Lecture Abstracts

The preliminary lecture abstracts below reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the doctoral course. We have invited lecturers from various disciplines who will present different approches to consumption, capitalism and development.

Re-evaluating critiques of consumer society

Alan Warde, Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester, UK


This lecture reviews critiques of consumption and the consumer society in light of the contemporary social and economic change. The problems generally held to characterise consumer society during the 20th century were neatly summed up by Schudson as being detrimental effects on character, waste, privatism, disregard for the people whose labour is embodied in commodities, and the deficient quality of mass produced items. Generalised critique has become less common in the last 25 years, but new and important themes have emerged. I will comment on this evolution and try to establish the grounds on which a plausible critique might now be mounted. In doing so, I will consider issues of climate change, the apparent inviolability of the principle of economic growth in capitalist societies, and the sustainability of contemporary patterns of consumption. The lecture will be illustrated with examples concerning ordinary consumption in the realms of environment and food.


Sustainable Time, Time for Sustainability

Richard Wilk, Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University, USA


In Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the way  humans theorize and interpret the world  is through embodied perception. In other words, we model the world on the direct experience of our own feeling, growing and changing bodies. If we follow this logic, growth is more than a word or concept, it is a metaphor based on our direct experience of ontogeny and aging, inescapable facts of our animal nature.

In this lecture I point out some of the many ways growth and progress are deeply embedded in our material world, and particularly in the relationship between science and culture, in what is often called “late modernity.”  I discuss the way “we moderns” (to borrow a phrase from Bruno Latour) associate power with growth, and the subtle ways that the concept of “sustainability” builds on, rather than challenges the metaphor of growth.  The way we have constructed modern time, even stability is a product of growth.  I propose that both cornucopian faith in technology, and millennial beliefs in crisis and collapse share the same underlying metaphors, and only differ in their concepts of maturity. Following this logic, sustainability merely becomes a type, or stage of growth.  Growth is in the present, and sustainability will always be in the future.  Both growth and sustainability are based on neoliberal ideas about power and justice. And both sustainability and growth share the same tools for “smoothing” the unruly facts of life into coherent and convincing narratives modeled on shared, embodied metaphors.


Exploring the culture of capitalism and its implications for a low carbon transformation

Hal Wilhite, Professor of Anthropology, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway


There is a growing critique from a number of disciplinary perspectives on the capacity to achieve a low carbon transformation in a political economy framed by capitalist development, with its cornerstones of economic growth, free markets and increasing consumption. Less attention has been given to how the political economy of capitalism has been accompanied by a culture of expansion in everyday practices (material, resource, pollution) in environmentally problematic domains such as transport, heating, refrigeration, cleaning and food. The aim of this lecture is to articulate the relationship between the politics of expansion and the formation of high-energy habits at the level of family and household. I will elaborate a theory of habits and reflect on how the theory and policies of a low carbon transformation might engage with habits. The lecture will draw on research in rich countries as well as from an ‘emerging economy’, India, where an opening in the 1990s to transnational capitalism and neo-liberal national development is driving a transformation from a culture premiering frugality to one premiering expansive consumption.


The political economy of consumption

Desmond McNeill, Research Director, Political economist, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo


This lecture will be concerned with the drive to consume, at both macro (national) and micro (household/individual) levels. At macro level, economic growth is seen as the overriding aim of all governments, both for reasons of political support and based on the Keynesian-inspired theory of aggregate demand. At micro level, both the level and pattern of consumption are driven largely by the influence of production and advertising. Individual consumer behaviour is not, as economic theory suggests, autonomous, but driven by the consumption behaviour of other people and by the forces of producers (firms) and advertisements. This lecture will reflect critically on both mainstream and Marxist economic theories to contribute to an enhanced understanding of what shapes  consumption behaviour.


Economic growth, consumption and human wellbeing

Monica Guillen-Royo, Researcher, Economist, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway


Two assumptions in the neoclassical theory of consumption choice justify a positive association between economic growth, ever-growing consumption and human wellbeing. The first concerns the belief that people’s needs and wants are insatiable, and the second relates to an understanding of rationality linked to the individualist maximization of utility or wellbeing. If these assumptions hold, it follows that the way people construct their wellbeing, through increased resources depletion, pollution and waste cannot be reconciled with the sustainability of the earth eco-systems.

This lecture presents results from decades of wellbeing research suggesting that the neoclassical assumptions do not hold and that increased output and consumption are not the most important requirements for a satisficing life, even in contexts of poverty. I will also discuss findings from several participatory research projects indicating that the promotion of the wellbeing of people and nature is enhanced through improved popular participation, self-reliance and balanced articulations between, for example, technologies, people and nature; none of which depend on increased production or consumption.


Drives for consumption from below: On the cultural-specific ways electricity became integrated in the good life in rural Zanzibar

Tanja Winther, Researcher, Anthropologist, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway


This lecture provides an anthropological account of the rising electricity consumption in rural Zanzibar. Winther discusses electricity’s uses – and non-uses – in the light of people’s perceptions and experiences of the good life. Two areas of consumption are contrasted; television and food. In an early phase, television sets were exclusive objects of desire and socially dangerous, but they soon became normalized. The shared consumption of television programmes formed part of good living in terms of signifying development and progress. In contrast, Zanzibaris kept their food on a distance from electricity. Food nonetheless continued to be associated with the good life and underscored people's senses of belonging.

Published July 1, 2013 12:32 PM - Last modified Aug. 8, 2017 12:50 PM