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The importance of material cultures for understanding consumption

Budiriro, a low-income suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe

Consumption is one of the cornerstones of mainstream economics, assumed to derive from the aggregated decisions of isolated individuals maximising their ‘utility’ in a ‘rational’ fashion. However, rather than exercising demand independently of one another, individuals conform to systematic patternings or norms of consumption which vary across socio-economic categories, across locations and over time. And consumption is increasingly far from what might be considered rational in light of emerging epidemics of obesity and the climate crisis. Therefore what matters for the understandings of economies and societies is what shapes these consumption norms.

The Systems of Provision (SoP) approach, devised by Ben Fine in the 1990s and continually  updated, provides a political economy framing of consumption which draws on the full range of social sciences. The core premise of the SoP approach is that consumption outcomes are linked to the vertical processes of provisioning and shaped by the agents involved who will typically have contested and conflicting interests in, and understandings of, the system. Each SoP is unique although it may be linked to, or overlap with, others.

Material culture is an important component of the SoP approach. The concept has its roots in anthropology and is typically concerned with the way that objects become infused with meanings that go beyond their specific function. The material nature of something affects how it is produced and accessed, and this will affect the way, or even whether, it is consumed. The way we consume water is different from housing and different again from cars or from peanut butter.

Commodities are also always imbued with cultural significance. People have associations with things which might hold much more weight in their attachments than functional usage would suggest. But these cultures or associations are often so deeply ingrained that they can go unnoticed, or be taken for granted, or considered self-explanatory. Alternatively, cultures of consumption might be extremely obvious, especially where there is change, such as with fashion (‘must have the latest’) or environmental disaster.

Material cultures depend on the context. It is not just the thing itself that shapes the meanings that we attach to it but where it is, and what we might do with it. To take an extreme example, an elephant might be perceived differently if was in the wild or in a zoo or on TV. It might be an object of worship or an animal to be hunted or protected. The same animal will have different cultural attachments depending on the context and this may differ across people and societies.  Another example is water. We will have different associations with water depending on if we are in a drought or a flood. And we might perceive bottled water to be superior to tap water, even though it is in some cases (less) purified tap water.

For the SoP approach we are interested not just in what cultures are but from where cultures come and how they are contested. We know that personal experience and family and friends exert a strong influence, but wider discourses and narratives also shape associations and these are subject to direct influence such as by advertisers or politicians. Celebrity endorsements, for example, imbue commodities with glamorous qualities.

Cultures will be different, and differently influential, across the agents in the SoP, and these cultures may be in conflict. For example, for the capitalist producer, a commodity is a source of income – to be made cheap and sold dear. For the consumer the same commodity might be a source of meeting essential needs, or luxury or comfort or keeping up with trends. Similarly, one person’s home, if rented might be another’s financial investment. One person’s flexible workforce might be another’s exploited workers. Each of the agents in the SoP will have their own (derived and contributing) cultures associated with their engagement in the system.

Material culture is also linked to the wider structural shifts in the SoP. For example, the expansion of neoliberal concepts and practices over the past four decades has led to changes in the way that people perceive and use essential services. There may be different perceptions depending on whether something is provided by the public or the private sector regarding efficiency, quality or cost.  And these associations may change over time and may not necessarily be supported by empirical evidence. Where services might in the past have been seen as a state responsibility to provide, there may now be a greater sense that it is the individual’s responsibility to ensure access. But, despite global trends, this commodification of social reproduction has not been the same everywhere. For the SoP analysis, then, what is of interest is why this has been normalised in some cases but not others.

Our consumption decisions are thus strongly rooted in the cultures and associations, the prevailing narratives and the social norms that are embedded in the systems by which commodities are provided. Understanding what these are as well as who shapes these, how and why is crucial to understanding consumption outcomes and to pinpointing directions for change.

Kate Bayliss is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and a member of the Inclusive Urban Infrastructure (IUI) team. IUI is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund under the title ‘Towards Trajectories of Inclusion: Making infrastructure work for the most marginalised’ (grant reference number ES/T008067/1).