Project 3: Consumerist Encounters

Hermione Giffard

University of Utrecht

The project’s third historical use case focuses on consumption. We want to trace the move from local production and discourse to regional, trans-regional, national and international production. Consumption data will allow the project to measure the extent to which new consumer products displaced indigenous products, while correlating that picture to public discourse will begin to explain how this occurred, perhaps by tailoring new products to unique local cultures. Thus we want to compare discourse with an understanding of the movement of products and services around the area in question. By finding commonalities between at least the discourse about products and services that people used or consumption in different countries, we hope to find evidence of shared identity in the areas that later became the EU.

bier copy

A key source for this sub-project is advertisements, although they change through time, indeed, as the practice of marketing evolved. Comparing the incidence of advertisements with the linguistic and geographical content of public debates will illuminate the extent to which advertisements were successful in driving diffusion, and the extent to which their success or failure was based on their affinity to the dominant reference culture in a given community. Innovation in selling is reflected in the fact that earlier advertisements tended to be very short, just listing the product and the seller’s address, which tells us about the spread of products but not the discourse surrounding them, whether about the health benefits of not drinking alcohol or alcohol related violence. Later advertisements began to sell products to consumers through extolling the virtues of particular products or consumers.

Indeed, translating the idea of ‘consumption’ through time is a difficult one. In the late twentieth-century, ‘consumption’ has become a topic of conversation, whereas in the early twentieth-century, discourse was about luxury goods rather than ‘consumption’ as such. Even earlier, the idea was about how the pursuit of luxury goods (denounced already in the Bible) would lead to cultural collapse. There were different definitions of ‘consumption’ as well as different discourses around it. This project is interested not only in so-called ‘luxury goods’ – or often consumption by the rich – but also in everyday items, like beer, that were associated with a specific place from which they were imported. Pilsner, for example, is a type of pale lager that takes its name from (and was therefore associated with) the city of Plzeň, Bohemia, Czech Republic, where it was first produced in 1842. (The Czech Republic was consituted as a political entity in 1918.) Pilsner Urquell is still produced there today.


“Pilsner-Urquell-Main-Gate” by David J. Fred (Dfred) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

We are tracing products and services in an effort to trace the history of mentalities through discourse as evidence of the material connections that characterized the European metropolis. This sub-project will use carefully chosen case-studies to focus the research and allow for a comprehensive view of how a particular product moved across the European mental and physical landscape. Our research will enable us to answer more nuanced questions: did products follow a similar path across Europe? Was diffusion driven by particular actors? Such questions will contribute to our notion of how single trans-national debate and the European market was at different times.

In connecting public debate to consumption patterns across Europe, the project will make use of the central concept of the “Asymmetrical Encounters” research programme, namely the concept of reference cultures. Can we speak about a relationship between consumption cultures and reference cultures? To what extent do new products and services carry with them a cluster of ideas that belongs to a particular reference culture (thus making the acceptance of the product meaningfully dependent on accepting the reference culture in question)? The ideas surrounding products and services may well be the aspect of innovation most traceable using reference to public discourse. Studying public discourse around consumer behavior will enable the project to observe the ways in which new products and services were tailored to national cultures. It will be particularly fascinating to measure how this tailoring to consumers changed (or ceased) as European integration proceeded – both as the dominant reference culture changed in different communities and as the European-unit itself was rocked by major geopolitical upheavals.