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Visiting the Low Carbon College China (3)

Shifting interests

Over the past six months my teaching preparation for my new module, reading and grant writing have made me increasingly attracted to anthropological studies on consumption. These go beyond the argument that consumption is something that must be reduced in the Global North/richest of the global population to consider how ‘consumption is meaningful’ (Middlemiss, 2018), which is the title of Chapter 9 in Lucie’s wonderful textbook on Sustainable Consumption.

There are four main readings that have pushed me in this direction and this book is the first. I have felt so lucky that the book came out just when my module was approved because I know from my own experience as a student that a textbook really enhances understanding of a topic in a way academic articles may not because the latter do not necessarily combine to present a coherent overview. My plans for the first part of my module followed a somewhat similar structure to Lucie’s book. That is, presenting and critiquing key disciplinary/theoretical perspectives related to sustainable consumption as a way to explore shifts in the field over time and help students understand where certain intervention strategies emerge from as well as their strengths and weaknesses. One difference was that I had planned a section on the engineering (i.e. efficiency focus), whereas Lucie has an exciting section on anthropology (which I would not have thought to include in this way and love that she did!).

Secondly, I stumbled across an incredibly rich anthropological study of middle-class American families conducted in 2001-2005 by UCLA Centre on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) thanks to this image representing where people typically spent time in the home (actually I think Lucie tweeted about it so I owe her again). The beauty of these in-depth observations is that it has the ability to distinguish between ‘what people say, what people do and what they say they do’ which are not necessarily the same (Margaret Mead). The study I have been developing and imagining would replicate some of their methods, allowing for a temporal comparison in the US and extension to understanding use of home space in other countries. In particular I am interested in the technique used to create this image which involved digital mapping and photography of home spaces and systematically observed recording of all family locations and activities at 10-minute intervals to give insight into ‘a week in the life’ of households, activities and management of personal space (Arnold & Lang, 2007).

In December, the #AcademicAdventCalendar which was a challenge to read a paper every day before Christmas with Lucy Wishart, Kirsty Holstead and Claire Hoolohan (thanks for the motivation and discussion!!) was a wonderful opportunity to reflect and reconnect with literature on practice theory and sustainability (it is hard to keep up post-PhD and it makes you regret not appreciating the time you have during your PhD to just read). Dave Evans (2018) review on sustainable consumption scholarship continued to push me towards this anthropological work due to his critiquing practice theorists for forgetting and overlooking a long history of scholarship on material culture.

And finally, I was lucky enough to be introduced to an anthropologist here in Shanghai, Dr Xinyuan Wang, who was fun and engaging in her observations of Chinese society. She amazingly is one of Professor Daniel Miller’s PhD students, a prolific anthropologist and the author of Consumption and Its Consequences (a key citation in Chapter 9 of Lucie’s book!). Wang’s book on life in industrial China is part of a larger study led by Prof Miller on ‘How the world changed social media’ and gives rich accounts of life in Brazil, Chile, China, England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkey (all available open access). The images and stories captured in these has made me rethink some of my own plans and studies that I had found impressive as cross-country comparisons – each book is based on 15 months ethnography!

Again, my month in China has been a great opportunity to read and follow rabbit holes of interesting citations. I’m excited by this opportunity to engage more with anthropologists and anthropology on issues of sustainability and consumption in the future!

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