you are here: home > research projects > diffusion of cultures of consumption

go to cultures of consumption home page
go to the about us page
go to news
go to page about projects
go to events page
go to publications page

click to go to links page




project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

The Diffusion of Cultures of Consumption: a comparative analysis

How globalisation is changing consumption is a crucial and controversial question. Multinational and transnational production and the internationalisation of the cultural industries and media communication produce pressures towards the diffusion of common cultural consumption everywhere. Some see a process of Americanisation, others the spread of a cosmopolitan culture. Critics argue that local and national distinctions are not eliminated. When globalising forces collide with established, historically entrenched and local patterns of practice and taste, foreign elements may be adopted, adapted, transformed or rejected entirely. Our study sought to clarify accounts of the effects of globalisation by comparing trajectories of consumption norms in different countries, looking for signs of convergence and divergence. It charted the development of consumer cultures in four European societies and compared their experience with that of the USA.

This project ran from April 2003 to September 2005

Visit this project's own web pages>>

image illustrating findings

View this project's findings summary sheet>>

Project team
Alan Warde award holder
Dale Southerton
Wendy Olsen
Shu-Li Cheng

Professor Alan Warde
School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester
M13 9PL

+44 (0)161 275 7363

Publications include:

Southerton D. ‘“Squeezing Time”: Allocating Practices, Co-ordinating Networks and Scheduling Society’, Time & Society, 12(1)(2003), pp. 5–25.

Warde A., Southerton D., Olsen W. and Cheng S-L. ‘Time Use Surveys and the Changing Organization of Everyday Life in UK, 1975-2000’, in Pantzar M., and Shove E.(eds.) Manufacturing Leisure: Innovations in Happiness, Wellbeing and Fun(Helsinki: National Consumer Research Centre, 2004). Also available as a PDF file:

Warde A. ‘Consumption and the Theory of Practice’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 5(2)(2005), pp. 131–54. Cheng S-L., Olsen W., Southerton D. and Warde A., ‘The Changing Practice of Eating: Evidence from UK Time Diaries, 1975 and 2000’, British Journal of Sociology, 58(1)(2007), pp.39–61


Project outline

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


It is widely held that advanced capitalist societies are characterised by a 'consumer culture' - a culture where what we consume, and the way in which we consume goods and services provided in economic markets has come to represent our identities, mediate our interactions with others and even shape our politics. Curiously, research has neither systematically examined the emergence of cultures of consumption nor compared the degree of uniformity and/or diversity of its character across different nation states. This project aims to deploy two under-used research resources, time use and household expenditure surveys repeated regularly since the 1960s, to compare the consumption trajectories of European countries (France, Netherlands, Norway and the UK) with that of the USA. In doing so, it will evaluate whether patterns of consumption are converging towards some common norm, and how such trends affect social divisions - of class, ethnicity, gender, generation - within those countries. As part of the analytic strategy, the research will examine the official categories used by European states when classifying consumption behaviour, and the role such classifications might play in constructing models of the 'consumer' in public discourse. The project also seeks to enhance conceptual knowledge by elaborating and applying an interdisciplinary theory of practice to the field of consumption.

return to outline menu


Though there is considerable disagreement about the date of origin of consumer culture, it is generally accepted that major developments and changes occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Many believe that there has been a momentous shift from a production-led, to a consumption-driven society, a consequence of the emergence of a culture associated with mass consumption. Others, however, identify a watershed in the 1970s, involving disruption of the post-war social compromise and 'Fordist' economic order, and replacement by more fragmented, more market-driven and consumer-oriented arrangements, characterised either as post-Fordism or as post-modernism. Among the postulated effects are greater individualisation and fragmentation of behaviour, and less segmentation along lines of socio-demographic differences like class and region. Partly in contrast, a dominant presumption is that global culture is consumer culture and that a tendency towards homogenisation of consumer behaviour is emerging on the axis of cosmopolitanism or Americanisation. Dissenters conceive of a global-local dialectic which derives some support from studies contrasting cosmopolitan and provincial behaviour.

In addition to addressing debates surrounding the character and form of local and global consumer culture, this research is designed to develop a conceptualisation of consumption as a constituent element of social practices. Most consumption occurs in the course, and for the sake, of competent practice. We conjecture theoretically that a thorough and targeted analysis of practices, and people's participation in them, best reveals the nature of consumption. Since practices can be organised in different ways, people in different social positions participate in different kinds of ways, deploying money and time in accordance with localised social conventions, styles and taste. We contend that characterising a practice simultaneously in terms of time and money provides a way to identify some central dynamics of consumer culture and to compare changes in behaviour systematically over time. The case of eating is a good example, where mode and manner of provision combine variously with price and time: that is, meals may be prepared at home or purchased away; domestic preparation may be from scratch or from convenience food; eating out may be fast and cheap or slow and expensive. Social and economic changes identifiable through this approach might include the spread of commodification within particular practices (as more money and less time are spent), the enhanced status of activities (as both more money and time are allocated), substitution of own labour for purchased services (more time, less money), the decline of particular practices and the take-off points of new ones.

return to outline menu


  • Are consumption patterns in Europe and the USA characterised by convergence or divergence?
  • What does a comparative analysis of household expenditure and time spent in practices of consumption reveal about the uneven rate of development of consumer cultures in Europe?
  • What role have the official categories used by European states when classifying consumption behaviour played in the construction of national accounts of the consumer and consumption?

return to outline menu


The project analyses the dynamics of consumer cultures in the last third of the twentieth century. 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 analytic strategy involves taking the USA as a baseline case - as the first and now the most mature of consumer cultures, in many ways the model of global culture and, of course, the source of Americanisation - and comparing with it the trajectories of consumption in Western Europe. Data will then be analysed comparatively in relation to how practices of consumption change according to measurements of expenditure and time use. The findings can then be examined in relation to the key indicators of consumer cultures that are amenable to measurement through time use and spending patterns. These include commodification, cultural consumption, use of recreational services, consumer debt, omnivorousness, individualisation, segmentation of lifestyles, and changing class, urban-rural and regional differences. Such evidence can be used to address various debates, for instance: the periodisation of the recent history of consumer cultures; the extent of convergence fuelled by cosmopolitanism, globalisation and Americanisation; the diversity of taste and social distinction in cultural consumption; changing class, gender, generational, urban-rural and regional differences among consumers; classification of the consumer and of lifestyles; the processes underlying demand in new fields of consumption and processes of substitution between modes of provision of goods and services; and the nature of calculations made in the trade-off between time and money.

return to outline menu


The research is unique in its analysis of the relationship between globalising pressures, nationally specific experiences and internal differentiation within countries by generation, gender, class, etc. It will develop ways of measuring demand according to time rather than predominantly in relation to purchase behaviour, and apply this mode of analysis to the changing patterns of consumption in five countries both separately and comparatively. 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. Such an approach will be of significant value to an array of public and private organisations. Through the investigation of the changing categories for the reporting of consumer spending in different countries the project will shed light on the types of knowledge and historical construction and typification of 'the consumer'. The contrast between national understandings of such pillars of the discourse of the consumer should be particularly valuable. Finally, the adoption of an under-exploited, theoretical perspective - the theory of practice - promises new conceptual developments and the opportunity to bring the understanding of consumption under an umbrella of a tradition of social theory which has adherents across many social science disciplines.



TOP | home | ABOUT US | NEWS | PROJECTS | events | PUblications | CONTact US


ahrc logoesrc logobirkbeck college logo