Bauman, Sociology of Consumption and Environmental Limits

Image: Scott Webb

Monday 13th March, 2017

David Evans

Re-reading Bauman’s Sociology and Postmodernity, I found myself awash with a sense of nostalgia.  It conjures a time in which sociologists were able, perhaps required, to debate the nature of modernity and the contours of the very discipline that was born to make sense of it. A time in which culture and cultural theory (and cultural theorists) were key reference points in these debates. A time before Bauman had flooded us with books on the various dimensions of liquid modernity, making it all too easy to dismiss his writing as slovenly and aphoristic. I had scarcely started school at the time this was written (1988) and so perhaps my response is nothing more than an atavistic longing or romantic imagining of a moment that I never experienced and may never have happened. What could be more postmodern than that? This is nevertheless precisely the kind of thinking and writing that piqued my interest and sparked my sociological imagination. And yet it is becoming harder and harder to prioritize and pursue this style of scholarship. Perhaps that explains the melancholy.

Sadness and self-indulgence aside, my commentary relates to this piece representing an early statement on what was to become a key trope in Bauman’s oeuvre – namely the rise of a condition in which consumption has become ‘the cognitive and moral focus of life, integrative bond of the society, and the focus of systematic management’. My argument proceeds from the observation that Bauman’s thinking on the nature and consequences of consumer society appears to have fallen out of favor, at least in the UK and Europe, as a sociological approach to consumption. Given the challenges looming large in the global political arena – of which there are many, but I restrict myself here to climate change and environmental sustainability – I wish to suggest that Bauman’s project is now as relevant as it ever was.

How, then, does the current vogue in the sociology of consumption depart from Bauman’s style of engagement with consumer society? Where Bauman’s account is theoretical, critical, sweeping and an attempt to characterize macro-sociological phenomena (capitalist economic relations, the nature of postmodernity); contemporary perspectives favor empirical engagement, political neutrality, and fine-grained analysis of micro-sociological processes (consumption, everyday life). There are perfectly legitimate reasons for the shift in emphases. The cultural turn ushered in a reaction against the elitist biases of conventional consumer critique (as exemplified by the Frankfurt School), stressing instead the creative potential and positive aspects of consumption. Others argued that theoretical accounts of consumerism do not stand the test of empirical scrutiny, and rest on caricatures of ‘the consumer’ that are seldom found in real world encounters. Elsewhere objections were raised in a conceptual register, suggesting that social scientific analyses of ‘consumption’ need to look beyond its colloquial associations with commodities, market exchanges and shopping.

A distinctly sociological contribution was the invocation to transcend the orthodoxy – running from Veblen’s seminal account of ‘conspicuous consumption’ to Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and distinction – that positions consumption principally as a vehicle for social communication. The key argument here is that a good deal of activity that might be thought of as consumption is rather more ordinary and unspectacular than is commonly assumed. In addition to intimating a focus on routine and habitual conduct over reflexivity and decision-making, this perspective invites greater attention to seemingly mundane activities and items such grocery shopping, the use of energy, and the material culture of the home. The decisive formulation of these ideas came through Alan Warde’s application of theories of practice to consumption. Presented as a corrective both to models of the sovereign consumer and the biases of cultural analysis, Warde counsels that consumption should be viewed as a moment that arises within and for the sake of practices. Accordingly, the locus of consumption scholarship shifts towards the ‘social’ organization of practices.

These developments have arguably been applied most vigorously in studies of climate change and the environmental impacts of consumption. Here it is claimed that people do not consume energy and water, rather they consume the services that resources provide (cooking, showering). The invisibility of these resources renders theories of conspicuous display ill suited to the task of exploring environmentally significant forms of consumption. The once dominant theories of consumption and consumer culture are thus replaced with a focus on the technologies that consume resources (washing machines, freezers) and the normalization of resource intensive ways of life. These are all important developments, however I am left wondering about the blind spots that are created by the exclusion of other sociological approaches to consumer society – such as Bauman’s – from debates about the environmental impacts of consumption.

Taking notice of ‘inconspicuous’ forms of consumption has seemingly necessitated the wholesale rejection of theories developed to account for largely conspicuous forms. But surely the biases of cultural analysis and consumer critique – with their emphasis on identity, meaning, domination, desire, manipulation, ideology and so on – must have something useful to offer the sociological analysis of sustainable consumption?  These perspectives ask different questions, interrogate different phenomena and animate different processes. For example it strikes me as myopic to neglect the relationships between traditionally conspicuous forms of consumption – such as fast fashion, car cultures, disposable coffee cups and shopping malls – and questions of climate change and environmental sustainability. The reluctance to engage with themes from an earlier wave of consumption scholarship brings to mind Bauman’s distinction between the sociology of postmodernity and postmodern sociology. Far from being passé or rendered obsolete by the so-called practice turn, sociological thinking about consumer culture is better viewed as a different tool for a different job, the neglect of which is no longer tenable.  Suffice to say, any rejoinder to these tendencies could usefully look to Bauman’s critical project for inspiration.

Returning to the essay at hand, Bauman suggested that postmodern culture does not know of a world with an ‘in-built finality and irreversibility of choices’ and suggests that morality is a ‘functional pre-requisite’ of such a world. Fast-forward to 2017 and we appear to be approaching a situation in which the symbolic and literal exhaustion of modernity is a credible possibility, and that consumer conduct might be having irreversible consequences. Growing scientific and political consensus around climate change and looming environmental crises are making it increasingly difficult to think of consumption as emancipated from natural and material limits. This emergent social reality brings an altogether new slant on Bauman’s observation that postmodern culture is a culture of ‘over-production and waste’. Put another way: sustained engagement with the environmental impacts of consumption might breathe new life into Bauman’s concern with the place of ethics in consumer society. The flipside of this is that by taking a leaf out of Bauman’s proverbial book, and by linking discussions of ecological and cultural limits, the sociology of consumption may yet (again) find itself at the vanguard of thinking about modernity and its futures.

David Evans is a Professorial Research Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He tweets occasionally @profdavidevans.

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