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.

feet-baby

Post to Twitter

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!

Post to Twitter

5 Reasons I Love Fieldwork (and 5 reasons I’m glad it’s over)

I’ve been in my role as a research fellow at Winchester School of Art a year today (happy anniversary to me!). I’m employed on an ESRC project to look at supermarket design and service for the over 65’s (in the UK and China), using a mixed method approach of participant observation, interviews, diary tasks and a quantitative questionnaire, similar to the methods used during my PhD. Since starting the job a year ago I’ve been working towards the UK fieldwork which if I do say so myself, has been no mean feat. We had 30 participants involved across three regions of the UK for 6-8 weeks and each one had to be visited 3 times for interviews and observation.

Recruitment was tricky as these things often are so mostly I’m just relived that we had enough people to take part and now have LOADS of data. It’s been three months of proper fieldwork but in the two months proceeding that I travelled around for recruitment and store manager meetings. This post pretty much sums up all that’s great about fieldwork (in my role at least) and also why I’m glad it’s done. I still have six weeks in China coming up, so fieldwork isn’t quite over yet, but I have few responsibilities during that time. I’m just there to broadly unsure data is collected in the same way we did in the UK.

Travelling

Our research areas were Dorset, Shrewsbury and rural Northumberland and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of these areas. I now know all the best beaches to head to in Dorset on a warm summer’s day if you want to avoid the Bournemouth crowds, but I’ll never forget the glorious sense of isolation at Bamburgh beach, Northumberland as I literally ran, skipped and jumped along the shore in my jogging gear after a tip off from a participant earlier in the day.

Confirming ‘hypothesis’ and finding out new things

Fieldwork is what research is all about, being out there finding stuff out. I love it as the weeks go on with certain themes reinforced and then someone will come along and say something totally new, helping you remember why you ask the same questions over and again.

Meeting people

I had three research assistants helping on the project (until the last few weeks when I’ve been back on my own) so it was nice hanging out with them and not being totally alone but the participants themselves have been so lovely! I’ve spent 10 hours with some of them over 3 or 4 visits. I’ve received homemade jam and offers of a place to stay if I’m ever back in the area, plus countless cups of tea and biscuits. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know them and hearing how much they’ve enjoyed participating in the project.

Being productive

It’s quite easy to be productive when there are things to do and people to see. We were visiting six to twelve participants a week, collecting 20 hours of video and audio data over a few days on average. Even just visiting one participant a day felt like time well spent.

Staying in hotels

I’ve got my ‘regular’ hotel in Shrewsbury now and stayed in one of the most haunted in Northumberland. Big beds and big breakfasts are definitely perks.

Late afternoon on Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland

Late afternoon on Bamburgh Beach, Northumberland

And 5 reasons I’m glad it’s complete . . .

Travelling

The places were lovely when I got there but travelling every week takes its toll. I flew to Newcastle (I know, I do feel guilty!) which often meant a 7am flight as I’d rather have an extra night at home. Whether by train or car there is no easy way to get to Shrewsbury from Southampton. One day after 6 hours travelling home and a road closure in Soton that brought me to a halt, I abandoned my car and walked home because I couldn’t face sitting in the car anymore.

Relying on other people

It’s to be expected that fieldwork never goes exactly to plan. The Friday before our first week in Shrewsbury I was left with just one participant as others dropped out. It’s no ones fault and we managed but it put the timetable off track as we had to recruit more. What I did do was phone participants a lot, and certainly the day before appointments so I never turned up at someone’s house with them having forgotten I was coming.

Data management

Once you’ve collected the data you have the stress of making sure it’s safe at all times! There were a few panics about whether interviews recorded and if I’d copied a file into the wrong folder. Plus my laptop was slow to catch up and needed an emergency trip to IT for a memory boost two weeks in.

Not being productive

I’m not going to complain that fieldwork isn’t a good use of time because it’s a brilliant use of time, but it is tiring and you need to be quite single-minded to keep everything in order so very little writing has occurred during the last 5 months. Awkward when you have two people waiting for paper drafts.

Staying in hotels

I love my flat really and didn’t like missing out on social events and seminars (yes really), but mostly I just can’t stand making tea with long life milk!

Post to Twitter

UN Climate Summit and the Place of Ethical Consumption Research

Last week (23rd September 2014) saw the UN Climate Summit, where global leaders from Government, business, finance and civil society came together to announce their commitments to action in areas that are critical for keeping global temperature increases to less than two degrees C. The 8 proposed Action Areas were Agriculture, Cities, Energy, Financing, Forests, Industry, Resilience and Transportation. I’m not going to provide a summary of the summit because there is plenty of information online but it has prompted me to share some thoughts from two conferences I went to this summer.

carbonmap

Have a look at this climate map from the Guardian (click here). Watch how, as my friend said, the world ‘breathes in and out’ as you flick between highest population data and highest consumption – or consumption and all levels of highest vulnerability to climate change. It comes as no surprise that the countries with the highest levels of consumption are not the countries with the highest population, nor those at greatest risk of problems associated with sea level rise and poverty.

The inequality is both startling and disgusting, and world leaders at the summit did appear to be concerned about the tangible effects of climate change in the form of severe weather events. In a press conference following Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s speech, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, told reporters that “weather extremes have greatly affected the Chinese people.” According to a report by the European Commission, China’s carbon emissions increased by around 10% PER YEAR in the decade prior to 2013 at which point it slowed to a 3% increase, whilst the EU had a 4% decrease.

In order to slow CO2 emissions we need a greater commitment to more sustainable consumption, at all scales, from personal to global. Whilst we do drastically need to cut carbon emissions, I think this could be framed more positively through a holistic sustainable consumption approach rather than focusing on carbon emissions per se. Lots of research is being done to try and learn more about consumer behavior and the motivation behind individual action. With climate change now regarded to be a critical policy issue, what’s the place of social science research in this agenda?

I attended two brilliant workshops/conferences over the summer that got me thinking about just that:

Ethical consumption and the globalising middle-classes: Philosophies, policies and practices, Durham University

Sustainable consumption and lifecourse transitions, University of Surrey.

They were only a week apart, so it was great to immerse myself in these overlapping topics and tease out the key themes across the two. The content of course did differ, as did many of the approaches with Durham being mainly geographers and Surrey mainly attended by sociologists, however I certainly got a sense of where future research is headed, and which directions we should steer it in.

The key theme for Durham was ‘globalising’, the argument being that most of the research conducted on ethical consumption is exclusively from the point of view of the West. Such research utilises a Western take on what it means to be ethical to consider the role of the consumer in the Global North and the producer in the Global South. Events like the UN Summit on climate change rely on a global agreement to produce any effect; therefore we cannot continue to be bound to this north/south dichotomy but should instead look at different variables and viewpoints. A couple of particularly interesting points to take from this workshop for me were –

How are ‘ethical’ products marketed within the Global South and what does this say about different attitudes and values?

What do we mean by ethics? Can we start laying judgement on ethical endeavours elsewhere without an understanding of the different cultural definitions of ethics?

As an example, a well-known chain/department store in Bangladesh called Aarong states on it’s website that it “is dedicated to bring about positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged artisans and underprivileged rural women” yet according to Prof. Nicky Gregson, there is no mention of this message in store. The growing middle-class (30m people) in Bangladesh are shopping to keep up with the latest fashions. Status as exemplified by taste is of utmost importance, and shopping at Aarong enables a form of distinction for this group. The ethics are silent though, rather than capitalising on ethics for commodity value, Aarong is an example of consumption with ethical effects not ethical consumption as a route for political action.

This is quite a different way of thinking through ethical consumption, which at least in the Global North, is considered a purposeful act to play out identities, politics and status. As discussed (but certainly not proven) during the workshop, perhaps such explicit reference to ethical production/consumption is too close to home in Bangladesh. With cheap clothes accounting for around 78% of total exports, the garment industry is both a source of ethical contention and a major factor in the increasing wealth of the growing elite. Similarly, in South Africa and Kenya locally sourced fair trade brands sell to their own middle-class not by focusing on a message to help the poor but on ‘love Africa’. Place, and therefore geography, is critical in forwarding this work and expanding the definition of what it means to be an ‘ethical consumer’.

The need for consistent terminology also came up at the Surrey conference and is particularly important if we want ethical/sustainable consumption research to successfully span different countries, cultures and disciplines. We discussed whether more interventionist research is indeed ethical as I proposed it as a helpful way to move forward in understanding how to change consumer behaviour. It’s one thing trying to find out why we act the way we do, but what about ‘nudging’ individuals to do things differently? As the title of the workshop suggests, we discussed lifecourse transitions, moving into the metaphysical realm of postulating how views of life after death may alter what we do in life. Maybe its philosophy we are missing? There are many ways to approach research on sustainable/ethical consumption/lifestyles and I think we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. The important thing, is to keep sharing ideas not just with each other but with policy makers and society at large too – globally.

Post to Twitter

Textiles: New Research Strategies

On March 19th 2011, the Textile Society held its first research symposium. The event aimed to facilitate the exchange of research within textiles and I went along as an audience member. I had hoped to speak about my carbon footprinting research but in the end they were overrun with speakers, so I have written a piece for their journal TEXT instead.

As textiles have become a growing academic area of research, the topics under its umbrella are far and wide. The morning session included papers on textile histories, something I have only little knowledge about but am learning. There was also discussion on the way in which textiles are exhibited in museums, and exciting news about the Clothworkers’ Centre for Textiles and Fashion Study, which will open in 2013 as part of the V&A.

The afternoon looked at more contemporary issues and critical thinking behind fashion and textiles. Although thought provoking, there were times when it felt a little ‘wishy washy’. Nonetheless, there were some great ideas for the future, including the use of concrete on clothing to absorb pollutants in the air. Hopefully the event will happen in future years, it is always great to belong to these societies but the value of community is heightened when you have a chance to meet like minded people and swap ideas.

Post to Twitter

Read, Think, Write, Read, Think, Write


The research I have been working on for the last year is aiming to identify how fashion companies are currently trying to communicate ethical/sustainable attributes to the customer at point of sale. It came from the idea that when we buy a bag of crisps, for example, we are given detailed knowledge of the ingredients, nutritional information, and even perhaps the type of potato used so we can make an informed choice whether to buy it. When buying a t-shirt however, we’ll get the fibre content communicated to us, and maybe the country of origin (this, by the way, is almost meaningless, does it mean where the cotton came from? Where the t-shirt was manufactured? Or perhaps where the label was sewn in?) but precious little else. We, at the University, wanted to find a way of letting the customer see exactly where their garment had come from, what chemicals and processes were used, and its carbon footprint, all before making the decision whether to buy.

A study by Defra found that people acquire the information that influences their clothing decisions during the activity of shopping itself, as well as from conventional media. I think this is unexplored potential. The last year has involved studying the literature, approaching ethical fashion companies, and considering different research methods. For my MPhil work I have focused the work on two case study companies, and a consumer survey. The biggest issue for me, before developing any kind of point of sale communication, was finding out what the average consumer actually knows about the fashion supply chain. This brings me to the point I’m at now; developing a survey study. Surveys seemed so simple at school, but when faced with the need to produce a rigorous methodology and research design, I have realised the problems that could occur if the design isn’t just right. Preparation is everything! I’ll update my progress as it happens.

HOLLYWOOD, FL - JULY 30: Andrea Bradford, shops for a new outfit at the N-E Fashion store on July 30, 2010 in Hollywood, Florida. Figures released today showed the Gross Domesic Product over the past quarter was 2.4 percent, which is lower than the 3.7 percent seen in the first quarter. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Post to Twitter