Consumption, materiality, and markets
Consumption, materiality, and markets
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers the role of materiality in mundane consumption. It argues that mundane, everyday consumption should be understood as inextricably linked to actors' engagements in practices. It is the requirements of practice rather than the imperatives of personal taste or choice that explain mundane consumption. Material objects such as Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tools can be viewed as materialized understandings, incorporating know-how relevant for specific practices. Successful consumption requires learning and the acquisition of skills and competencies. The boundaries between production and consumption are often blurred and dynamic, with objects having the capacity to shift the distribution of skills and competencies required to accomplish particular projects (e.g., redecorating a room). Material objects thus acquire value through and because of their role in accomplishing particular practices and projects.
This chapter examines the role of material objects in shaping the structures of ordinary, everyday consumption. Our starting point is that, while the acquisition and possession of goods have long been recognized as markers of social position and identity, the role of materiality in consumption has largely been neglected by those seeking to understand the making of markets and the dynamics of demand.
In developing this position we integrate developments in anthropology (Miller 1997) and in the sociology of science and technology (Latour 1992). In these fields it is widely recognized that material objects play a key role in the construction of social orders and, more specifically, in the processes that constitute the behaviours, institutions and, more generally, objects that are qualified as ‘economic’ in a particular socio-temporal context (Caliskan and Callon 2009). Slater (2002a, 2002b) provides a comprehensive discussion on how materiality features in the discourse of economics and cultural studies arguing against the object-sign distinction. Cochoy (2007c, 2008a, 2009) examines the role of objects in configuring shopping in mass retail environments. However, the role of material objects in constructing and reproducing everyday consumption has received less attention (Watson 2008).
Gronow and Warde (2001: 3) observe that whilst the analysis of highly visible and conspicuous consumption is well developed, a focus on such activities may paint a misleading picture if other, equally important, forms of consumption require different forms of explanation. Gronow and Warde (2001: 4) coin the term ‘ordinary consumption’ to refer to those items and practices which are neither visible nor special, and require little or no deliberate decision making. These forms of consumption are ‘…pressingly mundane and embedded in typically inconspicuous socio-technical systems and routines’ (Watson and Shove 2008: 70).
Attending to ordinary consumption requires a focus on mundane, everyday routine practices and the practical contexts in which material objects are appropriated and used. Whereas a variety of theories of practice focus on the (p.14) routine character of everyday life (see e.g. Giddens 1984), there is a dearth of approaches that address the role of material objects, infrastructures, and products in the (re)production of social life (Shove and Pantzar 2005; Pinch and Swedberg 2008), or in the configuration of need, demand, and design.
The aim of this chapter is to explore ordinary consumption as embedded in the routine character of social life and to highlight the role of material objects, or ‘stuff’ as Molotch (2005) termed it, as constitutive of practices. Taking a practice perspective on ordinary consumption requires a view of consumers as active and creative practitioners who reproduce and transform the relationship between material objects and practices. More than that, taking practices as the central point of enquiry provides a fresh way of conceptualizing the relation between material objects and the emergence, persistence, and disappearance of social practices.
The chapter is structured as follows: in the first section, we focus on the role of materiality in consumption, treating consumption as post-purchase activity. Next, we examine theories of practice that take materiality seriously with reference to examples from an empirical study of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects. In the third section, we draw again on these examples to explain how material objects play a role in the formation of more complex projects bringing together multiple practices. In the fourth section, we extract a number of implications on how a practice-based approach can be used to offer new insights on consumption, before offering a set of conclusions and suggestions for further research.
Consumption and materiality
The term consumption, as deployed in the marketing literature, is often used as synonymous with the acquisition of goods through market exchanges. Alderson (1965: 144) noted that consumer behaviour ‘…is not a theory of consumption but of consumer buying. […] The immediate interest of the marketing specialist is in the act of purchasing which takes a saleable item off the market. It has been said before that consumer purchase serves as the sink for goods.’ Four decades later, Grönroos (2006: 319) complained that consumption is a ‘black box’ for goods marketers and what happens after the purchase is outside their scope of interest.
Consumer research has been heavily influenced by developments in cultural studies, a field in which material objects are also typically viewed as carriers and mediators of meaning (Slater 2002a, 2002b). The focus is on the symbolic experience of possession and the circuits through which meanings are produced and diffused (Levy 1959; McCracken 1986; Arnould and Thompson (p.15) 2005). The suggestion is that the dematerialized objects contribute symbolically to an individual's extended sense of self and identity (Belk 1988, 2009). By extension, markets become ‘symbolically malleable entities […] structured by a logic that can be grasped through quasi-semiotic analysis’ (Slater 2002b: 75).
The neglect of materiality is hardly confined to marketing. Harré (2002), for example, classifies material objects as things that can be understood in relation to their role in the practical and expressive components of social order. However, he believes an overwhelming case can be made for the primacy of the expressive: ‘…there is nothing else to social life but symbolic exchanges and the joint construction and management of meaning, including the meaning of bits of stuff’ (Harré 2002: 32). Trentmann (2009) remarks that historical studies of consumption have been dominated by shopping, conspicuous consumption, and tended to view objects as ‘bundles of meaning’.
As we mentioned earlier, symbolic aspects have their place, but exclusive emphasis on them results in a partial understanding of consumption. By contrast, those who write about ordinary consumption are more concerned with the appropriation of goods within and as part of accomplishing specific practices than with discrete acts of purchase (Warde 2005). The remainder of this section will address the issue of materiality and the appropriation of objects in contexts of usage.
The role of materiality in social theory is far from clear. Preda (1999: 348) argues that many contemporary variants of social theory regard objects as being of marginal relevance in explaining the workings of social order—‘they are neither inside nor outside of social order’. For Latour (1996: 235), objects appear in social theory in three modes: as invisible and faithful tools, as determining infrastructures, and as projection screens. As tools, they faithfully reproduce the intentions of their users without adding or taking anything away from those intentions. As infrastructures, objects provide a material base on which an autonomous social world can subsequently take shape. As screens, objects project social status and play a role as markers in games of distinction.
Latour (1992) made a cogent argument for the role of material objects in constituting and reproducing social order. Social ties and the concept of social order need to be rethought from top to bottom once the role of artefacts—the ‘missing masses’—is added. There should be no a priori distinction between the social and material and any course of action ‘…will rarely consist of human-to-human connections […] or object-to-object connections, but will probably zigzag from one to another’ (Latour 2005: 75).
Reckwitz (2002a: 196) sees Latour's position as a critique of the ‘…reduction of social order to dematerialised symbolic orders and of the material to objects of interpretation’. For Latour, artefacts or things are necessary participants in social practices, just as humans are. They are not just interpreted (p.16) but applied, used, and maintained, and must be understood in their materiality.
Taking objects and their materiality seriously has important implications for our understanding of ordinary consumption. To begin with, it calls for a notion of active consumers with particular sets of skills and competencies and it regards value as something that is only ever realized through incorporating objects into practices.
The notion of the passive consumer, expressing preferences through discrete purchases, is aptly caricatured by Langlois and Cosgel (1999: 107):
…the consumer is important but inactive. Pareto is supposed to have said that we do not need the consumer at all so long as he leaves us a snapshot of his preferences.
The notion of the active consumer has been pursued from a number of angles. A recent trend in marketing theory regards consumers as co-creators of value during the consumption process (see e.g. Prahalad and Ramaswamy 2000, 2004; Vargo and Lusch 2004). These developments stand in stark contrast to traditional notions of consumers as using up the value created for them by production processes (Ramírez 1999) or as ‘value sinks’ (Normann 2001).
The new service-dominant logic advocated by Vargo and Lusch (2004: 6) regards ‘…value defined by and co-created with the consumer rather than embedded in the output’. Products are seen as one type of resource alongside others such as information, social encounters, infrastructures, and so on. But these conceptual moves continue to display a partial account of materiality, reducing products to mere ‘…platforms or appliances in providing benefits […] best viewed as distribution mechanisms for services…’ (Vargo and Lusch 2004: 9). Earlier, Kotler (1980: 352) defined a product as ‘…simply the packaging of a problem-solving service’.
The active consumer, or more accurately, the ‘user’ has figured more prominently in the literature on innovation. Whereas representations of customers as co-creators of value (Lusch et al. 2007) are comparatively recent, efforts to conceptualize the role of users in innovation have been making steady progress for the last three decades. In business markets, the studies of Von Hippel (1988, 2005) were instrumental in challenging the notion that innovation was the preserve of manufacturers whilst users were passive recipients of finished goods. Concepts such as lead-users (Von Hippel 1986), ‘user toolkits’ for innovation (Von Hippel and Katz 2002), and user communities (Franke and Shah 2003) were put forward as ways to describe how manufacturers capitalize on rich user knowledge during innovation processes.
A parallel demand turn took place in other fields, notably in the sociology of science and technology (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003) and business history (Yates 2006). Bijker (1995) defines technological frames as the elements that influence the attribution of meaning to artefacts. These elements comprise (p.17) ideas (e.g. current theories), practices (e.g. users' routines), rules, and material objects (e.g. testing procedures) and their interaction within relevant social groups. Interpretative flexibility refers to the early phases of the development of an artefact when multiple and often conflicting interpretations of its uses are permissible, before stabilization and closure set in.
Woolgar (1991) provides an alternative view on the interaction between users and designers through the lens of usability trials for a new personal computer. In usability trials, what constitutes the machine or the user is resolved through a process of interaction in which they mutually elaborate on each other (Woolgar 1991: 68). Product development is conceptualized as a continuous struggle to configure the user, to construct from multiple standpoints a realistic picture of ‘what users are like’ in interaction with the artefact.
Akrich (1992, 1995) and Akrich and Latour (1992) use the notion of a script to conceptualize the interaction between designers and users. Technical artefacts embody particular representations of users and their roles in particular frameworks of action (cf. Molotch 2005). Description is the retrieval of a script from a scenario and is the opposite of inscription—designers inscribe, users de-scribe. As designers inscribe, they also prescribe since they conceive prototypical users as embodying specific skills. Users may or may not subscribe to those prescriptions. Indeed, the gap between prescription and subscription which leaves room for negotiation and the agency of users. However, as Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003) note, the processes that account for users' accommodation or resistance to their representations by designers is left largely unexplored in this approach.
Much of the work on users is concerned with how producers mobilize users' knowledge and skills for innovation and much less with how innovations are appropriated into users' practices. The work of Silverstone et al. (1992), Silverstone (1994), and Lie and Sørensen (1996) constitute exceptions to this trend. Silverstone et al. (1992) coined the term domestication to denote the process through which artefacts are inserted into everyday life. Domestication is a process involving several transactions between technological artefacts and their users. First, a technological object must be transferred and transformed into an artefact with significance and meaning for its user. This phase is termed appropriation. Next comes objectification, where the artefact is displayed or aligned with other artefacts, which reveal aesthetic and cognitive meanings for its user. The third phase is incorporation, where the artefact is embedded into everyday use through its insertion into the routines of the user. These are all individual transformations, as the meaning and significance of an artefact are dependent on the individual and the particular contexts in which it is situated. The final phase, conversion, orients the artefact within more externally understood and commensurable meanings. The domestication approach has the advantage of moving the locus of user–producer interaction to the broader networks of practices in which users are embedded. (p.18) An artefact has no grounded meaning for users until it is appropriated and aligned with existing practices and other artefacts.
In summary, the notion of the user has traditionally been deployed in relation to situations where producers seek to capitalize on user knowledge for innovation purposes. Recent developments have pushed this line of thought further and have drawn attention to how users appropriate innovations and the contexts of usage. However, these representations of use and users are typically bounded, assuming the existence of a human actor on the one hand and a singular material object—that which is used—on the other. There are good reasons to focus on the interaction between user and artefact but such efforts are typically cut short (e.g. temporally specific, concentrating on one moment in a longer history), taking for granted processes involved in shaping the practice into which specific moments of ‘use’ belong, and overlooking the extent to which the user and that which is used are jointly implicated in the reproduction of practice. In the next section, we introduce a practice-based approach and show how this promises to provide an alternative perspective on the relation between materiality and ordinary consumption.
Practices and projects
Practice approaches generally conceive of the social as a field of interwoven practices anchored in habit, routine, shared understandings, and embodied skills (de Certeau 1984; Bourdieu 1992). Reckwitz (2002b: 249) distinguishes between ‘practice’ (praxis) as a way of doing and ‘a practice’ (praktik) implying ‘…a routinised type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activity, forms of mental activity, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’. Similarly, Schatzki (2001: 3) defines practices as ‘…embodied, materially mediated arrays and shared meanings’.
Traditional approaches to practice have tended to highlight their routine character and to overlook the constitutive role of objects and infrastructures in shaping and transforming those routines. And yet, the notion that material objects are implicated in the reproduction of everyday practice is important in a number of ways (Reckwitz 2002a: 213). If social order is localized in practices for which human bodies, minds, and artefacts are the necessary components, there is room for accommodating both interaction between human agents as well as interaction between human agents and material artefacts. Furthermore, social change presupposes a series of possible (p.19) transformations in the constituent elements of practices from cultural codes to skills embodied in individual bodies and minds as well as artefacts and their relationships to other components. In short, as Shove and Pantzar (2005: 45) remark: ‘…practices involve the active integration of materials, meanings and forms of competence.’
A practice approach enables us to reframe consumption as well as the relationship between users and material objects. Warde (2005: 137) consequently defines consumption as ‘…as a process whereby agents engage in appropriation and appreciation, whether for utilitarian, expressive or contemplative purposes, of goods, services, performances, information or ambience, whether purchased or not, over which the agent has some degree of discretion’.
This definition has a number of implications; first, consumption is subsumed to practices, figuring as a moment within a practice rather than a practice itself, as Holt (1995) sees it. Secondly, material objects are appropriated, deployed, and consumed within practices. Warde (2005: 137) uses the example of motoring and what is consumed in the sense of using up or wearing out (e.g. petrol, tyres, the vehicle itself) to exemplify this point. Thirdly, similarities and differences in consumption across groups of people may signal ways through which practices are organized rather than the outcomes of choices based on individual motives. Thus practices generate wants and needs, as particular objects become defining components of practices and partake in their performances. As Shove and Pantzar (2005) show in their study of Nordic walking, practices emerge through particular forms of consumer–producer interaction and, in this context, the relations between materials, meanings, and forms of competence are critical.
Taking an example from a study of Do‐It‐Yourself (DIY) or home renovation we can illustrate the relationship between materials, meanings, and forms of competence (Shove et al. 2007; Watson and Shove 2008). The market for DIY products is well developed in most Western economies and it includes a variety of items that enable consumers to tackle a number of tasks from relatively small projects (e.g. putting up a book shelf) to more complex undertakings (e.g. renovating a bathroom), hitherto seen as the preserve of skilled trades (e.g. plumbers). DIY has a number of interesting characteristics (Shove et al. 2007). It straddles conventional divides such as work and leisure, production and consumption. It is also an example where the effective performance of a practice depends upon the effective integration of practitioner skills and competencies and the engagement of materials and tools. The evolving relation between tools and skills is important for both the professional and the enthusiast DIY markets, and for the detail of who does what.
If we open up any ordinary domestic tool box, personal collections of hammers, screwdrivers, plumbing fittings, half tins of varnish, etc. are all outcomes of very specific forms of ‘consumption’. These items have been acquired as part of accomplishing DIY projects, the realization of which (p.20) typically requires ownership of and the capacity to use a range of closely related artefacts. The use of a spanner goes hand in hand with the use of a tap washer and a nut: none being useful without the other—or at least not if the project is that of fixing a dripping tap. As this small example indicates, moments of use are positioned in a stream of doing, and that stream typically entails the active appropriation of multiple tools and materials. Items are not appropriated and used alone. Accordingly, relations of use should be conceptualized not only in terms of ‘the user’ as a human agent, and the artefact (the non-human), but also in terms of the ‘families’ of non-humans to which the artefact in question is related.
This example also draws attention to other crucial processes to do with the dynamic interaction between user and product. What is it to use a spanner together with a nut and washer? What is entailed in using a paint brush and a tin of varnish? For those who have no skill or experience in plumbing at all, nuts and washers are just so much metal and rubber. In effect, these products only acquire value when in the hands of someone with a requisite level of competence and with a project in view. By implication, use has something to do with the relation between the artefact and the skills of the potential user. But this is not as simple as it might at first seem.
Consider another mundane artefact: a tin of varnish. Ten or fifteen years ago, it took quite some talent and experience to varnish a door and achieve a professional finish with no drips or tears. The tin of varnish and the door made quite stringent demands of the ‘user’. This is no longer the case, or at least not in quite the same way. Varnishes can now be bought that are ‘non-drip’; that are touch dry in 20 minutes and that almost know how to go on the door itself. In other words, forms of competence previously embodied in human beings have been transferred to the contents of the tin. This skilling of the product, along with the de- or re-skilling of the user changes the human–non-human distribution of competence, and in so doing reconfigures the nature of the practice itself.
Now that effective varnishing is something that many can do, there is less need to call in a professional decorator. Though this is a limited example, the varnish tin provides an important reminder of the role of material goods and infrastructures in structuring requisite skills, in shaping their allocation, and in consequently configuring divisions of labour in society.
This is to take the analysis of ‘user’ relations much further than is normally the case: by implication, the user-relations entailed in painting are about more than ergonomics, personal desire, or symbolic appeal. As represented here, the precise configuration of ‘using’ is bound up with and, in a sense, reproductive of more extensive systems of social order, with questions of who does what, and with how those ‘doings’ are managed and organized.
There are other aspects to consider in regard to the relation between product, project, and the path or career of the ‘user’. The social geographer, (p.21) Allen Pred (1977, 1981, 1983) has sought to conceptualize the relation between an individual career (in terms of the skills and experiences accumulated along the way, and what these mean for closing down and opening up future opportunities) and the development and success of more institutional projects which might include the goals and ambitions of an organization, a family, or perhaps a whole society. While his is a solidly ‘social’ account in which there is little or no reference to material culture, these concepts of personal and collective trajectory are potentially relevant in analysing the ways in which products are appropriated in and as part of emerging systems of practice.
Again the theme of competence is central. To return to the tool box studies, it was clear that household collections had different histories: many tools were handed down through the generations, others arrived as gifts; some items were in regular use, others so unfamiliar that their function was currently unknown. People encountered these bits of material culture at different moments in their own lives and because of this the relative value or utility of specific items differed widely.
As already mentioned plumbing fittings are just so much metal to those who have no ability to fit them together and/or no need to do so either. The utility quotient of a tool box was therefore intimately related to the competences and ambitions of its owner. More importantly, levels of competence and ambition were typically cumulative: in tackling one project—such as building a small cupboard or fitting a shelf—householders learned new skills, becoming more or less adept at cutting wood to shape, drilling holes to correct depth, and so on. Along the way they also necessarily acquired the drill and saw. With these elements now in place, future projects came into view in ways that would have been previously unimaginable. One project often leads to another though it is important to notice that such sequences might also end in failure and defeat, thereby bringing a DIY career to a sudden halt. In this setting, user–object relations are genuinely dynamic, one enactment having the effect of redefining the terms of future such relations, and potentially extending the range of new tools and materials with which a user-interaction is sought. Sometimes the tool leads the way. For example, one interviewee talked about getting an angle grinder for the first time. Having acquired this device, he went about looking for things to grind! More commonly, projects such as that of moving a radiator or redecorating a room—that is, projects which entail complex relations between many materials and which are the outcome of intersecting practices—were the meaningful point of reference (Shove et al. 2007).
In Pred's terms, practitioners' careers unfold, punctuated by the accomplishment (or not) of specific projects. These projects involve combinations of different practices. In figuring out how such practices evolve and how people are effectively ‘recruited to them’, it is, it seems, important to pay attention to (p.22) the hardware involved and, more significant still, to the dynamic intersection of competence-and-stuff. There is thus a material dimension both to the careers of individual practitioners and consequently also to the formation (or not) of the projects in which they are willing and able to engage.
In summary, regarding consumption as a moment in a practice and practices as involving the active integration of material objects, meanings, and skills, provides an alternative view of looking at the relationship between objects and their users. As our empirical example illustrated, the intersection between materials and objects is more dynamic and more indeterminate than that featured in simpler notions of users as primarily concerned with appropriation of objects into stabilized practices or as users implied, invoked, or involved in processes of innovation.
Consumption and markets
There are a number of important implications for the study of markets stemming from a concern with ordinary consumption seen as moments in streams of practice. In this section we focus on the relations between production and consumption, on notions of value that follow from a practice-based approach, and on the implications of moving from analysing single artefacts to the active integration of multiple artefacts in practices.
The first implication is that, since material objects play an active role in the distribution of competencies, they indirectly influence structures of production and consumption. If we see consumption as the result of engagement in practices, we can reframe the notion of the consumer as actively involved in problem-solving activities. Consumption requires not just choices, time, and monetary budgets but critically, skills and competencies (Langlois and Cosgel 1999). Developing these skills and competencies is thus for consumers a matter of acquiring routinized understandings of the skills that relate goods to their uses.
Markets become essentially ways of discovering how to relate production to consumption, of (provisionally) matching the structure of skills and competencies on the consumption side to the products and services that producers can offer. In this context, material objects can be seen as ‘materialised understandings’ or forms of incorporation of know-how within practices (Reckwitz 2002a: 212). As the DIY case reminds us, consumers and producers are involved in the constitution and reproduction of practices. In addition, the successful accomplishment of practices requires specific forms of consumption (Shove and Pantzar 2005).
(p.23) Objects have important consequences for the accomplishment of practices and for linking the structures of production and consumption. But, as we suggested earlier, seeing practices as the active integration of meanings, skills, and objects means that these relationships are never stable: they co-evolve over time. The DIY example we used earlier illustrates how these configurations co-evolved and as a result the structures of production and consumption altered. Innovations such as non-drip varnish or quick-fit plumbing, for example, incorporate particular understandings of the competencies and skills of users and redraw the boundaries between professionals (e.g. painters, plumbers) and DIY enthusiasts (Watson and Shove 2008). Similarly, the evolution of household spaces, such as the kitchen, are not just the result of technological innovations associated with new or improved gadgets but are closely linked to the accomplishment of particular practices and the meanings attached to and the technologies that support such practices (Hand and Shove 2004).
Gjøen and Hård (2002: 278) remark that users actively learn through practice and use, and in so doing redefine both the role of artefacts and of themselves in the process. In this sense, there is not just a process of delegation of qualities from humans to objects but also counter-delegation and re-delegation of attributes between humans and artefacts. In short, objects can transform practices and redefine what they and their users are about. By extension, the boundaries between consumption and production shift both as a result of the distribution of competencies amongst producers and consumers and also as a result of how practices evolve (Langlois and Cosgel 1999).
The second implication for understanding markets concerns the creation and appropriation of value that has so preoccupied marketing theorists in recent years (see e.g. Payne et al. 2008). The current consensus is that there is no value realized until an offering, product, and/or service is consumed. A design and production orientation purportedly views value as something that is added to physical products during the production process and is captured at the point of sale in terms of value-in-exchange or price. The alternative logic argues that value can only be created with and determined by the user in the ‘consumption’ process and through use or what is referred to as value-in-use. In this sense, value-creation occurs either in direct interaction between a consumer and a producer or is mediated by a material object, seen as a distribution mechanism for service provision (Lusch and Vargo 2006: 284). In short, value is always co-created with the consumer. These developments raise interesting questions about the value of material objects and the role of consumption in determining value. To this we add the point that consumption is, in turn, occasioned by practice.
By any standards, the ‘value’ of a material artefact is a slippery concept, being variously related to its emotional or symbolic significance, its use or exchange value, its value in specific contexts and circumstances, its durability, (p.24) its centrality to specific projects or practices, to name but a few possible readings (Miller 2008a; Caliskan and Callon 2009). However they are framed, contrasting interpretations of value carry with them specific assumptions about the positioning of the artefact(s) in question with respect to the relation and relative significance of human and non-human actors (consumers, producers, and designers, other artefacts, infrastructures).
The contention that value is created during the consumption process is plausible but at the same time partly at odds with the view that product designers' key contribution is to ‘add value’. Designers frequently define and justify their role in these terms, and in ways that take objects to have certain inherent qualities, the details of which can be modified and enhanced through design (Molotch 2005). These features, sometimes to do with brand positioning statements, sometimes ergonomics, or aesthetics, are routinely conceived to become properties of the object: hence a pair of scissors is beautifully designed to fit the hand or it is not. Likewise, the possibility of increasing the price of something like a set of kitchen knives or an ice cream scoop by design is typically interpreted to mean that the designer adds some magic, something which serves to distinguish the designer artefact from others. Industrial product designers routinely make claims about the nature and the potential value of this ‘magic’ ingredient each and every time they ply their trade (Tharp 2002).
In social theory, the notion that objects have inherent qualities is much more questionable. Authors from Csíkszentmihályi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) to Appadurai (1986) and Miller (1997, 2008b) have devoted themselves to cataloguing and describing the ‘social lives’ of things, documenting the active attribution of value and the fluctuating fortunes of individual artefacts and entire classes of goods within the fluid and contested world of goods. As others also notice (Strasser 2000), things flip in and out of categories: being for a moment objects of desire and then turning into rubbish and sometimes back again. Far from taking value to be somehow embedded in the artefact, such approaches emphasize the social organization of meaning and significance. To some extent, they take consumers to be ‘creators of value’ during but also before and after the consumption process. This can take generic and specific forms. Generically, entire classes of once highly valued objects can fall out of favour; at a more personal level, objects given as gifts can acquire sentimental value that far exceeds their value in the market. Put simply, theories of this kind deny the concept of inherent value and instead provide ways of analysing the processes of its construction. While product designers might have a part to play in this process, theirs is not the only role.
It is important to recognize that attributions of value are not entirely symbolic. While the vast literature on branding (see e.g. Stern 2006) emphasizes the production of signifiers and the calibration of meanings sensitive enough to separate one toothpaste from another or to locate styles of shoes as (p.25) emblematic of youth, age, or sophistication—there are also much more pragmatic senses in which objects acquire and lose value through and because of their role in accomplishing specific practices or projects. In other words, value has often to do with the relation between a potential consumer/user, his/her ambitions, and talents, and the affordances of the material artefact itself. Defined like this, value is not simply a matter of social, symbolic negotiation (Caliskan and Callon 2009). It is also an outcome of a rather wider set of considerations, including those of skill, ambition, and project. In such situations, other material artefacts often come into view. As we have seen, plumbing fittings are infinitely more valuable if the person who wants to use them also has the correct spanner to hand.
The kinds of value at stake here have to do not so much with the artefact itself as with its role in the more or less effective accomplishment of a social practice the realization of which is, itself, something that is valued. This brings us to a number of still broader questions regarding the relation between objects and practices.
So far, we have tacitly assumed that achieving things like fixing a dripping tap requires certain products (washer, spanner) and competences to combine them in the right order and in the right way to achieve an outcome. This account locates the material artefact as a ‘tool’ and as a condition for the effective accomplishment of a practice. But it is also possible that material artefacts have a more active role, themselves configuring or as others have put it, ‘scripting’ the practice itself (Akrich and Latour 1992).
With this idea the ‘designer’ comes back into view, not as a figure capable of injecting value into products but as someone implicated in shaping the limits and possibilities of future ‘use’, and with that of shaping the practices into which and in relation to which material goods have significance, status, and meaning. This is immediately evident in relation to the design of something like a cruise ship. As Korkman (2006) explains, the distribution of space within the ship conditions the enactment and reproduction of practices like those of dining together, sleeping, or playing. Like it or not, the ship's interior permits and also precludes specific ways of spending time, building some practices into the experience of ‘cruising’ and ruling others out. Something similar applies to isolated artefacts like a chair, the form of which configures the body, demands posture, and reproduces specific concepts and meanings of comfort (Cranz 2000).
In this interpretation of the relation between consumer, producer, and objects, values of one kind or another are better understood as being co-produced, yes, partly by the designer and also by the consumer-user who actively appropriates and more or less faithfully enacts the ‘inscribed’ practice. Fulton Suri's picture book (Thoughtless Acts? (2005)) provides a catchy reminder of the consumer-users' creativity: using pencils to pin up hair; sitting and leaning on objects designed with other uses in mind; and actively (p.26) customizing things to serve new and apparently unintended purposes. The point though is that such creativity is itself bounded by the artefacts involved; by others, necessary in support (or by their absence); and by the social order and organizations of the projects and practices being pursued.
We have argued earlier that the notion of a user, or of an active consumer, has the virtue of introducing an element of creative engagement, also implying particular embodied skills and competences; however, this somewhat individualistic framing downplays the dynamics of engagement with practices. As indicated above, individual users do not relate to individual objects in isolation. Instead, practices such as DIY involve the integration of a variety of materials, tools, and skills in the pursuit of specific projects. In other words, single goods exist in evolving networks or ecology of other goods and practices require the active integration of these various artefacts (Pantzar 1997). From this perspective, a ‘choice’ such as using a car for the daily commute to work should be understood as entrenched in a system of interconnected routines and norms rather than a statement of individual preference.
De Wit et al. (2002) and Geels (2006) illustrate how the use of multiple technologies in particular sites such as offices and factories requires interactions and exchanges amongst different artefacts. These exchanges result not just in the coordinated use of artefacts but also in the extension of their functional characteristics, including the transfer of functional characteristics across artefacts. By implication, the sites in which specific practices are typically enacted involve the use of multiple artefacts, the necessary coordination of which can result in particular location-specific innovations—De Wit et al. (2002) use the term innovation junctions to refer to such sites. Hand and Shove (2004) argue that homes and offices should not be regarded merely as places where practices are co-located and intersect, but as ‘orchestrating concepts’ and ecosystems with their own transformation potential. Thus the office, in De Wit et al.'s example (2002: 51), is both the emergent outcome of interactions amongst multiple technologies and an ‘orchestrating concept’ that becomes the subject of analysis and intervention by reflexive actors pondering on the potential for coordinating multiple technologies.
Lastly, the role of objects should also be seen in the context of moulding the temporal structure of practices and consumption (Shove et al. 2009). In the DIY example, the dynamic interaction between practitioner competence and material objects is central to the understanding of how practices are reproduced and transformed. DIY practitioners reasoned in terms of projects and cumulative trajectories of skill development, moving on to tackle bigger and more difficult projects as their repertoire of tools and requisite skills grew larger. Projects became the temporal unit around which doings and consuming are organized, influencing the careers of DIY practitioners, the shape of emergent projects, and future patterns of demand. This has implications for (p.27) how producers might think about product innovations and how they might support evolving practices, and the careers of the consumer-user-practitioners who keep those practices alive.
This chapter addressed the role of materiality in ordinary consumption and its implications for our understanding of markets. Our key argument is that consumer goods, in their materiality, play an active role in constituting, sustaining, and transforming practices. This argument has implications for the social division of labour, the structures of production and consumption, innovation, and for how these processes are conceptualized and understood.
The approach we followed contrasts with marketing approaches that equate consumption with purchase, emphasize possession rather than use, and regard consumer goods as dispensers of pre-packaged benefits or mere projection screens for an extended self. The attention to users and the demand side turn have made important contributions to our understanding of the ways artefacts are appropriated in practical contexts. A practice approach, however, pays closer attention to how objects and practices interact and co-evolve. Rather than focusing on the relationship between single artefacts and users, a practice approach suggests a wider concern with the distribution of competencies between humans and non-humans, and how different types of artefacts interact in sets of interrelated practices.
Consumers and producers are involved in the successful accomplishment of practices which require specific forms of consumption (Shove and Pantzar 2005). If we regard consumption as dependent on knowledge, experience, and skills, we can interpret the role of objects as agents linking production and consumption, and carrying with them possibilities for reshaping this relationship. But, in saying that practices are co-produced by consumers and producers, we need to pinpoint the contribution of producers to the constitution and reproduction of situated practices. This contribution may involve close forms of interaction, as in services requiring direct contact between consumers and producers, or it may rely on more distant, mediated forms of interaction, namely, through the provision of material goods.
We also addressed the issue of value and how it is produced and consumed. We rejected notions that value is inherent in material objects or in the meanings they evoke. Instead, we proposed a notion of value as dependent on how objects are used and coordinated within practices. The career or biography of objects is important but so are the careers of practices and the forms of consumption that they entail. The value of goods changes as a (p.28) result of the ways in which they are (provisionally) stabilized within particular configurations of meanings and skills.
Finally, we have touched briefly on the role of designers as mediators between producers and users, standing at the intersection of the ‘soft’ sensibilities of meanings culled from art and culture and the ‘harder’ facts of materials and production (Molotch 2005). Designers do not inject value into objects but they play an important role in shaping future uses and scripting particular types of practices. The argument we pursued opens up a number of interesting questions about the role of designers in giving form and function to material objects and to the practices in which these are embedded, as well as their interactions with other disciplines, namely, marketing.
As Slater (2002b: 101) remarks, marketing practitioners spend a great deal of time thinking about objects and the structures that stabilize and destabilize their meaning within a broader set of competitive and consumption relations. Designers are equally concerned with what keeps the role and meanings of objects ‘interactively stabilised’, as well as what makes that stabilization break down (Molotch 2005: 2). At present, we have little understanding of how varying concerns about purchase and use intersect in the everyday work of professionals such as marketers and designers, how these interactions unfold over time, and how they influence the way markets operate. If we are to acquire further insights into how the material world interacts with ordinary consumption, we need a better account of how mediators, such as marketing and design, intervene in the worlds of production and consumption, and how specific practices and associated patterns of demand emerge, persist, change, and disappear.