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Justin Hall
26 March, 1996
Social History of Consumption, Burke


being an analysis of student consumption at swarthmore college circa 1996
Swarthmore students lack consistency in consumption.

If nothing else, these five student consumption diaries give an impression of diversity;

among the data, there appeared drug users, jocular types, geeks, the angst ridden, the affluent and the average.

Such flip judgements should normally be curtailed, but my own involvement in this college scene encouraged offensive assumptions.

prejudice aside, I tracked across the entries nothing so pervasive as consistent inconsistency, seemingly a trait of youthful, or collective youth consumption.

I wondered if a similar series about adults would expose similar results.

The first character I intuited initially to be a geek
because of their Motherpuckers participation, but this was mitigated by Ms. and Sassy reading.
Poltical activism showed up twice in their week, Empty The Shelters charity dinner donation, a movie of Tienneman Square.

What was remarkable about this person was their media consumption. Not necessarily overstimulation, but each day they read a book, magazine, listened to the radio, and one day they even wrote in a personal journal.
This leads me to believe the person thoughtful. Not necessarily incredible levels of media consumption, but the acknowledging thereof.

Nobody else noted journal writing as consumption, even if they done it.

They eat in Sharples most of the time, but they attend served meal, where they even bothered to leave a tip. They travel off campus a bit, in cars, on trains. During this week, they did laundry.

That sounds pretty organized, competant, leading the stay the course life, though off campus travel can be a sign of deviance.

They didn't delineate their diet, unfortunately, I could further generalize about their character. Neither did they specify which books or music they consumed.

Leading me to believe they are bland. Making such character judgements is discomforting, but I found a few of the other folks more ostentatious, forthcoming with their consumption identity, self-definition through specific products. This person was not too intimate, which tells me something in and of itself.
The next person struck me jocular.
I found this one immediately revealing a personality type, and curious as to whether the composition was at all self-conscious. It doesn't seem so.

I initially thought the handwriting to be female, on the round side, but it could go either way. The appetite for shitty food seemed more masculine.

But like the last person, the jocular characterization, and attempts to determine gender fail handily.

The second person lists specific foods consumed, due in large part to their eating out with great frequency. They were not terribly enlightened about their diet. In this brief ten days of study, they dined at Wendy's twice, ate two cheese steaks, ordered from multiple pizza joints, even drank beer and margaritas one day after they noted they were "very sick"!

They do, however, typically eat Tarble muffins for breakfast, that and now I believe I can say it is for certain a woman, because they list Monday night Tarble dinner as "bagel + yogurt" - how many guys do you know who would eat a cheesesteak one day and that another? Even if they were sick, the two meal plans do not mesh male pattern eating habits.

(this is making me feel absurd).

I'm stuck wondering to typicality - Lipton Noodles, even cheesesteak are fairly common Swarthmore, or college foods. Even "PB Pies" sound like a typical college sugar fix. But every day?

What tipped my judgement jocular was these items:

"lunch at home" was a tuna fish sandwich, milk, pickles.
they attended a basketball game (listed as consumption makes them a fan)
afterwards, a DU party.
They read TV Guide, and they watched the Sound of Music.

These items put them pretty low on the haute culture chain.
They did attend Paces, which crosses a social consumption boundary a bit - I would say most Paces people don't go to DU parties, or the other way around. Also, this person spent at least four and a half hours consuming the Internet, compared with six hours on the television (during this week they made purchase on a new TV/VCR set as well).

I would like to qualify my consumerist assumptions, but I feel I have little sustained evidence to go on. I don't know that I could say in any given day what my roommate consumes, let alone my good friends. I could make stabs, but this is information that isn't generally explicitly shared between friends. It's rare that you spend enough time with a range of people enough to know their sustained consumption habits - perhaps only those of a signifigant other, which inevitably end up somewhat matching your own.

the next one I determined to be angst ridden,
Chubby because their report was so rife with contracictions. In the same grocery trip, they pick up some fat free granola and Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby Ice Cream. Because they watched "The Lover" (fancy europeanish romance) and "Power Rangers" (cheesy child's Japanese action) in the same day. Because on Sunday they get juice, nonfat yogurt and skim milk from Tarble, and Tuesday Fingers and Fries.

I can safely say that this person recognizes the humour in their consumption. Their noting of specific media products is not all that unique, but touches like "Happyweed" computer game and

"thank you card with cat on front in sombrero: 'Mewchas Gracias'"
make this one a joy to read.

The gender almost passed me by, but on Saturday, they bought a skirt, though the next day they did read an article from Esquire magazine (it was from 1956).

By revelling in the humour of their specific consumptions, this person seemed to me to have an enlightened consumer sense.

erratic drug user
The next person proved a few modern American maxims - youth are brand fickle, prone to change, and cigarettes are a gateway to other drugs.

This was the only person in my packet who purchased packs and listed cigarettes as consumables. She smokes about a pack during the week, and another during the weekend.

(I say she because of the unusually high amount of diet coke consumption, as well as the fact that I don't think there were more than one or two of my classmates who took LSD and went to see Moby Dick - I had saved her a seat.)
She was not loyal to any one brand, seemingly allegied most with price - GPC topped her list with two purchases over one Camel lights - though those were purchased before the weekend, so they might have been a treat.

She was also the only other person to list recreational drug use as well, "one tab LSD" and "one bowl of Marijuana," inspiring the pernicious tobacco/drug tie-in.

This is almost completely the diary of a rebel; coffee, cigarettes, drugs, eclectic rock music - but for the diet. Fairly sane, with occasional bouts of unhealth.

This is not, however, the diet I would have expected of a smoker, and drug user. I would have suspected more doughnuts and junk food. This was reserved for the somewhat jocular type above.

What the diet shares with the rest of her wicked ways is inconstancy. She eats broccoli stir fry one lunch, yogurt and fruit the next, roast beef at a third.

It is interesting to note that this deviant type had the most formal structure to their diary entry, with each of breakfast, lunch and dinner all present and accounted for through abbreviations and clear accounting.

the affluent average
I say affluent because they afford two and a half hours to read the New York Times, they drink cappucinos, they listen most often to jazz, occasionally rock and classical. One night they spent $25 on dinner in Center City, a lot to spend, and an interesting thing to list.

Strange habits - they "made a valentine for friend - 2 hours" not terribly consumerist. They ate canned salmon for dinner when they missed dinner to work. Every three days, they snack on chocolate.

The bottom line is that all the contractictions and inconsistencies are those of my own diet. One day eating granola and yogurt for breakfast and the next a phoenix with a hashbrown on top. I don't smoke cigarettes, but you can find marijuana listed in my consumption diary.

Consistent inconsistency throws out many of my gender and personality determinations..

Here specificty can both illuminate and obfusicate. Something like a skirt is an immediate female flag (though I wore one yesterday), is yogurt and a muffin? Is reading Sassy magazine?

Trying to classify, taxonomize these folks, I'm feeling similar frustration to my department/discipline integration argument, perhaps gendered and stereotyped consumption patterns are breaking down as well.

In my diary, I was pretty explicit about my consumption - what brands of stuff I ate, bought, listened to. That folks do not I think signals a dangerous detachment from their goods. Typing out the full name of Smucker's Natural Creamy Peanut Butter gave me some insights into my purchasing habits that have since impacted my shopping.

and it's juicier! makes for better reading!

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