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| conference papers |

Knowing Consumers: Actors, Images, Identities in Modern History

International Conference

ZIF (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung/Centre for Interdisciplinary Research), Bielefeld, Germany.

The conference explored the changing meanings, identities, and politics of 'the consumer' in the modern and contemporary period. The conference was organised by Prof. Heinz-Gerhard Haupt (Bielefeld) and Dr. Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck College; ESRC-AHRB Cultures of Consumption Research Programme), and was held at ZIF (Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung), in Bielefeld (Germany) on 26-28 February 2004.

The conference engaged with 'Knowing Consumers' in the dual sense of the title: how do different kinds of knowledge of 'consumers' emerge over time, and in what ways and contexts have individuals and groups come to think and act as 'consumers'. The principal aim of the conference was thus to broaden the study of consumer societies from one of goods and processes to give greater attention to the role of consumers as actors. Here the interest is in the role played by the emerging social sciences in identifying and constructing 'the consumer' but also always on the ways in which 'consumers' became self-conscious actors and were in certain contexts (but not others) recognised or constructed as such by other social groups, commercial bodies, and political institutions. Whereas as late as the nineteenth century 'the consumer' was a marginal category in social and political language, it has become an ever expanding, varied, and hotly contested source of identity for actors in many contemporary societies. The conference explored the history and politics of this development.

The present and future place of consumers in society and political processes is to-day, once again a hotly debated topic, among new social movements and consumer advocacy groups as well as at Brussels and international organisations. The conference sought to provide a creative dialogue between past and present perspectives of this process, not least by involving leading experts and advocates of consumer interests to-day. The conference was multidisciplinary and brought together scholars interested in the changing self-understanding of historical actors as 'consumers' and in the changing problematisation of 'consumers' by others, in fields of knowledge, politics, and commerce.

The emergence of 'Knowing Consumers' was neither a linear nor a socially or geographically even process of convergence. As studies in material culture and sociology since Pierre Bourdieu and others have suggested, the influence of consumer goods as 'markers' and 'makers' of social status and gender roles has varied tremendously in different communities and societies. The conference will expand the question about the relationship between goods and 'distinction' to ask about the uneven presence of consumers in different societies as well as in different socio-political contexts in the twentieth century. Next to inquiries into the consumer in economics, psychological, the law, and the social sciences, the conference will thus compare the different generational make-up of the consumer, the place of the consumer in households and politics, and its relation to retailers and producers. One question here is about the changing sphere of action/reaction for consumers in different spheres of life. Another is about how consumers have become connected to a changing array of goods, services, and experiences, with a changing sense of identity, interest, duty and entitlement. The conference is thus comparative and also asks about modes of transfer of knowledge and identification, between social groups and fields of knowledge, but also between different areas of the world. Of particular significance here are comparisons between European consumers and the 'new consumers' outside Europe, especially in Asia. Together, the conference will thus produce a much-needed combination of exemplary case studies and comparative perspectives.


Conference Papers
image of book cover

Nothing in these papers may be cited, quoted, summarised or reproducedwithout permission of the author(s)

Please note that a selection of these papers (as marked by *) have been revised and published in the following work: The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World. Edited by Frank Trentmann (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2006). Please refer to the revised chapters in this book for citation and quotation.

(alphabetical order by first author surname):

001 Maxine Berg Selling Consumption in the Eighteenth Century: Advertising and Promotional Culture
For further information on this paper please email:
002 James Carrier * Consumption and anthropology: limits to culture?
Download as a Word document [92.5K]
003 Marie Chessel * Women and the Ethics of Consumption in France: the Ligue Sociale d’Acheteurs (1902-1914)
Download as a Word document [131K]
004 Michelle Everson * Legal Constructions of the Consumer
Download as a Word document [163K]
005 Ben Fine * Addressing the Consumer
Download as Word document [108K]
006 Jos Gamble * Consumers with Chinese characteristics? British and Japanese multinational retailers’ representations of their Chinese customers
Download as a Word document [226K]
007 Peter Lunt Psychology and the Consumer
Download as a Word document [76K]
008 Ina Merkel * From Stigma to Cult: The change of interpretation in the East German culture of consumption
Download as a Word document [86K]
009 Frank Mort * Cosmopolitanism and the Pleasure Economy: London in the 1950s and 1960s
For information on this paper please contact the author: Frank Mort:
010 Chris Pole New Consumers? Children, Fashion and Consumption
Download as a Word document [101K]
011 Uwe Spiekermann * From Neighbour to Costumer Retailer-Consumer Relations in 20th century Germany
Download as a Word document [162K]
012 Jakob Tanner Incorporated knowledge and the making of the consumer: Nutritional science and food habits in the USA, Germany and Switzerland (1930s to 50s)
Download as a Word document [140K]
013 Vanessa Taylor & Frank Trentmann * Liquid Politics: Water Politics in Victorian England and the Formation of the Consumer
forthcoming in "Past and Present".
014 Claudius Torp Political Visions of Consumer Society in Weimar Germany
Download as a Word document [94K]
015 Donald Winch * The Problematic Status of the Consumer in Orthodox Economic Thinking from Smith to Marshall
Download as a Word document [107K]



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