In this chapter we describe how the application of current popular theoretical interest in the concept of practice has affected the study of consumption.
Although the study of consumer behaviour, grounded in psychology and economics, got underway earlier, the interpretive social sciences (anthropology, sociology, human geography, etc.) were slow to engage in empirical study of consumption. Prior to the 1980s normative macro-level critique was the dominant mode of engagement among sociologists; for instance, the Frankfurt School’s analysis of mass culture and Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption were frequently reiterated. The cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences from the 1970s had a huge impact on contemporary understanding of consumption. There was an explosion of interest in issues of lifestyle, identity, meanings, experience and taste. This led to more extensive empirical research. Consumption came to be celebrated rather than denigrated, underpinned by a robust defence of the virtues of popular culture and a proclamation of the value of the opportunities delivered by mass production for populations. Spearheaded by cultural studies, research concentrated on cultural communication, both on institutions like the media and the shopping mall, and also on how consumption expressed self-identity and group belonging. Most research was conducted in the light of cultural theories which, opposing both the utilitarian and the classical sociological norm-orientated models of social action, typically highlighted symbolic and cognitive structures and found the locus of the social in those structures. Consequently, while never totally eclipsed, the unequal distribution of resources and Bourdieusian concerns with distinction were minimised. Furthermore, the cultural turn, in emphasizing the role of the symbolic aspects of communication tended to support a model of consumption that foregrounded the ‘reflexive individualism’ of the consumer (Warde, 2014).