If you have ever decided to make a statement by adding (or not adding) something to your physical or virtual shopping cart, you’re not alone.
More than half of us, it turns out, are political consumers (people who use their purchasing power to make political or ethical statements), says Dr. Shelley Boulianne, associate professor in sociology at MacEwan University. It’s just one finding in her recently published report on social media and political consumption.
Collaborating with researchers in France and the United States, Shelley is leading a study that looks at how global citizens use boycotts and “buycotts” to express their political views and influence global politics.
“If people want more environmental regulation, they boycott companies that are bad for the environment,” says Shelley. “If they want fair labour laws, they might buycott – choose to purchase chocolate produced and harvested in ethical ways, for example.”
These types of actions, bolstered by the rise of digital media, she explains, are creating a new way for people to take action for social and political change – and to participate in political life across borders.
In the first of a dozen or more papers to come from analyzing responses among thousands of social media users in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, Shelley’s research team revealed that more than half of the respondents across the four countries had engaged in political consumerism – both buycotting and boycotting are equally popular – and that they were encouraged to engage in that action through online communication. However, while participants learned about boycotting and buycotting online, they rarely posted about their own actions or encouraged others to participate. That particular finding inspires many more questions, which the team is endeavouring to answer.
With support from an Insight Grant from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Shelley and her research colleagues plan to use the same data set to look at the reach of boycotting and buycotting campaigns, the products and services they target, what motivates people to participate and how this one tool fits into a larger political participation toolkit.
This study is one piece in Shelley’s full research program, which looks at social media’s connection to political participation from a number of perspectives.
Portrait of a political consumer
In a related study published on March 4 in the International Political Science Review, Shelley partnered with Dr. Lauren Copeland of Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio to summarize 66 studies about political consumers. They found that political consumers tend to be middle-aged, well-educated individuals who are interested in politics, but skeptical of traditional institutions; have strong ideological leanings; and use digital media to access political information.
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