Debating the politics of consumption

EC1The latest issue of the journal Area has just published a Review Forum on the Globalizing Responsibility book which came out of a research project on the politics of ethical consumption. The Forum arises from a session held at the RGS-IBG conference in 2011, which included critical commentaries on the book by Alex Hughes and Mike Goodman. Both Alex and Mike have written responses to the book for the Forum. They raise various issues at stake in analysing and evaluating the politics of this field, including conceptualisations of the materiality of consumption, postcolonial approaches to consumption, issues of inequality and corporate power, and the role of media and communications practices in the extension of ethical discourses around consumption. We have a response/clarification/defence of the approach pursued in the book, grandly titled Problematising Practices, which, as the name might suggest, elaborates a little on the idea of focussing on ‘problematisation’ as both an object and method of analysis.

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

Prince Charles, Al Gore, and other good things to read about sustainability (apparently)

The University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership has listed our book on the politics of ethical consumption, Globalizing Responsibility, as one of top 40 books on sustainability of 2010 (technically it was published in 2011). Which is very nice, a little surprising (I didn’t really think it was about sustainability), and a little weird – we are on the same list as Al Gore and Prince Charles; as well as proper social scientists like Tim Jackson, Joseph Stiglitz, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The full list of ‘The 2010 Top 40 Sustainability Books’ is:

1. Accounting for Sustainability (Anthony Hopwood, Jeffrey Unerman & Jessica Fries)

2. Adaptation to Climate Change in Southern Africa (Steffen Bauer & Imme Scholz)

3. A Blueprint for a Safer Planet (Nicholas Stern)

4. Building Social Business (Muhammad Yunus)

5. Cents and Sustainability (Michael H. Smith, Karlson ‘Charlie’ Hargroves & Cheryl Desh)

6. The Climate Files (Fred Pearce)

7. Corporate Community Involvement (Nick Lakin & Veronica Scheubel)

8. CSR for HR (Elaine Cohen)

9. CSR Strategies (Sri Urip)

10. Dynamic Sustainabilities (Melissa Leach, Ian Scoones & Andy Stirling)

11. The Economics of Climate Change in China (FAN Gang, Nicholas Stern, Ottmar Edenhofer, XU Shanda, Klas Eklund, Frank Ackerman, Lailai LI and Karl Hallding)

12. Factor Five (Ernst von Weizsacker Karlson ‘Charlie’ Hargroves, Michael H Smith, Cheryl Desha & Peter Stasinopoulos)

13. Freefall (Joseph E Stiglitz)

14. Globalizing Responsibility (Clive Barnett, Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke & Alice Malpass)

15. Finders Keepers? (Terence Daintit)

16. Harmony (HRH The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly)

17. How Bad Are Bananas? (Mike Berners-Lee)

18. Innovative CSR (Céline Louche, Samuel O. Idowu & Walter Leal Filho)

19. Integrated Sustainable Design of Buildings (Paul Appleby)

20. Nature and Culture (Sarah Pilgrim and Jules Prett)

21. The New Pioneers (Tania Ellis)

22. The New Rules of Green Marketing (Jacquelyn A Ottman)

23. Next Generation Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid (Ted London & Stuart L Hart)

24. Our Choice (Al Gore)

25. Peoplequake (Fred Pearce)

26. The Positive Deviant (Sara Parkin)

27. The Power of Sustainable Thinking (Bob Doppelt)

28. Prosperity Without Growth (Tim Jackson)

29. Requiem for a Species (Clive Hamilton)

30. Responsible Business (Manfred Pohl & Nick Tolhurst)

31. The Responsibility Revolution (Jeffrey Hollender & Bill Breen)

32. Smart Solutions to Climate Change (Bjorn Lomborg)

33. The Spirit Level (Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett)

34. Sustainability Education (Paula Jones, David Selby & Stephen Sterlin)

35. Sustainability in Austerity (Philip Monaghan)

36. The Sustainable MBA (Giselle Weybrecht)

37. Tackling Wicked Problems (Valerie A Brown, John A Harris & Jacqueline Y Russell)

38. Too Smart for Our Own Good (Craig Dilworth)

39. The Top 50 Sustainability Books (CPSL, Wayne Visser)

40. The World Guide to CSR (Wayne Visser & Nick Tolhurst)

Aggregating the social

A couple of weekends ago, amongst other important responsibilities, I managed to set-up a smart-meter to track our domestic electricity usage (it took 3 minutes). It’s basically a guilt-inducing-monitor, designed to show you just how much energy is used up by keeping the computer on all day and not turning the landing light off at night, how much this costs you, and how much CO2 is emitted by so doing.

There is plenty of academic work on this sort of domestic technology, one that sits of the cusp of a shift in the rationalities of ‘sustainability’ initiatives as they move from a focus on information provision to embedding devices in everyday life which encourage or provoke people to reflect on their practices.

I have been thinking about this sort of initiative, and specifically about to think about it genealogically, a lot recently – partly because I have been working on a research report about the use of market segmentation tools in the planning and design of public engagement initiatives across the public, voluntary, charity and campaigning sector. There is an interesting relationship between social science methods and social science theory in these sorts of fields. On the one hand, there is a heavy reliance on technologies of enumerating and data gathering and data mining, to identify aggregate patterns of behaviour. For example, segmentation methods normally use forms of statistical cluster analysis. This is one example of the process that has been dubbed ‘the social life of methods’ – the ways in which changes in the practices and processes of generating information, often led by non-academic actors, reconfigures understandings of social processes. On the other hand, this statistical aggregation of ‘the social’ is associated with the proliferation of various ‘causal’ narratives, drawn variously from cognitive and experimental psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience, or evolutionary biology. It’s also part of the rise of certain sorts of public social science, the ‘freakonomics’ or ‘black swan’ genre.

What is interesting about the segmentation example is that the relationship between the method (e.g. cluster analysis) and the theory (increasingly some variety of psychology of human motivations) is almost entirely contingent: cluster analysis is a purely descriptive method for identifying structures and patterns in data, without any explanatory power. The patterns are generated by the starting assumptions about variables plugged into the method at the start.

There is, in short, something chronically inductive about the styles of reasoning involved in this sort of policy area, which depend on weak inferences bolstered by generalised claims drawn from other fields of equally empiricist, inductive ‘experimental’ science.

Anyway, back to the problem of how to theorise all this – the rise of styles of behavioural or strongly psychologized forms of policy discourse. There is a sort of default governmentality approach which would lead one to interpret all this as an example of the governing of new subjects – anxious, neurotic, vulnerable, susceptible ones. Segmentation models are certainly used to design communications strategies, marketing campaigns, and the public facing activities of organisations in commercial and non-commercial fields.

But I wonder how far this doesn’t mislead us into giving too much credence to the models of personality, motivation, or emotion they ascribe to ordinary people. The explanatory theories that float around the calculative technologies of behaviour change governance, for example, might tell us a lot more about the professional fields charged with intervening to address, for example, obesity, or pro-environmental behaviour, than they do about the subjects of such initiatives – they might tell us more about the subjectivities operative of professional fields. The strictly statistical correlations generated by data-heavy technologies don’t really provide a feel for what works, what moves people, that is necessary to be able to act effectively in, for example, urban planning and design, or arts marketing, or transport planning. Some model of the causal qualities of persons, environments, contexts, mediums, is necessary to operate in these different fields – not necessarily the same model of course: it is the combination of the availability of data with the causal narratives of, for example, human motivation or ‘animal spirits’ that renders certain fields of activity amenable to ‘interventions’ of different sorts.

So, if there is an issue in these sorts of initiatives around understanding the configuration of subjects – it might well be the subjects of various professional modes of expertise that are the place to start. I gave up looking at the electricity monitor after about two minutes; it sat on the sideboard for a further week; now I have unplugged it, to save energy.

From BOGOFS to ‘No Tesco’ and beyond…

My colleague at the OU, Geoff Andrews, who knows a lot about food politics, tweets news about a Tesco opening today in Stokes Croft in Bristol. Big local news, in that part of the world. Stokes Croft is a veritable ‘zone in transition’, nestled between ‘Bohemian’ Montpelier, academic-laden Bishopston, and St Pauls, still proud to have been where the first urban riots started back in 1980. The area, quite small in fact, has been undergoing ‘regneration’ for a few years now. The proposal to open a Tesco in Stokes Croft sparked protests and heavy-handed police response last year. The opening of the store today makes me realise that there has been a rolling low-level politics of supermarkets in Bristol for a few years ago now – back in 2006, when we still lived there, a local campaign in Bishopston successfully stopped the opening of a big Sainsburys up the road from Stokes Croft – the campaign was called BOGOFS – Bishopston Opposing Glut of Supermarkets. Though successful, there are now two Sainsbury Locals in the same area – Bishopston being the hub of a whole host of alternative and/or independent retailers. There is also an ongoing struggle involving the local authority, planners, Bristol City and Sainburys over whether or not the football club can sell their ground for the development of a new supermarket and therefore afford to build a new stadium over the way – but that’s the other side of town from Stokes Croft. One of Banksy’s more famous local pieces, the Mild Mild West, is in Stokes Croft, and back in 2009 was itself ‘vandalised’ with blue paint – local convention had it that this was revenge by Bristol Rovers (blue) fans, from just up the road, for Bansky announcing he was a Bristol City (red) fan, City being from the other side of the river.
Ah, local politics and culture.
Over here in Swindon, we’re happy to have a Co-Op on every corner.

Whatever happened to social theory?

 I’ve just been reading the new book by Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People. It is a full-scale elaboration of the importance for critical social science of what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ – people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. Sayer thinks this aspect of life is systematically downplayed or misrepresented in lots of social theory. I think he is probably right about that. The notion of lay normativity was used in Sayer’s previous book, The Moral Significance of Class, and the project on ethical consumption that I have been working on, for it seems like ages, made use of what we at least understood this term to be getting at – the importance of giving credence to the evaluations of their own practices that people provide in social science encounters, not least as being able to tell us something interesting about how practices work. Here is the publisher’s blurb for Sayer’s new book:

“Andrew Sayer undertakes a fundamental critique of social science’s difficulties in acknowledging that people’s relation to the world is one of concern. As sentient beings, capable of flourishing and suffering, and particularly vulnerable to how others treat us, our view of the world is substantially evaluative. Yet modernist ways of thinking encourage the common but extraordinary belief that values are beyond reason, and merely subjective or matters of convention, with little or nothing to do with the kind of beings people are, the quality of their social relations, their material circumstances or well-being. The author shows how social theory and philosophy need to change to reflect the complexity of everyday ethical concerns and the importance people attach to dignity. He argues for a robustly critical social science that explains and evaluates social life from the standpoint of human flourishing.”

It will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, Sayer’s book gets in critical human geography. Once upon a time, when I was little, Sayer was one of the big names of Theory in geography, in the 1980s heyday of critical realism. Apart from forays every so often to call for more robust normative reflection in the discipline (most recently in Antipode), Sayer is much less of a presence now. He wrote an excellent book in the mid ’90s, Radical Political Economy: A Critique, which I remember Marxist colleagues being apoplectic about because it took seriously non-‘dialectical’ styles of social thought and made productive use of Adam Smith and Hayek.The style of theory that Sayer performs, with its close attention to argumentation, is rather uncommon in geography now. I’m not necessarily sold on all of Sayer’s arguments – I think, for example, that he might find more support for his broad thesis about human vulnerability and ethics in thinkers such as Levinas or Derrida, or for the importance of everyday attachments to things that matter in styles of cultural theory concerned with thinking about the ordinary, such as Lauren Berlant’s work; these are not traditions Sayer has much patience with. Genre blindness? But I think his diagnosis of the limits of current styles of critical thinking has a lot going for it – critical thinking does find it really difficult to give credence to ordinary dispositions as having value in and of themselves beyond their function in systems of discipline, as effects of subjectification, or as indices of unconscious dynamics, or at best residues of untapped resistance or invention.

I happen to think that Sayer over-eggs the normativity-is-important cake by insisting on making the argument with reference to ethical theories – there is a less explicitly ‘moral’ strand of philosophy concerned with rationality, reason, embodiment, and values that might inform the sort of reconstruction of social science Sayer recommends. I have been trying to write about these same issues in a rather more tentative fashion, for a series of ‘reports’ on ‘Geography and Ethics’ due to be published any time soon. The first deals with some recent accounts of justice; the second with some of the philosophy mentioned above, focussing on notions of practical reason [Sayer has lots of interesting things to say on this topic]; the third is still to be written, and will focus on the kind of social theories of value, normativity and justification that Sayer, amongst others, has been developing.

Consumption, ethical and anti-

A couple of new books on ethical consumption and/or anti-consumerism, for those interested in that sort of thing (I’m professionally obliged to be): Ethical Consumption: A Critical Introduction, edited by Tania Lewis and Emily Potter; and Excess: Anti-Consumerism in the West, by Kim Humphrey.

Globalizing Responsibility

A new book, Globalizing Responsibility: the political rationalities of ethical consumption, co-written by myself and three colleagues – Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke and Alice Malpass – has just been published. It comes out of an ESRC/AHRC funded project on Governing the subjects and space of ethical consumption that we all worked on together, and which formally ended back in 2006. But these things take time to come to full fruition (we have another book in the pipeline).

The book sets out to analyse various ethical consumption practices from a political perspective. By this, I mean it tries to understand them as forms of political mobilisation, campaigning, lobbying, and so on – not in the sense of evaluating them from a pre-established position of what counts as politics or what makes politics more or less progressive – but in terms of trying to understand how these sorts of activities are indicative of changes in the way politics gets done now. It is based primarily on case studies undertaken in and around Bristol in the mid-2000s, especially focussing on fair trade campaigns of different sorts, and tries to make sense of the local dynamics of global solidarity politics. Theoretically, the book works through various approaches to understanding this sort of activity, including accounts of neoliberalization, governmentality theory, theories of practice, social movement theory, and theories of consumerism.

We have a couple of nice endorsements on the back cover, one from the geographer Peter Jackson at Sheffield: “Based on original research and innovative thinking, this profound and insightful book challenges conventional thinking about ‘ethical consumption’.  Approaching the subject as a distinctive form of political mobilisation, Globalizing Responsibility shows how our everyday consumption practices are related to wider narratives of social justice and collective responsibility”; and one from Rob Harrison of Ethical Consumer Magazine: “‘By viewing ethical consumption patterns as a political phenomenon, the authors deliver a far deeper understanding of this growing movement than a whole raft of marketing and business literature which has gone before.”

So if anyone is still stuck for gifts to put under the tree this festive season, this comes just in the nick of time.

Waving not drowning

I gave a talk last week at the Martin School at the University of Oxford, on the findings of a research project ethical consumption – part of a series this Autumn on Certification and Sustainability. We have a book coming out from the project any time now, in time for Xmas, so this was a bit like a promotional gig. They filmed my performance, and have now posted it on their website. I have never actually watched myself talk before; it’s very odd. I seem to wave my hands around a lot, not sure to what purpose. It’s better in audio only.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.