Culture Warrior Juliet Schor

As the Democrats debate the best way to react to the Republicans apparent victory among “values” voters, they ought to take a look at the work of cultural researcher Juliet Schor. Schor, an economist by training, studies work and consumption, with research straddling the fields of economics, sociology, and culture criticism. The values issues she studies aren’t gay marriage and abortion, but how to arrange things so that parents can spend more time with their children and how to help parents raise kids with healthy values.

Schor’s view on long working hours, from a recent interview:

One thing that happens is that women who work more in the labor market cut back at home quite substantially. By some estimates, every additional hour at work in paid labor reduces unpaid labor in the household by half an hour. So, what results is either a dramatic decline in the direct production of household services such as meals and childcare, or overwork and burnout among women who are saddled with the burdens of both paid and unpaid work. In either case, I think that this trend has impoverished family and community life in some pretty important ways.

There are many ways in which this kind of cultural research can veer into irrelevance, conservatism, or nonsense. It can heap blame on women for working, or on parents for not monitoring their children closely enough. It can focus excessively on personal solutions (like buying smaller cars) rather than public policy solutions. And it invites mushy analysis based on stereotypes rather than hard data. But Schor almost always avoids these traps.

Her most recent research focuses on the “commercialization of childhood” [pdf]. While marketing of children’s products was once aimed at mothers and often emphasized urged purchase for the sake of children’s well-being, such advertising is now less common.

Ads now bypass the parent and appeal directly to children. These messages often undermine parental and other adult authority, portray parents as “uncool” or out of touch, or ridicule them. (Coco et al 1996) Corporations position themselves as the sole adult actor who understands, relates to, cares about, and emphathizes with children.

Bypassing parents and marketing directly is now far more feasible because there is more children’s media?in the early days of television adult programming dominated. Now, in addition to Saturday morning cartoons, there are children’s television networks such as Nickelodeon, the Disney channel, Cartoon Network, etc. Nickelodeon has been especially aggressive and successful in establishing themselves as the representatives of the ?child?s? point of view, which it has partly done through what I could term a pervasive anti-adult bias in its programming. Direct marketing is also taking place in schools, on the Internet, in movies (with product tie-ins), through kids’ clubs, and in other cultural institutions such as museums and amusement parks. Indeed, these are the cutting-edge venues.

Her latest book, “Born to Buy,” elaborates on these themes and also reports on survey research she conducted among fifth and sixth graders, as this review summarizes:

Schor finds that youth consumerism correlates strongly with alcohol, drug and cigarette consumption, emotional and mental health problems, poor nutrition and obesity. As kids are spending more time with video games, TVs, cellphones and computers, and less time engaged in physical activity, they are showing a deterioration in general well-being and reporting increased levels of anxiety, she writes.

I hope that Democrats serving in Congress, or thinking about a run for the Presidency in 2008 are giving her a call.