevin Tavin discuss critical art pedagogy, and Nicolas Lambert looks at the use of collage and other media to create art with social and political content. Darlene Clover and Katie Shaw write about art-based environmental adult education in Canada, and in a reprint from 1999, Henry Giroux analyses the role of Walt Disney’s gigantic industry in the everyday lives and collective cultures of both children and adults in America.

The themes of the book are undoubtedly important and current. As Norman K. Denzin notes in the forward, “there is a pressing demand to intervene in the neoliberal capitalist economic-consumption system” (p. xiii). Denzin also argues that the language, dialogue, and terms used by the contributors, such as green consumerism, consumer citizen, branding, consumer education, and anti-consumerism, etc., are something very new. This is a bit strange, because although these topics are important, and something must be done to the omnipresence of consumption in our life-worlds, the discussion presented here is certainly not new. There is a vast body of literature on green consumerism and anti-consumerism since the 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Elgin, 1981; Dryzek, 1997; Gabriel & Lang, 1995; Schor, 1998; Garner, 2000). Also children’s socialization into (mass) consumption and the role of schools and education in this process have been a popular topic at least since the early 2000s (e.g., Buckingham, 2000; Klein, 1999, 2007; Schor, 2004; Quart, 2002). Most of this literature is overlooked in the essays. What is new (and interesting) in this book, is the way the essays illustrate the complex and persistent, but often unnoticeable interconnections between private and public spheres and individual and institutional actors in consumer education and consumer socialization in Western societies.


However, the writers tend to over-simplify the structures and institutions of (post-) capitalist societies. For instance, when describing the connection between schools and the consumer market as a common phenomenon of all Western societies the authors actually reflect American and other Anglo-Saxon consumer cultures. In the Nordic countries, for instance, commercial elements are consistently kept out of schools. The fear of commercialism in the Nordic schools sometimes reaches hypocritical measures. In Finland, even tiny exhibits of the consumer market, such as vending machines of soft drinks in some high schools have provoked fierce resistance. Universities and other higher education institutions have only very recently (reluctantly) started to seek funding directly from private companies. Other global differences in consumer cultures are also more or less overlooked in the book, and thus the angle towards consumer culture and consumer education is rather narrow.

The concept of “critical pedagogy of consumption” also remains a bit vague. The essays focus well on the different meanings of consumerism to pedagogy and also how and where and by whom consumer education is created. However, the apocalyptic (or “shopocalyptic”) visions of consumer capitalism lack explanations. Why are consumerism and capitalism so damaging and disastrous? What exactly should be done when critically educating children and adults about consumer society? How should the structures of capitalist society change in order to create the utopian world many of the essays ideologically describe? To me, the strong left-wing arguments in the chapters of the first part, in particular, appear as obscure Marxist nostalgia without a proper practical or even normative agenda.

Technically the chapters of the book seem a bit too different in their styles and also in academic standards in order to make a coherent compilation of work. However, the themes and viewpoints of most essays in the third and fourth part, in particular, are fresh and captivating. As a whole, despite its shortcomings, this book is a well-written and interesting opening for interdisciplinary discussion on themes and problems that will be even more relevant in the future.


Buckingham, D. (2000). After the death of childhood: Growing up in the age of electronic media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dryzek, J.S. (1997). The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elgin, D. (1981). Voluntary simplicity: Toward a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich. New York: William Morrow.

Gabriel, Y., & Lang, T. (1995). The unmanageable consumer: Contemporary consumption and its fragmentations. London: Sage.

Garner, R. (2000). Environmental politics: Britain, Europe and the global environment. In Contemporary Political Studies (2nd ed.). London: MacMillan Press Ltd.

Klein, N. (1999). No logo: Taking aim of the brand bullies. Ontario: Knopf Canada.

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Quart, A. (2002). Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Schor, J. B. (1998). The overspent America: Why we want what we don’t need? New York: HarperPerennial.

Schor, J. B. (2004). Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture. New York: Scribner.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 03, 2011 ID Number: 16268, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 9:14:53 PM

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