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Issue 3: December 2004





>Programme News

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>Research Focus

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Photograph of a woman sunbathing

Consumption in old age is changing. The implications for social identity and public policy are one focus of new research projects.


Martin Parr/Magnum.

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Programme News

Eating versus Reading: New Findings on Cultural Diversity
The international contrast in changing consumption practices like eating and reading is one of the striking new insights emerging from the Diffusion of Cultures of Consumption project. In the four countries (UK, USA, Netherlands and Norway) studied so far, reading has changed in different directions, while changes in eating show remarkable similarity. Across these countries, the overall time spent eating (at home, eating out, at work) has declined. People with the greatest domestic and employment related ‘obligations’ spend less time eating, especially since the 1970s. People with children spend less and less time eating than those without children. In all four countries and for all social groups, there has been a shift towards eating out. The family meal and entertaining at home is becoming more marginal. Dependence on convenience foods and snacks has increased. Cutting across this shared trend, however, is a larger variation between different practices of consumption. Evidence suggests that the UK and USA have witnessed high degrees of specialization in cultural practices: fewer people may participate in certain practices like reading, but those who do invest more time in that practice. Norway and the Netherlands, by contrast, present the opposite trend marked by remarkable cultural stability, homogeneity, and inclusion.

For more information contact
Alan Warde and Dale Southerton
CRIC, University of Manchester.
telephone 0161 275 7363

User Power
How to strengthen ‘user power’ is the focus of a new report written by Johnston Birchall and Richard Simmons, published last month by the National Consumer Council (NCC). It sets out strategies for enhancing the participation of users of public services. The research challenges popular assumptions that people are either indifferent or simply motivated by individual gain. People do give time when they feel their participation will have a tangible effect. People’s participation is primarily focused on the communities of which they feel part of, rather than on egoistic motives. Instead of simply relying on choice, the report highlights the need for a number of interconnected strategies to advance the involvement of consumers in public services.

For a copy of the report contact
National Consumer Council
20 Grosvenor Gardens
London SW1W 0DH.
telephone 020 7730 3469

Johnston Birchall and Richard Simmons
University of Stirling
telephone 01786 467981


Research Focus: New Research Projects

1. The second phase of the Cultures of Consumption programme is starting this autumn. The programme selected nine leading projects from over 130 proposals. One important theme is the changing relationship between ageing and consumption. Longer life, earlier retirement, and relatively expanding affluence have changed the nature of ageing, but the implications for consumption and public policy are poorly understood.

2. Passive to Active Consumers is a research project led by Paul Higgs and examines the patterns of consumption and work amongst people aged 50+ from 1963-98. The project, based at the Centre for Behaviour and Social Sciences in Medicine at University College London, asks whether older people in this period have become more active participants in consumer culture and compares their behaviour
to that of younger cohorts. It examines key moments of transition in consumption, such as the changing value and ownership of pensions. A better understanding of the dynamics of generational consumption will assist public policy and commercial strategy as well as academic understanding.

For more information, contact
Paul Higgs
Centre for Behavioural and Social
Sciences in Medicine
University College London
Wolfson Building, Riding House St
London W1N 8AA
telephone 0207 679 9466

3. Boomers and Beyond is a project directed by Simon Biggs and examines how baby boomers have developed their consumption habits as they come to terms with ageing. Based at the Institute of Gerontology, King’s College London and at Keele University, researchers ask how a generation with a pronounced youth culture and ambivalent attitude to their elders are adjusting their own lifestyle as they are ageing themselves. To what degree is consumption a way of buying one’s way out of traditional expectations? What are the material and social consequences from seeking to maintain or adjust a consumer lifestyle in old age? The project relates personal experiences of ageing consumers to public discourses aimed at this group in social policy and marketing.

For more information:
Simon Biggs
Institute of Gerontology
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building
Waterloo Bridge Wing, Waterloo Road
London, SE1 9NN
telephone 020 7848 3037

Banking on Housing is a project run by Susan Smith at the University of Durham. Expanding access to housing wealth has implications for the national economy and for citizens’ indebtedness. But how do people think about and use their housing wealth? Research will examine the consumption of mortgages and what consumers do with the funds they release. It examines households’ use of housing wealth as a strategy of managing savings, spending and debt. It assesses the personal and public risks and opportunities from enhanced equity withdrawal. The project will identify the information and servicing needs of consumers as they take greater responsibility for their own long-term financial planning. In the context of financial service reform, it will provide better understanding of the public’s financial capabilities and of the use of information in the selection and management of mortgages.

For more information:
Susan Smith
University of Durham
Department of Geography
South Road
Durham, DH1 3LE
telephone 0191 334 1946

For additional projects see the next
newsletter and our webpage:



Chewing and Consumption will be the focus of an interdisciplinary workshop at Oxford on 3 December 2004, convened by the research projects on Khat and Chewing Gum. Speakers include Brian Mosser, the film maker and author of the controversial ‘the cocaine eaters’, anthropologists and geographers comparing the chewing of gum, cocoa, and Khat. For more information, contact: Neil Carrier ( or Oscar Forero (

The research project Manufacturing Meaning Along the Food Commodity Chain discussed their findings with senior executives from Marks and Spencer at the British Library in September. Researchers told senior buyers and advisors on food technology about their life-history interviews and new interpretations of changes, chains, and consumers. For more information, contact: Peter Jackson (

At the July seminar Managing Anxiety, Erika Rappaport, Peter Jackson and Moya Kneafsey examined how British consumers have managed risks and food scares in different ways, past and present. For more information, contact: Peter Jackson, ( or Moya Kneafsey (

The programme organised a public roundtable discussion on Consumption and The Good Life? at the Royal Society on 21 June 2004. Evan Davis (BBC) moderated the discussion. Simon Lidington, the new chief executive officer of Research International in the UK, used branding to argue that consumers had become active coproducers of identity and commercial life. The sociologist Alan Warde emphasized the importance of consumption as a set of routine practices. Deirdre Hutton (NCC), Mary MacLeod (National Family and Parenting Institute), and Teresa Perchard (Citizens Advice) stressed that choice meant different things to different social groups. Public discussion revealed the need for policymakers to move beyond a general model of ‘choice’ and to give greater consideration to long-term cultural patterns as well as to diverse moral and ethical dimensions of consumption.

Consumption, Modernity, and the West was the theme of an international conference organised by Professor John Brewer (Cal Tech, USA) and Dr. Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck) at Cal Tech in California in April 2004. The meeting brought together international experts and members of the programme to
discuss the diversity of consuming cultures across the globe and the interaction between them. Researchers discussed the genealogy of the modern consumer and the development of consuming cultures, from the porcelain trade and consumption in Britain and China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to after World War Two developments in America and Japan, and the contemporary consumer politics of cosmopolitan citizenship. For further information, contact the programme office, tel: 0207 079 0601 or email:

The innovative methodology of diary analysis developed by Nick Couldry’s team at LSE working on Media Consumption and Public Connection has become attractive to international research teams elsewhere. An American team at the Institute of Communication Research has adopted the method to compare people’s media consumption before and after the US presidential election. Future international exchange and collaboration is planned. For more information contact: Nick Couldry (

How some consumption practices develop into consumption routines is the focus of a workshop on 16 December at Birkbeck College, University of London. The workshop is organised by Elizabeth Shove (Lancaster) and Richard Wilk (Indiana University, USA), the current international fellow visiting the programme. Discussion will explore consumption practices that lie between choice and habit, and ask how routine practices get started, develop, and how they can be stopped. It will discuss questions of time, pace, and rhythm in consumption. For more information contact the programme office: Tel: 0207 079 0601 or email:



Hot off the press

In The London Look (Yale University Press) Chris Breward and Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans look at fashion from street to catwalk. The exhibition ‘The London Look – Fashion From Street to Catwalk’, is at the Museum of London until 8 May 2005.

Struggles over water privatisation have created interesting new forms of international solidarity, argues Bronwen Morgan in the autumn issue of Soundings (‘Water: frontier markets and cosmopolitan activism’).

In ‘Beyond Consumerism’, Frank Trentmann explores future directions of research of modern and contemporary consumption -- Journal of Contemporary History (July 2004).

The connectedness of consuming and producing food in ‘alternative’ food networks is one theme in Geographies of Rural Cultures and Societies (Ashgate), a book edited by Lewis Holloway and Moya Kneafsey.

Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 by Mark Overton, Jane Whittle, Darron Dean and Andrew Hann has just appeared by Routledge.

The changing world of consumption for children is the focus of three new working papers: Children’s Fashion Consumption (Sharon Boden); Children Online (Sonia Livingston); and Fast Food, Sluggish Kids (Stephen Kline).




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.

Recent reports and studies on sustainable consumption:

1. The Government recently held a consultation on its future strategy for Sustainable Development. In response, the ESRC commissioned a report from Dr Gill Seyfang and Beth Brockett, from its Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) at the University of East Anglia. The report draws on a range of ESRC-funded Research, including the Cultures of Consumption programme. The report highlights four key messages: define sustainable development more clearly; measure what really counts; Government should lead by example; promote sustainable ‘systems of provision’. The report can be downloaded from:

2. In November the Oxford Commission on Sustainable Consumption launched its report. Examining changing levels and patterns of consumption, the Commission particularly focuses on transport, housing and food to identify ways in which consumption can be made more sustainable. The Commission recognises that consumption is shaped by many factors but also emphasizes the role of government in setting economic and fiscal signals to promote more sustainable behaviour. The report includes a list of practical steppingstones, including improved building regulation, the gradual phasing out of agricultural subsidies, and measures to minimise the environmental impact of aircraft.
The report is available at:

3. The potential effect of environmental taxes on low-income households' use of energy and water is assessed in Green Taxes and Charges, a report by Paul Ekins and Simon Dresner for the Rowntree Foundation. The report shows that in general it is possible to solve the disproportionate impact on low-income households associated with environmental taxes and charges. Most low-income households would end up as winners, although some would end up as net-losers. However, the report emphasizes that households would be able to change their consumption behaviour in response to environmental charges. Green taxes would thus lower the consumption of water and energy and also reduce the number of net-losers. The research reveals the possibility of introducing environmental taxes and charges without producing unintended social consequences. For more information see:, or contact: Professor Paul Ekins and Dr Simon Dresner, Policy Studies Institute. Telephone: 020 7468 0468.

4. 'Motivating Sustainable Consumption', Professor Tim Jackson offers a critical review of consumer behaviour models and evidence, ranging from rational choice to normative theories and models of motivation-opportunity-abilities. The report discusses the limits of rational choice models and the significance of discursive, elaborative processes. It highlights the contribution of participatory community-based processes in promoting pro-environmental behaviour changes. The report to the Sustainable Development Research Network can be accessed at:


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