Articulating the body in the theorizing of consumption

Panel: 8. Dynamics of consumption

This is a peer-reviewed paper.

Hal Wilhite, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo, Norway
Grégoire Wallenborn, Free University of Brussels, Belgium


Mainstream theories on household energy consumption are characterized by reductionist assumptions about consumers and the socio-material contexts of choice. Much of the social science attention on consumption has focused on mental states, meaning, cognition, and rational choice. In mainstream theory, body is collapsed into mind and the demand for goods is both disembodied and decontextualized from social and material worlds. These reductions hinder the development of a robust theory of consumption and new thinking in energy savings policy. In this paper we bring the body back to consumption. We argue that people’s exposure to practices, both in the form of personal and culturally mediated experience, embodies knowledge (and meanings) and this in turn affects the ways we perform energy-consuming acts. We draw on work on body, habitus and perception by anthropologists Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Pierre Warnier and philosopher Henri Bergson, as well as more recent perspectives framed under the heading of social practice theory. It is argued that body agency in energy practices is related to enculturation and repetition, but also to the density and complexity of materials involved in the practice, the latter particularly relevant in home centered, material-dense energy practices such as cleaning, heating, cooling and preparing food. We develop the idea that not only agency but also memory is distributed between body, mind and the material objects that are integrated in the performance of a practice. In conceiving bodies as sites of physiological and cultural processes, we show that practices change through perceptions and the constitution of memory. We conclude that policy which aims at changing practices should be focused on experiences and experiments in which bodies are explicitly involved.


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