Imagined futures of consumption

If once shared visions of the future of consumer society no longer hold, how do people imagine the future of consumption? Is there a relation between this loss of a shared vision and our current political crises?

Futuristic car

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’. 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.

In the wake of the financial crisis and the face of climate change, the twentieth century imaginary of consumer society has been fundamentally challenged, opening up cultural and social space for competing, imagined futures of consumption. It is was within this social and political-economic context that the project sought to 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. That was 2018-19. Now, in 2020, in the context of the coronavirus crisis, the space of social and political possibilities has been radically opened up to competing visions of the future of consumption.  

The project has collaborated with the Mass Observation Project at the University of Sussex to analyse volunteers’ expectations, speculations and imaginings about the future of consumption through a Mass Observation Archive Directive (2018-19).

A key finding of this research was that the dominant imagined futures foresaw a coming future beyond the end of consumer society, framed by resource scarcity and ecological crisis. For some this offers hope of a better world of more frugal lifestyles based on values of care and simplicity; for others a darker vision of a world of scarcity, without the comforts and conveniences of current consumer society. And where technology took centre stage in imagined futures this was far removed from the twentieth century model of progress—rather it is a vision of intensified trends dominated by automation and digitisation, offering both the possibility of new forms of community and leisure, and of mass unemployment, alienation and hyper-individualism. The future was already understood in terms of profound disruption before the current crisis.

You can read more about this research here.

This research now occupies the position of recording ‘pre-coronavirus futures’. The project will seek to integrate this perspective into its analysis. The coronavirus crisis has opened up profound issues for imagined futures of consumption, around automation, globalisation, community, inequality and sustainability. Disruptions to everyday life practices and consumption on a previously unimaginable scale have enhanced our capacity to imagine different forms of social life resonant with sustainable futures: for example those not dominated by the car and existing work patterns. The project asks, what is the role of visions of consumption in the emerging contest between imagined futures of ‘Building Back Better’ and the Green New Deal on the one hand, and of intensified digitalisation and automation on the other?

This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (New Investigators Grant ES/R007942/1) and runs from September 2018 to August 2021.

Our aims

  • Analyse lay expectations, understandings and imaginings of the future of consumption through a commissioned Mass Observation Archive Directive.
  • Investigate how think tanks, campaign groups, corporations and futures consultancies produce and circulate visions and models of the future of consumption.
  • Stage a novel dialogue, theoretically and empirically, between the sociology of consumption and the sociology of the future
  • Co-produce with futures practitioners a programme of knowledge exchange workshops.
  • Curate public engagement events built around a commissioned artwork


Research from the project has been presented to:

  • Research Network of Sociology of Consumption, European Sociological Association Mid-term Conference, online (August 2020)
  • Fourth International Conference of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), online (June 2020)
  • Consumer Research Norway (SIFO), Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo (October 2019)
  • Third International Conference on Anticipation, Oslo School of Architecture & Design, Oslo (October 2019)
  • European Sociological Association Conference, Manchester (August 2019)
  • Department of Management, University of Bristol (February 2019)
  • Consumption, Culture and Commerce Group, University of Southern Denmark, Odense (January 2019)
  • Research Network of Sociology of Consumption, European Sociological Association Mid-term Conference, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen (August 2018)

‘Practicing the Future’ at the European Sociological Association Conference 2019. Dr Dan Welch was co-organiser with project advisor Professor Giuliana Mandich, (Cagliari University) of the largest Research Stream, ‘Practicing the Future’, at the ESA’s 2019 conference, which saw 25 papers presented over six panels.


Welch, D., Mandich, D. and Keller, M. (2020) “Futures in practice: regimes of engagement and teleoaffectivity” in D. Welch, B. Halkier and M. Keller (eds.) Cultural Sociology, Special Issue on “Renewing theories of practice and reappraising the cultural” (Vol. 15(1) Dec. 2020)

Casson, C. and Welch, D. (forthcoming) “Histories and Futures of Circular Economy” in S. Sweet and R. Bali Swain (eds.) Handbook of Sustainable Consumption and Production. London: Palgrave MacMillan

Welch, D. and Ehgartner, U. (2019) “Imagined Futures of Consumption: Lay Expectations and Speculations” Discover Society, 73, 02/10/19

Project team