Dr Lydia Martens
I was at the University of Antwerp earlier this month, where I had been invited to be a member of the academic jury, at the public defence of the PhD thesis of Jeremi van Gorp. The subject of the thesis was consumption, identity and young people (Its Dutch title is: Consumptie als Bouwsteen en Communicator van Identiteit bij Tieners), and Dr van Gorp had conducted a quantitative study to find out what role consumption plays in the social lives and personal identities of young people aged 12 to 18 (those of secondary school age). The study investigated consumption attitudes and practices, and examined money, expenditure on goods, shopping, gift giving and saving, as well as materialism, happiness derived from consumption, and influences of the peer group.
The original findings from the work were reached from a data set of a staggering 3200 cases - all the hard craft of one single researcher visiting secondary schools across the Flemish counties. Reading the study, one thing that was very apparent is how challenging it is to translate sociological theories and concepts into measurable entities, also known in ‘the trade’ as operationalisation. In this study, the researcher had thought hard about how to measure ‘identity’, and was fully aware of, and spoke at length about, the limitations of the choices he had made. In making these choices, he had in fact reached beyond sociology, drawing on influences from psychology and marketing & consumer behaviour. He had thus chosen to include some pre-existing scales in his questionnaire that examine the sense of self (which he conceptualised as elements of a personal identity) and the sense of one’s standing and connectedness in the peer group (which he conceptualised as elements of a social identity). This is something sociologists do not often do when designing questionnaires, at least, not in UK sociology! One of the assumptions made in the thesis was that the peer group is a salient part of the social identity of young people, and the concern in these social science disciplines in, for instance, materialism, was reflected in the focus of the thesis.
The analysis proceeded from bivariate analysis through to regression analysis, and suggests that there are some interesting variations in what, how and why young people consume. Interesting gender patterns in the data included, and this may not come as a surprise, that the young women in the study on average had access to less money than the young men. Belgium parents clearly believe that their daughters can do with less pocket money than their sons. I wonder whether we might find a similar pattern in the UK, were we to conduct a similar survey here? Young women also spent more on clothes and beauty products than young men, they bought more presents, and they saved less. There were also age variations, which suggested that young people do grow into the consumer culture as they get older, and start spending money on ‘necessities’, like transport.
Another set of findings related differences in relation to education pathways. The Belgium education system has different streams for young people doing ‘A-level’ education that prepares them for higher education, and those who do vocational training routes. Dr van Gorp, who has worked in secondary schools for some years, described the youth culture in the vocational education sector as ‘harder’ than elsewhere, and here, young people had more money and they also used consumption more as a means for building and maintaining social peer relationships and standing. Interestingly, the same was the case for young people from migrant backgrounds! Van Gorp also concluded that those who are popular amongst their peers have more money, and spend more money, suggesting that popularity is costly.
Given the size of the sample, and the wealth of insights created, I would have liked to see Dr van Gorp take his analysis a little further. As a researcher who is well versed in social science research on children and consumer culture, I believe it would be very interesting to think further about what the consumption attitudes and practices of young people can tell us about what it is that makes young people, as a cohort and ‘location’ in the life course, stand out from other people, and what that tells us about theories of consumption, social connectedness and identity. In addition, rather than assuming that the peer group is the only, or most salient, aspect of young persons’ social identity, I would have liked to see further discussion on how different elements of social identity relate to each other. Whilst Dr van Gorp explained how, at the pilot stage of the study, it had become apparent that a large proportion of young persons do not know about their parents educational qualifications and employment – typical indicators of class location, some insight into social influences and background could be read through the study’s various socio-demographic variables, where educational streaming could be said to say something about class, and gender difference about gender as a social and cultural phenomenon. Even so, the study’s achievements should not be underestimated and the database is a solid resource with the potential to make a good contribution to the fields of young people and consumption in the future.
The thesis was promoted by Dimitri Mortelmans, Professor of Sociology at Antwerp University, who was the lead supervisor of the research. The other members of the jury were Professor Michel Walrave, Dr Walter Weyns, and Dr Karolien Poels, all from the University of Antwerp and working in the Departments of Sociology and Communication Studies, and Dr Christine Delhaye, who works in the Department of Arts, Religion and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. The defence started with a presentation by the candidate on his work, followed by discussion and questions from the jury. After the jury’s deliberation, the candidate was passed, and the Promotor concluded the event with a personal and warm afterword. For me, the public defence offered insight into how universities in different countries vary in the way they promote the people they train to take up roles in the Higher Education sector. I was witness to an eloquent, and also heartfelt, tribute to the tribulations of this project, and the resilience of the researcher.