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30. Sociology of consumption


shutterstock_164923487-shop-windowThe sociology of consumption emerged only recently. Prior to the 1980s, consumption was addressed indirectly in the context of other sociological concerns such as social deprivation, class and status, critiques of mass culture, and the consequences of (assumed) material abundance.

In the 1990s, scholarly interest in consumption exploded – perhaps because it had found its way into the then-fashionable theoretical accounts of postmodernity. Importantly, the journal Sociology dedicated a special issue to the topic of consumption in 1990. This special issue was edited by Alan Warde and it represents a first attempt to define the parameters of the sub-discipline (a more extensive exercise of this kind was the Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture that was published in 2011, edited by Dale Southerton and comprising major contributions from Manchester scholars, particularly Alan Warde and David Evans).

Since that special issue, the most popular and influential theories of consumption have been framed by concepts of globalization, consumer culture, free market ideologies, identity-formation, meaning and choice.  Empirical research at Manchester has both contributed to, and critiqued, these theories and in doing so has developed an alternative account with a number of important correctives.

For example, an early intervention into the sociology of consumption’s axioms can be found in Warde’s 1994 paper: ‘Consumption, Identity-Formation and Uncertainty’.  In addition to questioning the theoretical logic of very influential approaches to consumption, this article demonstrated that the significance of consumption to contemporary societies (and sociology) reaches beyond notions of identity and reflexivity. It marked the start of an approach that locates consumption in the collective organization of everyday life.

This idea has been developed in a number of different ways such as Warde’s plea to focus on the mundane and ‘ordinary’, in addition to ‘conspicuous’ forms of consumption, and Southerton’s assertion that habits and routines undermine the extent to which consumers meaningfully have free choice. A decisive formulation can be found in Warde’s 2005 paper: ‘Consumption and Theories of Practice’. This paper has been hugely influential in shaping the direction of contemporary consumption scholarship, and its application has brought critical new insights to key debates surrounding: taste, social distinction and stratification; social networks; time and everyday life; food waste; sustainability; and processes of social change more generally.

Much of our current work in this field is carried out in the Sustainable Consumption Institute.


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