Freedom of the Will and Consumption Restrictions


There is a long-standing interest in business ethics around the concept of free will, but study of its possible influence on consumer behavior is only in the nascent stage. This lack of research is particularly acute in certain consumption contexts, especially ones based on highly restricted access that appear to suggest abrogation of the will. In this paper, we offer a novel approach that involves reexamination of qualitative/ethnographic research that has chronicled consumption restrictions without consideration of potential implications for free will. Using a new reanalysis method, we show that some of what is described as “vulnerability” using other theoretical paradigms is subsumed within this domain. Findings demonstrate that a complex relationship between free will and various consumption processes and outcomes exists that is acted out within and outside licit and illicit/formal and informal markets. These restrictions allow for a different vantage point to address free will and consumption, with implications for business ethicists and researchers interested in human quality treatment or human dignity-centered business frameworks.


There is little doubt that the concept of free will is at the root of many philosophical and business ethics discussions (Drascek and Maticic 2008), and it has been contested since the early stages of humanity’s ability for self-reflection (Kane 2005). Neuroscientists suggest that why and how people do things are by-products of non-conscious processes and that all other explanations are nothing more than post hoc theorizing (Gazzaniga 2011; also see Robertson et al. 2017). However, this paper draws on accounts of consumption restrictions as abrogation of the will that sidestep whether people have free will, and it instead emphasizes its desirability but abrogation among consumers often believed to be vulnerable. As a consequence, they experience the loss of marketplace free will under highly restrictive circumstances (e.g., Hill and Stamey 1990; also see Palmer and Hedberg 2013 for a different view of consumer vulnerability). While situations vary widely, the deciding factor for inclusion in this investigation is the belief that chosen paths would have been different if circumstances were under greater control by various community members (Nahmias et al. 2005).

Thus, debate and discussion across various studies involving consumption restrictions as a loss of individual freedom are compelling, but direct evidence that addresses why and how consumer free will is abrogated and its consequences have not been forthcoming (Jahn and Bruhl 2018). A primary contribution of this investigation to business ethics is examination of consumer free will, with its psychological and behavioral outcomes, in environments where abrogation of the will appears to be widespread. We use a mix of studies that come under the rubric consumer vulnerability (see Jones and Middleton 2007). It describes how physical attributes (e.g., vision impairment) and conditions (e.g., homeless living), along with structural problems (e.g., mass incarceration), lead to a lack of free will due to dehumanization as a loss of human quality treatment (Mele 2014) and human dignity (Mea and Sims 2018). This latter term is a process whereby certain persons or groups are no longer given the same rights and responsibilities as other persons in typical social settings or under relevant societal circumstances. Consequently, they often are denied ability to make choices available to most adults, abrogating the will in some, many, or all consumption circumstances. The paper closes by revealing the impact of situations of marketplace restriction for business ethicists interested in firms that do not exhibit corporate moral agency (Hasnas 2018).

More Theoretical Grounding

Baumeister (2008) claims that free will exists when there is a belief that more than one option is available. This implies that freedom of the will can also be exercised by choosing not to act in a situation, such as foregoing purchasing today because greater utility is predicted for purchases in the future (Baumeister et al. 2008). This notion dovetails with a study of mothers that tapped into feelings about free will in a consumer sphere and categorized them as “being in or out of control, being captivated or deliberate, and being restricted or not” (reported in Mick 2008, p. 19; see Thompson et al. 1989 for more details). Such interpretation is supported by Nahmias et al.’s (2005) experimental philosophy work, which found that people’s definitions of free will contain aspects of choice and responsibility. That is, people have free will when they may claim responsibility for their actions.

In the cases reviewed in this manuscript, individuals involved have had basic rights and responsibilities removed from them by outsiders in their marketplaces or in the delivery of goods and services. Such research has often relied on commoditization theory to explain phenomena, focusing on extreme situations like the Holocaust and dehumanizing tactics used by abusers (Hirschman and Hill 2000; Klein and Hill 2008). The premise behind this theory comes from Kopytoff (1986), who described commoditization as transforming individuals into exploitable items through societal institutions such as slavery. Hirschman and Hill (2000) reveal that this process is a conversion from person to thing that is less-than-human by taking away individual identities, reducing status relative to commoditizers, and restricting abilities to navigate material worlds. Yet even this work may not accurately reflect the range of lived consumer experiences under commoditization that is the underlying rationale for abrogation of the will.

Additionally, while relevant research has a history of looking at negative emotional and/or other psychological consequences of restriction (Luce et al. 2001), business ethics and other applied scholars have placed much less emphasis on consumption under restriction or the abrogation of free will (Botti et al. 2008). Some pertinent research (Hill and Stamey 1990; Hill 1991) on the former is based on Goffman’s paradigm (1963) about total control institutions that recognizes spoiled identities and social stigma associated with monikers like insane or prisoner. Psychological consequences of lack of human dignity and control over consumption are broad and deep, and they are made up of a variety of negative reactions and coping strategies. The limited free will literature in this domain suggests that its exercise may result in a stronger sense of self, energized decision making, and a greater focus on the longer term (Baumeister et al. 2008; Mick 2008; Usta and Haubl 2011). Logically, then, its abrogation must have deleterious consequences that are explored here.

Applied research also reveals that individuals labeled as such may fight to regain a sense of humanness through behaviors that support positive identity formation or restoration (Hill and Gaines 2007). As a result, the current investigation examined novel ways people-as-consumers sought to exercise free will to advance their personhood. Consider Ozanne et al. (1998), who found that young men from poverty communities with limited opportunities to buy commodities used property crimes to gain access and to conspicuously consume, all the while thumbing their noses at the larger material society. Yet they were inevitably caught and faced prison and loss of contacts in the outside world. Further, Viswanathan et al. (2010) reveal resilience and innate ability by poor Indian women to adapt shopping strategies that open marketplace relationships. But their quality of life can only advance so far relative to affluence that exists in developed nations.

Therefore, we enter this investigation with the position that perceptions of free will in the marketplace can be negatively impacted by dehumanization processes like commoditization that lead to spoiled identities and restricted access to goods and services described herein as vulnerability. Emotional consequences are negative, but they may also include attempts at identity reformation through alternative means of need fulfillment that seek to reduce perceived vulnerability. These actions are as much attempts to regain lost humanness as they are novel paths to blocked satisfaction. Yet their impact is decidedly mixed, leading to a number of short-term fixes that may have long-term negative consequences, as well as positive behaviors that advance self-esteem and some future opportunities that are outside the vulnerability context. The next subsection provides a brief review of published articles that in combination make up thematic findings for consideration using a free will frame. Of course, this is only one research perspective on consumer vulnerability among the varied perspectives and qualitative approaches in the literature.

Previous Research on Vulnerability That Informs Free Will

A review of articles on consumer vulnerability in the broader literature revealed that 281 mention this term in the body of the text, 56 mention it in the abstract, and 30 have it in the title. However, the focus here is on specific instances that suggest an abrogation of the will by one or more outside parties. As a result, these numbers were pared down to ten exemplars that show significant restrictions that were externally imposed, a depth of understanding of impacts and consequences via extensive work in situ, and a focus on consumption-related restrictions. (Table 1 provides specificity.) Nonetheless, it is clear that this subset may be qualitatively different from the larger base of articles, books, and chapters on the topic of vulnerability. For example, there are many instances, some discussed later, that involve consumers who do not live under extreme circumstances noted here. Consider adults who are deceived into buying a particular cereal because of health claims but do not necessarily suffer from illness or disease as a consequence. The subpopulations selected represent consumers whose life satisfaction is considerably lower because of exchange relationships, revealing the outer edge of vulnerability.

Table 1 Focal articles for analysis and appraisal

The first is by Baker (2006) and involves examination of how people with visual impairments must navigate retail environments to achieve what she refers to as “consumer normalcy.” This study includes depth interviews that chronicle experiences, and it results in themes of participating/being-in-the-marketplace (I am here), achieving distinction through the marketplace (I am me), demonstrating competence and control (I am in control), and being perceived as an equal in the marketplace (I belong). The second is also by Baker (with Baker et al. 2007), and it studies consumption restrictions caused by a natural disaster. Thematically, this article presents processes that make up recovery, and they are catastrophic experiences, response efforts that facilitated or impeded restoration of free will, and community and personal outcomes and transformations that occurred because of shared restrictions.

The third article from Viswanathan et al. (2005) attends to functional illiteracy among consumers, and it uses interview and observational methods consistent with qualitative approaches to data collection. Again, a thematic exploration occurs that places analyses into categories: cognitive predilections (i.e., concrete reasoning and pictographic thinking), decision making (i.e., decision heuristics and emotions and decision tradeoffs), and coping strategies of functionally illiterate consumers (i.e., avoidance and confrontation). The fourth article is also Viswanathan (with Rosa and Ruth 2010), and it concentrates on subsistence consumers–merchants in India. They used long interviews with 37 subsistence consumers who were recruited at community centers and a nonprofit organization that serves them. Thematically, these ideas were uncovered: SCM–vendor relationship subsystem and commitment; SCM–family subsystem and commitment; and relationship subsystems as deviation-reducing mechanisms.

The next two are from a stream of research by Ozanne, with the fifth article an offering from her with Adkins and Ozanne (2005) on low-literate consumers. The premise is that most consumers have literacy issues that impact or restrict maneuvering in the marketplace. The authors used a variety of qualitative methods that culminated in 21 interviews with low-literate individuals. Themes that emerged were stigma acceptance and narrow coping strategies, stigma acceptance and broad coping strategies, stigma negotiation and expanding coping strategies, and stigma rejection and broad coping strategies. The sixth article is by Saatcioglu and Ozanne (2013) and looks at how morality and ethicality played out in a marginalized, working-class community. Eighteen months of fieldwork included observational and interview data with people living in a trailer park. Thematic discovery revealed a typology of consumers that includes the nesters, reluctant emigrants, community builders, homesteaders, and outcasts.

The final four articles are written by Hill and his colleagues, including numbers seven and eight on the list. The seventh article by Hill and Stamey (1990) is based on an ethnographic venture that examined how the homeless living outside the municipal and private shelter systems acquire goods and services necessary to survive. Based on the premise that the homeless are still consumers, issues and themes were posited: acquiring and types of possessions; community and consumption; the homeless as a nomadic society; fighting a deviant label; and the meaning of possessions. The eighth article takes a look inside a private shelter for homeless women and their children, and it chronicles a year-long observation of and interviews at this facility (Hill 1991). The author occupied a locally appropriate role and showcased the shelter, workers, and guests. Thematic revelations include routes to homelessness among the women at the shelter, the guests’ dependence on the shelter, special possessions among the women at the shelter, and fantasies about future home lives.

The last two articles discuss forms of imprisonment and the associated restrictions to consumption. Article nine recounts experiences from Nazi concentration camps during World War II, with an emphasis on coping and survival strategies. Using a macro-level perspective of consumption, this work is embedded in scholarship on restrictions and applies information gained from people who endured this trauma firsthand. The resulting themes are: forced dispossession, survival strategies, reconfiguration of the self, and reemerging into society. The tenth article considers consumptive life within a maximum-security prison, following an 18-month ethnographic immersion by the lead author. This project looks widely at how goods and services are delivered from both the formal and informal markets and yields these themes: inmate perspectives of total institutions that lead to mortification of the self and status reduction; severe restrictions on acquisition and ownership; and rebirth and redefinition of the self, which all occur over several decades of confinement.


One of the central issues of this project is whether we can adequately differentiate free will from other, interrelated constructs of relevance to business ethicists. A few possibilities include ordinary consumption restrictions (Botti et al. 2008), consumer agency (Chaturvedi et al. 2009), and consumer self-efficacy (Bandura 1977), all of which have considerable relevance in this domain. Nonetheless, free will is essential since its abrogation may be a likely cause of consumers’ feelings of severe restriction, as well as a lack of agency or self-efficacy, as our analyses demonstrate. To answer what is meant by free will, we turn to the online version of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (O’Connor 2016), which provides a review of this literature. It notes that this concept has been debated for millennia, with philosophers and ethicists entering the conversation at various intervals. Free will is tied to moral responsibility, love and friendship, and the dignity of the person. It is this latter connection that is most germane to our research premise.

Business scholars agree that there are constraints on meaningful options inside and outside the marketplace (e.g., Botti et al. 2008), and they also agree that most people wish to exert their wills through such choices (i.e., selection of needed or desired goods and services). Together, these conditions suggest ancillary issues to be addressed to capture lived experiences of free will, including ownership, deliberation, and control. Consistent with Baumeister (2008), ownership in this research is defined as the ability to monitor how needs and desires manifest and to acquire and consume accordingly; deliberation is the ability to consider more than one pathway that leads to acquisition and consumption decisions; and control is posited as ability to access a reasonable set of alternatives/options that meet or exceed expectations. Consequently, examination of these qualitative datasets focused on beliefs and perceptions of free will and its abrogation. As noted earlier, we do not enter the determinism debate since it is less relevant to consumption contexts (Baummeister 2008).

In his volume titled The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Pierre Bourdieu (1999) provides a nuanced template for research with persons often considered vulnerable by scholars. He opines that research relationships are regularly structured in ways that position investigators as authority figures who determine what and how data are collected and analyzed, without negotiations as to its focus or eventual uses. As an alternative, Bourdieu (1999, p. 609) recommends scholars practice “active and methodological listening” that help reduce the objectification of persons who are already subject to some form of dehumanization by those that come from what is perceived as socially superior classes. Thus, scholars begin explorations by developing a deep and abiding understanding of people under study, surrendering authority or voice to them. The scholarly investigation can then become “an induced and accompanied self-analysis” (emphasis his, p. 615) that serves multiple agendas without prioritizing any group.

Consequently, our examination seeks to describe in a cohesive and comprehensive way how free will plays out across contexts occupied by previously specified vulnerable consumers, using research that was conducted in ways consonant with this perspective. After selecting the ten articles noted earlier, the process began by reading and rereading these papers to ensure thematic appraisals were well understood. Then, verbatim comments and associated theme monikers were abstracted and placed in a single file. There are over 200 separate remarks and more than 16,000 words, not including one-line or single-sentence transcriptions. This appraisal followed standard procedures, while always including original themes. One methodological exemplar exists in business literature for such qualitative analyses, and it used social practice theory to examine research across nine brand communities (Shau et al. 2009). Their reconsideration of the original interpretations led to concerns that the new interpretation was consonant with authors’ intentions. Thus, lead scholars of the ten focal articles were asked to look at the use of verbatim comments from their research so that embedded meanings would remain true. Of the 19 remarks used, two gave pause to researchers, with both ultimately removed.

Thematic Appraisal

The analysis involved appraisal of verbatim comments as wants, means, and options. However, it became obvious that another frame exists in these data as roles of commodification, restricted access, and self-transcendence. Thus, data fell into overlapping categories as presented: ownership/desires (commodification, restricted access, and self-transcendence); deliberation/means (commodification, restricted access, and self-transcendence); and alternatives/options (commodification, restricted access, and self-transcendence). Of course, not all remarks from these articles were connected to the thematic reanalysis because of different agendas originally associated with them. Yet reading these verbatim remarks and thematic monikers allowed more than half to be assigned to one of the nine resulting categories, suggesting that free will as a theoretical perspective may be an important construct for understanding a subset of vulnerable consumers. Our exposition of preselected themes and revealed subthemes is presented with appropriate studies as explanations, organized by subthemes.

The Role of Commodification

There is a strong belief among these women and men, who seek satisfaction of wants and needs in environments in which they are embedded, that they are considered other by community members who hold sway over their personal and/or consumptive lives. Commodification, broadly construed, captures this phenomenon since its use suggests that persons somehow move from inherent humanness to a lesser thing or commodity that is exploited for its employable value (Kopytoff 1986). In some cases (e.g., here regarding concentration camps and prison life), this transformation is profound and easily recognizable. In other cases, it manifests more broadly as generic depersonalization and dehumanization (e.g., here regarding low literacy and mobile homes). Often considered a process that occurs through time, it involves stripping attributes such as self-control and moral compass from individuals or groups along with denial of their original nature (Gervais et al. 2013). They are subsequently determined not to have traits such as normal emotions, intellectual depth, and rationality required for human dignity.

The literature on free will has struggled with the concept of humanness, as it seeks to understand desires and moral accountability. Frankfurt (1971) presents one version of this discussion by noting that personhood, as distinct from other forms of living beings, can be reflected in the structure of the will. He also finds the verb to want difficult to understand due to its range of meanings. The resulting definition presented by him seems oriented to purposes of business ethicists given it recognizes desires as explicit ambitions to act toward certain ends, in lieu of other actions competing for volition. The idea of second-order desires is also raised, and it requires that persons want certain desires to represent their wills. Nonetheless, free will does not mean that its exercise is without problems. External constraints that bar an individual from exercising free will receive little discussion, other than noting that it should lead to frustration versus sublimation of desires and personhood.

Ownership of Needs and Desires—Wants

In many respects, generic pigeonholing of consumers by legitimate authority figures (prison life, concentration camps, sheltered homeless) as well as mainstream consumers and marketers (low literacy, hidden homeless, vision impaired, mobile homes) sought to abrogate free will by imposing boundaries on needs and desires. The former often reinforced the mentality of punishment that incarceration naturally elicits across real (i.e., prisons) and perceived (i.e., camps) transgressions. Previous identities are typically taken away and replaced by less-than-human monikers symbolized by the loss of names that are replaced with numbers. The latter are more diffused and, occasionally, well meaning, but most consequences are no less severe on the personhood of consumers involved. The tacit belief is that these others must have a different set of needs and desires that are outside the normal range of fulfillment. Consider the verbatim comments below from a prisoner who describes his feelings about the intake policy of the institution, followed by a mobile home resident who reveals prejudices against people who live in trailer parks.

The end of this process not only leaves you stripped of everyone and everything, but stripped of your individual identity. You are now part of a collective identity or one of many inmates. You are no longer a name or a person; you are a number and a commodity. You are a commodity with work value, which now makes you a target market. The money you earn is then paid to you by the producers who devise ways to get it from you through any means available. The means of getting the limited income available to you is also an unjust system which does not take into account you as a person and your needs, but instead a one size fits all approach. We are all simply cogs on the assembly line of Commoditization. [Mortification of the self—Prison life]

I think, trailer parks in general, they more think of the people as being trashy individuals, you know. They can’t afford anything. They think that they don’t work, they don’t try to do anything for their selves. They think everybody that lives in the trailer park lives off welfare and all this crazy stuff, which in the case it’s not always true. Granted that some of the people, yeah, are like that, but then there’s a lot of them like me and Matt who are trying really hard to get out, you know. [Reluctant emigrants—Mobile homes]

Deliberative Pathways to Consumption—Means

As described earlier, this theme is about routes to consumption (pathways) rather than options themselves, which come next. Attention is turned to availability or constriction of avenues in marketplaces that offer the typical access to goods and services in ways that mirror availability to other consumers. In the subpopulations investigated in these articles, every cohort faced difficulties entering facilities such as restaurants and other retail establishments because of stigmas associated with perceived vulnerabilities. For example, hidden homeless were often shunned from grocery stores because of their dress and/or demeanor, and the need to always keep their possessions with them (Hill and Stamey 1990). Prisoners were only given two options for acquiring goods and services for grooming, wearing, eating, etc.—the formal governmental channel and the prison-controlled commissary (Hill and Cunningham 2016). The following sets of comments reveal how commodification is used to stereotype consumers in ways that reduce marketplace access necessary to acquire and use products. The first set shows a positive coping strategy, while the second indicates possible frustration that was offered by Frankfurt (1971).

This is kind of a joke around in the blind community. There are a few restaurants for example that have a quote unquote ‘blind table.’ That is usually the first one in the door. And again, this shows that they are uncomfortable, how to get the blind patrons back to some other seating and who knows why they want you out of the way, because you are considered to be unsightly, a little bit, or you need more attention, so it cuts down on bothering other people in the restaurant, because these people need more attention. [I am me—Vision impaired]

I was at the grocery store not too long ago. We were pricing Christmas gifts, because our money was tight. We are doing some price comparison shopping. This lady from the front… immediately just looks funny at us. We are walking through the store and she starts to follow us. “Is there a problem?”… “Do you think we are shoplifting?” She goes, “You do look kind of suspicious.” We filed a grievance with the store and I have asked my friends not to shop at the store until the grievance is taken care of. [Viswanathan: Coping strategies—Low literacy]

Appropriate Sets of Alternatives—Options

This final theme provides additional evidence of the role of commoditization. Under this rubric, consumers must negotiate selection of what is available in these pathways, while being treated as other by people seeking to reduce their sense of humanness. Once again, the rationale behind such treatment is less important than its negative impact on those individuals subject to its harmful connotations. The vision impaired consumers suffered from marketplace discrimination that forced them to submit to different and inappropriate treatment designed for people with other disabilities (Baker 2006). The women in subsistence markets who lacked formal educations must endure status differentials and were confined to overpriced options of lower quality (Viswanathan et al. 2010). Finally, prisoners were allowed limited options in the one legitimate market that is the commissary, severely hampering their ability to individuate or gain standing relative to other community members (Hill and Cunningham 2016). This theme is further made tangible in difficult circumstances of homelessness and the holocaust (respectively) below.

[The shelters] they dirty, they filthy, and the people in there—they thieves. I don’t know who in there might have AIDS. They rob you, they devious, a lot of them have lice. They smell, don’t want to take a bath … They [shelter employees] don’t care, they treat you like you nobody. They feel like this—if you in here, you nobody cause you don’t want to work. I’m not much better than them [shelter people], but at least I keep myself from smelling. [Acquiring possessions—Hidden homeless]

After they shaved my hair, and I looked at my sister, who looked like a little boy, and we couldn’t help but laughing because she looked so funny, probably I looked funny, too. It was a terrible feeling—I had really very, very nice long hair—when you feel on your naked shoulder the hair falling, but you didn’t see yourself. Its symbolic meaning was clear to everyone: this is an indelible mark, you will never leave here; this is the mark with which slaves are branded and cattle sent to the slaughter, and that is what you have become. There was nothing left of our personal belongings or of our former selves. I saw myself as an animal and realized that I would probably not leave Auschwitz alive. While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies—even minus hair; all we possessed, literally, was our nakedness. What else remained for us as a material link to our former lives? [Forced dispossession—Concentration camps]


This discussion strongly suggests that various forms of commodification or depersonalization are central to identities of these women and men who must consume within negative contexts in which they are embedded. Humanness and its associated characteristics are denied by authority figures and marketers, who make ill-informed decisions of behalf of ultimate consumers based on stereotypes suggesting they lack common traits bestowed on humankind. Their desires, therefore, are subject to tacit denial and/or judgments that fail to recognize their personhood. Free will, as the pursuit of desirable desires, is blunted either to remove wants from consideration or to redirect them toward approved means and ends. (More discussion is provided with the next subthemes.) The literature supports our analysis in that abrogation of free will reduces the individual as well as societal value of these people, subjecting them to restrictions and leading some to seek ways of self-transcendence through alternative pursuit strategies.

The Role of Restricted Access

Commodification naturally leads to restrictions as the research included in this analysis clearly attests (e.g., Klein and Hill 2008). One way to comprehend this relationship is to examine stigmas associated with consumers’ less-than-human status. Under these conditions, what would normally be available to typical consumers because of their desires and abilities are truncated for those defined as other who are absent in rights or various forms of justice in their dealings with the marketplace (Larsen and Lawson 2013). Thus, consumers are believed to have, or are forced to endure, boundaries to individual desires, acceptable market spaces, or alternative sources of satisfaction. For example, Hill and Cunningham (2016) indicate that sexual urges of incarcerated men are deemed inappropriate, with policies of the prison-industrial complex shunning desires, means to their gratification, and appropriate heterosexual options. Other consumptive examples abound and causes are obvious; dishonor associated with status as commodities negates usual marketplace access and alternative goods and services.

Ethics scholars have also looked at forms of restriction, but they have come at this issue from a very different perspective. An alternative way of looking at restriction in this literature requires reflection on the concept of determinism (Shaw 2012). As it has naturally unfolded over millennia, philosophical thinking has debated whether an all-knowing God recognizes in advance what a person will do at every instant (Kane 2005). If, in fact, she/he does, then it is impossible to have free will and people must follow a preordained script from godhead. This perspective is consonant with human agent causation. In the latter context, some scholars do accept free actions as possible and self-determined, describing individuals as prime movers unmoved by forces external to themselves. An underlying but essential contention is that human beings, regardless of individual differences of importance to scholars, suffer from the same maladies or have access to the same options as sentient creatures. Of course, this principle does not represent the lived consumer experience.

Ownership of Needs and Desires—Wants

Under this first theme, restrictions are primal and seek to remove certain desires from any consideration. In some respects, it can be a form of determinism whereby authority figures seek to regulate what consumers truly desire, especially when they are subject to rules and regulations of others. Take, for instance, homeless women who lived in a private shelter (Hill 1991). As conditions of their residencies, they were told when to arrive and leave (consume the home), when, where, and what to eat (despite large amounts and varieties of food available), who among them could stay (no males above age of twelve), and how long their occupancy would continue (maximum of 30 days). While these rules originally were designed to ensure smooth functioning in a group living environment and incentivize seeking more permanent homes, it often operated to restrict day-to-day desires of occupants, leading to withdrawal from surroundings or chronic anxiety about their futures. The process of restricting desires also is noted below, from two different forms of incarceration.

From the time the handcuffs are placed on you,’til the time you’re placed behind the wall into a cell, everything is unknown. Your name becomes a number, your dignity becomes a constant fight to maintain, your needs become plenty with little, if any understanding of how to acquire what you need. It is in this stage that fear controls the mind; you react to the smallest thing, a guard, another prisoner, even your own family, if you have any. In this stage trying to understand the basic routine, and acquire the necessities needed is most important. Things like soap, underclothing, food, figuring out how to use the phone, and going on visits become important. Each lesson learned brings the person closer to the reality that money is needed because prison costs. [Mortification of the self—Prison life]

They took Mummy’s earrings and some other bits of jewelry, including two of my own silver cups which I had won at school. … Meanwhile, the ‘commission’ started going around the house, taking down pictures and rolling up carpets. … Each of us was allowed to take 25 kilos of belongings. … At the end of the fifteen minutes we were told to line up outside the house and wait for a lorry that would pick us up. [Forced dispossession–Concentration camps]

Deliberative Pathways to Consumption—Means

Restrictions on desires often are made operational by restrictions on where and how to access goods and services. Marketplaces are venues where products are put on display, with the unspoken assumption that interested parties can initiate and consummate exchange relationships. Yet many of the consumers in this analysis lack access because of differences in how they look, dress, seek satisfaction, or occupy societal positions. A prime example comes from the hidden homeless discussed by Hill and Stamey (1990). They were vilified by service providers because of their lack of regular hygiene from living outdoors. Additionally, ability to earn income was also restricted, leaving them with uneven flows of money. Thus, women and men occasionally resorted to dumpster diving to acquire eatable foods from large trash containers behind restaurants. The ensuing comments show vision impaired consumers also had impediments to consumption pathways, and the prison system purposely constrained income to restrict access.

There is one place in town, a Chinese restaurant, and I met some friends, they were waiting for me, and they were not going to let me in with the dog. And I said, “No, I can have a dog here. It is okay. I have some papers.” And, finally one of my friends got up and you know, he was a little upset, and he was very nice about it, but you could tell he was upset because he had been watching me go through this for five minutes. [I belong—Vision impaired]

Base pay a month for an inmate is usually between $19.00 and $55.40. If the inmate has cable, $16.50 is automatically deducted from his account, as is any owed medical costs (they may not be aware of). The average income for an inmate with no outside support is a subsistence of extreme poverty—so medical costs affect them greatly. The income we earn has not increased in decades, though costs all around us have. Poor care for profit or the little income prisoners have causes resentment. [Severe restrictions on acquisition—Prison life]

Appropriate Sets of Alternatives—Options

Within these restricted marketspaces are assortments of goods and services that are below acceptable standards. Baker et al. (2007) show how natural disasters destroy retailers and associated product lines, leaving consumers vying for poor substitutes from donations and government provisions. Once shock from the magnitude of their loss occurred, residents tried to regain senses of self and relative standings by returning to former standards of living despite lack of previous options. Additionally, prisoners and holocaust victims had limited pathways to consumption and even fewer alternatives within them (Hill and Cunningham 2016; Klein and Hill 2008, respectively). Women and men in concentration camps were given meager and poor-quality possessions, from clothing to utensils and healthcare to foods. One dangerous way to supplement these items was to work in an area called Canada, which is where goods from arriving detainees were stored. Getting caught taking them was punishable by death. The remarks next show how lack of alternatives likewise manifests in subsistence markets and with the hidden homeless, respectively.

Since we buy from them regularly, they charge the same rate [each day]. They charge 46 rupees for oil, [but] if we buy the same oil from another place [and they find out], they would charge 47 or 48 rupees. The price would be higher if we buy from other shops. [SCM-Vendor relationship—Subsistence markets]

There’re a lot of fast-food places and they all work pretty much the same. You find out when the place closes, and you just go over there and climb in [the dumpster]. It’s usually the same procedure. One bag has all of the stuff from the kitchen, the other bags are full of refuse paper. You get the heaviest bag out, and that’s the one with all the burgers in it, and fill up your sack. [Acquiring possessions—Hidden homeless]


This discussion clarifies the negative impact of commoditization and its related stigma. If one is less-than-human, then it goes without saying that many desires and their actualizations are off limits. Consequently, normal exchange relationships in markets are not available to these consumers, who confront restrictions on desires, means to their satisfaction, and available goods and services for fulfillment. Restriction is the basis of depersonalization strategies foisted on these women and men by authority figures (prison life, sheltered homeless, concentration camps), or higher-status individuals and/or marketers in their living environments (hidden homeless, low literacy, subsistence markets, vision impaired). The process of restricted access has some similarities with the concept of determinism. While God does not play a role in limiting the exercise of free will, others enforce a secular determinism over what is acceptable for consumers.

The Role of Self-Transcendence

In many respects, the relevant marketing literature has dedicated much of its focus on self-transcendence by these consumers, even if it is not universally shared among them. Part of the rationale may be a real-world concern for the people met along their journeys; another part may have to do with the obligation to leave the field without causing damage to or potentially enhancing their consumer lives. Regardless, these qualitative investigations are replete with examples of people who have defied odds against them and found novel ways of looking at their material worlds and improving them. This process of self-transcendence usually takes place over time, as consumers seek to negate stigmas associated with their deviant labels (Goffman 1963). Virtually all monikers in these articles are laden with implicit judgments such as bum for homeless adults, stupid for low literacy, criminal for prisoners, as well as others. It is true, for example, that in imprisoned contexts, individuals may give up or give into stereotypes that pervade day-to-day existences. Yet even there, some consumers make radical changes to reform.

Chisholm (2002) provides a unique but relevant way of considering how transcendence happens and the societal perspectives of its results. His contention begins with the premise that humans are responsible for what they do and for what they fail to do. In some cases, institutional and/or community members hold these consumers partially or wholly accountable for difficulties they must navigate because of perceived causes and effects. For instance, prisoners are often held answerable for actions during commission of crimes, despite problems due to mitigating circumstances. Low-literate consumers are expected to learn how to read as children, without regard for native abilities or quality of school systems. Under certain conditions, homeowners who decided to live in disaster-prone areas (e.g., near an ocean) are held liable for deciding not to reside in more protected communities. As Chisholm notes, “If he had chosen to do otherwise, then he would have done otherwise.” Stated simply, you made your bed, now lie in it and accept the aftereffects, but these consumers may refuse.

Ownership of Needs and Desires—Wants

To have freer wills, consumers in these articles find ways of reemerging from current selves into people who have the right to consume at higher levels. Part of this process is distancing themselves from others so that they as well as more entitled community members view them of higher status. The example from Hill and Stamey (1990) found that the hidden homeless often believed they were better than the sheltered homeless who relied on social welfare systems for goods and services. It is reminiscent of inmates studied by Goffman (1961) who attempted to create a social hierarchy based on their perceived levels of psychological dysfunction. Therefore, it is important that both people within and outside the population recognize their elevated positions and, for the most part, believe that it is due to personal efforts. The exemplars below seek to demonstrate the important facets of resurfacing desires: distancing from lesser others; the significance of independence; and the need to publicly demonstrate newly found abilities, respectively.

They don’t keep their yards up or they put too much crap in it, like up there, and, you know, come on! All you have to do is plant a couple of trees and flowers and things and just keep it clean. Some people still have their Christmas lights out. Come on! Hello? Trailer trash. [laughter] You know like they show in the movies. Let’s live up to our reputation, okay? … There’s some in here that they don’t want to have a job. They just want to make babies and live off the system, and that just disgusts me because people like you and I are supporting them to have babies. [Nesters—Mobile homes]

I have an elder brother. Ten persons are working for my brother. He has a car, articles [material goods], and he is well [off] now. Though he is well settled, we never approached him for [help even though] we were in a struggle. I did the marriage arrangements well to my elder son on my own expenses. I provided education to another son and met all of his expenses. I took care of all without anyone’s assistance for anything. I have been very thrifty and maintain my family well. I never approach him. I never borrowed a single rupee from him. [SCM-Family relationship—Subsistence markets]

When I start in the reading program and they ask me what kind of goals I want to do, and I said that I’d like to pick up my Bible, a psalm book every evening in my church from the congregation. And I did. I stand up in front of the church in front of 65 or 55 people, and read a couple verses. And the people can tell how far I’ve come. [Ozanne: Stigma negotiation—Low literacy]

Deliberative Pathways to Consumption—Means

Advancement or reinstitution of human desires and personhood can open new doors into the marketplace. In concentration camps and prison life, ability to navigate licit and illicit markets is both a cause and result of institutional standing. Holocaust victims would tell of special access to goods and services that resulted from their athletic prowess, work skills, or interpersonal manipulations with guards and other inmates of the supervising class known as kapos (Klein and Hill 2008). Some prisoners employed similar abilities in making products to sell in the underground market, allowing them to acquire more than the average man and distinguish themselves accordingly (Hill and Cunningham 2016). Another coping strategy is to reimagine what one has relative to past and greater deficiencies, or to redefine available products in a manner that makes them more acceptable. Sometimes, the first step toward transcendence requires fantasy of what life could be without the loss of free will, as the first set of remarks shows. The next set describes the realization (or rationalization) that what one has is significantly greater than previous lives.

I used to have a fantasy of getting locked up in [a store] and that was ten floors of department store. And I said I hope they close the doors and they don’t know I am here. And then when I get tired, I will go to the mattress department and take a nap and then wake up in the morning after a good night in bed! But now, when I am free to do that [no longer working], I don’t do it. And I still try to push myself to go shopping. [I am here—Vision impaired]

We live really good. I don’t think we’re poor. Can’t classify me as being poor. To me, poverty level is me out walking on the sidewalk standing back watching the guy at the restaurant dump some food in the dumpster so I can eat. That’s poverty. I have a different, just a different definition of being poor, you know? We’ve got cable television, we’ve got water, you’ve got one of these [showing his cell phone]. When you don’t have a phone, you’re disconnected from everything. [Nesters—Mobile homes]

Appropriate Sets of Alternatives—Options

Renewal of desires and reopening of market spaces allow for larger sets of alternatives to meet consumptive needs, whether real or imagined, which ultimately lead to greater personhood from previous commoditization. Again, it requires these consumers to believe and to act as if their wills are the center of their decision processes. In part, free will must operate as agent causation from the point of view of ethicists, who debate the role of the self in thoughts and behaviors. As some women and men seek self-transcendence, they become increasingly aware of previous feelings of restriction and their negative impacts as reflected on their material lives and societal/institutional stations. Having previously restricted options now at their disposal is akin to losing the lights in a violent storm and then having them go back on hours later. What was once available was lost but now found, causing a taken-for-granted usage to be replaced with a new appreciation. The final two remarks reveal the joy experienced by such consumers as they move from not having to having over time.

My feeling was, when I walked through the door I said, “I am here. This is great!” I was like a kid in a candy store. I had some money in my pocket, and I just had to find the right candy and that was it! [I am here—Vision impaired]

We sleep good at night, you know. I can lock the door, we have a nice place, we don’t have to worry about it raining because at the other place [referring to their previous home] it would rain and you’d have to put a bowl in the floor to catch the rain and all of that. … Now, we’ve got a heat pump and, I mean, you know, we’ve got everything, so I’m feeling better. [Nesters—Mobile homes]


The abrogation of free will does not necessarily go uncontested, as some of these women and men seek ways of self-transcendence. This process begins by fighting deviant labels such as inmate, and its negative connotations and restrictions. To exert the will, these consumers often find ways to elevate their social stations compared to individuals suffering from the same restrictions, allowing for wider thinking, greater access, and larger assortments of goods and services. These changes shift one’s perspectives from a commoditized self to at least partial return of humanness, with requisite rights and justice expectations (Larsen and Lawson 2013). Such people eschew their previous fates and reinvigorate agent causation in their material lives. Ordinarily, it goes both ways; a greater sense of humanness opens a person to consumptive possibilities, and these possibilities suggest greater humanness. This transcendence is exerted in situations that are most dire, like concentration camps and living on the streets where continued existence can be threatened. Thus, it serves both individual survival and social status needs.

Theoretical Appraisal

In a volume titled, The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT psychologist Daniel Wegner (2002) discusses the brain–body connection and the role of neuroscience in understanding free will. He opens chapter 5 with the following assertion: “The illusion of the will is so compelling that it can prompt the belief that acts were intended when they could not have been. It is as though people aspire to be ideal agents who know all their actions in advance” (p. 145). Whether true or untrue, it resonates with other work in psychological sciences (e.g., Vohs and Schooler 2007) as well as the analysis discussed here. In both the consumer literature that considers the impact of depersonalization and commoditization and the ethics literature that signals free will as an essential ingredient for the human species, the belief in an unobstructed right to think, feel, and act defines humanness. This perspective neither engages nor refutes expanding brain science that suggests the impossibility of free will (Gazzaniga 2011). It also is noncommittal on the role of a divine entity directing human behavior from above.

Instead, our approach recognizes the desire by consumers to direct their consumption decisions without restriction or abrogation of their wills. Of course, all persons have restrictions to acquisition and utilization of goods and services as a condition of navigating marketplaces (Botti et al. 2008). For some consumers, it is a matter of geography (e.g., isolated locations), resources (e.g., lack of funds), motivation (e.g., not worth the effort), or other factors that impact people equally. For others, it manifests as discussed here as a specific reduction in status to less-than-human and unworthy of typical rights and justice parameters (Larsen and Lawson 2013). Such consumers are often vilified and defined by negative monikers like the women and men in the focal articles. In a book chapter written by the Psychologist Susan Fiske (2013), she noted findings from a thought experiment where people were asked whether they would pull a lever to reroute a train to kill one person but avoid killing a larger number. People were hesitant to do so, but they were less hesitant when the one to be killed had a description like drug addict. Humanness is reduced in such cases through a lack of human quality treatment.

What exacerbates their situations is a form of determinism that operates differently than the debate in the ethics literature. The historical standpoint is that an omnipotent being has ability to divine what human beings do in advance of their occurrences, suggesting thoughts and actions are preordained. The more recent scientific viewpoint is thoughts and actions are outside one’s control, and the belief in free will is a deception. What is revealed by our analysis is that better others who cannot relate to consumers because of perceived deficits, are in formal positions (e.g., prison guards, welfare social workers, store owners) or have informal powers (neighbors, usual customers, retail clerks) to impede their wants, means, and options. They do so by commoditizing these consumers and taking away or suggesting they are unworthy of ordinary human desires as they manifest and are actualized in marketplaces. These explicit denials of desires are compounded by reductions in access to spaces and products that have the capacity to meet or exceed consumer needs.

While causation remains uncertain in these contexts, we posit here that commoditization leads to restrictions, which then leads to self-transcendence under at least some circumstances (see Fig. 1). Again, restrictions are part-and-parcel to consumer lives, but it is the reason for and extent of that make a difference for such consumers. Extremes of prison life, concentration camps, and sheltered homeless are special cases of harsh restrictions and (sometimes) added punishments. However, the situations of low literacy, subsistence markets, and mobile homes also exhibit characteristics that show how many desires and their actualizations can be negatively impacted by third parties. Some people among these groups are willing to let associated stigmas, with their externally imposed definitions cast its shadow over their consumption, but others seek transcendence to preferred identities to develop greater opportunities. This positioning often is in relation to less able others who suffer from the same commodified positions. Thus, the hidden homeless are superior to sheltered homeless, and kapos were better off relative to other concentration camp victims. Goffman (1961) might have concurred, but that it plays out in markets is of special importance here.

Fig. 1

Free will and consumer behavior

Informing Free Will Research

From the perspective of previous research on this subset of vulnerable consumers, our appraisal is consistent with thematic explications of articles discussed here. For example, the scholarship of Baker (2006) on visually impaired consumers makes clear their struggle for humanness and a reduction in the restrictions that abrogate their collective wills, as they seek ordinary recognition in the marketplace as worthy of consideration (I am here; I am me; I am in control; I belong). Their longings make evident commodified ways that they are characterized and resulting restrictions in retail spaces and product options. Further, her work with Baker et al. (2007) involving disaster relief and recovery shows that even short-term restriction and abrogation triggers the desire among some for self-transcendence by at least some victims, regaining lost possessions as well as acquiring new items that return them to previous social standings. Taken together, her research identifies how free will of desires, means, and options combine with various roles of commodification, restriction, and self-transcendence to express consumer consciousness of the need for human dignity through consumption.

The articles by Viswanathan and his colleagues operate similarly. Research that includes Rosa and Harris (2005) dealing with functional illiteracy and navigation of markets shows how restrictions and abrogation of the will manifest and the deleterious effects on consumption. These difficulties notwithstanding, some individuals found ways of coping with and moving beyond limitations so that their senses of self were not diminished because of the associated stigma and any resulting restrictions. There is an expressed anxiety response of flight/avoidance and fight/confrontation that recognizes dysfunctional and functional reactions to a loss of free will and humanness. His second research project with Rosa and Ruth (2010) of impoverished consumers functioning in subsistence markets presents evidence of the role of commodified positions of women in India, and how they expand self-images and consumption in exchange relationships. This research, once again, confirms the importance of humanness, eschewing deviant labels, and expanding opportunities to exert free will.

Ozanne and her coauthors have produced research that also supports our appraisal. For instance, her investigation of low literacy with Adkins and Ozanne (2005) taps into commoditization through negative connotations in themes that include stigma acceptance, stigma negotiation, and stigma rejection. Additionally, low-literate consumers use coping strategies that move from personally imposed restrictions that exacerbate others’ abrogation of their free will, to tactics that broaden and expand their abilities to navigate markets in public venues. Moreover, her investigation with Saatcioglu and Ozanne (2013) of mobile home residents is almost entirely about how different subsets of consumers sought to differentiate themselves from other inhabitants. In every case, they sought to advance their statuses (and humanness) by fighting against stereotypes of trailer trash that have little concern for their individual homes and their community. Some members did so by distinguishing themselves from lesser residents; others by showing how current dwellings imply significant progress relative to previous home lives.

The last two sets are by Hill and colleagues concerning homelessness and incarceration, respectively. The former examines the material lives of both hidden and sheltered homeless persons who endure different pathways to commoditization and the return to humanness. Those hidden homeless who exist primarily outside mainstream society actively contest this negative moniker by actions that signal independence from the social welfare system relative to shelter dwellers (Hill and Stamey 1990). Such comparisons are designed to showcase abilities to acquire versions of acceptable possessions that express self-transcendence to desirable social stations. The other subpopulation of women and children experienced highly restricted access to products they want and need, while residing at a private facility (Hill 1991). They cannot understand rules in place that infantilize them, which is a form of commoditization. Coping strategies may involve fantasizing about previous or future home lives that represent more acceptable accommodations. This tactic also is a form of self-transcendence or its precursor.

The final set by Hill and other scholars describes the consumptive situations endured by people who are incarcerated. The first offering (Klein and Hill 2008) discusses material lives of women and men who survived internment in concentration camps during World War II. They experienced a steady decline in their abilities to exercise free will, as they moved from a normal existence to toil for the Third Reich. The themes of forced dispossession, survival strategies, reconfiguration of the self, and reemerging into society provide examples of commoditization and abrogation of the will that ultimately lead to a return of humanness on release. The second article (Hill and Cunningham 2016) examines a parallel environment (but for different reasons), whereby prisoners in a maximum-security facility initially experience mortification of the self and status reduction that imposed on them a less-than-human standing. Some informants seek self-transcendence, described thematically as rebirth and redefinition of the self, over the course of ensuing decades as a way of societal redemption.

Closing Remarks

Of course, there are other investigations and different contexts that suggest a wider application of the free will paradigm within consumption restrictions imposed by firms lacking corporate moral agency. Consider the racial discrimination noted by Bone et al. (2014), who chronicled the impact of extensive restrictions on self-identities of African-American consumers. While it was not their intention to examine the abrogation of free will, it is intuitively obvious that these restrictions operated in ways that are consistent with the studies chronicled here. A recent article on anti-service using incarceration as its context intimated that other exchange relationships have increasingly begun to depersonalize and commoditize customers over time due to changes in service delivery (e.g., gas stations and banks) or perceptions of consumers as less-than-human (e.g., airlines and fear of terrorism) (Hill et al. 2016). If these and other exchange relationships are within or outside the free will paradigm is a decision for other interested scholars to make, but their consideration of such may provide a better way of understanding how abrogation of the will informs previous research on vulnerability.


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The author thanks Stacey Baker, Julie Ozanne, and Madhu Viswanathan for their helpful comments ensuring that his interpretation of their research was accurate and appropriate. The guest editors and the reviewers provided excellent and helpful recommendations that significantly improved this paper.

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Hill, R.P. Freedom of the Will and Consumption Restrictions. J Bus Ethics 164, 311–324 (2020).

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  • Consumption
  • Reanalysis
  • Qualitative research
  • Free will