Mundane objects of social activism: Following the lives of pro and anti-immigration t-shirts

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Social Science


As social life has further embraced commodification and performative consumerism, public opinion seems to be a battleground of competing objects and designs. Many large e-commerce sites now have a section dedicated to 'activist' products - clothing in particular - signalling a growing market for 'wearing' political views and communicating politically through purposefully designed products. Due to their suggestive messages but limited eloquence, politically-charged commodities turn by design complex geopolitical matters into simplified, un-nuanced slogans or visual messages, often aimed at being intentionally provocative or emotionally effective. Yet, as mundane objects of social activism grow in popularity, the accessorial normalisation of un-nuanced stands might risk further translating political views into simple 'pro' or 'anti' discourses.

In this context, the project aims to investigate the social agency of 'activist' commodities - such as t-shirts reading political slogans - and their ability to enhance political affects, discourses or actions. More specifically, the research will look at the European immigration debate as a largely emotive and divisive issue increasingly sustained by an activist infrastructure of material objects that might risk perpetuating the polarisation and trivialisation of migration issues in popular culture. If the debate over issues of migration is to become naturalised in everyday life through political merchandise, could this consumerist ubiquity make the current social hysteria a normal component of public life or, even worse, trivialise humanitarian issues that fall within the debate, such as issues of refuge? Like an alarm, a status of emergency and social preoccupation cannot be permanently in force. If an alarm stays permanently on, it simply becomes a background noise.

By adopting a multiple case study methodology, commodities such as t-shirts reading "Rape-fugees not welcome" on one side of the debate and "No human is illegal" on the other will be the sort of objects this research plans on investigating - from where the commodity is designed, produced and sold to the wardrobe of the consumer. For each case study, I will use a multi-sited ethnographic approach further integrated by mixed qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews and focus groups. This composite methodological approach will come together under a 'Follow-the-Thing' narrative, which aims to chase the 'social biography' of material objects and expose the inter-play between people and things. I will insist on exploring how political commodities are consumed and perceived and the study will naturally turn into 'following' the vehement activist, the politicised consumer or, most simply, the odd wearer who 'activates' the object in everyday contexts.

Whilst research on migration and material culture is abundant, the two topics have mainly been associated in studies looking at the materiality of transnational experiences and/or in-between geographies. The growing body of literature concerned with the representation of migration in public culture mainly focusses on critical discourse analysis and the visual regimes of dominant narratives. Remarkably little literature is explicitly concerned with the role played by material culture in the debate itself. As the representation of migrants and refugees in popular culture is increasingly a pendulum between demonisation and victimisation, the perpetuated polarisation and potential trivialisation of discourses through material culture is certainly not something to take lightly. This is even more timely in the current political climate where radical parties are found to gain popularly under conditions of mass polarisation.


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