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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Imagined futures of consumption

Imagined futures of consumption have played an important role in economic and political imaginaries since the end of the Second World War, critically in the form of the promise of ‘prosperity for all’ realised through mass consumption in the consumer society.

Futuristic car

Today, in the wake of the financial crisis and the context of climate change, the twentieth century imaginary of consumer society is fundamentally challenged, opening up cultural and social space for competing imagined futures of consumption. It is within this social and political-economic context that the project will explore how such futures shape, and are shaped by, social processes, and the role of imagined futures of consumption in processes of social and political contestation and legitimation.

Representations and expectations of the future play a critical role in the present. Visions of collective futures embody expectations of future states, pragmatic beliefs about the way the world works, and beliefs about the nature of ‘the common good’.

Think tanks, civil society organisations , corporations and specialist ‘futures’ consultancies produce visions of the future of consumption, from wide-ranging visions of future consumer (or post-consumer) society to scenarios of specific systems of provision or product categories (e.g. the future of retail or of consumer electronics). This imagined futures are materialised in reports and other media and circulate in professional and public space. The project explores the production, circulation and sociological significance of such imagined futures. One core empirical component of the project will involve participant observation with professional ‘futurists’ that produce such imagined futures of consumption.

The research also explores individuals’ expectations of their own future consumption, and that of future generations. The project explores lay expectations of the future of consumption through analysis of a dedicated Mass Observation Archive Directive (Autumn 2018).

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (New Investigators Grant ES/R007942/1) and runs from September 2018 to August 2020.

Our aims

  • Investigate how think tanks, CSOs, corporations and futures consultancies produce and circulate visions and models of the future of consumption.
  • Analyse everyday expectations, understandings and imaginings of the future of consumption through a commissioned Mass Observation Archive Directive.
  • Contribute theoretically and empirically to the development of the sociology of consumption and the sociology of the future, staging a novel dialogue between these fields.
  • Co-produce with futures practitioners and social scientists (specialists in consumption and social change) a programme of knowledge exchange workshops.
  • Curate public engagement events built around a commissioned artwork

 ‘Practicing the Future’ at the European Sociological Association 2019 Conference

Dan Welch is co-organising with Prof. Giuliana Mandich (Cagliari University) a Research Stream (RS10) on ‘Practicing the Future: social, material and affective futures’ at the European Sociological Association 2019 Conference in Manchester. The Research Stream will host over 25 presentations from international researchers exploring the future as an analytical object and the senses in which “practices make time and are not made in time” (Bourdieu 2000).

Project team

Further reading

Welch, D., Keller, M., Mandich, G. (2016) “Imagined Futures of the Circular Economy” [PDF] in N. Spurling and L. Kuijer (eds.) Everyday Futures. Institute for Social Futures, Lancaster University