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Being authentic or being responsible? Food consumption, morality and the presentation of self

Journal of Consumer Culture

Published online on


Ethical consumption has become a popular topic in the sociology of consumption in recent years. However, extant research on explicit ‘ethical consumption’ and on implicit moralities of consumption has scarcely been linked. In the research on ethical consumption, tensions between an inner self and self-presentation to others have been reported. By examining the case of food consumption, the study asks how the idea of ‘taking responsibility’ as a consumer is negotiated by persons who do not identify strongly with ethical consumption. Theoretically, the article starts from two approaches that have located morality either as internal to the person or as external in communication. It is contended that this opposition is not merely a theoretical one, but empirically present in the accounts of the food consumers studied: While consumers have to present their moral motivation as authentic, they also have to communicate their actions as morally valid according to socially established ‘vocabularies of motive’. On the basis of a study of 25 in-depth interviews with consumers from a mid-sized German town, it is shown that the idea that consumers should ‘take responsibility’ for distant others is just one of several abstract constructions of ‘good’ consumption, and that not living up to this idea may be justified with references to personal taste and practical circumstances. It is argued that via references to authenticity, inner morality is part of the vocabulary of motive, and that these vocabularies frame the presentation of moral motivation as internal.