Lived Experiences of Public Consumption: Studies of Culture and Value in International Market Places

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When did hipster subculture begin? While commonly viewed as a recent trend among middle-class youth, the history of the group stretches back to the early decades of the s. In the s, black American jazz music was on the rise in the United States. As hipster attitudes spread and young people were increasingly drawn to alternative music and fashion, attitudes and language derived from the culture of jazz were adopted.

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Unlike the vernacular of the day, hipster slang was purposefully ambiguous. By the s, the influence of jazz was winding down and many traits of hepcat culture were becoming mainstream. A new subculture was on the rise. Prominent in this movement were writers and poets who listened to jazz and embraced radical politics. They bummed around, hitchhiked the country, sought experience, and lived marginally. Women wore black leotards and grew their hair long. As the Beat Generation faded, a new, related movement began.

It too focused on breaking social boundaries, but also advocated freedom of expression, philosophy, and love. It took its name from the generations before; in fact, some theorists claim that the beats themselves coined the term to describe their children. Contemporary expressions of the hipster rose out of the hippie movement in the same way that hippies evolved from the beats and beats from hepcats.

The sociologist Mark Greif set about investigating the hipster subculture of the United States and found that much of what tied the group together was not a specific set of fashion or music choices, nor a specific point of contention with the mainstream. What has emerged rather is a culture of consumer capitalism that seeks authenticity in and of itself.

Young people are often drawn to oppose mainstream conventions. Much as the hepcats of jazz era opposed common culture with carefully crafted appearances of coolness and relaxation, modern hipsters reject mainstream values with a purposeful apathy.

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Ironic, cool to the point of non-caring, and intellectual, hipsters continue to embody a subculture, while simultaneously impacting mainstream culture. As the hipster example illustrates, culture is always evolving. Moreover, new things are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new say, railroads or smartphones opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture say, as a result of travel or globalization.

There are two ways to come across an innovative object or idea: discover it or invent it. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of reality. In , when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already there, but until then, no one had known about it.

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When Christopher Columbus encountered America, the land was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Native American tribes of the Great Plains. Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put together in an entirely new manner. In the late s and early s, electric appliances were invented at an astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new inventions.

Inventions may shape a culture when people use them in place of older ways of carrying out activities and relating to others, or as a way to carry out new kinds of activities. Their adoption reflects and may shape cultural values, and their use may require new norms for new situations. Consider the introduction of modern communication technology such as mobile phones and smartphones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths.

People on trains, in restaurants, and in other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. Norms were needed for cell phone use.

Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should pay attention to their companions and surroundings. When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. Technological gadgets that catch on quickly with one generation are sometimes dismissed by a skeptical older generation.

Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between when a new item of material culture is introduced and when it becomes an accepted part of nonmaterial culture Ogburn Culture lag can also cause tangible problems. The industrial economy of North America was built on the assumption that the resources available to exploit and the ability for the environment to sustain industrial activity were unlimited.

The concept of sustainable development did not enter into the public imagination until environmental movement of the s and the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome in Today it seems easier to imagine global catastrophe as a result of climate change than it does to implement regulatory changes needed to stem carbon emissions or find alternatives to fossil fuels. There is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to technological problems.

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Exhausted groundwater supplies, increased air pollution, and climate change are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences of overusing resources and of neglecting the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain life, the means to support changes takes time to achieve.

The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization and diffusion. Beginning in the s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result of this process of neo-liberalization, world markets became dominated by unregulated, international flows of capital investment and new multinational networks of corporations.

A global economy emerged to replace nationally based economies. Today, many Canadian companies set up offices in other nations where the costs of resources and labour are cheaper.

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When a person in Canada calls to get information about banking, insurance, or computer services, the person taking that call may be working in India or Indonesia. Alongside the process of globalization is diffusion, or, the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates a similar process to the integration of international cultures.

Middle-class North Americans can fly overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Access to television and the internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in Hollywood sitcoms into homes around the globe. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in other countries.

When this kind of diffusion occurs, material objects and ideas from one culture are introduced into another. Hybridity in cultures is one of the consequences of the increased global flows of capital, people, culture, and entertainment. Hybrid cultures refer to new forms of culture that arise from cross-cultural exchange, especially in the aftermath of the colonial era. On one hand, there are blendings of different cultural elements that had at one time been distinct and locally based: fusion cuisines, mixed martial arts, and New Age shamanism.

On the other hand, there are processes of indigenization and appropriation in which local cultures adopt and redefine foreign cultural forms. As cultural diasporas, or emigrant communities, begin to introduce their cultural traditions to new homelands and absorb the cultural traditions they find there, opportunities for new and unpredictable forms of hybrid culture emerge.

Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture.

But what do they mean? How do sociologists perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices.

By focusing on the function that culture plays in maintaining the stable equilibrium of society as a whole, functionalism can often provide interesting insights into cultural activities that seem irrational and bizarre on the surface. Bronislaw Malinowski described the way that the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea used magic at each stage of preparation in fishing. From a rationalized, calculative point of view, magic ritual has nothing to do with the ability to catch fish.

Fishing is a practical activity. However, as Malinowski pointed out, fishing for the Trobriand Islanders was also a risky and uncertain activity. It was dangerous, weather was unpredictable, the whereabouts of fish variable. Magic provided the fishers with a sense of control over their environment and a sense of confidence that enabled them to venture out into the dangerous waters day after day. It provided a stable pattern of meaning that empowered the fishers to bring back an essential food resource.


Functionalists argue that cultural practices play a similar role in modern societies. The game of hockey for example, in which highly skilled men and women chase a disk of rubber around a frozen sheet of ice risking injury and expending energy for nonproductive purposes, is on the surface of it, an irrational and crazy activity. Hockey is both, practically speaking, useless and yet clearly a highly valued activity.