Consumption, Cities and States: Comparing Singapore with Asian and Western Cities

Consumption, Cities and States: Comparing Singapore with Asian and Western Cities

by Ann Brooks, Lionel Wee


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'Consumption, Cities and States' examines the fascinating intersection of consumption, citizenship and the state in a cross-section of global cities in Asia and the West. It focuses on a number of theoretical and empirical analyses: developing and amplifying the intersection of consumption, citizenship and the state in late modernity in relation to a range of cities; examining the concept of the global city as an 'aspirational' category for cities in Asia and the West; and considering case studies which highlight the intersection of consumption and the state. As Ann Brooks and Lionel Wee demonstrate, the interface between citizen status and consumer activity proves a crucial point of analysis in the light of the neoliberal assertion that individuals and institutions perform at their best within a free market economy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783082261
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology , #1
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ann Brooks is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Health and Community, Plymouth University. She was appointed Professor of Sociology and Cultural Studies at the University of Adelaide in 2008 and is part of the Australian Research Council–funded Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Lionel Wee is a Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore.

Read an Excerpt

Consumption, Cities and States

Comparing Singapore with Asian and Western Cities

By Ann Brooks, Lionel Wee

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2014 Ann Brooks and Lionel Wee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-237-7




The notion of reflexivity has emerged as an arena of intense sociological debate not least because, in the context of globalization, institutions and individuals alike are forced to negotiate a slew of rapid and unpredictable social, economic and political changes. Individuals become particularly reflexive under these conditions, it is claimed (Adams 2006), because they can no longer rely on institutional solidities or because they experience a sense of cognitive dissonance created by such changes. There is of course no uniformity in response, as the ability of individuals to respond reflectively is differentiated by complex conglomerations of gender, class, ethnicity and status, among other factors (Brooks 2008; Beck 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1996; Skeggs 1997, 2005). Adams (2006) in fact maintains that reflexivity is now characterized by hybridity and there is no consistency in its application.

In this chapter, we illustrate the sociological significance of reflexivity with reference to three themes: cosmopolitanism, citizenship and consumption, highlighted not only because they recur prominently in ongoing scholarship, but also because they are relevant to the study of how states attempt to transform themselves or the cities within them into global cities. However, we also show that, despite its significance, sociological interventions into reflexivity have tended to focus primarily on the reflexivity of individuals, giving relatively limited attention to institutional reflexivity, such as that of the state. These observations concerning the broad thematic significance of reflexivity and the curious neglect of its manifestations in institutions within sociological research will set the stage for the theoretical framework that we present in the next chapter.

Negotiating Reflexivity in Late Modernity

Reflexivity involves self-objectification, where the social actor becomes aware of itself in relation to its various circumstances, and a reflective response is one that is informed by this awareness. In this way, a reflective response differs from an unreflective response, with the latter being more automated or routinized in nature, so that an actor's self-awareness is not a factor. Even in cases where self-awareness is a factor, however, it is useful to further distinguish between an actor who is able to reflect on the various circumstances that might impede or facilitate its pursuit of certain goals or wants, on the one hand, and an actor whose reflexivity goes a step further such that it starts asking questions about the viability or appropriateness of these goals or wants. As regards the former, the actor is primarily concerned with how it ought to be responding to external circumstances, whereas in the case of the latter, the actor is more concerned with identity-related issues such as the kind of entity that it ought or wants to be.

These two kinds of self-awareness need not of course be mutually exclusive, since it is usually the case that the former will lead to the latter, and vice versa. But the distinction is an important one, and it is one that we will return to in greater detail in the next chapter, when we discuss the difference between first- and second-order reflexivity. For now, regardless of which kind of self-awareness we are looking at, we want to suggest that in cases where the actor's reflective response involves not merely introspection but public articulation and deliberation, this constitutes a negotiated response.

The preceding statement implies that negotiated responses are a subtype of reflective responses, and it raises the question of whether there are negotiated responses that are unreflective. We think not. Negotiated responses are characterized by the justification of specific positions and the bargaining of resources (symbolic or otherwise) associated with those positions. It is not possible, we suggest, for an actor to engage in such responses without reflecting on its own position within the relevant state of affairs circumscribed by the negotiation process. However dimly unreflective particular actors may be, the very fact of negotiating with an interactional other will at the very least lead the negotiating parties to become appreciative of their own positions in relation to each other, which, in this case, involves reciprocally induced self-objectification.

Negotiated responses are particularly relevant when one of the actors involved is the state. This is because of the critical role that the public arena plays in shaping state–society relations. Regardless of whether the state in question is highly authoritarian or not, some public dissemination if not actual discussion of state-initiated policies and their rationales — aimed at garnering support from the general public, or at the very least, assuaging any sense of public unease — is to be expected. And in fact, it is the failure to seriously consider the reflexivity of the state and the potentially creative responses it might mount in the face of the concerns posed by globalization that has resulted in premature announcements concerning its 'demise' (Ohmae 1996). However, as Sassen (2006, 227) observes:

But this perspective leaves out the fact that global systems insert themselves in national domains where they once were nonexistent. The outcome of this negotiation between standardizing global systems and the thick environments of the national can easily be packaged as national even though its actual content pertains to new global systems.

An example of a city-state that is transforming itself in late modernity is Singapore. Singapore is responding to globalization by attempting to transform itself into a global city. At the same time, the measures that the state undertakes to effect this transformation do not always sit easily with its attempts to also maintain Singapore's identity as an 'Asian nation-state'. The need to manage potential conflicts between the global city and Asian nation-state narratives thus leads to a variety of negotiations between state and society. Given our focus, negotiated responses as objects of analysis become especially relevant. As Sassen's (2006) remarks above indicate, the state is not simply going to fade away or wilt as a result of globalization. In considering Singapore, we think that it is useful to provide a comparative perspective in order to better understand the problems and constraints states face. Hence, we also discuss other states and cities, including Malaysia, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

Globalization is first and foremost about change — change resulting from the development of new technologies, from the movements of peoples and ideas, and from the apparent weakening of some institutions (such as, arguably, the state) and the strengthening of others, possibly at the subnational (such as cities) or transnational levels (such as nongovernmental organizations or free trade blocs) (see Sassen 2001, xviii). These changes, of course, do not occur in isolation from each other, and a major issue in theorizing globalization has to do with how to capture the interrelationships that exist between various types of changes. Not surprisingly, then, metaphors for talking about globalization abound, whether these be a 'space of flows' that arises from the effects of new communications technologies (Castells 1996, 1997), a 'power geometry' that treats the global as emerging from the interconnections established by multiple local relationships (Massey 1994, 1999), or a multiplicity of '-scapes', such as ethno-, media-, techno- and ideoscapes (Appadurai 1996). These different metaphors are aimed in their own ways at trying to capture the manifold processes and effects that we variously associate with the phenomenon called 'globalization'.

One way to start getting a handle on these various processes and effects is via the notion of competition, which is often highlighted in discussions of globalization, particularly in the form of economic competition and its impact on the workplace (du Gay 1996; Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996). But there is also competition between states for highly skilled and mobile elite individuals (Ong 1999, 2006a). We will see that for the state in Singapore, the attempted transformation into a global city is precisely a response to this global competition between cities for mobile talent. And competitions constitute just the kind of circumstances under which self-objectification and hence reflexivity arises. Entities involved in competition are inevitably aware of how they stand in relation to other potential competitors, not least because the competitive gaze involves competitors constantly sizing each other up. Moreover, especially if competitions are recurrent, competitors then have to make decisions about whether it is worth competing at all, or whether withdrawal from competition is a feasible option. Such considerations amount to precisely the kind of second-order reflexivity that we mentioned above, and we argue below (Chapter 2) that the techniques of governmentality in modern life go beyond Foucault's (1977, 1980) Panopticon or even Poster's (1991) Superpanopticon in interesting ways that cannot but help induce competitive reflexivity among both individuals as well as institutions.

For now, however, we want to show that the analysis of negotiated responses involving the state can be usefully viewed through the lens of sociological themes such as cosmopolitanism, citizenship and consumption. These themes are connected to the notion of competition because as far as the state in Singapore is concerned, a successful global city (i.e., one that is more successful than other cities) is one that induces the 'right kind' of people to not only visit but to also settle down.

These themes therefore provide the rubrics by which we organize our discussion in the rest of the book. In the case of cosmopolitanism, it is common to raise questions about the ability of the state to serve as a framework for community membership when cosmopolitan intellectuals apparently can have their pick of peoples and places to experience (Clifford 1994; Robbins 1992; Rabinow 1996). For Singapore, a key impetus for wanting to be seen as a global city comes from the state's awareness that many well-educated and relatively affluent Singaporeans are choosing to work and live overseas, and may even take up foreign citizenship. These cosmopolitan individuals are attracted to other places that are deemed to provide greater opportunities for realizing their particular visions of the good life. Transforming itself into a 'global city' is therefore part of Singapore's competitive strategy to remain as attractive as possible to individuals who may have multiple options in terms of places to live, work and play.

Many citizens, however, are concerned that the state's desire to bring in 'foreign talent', seen by the state as critical to economic growth, may lead it to bestow privileges on these foreigners that undermine the locals' sense of worth. This is where a focus on citizenship becomes relevant because, as Ellison (1997, 714) points out, citizenship can and should be understood as a 'reflexive condition of defensive engagement', particularly in late modernity. This debate is fully developed in Chapter 6. The role of the state in terms of the intersection of reflexivity and citizenship is developed at this point using the example of how the state in Singapore has attempted to intervene in the lives of its citizens and the response of citizens to these interventions. It highlights the significance of reflexivity in both the citizens and the state in terms of 'defensive engagement'.

Finally, consumption is relevant because the state in Singapore has realized that, if it is to enhance its reputation as a global city, there must be sufficient 'buzz' that makes it attractive to mobile and affluent individuals. Examples of the way the state in Singapore has designed itself as a 'consumption hub' include its emphasis on the opening up of casinos, attracting high-end designer fashion labels, establishing shopping malls to give visibility to high-end consumption, celebrity restaurants, world-class architecturally designed buildings, Formula 1 racing and sports events such as the Youth Olympics in 2010. This has also led the state to reconsider its ban on casinos and its attitude toward homosexuality. But especially when consumption activities raise the specter of gambling addiction or are potentially at odds with more conservative sexual mores, reflexivity enters the picture because the state finds itself needing to explain to a concerned citizenry why it is prepared to allow these controversial activities. As mentioned above, this constitutes a case of negotiated response, and hence reflexivity, on the part of the state. Moreover, one of the ways in which the state aims to regulate consumer activity is by calling for consumer self-discipline (in the case of gambling) and consumer discretion (in the case of homosexuality). This is essentially a call for greater reflexivity and responsibility on the part of consumers. These cases are developed in the following chapters.

In the rest of this chapter, we present an overview of discussions concerning cosmopolitanism, citizenship and consumption, in order to underscore the point that attention to reflexivity — institutional as well as individual — is critical if advances in understanding these themes are to be made.

Cosmopolitanism as Elite Individual Subjectivity

Featherstone (2002, 4) tells us that 'a cosmopolitan sociology needs to investigate the "imagined presence" of distant others and distant worlds'. There is, in Featherstone's advice, an implicit acknowledgment of the role of reflexivity here, since to engage in such a cosmopolitan gaze is to at the same time situate the self in relation to these 'distant others and distant worlds'. Indeed, the study of cosmopolitanism is rich with attempts to capture the characteristics of this cosmopolitan gaze (Beck 2000; Clifford 1994, 1997; Rabinow 1996; Robbins 1992; Sassen 2006).

Three problems remain, however. One, the cosmopolitan gaze is typically attributed to specific classes of individuals, and denied to others. Two, even if this correlation between class and cosmopolitanism were to be addressed in a more nuanced manner, the role of institutionalizing forces — such as that of the state in shaping such cosmopolitan subjectivities — is still largely missing from these accounts. Three, once it is acknowledged that institutions such as the state play important roles in shaping cosmopolitan subjectivities, it then becomes pertinent to ask if these institutions themselves should be credited with some form of cosmopolitan imagining. In the remainder of this section, we elaborate on these three problems in turn.

Regarding the first problem, consider Ong's (1999, 13–15) discussion of Clifford's (1994, 1997) 'discrepant cosmopolitanisms', which focuses on the cultural subjectivities of traveling intellectuals, and Robbins's (1992) interpretation of cosmopolitan subjectivity, which looks also at the social and political consciousness of worldly intellectuals traversing the globe. Ong (1999, 13) observes that 'both Clifford and Robbins seek to link the study of cosmopolitanism with their belief in the cosmopolitan individual as a well-informed, politically progressive modern subject'. Making a similar point, Sassen (2006, 299–300) observes that there is general tendency to 'equate the globalism of the transnational professional and executive class with cosmopolitanism', despite the fact that various 'global classes', including transnational immigrants and international elites, are each 'embedded, in often unexpected ways, in thick, localized environments: financial and business centers, national governments, the localized microstructures of daily civic life and struggles, and the translocal insertions of immigrants'.

Sassen's reference to being embedded in various localized environments leads us to the second problem by reminding us that subjectivities (cosmopolitan or otherwise) are to significant extents shaped by the presence of institutional forces. In this regard, even Rabinow's notion of a 'critical cosmopolitanism' (see Ong 1999, 14), which is aimed at correcting the association between cosmopolitanism and Western elites, and which calls for greater attention to cosmopolitan intellectuals who are sensitive to 'the inescapabilities and particularities of places, characters, historical trajectories and fate' (Rabinow 1996, 56), does not go far enough in recognizing the role of institutions. Thus, Ong (1999, 14) concludes, 'What is missing from these accounts are discussions of how the disciplining structures — of family, community, work, travel, and nation — condition, shape, divert, and transform such subjects and their practices and produce the moral-political dilemmas, so eloquently captured in these studies, whose resolutions cannot be so easily determined.'


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction; Chapter 1: Consumption, Reflexivity and Citizenship in Global Cities; Chapter 2: Orders of Reflexivity; Chapter 3: Rescaling for Competitiveness; Chapter 4: The Dynamics of State–Society Negotiations; Chapter 5: (De-)Regulating Asian Identities: Comparing Asian Cities and States; Chapter 6: Citizenship, Reflexivity and the State: Investigating ‘Defensive Engagement’ in a City-State; Chapter 7: Governing the Citizen-Consumer: Citizenship, Casinos and ‘Cathedrals of Consumption’; Chapter 8: Regulating Consumption and the ‘Pink Dollar’; Chapter 9: States as ‘Midwives’ to Cities: Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Consumption in the Modern State; References; Index

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