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Consumption Work and Societal Divisions of Labour

Final Report Summary - DIVLAB (Consumption Work and Societal Divisions of Labour)

The research programme has renewed the foundational concept of ‘division of labour’ by situating traditional understandings of task allocation within an expanded theoretical framework. The approach was developed by opening up a new research terrain of ‘consumption work’ (CW): all work undertaken by consumers necessary for the purchase, use, re-use and disposal of consumption goods. Three contrasting empirical probes were selected for detailed investigation for the varying questions each raised about consumption work and its socio-economic importance: domestic broadband installation, food preparation and household recycling of waste. Analysis centred on the interface between CW and systems of provision, in five comparator countries (UK, Sweden, France, Taiwan, Korea).
A significant amount of unique and original data was collected by means of expert interviews (115 in total) with a variety of actors in all three fields and 5 countries, involving 14 overseas fieldwork trips and 35 site visits. These were complemented by 30 in-depth UK household interviews conducted in 3 locations, and a smaller number of consumer interviews in Taiwan and Korea (58 in toto). All interviews were recorded, transcribed, summarised and subjected to detailed analysis.
The findings clearly demonstrate the dynamism, extent and significance of CW as a distinct form of labour. We specify the varied CW tasks arising in the different fields of activity. In all three, the work of consumers comprises an integral component of the overall division of labour, vital for the completion or renewal of a process of production or service provision. The research reveals how the work of consumers is shaped by its interdependency with that of providers, and vice versa. We conclude that few goods or services exist that do not presuppose additional labour being expended on them before they can be used, even if this is not experienced as ‘work’. CW thus also contributes to shaping objects of consumption.
Broadband Installation: Our focus was historical development and national variation in the system of provision in 4 countries (UK, Sweden, France, Korea) to identify the main players in each country, their respective role and responsibilities, and interrelationship. Expert interviews were conducted with the full range of players in the private (providers of infrastructure and internet services, installation companies) and public (national and municipal, scientific) sectors, and with not-for profit organisations. Insights were generated into the variety of consumption work required of end-users to acquire, install, use and maintain broadband access at home, and ensure interoperability across devices, in terms of the initial ‘research’ work to be undertaken, tasks to be accomplished and competences and knowledge to be acquired. The precise nature and extent of consumption work, as well as the manner in which end-users are construed as citizens or consumers, varies primarily according to the socio-economic character of the system of provision, notably the more or less active involvement of the public sector. But maturity of the national system, growth of user-friendly technologies, variations in housing provision, population density, and business and customer service cultures are also significant. The CW required of consumers was far greater in the UK than in S Korea.
Food preparation: The relative commoditisation of food comprised the central focus, notably expansion of ready-prepared meals as indicative of the changing boundary between household and market labour. Fieldwork in the UK included store and factory visits, focus groups, in-depth household interviews, complemented by analysis of quantitative datasets. In France interviews with experts and a quantitative survey were facilitated by collaboration with the Alimentation et Sciences Sociales team at INRA. A Taiwan-based researcher conducted expert, industry and consumer interviews. Considerable national variation was found, with Taiwan at one extreme and France at the other. In Taiwan, eating-out and buying prepared food has become the norm. France has experienced far less change since 1970 (including time spent on domestic cooking) and institutional buttresses to traditional modes of food preparation cuisine are reinforced by the prominence of ‘terroir’. Nation and cuisine emerge as significant dimensions of analysis in both these cases. The UK consumer is confronted by a plethora of ready-meals for eating at home, which has further diversified since the recession, thus challenging a presumed return to cooking from scratch. The major supermarkets play a leading role in the diffusion of such food. While CW is expanding in many fields, food preparation is an exception, and so poses important empirical and analytical questions.
Recycling of Household Waste: Contrasting municipal case studies were selected in Sweden and the UK to explore the interface between the local state and consumers. A complex but distinct division of labour exists in both countries with varied collection and reprocessing systems, producer responsibility for packaging in Sweden, and differing responsibilities of the private and public sectors. In Sweden, the producer and municipal systems operate on a not-for-profit basis; the sale of recyclable materials on the market funds the collection and infrastructure services, impacting on how consumers are required to recycle. Swedish consumers must sort and transport their waste to recycling centres. In the UK, the municipality is responsible for waste collection, treatment and education. Consumers’ recyclable waste is collected from their home which they must sort as their municipality (or its private contractor) demands. Although consumers’ work is crucial to the market economy of material re-use, they are not remunerated, but are rather motivated through a complex set of moral norms. In Sweden, environmental citizenship remains the key discourse, while in the UK cuts to public spending have introduced a new message: people should recycle to save money for themselves or their municipal funds. These distinctive ‘moral economies’ highlight the interaction of moral norms with political economy. A contrasting case from Brazil was added to complement the European examples.