Consumer Culture gives an Alternative Insight into National Identity

Consuming habits show everyday life and reflect a lot about national identity. Source:
Consuming habits show everyday life and reflect a lot about national identity. Source:

Dilemmas caused by multicultural society are not anything new, but some events place the role of ethnic minorities into a new context. For example, the role of Russian ethnic minorities in former Soviet countries has been regarded in a new light since the outbreak of the military conflict in Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) and the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea into the territory of the Russian Federation. Such affairs bring the question of nationalism to the forefront.

Oleksandra Seliverstova (PhD) recently defended her doctoral thesis at Tallinn University. In her thesis, she analysed the concept of nation through consumer culture upon the example of two former Soviet countries: Ukraine and Estonia. In both countries she interviewed two groups in the cities of Tallinn and Lviv: Russian-speaking and Estonian or Ukrainian-speaking people.

Seliverstova wanted to know how the concept of nation is conceived and experienced at the level of ordinary people, thus the thesis applied a non-conventional bottom-up approach. “I studied how each group interprets and associates themselves with their nationality,” she explained.

Surprising Results

She used consumer culture as a symbolic field in which national sentiments could be reflected and also as a source of potential new markers for national belonging. “We live in a consumer society and when I started my research I assumed that people are moving closer to each other as they consume the same products,” Seliverstova said. However, the topics she explored later also showed different tendencies.

The results of her research demonstrated that there are some similarities between the groups, but also many differences. She noted that people can make very conscious choices of whether to belong to one or other group or to what extent they want to belong somewhere through their everyday practices. “For me it was a surprise that in Ukraine people show political preferences to a large extent via consuming habits; they boycott some products or buy those that they perceive to support the country, for example,” Seliverstova noted. “In Ukraine, the media has facilitated the view that the language tears people apart, but it is a political platform.”

Seliverstova said the analysis of consuming habits showed Russian-speaking people are much more integrated than they appear to be according to some older traditional surveys on integration in Estonia. At the same time, in the Estonian case, consumer culture is also used to isolate some groups. Representatives of both groups mentioned that they would not buy some products on purpose so as not to be associated with the opposite group. “One respondent told me that he/she would not buy a specific car, because only Russian people buy that,” she explained.

Analysing the interviews revealed many similar and different aspects about the four research groups. The ethnic background of Russian-speaking people in Estonia and Ukraine is very varying, while laws about citizenship are different in Estonia and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet regime. What is more, the groups’ identity is not equally complex.

On the other hand, the cases are similar in the countries: there have been tensions between the groups for a long time, and these have not been solved.

Consistently Important Topic

Understanding the facets of national identity is important for different reasons. Firstly, there are still problems with this issue in post-soviet countries, and secondly, knowing the subject helps to balance the situation, and the nationalists are thus not allowed to grow dangerous according to Seliverstova.

She also noted that it is possible to apply this kind of study in many other countries. “People may be alarmed if you say that you want to research nationalism, but if you say that you focus on consumer habits then it relaxes respondents, and helps to give an alternative, more inclusive view of the situation,” she added.

Seliverstova plans to apply to some postdoctoral programs. She would like to try and organise the same study in some Western European country. “I would also like to continue researching identity in Eastern Europe, but it does not need to be tied with the topic of nationalism. Identity has so many interesting facets still to be explored,” she concluded.

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.