Dystopia vs utopia: how do they affect consumer behaviour?

Published: 2023-05-03

Consumer Culture Theory is a branch of research that examines markets from a social and cultural perspective. Researchers examine both local and global consumption patterns, now and in the future, at a broad and deep level. They use sociology, political philosophy, cultural analysis and history of ideas to analyse the ideas and values that influence people's consumption behaviour. In June, researchers in the field from around the world will gather in Lund. We spoke to Sofia Ulver, project manager for the conference and associate professor at the School of Economics and Management.

At the Consumer Culture Theory conference, researchers in the field will explore how utopian and dystopian communication affects consumption.

What distinguishes research in Consumer Culture Theory from other consumer research is that researchers look at the relationship between the market, citizens and the state from a societal perspective. There are different factions within the field, some being favourably disposed towards consumption as a tool for a better society, and others critical of the consumer society in general. “You could say that both factions want to drive development towards a better world, regardless of whether consumerism is included or whether we should instead drastically change either consumption or the system behind it," says Sofia Ulver.

In June, the Consumer Culture Theory Conference 2023 will be organised by Sofia Ulver and her co-chairs Benjamin Hartmann (University of Gothenburg), Jacob Östberg (Stockholm Business School), and Peter Svensson (LUSEM). Hossain Shahriar and Marcus Klasson are conference coordinators. This year's theme is "Utopia Revisited", which means that researchers will look at how the market and thought leaders motivate people to live in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way. Is it more dystopian or utopian? What are the popular culture references and how do they affect consumption? Sofia Ulver raises the example of prepper culture. "Just a few years ago, preppers were seen as strange people. Today, any average Joe has at least a small supply of water in the basement in case of need, and the prepper culture is much more widespread.”

The researchers have also noticed that not only popular culture has become more dystopian, but also politicians, the UN and others use dystopia in their messages. They also look at who is held responsible for the consequences of sustainability issues, consumers or politicians? Yet another part of the topic is how big the difference of distribution between utopia and dystopia is. The harder, more male-coded dystopia is very prevalent in communication about the future, while the softer utopia is seen as something unfathomable and even silly. The fact that so much of the communication is dystopian affects how we think about consuming and producing sustainably, according to Sofia Ulver: "Calling something ‘utopian’ has a connotation of something that is impossible to achieve. That it will never happen, or that it is a fantasy or a dream. But the Sweden we live in today is built around the utopia of the welfare state an ‘Folkhemmet’, you could say that it was a utopia that came true. Many people were on board with that idea, and the utopia of the Swedish ‘Folkhem’ still lives on as a kind of Nordic welfare model, which has also influenced other countries. By using both utopian and dystopian scenarios, one can show different future possibilities and engage others.”

The conference will be filled with presentations of around a hundred papers on the theme "Utopia: Revisited", but it is also an opportunity for the global but relatively small community of consumer culture researchers to meet and socialise. “Many of those who will participate find both the theme and the intellectual level we will demonstrate exciting. I think many are also looking forward to the social contexts that will be created during the conference. There will be a utopian dinner, a dystopian party, an evening of poetry and art, keynotes by internationally recognised stars in the field, and more.”


Sofia Ulver is one of the organisers of the Consumer Culture Theory Conference 2023. She is an associate professor in marketing and has a sociological, cultural, critical and intellectual history background and perspective in her research.

Mail: sofia.ulver@fek.lu.se
Read more about Sofias research (portal.research.lu.se)

About Consumer Culture Theory Conference (CCTC)

The largest conference on consumer culture in the world. The research field has been active for the past 30 years and the conference is held every two years in the US and every two years elsewhere in the world. The aim is to understand why people consume what they do and to critically examine consumption and trends. The theme of CCTC 2023 is Utopia Revisited, which links to polarisation, a new world order and a curiosity about the future of consumption. The conference will be held in Lund between 27-30 June.

Read more about the conference (cctc2023.com)