Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Receiving & Giving in Consumer Society

In Students, Teaching on December 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm


By Sue Hudd, Professor of Sociology

Professor Sue Hudd’s Sociology 101 class, themed on consumerism has spent the past semester studying consumer culture. The course is designed to enable students to dissect messages we encounter daily that encourage us to “shop ‘til you drop’ using introductory concepts in Sociology. Hudd’s students spent the semester considering the various ways in which consumerism has become an integral component of American culture. They examined both the invisible forces that compel us to consume as well as the impact of consumerism on a wide range of social institutions. Throughout the semester, Hudd’s students also worked in discipline-based groups, with the goal of analyzing the effects of consumerism on their chosen field.

In order to experience the power of consumerism in their personal lives, students began the semester by completing the “Not Buying It” project. The project requires students to go for about a week without consuming anything other than ‘necessities.’ The assignment is designed to connect to one of the class readings – an excerpt from the book with the same title in which author Judith Levine and her partner attempt to limit their consumption for an entire year. Like Levine, students were charged with creating a definition of “necessary” for themselves and then restricting their purchases in line with this definition and then writing about their experiences.

Professor Hudd observed that the project was challenging for many students. “The goal of the assignment was to enable students to use critical thinking skills to examine their own experiences around consuming or wanting to consume. In this way, they could begin to understand the role that invisible social forces play in the purchases that they make every day. Over the course of the week, most students purchased items that they described as ‘unnecessary,’ but they were also able to examine the factors that influenced their shopping.” Meghan Healy, a sophomore Occupational Therapy student in the class, described her experience with this project this way: “I noticed that one of the biggest factors that drove me to spend unnecessarily was the desire to impress others.  During the project, I “broke the rules” to buy frozen yogurt for a mentee in my sorority. It struck me afterwards that I wasn’t sure if I was driven to spend money simply to be nice or to look good in the eyes of others. This helped me realize how powerful invisible social forces, such as the desire to impress others, can be when it comes to consuming.”

In addition to analyzing their own consumption, many of Hudd’s students completed an extra credit project at the end of the semester to contrast their personal shopping experiences with the experience of shopping for another. Here, the Sociology 101 students consumed for children at the Children’s Center in Hamden, a child care agency that provides family-centered treatment and education for children who struggle with serious emotional and behavioral issues. The project was coordinated through Todd Johnson, Chief Administrator of Program Support Services at the Center. Students were assigned to purchase an item from a list of needs provided by the Center. They then read an anonymous case study of a “typical child’s” situation and wrote about consumerism from the perspective of the child in the case study. Students who could not afford to purchase an item were given the opportunity to engage in the project other ways. Last week, about 75 different items were delivered to the Children’s Center. As Hudd notes, “This small project provided students with the opportunity to experience the course learning outcome of social responsibility in a “hands on” way.” Cara Coogan, a sophomore Sociology major in the class described how the project affected her learning experience. “Whether we like to admit it or not, consumerism is a part of our every day lives. I had never thought about how much I contributed to consumerism until this semester. Professor Hudd really made us think this semester. Everything she assigned always had a lesson behind it and I really enjoyed that.”

Hudd adds that, “Much of what we buy is purchased to either make a statement about who we are or who we want to be. At the beginning of the semester students come to understand the extent to which this occurs in their own lives, and by the end of the semester, they get a glimpse at what it’s like when one lacks the freedom to experience consumerism in its fullest sense.   This ability to take the perspective of another – be a patient, a marketing client or a co-worker — is something that is valuable in any career a student might choose.” While the students’ understanding of consumer society was deepened by this assignment, Coogan describes an equally important outcome of the assignment: “It is a part of our culture to receive gifts during the holidays and I think that every child should be able to enjoy the holidays no matter what. While writing my reflection on this project, I thought about how the smallest gift could make a child so happy. I wish I could be there to see the children’s reactions when they see their gifts.”

Editor’s Note: Photo by Sue Hudd of students from Sociology 101: Gennie Muniz, Frank Zumbo and Dave Friedlander help Professor Hudd to load her car with items slated for delivery to the Children’s Center in Hamden.


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