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Consumers outstrip Citizens in the British media

We knew it was true that Brits went from being subjects to consumers without ever being citizens but this is an attempt to measure it.

Do the press see their readerships more as citizens or as consumers?

The philosopher Jurgen Habermas has famously argued that modern capitalist society has seen the decline of the public sphere and that the mass media encourage a view of people as passive consumers rather than as active citizens. Fresh research suggests that, in view of the British press at least, Habermas is right.

I was intrigued to see whether Habermas’ contentions could be supported with statistical evidence. Like any good researcher, I began by asking Google – or to be more precise, Google NGram: that’s Google’s searchable archive of 5 million books, covering 200 years of publishing. The result from keying in the search terms ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ can be seen below. Strikingly, mentions of ‘consumer’ overtook ‘citizen’ in English-language books in the early 1970s. (I dissect this result, and NGram’s reliability, some more here.)

So much for books – but what of the press? To answer this I searched the digitized archives of two British papers, the Guardian (and Observer) and the Times. In both cases, the method was simple: search for all mentions of ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ in the paper in any given year. The data can be viewed here; the resulting graphs are reproduced below.

* Note: data absent for 1979 as the Times ceased being printed for most of that year due to an industrial dispute.

The story told by the data appears stark: usage of the term ‘consumer’ has risen inexorably over the last half-century in both broadsheets, whilst reference to ‘citizen’ has risen more slowly or flatlined. For the Guardian and Observer, mentions of ‘consumer’ dramatically overtook those of ‘citizen’ in the early 1970s – seeming to mirror the pattern in books as recorded by Google NGram. For the Times, the picture is somewhat different – ‘consumer’ outpolled ‘citizen’ throughout the 50-year period, and rose much more rapidly.

What’s the significance of this data? In many ways it simply confirms what others have long sensed. As Raymond Williams wrote in 1980:

The popularity of ‘consumer’, as a way of describing the ordinary member of modern capitalist society in a main part of his economic capacity, is very significant. The description is spreading very rapidly, and is now habitually used by people to who it ought, logically, to be repugnant….

Some caveats apply. The rise in usage of both terms will certainly have been boosted by increased pagination, as the papers expanded their content over the time period. But this doesn’t account for why references to ‘consumer’ have so outstripped ‘citizen’. The terms will clearly have fluctuated in use according to different news stories, and they are not always simply deployed as descriptions of identity: the searches will also have picked up phrases like ‘consumer prices’ and ‘citizen journalism’. Yet the long-term trends remain striking.

OK, then, you might say, but surely the newspapers are just reflecting wider social changes, a broader shift towards a consumerist identity? Absolutely; but in reinforcing the currency of consumer over citizen, they have helped normalise it. Something similar appears to have taken place in the tabloid press. In his content study of the Daily Mirror and Sun over the period 1968-1992, Dick Rooney of Liverpool John Moores University identified a comparable trend towards encouraging consumption over citizenship: “…as consumption among the working-class grew over the period, editorial content [in both papers] moved away from matters of the public sphere in favour of material which encouraged acts of consumption… Throughout the research period both the Mirror and the Sun educated its publics to become consumers. They did this not only by including advertisements… but by placing material encouraging consumption at the centre of its editorial agenda… the editorial content in both newspapers encouraged people to define themselves by what they consumed.” Rooney suggests that competition between both papers for advertising revenue helped drive this editorial agenda.

But even if done unwittingly, the relentless growing emphasis on the individualised, atomised consumer – rather than the participatory citizen – is a worrying trend. As Justin Lewis, professor of media and cultural studies at Cardiff University, wrote in his 2005 book Citizens or Consumers? What the media tell us about political participation:

Unlike the citizen, the consumer’s means of expression is limited: while citizens can address every aspect of cultural, social and economic life (operating in what Jurgen Habermas called "the public sphere"), consumers find expression only in the marketplace.

When the mainstream media – the basis of a healthy public sphere – appears happy to treat its readerships more as market actors than participants in a flourishing democracy, things have gone badly awry. We’re familiar with the conceit that consumerism is exacerbating the environmental crisis, and obscuring non-materialistic pathways to happiness. But now, it seems, consumerism is also eroding democracy itself.

About the author

Guy Shrubsole is climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Previously he worked for the Public Interest Research Centre and the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

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