Place, Date: University of Vienna, October 1–3, 2009.
Deadline: October 19, 2008.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries products, marketed on a nationwide scale, became essential resources for the constitution of individual and collective identities. Therefore, they were well suited to constructing and disseminating national images, as well as to structuring self-perception and the perception by third parties. Coca Cola, the VW Beetle, Ikea, Fiat are just a few high-profile examples drawn from the present and recent past. Other less obvious cases taken not only from Western European and United States contexts, but also from non-European and (post)colonial societies are ripe for exploration. But opening up perspectives on the (former) socialist societies of Eastern Europe is of particular interest.
The conference will be dedicated to the cultural dimensions of acting and communicating with reference to products and by means of products. Nevertheless, the topic also makes it necessary to take into account the approaches enlisted in economics, as well as the social and political sciences.
Apart from presenting the results of empirical research, the conference will provide a forum for discussing methods of opening up the field of research in question. The instruments of discourse analysis, of image and film analysis seem to possess special relevance because the medialization of products in verbal and visual communication is a prerequisite for their nationalization. Still, products are material objects, so they must also be discussed within the scope of material culture.
Possible topics include single-branded goods, whole groups of products (food, domestic culture, cars, clothes), or “product landscapes” – that is, the staging of the totality of consumer goods that were (or were desired to be) available within a given national economy.
The focus can be on the meanings offered by journalistic and promotional mass media communication, or on the practices of usage, that is, on the adoption of goods and their messages by the consumers. It is evident that companies have often appealed to national sensitivities with marketing goals in mind. But to what extent have national connotations been promoted by other actors, politicians, journalists, or consumers? Which social groups act as driving forces of nationalizing product communication? What goals do they pursue, what are the discursive and social results? In bourgeois societies, housekeeping and crucial parts of aesthetic consumption (domestic culture, fashionable clothes) were considered female domains. The consequences of this ideology extend to contemporary gender relations. How has it affected the nationalization of product communication?
Investigating the extent to which product communication played a role in the construction and stabilization of national identities brings up the issue of their relativization, whether by competing regional and national imagined communities, or for the benefit of supranational figures of identification; there are products as proof of belonging to the West or to the brotherhood of socialist countries and products as symbols of having joined Europe or being a part of the narrative of progress, imagined as a global/universal value. Yet the nation as such is not necessarily incompatible with other imagined communities, such as “the West” or Europe. While from a culturally conservative perspective, Americanization/Westernization could be regarded as subverting nationalization, it could also be inscribed into the discourse of nationalization as a means of bolstering the nation to meet the demands of the modern world.
The dynamics, outlined above, can be investigated with respect to the following product-centered questions: By means of which attributions were products configured as objects of national identification? How were imported/foreign products coded to find a place on the market? Were they “nationalized”, and if so, through which attributions? Or was the product communication aimed at transcending the national framework? And if the latter was the case, which imagined communities were envisaged for the integration? Could both strategies be combined? Which intermediate positions between emphatically national and markedly non-national products could be taken? How did the position of a certain product evolve in the course of its “biography”? To what extent did the intensity of “nationalization” vary? How did the meaning and form of national references evolve in the context of growing affluence and the accompanying changes in patterns of consumption?
We welcome abstracts with a methodological focus as well as contributions that discuss the topic on a concrete empiric basis.
Proposals (2000–4000 characters) may be submitted via email to Oliver Kühschelm (email@example.com).
Conference conveners: Oliver Kühschelm, Franz X. Eder (Department of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna); Hannes Siegrist (Institute of Cultural Studies, University of Leipzig)
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