Responsibilizing Consumers: The Role of Affect

In a recently published Journal of Consumer Research study, Domen Bajde and Pilar Rojas-Gaviria examined the market of online microlending to theorize the role of affect in consumer responsibilization, and the ways in which market intermediaries use affect to encourage consumers to accept personal responsibility for social problems. Here they share what scholars, business and NGO practitioners, and policy makers can learn from their findings.

Markets are not only arenas in which consumers act, but also arenas in which consumers are shaped as certain kinds of actors or subjects. Over the past years, consumers have been progressively shaped as subjects who share the responsibility for an array of social, economic and environmental problems, such as pollution and climate change, exploitation and inequality, or poverty. Yet, how do consumers come to willingly bestow upon themselves the responsibility to tackle social problems via markets?

Consumer research has shown how economic and political elites drive consumer responsibilization by promoting certain mythologies and discourses. By drawing upon qualitative data collected in the online-microloan market, we show that market intermediaries facilitate a series of encounters that impact consumers’ capacities and willingness to be affected, and to affect others as responsible subjects. For example, the encounters of lenders with borrowers via loan requests, or loan updates.

The intermediaries foster affective encounters in two central ways. First, by nurturing and dramatizing a structure of feeling – a kind of affective base or background that attunes consumers to social problems (i.e., poverty) and their market solutions (i.e., microcredit) in ways that foster hope, aspiration and affinity toward those afflicted by the social problem (i.e., the poor). Our findings invite policy makers, companies, NGOs and other organizations to consider their opportunities for creating affective foundation on which the formative encounters can take place. For example, this helped microloan intermediaries to envelop lending with a sense of hope that change is possible, with aspiration to make change, and with sense of proximity and connection to the disadvantaged borrowers.

Secondly, we reveal how intermediaries assemble and deploy various mechanism, theorized as apparatuses, to target and intervene into affective encounters. In the case of the microloan market, we identify two sets of mechanisms. The ‘apparatus of affirmation’ helps intermediaries foster among lenders a sense of empowerment and agency to act upon an undesirable social reality as entrepreneurial change makers. For instance, information and storytelling mechanisms are used to foster first-hand lender experiences of social impact. The apparatus of affirmation does not always provide an accurate account of reality, but is rather deployed to ensure that consumers feel empowered to bring about social change.

In addition, the intermediaries fuel consumer responsibilization with the apparatus of relatability that helps translate a complex and relatively distant social problem (i.e., poverty) into personal encounters inscribed by feelings of affinity and connection. This entails deploying mechanisms that enable consumers to relate to distant others and their struggles. For instance, by enabling lenders to ‘encounter’ borrowers via photographs, stories and loan updates, intermediaries foster among lenders a sense of familiarity and connection to the borrowers.

Our findings remind scholars and practitioners that responsibility is not simply a matter of ideas, beliefs, or knowledge, but just importantly a matter of affect – something that we feel. They point to two core challenges faced by organizations who seek to mobilize responsible consumers: 1) how to overthrow the despair and powerlessness felt when faced with daunting problems, and 2) how to overcome a sense of disconnect from problems that transcend the ‘here and now’ of daily life. The lesson organizations can take from our work is not to rely solely on the power of ideas and knowledge, but to also search for opportunities to foster responsibility taking via affective encounters that rouse hope and aspiration, affinity and connection.

In addition to illuminating the affective make-up of (responsible) subject creation and enriching the emerging research on ‘affective governmentality’, our study also invites broader critical reflection on the formative power of affect and consumer experiences. We demonstrate the need, and provide useful analytical tools for investigating how consumption experiences and experiential marketing contribute to consumer subject formation. Finally, our work also carries important implications for research on charitable giving, and critical studies of microfinance.

Read the full paper:

Creating Responsible Subjects: The Role of Mediated Affective Encounters

Journal of Consumer Research, ucab019,