Identity-based consumption of subsistence consumers
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 18:32 authored by Charindra Keerthipala
Individuals increasingly use consumption to express identities in today’s socially connected, wealthy and expressive societies. Similar to affluent consumers, subsistence consumers who live in poverty, also have strong desires to express identities through consumption but face difficulties doing so due to poverty and other related disadvantages in the subsistence marketplaces. In addition to economic poverty, low literacy levels and inadequate access to resources, subsistence consumers are also affected by unfavourable social power relations that create unique intersectional identities of multiple oppression. These complexities and tensions make identity-based consumption of subsistence consumers an important, yet underdeveloped area in consumption research. This thesis is a qualitative study of identity-based consumption of subsistence consumers. Using in-depth interviews and focus groups, this study examines female consumers in Sri Lanka who either work or reside near apparel manufacturing factories. The thesis consists of three components. The first component of the study examines the multiple identities of subsistence consumers within key consumption situations and identifies external and internal factors that influence these identities. The second component narrows the focus of identity-based consumption by exploring how subsistence consumers’ disadvantaged social power relations intersect and shape their consumption behaviours. The third component of the thesis looks at how social initiatives of business organisations influence identity-based subsistence consumption. The study considers two different social initiatives, one based on corporate social responsibility and the other on the principles of creating shared value, developed by two business organisations operating in subsistence marketplaces. Results show subsistence consumers possess many identities, though only a limited number of identities influence their consumption. The strongest and most prevalent identities are based on family relationships. Others include social (e.g., friend, neighbour, unmarried girl), work-related (e.g., employee, team member of social initiatives), religious (e.g., Buddhist, Catholic) and personal attributes-related (e.g., hard worker, carer) identities. In addition to these identities, this study also reveals six intersectional identities that work in tandem to create multiple oppression on subsistence consumers. Gender and social class related intersectional identities of being female, poor and uneducated reinforce each other to influence subsistence consumption. In addition to these three identities, participants also suffer from the intersectional identities surface from the socio-economic layer of subsistence society. As a result, identities of a single parent, rural villager and also being labelled as a ‘garment girl’, based on employment create a unique form of oppression in subsistence consumption. Main factors that influence identity-based consumption are fourfold. First, the influence of family members impacts identity-based subsistence consumption due to the strong family orientation of subsistence consumers. The second factor is the psychological centrality consumers place on an identity. The female research informants’ mother and daughter identities display strong psychological centrality. Disadvantaged social power relations and economic poverty are the third and fourth key factors that influence identity-based consumption of subsistence consumers of this study. Three main disadvantaged social power relations influence the identities of the research informants. Being poor, uneducated and female interact to exert a compounded effect, limiting informants’ product choice and payment options as well as negatively influencing their confidence in consumption decisions. As a result, subsistence consumers tend to avoid bargaining and do not seek additional information but instead resort to familiar options in consumption decisions which tend to be restrictive and at times, exploitative. Multiple forms of oppression arise from intersecting identities based on social divisions of a rural village girl and a single mother also influence subsistence consumption. These negative effects compound when the identity of being a garment girl intersects. Social stigma associated with being a garment girl reinforces poverty, gender discrimination and lack of education. Subsistence consumers sometimes construct new identities to manage or comply with the negative effects of social power relations. The two social initiatives investigated influence subsistence consumption in different ways. First, the shared value initiative assists subsistence consumers to counter the oppression created by disadvantaged social power relations through education and confidence building. Knowledge and confidence gained from the shared value initiative on aspects related to everyday consumption such as personal finances, healthy eating and nutrition empower women to reach their potential and help them fight against the influences of being poor and uneducated in society. The second initiative, the corporate social responsibility project mainly provides drinking water to communities that suffer from poverty and lack of access to water. Participants of this project indicate they help people in similar or worse social and economic situations to themselves. The non-reciprocal nature of this initiative reminds female participants of the value of giving, which enacts their religious identities and helps participants to accept and come to terms with disadvantaged social power relations as opposed to countering them like in the shared value initiative. This thesis contributes to consumption scholarship by both extending identity-based consumption to subsistence consumers which is otherwise predominantly researched in developed markets. This study also integrates the concept of intersectionality in identity-based consumption to explore overlapping systems of disadvantages faced by subsistence consumers. The results also indicate that corporate management should consider the holistic nature of shared value initiatives over non-reciprocal social responsibility initiatives. Holistic social initiatives are important to build confidence and knowledge in subsistence consumption.