Book Chapter Published – Intimacies, Critical Consumption and Diverse Economies

book consumption

Edited by Emma Casey (Senior Lecturer Sociology at Kingston) and Yvette Taylor (Professor at Strathclyde), Intimacies, Critical Consumption and Diverse Economies explores the importance of consumption in shaping the intimacies of everyday life. With contributions from ten academics spanning sociology, anthropology and human geography, this volume develops debates surrounding the emotional and material labour involved in producing domestic and intimate spaces. It builds on previous volumes focused on everyday and gendered consumption including Jackson and Moore’s (1995) The Politics of Domestic Consumption and Casey and Martens’ (2007) Gender and Consumption – both key texts adopted during my PhD.

The edited book came about after a BSA Families and Relationships Study Day in early 2013, convened by the editors. It represented a key point in acknowledging the role of material culture in providing a sociological understanding of everyday life, at a particular point in time following worldwide economic austerity. I presented some findings from my PhD research at the event which led to an invited chapter in the resulting volume. The book was published at the end of 2015 and a launch event held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow on 29th January 2016. It was the weekend of storm Gertrude which made it rather more eventful!

The volume is in three parts:

Expanding the Field: Conceptualising Intimate Consumption
‘Sticky’ and Shifting Sites of Intimate Consumption
The Intimate Social Life of Commodities

Individual contributions include Julie Seymour’s look at the use of space and practices of display in commercial family homes (i.e. family run pubs and hotels), Sarah Wilson’s account of the significance of material objects in constructing a sense of belonging for young people in care and Rachel Hurdley’s investigation of making home in the workplace.

My own chapter considers the practices appropriated by middle-class mothers in negotiating the perceived risks inherent in consuming second-hand baby clothes, toys and equipment. Here is the full abstract:

Focusing on the mother as consumer as well as carer, this chapter considers mothers’ co-consuming practices related to used/second-hand baby goods purchased at nearly new sales. Citing second-hand consumption as an intimate and risky practice, the material negotiations and risk reduction strategies practiced by middle-class mothers as they engage in consuming second-hand baby items are discussed. Thirty mothers were interviewed, with the narrative of risk focused on two main themes: hygiene and safety. Concerns over hygiene were particularly prevalent when consuming textiles that were seen to harbour traces of the previous other or dirt that may contaminate the ‘pure’ child. Whilst practices of divestment and cleanliness in the home were not necessarily normalised (but were influenced by social factors) the second theme, that of safety, was heavily structured by social conventions and recognised guidelines and offered less scope for subjective mediation.

Waight, E. (2015) ‘Buying for Baby: How middle-class mothers negotiate risk with second-hand goods’ in E. Casey and Taylor, Y. (ed.) Intimacies, Critical Consumption and Diverse Economies, Palgrave Macmillian, London, pp.197-215.

I fully recommend the book for anyone interested in material culture, consumption, everyday life and relationships.


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Fieldwork in China on Grocery Shopping for Over 65s

Arriving at Tsinghua University campus, Beijing

Arriving at Tsinghua University campus, Beijing

I am currently in China! Beijing specifically, but before that I spent a week doing fieldwork in Qingdao and Nanjing (in the Mid/South East). It was always part of the plan that I would come to China during my 18-month research contract at Winchester School of Art. The project I joined, ‘Silver Shoppers’, looks at the grocery shopping experiences of consumers over the age of 65 in both the UK and China.

Findings aim to improve our understanding of the consumer behaviour, values and capabilities of this increasingly heterogeneous population with implications for future research, retail business strategy and social policy on ageing and wellbeing. Having completed the UK fieldwork (which you can read about here), I set off for China at the beginning of July.

Why the UK and China?

The retail markets in the UK and China are very different but are united in the need to develop solutions to service the ageing population. Equally, within the globalized retail industry, China is regarded as the biggest and most profitable overseas market by major international firms such as Tesco (UK), Wal-Mart (US), Carrefour (France) and Metor AG (Germany). Chinese consumer needs are different however to the needs of consumers in Europe and the US, particularly amongst the older generation who have to adapt to broader societal changes and the impact of new globalised technologies. This research seeks to understand older consumer behaviour both within the context of the newer supermarket environments and more traditional grocery stores and markets. There is also a gap in the literature looking at older shoppers experiences at open markets in China.

What we did

Data collection in China follows much the same methods as the UK. With three regions selected across the country, we aim to follow the everyday routines and shopping habits of 30 participants using a diary and inspection card pack for six weeks. We also conduct filmed observation of their normal grocery shopping routine and a post-shop interview. In the UK this focused solely on supermarkets but here in China, half have been to supermarkets and half to open markets.

How I got on

I’m sure it’s little surprise to know I don’t speak Chinese so we have a Chinese team based at Tsinghua University partnered on the project. A group of Masters students are managing the fieldwork, using the materials we developed in the UK which were then translated into Mandarin. By the time I came over the participants had been recruited, a plan was made and I joined the group as they started data collection in the first two cities. All of the interviews were conducted in Chinese but I was at least able to observe the shopping process. The students themselves were able to communicate with me in English (to a mixed degree) and looked after me very well! It was a great introduction to China and although it was an intense week of travel and long days, I really enjoyed it.

At the end of the week I ran a training session on data analysis so they will manage the rest of the process. My manager (the project lead) is Chinese so there’s no problem there when it comes to going through the findings. I’m now back at Tsinghua University in Beijing where I will stay for 3 weeks in total. This gives me a chance to explore the culture some more and do some informal observations, visiting the main supermarkets and watching people on the street.

Vegetable market in Qingdao, China

Vegetable market in Qingdao, China

Shellfish and seafood at the market in Qingdao

Shellfish and seafood at the market in Qingdao

More from the open market, Qingdao. What are they??

More from the open market, Qingdao. What are they??

What I’ve found

The thing that strikes me most about China, in general, is the contrast between rich and poor, new and old, shiny and dirty etc. In Nanjing we stayed next to a huge, shiny shopping mall with Starbucks and a cinema and Western clothes shops. But outside, people were selling fruit on the streets just placed on the pavement and a worker from a small restaurant was peeling his veg outside on the street. The train from Nanjing to Beijing went nearly 300km per hour but still had a dirty, squat toilet. Queuing to enter the National Museum of China a security guard grabbed my arm and moved me an inch sideways to get us exactly in line, but everyone pushes onto the subway train before you have a chance to get off. Everything is a contradiction. But maybe that’s good. They have the technology to make life easier, but can still ‘rough it’ better than us in the UK. We’re probably too precious. Too preoccupied with health and safety.

The same could be said for the supermarkets vs open markets. To me, the open markets were not hygienic at all. But as all proper food comes from the ground or sea to start with, it’s probably right that we should have to prepare things to eat ourselves. Qingdao is on the coast, so the market there was packed full of fish and seafood, a lot of it alive. The vegetables at the market too just seemed huge! A lot of people travel by bike, and watching them strap their shopping to the back is quite interesting.

Supermarkets have a lot more staff than in the UK, with assistants hovering around each main section. Fruit and veg is weighed before going to the till, sometimes you pay there and then separately. They have lots of pick and mix sweets and brightly coloured packets creating a rainbow effect. In Beijing so far I’ve visited Carrefour, but got distracted by the ‘imported foods’ section. I bought Babybel! They had a map to show the store layout at the entrance, something suggested by a number of our UK participants. Obviously Carrefour is French rather than Chinese, but I hadn’t seen this in the UK.

In terms of shopping with the older people, there are far fewer mobility scooters and wheelchairs here. They just don’t have the space to get around in them. I spotted this in the Hutong in Beijing though. Similarly, I’m sure a lot of people don’t bother with pushchairs. I haven’t seen many. Some of our Chinese participants can’t read and write either so they have family members helping with the diary tasks, but clearly, this has to affect their shopping, especially in a supermarket as opposed to the open market.

Motorised bike/wheelchair with parasol

Motorised bike/wheelchair with parasol

Useful map in Carrefour, Beijing

Useful map in Carrefour, Beijing

There’s not a huge amount more I can say until I see the results (translated back into English for me!). We will be publishing a comparison study of the UK and China, as well as on the two contexts individually. I’ve had some time to be a tourist too, so I’ll post another blog about that later!

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Writing About Consumption

“The single main problem with conventional writing about consumption is that it seems to consist largely of authors who wish to claim that they are deep by trying to show how everyone else is shallow.” (Miller 2012, p. 107)

This is my new favourite quote. I don’t want to divulge my key findings, nor do I have time to get into a debate about this now but it’s a nice reminder of subjectivity and the self-importance of researchers, because rightly or wrongly I definitely could have fallen into this trap.

My PhD is all about consumption of material goods. Very early on, I had to make the distinction between consumption and consumerism. Consumption is a crucial element of social life and should be addressed as such. More than simply an act of purchase, consumption is a continuous process of consuming/partaking in/using up a good or service. It is intrinsic to everyday life and a way in which we construct meaning, assert identities and practice acts of love. Consumerism has more negative connotations. It is defined by the ‘desire’ rhetoric rather than ‘need’ and is a fundamental part of the postmodern era I view as distinguished by choice.

I’ve been rewriting my thesis literature review recently and it has been great to go back and see how all of the existing knowledge fits together, and how my studies add to the debates. Without exception humans require some level of consumption in order to survive and to meet basic physiological needs, but consumption over and above this has sparked widespread interest amongst scholars as an avenue for exploring identity construction, socialisation, social class and the relationship between people and material things. I find all of this fascinating, and my approach to the literature review is so different to 2.5 years ago when I started drafting review documents. I can now critique it and discuss it, drawing on historical, sociological and geographical literature to provide a basis for my empirical work.

Consumption and its Consequences by Daniel Miller, 2012

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Shopping at Whole Foods Market the Way Nature Intended

Whilst in Cheltenham for a weekend break, my friend spotted Whole Foods Market amidst a crowded retail park on the edge of town. Having previously visited one of their stores in New York she raved that they were a super exciting place to shop so we decided to call in for a look (and for lunch). I didn’t know what to expect from Whole Foods but suffice to say, once inside I was like a kid in a candy shop. It’s like Whole Foods has curated all of my favourite things and put them under one roof – loose teas available by the weight, organic beauty products, amazing cakes, refillable wine and grains and cereals lined up like pick-and-mix. Whole Foods provides a more sustainable and ethical way to do your weekly shop and I love it.

I did some research once I got home and the business started in the US and now has a growing number of stores across the UK. Currently mainly situated in London, I really hope that they expand here, and quickly (Hampshire/Sussex would be great thanks!). I really, really hate packaging. I can see why supermarkets feel the need for it but we could all be buying many of our basics in the old fashioned way – in loose form, by weight, in refillable containers. The Whole Foods Market I went to was definitely smaller than your average supermarket but it still had all of the staples. What it didn’t have were the abundance of convenience foods and copious freezers full of ready meals that fill the shelves of all of our other supermarkets, because really, they are the things we can certainly live without. Just picture your local supermarket’s collection of toilet roll – do we really need all that choice? No.

Whole Foods also had a selection of ready-to-eat hot and cold foods – pizza, a salad bar, curry. You could take the food away or sit in their cafe area where they also sell hot drinks and cake. I could keep prattling on but the pictures say it better than I can. Happy days.





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Fashion Talk at Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption

Last Friday, the 1st February 2013, I attended and presented at the British Sociological Association (BSA) conference Intimacies, Families and Practices of Consumption. It was a combined meeting of the British Sociological Association’s Families and Relationships and Leisure and Recreation study groups, neither of which I had been involved with before, but both of which I hope to be involved with in the future. I talked about my PhD work, focusing on my qualitative findings to date on the rationalisations of mothers buying second-hand baby things; how they balance the risks of buying used items with their pre-inscribed biographies, against the financial gain.

The presentations were diverse as everyone interpreted the theme in different ways, yet all were equally fascinating making for a highly stimulating day. I particularly enjoyed the papers which focused on social mobility and social capital, something which fascinates me in academia (and real life – indeed social capital IS real life) but is too complex to go into here. A couple of papers touched on fashion, one more explicitly than the other.

Sophie Woodward, University of Manchester, presented her paper ‘Cupboards, Lofts and Shelves: The Hidden Lives of Domestic Things’. Going into people’s homes and getting them to talk about their things, Sophie realised the distinction between things which are ‘unused’ and things which are ‘dormant’ or ‘at rest’. We might not use something for years, it isn’t useful in our daily lives, yet we hang onto it for its potential use. Sophie states that our belongings have three states: active, inactive and dormant. Dormant items have a value and place in the home, other than use. This is why we hang onto clothes we haven’t worn for years, because one day they might be wanted again. They have the potential to come back into fashion, to fit, to be loved once more.

Another particularly emotive paper was presented by Katherine Appleford, University of the Arts London, whose title was ‘Shop with Mother: Class Distinctions in Mother-Daughter Fashion Consumption and Fashion Tastes’. Now, I love my mum, and I love fashion, and the two together hold a number of memories. The trips to MK One as a child, the first high heels I bought and how mum thought they made me look too old but still let me wear them, the birthday outfits and Christmas outfits and matching outfits (we both had very similar sheep jumpers at one point).

Through ethnography and interviews, Katherine explored this relationship for her PhD project, using fashion as a route to consider deeper mother/daughter relationships, ties and tensions. Focusing on class differences, she found that working-class mothers work in a collaborative way and often share clothes, whilst middle-class mothers take on more of a gate-keepers role, being more deeply concerned with how their daughter’s are perceived in the world. She also touched upon issues to do with body confidence and hang-ups, putting the limelight on the fact that fashion is never just about clothes, but about identity, portrayal and self-assurance.

All in all a great day, followed by a trip to meet the Rtister team, but I’ll save that story for another day.

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The Consumer as Chooser

Now I have started my PhD, my blog will in some ways become a bit of a research diary. I won’t discuss confidential data, but during my review of the literature and methodology planning, I think some interesting points to blog about will come up, and it helps me to connect my ideas and what I have learnt. This week I have been deeply absorbed in reading about ‘the consumer’, most specifically the book ‘The Unmanageable Consumer’, Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang (2006).

It’s obvious that as consumers we have plenty of choice. No doubt there will be times when you feel pressured by a pushy sales person to buy something you don’t really want, but the choice to purchase still comes down to you. As someone trying to advocate sustainable living, I would normally have said we have too much choice, but this book chapter opens by saying, ‘all choice is good; the more choice there is for consumers, the better for consumers’ (p.26) and of course that is true. It isn’t the choice on offer that is necessarily the problem; it’s the greedy consumer who wants everything that is the problem. After all, choice is good for the economy and choice should fulfil everyone’s needs.

However, the authors then state that, ‘choice without information is not real choice’ which I think really sums up the ethical dilemma. When we walk into a shop, what do we really know about what we are buying? You will probably know more about the brand than the specific product. The issue is then deciding how much information is enough information, and this will vary from person to person. There is so much information that could be transferred from item to consumer, but what information will that particular consumer prioritise? It will differ between consumers depending on their needs and values, so does this mean shopping needs to be a more personal experience? Because the mass choice on offer is simply overwhelming and consumers forget their basic needs and values by becoming enchanted by the world of retail. This is when the overabundance of choice scares people into taking what they believe to be the less risky choice – going to the big brands. Buying second hand goods, or turning to more niche ethical brands that use unconventional fibres like viscose or bamboo, is seen as a ‘risky’ choice.

Because at the end of the day, consumption is a game, consumers are seeking to win. Yes they are seeking information, but they are seeking the information that retailers readily put in front of them to vie with the competition, that being price, aesthetics and whether the item is fit for purpose. This they believe to be the key information that they need, rather than provenance, ethics or what they will do with that item at the end of its life.

It cannot be denied that money creates choice. A lot of people will argue that value retailers are there for consumers who have little money to spend in higher end stores, so that they don’t go without. They still though, have the choice to buy new rather than second hand, and to buy 3 cheap tops rather than 1 mid range top that they could wear more often. Those with huge amounts of money to spend can find the abundance of choice a source of anxiety. Are they investing their money in the right product? Are they being exploited because they are known by others to have plenty of money?

So choice is good. We all have a choice. In fashion terms, making ethical choices can feel a bit of a struggle. The more you know, the more difficult it is to make a choice. Should I prioritise fair trade or environmentally friendly production? Is bamboo actually a sustainable fibre? Should I wear leather? There will always be pros and cons, because anything you buy is a form of consumption and if you look up ‘to consume’ in the dictionary it says, ‘to use up; to exhaust; destroy’.

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