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Durham University

Department of Geography

Consumption & Disposal


Much of this work has been conducted with Professor Louise Crewe (Nottingham) and a number of researchers, notably Kate Brooks, Beth Longstaff and Alan Metcalfe. Its point of departure was with Appadurai and Kopytoff, and the argument that goods have social and economic lives beyond their point of sale as commodities, and that goods move in and out of the commodity form. Geographically, we argued that focusing on the high street, the mall and so forth neglected the complexity of acquisition, particularly the importance of less visible sites of second-hand exchange, including car boot sales and charity shops, although the list would also include flea markets, the classifieds, jumble sales, and latterly eBay. Two ESRC-funded projects were used to explore these second-hand worlds ethnographically. The first was a project on car boot sales (1994-5), in which I conducted all of the ethnographic fieldwork. The second (1998-9) looked at charity shops and retro retailing, the latter - with its connections to fashion - being a particular interest of Professor Crewe’s. Along with Kate Brooks, I conducted a large part of the original empirical work. The research from these projects was published as a number of articles (1997 - 2002) in leading journals in human geography and material culture, as well as in Fashion Theory. The book Second-hand Cultures (2003, Berg) provides a synthesis of this research, showing how these spaces of second hand exchange matter to debates about value and valuation, and to understanding the complex social and economic biographies of things.

In the course of conducting the charity shop work, and in writing SHC, I began to realise that, whilst this research had started from the right place with respect to its geographical focus, it was actually addressing the wrong question in terms of consumption. Everything written about consumption, including our research, was predicated upon consumption as appropriation. What needed to happen was to re-orientate the field to think about consumption as using things up, and discarding them. The Disposal, devaluation and consumerism project set out to look at just this, arguing that consumption was just as much about devaluation, divestment, dispossession and disposal as it is about acquisition, appropriation and accumulation. Using ethnographic research conducted by myself in North- east England, along with parallel repeat interview work conducted by Alan Metcalfe, this research sought to get inside consumption at home, and to examine exactly how and why stuff gets cast out by households. The results are illuminating. They show that we are not quite the throwaway society that we are led to believe, and that this is actually a glib notion. Instead, we save, hold on to and waste things in pretty much equal proportions, and these practices go on across pretty much every social group in diverse parts of the country. Moreover, in getting rid of things we are also doing key social relations - notably those of family and relationships. The research showed that dispossession is as much part and parcel of identity as acquisition. Furthermore, it showed clearly that the most important reasons behind waste making are to do with mobility and renovation - moving house is the single biggest generator of household excess; major home improvements another. The research from this project has been published in my solo monograph Living with Things (2007) and in Transactions Institute of British Geographers, EPD - both 2007, Journal of Consumer Culture (2009) and EPA (2009). The latter, written with Harriet Bulkeley is a ‘policy-added’ paper in which we draw on the findings from this research project, and research conducted by Bulkeley, to argue that policy interventions in the municipal waste field (Bulkeley’s interests) need to ‘cross the threshold’ and understand the moments in which ‘waste’ is generated by households, rather than assume the household as a static point of collection/service delivery.

Since it is looking at how consumer stuff gets into the municipal waste stream (or not), this work also has a lot to say to contemporary policy debates about re-use, waste prevention and minimisation. Anyone wanting to know more about the work from this angle please do just get in touch - drop me an email at: nicky.gregson@durham.ac.uk.


Key Publications

Books

Gregson N, Crewe L (2003) Second-hand Cultures (Oxford: Berg).
Gregson N (2007) Living with Things (Oxford: Sean Kingston).

Articles

These articles relate to the 'disposal' project:

Gregson N, Metcalfe, A, Crewe L (2009) Practices of object maintenance and repair: how consumers attend to consumer objects within the home Journal of Consumer Culture 9: 221 - 47.
Bulkeley H, Gregson N (2009) Crossing the threshold: municipal waste policy and household waste generation Environment and Planning A 41: 421 - 45.
Gregson N, Metcalfe A, Crewe L (2007) Identity, mobility and the throwaway society. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 25: 682 - 700.
Gregson N, Metcalfe A, Crewe L (2007) Moving things along: the conduits and practices of household divestment, Transactions Institute British Geographers 32: 187 - 200.

On car boot sales see:

Gregson N, Rose G (2000) Taking Butler elsewhere: performativities, spatialities and subjectivities. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18: 433 - 52.
Gregson N, Crewe L (1998) Performance and possession: rethinking the act of purchase in the space of the car boot sale. Journal of Material Culture 2: 241 - 63.
Gregson N, Crewe L (1997) Excluded spaces of regulation: car boot sales as an enterprise culture out of control? Environment & Planning A 29: 1717 - 37.
Gregson N, Crewe L (1997) The bargain, the knowledge and the spectacle: making sense of consumption in the space of the car boot sale. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 15: 87 - 112.

On charity shops see:

Gregson N, Crewe L,Brooks K (2002) Shopping, space and practice. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20: 597 - 617.
Gregson N, Crewe L, Brooks K (2002) Discourse, displacement and retail practice: some pointers from the charity retail project. Environment and Planning A 34: 1661 - 83.
Gregson N, Brooks K, Crewe L (2001) Bjorn Again? Rethinking 70s revivalism through the reappropriation of 70s clothing. Fashion Theory 5: 3 - 28.