Cultures of Consumption

Don Slater. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003.

The literature on consumption has grown enormously over the past 15 years, now constituting a recognized subdiscipline within many social sciences and humanities (Miller, 1995). While consumption has featured significantly as an issue in modern western thought since at least the eighteenth century, it was rarely regarded as a socially consequential object of study in its own right. Consumption was widely considered both too trivial and too eccentrically individual to figure largely in social analysis. It appeared rather as an object of moral-political judgement, an index of either the growth of liberal freedoms or the moral and cultural degeneration within modern commercial society.

By contrast, the huge contemporary interest in consumption rests on three broad premises, each of which places culture at the centre of social processes, and in ways that have made consumption studies almost paradigmatic of the ‘cultural turn’ in social thought. Firstly, notions such as ‘material culture’ or ‘common culture’ stress that consumption is central to social and cultural reproduction. All acts of consumption are profoundly cultural. Even ostensibly ‘natural’ and mundane processes such as eating invoke, mediate and reproduce those structures of meaning and practice through which social identities are formed and through which social relations and institutions are maintained and changed over time. The consumption of a family meal requires complex frameworks of meaning that adjudicate just what counts as food, how it is properly prepared and presented, and what is good or bad in terms of such disparate issues as health, gender roles and powers, ethical relations of care, the identity of the family and its religion, social status and so on. In the extended process of consumption—shopping, buying, using—people raise and negotiate the most central questions as to who they are and what they need.

The second premise has been a concern with ‘consumer culture’ as a characterization of modern market society (Slater, 1997a; Slater and Tonkiss, 2001), and more specifically as an increasingly central feature of what came to be known as the postmodern (Featherstone, 1991). Consumption as cultural process may be central to all human society, but only the modern west came to define itself as a consumer culture or consumer society. The underlying claim here is that as a result of modernization processes such as marketization, the decline of traditional status systems and the rise of cultural and political pluralism, private, market-based choice has become increasingly central to social life. At the extreme point, the neoliberal projects of the 1980s recognized and promoted this by seeking to redefine all social processes (e.g. education, health provision, democracy) according to the paradigm of consumption such that in the field of education, for example, students become ‘consumers’ and their ‘demand’ sovereign. In a consumer culture, then, key social values, identities and processes are negotiated through the figure of ‘the consumer’ (as opposed to, say, the worker, the citizen or the devotee); central modern values such as freedom, rationality and progress are enacted and assessed through consumerist criteria (range of choice, price calculations and rising affluence, respectively); and the cultural landscape seems to be dominated by commercial signs (advertising, portrayals of ‘lifestyle’ choices through the media, obsessive concern with the changing meanings of things).

Finally, it is partly through the study of consumption that we have come to better understand the role of culture in the constitution of economic processes and institutions. Consumption is not a cultural endpoint or addition to ‘truly’ economic processes of production or formally modelled market exchange, nor can it be reduced to quantitative measures of ‘demand.’ To the contrary, the study of consumption cultures leads us to examine the construction of objects, exchanges and relationships across a wide range of interconnected sites and processes.

The specific conjuncture of cultures of consumption with geographical perspectives moves in two directions, each modifying the other in exciting ways. On the one hand, geography has been both influenced by and a major contributor to several major themes that cut across the entire consumption field. Firstly, a cultures of consumption perspective regards consumption as an active process of making and using meanings and objects, and the consumer as a subject active in the constitution of its own subjectivity and world. For example, Miller, et al. (1998), as discussed further below, look at shopping spaces as sites which refract gender, class and ethnicity through the consumer’s active understanding, use and negotiation of consumption landscapes.

Secondly, geographers along with other scholars have largely come to reject the presumption that production simply determines consumption or that consumer choice transparently directs production. The focus has instead been on the complex and contradictory connections between different moments in the making of material cultures. Hence, for example, the idea of the active consumer leads directly to the possibility that consumers are themselves productive in their appropriation of things—making new meanings, uses and relationships—and that production has therefore to be understood as a distributed process, one that inhabits multiple sites (Suchman, 1999). A profoundly consequential result of this is a concern to reconnect political economy with cultural analysis in new and more complex ways (for example, du Gay and Pryke, 2001; Wrigley and Lowe, 1996).

Thirdly, consumption studies has promoted new methodological concerns. Above all, there has been a major ‘ethnographic turn’ that owes a great deal to issues raised by cultures of consumption: the focus on both the culturally active consumer and the distributed nature of economic-cultural processes requires us to probe deeply into the detailed and particular conjunctures that make up any act or process of consumption and that relate it to broader social contexts (Jackson, 1995-96). This ethnographic turn was taken not only as a corrective to older political economies that pretended to derive consumption unproblematically from structural determinants, but also in response to semiotic and postmodern currents for whom consumption could be derived from readings of objects and spaces without examination of actual and particular consumers and consumption practices.

At the same time, it is important to consider geography’s specific contribution to this field in attending to the connections between consumption and space, a set of issues that have become central to all studies of consumption cultures. Crudely, we might think about the relationship between these terms in two directions: on the one hand, consumption is spatially constructed and distributed; on the other hand, important social spaces are constructed in relation to consumption. The cases of retailing and globalization, discussed below, indicate how intertwined these two relationships can be, but it might be useful to think about them separately for a moment. On the one hand, modern consumption emerges from a division between production and consumption that is partly spatial: the spatial segregation of labour and leisure, work and home, public and private. Indeed, the central commodities of modern life—home and automobile—are premised on this spatiality and the need to move between production and consumption spaces (Aglietta, 1979), while key social spaces such as city and suburb are marked out accordingly. One could also think about such notions as commodity fetishism and the split between the politics of production and consumption in spatial terms. The market as a mediation seems to purify consumer goods of any traces of their conditions of production, which are only visible somewhere else (see, for example, Ross’ 1997 account of the problems faced by consumer campaigns against commodities such as Nike that involve sweated labour). Frameworks such as commodity chain analysis aim at making these connections visible again (Fine and Leopold, 1993), while much discussion of the so-called ‘new economy’ is concerned with the possible breakdown of these older divisions in the confused spatiality of the internet and the confused materiality of information goods (Poster, 2001).

On the other hand, space is not an objective container or structure that moulds consumption; consumption is crucial (and perhaps increasingly crucial) in constituting social spaces. This is a long-term theme within much cultural anthropology in which the sharing of goods and meanings in consumption is fundamental to moulding the material and cultural form of households (for example, Bourdieu’s 1973 classic account of the Berber house), nation and ethnicity (including the media consumption that helps constitute ‘imagined communities’: Anderson, 1986). Consumption may also be crucial in our construction of spaces of which we have no direct experience. Consider, for example, the geographical knowledges that are constructed out of our understandings of the origins of goods, such as the ethnicity of spices and ‘exotic’ or cosmopolitan cuisines (Cook and Crang, 1996; Crang, 1996), or consider tourism as a construction of space through the consumption of place (Urry, 1990). As Crang argues: ‘cultural lives and economic processes are characterized not only by the points in space where they take and make place, but by the movements to, from and between those points’ (1996: 47). In their mobility, goods make new spatial connections and spatial knowledges. There is also a more specific set of arguments that, under conditions of post-Fordism or postmodernism or ‘new economy,’ consumption has become increasingly central to the constitution of social spaces. This might be specifically analysed in terms of the centrality of retail spaces to the fate of cities (as discussed below), either transforming them into centres of consumption and leisure or exporting these functions to exurban areas which now compete with city spaces (for example, Soja, 1989; 1996; 2000).

Finally, we might add to these themes another contribution from cultural geography to the study of cultures of consumption: that of ‘scale’ and ‘scaling,’ a very fruitful concept that was completely missed by consumption scholars from other disciplines. Bell and Valentine (1997: 12), for example, drawing on Smith (1993), structure their discussion of food consumption according to the various scales of body, home, community, city, region, nation and globe. Each level involves different aspects, conditions and processes of consumption; but equally each level is partially constituted through different consumption processes. It is easy to see both the differences and connections between the construction of specific family relationships through different food practices, and vice versa; and the construction of national or regional diets (and of national cultures and identities through different diets). We can also see that the production of a certain kind of body through diet may be scaled up to the national or global level (the production of a Californian-style ‘hard-body look’ is one way of imagining a global culture), while the global organization of food chains equally scales down to the structures within which everyday body practices are carried out.

In the rest of this chapter we will try to draw out some of these themes as they have developed in the study of cultures of consumption. I will first look at the relationships drawn between culture and economy in older traditions of thought on consumption, proceeding then to consider the perspectives that underlie more recent culturalist approaches to consumption. The final two sections, on shopping and on globalization, look at these themes in terms of the two most dynamic and consequential conjunctures of thinking about consumption: space and economy.

Economy and Culture

Today, consumption has come to represent the site on which culture and economy most dramatically converge. Historically, it has marked a central point of division between them. For conventional economics, for example, consumption has always represented a process that takes place outside the economy, for two reasons. Firstly, economics is largely associated with the production and distribution of goods, whereas consumption is defined as the mere ‘using up’ of things, their destruction in use. Secondly, in conventional economics, actors enter the marketplace with their needs and wants already formed outside it, through cultural or biological or ‘subjective’ processes of taste formation that are not considered part of the economists’ remit. Once inside the market, consumers supposedly then make price-rational calculations in relation to ‘utility,’ which is not culture, but an abstraction from culture which is manifested in the form of variable quantities of demand at different prices. Cultures of consumption are therefore the backdrop to economic life, but play no role within it, or in analysing it. Conversely, if consumption is a cultural process that should take no part within the economy, it is also the case that economic processes should play no role within culture: conventional economics relies on the autonomy of supply and demand. For example, Galbraith (1972) characterized the marketing mix, comprising cultural interventions such as advertising and design, as a ‘revised sequence’ which destroyed markets by allowing the cultural control of corporations over the taste forming processes which generated demand for their goods.

Indeed, the critical stalemate that stymied thinking about consumption until quite recently was structured by an opposition between economy and culture. On the one hand, liberal traditions (including neoclassical economics) assumed, as we have just noted, the autonomy of consumption processes from economic ones, and saw this as central to both the autonomy and the ‘authority’ (Keat et al., 1994) of the consumer: economic processes should respond to cultural (or biological or simply ‘subjective’ and individual) determinations of needs and wants that occur elsewhere. This view is particularly inscribed in the notion of ‘consumer sovereignty.’ The broad liberal tradition, from Hobbes onwards, has privileged the liberty of the self-determined individual, possessed of self-defined desires and interests, and placed this figure at the centre of moral, political and economic good. The market is crucial to this conception as a space in which individuals are ideally freed from external social regulation. At the same time, the individualist premises of liberal thought are methodologically inimical to a cultural approach to consumption, in so far as ‘culture’ assumes meanings shared within collectivities with consequential dynamics and identities. In Margaret Thatcher’s immortal formulation, for a neoliberal ‘There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families’ (quoted in Heelas and Morris, 1992: 2).

On the other hand, critical traditions—of both the right and the left—have tended to regard consumption as the site of major incursions of economic processes into culture and everyday life. For them, modern consumer culture did not register the triumph of individual freedom but rather expressed the dominance of market exchange and industrial process over human life and meanings, apparently rendering them inauthentic or otherwise debased. Both conservative and progressive critics have tended to start from a somewhat nostalgic view of premodern life as an organic community characterized by a direct and largely transparent relationship between production and consumption: most goods were produced by people who were also final consumers, or in direct contact with final consumers. In this idealized world prior to capitalism, only a small fraction of consumption was mediated by markets and commodities. Culture therefore evolved (or more often was held stable) through the internal rhythms of collective life rather than through the pursuit of commercial interests or the impersonal structures of commodity exchange.

In such perspectives, the market drives a wedge through the previously organic relation between production and consumption, and monetary values become the only ones that now adjudicate social worth and distribute social goods. For conservatives this has meant that social status and cultural goods are now opened up to anyone who has the money to buy them, hence threatening those social traditions and hierarchies which—in premodern societies—ensured the transmission of ‘authentic’ values. For progressives, it has meant that all social and cultural values are bound up with commodity exchange, hence subordinate to the logics of profit and exploitation. In either case, consumption tends to mark the process through which culture is colonized by economic forces, and cultural critique puts forward a model of culture as an ideal realm purified of commercial interests. It is important to note that the very word ‘culture’ developed its modern meaning in the eighteenth century in relation to the rise of commercial society. Raymond Williams (1976; 1985), for example, argued that a ‘culture and society’ tradition emerged which sought to define values that it believed were previously embedded in traditional ways of life but which were now under assault from industrial civilization and the ‘cash nexus.’ Both conservative and progressive intellectuals sought to map a terrain of authentic culture that could be defended from capitalist modernization on the basis of values that could not be reduced to market prices and individual choices. In relation to consumer culture, this largely took the form of attacks on the commercial debasement and industrial management of public taste, leisure and consciousness in perspectives as diverse as cultural criticism and critical theory.

The most commanding formulation of market-mediated culture as alienation is undoubtedly that of Marx. Marx’s understanding of precapitalist social order is largely romantic. However brutal the old world might be, it is characterized by a transparency and directness of the relationship between production and consumption, summarized in the model of production of use values rather than exchange value. The commodity form—production of exchange value for the market; labour as commodity—means that workers sell their labour power in one market for the cash with which they might purchase the means of consumption in quite other markets. This means, firstly, that their (concrete) labour is disconnected from its own product: we do not work directly to satisfy our needs. Capitalist consumption is utterly warped by alienation. Secondly, technically, labour is denied ownership of the means of production; under conditions of exploitation (the extraction of surplus value) labour as a whole receives only a portion of the value it produces and is therefore quantitatively unable to purchase as means of consumption all that it in fact produced. It is significant that for Marx (as for Keynes) this has meant not only the relative poverty of workers but (more importantly for all of them) technical crisis tendencies within capitalism, which suffers periodic catastrophes as a result of endemic underconsumption or overproduction.

The split between production and consumption occasioned by market mediation is a temporal and spatial displacement that Marx identified through the term ‘commodity fetishism.’ This is Marx’s key statement of the structural separation of production and consumption, a disconnectedness that is mediated and at the same time obscured by the market. As is the case throughout Marx’s work there is a fusion of the ethical and the technical: market mediation not only mystifies the social order and constitutes the condition for alienation, but it is also economically unstable and crisis prone. Capitalists—who are driven by competitive forces to increase the scale of their production—cannot know in advance what expenditures of labour will later be deemed ‘socially necessary’ by effective consumer demand in the market; they therefore constantly court individual bankruptcy and collective catastrophe in the form of the trade cycle.

At the same time, market mediation allows for a relatively autonomous space of commodity representations, the elaboration of packaging, branding, advertising and so on, carried out by functionally differentiated firms or departments (Haug, 1986; Richards, 1991). Much work on consumption has been either a critique or a phenomenology of commodity fetishism. This is obvious in the case of the theme of reification in western Marxism (Lukacs, Adorno, Habermas). This considers not only the cultural consequences of production for the market, but also the political consequences of a social order which appears as the product not of human labour but rather of the (quantitative) relation between atomized ‘things.’ For Lukacs and Adorno, the entire social landscape appears to individuals as a consumable spectacle—a literally natural landscape, dominated by natural forces -rather than as a historical product of human action and the historical site of active social intervention. Less obviously related to commodity fetishism are more recent postmodern approaches such as that of Baudrillard, discussed below, in which consumption appears as a spectacle of signs completely detached from other social relations and processes. The link runs backwards through the Situationists’ ‘society of the spectacle’ (Debord, 1991; Plant, 1992) and Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life as alienation (1947; 1971), both of which are firmly rooted in the framework of early Marx. Society is experienced entirely through the detached signs that it produces through market mediation.

It is important to note that critical perspectives on consumption have been largely characterized by a ‘productivist bias’ in which consumption is derived from characterizations of modes of production or the industrial order. This is frequently based on equating the production/consumption dichotomy with the economy/culture dichotomy and giving analytical priority to the first term in each case. Hence the focus is on how forms of consumption are structurally determined by processes and institutions such as advertising and marketing or the changing forms of mass production. The problem is not simply that this produces an image of the consumer as ‘cultural dope’ or ‘dupe,’ as passive victim, but also that the effectivity of production systems in securing cultural ends is too often assumed without proper (and probably ethnographic) investigation of the actual consumption practices that consumers engage in: they are simply ‘read off of industrial processes. As has been well understood in studies of media consumption, for example, the issue of power over consumption cannot be resolved into either structures (however mighty they may be) or self-determining agents (for example, Morley, 1992). Moreover, in investigating actual consumer and producer practices we find a complexity of interconnections that cut across both the production/ consumption and economy/culture divides.

This issue comes to the fore again in the most important recent productivist framework for understanding contemporary transformations within consumption cultures. Historically, modern consumer culture is often associated with the rise of mass production and corresponding mass consumption at the turn of the twentieth century, developing into what is often characterized as a Fordist system during the post-war period. As most thoroughly analysed by the French regulationist school (Aglietta, 1979; Lee, 1993; Lipietz, 1992; see also Lee, 2000), the general course of industrialization and marketization had little effect on the broad mass of the population -which continued to cater for most of its needs through non-commodities—until the rise of mass production, exemplified by the Fordist flow-past assembly line with its intensive technical division of labour, high productivity, aesthetic standardization of goods and decreasing unit costs. The double need to ensure workplace discipline in increasingly alienated production processes, and to ensure sufficient effective demand to sell the huge volume of output, were both to be solved by promising workers (who are also consumers) a steadily rising standard of living defined through consumption norms. These were institutionalized through such mechanisms as national industrial relations agreements, underwritten by the state, and Keynesian demand management. Therefore Fordism is a means of institutionalizing and stabilizing the split between production and consumption, identifying private consumption as the sphere in which modern citizens might experience progress, freedom and self-determination, and establish culturally meaningful ways of life within their private sphere of consumption.

Post-Fordism—usually dated from the early 1970s—represents a new mode of articulating and stabilizing the relation between economy and culture, production and consumption. It is a response to both the perceived limits of Fordism (e.g. insupportable risks of investment in inflexible mass production facilities in a context of saturated consumer markets; increased workplace alienation; the ability of the state to avert crisis tendencies) and the emergence of new technical and organizational opportunities. The latter tend to promote structures of consumption that are not ‘mass’ but segmented and specialized, flexible, ‘small batch.’ For example, the increased role of knowledge and information in production (computer-aided design and robotization) allows for production lines to be changed by cheaply reprogramming rather than by scrapping expensive plant; increasingly fragmented media (non-broadcast television, internet) allow targeting of smaller, more specialized market niches; marketing and advertising—the conceptual and symbolic definition of goods and services—take on commanding and coordinating positions within firms. Moreover, the idea of post-Fordism converges with broader characterizations of socio-economic change in the direction of increasing ‘dematerialization’ or ‘informatization’ (discussed below) in which commodities are defined, produced and distributed in relation more to their signification than to their materiality. The upshot is the increasing centrality of cultural processes and logics within both production and consumption and their articulation.

The various brands of post-Fordist theory, and formulations of ‘new economy,’ are certainly open to considerable debate. However, their influence has been enormous, particularly in forming and more latterly in convergences between consumption studies and economic sociology (Callon, 1998; Slater and Tonkiss, 2001). The Fordist/post-Fordist framework paradoxically derives its pictures of consumption entirely from transformations in production and economy (narrowly conceived) while at the same time points us towards the absolute and increasing centrality of consumption, and indeed culture, in the reproduction of the economic order. Hence it has moved analysis, almost in spite of itself, towards a concern with the interconnections between economy and culture to the extent that it has provided the core set of presumptions behind the most culturalist accounts of consumption to date: theories of postmodernity (Harvey, 1989; Jameson, 1984; Lee, 1993), discussed below.

Consumption and Culture

It could be said that neither liberal nor critical traditions seriously examined consumption as culture. For liberals, consumption lay within the private domain of the individual and only reached visibility in the form of demand, the result of rational abstraction from a culture of needs and wants that was itself unexamined. For critics, contemporary consumer culture was the inauthentic and manipulated result of productive forces which were the only important focus of investigation: actual contemporary consumption was simply an index of debasement; the only alternative form of consumption was the utopian or nostalgic relationship to needs that came before or after capitalism.

We could therefore argue that the emergence of a research agenda that is explicitly concerned with cultures of consumption is relatively recent (perhaps two decades old), and has drawn on two kinds of resources: firstly, traditions and methodologies for thinking about the way in which meaningful goods play a part in the reproduction of everyday life; and secondly, accounts of those specifically modern conditions which have given consumption a strategic place in negotiating status and identity.

Different lineages could be claimed but we might point to three major traditions that place the ‘meanings of things’ on the centre stage of analyses of consumption as an aspect of cultural reproduction. Firstly, the various schools of semiotics, drawing on the model of structural linguistics, provided a methodology for treating all objects as signs within a social circulation of meaning, and ones capable of bearing significations that were irreducible to the functionality of, or instrumental orientation towards, goods. The exemplary analysis is still Barthes’ Mythologies (1986), which involved a virtuoso reading of mundane objects and events (French wine, landscapes or wrestling matches) in relation to ideological structures of meaning. Objects both bore and reproduced deep structural ways of seeing the world. Objects and their representation (for example in advertising) are able to take on second-order meanings—connotations—which are fundamentally ideological and therefore mystify the consumer’s identity and position within social relations. In a famous example, a pasta product can come to signify nationality (Italianness) within a system of ethnic significations that have no proper grounding in the materiality or use of the object (Barthes, 1977). This approach has had huge influence in cultural studies of consumption, becoming one of its two most conventional methodologies (the other being ethnography) (Cook, 1992; Dyer, 1982; Leiss et al., 1986; Myers, 1999; Williamson, 1978). Consumer culture can be read as a complex text and site of ideological work. Later developments of this approach—roughly poststructuralist—have emphasized the fluidity, ambivalence and unpredictability of these structures of meaning and of the values given to objects within them, hence foregrounding both creativity and contestation (for example, de Certeau, 1984; Fiske, 1989) in the way consumers deploy consumption acts and objects.

Secondly, in the tradition of material culture studies within anthropology, function is only one aspect of the meaning of goods (and indeed one that is only really analytically separated out by western observers). Goods and their uses reflect, communicate and are instrumental in reproducing cosmologies. As Mary Douglas writes: ‘Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty’ (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979). In Douglas’ work, consumption goods and rituals make up a social information system through which schemes of social classification are deployed and controlled. Douglas is particularly concerned to demonstrate that consumption systems are, in effect, complete ‘cosmologies,’ they order an entire moral universe: ‘The choice between pounding and grinding [coffee] is … a choice between two different views of the human condition’ (1979: 74). Such a perspective also makes perfect sense to any author working within a framework of objectification derived from Marx or Simmel (see, above all, Miller, 1987). Objectification suggests that the relation of need between the individual and the object world is an essentially dialectical one of constant mutual transformation through praxis. Modern consumer culture is one aspect of the monumental development of productive, transformative forces under capitalism, which is simultaneously a world-historical transformation and development of human need, or -to use Simmel’s terminology—a massive development of objective culture, which subjective culture struggles hard to assimilate.

Finally, we might point to the tradition of cultural studies, in many respects a development of both semiotics and of the anthropological notion of culture as the meaningful patterning of a whole way of life. However, cultural studies has always had a populist and spectacular dimension -exemplified in studies of subculture and popular expressive forms—that regards consumer goods as sites for the articulation of contradiction and opposition: for example, the punk’s transformation of black bin-liners into enactments of working-class, urban nihilism. Cultural studies emerged from a heavily structuralist phase (emphasizing ideological determination of meaning), as well as a fixation on the spectacular and oppositional (rather than on mundane or conformist) consumption. However, over the past 15 years, it has increasingly recognized that all consumption involves creative symbolic labour. Willis (1990), for example, focuses on how people make sense of—and therefore make different sense of—objects in the act of assimilating them. Consumption is therefore always an active cultural process; at the same time, it is clear that capitalism has delivered into the hands of ordinary people a massive cultural resource for the making of meaning, a huge site of ‘common culture.’

Status, Identity, and Meaning

If consumption is always cultural, what—if anything—has changed in the contemporary social landscape? In what sense might consumption and commercial culture have become more socially central? All three of the previously mentioned approaches would point to quantitative and qualitative shifts over the modern period. There is massively more material culture; and, at the same time, the elaboration of that material culture follows a hectic rhythm dictated by the drive to increased sales and profits. Modern consumer culture is associated with a destabilization of meanings within consumption and with the instrumentalization of these meanings through functionally differentiated market institutions such as advertising and marketing, mass media and design.

The most important contemporary accounts of this transformation address it by way of a contrast between traditional and post-traditional social orders. As noted above, traditional consumption is associated with a stability due to regulation by tradition and a fixed status order, often formalized in explicit sumptuary laws. Key aspects of consumption such as food, housing and dress are determined not by individual choice but by custom and ascribed status. Modernity is then associated with something like an institutionalized identity crisis in status orders; people’s positions within them and ways of signifying those positions through lifestyles are all rendered unstable. Giddens (1991), for example, points to features such as methodical doubt of all authority and knowledge, the plurality of life-worlds that individuals must negotiate in their daily lives, the increasing mediation of possible lifestyles as conveyed through public representations, and the absence of fixed and ascribed identities. In such conditions, as Giddens puts it, ‘We have no choice but to choose’ (1991: 81). Indeed, as a requirement of modern social life we have to forge identities through the production of ‘reflexive narratives of the self, the constitution of coherent identities by all means available. These include the patterns of consumption that are provisionally fixed into relatively stable ‘lifestyles’ and public representations of lifestyles (by individuals, public authorities and media representations, including advertising).

Unsurprisingly, this instability of meaning, identity and consumption is associated with heightened anxiety over consumption choices which—as choices—are both problematic and yet read as profoundly expressive of a choosing self: we do not know what choices are ‘right,’ but we know that any choice will be interpreted as a moral comment on who we think we are (but see also Warde, 1994a; 1994b). For example, a great deal of research focuses on what Featherstone (1991) describes as the production of an ‘outer body’ or appearance through bodily regimes such as dieting, exercise and cosmetic transformation, including surgery (see also Finkelstein, 1991). Failure in such disciplinary regimes of consumption (e.g. being overweight) deeply implicates the moral and social worth of the self; and yet diet regimes and ideal body shapes change rapidly, and conflicting imperatives and advice coexist. The depth of this identity crisis and consumption anxiety has often been associated with deeper social pathologies of the modern personality ‘type.’ Riesman’s (1961) account of the other-directed self, Lasch’s (1979) critique of the narcissistic personality, and Sennett’s (1977) critique of the modern injunction to ‘be authentic’ under conditions of constant performance, are all diagnoses of the modern attachment of the truth of the self to the consumerist surface of its body, appearance and style of life. In a related vein, Daniel Bell (1979) summed up a tradition of reading consumption as the focal point of a ‘hedonistic ethic’ that undermines a more traditional and early modern ethics of the self grounded in character, religion and work.

Status, Semiotics, and Postmodernism

This version of modernity emphasizes the contrast with traditional order, particularly around the fixity of individual identity and status. This is an old theme, often captured by notions such as ‘status symbol’ and ‘conspicuous consumption,’ both terms from Veblen (1899) who was pointing out the strategic role of consumption and leisure practices in establishing social distinction under conditions of social mobility, mainly within the context of an ever-rising middle class. For Veblen, the entire point of a status symbol was that it was a pure sign: such things as immaculate etiquette or exquisite taste in antiques served no function whatsoever but merely indicated that one had the wealth, and therefore leisure, to do no useful work and to devote oneself to being well bred. Consumption was the site on which to signal this, and was therefore a marker of pure difference. The dynamic of consumption was given by a process of emulation and devaluation: rising middle classes attempted to ape these consumption symbols, which consequently lost their value—and had to be replaced by new status symbols—as they no longer signified distinction.

As often noted (for example, Miller, 1987), this argument is not a million miles away from much of Bourdieu’s (1984), in which battles to legitimate particular criteria and hierarchies of cultural value and taste are central to the exercise of power, not only in culture but also in economy. While the complexity of this argument, in particular Bourdieu’s account of transactions between different systems for signifying status (e.g. cultural, social and economic capital), obviously goes way beyond Veblen, he still pays little attention to the content of consumption, which is valued not in its own right but, again, only as a token of status difference. There are two aspects of Bourdieu’s work, however, that transform this way of looking at consumption. Firstly, in contrast to Veblen (as well as Durkheimian-derived analysts such as Douglas), cultural consumption is treated as part of the constitution of class and power difference, not merely as reflecting or reproducing existing class structures that are rooted entirely in economic structures. Secondly, Bourdieu’s notion of habitus attempts to map out the interface between structure and agency: instead of actors as conscious manipulators of signs, or as manipulated by them, habitus addresses the way in which actors internalize—bodily and through experience—patterns of acting within their objective social position. In both respects, consumption is treated as a serious and relatively autonomous aspect of social reproduction.

A far more extreme version of this line of thought is to be found in Baudrillard (1970; 1981). For Baudrillard, as for Veblen and much of Bourdieu, the crucial aspect of consumption is the object as sign and hence as a marker of social distinction. In Baudrillard’s (1981) critique of Veblen (which applies to Bourdieu), ‘function’ itself becomes just another sign rather than an external reference point, the location of the object’s authenticity. We might want to signify functionality through the design of, say, the kitchen appliances we choose, but this itself is a mark of a ‘modern style’ (or perhaps of an anti-consumerist politics): it distinguishes us from others through our choices within a system of signs. Ultimately what we are really buying into in any act of consumption is not the object and its uses but rather the overall system of representations and our position in the matrix of differences it maps out and signals to others. However what is radical in Baudrillard is that along with function he discards any objectivity to which the system of signs might refer, including the structures of social distinction themselves. The triumph of the sign through consumer capitalism is a triumph over all reality: the code dominates production and generates contemporary material reality, and it overwhelms all social status. Hence, it produces a ‘hyperreal,’ a domain of exhaustive experience and meaning that substitutes for what has previously been identified as ‘the social’ and indeed accounts for the ‘death of the social’ itself (Baudrillard, 1983; 1994).

Baudrillard moves along this route by translating the notion of social distinction into the language of semiotics, discussed above. Baudrillard takes on the semiotic methodology and takes it very literally: goods as linguistic terms are completely detached from their referents, their value being determined internally to the code. At the same time, Baudrillard understands this approach not only as a methodological move but also as a historical development, what increasingly comes to be thought of as ‘the postmodern.’ He himself produces a very grand narrative of the progressive eclipse first of reference (in the form of the object’s use value), then of sociality (exchange value), finally resulting in the dominance of sign value over social reality, such as it is. Baudrillard’s own stance can be interpreted to fit well within older traditions of mass culture critique (to which he was directly related through the Marxism of Lefebvre and the Situationists). His work points to the complete dominance of a totalistic ‘spectacle’ which can only be countered through a nihilistic embrace on the part of ‘the masses.’

In fact, the overall development of consumption studies has been in completely the opposite direction from Baudrillard, whatever it might owe him rhetorically or methodologically, towards an optimistic postmodernism (Hebdige, 1988) which treats the increasing commodity ‘aestheticization of everyday life’ (Featherstone, 1991), fragmentation of identity and apparently decreasing relevance of older social divisions as the opportunity to treat consumer culture as a kind of ironic and hedonistic playground. Bauman (1990) and Maffesoli (1996), for example, emphasize the ‘neotribalism’ of a consumer culture in which densely meaningful goods are like costumes in which people dress up in order to enact their current elective, but flexible, social memberships and allegiances. The very profusion and motility of signs—which in Baudrillard points to nihilism—has more generally been taken to suggest the opening of a space for consumer creativity (Willis, 1990) or resistance and rebellion (de Certeau, 1984; Fiske, 1989). Consumption is an always active process of assimilation, hence also one that is unpredictable and undetermined.

Going Shopping

Shopping and retailing both exemplify the different variations of postmodern thought and have constituted the most decisive site for the conjunction of cultural geography and consumption studies. Indeed, the beginning of geography’s major contribution to contemporary consumption studies was probably marked by two mid 1990s publications: a special issue of Environment and Planning A on Changing Geographies of Consumption, edited by Peter Jackson (1995-96); and the ‘new retail geography’ heralded by Wrigley and Lowe (1996; see also sections of Jackson et al., 2000). This is probably unsurprising since places of purchase concretely spatialize people’s encounters with commodities, while—conversely—so much contemporary social space seems structured in relation to consumption. Shopping became a central and evocative issue with the rise of postmodern theory in the 1980s (the huge literature includes Bowlby, 1985; Chaney, 1991; Falk and Campbell, 1997; Ferguson, 1992; Gottdiener, 1997; Laermans, 1993; Langman, 1992; Nava, 1987; Nixon, 1992; Ritzer, 1999; Shields, 1992a; Slater, 1993), in which it came to stand for a central site through which the postmodern triumph of the sign could be studied and was enacted. As Glennie and Thrift (1996) point out, this research focus could take at least two quite opposed forms. On the one hand, a largely productivist and pessimistic line of thought looked at the new centrality of consumption and of shopping sites as a function of transformations in capital and the increased velocity and fluidity of circulation, itself partly a consequence of the ever-greater role of signifying processes in capitalist accumulation (for example, Harvey, 1985; 1989; Jameson, 1984). This involved new forms of rationalization of retail, including a move away from the more Fordist organization of the supermarket to the construction of more complex cultural spaces that provided a range of experiences, treated shopping as part of a total leisure experience (rather than the functional satisfaction of consumer needs through goods), and resulted in the production of spaces that had the character of ‘dreamworlds’ (Williams, 1982)—the self-enclosed, ‘hyperreal’ ‘no-space’ of the out-of town shopping mall or downtown retail development. The former was emblematized in developments such as Edmonton mall in Canada or MetroCentre in the UK (Chaney, 1991), which shifted central city retail functions out of town to new spaces entirely constructed in relation to consumption practices; the latter by modern complexes such as the Bonaventura in Los Angeles (Jameson, 1984) or heritage recoveries of older, pre-industrial marketplaces such as Quincy market in Boston or Covent Garden in London. All of these developments seemed to reach backwards to simulate historical models of retail space—the arcade, the department store or the marketplace itself (M. Miller, 1981; Slater, 1993; Williams, 1982). At the same time, authors such as Zukin and DiMaggio (1990; Zukin, 1991), Soja (1989; 2000) and Harvey (1985; 1989) argued that these developments need to be seen—however they may present themselves—as a conflict of power between new forms of centralizing capital and the previously more diverse and chaotic spaces formed by organic city development. In Zukin’s terminology, there was a ‘battle for downtown’ between ‘landscapes of power’ (the reformatting of urban space by new retail capital) and the ‘vernacular’ city life that previously inhabited these spaces (or which were sidelined by a move out of town).

The more optimistic reading of these developments focused on the emergence of new forms of subjectivity that seemed well adapted to these spaces and which also seemed to emblematize the postmodern. Firstly, consumption sites were recognized as providing new locations of social centrality (Shields, 1992a; 1992b). Just like the town centres they so often replaced or shifted to new locations, these sites congregated and focused the activities and signs through which people enact and experience civic identity and civic life. It is a matter of a lot more than shopping even if shopping is the central occasion for congregating. Visibility—of people, goods and settings—plays a central role here in acting out the social (which has led to a renewed focus on Benjamin’s elaboration of the figure of the flaneur). Issues of policing entry (Davis, 1990) are crucial in regulating entry into sociality (and exclusion from these spaces is a real social exclusion) and in producing (commercially) desired images of the social (for example, the exclusion of unruly youth, or the poor or ethnic groups). Secondly, the new retailing practices and subjectivities were associated with consumers who were both highly reflexive and fluid in their relationship to the myriad signs on offer. Going shopping was given the character of a preparation for a costume party, in which we try on or play at multiple identities and desires through various imaginative encounters with goods and their significations: not just in buying and owning, but also in looking and browsing, watching other consumers and moving through sign worlds, we imaginatively try on identities. Both the reflexivity of the consumer—their ‘knowingness’ and semiotic skills—and their supposed playfulness or ironic, flaneur-style distance from commitment are also associated with a new fluidity in social identities and memberships, as we have noted in Bauman’s and Mafessoli’s ideas of neotribes and elective memberships: new spaces of consumption both enable and arise from a condition in which people can elect (imaginatively or really) their cultural and subcultural allegiances.

What came to be known in the mid 1990s as the ‘new retail geography’—an important corrective to the postmodern excesses current in other disciplines—sought to evade the problems of both these positions, both the productivist and culturalist extremes as well as their overly facile pessimism or optimism. Firstly, it correctly recognized retail as a primary site on which one could and indeed had to connect political economy and cultural processes rather than reductively to assign a dominant position to either of them. For example, Lowe (2000) demonstrates that new retail megastructures, planned by global capital, can be transformed into true ‘places’ by local authorities, consumers and users. Secondly, it cleared the path for new strategies of empirical engagement, eschewing both macro-analysis and simple semiotic readings of spaces and discourses. The primary need was, and is, for ethnographic investigations that bring to light the ways in which people actually use and experience these retail spaces, and how they are linked into longer chains of provision, both ‘downwards’ to the consumers’ lifeworld and ‘upwards’ into commercial and industrial organization and social regulation. Moreover, the ethnographic approach gives a more concrete sense of how more durable identities such as gender, ethnicity and age mediate these retail practices but are also partly constituted through them. The study of London shopping centres and high streets by Miller et al. (1998), for example, provided a particularly rich account of the relation of these social spaces to complex social and local histories, rather than to a postmodern play of styles. Thirdly, as particularly emphasized by Miller (1998; also Slater, 1997a), postmodern readings of new consumption spaces were perversely informed by a highly individualistic orientation. These consumers, unlike the sovereign ones of economic theory, might be fragmented and motile subjects, but they were nonetheless depicted as individual ones. Miller’s work focused on the consumer’s connectedness to significant others: going shopping is not so much the act of identity-seeking subjects entering a supermarket of style as the process by which people (and largely women) provision the lives in which they are embedded, and hence in which they must construct the needs of their children and partners as much as they may imaginatively play with their own. Shopping is, as Miller writes, an act of love.

Mass Consumption and Global Culture

Similar issues also arise in relation to increasing scales of both production and consumption, which is also a central concern for cultural geography. Globalization is hardly a new concern in that capitalism has always been associated with an internationalization of trade and production relations. Early liberal arguments for capitalism emphasized both increased awareness of interdependence and the stance of rational calculation that attended the development of commerce (Hirschman, 1977). By contrast, Marx provided some of the most vivid images of capitalism as a force that is driven to explore the world for new ‘use values,’ hence bringing formerly isolated populations into competitive market conditions for both labour and consumer goods. In the process, Marx argued, non-capitalist social relations and cultures are dissolved. Significantly, consumption has long been equated with mass consumption, a central means through which concepts of mass culture and mass society were understood. Again, the central image is the ineluctable dissolution of previous material cultures in the face of globalizing commodity production. Early arguments about a global consumer culture echoed the structure of mass consumption and mass culture theories, often in the form of ‘Americanization’ theses.

There are in fact several different claims embedded in such formulations: firstly, a claim as to the homogeneity of consumption under regimes of massification or globalization; secondly, a claim as to the inevitability and smoothness of the successful spread of consumer culture; and thirdly, a set of value claims usually centring on either the quality or the authenticity of life under consumer culture (Miller, 2001; Wilk, 2001). Concern about both mass consumption and homogenized global culture took the form of debates over Americanization during much of the twentieth century. America seemed to be the point of origin and power for specifically enticing goods, for a system of production, marketing and consumption, and for a generally materialistic value system that equated freedom and progress with increasing satisfaction of private wants. Successful export of American consumerism seemed based not only on the inherent dynamism of the system but also on the political, military and media power that ensured a global reach and a globe dominated by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. However, the presumption that the export of American goods, services and media representation directly translates into homogeneous global culture rests at least partly on the same image of the passive consumer and the automatic determination of consumption by production that also underwrote mass consumption perspectives. Media studies of the different sense made of ostensibly hegemonic global culture products (for example, Ang, 1985; Liebes and Katz, 1990; Silj, 1988) pioneered a concern with the local mediation of goods that clearly extended to consumption in general (Howes, 1996; Miller, 1994). Consumption is an active process of assimilation at the global level, given the overall structure of unequal power, a process captured by the unlovely word ‘glocalization.’ Moreover, it is argued that multinational companies are as clear about the lack of global homogeneity as academics are learning to be, moving from older models of international marketing to their own versions of glocalization (for example, Kline, 1993; 1995).

Another important perspective that has served to introduce a more complex spatial sense of local-global connections into consumption studies has been commodity chain analysis or systems of provision approaches. These labels embrace quite some divergence but we might take as paradigm cases two non-geographers. Mintz’s (1986) Sweetness and Power demonstrates how production and consumption of a single commodity—sugar—brings together spatially dispersed histories. Fine and Leopold (1993) advocate a systems of provision approach in which relations internal to a commodity sector are shown to structure each other. Examples from the food and clothing industries are used to argue that this kind of analysis throws up findings that would be counterintuitive on the basis of analysis of consumption as a separate social moment. Work within this perspective generally points to the multiple lines of mediation and connection, in which consumption structures production as much as the other way around, and cultural and financial intermediaries—above all, marketing and retailing—take on decisive strategic roles. At the same time, this approach places the spatial distribution of these connections to the fore.

Globalization of consumer culture is also not a particularly even process. The older image of American dominance has given way to a concern with competition between regional blocks (for example, the power of Asian production and consumption), and with conflict directly provoked by consumerism as a value system (e.g. Castells, 1997, on the resurrection of traditionalist identities and politics). Appadurai (1990) offers a particularly complex attempt to map the different economic, social, political and cultural flows that generate this unevenness. Moreover, as developed in his earlier work (Appadurai, 1986), the idea that the rise of consumer and commodity relations is inexorable rests on a mistaken assumption that these processes are irreversible within any system of consumption (see also Carrier, 1994). In fact, within consumption objects move into and out of commodity status, from consumerist frameworks to many others.

Finally, globalization arguments, like the mass consumption ones before them, generally assume an opposition between pristine indigenous cultures existing before the intrusion of consumer culture, and their afterlife as commodity cultures—a fall from grace. Even where gains such as wealth and standard of living are conceded, there is a sense that consumer culture is neither as good nor as authentic as what came before. Names such as McDonald’s or Nike are identified with global culture and the evils of production (environment, labour relations and exploitation) (Klein, 2000). Anthropological research (most notably Thomas, 1991) has pointed out both the extent and the complexity of trade relations and non-immediate consumption in non-modern societies, as well as the ‘entanglement’ of supposedly pristine consumption cultures in wider and negotiated social networks.

Romanticization of the premodern is one problem here, as is the idea that autonomy and isolation could ever be a proper standard for assessing cultures. To do so is to reify them outside all the history of contact and communication. It is also to assume the kind of cultural absolutism that underlies all relativism: the assumption that whatever a people value is unquestionable so long as it has been self-defined (Slater, 1997b). Rather more interesting is the ethical framework evolved by Sen and Nussbaum (Sen, 1985; 1987) which seeks to understand development politics in terms of ‘empowerment’ and citizenship: that minimum levels of consumption (whose content is defined specifically for different communities) are required to achieve such values as self-determination and democracy (see also Doyal and Gough, 1991; Soper, 1990).

Finally, in addition to the emphasis on heterogeneity, unevenness and the issue of authenticity, contemporary approaches to the globalization of consumption have been heavily marked by a more general stress on enculturation of the economy and on notions of information or network society. For example, Malcolm Waters offers the slogan: ‘material exchanges localize; political exchanges internationalize; and symbolic exchanges globalize’ (1995: 9). This is to argue that the increasingly dematerialized form of goods has an inherent tendency to global scales of operation. Similarly, Appadurai (1986; 1990; 1995; like Castells, 1996) uses a language of ‘flows’ and ‘scapes’ to capture the way in which global movements of goods, people, signs and so on are increasingly overlapping both in terms of geography and across social moments (culture, society, economy, politics). Although Waters’ position does not assume homogenization or global culture, it is certainly in tune with critics such as Klein (2000) or Goldman and Papson (1998) for whom the modern form of the multinational corporation is exemplified by Nike: it owns no factories or other industrial apparatus and yet is able to coordinate worldwide production as well as a seemingly international cultural allegiance under the aegis of a symbol, the brand name and its ‘swoosh’ logo.

The emergence of the internet and e-commerce has come increasingly to symbolize and perform a new geography of consumption in which the circulation and exchange of goods are dematerialized and hence rendered ‘frictionless’ and ‘disintermediated.’ While it is evident that the precise relationship between online and offline commerce is still being worked through by both producers and consumers, the internet seems at least capable of reforming markets through global competition, through the identification or organization of consumer groups independently of physical location, and through new processes of both commodification and decommodification which involve challenges to the very idea of ‘a product’ (Coombe, 1998; Lury, 1993; 1996; Miller and Slater, 2000; Slater, 2001).

New Directions

Consumption studies has become a fairly well-defined and well-established field within a number of disciplines. It has opened up a range of research agendas that are now being pursued as ‘normal science.’ It is well accepted that consumption is a significant issue of cultural, social and economic reproduction, not to be treated as private, natural or trivial. We might therefore want to read some of the tea-leaves of our intellectual situation to see where things might go next. Several tendencies stand out from the current state of the field.

Firstly, in consumption studies as elsewhere, the high-water mark of debates over postmodernity has long passed. For this field, arguably more structured by (and structuring of) these debates than many others, this means a move away from an obsessive concern with the relation between identity and culture, and away from encountering consumption through processes of signification rather than broader constructions of social relationships and practices. Symptomatic of this shift is a new concern with mundane rather than spectacular and expressive consumption (for example, Gronow and Warde, 2001; Warde and Martens, 2000), which includes a concern with consumption as habitual, routine and embedded in the practical reproduction of everyday life rather than as directly consequential for self, identity and status (Ilmonen, 1997). Finally, the postmodern roots of the first wave of consumption studies were marked, as previously noted, by a bias towards individual hedonism that peculiarly mirrored liberal traditions. Partly under the impact of both ethnographic and feminist studies, there is a greater concern with mundane consumption as social and interpersonal, and concerned with the needs of others as much as of self (Miller, 1998).

Secondly, the shift away from the postmodern agenda involves a renewed concern with the relation between consumption and persistent social structures of power and inequality (for example, Edwards, 2000). Debates within cultural studies have been particularly important in pointing up the movement from highly optimistic accounts of consumption as liberating and empowering (Fiske, 1989; Nava, 1992; Nava et al., 1996) towards understanding it as structured by the same constraints that long exercised an older political economy. Figures such as Bauman (1998) and McRobbie (1998; 1999) have been exemplary in trying to move back onto this terrain without losing the insights gained from the long ‘cultural turn.’ Central also to this development is a revived concern with ecological and environmental issues and the problematization of consumption through an experience of its social limits, costs and risks. Indeed, the issue of ‘risk’ has to some extent replaced the earlier, more identity-oriented, notion of ‘anxiety’ within consumption studies (Beck, 1992; Beck et al., 1994; Halkier, 2001; Warde, 1994a; 1994b).

Thirdly, having asserted consumption as a significant social instance in its own right, particularly against the ‘productivist bias’ in much previous social thought, the research tendency is now to reconnect consumption and production, focusing on continuities and interconnections, not least through more integrated accounts of markets and market behaviours (for example, du Gay, 1996; 1997; Slater, 2001; Slater and Tonkiss, 2001). This tendency has been given a considerable impetus by the rise of the internet and e-commerce which evidences blurred boundaries between production and consumption as well as an ever more globalized reach for both.