EGRG Masters Prize 2008

Developing moral identities: articulating ethics in family consumption

Sarah Marie Hall (University of Liverpool)

This MA dissertation brings together literature on moral geographies and geographies of consumption, in order to further understand how morals and ethics are developed within consumption choices. Alongside this, the dissertation takes a unique step to explaining ethical consumption as an everyday practice within the family; gathering inspiration from families and household’s literature, this study considers that ethics in consumption are most likely to be developed within the family, and the home, as the site at which our personalities and identities develop, as well as our patterns and habits of consumption. In taking this approach, this dissertation hopes to shed light on an otherwise neglected aspect of current geographical discourse: the ethics of consumption, as a social and economic household-based practice.

An ethnographic approach was felt to be the most appropriate design with which to investigate questions regarding ethics and consumption in the home, where research before have failed to engage with this matter as an everyday practice. The methodology also needed to account for the negotiations and complex relationships that are fundamental in every family, and to be sensitive to this. An ethnographic study, involving interviews, group interviews and participant observation, was carried out with four families and one youth group centre in the Liverpool district, over a two month period.

Using this approach, this research seeks to engage critically with recent studies regarding ethical consumption (and ethical production), arguing that ethical consumption has been reduced to set of specific buying practices (or particular products; such as Fairtrade, local and organic goods etc.) that are thought to be emblematic of what it is to be an ‘ethical consumer’. Similarly, ethical consumption has only previously been researched in terms of shopping habits and market projections, and not as an everyday grounded practice. This further separates ethical consumption from its counterpart, ethical production, whereby ethical consumers are rarely considered to be part of an ethical economy, but more as a symptom.

Evidence from the research is provided to show that ethics and moral conducts are constantly being developed and negotiated, in the form of consumption practices within family relations. The dissertation closes with the argument that the contemporary use of the term ‘ethical consumer’ is dated, discriminatory and dismissive of the ethical considerations made in all family consumption practices, rather than adhering to a prescriptive shopping list. Instead, it is suggested that we need to embrace the multiplicity of family routines, and the fact that ethics are expressed in a series of ways according to what is ‘right’ and beneficial to the family, all its members, and the given situation.