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Issue 1: September 2004

>Programme News

>Emerging Research Themes

>Research Focus






Programme News

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.

Phase II of the research programme has been advertised in the national press in June 2003. We are now inviting applications.

For further information, see

For guidelines and criteria of eligibility: culturesphaseII.asp

Public Lectures: To foster public and academic debate, leading British and international experts will discuss critical aspects of consumption in 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

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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 dramatic 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 market 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 politics.

A 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.

A fourth 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).

For more information about individual research projects in the Cultures of Consumption programme go to:


Research Focus:

Convergence? Divergence? The Changing Dynamics Between Local and Transnational Cultures of Consumption.

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 express our identities, mediate our interactions with others, and even shape our politics. Among the postulated social effects of this development are greater individualisation 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 Americanisation. Some people disagree, who see a global-local dialectic at work. Surprisingly, research has neither systematically examined the emergence of cultures of consumption nor compared the degree of its uniformity across different nation states. That is the main purpose of this new research project.

Deploying 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.

The research 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.

2. 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.

The research 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.

Interviews 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.

Research 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, the 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 engage this entanglement of rights and regulation.

A working paper by Dr. Morgan, The Economisation of Politics: Meta-Regulation as a Forum of Nonjudicial Legality, offers an understanding of meta-regulation; morgan_working_paper_2.doc

3. Chewing 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 would welcome any additional connections.

4. Mapping the Food Commodity Chain, by Peter Jackson at Sheffield.

Public concerns about food and farming have increased in recent years as a result of controversies about BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease and GM foods. 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 context.



Christopher Breward's Fashion has just appeared with Oxford Press.

Bronwen Morgan’s Social Citizenship in the Shadow of Competition has just appeared with Ashgate Press.

Frank Trentmann’s collection Paradoxes of Civil Society (Oxford, New York) is now available in a new revised 2003 paperback edition.

Michael Redclift’s 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.

The Programme 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

‘Consumer 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 2003. 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.

David Anderson will address the Royal African Society in November 2003 on ‘The Drug war in Africa – the final frontier?’

‘Cultures 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. See 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:



The Cultures of Consumption research programme seeks to facilitate dialogue between research in academic and public bodies. On this page we will provide 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 find the 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 the government's 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 debating 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


2. National Consumer Council (NCC) Report on “Creeping Charges”.

This 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 incurred 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 for 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:

For information on the Everyday Essentials project:

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