>Emerging Research Themes
Research in the Cultures of Consumption programme
is now under way. The programme offers fresh insights into consumption in
a global context. The first phase of the £5 million programme selected sixteen leading research projects from over 260. Several important
themes have emerged from the first phase of projects. These concern the
dynamic relationship between local, national, and global consumer cultures;
the changing connections between consumption, citizenship, and public services;
and the growing importance of consumption in the family and household as
well as in the market place. The strength of the programme stems from its
interdisciplinary nature, bringing together sociologists and geographers,
historians and political scientists, experts in law and management along
with professors of fashion and design.
II of the research programme has been advertised in the national
press in June 2003. We are now inviting applications.
For further information, see www.consume.bbk.ac.uk.
For guidelines and criteria of eligibility: www.esrc.ac.uk/esrccontent/researchfunding/
Lectures: To foster public and academic debate, leading British
and international experts will discuss critical aspects of consumption
a public lecture series at the Royal Society in autumn 2003 and spring
2004. The first public lecture will be given by Prof. John Brewer on ‘The
Error of Our Ways’ on 23 September 2003, at the Royal Society,
6:30 pm. Admission is free, by ticket only.
For tickets please apply:
Phone: 020 7079 0601
Fax: 020 7079 0602
For more information, see www.consume.bbk.ac.uk.
Return to top of page
Emerging Research Themes
One key question we examine in the programme is that of convergence,
divergence, and transfer between different cultures of consumption.
A project at Manchester compares consumption patterns since the 1970s
in USA, UK, France, Italy and Norway to see whether there is an international
convergence in consumption behaviour. A project at Oxford follows the
expansion of the use of the stimulant Khat (qat) and places globalization
of its consumption in the context of international debates about drug
use. How multinational retailers have entered the growing Asian consumer
is examined in a project based at Royal Holloway, London. Researchers
at King’s College, London are tracing the socio-economic and environmental
consequences of changing global demand for the Mexican chewing gum industry.
The intersection between global and local dynamics is also at the heart
of the Oxford-based project on the commodification of water and consumer
second theme emerging from these and other projects is the ways in which local cultures of consumption relate to domestic and international
networks of production, media, and services. A project at the
London College of Fashion explores the development of London's West End
as a key location in metropolitan, national and global cultures of fashion
consumption, and the international networks of fashion, leisure and tourism.
Researchers at the Open University are studying how service consumption
has developed, with regard to patterns of information usage, the nature
and role of virtual consumer communities, and the impact on professions
and organisations. Whether media consumption promotes or undermines a
sense of citizenship is the question of a project based at LSE. A team
at Coventry is studying alternative food networks such as local food projects,
co-operatives and Internet schemes which seek to create 'closer', more
'authentic' relationships between consumers, producers and food. How cultural
meanings of food and their economic value are transformed as it passes
through the commodity chain is the subject of a research project at Sheffield.
A third theme
is the changing place of consumption and its contribution to people’s
identities in family, household, and the market place. At Leicester
researchers are studying children's clothing consumption in the context
of both 'push' (design, marketing) and 'pull' (pleasure, desire) factors.
How people adopt 'ethical' consumption behaviour and how policies and
campaigns of ethical consumption transform the patterns of self-cultivation
practised by people in everyday life is the question of a project at Bristol.
A historical perspective on changing consumption patterns is provided
by a project at Exeter, which focuses on women's work within the home
in seventeenth century England.
theme concerns the changing boundaries between consumption and
public services. A project at the Open University examines how
relationships between state and citizens have come to evolve around a
consumerist ethos within different services (health care, policing and
social care). How consumers in Britain evaluate and experience different
ways of making their views known, and whether there is a 'culture clash'
between producers and consumers in the public sector is being studied
by researchers at Stirling. A Brighton-based project researches the emergence
of a participatory consumer democracy in the second half of the twentieth
century by following the work of the British Council of Industrial Design
(now the Design Council).
information about individual research projects in the Cultures of Consumption
programme go to: http://www.consume.bbk.ac.uk/research.html
Divergence? The Changing Dynamics Between Local and Transnational Cultures
1. Diffusion of Cultures of Consumption: A Comparative Analysis,
by Alan Warde at Manchester.
This new project analyses the dynamics of consumer cultures in the
last third of the 20th century. It is widely held that advanced capitalist
societies are characterised by a ‘consumer culture’ – a
culture in which how and what we consume has become a major means to
identities, mediate our interactions with others, and even shape our
politics. Among the postulated social effects of this development are
and fragmentation of behaviour, and less segmentation along lines of
socio-demographic differences like class and region. It is usually
presumed that this occurred
pretty evenly across affluent western societies, that global culture
is consumer culture, and that a tendency towards homogenisation of
consumer behaviour is emerging along an axis of cosmopolitanism or
Some people disagree, who see a global-local dialectic at work. Surprisingly,
research has neither systematically examined the emergence of cultures
consumption nor compared the degree of its uniformity across different
nation states. That is the main purpose of this new research project.
surveys repeated regularly since the 1960s, the project compares the trajectories
of four European countries with that of the USA. Two main quantitative
data sources will be used, household expenditure surveys and time use
diaries, to explore to what extent trajectories in patterns of consumption
are converging towards some common norm and how such trends affect and
reflect social divisions within those countries.
offers a new understanding of the relationship between globalising pressures,
nationally specific experiences and internal differentiation within countries
by generation, gender, class, and ethnicity. Extrapolation from past trends
will provide an indispensable benchmark for any effective 'prospective
focus' seeking to imagine and construct alternative future scenarios regarding
product demand or cultural convergence. It will also provide intriguing
information about the nature of the trade-offs that people continually
make between time and money.
The Commodification of Water, Social Protest and Cosmopolitan Citizenship,
by Bronwen Morgan at Oxford.
Focusing on urban water consumption and delivery, this project explores
links between the status of the 'global consumer' and the trend toward
global governance. It examines the private sector's participation in water
delivery to households, its consequences and social protest. One aspect
of the project is to track important international processes that affect
the status of water. These processes include multi-stakeholder dialogues,
embodied by the triennial World Water Fora.
team participated in the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan in March
2003 and is mapping the politics of the struggles at the global level
around the provision of water as a basic good necessary for individual
survival. A key cleavage around which these politics revolved at the Forum
was whether the provision of safe drinking water should be treated as
a commercial service to be purchased or a human right. This issue provided
points of contact between an otherwise disparate range of participants.
with key representatives of the different networks reveals that this
opposition is over-drawn, and tends to dissolve in the regulatory detail
of the range
of proposed solutions. Seen from an instrumental regulatory perspective,
the subject of a human right to water and the subject of consumers’ rights
within a regulatory infrastructure governing private sector provision
of water, are one and the same.
has nonetheless revealed that the opposition continues to have symbolic
importance, as well as practical implications for more collective dimensions
of participatory democracy at a local level. While ‘human rights’
or ‘consumer rights’ can be useful in creating strategic
linkages between different actors in water networks as a lever for change,
real implication of such change cannot be understood without knowing
more about the local detail of access to the management of water.
The six case studies that begin in August 2003 with South Africa are
an important next step in the research. They will bring life to the sometimes
sterile list of principles that characterise global governance by exploring
the cultural specificities of how different regions within the world
this entanglement of rights and regulation.
paper by Dr. Morgan, The Economisation of Politics: Meta-Regulation as
a Forum of Nonjudicial Legality, offers an understanding of meta-regulation; http://www.consume.bbk.ac.uk/working_papers/
Gum: Trans-National Histories of Production and Consumption, by Michael
Redclift at King’s College, London.
The research is about the economic, social and environmental consequences
for primary extractive industries of adaptation to shifts in demand on the
world market. It focuses on the chicle/chewing gum industry in Mexico
as a case in point. Until the 1950s, when synthetics based on hydro-carbons
were commercially developed, most of the chewing gum marketed in the United
States came from the Yucatan peninsular in Mexico, and neighbouring states.
The project documents the way in which the livelihoods of chicle producers
were transformed during ‘boom and bust’ periods, beginning
at the turn of the twentieth century. It uses archive material, and
workshops and interviews with former chicleros, the men who worked in the forest
tapping the resin, in close collaboration with a local museum, The Museum
of the Caste War, in Tihuosuco.
The project began in April 2003, when Michael Redclift
visited Mexico and re-established contacts with some of the leading organisations,
including the Museum, and met colleagues at the new University of Quintana
Roo, where a group of historians and sociologists are working on the area.
He was invited to give a lecture and organise a workshop there in December,
following the publication of his paper in the Revista Mexicana del
Caribe about chicle in the Mexican Caribbean and the United
States. Dr Oscar Forero, the post-doctoral research fellow of the team,
will assess the demand for organic forest products and the development
of new ‘niche’ markets stimulated by the Web. The team
is considering a workshop in London on tropical forest products and
welcome any additional connections.
4. Mapping the Food Commodity Chain, by Peter Jackson
Public concerns about food and farming have increased in recent years
as a result of controversies about BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease and GM
Underlying these concerns has been a growing anxiety about the globalisation
of food production systems and the need to increase the transparency
of supply chains for consumers. The ‘commodity chain’ concept has
been adopted by a range of agencies and institutions as a useful way of
thinking about these issues. Rather than simply mapping commodity chains
in a literal sense (as in measuring the ‘food mile’), this
project examines the ways in which the cultural meanings of food, as
well as its
economic value, are transformed as it moves along the commodity chain.
The project is a partnership between geographers at the Universities
of Leeds and Sheffield and oral historians at the British Library National
Life Story Collection. Focusing on food chains of various length - from
small-scale organic producers selling through local farmers’ markets
to large-scale retailers sourcing goods from around the world and competing
in a global marketplace - research examines how recent changes in food
production systems are experienced and understood by people at different
points along the food chain. Using life-history methods will allow us
to ‘humanise’ our understanding of food commodity chains,
setting people’s professional knowledge in a deeper personal and
wider social context. Policy-related interviews and archival work will
set this understanding within a detailed knowledge of the changing regulatory
Christopher Breward's Fashion has just appeared with Oxford
Bronwen Morgan’s Social Citizenship in the Shadow
of Competition has just appeared with Ashgate Press.
collection Paradoxes of Civil Society (Oxford, New York) is now
available in a new revised 2003 paperback edition.
paper on chicle/chewing gum is appearing in Revista Mexicana del Caribe.
Jos Gamble, ‘Transfering Human Resource Practices from the United Kingdom to
China’, in International Journal of Human Resource Management,
14 (3): 369-87.
Members of the Cultures of Consumption research
programme have been active at various public and academic events.
Director, Frank Trentmann, was one of the panellists at the ‘Consumer
Power?’ seminar at 11 Downing Street earlier this
year, co-organised by the Smith Institute and the National Consumer Council,
and chaired by the newscaster Jon Snow. The seminar focused on the relationship
between citizens and consumers. Dr. Trentmann cautioned against making
a stark contrast between market-based individualist consumers and collectively
minded citizens. He emphasized how consumers in many times and places
have understood themselves as civic actors interested in collective goods,
not simply choice or cheap prices. A report of these seminars is due to
appear at www.smith-institute.org.uk.
Culture and Its Discontents’ was the theme of a
comparative workshop sponsored by the Social Science Research Council
(New York) and the Centre for Global Partnership (US-Japan) in April
In the opening paper on ‘Synapses of Consumer Politics’, Frank
Trentmann explored the relatively late arrival of self-conscious ‘consumers’
in the nineteenth century and showed how this was a political and intellectual
achievement – rather than the inevitable result of material changes.
In the twentieth century, the power of consumers has been favoured or
retarded in different societies depending on the strength of rival political
traditions and social identities. A concluding workshop will take place
in Tokyo in January 2004.
will address the Royal African Society in November 2003 on ‘The
Drug war in Africa – the final frontier?’
of Consumption’ is the theme of a session at the
annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society-IBG in London on 3
September 2003, co-organised by Peter Jackson and Nina Laurie and involving
also the projects headed by Chris Breward, Clive Barnett, and Moya Kneafsey.
for more information.
A seminar 'Unstable Consumption: shifting boundaries, information
and identities' will be hosted by the Open University in London
on 3 October 2003, co-organised by Angus Laing and John Clarke. For more
information email: J.Swallow@open.ac.uk
The Cultures of Consumption research programme seeks to facilitate dialogue
between research in academic and public bodies. On this page we will
you with updates and links to work done elsewhere.
1. Consumers' Association Report on "GM Dilemmas".
This report includes research on what consumers think about GM technology.
Alarmingly, despite the fact that less then a third of consumers
idea of food produced from a GM plant acceptable and 45 per cent
try to avoid GM food and ingredients, the survey shows that 64 per
cent of consumers
are concerned that they could still be eating GM ingredients without
knowing it. The report shows that there is a clear mis-match between
attitude and that of consumers and a failure to appreciate the reasons
for this concern.
With the current public debate on GM, the decision over commercialisation
of GM crops in the UK only a year away and the European Parliament
on legislation on labelling of GM foods, The Consumers' Association
is campaigning to ensure that consumer opinion, choice and safety
is adequately addressed
by regulators in the UK, EU and internationally and by industry.
For more information, see http://www.which.net/campaigns/food/gm/index.html
National Consumer Council (NCC) Report on “Creeping Charges”.
report examines the impact of healthcare charges (prescription, dental
and optical) on low-income and disadvantaged consumers and forms part
of the NCC Everyday Essentials project.
The key concern of the report is that an absence of a rationale and a
transparent and coherent framework for the presently limited set of clinical
services, means that there’s scope for ‘creeping’ charges.
Already there is evidence of services being eroded and charges being
as detailed in the report.
The NCC believes that a systematic approach will help to clarify the
scope of charging for clinical and non-clinical services and are calling
the establishment of a Core Services Commission to undertake a fundamental ‘root and branch’ review
of NHS charges and exemptions policy.
For more information, see: http://www.ncc.org.uk/pubs/report1.htm
For information on the Everyday Essentials project: