What does Davos do? Shifts burden to consumers, say researchers

Marketing Professor Markus Giesler
Markus Giesler

What does Davos do? In the first in-depth investigation of the World Economic Forum, Schulich School of Business researchers find that the forum actively shifts the burden for the solution of problems from governments and corporations to individual consumers, with significant personal and societal costs.

Published in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, the study, “Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity,” sheds light on the annual proceedings at the World Economic Forum, currently underway in Davos, Switzerland. Hundreds of politicians, CEOs, scientific experts and celebrities have gathered at the forum to “improve the state of the world”.

Markus Giesler
Markus Giesler

“The World Economic Forum claims that it is solving some of the most vexing issues of our time such as poverty or youth unemployment. But what are the solutions and how do they affect our lives?” write authors Markus Giesler, professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business, and Ela Veresiu, a visiting doctoral student at Schulich and a doctoral candidate in marketing at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany.

“Previous portraits of Davos delegates as uprooted jetsetters or global networkers easily overlook their influence on society. Our findings reveal that the forum actively shifts the burden for the solution of problems from governments and corporations to individual consumers, with significant personal and societal costs,” the authors conclude.

In the study, the authors undertook the first ethnographic analysis of the World Economic Forum. Ethnographic analysis is the study of social interactions, behaviour and perceptions in real-time through open discussions and interviews, as well as careful observation of real-life situations and environments. For eight years, they conducted in-depth interviews with Davos delegates about their activities, their beliefs and their self-understanding.

The interviews revealed that Davos delegates understand themselves to be an enlightened elite guided by ethical considerations and called upon to preserve the common good from populist temptations to move toward a more socialist society. At the heart of World Economic Forum activities is the solution of global issues through what the authors describe as a four-step moral reform process.

First, Davos delegates shift the issue at hand to the level of individual consumption: For example, inequality is not the result of unregulated markets but rather stems from consumers’ unethical choice-making. Next, Davos delegates promote the idea that the only way to teach consumers ethics is through greater market inclusion. Third, governments are encouraged to enable the creation of new markets to foster this inclusion. Finally, inequality is no longer a matter of balancing between rich and poor but rather a matter of how responsibly the poor act as consumers. For example, instead of governments proving adequate streetlight infrastructure in poor rural African neighbourhoods, poor Africans are instead encouraged to buy high-efficiency lanterns.

This research is just one of 27 leading research projects being presented at the Second Schulich Research Day on Wednesday, Jan. 28. To attend, register at http://www.schulich.yorku.ca/ssbresearchdayregister.

To read a Q&A with the study authors, Giesler and Veresiu, visit Markus Giesler’s blog.

For more information, contact Markus Giesler at mgiesler@schulich.yorku.ca or 647-274-4807.

For more information about the Second Schulich Research Day on Jan. 28, contact Dirk Matten, Associate Dean, Research, Professor of Strategy Hewlett-Packard Chair in Corporate Social Responsibility, at dmatten@schulich.yorku.ca.