From ESA – Strategies & Activities
RN Reports – RN05 Sociology of Consumption
Stefan Wahlen, RN05 Coordinator 2019-2021
Marlyne Sahakian and Arne Dulsrud, RN05 Co-coordinators 2019-2021
Consumption is, in everyday understandings, often reduced to market-relations – captured in the somewhat opaque notion of consumer demand. A sociological take on consumption reveals the many ways in which consumption can be understood: as cultural and symbolic, as shaped by systems of provision, or tied up with mundane and daily practices that can be difficult to change. Consumption represents a lens through which we can explore social structures and social change. Accordingly, the sociology of consumption is concerned with topics such as inclusion and exclusion, social class and social justice, gender, globalisation, welfare and wellbeing or environmental sustainability. Consumption is thus more than ‘demand’ or ‘acquisition’, but also a form of appropriation, and appreciation of goods and services, regardless if these are purchased or not.
The sociology of consumption thus engages with broader aspects of consumerism, consumer culture as well as their critiques. The research network is interested in sociologically theorising consumption reaching from lifestyles, taste and culture to social practices and systems of provision. Topics range from food and eating to digitalisation and sustainable development. The network has a strong membership base of around 110 members. In the early days of the network, a majority of members was from the large Western European countries and Scandinavia. Currently, we are very happy to have members from every corner of the European continent. Below, we share insights from the last midterm meeting, including the passage to a solely virtual conference.
ESA RN05 Midterm meeting: “Citizenship and Consumption: All - powerful, all - powerless?”
ESA’s research network for sociology of consumption celebrated its 25th anniversary during the 2020 midterm meeting, entirely hosted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We discussed ambivalences concerning the consumer-citizen / citizen-consumer. The theme acknowledged consumption as closely intertwined with cultural, economic, political and social spheres. In social life, the distinctions between consumption and citizenship coalesce, as individuals tend to switch between various contextual roles, rules and practices. The intersection of consumption and citizenship is gaining importance, particularly when reflecting on the ability and power to enact social change, towards more inclusive and sustainable futures.
Sociologically theorising consumption is currently demarcated by debates about climate change and environmental crisis, rising inequalities and social exclusion as well as influences that come across with digitalisation. Additionally, the current Covid-19 pandemic crises posits consumption amongst unresolved political and economic crises. Neoliberal economic policies hold out the invisible hand, while on the other (less invisible) hand safeguards the wealth of the few with protectionist policies. At the same time, climate activism endorses the political imaginaries of students around the world. Those who engage in ‘lifestyle changes’ are increasingly demonstrating forms of prefigurative politics, in contesting established ways of doing, altering systems of provision and imagining alternative futures of consumption.
All this introduces ambivalences enlacing dilemmas and conflicts as well as opportunities and hope for consumers that reach far beyond the antagonism in the transactional relationship between consumers as customers, and sellers of goods and services. Consumption not only challenges identities related to being a consumer or citizen, but also being a merchant, a farmer or a labourer (and potentially all at once). Consumption is then related to social justice, welfare, class, empowerment, democracy, inclusion, exclusion and governance.
A note on hosting our first, full virtual midterm meeting
As the pandemic situation did not allow the research network to meet in person, the board of RN5 had an intensive discussion whether to cancel the conference, or to host a virtual midterm meeting. We considered two perspectives: first, an organiser and, second, a participant’s perspective. From an organiser perspective, we wanted give our best but also acknowledge that we would organise the meeting in our free time. We also wanted to bring the community together at the midterm, and felt that missing this opportunity or delaying it to another date would be a shame. For participants, we felt that online participation should be as simple as possible. The call for papers, issued before the pandemic took rise, resulted in around 100 paper submissions. Parallel session would have been difficult to set up, involving much work in setting up virtual sessions, and might have been confusing for participants as they would have navigated between virtual rooms. In addition, some members of the board had experience with other online meetings, where technical issues had delayed the smooth running of meetings in allocated time slots.
We opted for a novel solution: participants were notified that the conference would be hosted solely online, and asked as to whether they wished to continue with their contribution. We streamlined the organisational aspects of the online conference via Conftool. We invited participants to share a short, digital version of their paper presentation in advance. We also chose to have single sessions running, and limiting this to a number of key themes. Along with keynote presentations and coffee/wine breaks, these were the main programme components. During the sessions, we did not lose time in setting up powerpoint slides for formal presentations, but were able to focus on the discussion – an element which is often lacking at conferences. This proved to be a very stimulating format, appreciated by participants.
We did not know how members would react to going solely online for this midterm meeting, and how this would sit with their other responsibilities or preferences – at a time when some people were experiencing fatigue around having most work interactions solely online. In the end, not all submissions had a video uploaded, but everyone was able to participate in the discussions. Some discussions had more participants, others less, as would be the case at any offline conferences. Overall, we were heartened by the participation – how many people attended – and found that the online format allowed for more junior scholars, or scholars with less funding or travel, to actively participate in the same way as everyone else. What did we miss the most from coming together in person? Visiting Oslo and sharing meals and drinks together, of course!
Comment on this article – log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.