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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Designing and consuming: objects, practices and processes

Designing and Consuming has developed a new theoretical understanding of the ‘stuff’ of consumption. It focuses on use, rather than acquisition; on the material, rather than the symbolic; and on relations between artefacts and practices. Building on empirical research including case studies of digital photography and DIY, the project has generated new ways of thinking about material artefacts and the parts they play in the dynamics of everyday life. We show how complexes of things and practice co-evolve and how designers and consumers add value to the products with which they interact.

This project ran from January 2005 to December 2006

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Project team
Elizabeth Shove award holder
Matt Watson
Jack Ingram

Professor Elizabeth Shove
Department of Sociology
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD

+44 (0)1524 594 610

Publications include:
Shove E., Watson M., Hand M. and Ingram J. The Design of Everyday Life (Oxford: Berg, 2007). view publisher's page>>

Ingram J., Shove, E. and Watson M. ‘Products and Practices: Selected Concepts from Science and Technology Studies and from Social Theories of Consumption and Practice’ Design Issues, 23(2) (2007), pp.3–16 view>>

Watson M. and Shove, E. Materialising Consumption: Products, Projects and the Dynamics of Practice (2006) Cultures of Consumption Working Papers Series, Birkbeck College view as pdf>>   


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


This project exploits the potential for theoretical development at the interface of science and technology studies, design and the sociology of consumption. Creative cross-fertilisation between these fields promises to enrich and extend our understanding of the relation between design and consumption and the dynamics of both. Four strategically positioned case studies, each addressing specific gaps in the existing literature, promise to generate new ways of conceptualising the objects, practices and processes of consumption.

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Despite the rapid development and diversification of consumption studies, important aspects remain under-theorised. Debate has been dominated by a number of central concerns relating to the rise of consumer culture, consumer citizenship and the relation between identity and consumption. As a result, the hardware of consumption has yet to receive the attention it deserves. By looking at how objects and are designed, appropriated and transformed in practice we seek to reinstate the ‘missing masses’ of consumption studies.

The project revolves around three core themes:

The increasingly popular notion of ‘designing the user experience' reflects the view that consumers are, to an extent, made by the things they use. In thinking about how future users and values are inscribed in the details of product design and how processes of inscription and domestication work across different contexts of production, supply, acquisition and appropriation, we re-examine the stuff and substance of consumption. As well as giving the concept of 'material culture' new, more pragmatic meaning this exercise is particularly important for design theory.

A second ambition is to examine the co-constitutive relation between products and practices. We start from the view that most consumer goods are acquired not for their own sake but in order to fulfil and accomplish recognised social practices. Accordingly, we focus on how things are used and on the sorts of activities they help maintain, sustain and engender. Questions of competence are pivotal: what skills do things and designers presume, how are they acquired and how do performances, practices and concepts of value co-evolve with the material artifacts on which they depend?

A focus on practice brings other issues into view. One is how designers and consumers relate to complexes or suites of material artifacts. By looking at the co-evolution of constellations of products and practices, we bridge between theories of innovation and sociotechnical transition, more sociological concepts of normalisation, and evolutionary models of design and practice. Equally important, we are interested in how meso-level understandings of everyday life are reproduced through integrative processes of design and consumption.

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  • What is the relation between the material world and the accomplishment of everyday life?
  • What constraints, visions, aesthetics and aspirations are embedded in the hardware of everyday life?
  • How do products and consumer practices interact and with what consequence for change and innovation?
  • How do designers and consumers add value?
  • What do different contexts of design and consumption mean in practice?
  • What is the relation between design and consumption?

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Our approach is distinctive in that we aim to address these questions by exploiting, developing and synthesising concepts from design studies and from the social sciences. This theoretical joint venture comes at a time when design theorists are increasingly interested in product systems and the social contexts and conditions of use, and at a moment when better understanding of the relation between materials, competence and meaning promises to refresh theories of consumption and practice.

Although this is a theoretical project, we address the questions outlined above through four empirical case studies, each involving a combination of open interviews, observations and secondary analysis. While each study tackles a somewhat different issue, the four are designed to fit together. By piecing the resulting insights together and by setting the case studies against each other we hope to generate an integrated analysis of the objects, practices and processes of consumption.

In undertaking DIY projects, people simultaneously occupy the roles of consumer, producer and designer. In renovating and repairing their homes they assemble complexes of discrete products the technical qualities of which have important implications for the skills involved. The first case study investigates those who do DIY as well as DIY retailers, manufacturers and product designers as a means of analysing the material mediation of consumer-producer relations.

The second study is designed to reveal the parts that consumers, producers and material artifacts play in the co-evolution of practice. To this end, we focus on the relation between analogue and digital ways of doing photography and on the practicalities of appropriating new technology. While the camera or the camera-phone is central, we also examine the sociotechnical dynamics of the entire process of taking, storing, manipulating and viewing digital images.

Our third case concentrates on designers and the role of design with respect to consumption and production. In particular, we are interested in how designers 'add value' to the products and commodities with which they deal. We aim to show, concretely, how values, qualities and functionalities are materialised and inscribed across a range of consumer products.

The final case study allows us to recognise and explore contrasting contexts of design and consumption. How do social and institutional settings affect the ways in which similar objects are designed, acquired and used? In addressing this question we intend to investigate the development of low-tech office equipment destined either for the home or for the work place.

These four empirical 'sites' have been chosen on the grounds that they provide interesting and informative test beds in which to develop and evaluate the reach, range and relevance of concepts developed across a range of different disciplines.

In order to exploit the potential for interdisciplinary exchange we will organise a programme of workshops and seminars. In developing this project, one aim is to foster an international network of scholars working between and across design theory, science and technology studies and the anthropology and sociology of consumption.

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The main outcome of the project will be to develop theories of design, consumption and practice. The research will result in a better understanding of how values are embodied, materialised and co-produced, how products and artifacts are used alone and in combination, and how products and practices co-evolve.

The project team will co-author a range of working papers. These will be aimed at different audiences and will address topics relating to: technology studies, design and material culture; the construction and appropriation of value; competence, practice and consumption; innovation and integration; and corporate and domestic contexts of consumption. These papers will form the basis of a number of journal articles and a book.



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