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Consumption, Modernity and the West: Re-thinking Narratives of Consumerism

California Institute of Technology, Los Angeles
16-17 April 2004

A project of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the California Institute of Technology, and of the ESRC/AHRC programme Cultures of Consumption. Project directors: John Brewer (CalTech) and Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck College, London.)

Over the last twenty years there has been an explosion of academic work within the social sciences and humanities on what has variously been characterised as 'consumer society', 'consumerism', 'consumer culture(s)', 'regimes of consumption' and 'the consumer'. Almost all of this work, whether addressing Renaissance Italy, eighteenth-century Britain and France, nineteenth-century Germany, twentieth-century Asia, Europe or America, or twenty-first-century globalisation has been governed by a narrative of modernity which plots the story of the progressive development of modern forms of consumption at the expense of more traditional practices. There is a geography to this (largely linear) temporality: from a Western (North American and European) centre to a traditional South/3rd World periphery. And it frequently embodies the assumption that 'real' i.e. modern consumption is defined as the gratification of individual material acquisitiveness in the marketplace.

There are several problems with such a narrative. It operates on a crudely manichaen distinction in which consumer practices can only be modern or traditional; it sees changes in consumption practices almost exclusively in terms of adoption and resistance to modernity; it overlooks or occludes practises that do not easily fit into its typology; it fails to account for the richness and diversity of consumer practices both in the West and elsewhere; and, in its focus on individual desire, fails to capture the politics of consumption, whether as governmentality or as the collective action of citizens.

The aim of our two conferences, one in North America, the other in Britain, is to ask 'are there more fruitful analytic and research strategies than that which links consumption to Western modernity?' To that end we want to de-centre Europe and the West, investigating the diversity of consumer cultures and regimes of consumption, examining regional specificities and transnational exchanges, processes of difference as well as shared trajectories. The two meetings will bring together experts from a variety of disciplines studying different parts of the globe in order to explore fresh ways of thinking about the changing nature and dynamic of consumption in societies over the last three hundred years.

The discussion will focus on two dimensions of the problem: transnational exchange and the changing meaning and functions of consumption in different societies and regimes. The conferences will offer a much-needed historical perspective on contemporary debates about global consumerism, and an analytical critique of much of the literature that treats consumption merely as a facet of western modernity.

List of Attendees

David M. Anderson (History) Oxford
Adam Arvidsson, Copenhagen
Bob Batchelor (History) Georgia Southern University
Craig Clunas (Art History) University of Sussex
Lizabeth Cohen (History), Harvard University
Jean Comaroff (Anthropology) Chicago
Deborah S. Davis (Sociology) Yale University
Margot Finn (History) Warwick University
Sheldon Garon (History) Princeton
Meg Jacobs (History) Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bronwen Morgan (Law) Oxford
Kenneth Pomeranz (Economic History) UC Irvine
Michael Redclift (Geography) King's College, London
Roberta Sassatelli (Sociology) University of East Anglia
Don Slater (Sociology) LSE
Nigel Thrift (Geography)Oxford University
David Vogel (Political Science), Berkeley
Richard Wilk (Anthropology) Indiana University



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