By Oliver Smith (Plymouth University) and Thomas Raymen (Durham University)
This blog post first appeared in Discover Society
The widespread importation of the US shopping phenomenon known as Black Friday onto the UK highstreet in November 2014 represents an intriguing conundrum for the social scientist. Retailers and superstores across the country opened either at midnight or provided extended opening hours, offering ‘doorbuster’ deals and alluring discounts on a range of consumer goods. The chaotic scenes of pushing, shoving, trampling and fighting which have become a familiar, even defining characteristic of Black Friday in the United States emerged during the Black Friday sales across several cities in the UK. Police were called to stores in London, Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Dundee and Glasgow among others to try to control proceedings. These undignified scenes undoubtedly shaped media and popular reactions to events, but as social scientists we need to look beyond the obvious picture of borderline criminal, certainly deviant, behaviour that seems to present itself.Here, and in a forthcoming article, we attempt to contextualise the actions of these consumers beyond an explanatory framework that positions them as ‘animals’ or ‘thugs’, or alternatively as fiercely competing for a slice of what is often claimed to be an exclusionary consumer experience. Instead, we position these behaviours front and centre of a consumer society that is thoroughly inclusive. Indeed, it appears that those willing to fight, bite and claw their way to the checkout ahead of all others are merely conforming to the central tenets of individualism, envy and aggressive social competition that underpins social and cultural life within the neoliberal West.
Despite the abrasive juxtaposition of violence and antisocial behaviour, news reporting of this disorganised consumption carefully skirted around the issue as to whether the dominant consumer culture engenders harmful subjectivities. Instead, reporting retreated to safe ground and posed questions as to why shopping was not better controlled by retailers’ security and police. The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy was highly critical of many retailers and supermarkets, arguing that the disorder was ‘totally predictable’ and that he was disappointed that stores did not do more to ensure a more orderly shopping experience We think that Sir Peter Fahy’s proclamation that the violence of Black Friday was ‘totally predictable’ should be taken much more seriously within criminology.
As a discipline, criminology can be much more potent in its analyses if it considers the extent to which violence and lack of concern about harming others is in fact representative of a much deeper competitive individualistic subjectivity which stems from a liberal-capitalist political-economic, social, and cultural system, and is entirely normative throughout our society and culture (Hall, 2012). Our assertions about the motivations and meanings of the behaviours of those involved with the events of Black Friday UK are based on a number of years researching the nexus between consumerism, leisure and deviance, and, more specifically, on ethnographic research conducted during the unfolding of Black Friday 2014 in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. As well as taking field notes, we spoke with 27 people both inside and outside large department stores and major retailers of clothes and electrical goods. Although obviously limited in scale and geographical scope, when read in the context of other theoretical and empirical accounts surrounding contemporary subjectivities, deviance and leisure, (see Smith 2014, Treadwell et al, 2013, Hall et al., 2008), we feel confident in asserting that it is high-time that criminologists begin to examine the deviance-leisure nexus more thoroughly; undertaking a more comprehensive theorisation of deviant motivation that is firmly and realistically situated within the broader political, socio-economic and cultural context of neoliberal consumer capitalism.
To us, these events seemed like the ideal opportunity to offer an alternative to accounts that posit Black Friday as a prime case of ‘moral panic’, the failure of policing, or individuals kicking back against their exclusion from markets. We feel that rather than rediscovering familiarly unhelpful theoretical conclusions, we should attempt to begin to re-think critically how we categorise and theorise ‘deviance’ and ‘leisure’, as well as those who inhabit these cultural spaces. The perpetration of what ranged from undeniable criminality to highly anti-social behaviour carried as many hallmarks of normativity as it did of deviance. Moreover, the perpetrators of this behaviour were not the criminalised ‘other’, or an excluded population who do not adhere to the social norms and values of ‘law-abiding’ society. From the qualitative research conducted on high streets and shopping centres of Newcastle upon Tyne, the violent shopper came from a wide spectrum of class, racial, gender, age and employment backgrounds. What they all held in common was a deep, unwavering commitment to the ethos of hyper-consumption.
With a number of academic disciplines such as geography, criminology, sociology and Tourism seemingly converging on the notion of ‘Deviant Leisure’, it is tempting to claim this label as neatly encapsulating the behaviours associated with Black Friday shopping. However, closer inspection reveals that this categorisation is perhaps insufficient. For a form of leisure to be categorised as deviant, it must contravene the norms and values of the dominant society. Admittedly, some of the activities and behaviours outlined and captured by the authors immediately appear deviant, lacking the civility and manners associated with the cultural norms of the majority of consumers, (such as turn-taking, queuing, and other forms of politeness and civility). However, the cultural values of their actions are entirely in keeping with the demands of neoliberal, consumer society. Indeed, the possession and conspicuous display of consumer goods and identity markers is supposed to position the individual as a winner compared to those at the bottom of the pile – the losers without the items.
The creation of envy in others serves to elevate the self at the same time, in the process of displaying cultural knowhow and affirming to the watching world that you are successful, entrepreneurial and worthy of admiration. There is no alternative but to compete on these terms. All apparent alternatives display an uncanny ability to be absorbed into the dominant system of consumer capitalism. Seemingly anti-capitalist movements based on notions such as ‘downshifting’ (Schor, 1998) or ‘declutttering’ do nothing to counter the prevailing dominance of consumerism (rather, in fact forming the backbone of the hugely successful IKEA advert which demanded viewers ‘chuck out their Chintz’), while moves toward ethical consumption, organic foodstuffs or the like, simply become additional signifiers of distinction. In short, everything becomes commodified, even anticapitalism itself.
Perhaps we can begin to understand the motivations of consumers drawn toward the Black Friday shopping events as linked to what a number of commentators are referring to as processes of cultural infantilisation. According to Bernard Stiegler (among others), children are being progressively deprived of the potential to identify with their parents, because their primary identifications are being distracted and redirected toward consumer objects. Furthermore, their secondary identifications are oriented in the same way, as are the secondary identifications of their parents. The effect of this for the individual is to adopt and identify closely with behaviours that are intrinsically entwined with forms of consumer culture. The vast and unremitting consumerist mediascape, bolstered by a political consensus that constantly espouses stimulating consumption as a route out of financial crisis effectively creates a barrier between the child and its parents. This has the paradoxical effect described characteristically succinctly by Keith Hayward (2012) as ‘life-stage dissolution’, whereby children are dragged toward adolescence and adulthood at a rate dictated by consumer culture, while at the same time adults are drawn perpetually back toward adolescence through consumer markets which offer a range of cultural artefacts which are interpreted as youthful. All of these various markets demand one thing – immediate consumption, and offer multiple ways of making that goal an achievable target.
Shopping, the act of purchasing and taking ownership of a new item is a form of intoxication, with recent studies in the field of neuroscience suggesting a correlation between pleasure and loss depending on a combination of product and price (Knutson et al, 2007). Put simply, purchasing items perceived as representing a bargain is felt as an adrenaline rush, an addictive and perhaps ultimately damaging process, destined to repeat in perpetuity. These purchases, it can be argued, are made in an attempt to fill a sense of lack, a void that exists at the core of the human subject. The sense that something is missing, the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, can be assuaged by the right purchase. Of course, the sense of satisfaction is never fully realised, and the desire for an object is almost immediately replaced by further desire for other or replacement objects in an endless parade of consumer artefacts and experiences that divert desires from other potentially more edifying realms of love, art or politics. In this way, the traditional maturation process is, in effect, hijacked by consumerism, an event that contrary to Matza’s (1964) doctrine of Drift, shows little signs of dissipating for successive generations. While we hope to have convinced the reader of the necessity to contextualize the chaotic scenes of Black Friday within the socially deleterious impacts of global consumer capitalism, for now, we will conclude with a quote from one of our respondents. Emily neatly encapsulates the demands for enjoyment and consumption placed upon individuals today, which we believe is a fundamental driving force behind Black Friday and other forms of deviant leisure. To fail to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by consumer capitalism is a perpetual source of anxiety, and for the individuals concerned risks cultural obsolescence or irrelevance, a mortal wound to contemporary forms of identity:
“Me and my friends, we’re gonna meet up neet [tonight] for a few bevvys and that and talk about what we got. What deals we got and that at the shops. And show each other our stuff and the prices and that. So if I didn’t come, yeah—like for instance my other friend she’s married and she like never comes out or does any of this, she’s coming to these drinks and she’s gonna be left out so much of the conversation. She’s not gonna be able to talk about the deals she got, the stuff she got, she won’t even be able to tell like funny stories and that about crazy stuff she saw. It’s gonna be propa awkward.”
Hall, S., Winlow, S., & Ancrum, C. (2008). Criminal Identities Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissm. Routledge.
Hall, S. (2012). Theorizing crime and deviance: A new perspective. Sage.
Hayward, K. (2012). Pantomime justice: A cultural criminological analysis of ‘life stage dissolution’. Crime, Media, Culture, 8(2), 213-229.
Knutson, B., Rick, S., Wimmer, G. E., Prelec, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2007). Neural predictors of purchases. Neuron, 53(1), 147-156.
Matza, D. (1964). Delinquency and Drift. Transaction Publishers. Schor, J. (1998). The Overspent American. New York: Basic Books.
Smith, O. (2014). Contemporary Adulthood and the Night-Time Economy. Palgrave Macmillan. Stiegler, B. (2012). Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals. Polity.
Treadwell, J., Briggs, D., Winlow, S., & Hall, S. (2013). Shopocalypse Now Consumer Culture and the English Riots of 2011. British Journal of Criminology, 53(1), 1-17.