A History of American Consumer Activist Organizations in the 20th Century

Yaniv Ron-El, University of Chicago

While sociologists and historians have been increasingly recognizing the political importance of consumption and of the influence of consumers on the American political economy during the 20th century, little attention has been paid to the actors who deliberately embody this linkage between politics and consumption: consumer watchdogs and advocacy organizations. The literature on social movements has also overlooked these groups, perhaps because they do not fall under a familiar category of such movements, such as political / class-based / identity-related. Yet the universality and pervasiveness of the category of the consumer is precisely what makes the mobilization under this label theoretically intriguing and historically interesting. In my paper, I will address this mutual oversight by presenting an overview of American consumer organizations during the twentieth century. Building on an original database of consumer activism and advocacy groups throughout the century, I will evaluate the conventional claim in the historiographical literature about the “three waves” of consumer activism in American history, and I will also examine the connection between the backdrop of economic growth and cost of living to consumer protests and the “life” of consumer organizations. A secondary theme of the paper would deal with the challenges and appropriateness of organizational demography for the study of consumer activism.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 41. Moral Commitments and Political Action