Cassi L. Pittman, a native of Cleveland, OH. She received her Ph.D. in the Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University in 2012 and her B.A. in Sociology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently she is serving as a the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the Ohio State University.
The contemporary experience of race in America demands that blacks become astute observers of their surroundings, required to read subtle social, interactional and environmental cues to determine how to appropriately engage others in order to gain respect and social acceptance. Consumption objects, whether physical or material goods or services and experiences, are symbolic tools that blacks mobilize in order to define and assert themselves wherever they may be.
Market research reveals that divergent patterns of consumption exist along racial lines. Blacks outspend whites in three central categories: apparel, personal care, and electronics and technology. Sociological research on consumption, however, has inadequately addressed how race influences blacks’ consumption. Claims that blacks are conspicuous consumers are pervasive in both popular and academic works, and research indicates that blacks’ consumption is, at least partially explained by status considerations, yet no comprehensive, empirically grounded theory exists to account for the contextually determined, symbolic and strategic use of goods by middle and working-class blacks.
In my dissertation entitled “Race, Social Context, and Consumption: How Race Structures the Consumption Preferences and Practices of Middle and Working-class Blacks,” I offer an account of blacks’ consumption that addresses this gap in the literature. I analyze qualitative interview data collected from 55 blacks residing in the New York City area, focusing on blacks’ consumption preferences and practices in three social arenas: where they live, where they work, and where they play. Through examining middle and working-class blacks’ consumption I show the ways that race remains salient in blacks’ everyday lives; affecting their routine practices and marketplace interactions. Blacks differ as consumers as a consequence of a history of racial alienation, segregation, and discrimination in public settings, which has resulted in their use of goods to mitigate racial stigma, but distinct patterns of consumption emerge as blacks mobilize consumption objects to express and affirm their racial identities. This dissertation demonstrates that whether consumption goods are used to contest racial stigma or to express feelings of racial affinity, in both instances blacks’ consumption preferences and practices reflect their reactions to the settings in which their consumption is enacted.