Vol. 7, No. 1, December 2005

Markets as Social Imaginaries

Daniel Thomas Cook
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

I witnessed a most extraordinary social occasion a number of years ago. At my place of work located in a business office, I observed a number of women sitting in a semi-circle facing one woman in the center who was receiving gifts, one-by-one, from the others. With the opening of each present, a chorus of "oohs" and "ahhhs" of approval circulated through the crowd.

The extraordinary aspect of this event was that many of the gifts were being given to someone who was not present--or, at least, someone who was not present in the same way the rest of us were present. The event was a baby shower. Many of the gifts were intended for the not-yet born. These were given, of course, in accordance with the known or perceived tastes and likes of the mother-to-be. What became evident to me while I observed this ritual was that a world of goods, and therefore of social relations, was being organized and invoked in anticipation of the child's arrival. Indeed, material relations were standing for social relations, consequently ushering "the child" into social being. With and through consumer goods, the child-to-be became manifest socially as a person well before it had the opportunity to develop a self.

The example of the baby shower drives home the notion that a world of goods and its various meanings exist prior to any one child, in advance of any one person--much like a social fact in Durkheim's sense. The child here is imagined into social existence not only by the mother, her audience of peers and family, but also by what we might refer to as "producers." "The child," in this way, is brought forth by and in systems of production all the while acquiring recognition as a social being largely through material goods and their provisioning.

To manufacture the Winnie the Pooh drool bib which was given as a gift at that shower and to have it be present there required extensive cooperation between various firms to carry out a variety of actions. Firms needed to contract to materially produce the object, to obtain licensing agreements for the image and to have distributors, truck drivers, dock workers, retail outlets, stockers and cashiers coordinate their efforts in multiple ways. To give this gift on this day also required that those engaging in production understand and make use of particular notions of childhood, of motherhood, of gift giving and ritual, of appropriate economic and social exchange and of merchandising and marketing.

Producers--that is, designers, manufacturers, marketers, advertisers, retailers--do not simply produce a good or service and make it available for "consumers" to purchase. Rather, they enter into, share and consequently contribute to producing and reproducing the social relations of consumption--relations which themselves are enmeshed in gender, class, ethnic, political and cultural arrangements and meanings. To put it another way, producers are consumers too who bring their own forms of knowledge and experience to bear upon how they imagine consumers and consumption.

I offer these ruminations as an invitation for thinking about how to theoretically and analytically bridge consumption and production. It is my conviction that there should not and really cannot be only a single "bridge" built, but that multiple ones need to be constructed such that the different kinds of (apparent) gulfs between these two concepts may be spanned in variety of ways appropriate to the problems and questions at hand. In what follows, I briefly offer a sketch of one such bridge.

Market Imaginings

I find it useful to think of a market as a social imaginary having much in common with Benedict Anderson's (1983) idea of the imagined community. Markets are imagined in that 1) one does not know all those who inhabit them, 2) their membership is fluid, and 3) their boundaries are porous and shifting. Consequently, markets must be conceptualized or imagined. "Imagined," here, does not mean to fabricate out of nothing but to create anew from available materials, a kind of bricolage of the mind. My conception differs from Charles Taylor's (2004) in scope and application, but not in spirit.

Markets must, in a non-trivial sense, be constructed in the abstract, particularly by those I have been referring to as "producers" who seek to sell goods, reduce risk and make profits. Imagining is the work of the "new cultural intermediaries" (Bourdieu 1984; Featherstone 1991), although they are not as new as Bourdieu had thought and the term "intermediary" does not capture the extent of their inextricability from the regular workings of the market.

Imagining consumers or "the consumer," in particular, is a keystone of production in a consumer society. Markets cannot be purposefully organized and usefully engaged unless and until consumers are conceptualized and configured in some way--i.e., by expending effort on figuring out what a consumer is, how she or he thinks and what are the motivations, worries and concerns believed to underlie market action. In the early decades of modern consumer culture of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, consumers were "known" by merchants and manufacturers through rule-of-thumb knowledge derived mainly from personal observation and from cultural stereotypes of gender, ethnic and class behavior. In the formative years of modern advertising ('20s and '30s), as Roland Marchand (1985) insightfully demonstrates, the fledgling industry deployed models of the consumer which inflected advertisers' own social position and class-informed aspirations, often as an attempt to provide "moral uplift" for the masses.

My research on the rise of the child consumer in the US focusing on this same historical period illustrates how informal conceptual models of "the mother" and "the child" were similarly put into practice by merchants, manufacturers, clothing buyers and in trade publications (Cook 2004). Designers, merchandisers and managers encoded their beliefs and "knowledge" about motherhood and childhood into the very placement, layout, design and content of early children's clothing departments in urban department stores. Child-height fixtures and mirrors, child-oriented iconography and color schemes as well as "matronly" service personnel and clothing styles thought desirable to mothers made these imaginings material.

The advent of systematic market research did not extinguish imagined consumers and imagined markets, but enhanced and expanded the scope of the practice. In the advertising field, market research often functions as a way for advertisers to reassure clients that their approach to imagining markets is sound, rather than as a demonstration of their factual knowledge about the market (Lury and Warde 1997). New research focuses on the discourses, beliefs and perspectives of symbolic producers like advertisers, merchandisers and designers and emphasizes the centrality of imaginative labor in producing conceptions of consumers and markets as in, for instance, imagining the US Latino market (Davila 2001), the US gay market (Sender 2004) and the contemporary children's market (Schor 2004). Cultural creatives, account managers and research teams invent, contest and negotiate varying models of what kind of person, what kind of self, will be most amenable to the realization of exchange value for these particular social markets (Malefyt and Moeran 2003). The formation of contemporary consumer markets is, at bottom, about the formation and deployment of social identities.

These contemporary and historical cases highlight how the imagining of consumers and their contexts of consumption inform and are part of the processes of production, not cultural efflux. In the view introduced here, bridging consumption and production requires a deliberate reconceptualization of the boundaries, scope and trajectories of both consuming and producing. Consumption is not the mere endpoint of production (Zelizer 2005, Miller 1995) and production is not divorced from end use and end users; both are indispensable to a larger circuitry of economic, material and symbolic exchange. Approaching consumers and consumption, producers and production, markets and economic action as social imaginaries opens a way to traversing across the divides.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cook, Daniel Thomas. 2004. The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing

Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Davila, Arlene. 2001. Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of People. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Featherstone, Mike. 1991. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. London: Sage.

Lury, Celia and Alan Warde. 1997. "Investments in the Imaginary Consumer: Conjectures Regarding Power, Knowledge and Advertising." Pp. 87-102 in Mica Nava et al. (eds.) Buy This Book. London: Rout ledge.

Malefyt, Timothy Dewaal and Brian Moran (eds). 2003. Advertising Cultures. Oxford: Berg.

Marchand, Roland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Daniel. 1995. "Consumption as the Vanguard of History" Pp. 1-57 in Daniel Miller (ed) Acknowledging Consumption. London: Routledge.

Schor, Juliet. 2004. Born to Buy. New York: Scribner.

Sender, Katherine. 2004 [forthcoming]. Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market. New York: Columbia University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2004 Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zelizer, Viviana. 2005. "Culture and Consumption." Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg, (eds) Handbook of Economic Sociology, second ed.. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press and New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


This is a revised version of an article appearing in Accounts, The Newsletter of the Section on Economic Sociology in Fall 2004.