Changing consumption practices

Lisa Howard

Much has been written in the media about changes in consumer spending over the lockdown period. More food and alcohol, fewer non-essential goods such as clothing and footwear, furniture and recreational goods. The patterns of our spending have reflected constraints on our mobility and perceived risks of contracting the virus in public spaces, as well as parts of the economy shutting down, such as the travel and leisure industry. The question is, now that restarting of the economy is on the government’s horizon, will we revert back to old consumption habits once lockdown is over? From the evidence in my photos, I believe the marketers of these goods and services think perhaps not.

I took the photos on 9th June, at the Phase 1 stage in the Scottish Government’s strategy to exit from lockdown. The photos show a series of advertisements from a rotating billboard near Murrayfield. I thought the products were particularly emblematic of the times: Wine delivered to your door; A virtual livestreamed rave; A high-spec indoor fitness bike; and learning to write packs for children. Despite lockdown easing, the investment in advertising these products and services suggests that marketers predict our consumption habits will remain home-oriented in the near future. How might a sociologist analyse such shifts in consumption practices?

The sociology of consumption is a vast field, having seen numerous ‘turns’ over years, but can commonly be understood as the ‘social organization of activities through which items are incorporated, deployed, and disposed of’ (Warde, 2015, p. 118). The ‘practice turn’ in the sociology of consumption is informed by social practice theory. This seam of thought de-centres the human actor in consumption, but without prioritising structure or agency.  A social practice is seen by Shove et al (2012) as integrated elements of materials (objects, tools and infrastructures), competencies (knowledge and embodied skills) and meanings (cultural conventions, expectations and socially shared meanings). Social practices interlock, for example the practices of mobility, shopping and eating. They are dynamic, emerging or disappearing when links between their defining elements are made or broken.

Within this framework, the rupturing of links due to Covid-19 (for example, access to materials brought about by lockdown measures and economic shutdown) has resulted in new practices emerging, in part due to competencies to perform these having been developed during this period. For example, school closures and the need for home schooling have demanded parents learn skills of teaching, and the enforcement of spending leisure time at home has developed competencies in using technology for socialising. The meanings element of some practices may have changed due to narratives of risk, so that having wine delivered to your door could mean feeling safer (than going to the supermarket) or greater convenience. The meaning of taking exercise on a static bike may be related to expectations of continued gym closure, efforts towards preventative healthcare, or the need to spend more time at home due to caring responsibilities.

I wonder whether – in the coming months and years as we start to feel the financial pinch of the economic downturn, we will see social practices shift again, with products advertised on these billboards reflecting a shift towards constrained household budgets and frugality?

Lisa Howard is a PhD researcher researching climate change and personal life. She is hoping to be able again soon to return to walking in the Highlands.

References

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. In The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How it Changes.

Warde, A. (2015). The Sociology of Consumption: Its Recent Development. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 117–123.

‘Unprecedented’

Idil Galip

Social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, isolation, confinement. These are some words that inspire a sense of stuck-in-betweenness like no other: they signify a clear boundary between the past and the present, and provide no solace for our fantasies about the future. Some of us are well accustomed to this detached anticipation. Some of us, who have witnessed conflict from too close a distance, know this feeling of cosmic dread intimately.

Today, it’s seeing people wearing surgical masks and gloves scanning their meal-deals at isolated self-checkout machines. For us, in North Macedonia in 2001, the tension between extraordinary circumstances and mundane activity manifested itself in similarly tragicomical ways. I clearly remember my family having a barbeque in the snow in the echoes of distant gunfire exchanged between militia and armed forces. But I guess sometimes, a kebap is a kebap.

In Skopje, we were bystanders in an ethnic conflict that a very large part of the world was unaware of. It was a localised, ‘confined’ crisis that would affect the immediate surrounding area. Specific supply chains critical for the comfort of the affluent West wouldn’t be disrupted as they have been today because of the covid-19 pandemic, so there was no need for ‘international’ outcry. One to two million people felt the direct effects of the conflict, and for others it was business as usual.

The witnesses of this conflict, like many other witnesses of such violent crises, however, learned what it meant to exist between emotional extremes: to be afraid and nonchalant, accepting and defiant, hopeful and apathetic all at the same instance. This nebulous and unpredictable state of being that we now occupy is therefore not ‘unprecedented’. It is, was, and has been the living reality for many people around the world.

I am not by any means suggesting that the pain and suffering that this pandemic has brought to people isn’t real or worth discussing. It obviously is. However, thinking about the pandemic in a historical vacuum or as an isolated incident of human suffering is short-sighted. Here, removing ourselves from the past by highlighting the uniqueness of our present strengthens a sense of exceptional individualism and undermines community. This relentless focus on the singularity of individual pain (as well as individual perseverance) is emblematic of a dangerous neoliberal morality. By highlighting the distinctness of the misery that this pandemic has caused, we create untranslatable mythologies.

Ralph Fevre in his book Individualism and Inequality (2016) seperates ‘sentimental individualism’ of the 19th century, associated with authors such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, from ‘cognitive individualism’ embodied by neoliberal politics. While the sentimental individual believes that we all share a ‘common humanity’, the cognitive individual believes in self-direction, self-actualisation and self-determination. Cognitive individualism then rests on the belief that any success or failure is the responsibility of the individual. This understanding of human experience is inevitably alienating and isolating. It breaks down notions of community belonging and instead rewards or punishes the individual.

In our case, we have our ‘heroes’: nurses and doctors who have lost their lives providing essential care for the good of the many. A disproportionate amount of them were BAME. This disproportionality is not being treated as suspicious, or as a reflection of a wider pattern of inequality, or something that could have been prevented, by those in power.

Many authorities and institutions are instead portraying them as individuals who sacrificed themselves for society. But by treating each case as a show of sacrificial bravery and occupational perseverance, we lose sight of patterns that are staring us right in the face: patterns of inequality, injustice and ignorance that have affected economically and socially marginalised communities for decades. We ignore historical continuities when we label these ruptures as unique, individual, or unprecedented. This is a perilous line of logic and has dangerous consequences for marginalised workers.

So is this pandemic truly an unprecedented crisis? If the same communities, not only in the UK, but all across the globe, are bearing the brunt of it as always?

Idil Galip is writing from Southside, Edinburgh. She is a PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Edinburgh and studies memes, art and digital labour: https://twitter.com/idilgalip

Sense-Making, Pretzel-Baking, and Statistics of Pandemic Proportions

Mikaela Springsteen

The list of things which I count is growing.

It has been seven days since last I went shopping. Forty-five have passed since my last close contact with someone outside the household. We have currently—among other stores—two cups of dry milk, a quarter cup of coarse salt, and two bags of flour (enough to make at least eight dozen more Bavarian pretzels). The state of New York has seen 312,977 confirmed cases of Covid-19, 7.7% of whom have died. My temperature averages 98.3ºF—within normal bounds. NY has conducted 959,071 tests. New cases are detected daily: 4,585; 4,681; 3,942; 4,663.

I cannot see the virus itself—having somehow neglected to bring a microscope with me into lockdown, and am fortunate that no one I am quarantined with has yet been infected. What I can see—what we all can see—are all the virus metrics. These are quoted and discussed on TV, in newspapers, and in every other conversation that I have. Visualizations of these numbers have proliferated as researchers, statisticians, and anyone with a computer and rudimentary coding skills each adds their voice to the mix. I count myself in this number—in an attempt to better understand the dynamics of this pandemic I created my own series of dashboards for exploring various virus trends.

But what are these visualizations and ‘explainers’ for? Do we really need them all? Are they any good? Are they accurate? Are they useful?

There is good reason to be skeptical. This merry band of visualizations has been introduced to a public which is, as a whole, not particularly statistically-literate and in desperate search of information about the progression of this pandemic. Statistics are famously manipulable—whether deliberately or accidentally, they may be distorted with very little effort and a worried audience might not be able to distinguish the good from the garbage. These statistics, for good or ill, then go on to shape their perception of reality. Anyone creating these metrics must therefore bear responsibility for ensuring their clarity and accuracy, and in so doing should consider the level of statistical knowledge required to reliably interpret the information presented.

Despite these valid concerns, I believe that this proliferation of virus metrics should not, on balance, be considered a bad thing. Each visualization represents an impulse to understand, an urge to learn—an impulse which I see as an unalloyed good. It is an impulse with which I sympathize. Most of my own research has begun with that impulse, and I know I am not alone in finding comfort in the relative certainty of answers so derived. Of course, the danger these visualizations pose cannot be ignored, and that initial impulse must then be supported by good science. Misleading statistics and misinterpretation remain ever-present dangers, and how much comfort or understanding could someone get from a metric they don’t truly understand?

So what is to be done to bridge this divide?

In this pandemic we have all been exhorted to care for not only ourselves but, if possible, for someone else as well. That care may come in many forms—doing the shopping for a vulnerable neighbor, taking time to check in with one another, or helping others to navigate the deluge of information which surrounds this virus. In this moment when many of us have a bit more time on our hands, and a lot more information to sort through, there is an opportunity to help others to understand, to be critical and inquisitive.

And what of the chart-builders? The visualizers and coders? Those with enough statistical skill to be dangerous? Their responsibility is great, but it need not be theirs alone. This is a time in which collaboration can flourish. Charts and graphs can nearly always be improved. Especially in this time, where the ordinary timelines for scientific understanding have been somewhat broken down, mistakes may be made. Even in the absence of malice or agenda, errors may occur. Open, good-faith efforts at discussion, collaboration, communication, and improvement can be taken to improve the state of the informational eco-system for all.

There is opportunity here, in the midst of all else, to construct a post-pandemic world that may in some small way improve upon the one before. Levels of statistical literacy may be buoyed by this time, as people strive to understand the statistics which presently rule us all. Collaborations and communication could likewise increase—even if simply as a way to pass pandemic time.

Of course, all this may not come to pass. Easily, the world could slip the other way, leaving us with more confusion and greater mistrust of scientific expertise—particularly if statistics are seen to be too opaque, too partisan, and too manipulable to be trusted.

For all of us, I hope it is the former scenario which will rule the day. Until then, however, as we all remain isolated together, I will do my part to communicate and to collaborate. I talk with my grandmother daily to help her to navigate the latest reports and statistics released by the governor. I continue to develop my own graphs with updates and suggested improvements.

And I will continue to count.

It has been over a month since I last saw my sister. My family is spread across five different states. Nearly a week has passed since I baked a batch of pretzels (which makes me at least 4 days overdue). In eight days New York State will reach the end of its current ‘pause,’ the scientists and policy-makers will reassess, and the count will begin again.

This article was written by Mikaela Springsteen with the aid of 5 cups of tea and nearly 2 whole slices of cake. Mikaela is a recent graduate of Edinburgh Sociology and is currently isolating in a house in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, from where she runs the website Counting Covid-19 —a series of interactive data dashboards exploring virus trends.

The Masks are on, the Mask is off

Martin Booker

While more and more people are wearing literal face masks, metaphorically it is quite a different picture: For many of the things widely considered normal, routine, and unchangeable, the mask is truly off! Our taken-for-granted reality has been exposed as what it always was, a social construction, not set in stone, but something that can be changed. This includes everyday activities of how we relate to other people, how we do our shopping, how we move through public spaces, how we work in offices and teach in classrooms. But it also applies to bigger issues. There is a growing awareness of the importance of ‘key workers’ that keep our economy going, an almost Marxian awakening that it is not the bosses but the workers that create the value. There has been a shift from a slightly naive version of ‘we’re all in this together’ – often heard in the early stages of the lockdown – to a growing awareness that the pandemic affects people differently and very unequally, and this has a lot to do with class, race and gender. Inequalities and socio-economic conflct lines, hidden as they were behind the thin veneer of ‘normality’, are now more visible than ever.

Call me an optimist, but in all this malaise, there seem to me the beginnings of something that could turn out to be very positive. There is common thread running through all these debates and discourses, a shift in perception, a re-thinking of – and this is what makes me optimistic – the relationship between individual and society. Whether this is about social distancing measures (in which we are all asked individually to contribute to a greater good), our shopping habits (only buying what we need, so there is more left for others), an increased concern for local businesses, a revival of political interest (with citizens eagerly comparing their leaders’ covid responses to those of others), the clap-for-the-carers events, or the surge in volunteering – what all these have in common is that individuals here don’t see themselves as isolated, but within a wider social context. By stealth, there has been a shift in perception, an ontological realignment if you like.

To the sociologist, this brings to mind what C. Wright Mills famously called the Sociological Imagination – as he argued, we should think of our private problems not just as private problems, but also be aware of how they form part of a bigger whole, of public issues. In the times of pandemic this could mean an awareness of how being stuck in my flat all day (my private problem) is important for the wider (public) issue of containing the virus, or, say, you are young and healthy and don’t really have too much to fear from the virus personally, but still feel the need to socially distance, out of solidarity with those more at risk. A growing interest in statistics and data, too, shows an increased attention to the bigger picture beyond one’s personal experience. And while we are all sitting in our living rooms twiddling thumbs, learning new hobbies, struggling to be productive, writing blogs, or dealing with writing block, we know exactly that so many others are doing the same, for the same reasons, an army of stay-at-homers, a collective fate of sorts.

This, of course, is not just a shift in perception. It is also an increase in understanding. Our lives have always been, and will always be, shaped by our social contexts. As sociologists, we’re in the business of pointing this out. And, of course, we can only shape these contexts in positive ways if we are aware of them, and of how they work. The mask is off for now. Things will go back to some kind of normal at some point. Here is hoping, however, that this shift in awareness is real, and will last.

Martin Booker is Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh University. He is writing from Abbeyhill, Edinburgh, and has found a new appreciation for the wild beauty of Holyrood Park, for his socially-distanced daily exercise.