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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Blog: SCI at the British Sociological Association Conference 2017

29 September 2017

This year, the British Sociological Association’s Annual Conference took place in April 2017 at The University of Manchester.

The conference theme ‘Recovering the Social: Personal Troubles and Public Issues’ resonated with many researchers at the SCI, who presented across many streams within the conference programme, including the relatively new stream to the conference catalogue: ‘Environment and Society’. Indeed, in her  Presidential address, Professor Lynn Jamieson’s flagged that sociology must delve deeper into the personal lives of families, households and individuals, and into areas of non-human life in order to better understand the kinds of challenges that environmentally unsustainable ways of life present to society. Being the very kind of research that forms a central motivation for the Sustainable Consumption Institute, it’s no surprise that many of us engaged with the conference in thinking sociologically and engaging in debate concerned with the potential for societal transition to more sustainable ways of living.

By scrutinising data derived from current projects, the SCI contributed to diverse debates from a range of perspectives that showcase how a sociological imagination – understanding the relationship between the ‘personal troubles of the milieu’ and the ‘public issues of social structure’ – can be put to task in appreciating, problematizing and crafting solutions to the problems facing society and individuals today. 

Doing so, Josephine Mylan spoke about ‘Reducing Meat Consumption:  A qualitative study of UK consumer experiences’. Here, she contends that environmental scientists and sustainability-oriented NGOs increasingly present the reduction of meat production as a key aspect of a sustainable food system. Responsibility for this transition is attributed to western consumers who are urged to reduce, replace and eat “less but better” meat. Unlike vegetarianism however, Mylan surmised that we know little about why people attempt to reduce the amount of meat in their diet, or the challenges encountered in doing so. Drawing on twenty in-depth interviews with meat eaters who aim to reduce the amount of meat they eat, her presentation explored consumers’ motivations for, and experiences of, reducing of meat consumption in the UK. Findings suggest that motivations extend beyond individuals’ ethical stance toward environmental issues or animal welfare. Rather, efforts to reduce meat eating are explained in relation to ideas around nutrition and vitality of the body; concerns about the conditions of meat provision; past experiences in shaping tastes for food; and the personal relationships and routine activities through which meals prepared and eaten. The findings are interpreted in relation to debates around and the role of consumer behavioural change in achieving sustainability, highlighting how the socially and materially embedded nature of relationships between the “production” and “consumption” of food has consequences for understanding processes of “sustainability transition”.

Ali Browne,  Zhu, D. and Josephine Mylan also presented together on a related theme, extending analysis to ‘Meat Consumption in Everyday Urban China’ . They stated that today China consumes approximately one third the world’s meat. Increasing global meat production exerts considerable environmental burden on par with energy use and exceeding mobility, while links between ‘over consumption’ of meat and the occurrence of non-communicable diseases and obesity are increasingly identified by health professionals. Dietary guidelines suggestion reductions of meat have been proposed by Chinese government in 2007 and 2016. Their paper drew on qualitative and quantitative data, reporting that ‘reduction of meat consumption’ or ‘non imposed partial vegetarianism’ is entering the repertoire of reflexive attempts to alter food consumption. Those consumers trying to reduce their meat consumption more often explain their actions as a response to trust in quality, and less as a response to environmental concerns. However, meat reduction is largely tied to the body: health, fitness and beauty. The analysis contributes to debates around sustainable consumption, highlighting the importance of the dynamics of everyday life to explaining stability and change in population level patterns in consumption.

Taking research into the family domain, Tally Katz-Gerro gave a paper ‘Environmental Habitus: The Intergenerational Transmission of Environmental Behaviours in Cross-National Comparison(with Itay  Greenspan and Femida Handy), where she reports research concerned with exploring the links between environmental behaviours of three generations to measure the impact of cultural and economic contexts on intergenerational transmission of environmental behaviours.  Tally’s main theoretical heuristic is the notion of environmental habitus, which implies that a pro-environmental stance may run in the family, not necessarily because individuals follow the imperatives of the environmental movement or because they hold an environmental ideology, but because their families hold values and behavioural dispositions of frugality, modesty, or conservation that have consequences for everyday pro-environmental behaviour. Asking if the environmental habitus takes different forms in different national contexts - Israel and South Korea – findings contribute to the understanding of the determinants of environmental behaviour, cross-national differences in environmental behaviour, and the influence of intergenerational social reproduction on environmental orientations.

Frank Geels presented a comparative, multi-level analysis of the German and UK low-carbon electricity transitions (1990-2015) cross national comparative analysis  - Germany and UK – where he drew upon the Multi-Level Perspective to analyse not only the various green niche-innovations, but also existing regime technologies (coal, gas, nuclear) and incumbent actor coalitions. He showed that the German electricity regime was seriously disrupted by the Red-Green government (1998-2005), which introduced policies that ‘unleashed new entrants’. The UK regime, in contrast, remained fairly closed, leading to a ‘working with incumbent’ pattern. Consequently, the German transition followed a substitution pattern, where the rise of renewables and new entrants is causing major problems for incumbent utilities. The UK transition, in contrast, followed a transformation pattern, based on a gradual reorientation of incumbent utilities towards renewables (while keeping new entrants at bay).

Turning attention to the domestic sphere, Helen Holmes spoke of 'Ordinary Provisioning: the challenges and possibilities of everyday third sector provisioning organisations'. Here, she drew upon two distinct UK case studies to explore the challenges and possibilities of alternative third sector forms of communal provisioning.   Coming at a time of global and also national political and economic uncertainty, these two small and informal based endeavours - one food based, the other clothing - are put forward as examples of the vast array of contemporary alternative forms of consumption and provisioning taking place across the UK. Holmes argued that such every day, often informal, endeavours are positioned in an increasingly complex landscape of economic formations; incorporating elements of the sharing economy with the circular economy, alongside components of both the moral economy and gift economy.  Such formations seemingly challenge inequalities but also inadvertently reproduce them.  The understated, modest and often domestic structures and spatialities of these endeavours raises questions of their alterity; leading to the conclusion that such spaces are indeed ordinary spaces of consumption and economic life.

Continuing the focus upon the everyday, Alan Warde, Jessica Paddock and Jennifer Whillans report the most recent analysis of their project, which explores changes and continuity in the practice of eating main meals outside the home (1995-2015).  They focused on the changing reasons and meanings of the activity as breadth of experience in the population augments and eating main meals outside the home becomes less exceptional or special. What they call ‘ordinary’ events have become more prevalent, and they delineate two forms of ‘ordinary’ occasions; the ‘impromptu’ and the ‘regularised’. We describe the consequences for popular understanding of the social significance of eating out in 2015, its informalisation and normalisation. Focusing upon the breadth of exposure to variety of restaurant types and cuisine styles, they addressed debates about distinction, cultural omnivorousness and cosmopolitanism. They suggested that while culinary tastes are a mark of social distinction, it is important not to conflate internal goods deriving from enthusiastic engagement in this particular cultural field with pursuit of social advantage.

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