Consuming Routines: Rhythms, Ruptures, and the Temporalities of Consumption

Danny Miller, Anthropology, UCL
On 3rd to 5th May a workshop was held as part of the ESRC-AHRC funded programme Cultures of Consumption. The workshop was held in Florence and attended by around twenty academics mainly from sociology, but including anthropologists, historians and others. It was organised jointly by Frank Trentmann. Elizabeth Shove and Rick Wilk. The theme was routines and rhythms of consumption. My impression was that this forms part of a welcome larger movement to establish consumption processes as central to consumption studies and thereby complement the more traditional emphasis upon the study of things or persons. Of course this does not detract one iota from its interest to material culture given the materiality of such consumer processes.
There were a broad range of perspective presented on the theme of temporal orders, with many varied examples of both routines and rhythms of consumption. For example, Elizabeth Shove worked to interpret aggregate statistical data on temporal routines in the day in terms of more general cultural differences, such as meal times in France. Dale Southerton also discussed daily rhythms, but in his case using archival data from UK diaries kept in 1937 as compared to more recent diaries. The results challenged assumptions about increasing pressure on work and leisure.
A more philosophical dimension to the way certain routines of consumption `capture’ individuals was provided by Roberta Sassatelli using the examples of attendance at gyms or involvement in critical and ethical consumption. Orvar Löfgren emphasised the positive importance of routine in helping people deal with what otherwise might become the overwhelming possibilities of modern life, and this was neatly complemented by Tom O’Dell who looked at the more negative issues when such temporal routines are fetishised, for example, during commuting.
Inge Daniels demonstrated the continued importance of a wide range of seasonal markers in the Japanese home while noting the differences between those who held great store by such markers while others took a more token interest. Other papers dealt with shifts in the sense of time, for example Guliz Ger and Olga Kravets looked at `slow’ tea as in traditional tea drinking in Turkey as compared to the `fast’ tea of teabag drinking today. During the discussion there was a growing sense of the relative autonomy of routines and rhythms as the kinds of process that align people with time rather than simply expressing their agency. Another focus was on new technologies and the way these lead to either bifurcations or realignments of time practices, for example, mobile phones. Other papers were more concerned with the involvement of the market or state in co-opting or regulating such temporal rhythms. Overall participants were left with a strong sense of the way material culture acts as the infrastructure to routines and rhythms which organises the way people experience time to both constrain and enable.