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Beyond the Historical Division of Production and Consumption

We finish this first of the two Prosumer Revisited conference days with another keynote, by George Ritzer. He notes that social theory has for its entire history focussed on either production or consumption - but that this is a historical error brought about by the (temporary) distinction between the two sides at the height of the industrial age.

The consumer as active worker, as active creator of value, is the much more common model, and indeed sits at the centre of a continuum from production to consumption which also sees any number of different combinations between these two elements. Additionally, of course, it is also important to note the difference between such processes in material and immaterial settings - user involvement in productive processes is much more easily possible in the non-material realm.

The historical error, then, comes from the separation of supply and demand, and of production and consumption in political and economic theory - and a tendency in the literature to see the two as opposed to one another. Much such work also tends to privilege supply over demand, production over consumption, which confounds the problem. (Marx, however, did write about both the means of production and the means of consumption in his work, for example.) This also ignores the 18th century revolution in consumption, or what can be described as 'the industrious revolution': a turn away from self-sufficient production and towards consumption which preceded the industrial revolution.

Marx's work focusses on the labour theory of value (introducing for example the categories of use value and exchange value); he had a sense of productive consumption (consumption that produces) and individual consumption; and he described a cycle of commodities being brought to market in order to make the money to buy further commodities as well as a cycle in which money is invested in the production of communities in order to make more money.

Weber similarly had a productivist bias, based on a protestant rather than consumerist ethics, and the consumer remains a largely invisible, shadowy presence; Durkheim, too, focussed on collective beliefs and morality, described both mechanical and organic solidarity focussed on work, and suggested that a weak collective conscience could be addressed through the formation of occupational, worker associations (rather than, for example, consumer cooperatives as Charles Gide suggested them). Such worker associations could not be able to solve the problems facing consumers, however.

Veblen, on the other hand, described conspicuous consumption, and here especially the activities of the leisure class, but most of the rest of his work focusses on the relationship between business (individual entrepreneurs interested in profit) and industry (which, if too effective, would bring down prices) - even for him, consumption was not the central concern.

So, the overall tendency in classical theory has been to focus on production; it was impossible for them to think of consumers as active producers. This changed with the shift towards postmodern theory, which categorised postmodern society as a consumption society and led to a greater focus on consumption in research. This realises significant shifts in social patterns - the US itself turned from a country of production to a country of consumption, for example, and other developed nations emulated some of that development. (To some American sociologists, however, the factory, not the shopping mall, still remains the central object of study, however, even though factories have disappeared rapidly and continue to do so today.)

Leading proponents of this trend include Galbraith, Baudrillard, and Bauman, for example; Bauman, for example, has applied its notion of liquidity, of a liquid society, to the consumption society - even though it may be argued that this liquidity may much better describe the more fluid crossover between production and consumption which is observable today.

Web 2.0 provides an important platform for this hybrid prosumption (or what I would call produsage), which makes this question even more important today. But we may want to refine our notion of what's happening here - if everything is 'prosumption', the concept becomes useless. We may need to distinguish different mixtures between productive and consumptive activities, for example - introducing additional terms such as 'conducer' (where consumption aspects are stronger than production aspects), for example.

In the process of prosumption, the consumer produces the product; the product is not truly complete until the consumer purchases the product and customises, personalises it (or, in the case of an IKEA product, for example, assembles it in the first place). The consumer also needs to produce the practical steps required for using the product, and the experiential elements of using the product are themselves also (co-)produced by the consumer and others.

Consumers are increasingly involved in the production of products, and they also produce their own identities in the process of consuming and producing products. This is part of the reflexive and individualised society in which we live; we are increasingly on our own in creating ourselves and our world, through consumption.

At the same time, worker-producers are also consumers: they consume various things in the process of production - the consume practical steps in the use of technology, they consume experiences in the process of production, and the final products and their features. Workers also consume their work-related identities, and both produce and consume their own worker identities while on the job.

Overall, then, our thinking about production and consumption has been distorted for several hundred years - for good reasons at the time, but those reasons are no longer in force in the same way today. Both production and consumption, and combinations between the two, have always been there, and current changes have highlighted this combination even more clearly.

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