IRG3-7: The Politics of Consumer Choice

(Copeland, Bimber, Hassell)

Rising interest in consumer response to nano products makes a critical examination of likely response patterns timely. Although 22 to 44 percent of people in established democracies engage in political consumerism (the deliberate purchase or avoidance of goods for political reasons), the topic has received little scholarly attention. To increase our understanding of political consumerism, this project addresses three main research questions. First, how should political consumerism be conceptualized as a form of political behavior? Second, does political consumerism represent an alternative form of participation or a broadening of the conventional participation repertoire? Finally, what motivates people to engage in political consumerism? The work incorporates nano products in its design.

For her dissertation in Political Science, grad Copeland designed an extensive survey instrument that was administered online to a nationally-representative sample of 2200 U.S. adults. In contrast to other scholars who treat political consumerism as a singular act, Copeland theorized and found key differences between boycotting and buycotting. She hypothesized that boycotting should be more strongly associated with dutiful citizenship norms because it is punishment-oriented and has several key features in common with traditional, interest-based politics. Buycotting, conversely, should be associated with engaged citizenship norms because it is reward-oriented and has more features in common with civic engagement. The findings confirm these expectations and highlight distinctions between boycotting and buycotting that are important to understanding how scholars should conceptualize political consumerism as a form of political behavior.  This work is in press with Political Studies.

Next, she tackles the question of whether boycotting and buycotting represent alternative forms of participation or a broadening of the conventional participation repertoire. In contrast to scholars who conceptualize political consumerism as a reaction against representative political systems, and as an activity that appeals to people who feel marginalized and alienated from formal political settings, I find that boycotters are significantly more likely than non-political consumers to engage in electoral, individualized, and civic participation. In contrast, buycotters are only somewhat more likely than non-political consumers to engage in individualized and civic participation. These findings demonstrate that boycotting represents an expansion of conventional participation repertoires. The implications for buycotting, however, are less clear, but the difference between the two acts is apparent.

Finally, regarding motivations for political consumerism, most of the literature attributes the expansion of political consumerism to the rise of postmaterialist values, but has offered limited empirical evidence to support this supposition. Moreover, is it not clear which postmaterialist concerns drive political consumerism. This research finds that people with postmaterialist values are significantly more likely to engage in both boycotting and buycotting. However, people with pro-environmental beliefs are only significantly more likely to engage in buycotting. These findings demonstrate that the rise in postmaterialism and political consumerism in the U.S. is indeed linked. They also demonstrate the need to differentiate among postmaterialist values in future research.  This research is currently under review by American Politics Research. These findings provide a solid foundation for the following article manuscript (in preparation): "Reactions to Nanotechnologies in the Marketplace: Risk vs. Benefit Frames and Political Consumerism," with B. Bimber