more civilised than discontent: what consumer research can offer psychoanalysis

much of freud’s work aims to explain how someone becomes unwell. but freud was never moralist about psychological illnesses. he did not believe that the hysteric, obsessive, neurotic, fetishist were worse than others. if he used terms like “normal” and “deviant” it was not, i think, to stigmatise the deviant at the expense of the normal. for freud, the deviant is only unacceptable to their social context.

indeed, freud repeatedly says that what seems mad is usually the most logical solution to someone’s problems. symptoms of mental illnesses are, he might say, reaction formations. in other words, they form as a response to something much worse. because of this freud spends much of his time not writing about people who are in need of treatment at all.

I would argue that Freud seeks to answer two questions across his work:

1. what makes someone mentally unwell and how can be help them to readjust to their social context given that illness;

2. what stops adjusted people from becoming mentally ill.

the former question is one that psychoanalysts and analysands work to answer on a daily basis. the latter is one that psychosocial studies works towards answering. tellingly, though, consumption practices, and the influence of marketing on consumption practices, is rarely discussed here. this is something of an oversight. along with a series of research colleagues, i would argue that the social function of consumption is to provide acceptable (normal/unquestioned) ways for us to satisfy our instinctual desires in a way that supports civilisation more than its discontents. unfortunately, consumer research itself is currently way to civilised to admit this.

the irony here is that a Freudian would argue that this kind of knowledge needs to be something we all know but, strangely, don’t seem willing to admit to. otherwise, we would see that the man behind the curtain booming “consume… buy the new iPhone … look like taylor swift” is really just each of us.

so what to do? one thing could be for us to develop more sustained and facilitative consumer research which does not take consumers answers at face value but works over time with a group of consumers to dig into their motivations. hmm.


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