Professor Clayton Childress was recently interviewed as part of the “Scholar’s Conversations” series on the American Sociology Association’s Consumers and Consumption area website. Professor Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto with undergraduate teaching responsibilities at UTSC. The Scholar’s Conversations series consists of graduate students or other scholars in the field interviewing scholars in the field of Consumers and Consumption about recent publications and their approach to studying consumption. Professor Childress spoke to Tim Rosenkranz, a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research, about his book, Under the Cover, (Princeton UP, 2017). Under the Cover follows the life trajectory of a single work of fiction from its initial inspiration to its reception by reviewers and readers.
The full article is available on Consumers and Consumption, however, I’ve inserted an excerpt of the interview below:
Tim Rosenkranz: What does “consumption” mean to you in your work?
Clayton Childress: In my work consumption is either about market transactions or about the taste for and evaluation of goods that comes before or after those transactions. This spans everything from organizational theorists studying the relationship between category blending and market attention, to those working in the traditions of Bourdieu or Peterson studying the relationship between taste and social stratification, to smaller-scale studies of taste formation or practice.
That said, consumption, both analytically and as a research area, is I think the study of activities that takes place in a particular location in the creation, production, and reception of objects. That a Hollywood studio executive is “consuming” scripts when considering them for production is of course true, but the scare quotes I’m using for that are, I believe, very important, as the setting, context, and purpose of that consumption is very different from the types of consumption we study when we say we’re studying consumption. I don’t mind talk of reception being a “second production” or production being a “first consumption” for the purposes of thought experiments, but for what we’re actually interested in, I don’t find that those types of thought experiments push us forward as frequently as we’d sometimes like to believe they do.
Likewise, in my own work I hold consumption as analytically distinct from reception, which for me is expressly about meaning making. In my darker moments I sometimes worry that a lot of meaning making might just be post-hoc justifications for evaluation, but to even express that fear I’m clearly thinking of consumption and reception as siblings of the same parentage rather than as the same thing.
Tim: Your research in the fields of literature and publishing uniquely connects the processes and practices of production and consumption. How did you come to the work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this?
Clayton: My career and research interests can be explained through two anecdotes. The career anecdote is that when I was an undergraduate Bill Hoynes mentioned to us in passing that he subscribed to a bunch of magazines, and his job was basically to sit around and read magazines all day. To me, that sounded amazing. It wasn’t until later that I learned that by magazines he of course meant peer-reviewed journals and he was just translating what those were for us young undergraduates, but I was already hooked. Upon my graduation Bill told me that if I wanted I could go to grad school and become a professional sociologist, but I thought I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know that they basically pay you to get a PhD, which was mindboggling to me. It took me a couple years to build up the confidence that Bill had in me and to apply to PhD programs, but that’s how I got on the career track.
The research area anecdote is that when I was about seventeen or so DVDs hit the market and I suddenly had access to the thing I had always liked more than movies: directors, and screenwriters, and actors talking about making movies on the commentary tracks on most DVDs. I’ve never had any interest in making art, but I wanted to make a career out of hearing and telling stories about art making, and eventually, art sense-making in reception processes too. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I wasn’t just studying production and reception, but also had to, as Wendy Griswold has written, “rediscover that forgotten soul, the author” to really understand cultural creation, production, and reception from start to finish.
This is all to say that I think I would have tried to do some variant on what I’m doing no matter what, but it’s because of Bill Hoynes that I’m doing this type of stuff as a professional sociologist rather than doing it on nights and weekends or trying to eke a living out of it in some other context.