Seven: New forms of relations and inequality?

While production and reproduction have a long sociological history, it is only more recently that consumption has attained greater sociological attention. This chapter examines consumption, arguing that it has a contradictory force of its own. It brings about new forms of inequality and exclusion for the poor, but it can also be a means of inclusion, for example, the ‘pink pound’ (the combined spending power of gay people). Understanding the nature of consumption and its broader linkages to production is crucial for social workers’ understanding of their service users’ social position.

History is from day to day, and nothing … has been more daily than keeping shop or going shopping. (Adburgham, 1989, p viii)

Miles (2001) offers a comprehensive discussion about consumption, including summaries of the work of leading theorists, and how this relates to ‘the real world’. He argues that one of the difficulties with the term is that it is so much a part of our lives, we do not even think about it, we just do it – even those who have relatively little money. Miles engages in a sociological discussion about the distinction between ‘consumption’ and ‘consumerism’. This book is more concerned with the processes of consumption as they relate to capitalism and production.

Production refers to what is produced or manufactured; broadly speaking, it refers to work, that is, how we earn money. Consumption in its broadest sense refers to what we ‘consume’, that is, what we spend. This chapter began by saying that consumption is a new concept, but it is important to emphasise that what is new is the sociological study of consumption, which has developed considerably in recent years.

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