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Is Fall a Social Construction?

#PSL #4Life, y’all! Apparently, Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte has its (her? his?) own twitter account, complete with over 93,000 followers. What IS it about the pumpkin spice latte that creates such a frenzy? How does a beverage featuring a member of the squash family signal fall scarves and thick sweaters to us? In this post, Ami Stearns risks being socially ostracized for suggesting that the pumpkin spice latte creates an imagined community of fall-loving consumers who are primed to start spending money during the coming holiday season by making itself a scarce, once-a-year, valued commodity. Drink up!

Pumpkin Spice Latte Sign

I recently moved to the deep, deep south. If fall has started here, I only have two indications. One, it’s slightly less incredibly hot than it was a few weeks ago. Two, pumpkin spice ads (for lattes, puddings, cakes, cookies, and cheesecakes) are everywhere. In a place where the leaves aren’t changing and nobody is cuddling up in their chunky knit scarves in front of fireplaces, I can at least count on Starbucks to alert me to the change of seasons.

During the fall, Starbucks estimates that its famous eleven year-old beverage receives about 3,000 tweets daily. Estimates put sales at 200 million Pumpkin Spice Lattes (PSLs) since the drink’s inception. Starbucks, of course, does not have a monopoly on pumpkin this time of year, but it certainly has kickstarted a pumpkin craze that is absolutely everywhere (one popular meme features a Game of Throne character and the words, “Brace yourselves. Everything pumpkin flavored is coming”). Believe it or not, there is now even a PSL controversy . Spoiler alert: apparently there is no pumpkin in a pumpkin spice latte- who knew?

Thinking about the overwhelming popularity of the pumpkin spice latte can help us explain two sociological concepts: social construction and imagined communities. The idea of a quintessential fall, complete with vibrant orange and red leaves, mittens, hot drinks, and hayrides, more than likely only exists in a small percentage of regions in this country (and even then only lasts a couple of weeks). However, this image of fall certainly exists in the popular imagination, and the pumpkin spice latte supports this construct. Autumn, as a season, varies widely across the United States. In some areas of the country, there are not even definite seasons (Florida and California, I’m looking at you)! Enter the pumpkin spice latte to signal the confused masses about when a season is supposed to change. Is this a problem, then? Not necessarily. But the fact that a commodity has managed to make itself a harbinger of a calendar date change is definitely worth pondering.

Benedict Anderson wrote a book in 1983 called Imagined Communities. In it, Anderson argues that a nation is nothing but a socially constructed imagined community. He suggests that the only way people who never have face to face contact can support invisible political borders is by imagining the community in their heads. Can we say more of pumpkin spice latte drinkers? Starbucks and other coffee companies target this “imagined community” of like-minded PSL drinkers, using its rareness and scarcity to create a (caffeinated) buzz about their product. This imagined community helps give a boost to a previously unheralded season. In addition, the priming of wallets helps corporations as fall purchases escalate to Christmas purchases- the biggest capitalistic opportunity of the year for corporations.

I conducted an informal survey among my Facebook friends, asking them what a pumpkin spice latte meant to them. The overwhelming answer was “fall” (followed by “white girls in yoga pants”). Other people mentioned that the PSL was a “signal” and was a “limited edition,” all signs that a drink has managed to become something more than what it really is: espresso, milk, and some spices (no actual pumpkin, remember). The next time you’re in that long, long line at Starbucks, consider the pumpkin spice latte’s effect on consumerism, the social construction of fall, and imagined communities.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you agree or disagree that a beverage can construct social reality for us? Why or why not?
  2. Name a few other “signals” that are available for purchase when fall, winter, spring, or summer start. Are these as popular as the pumpkin spice latte?
  3. Take a look at The Tonight Show’s Tumblr page about the pros and cons of the pumpkin spice latte. Write your own pros and cons of making a product available only a few months a year.
  4. Read this article about social theory and the pumpkin spice latte. Explain how the ingredients of a PSL, readily available year-round, have become “imagined” as a scarce resource.