What we consume, and how we consume it – from food to health services, from cars to education – lies at the core of our engagement with the world. The study of consumption is important in understanding vital issues such as how basic needs are met (or not) as well as the excesses of the wealthy that are leading to environmental degradation. Yet, despite its importance, the social sciences have failed to provide a comprehensive, coherent and realistic account of the drivers of consumption. Our new book on the Systems of Provision (SoP) fills that gap.
The SoP approach originated in the 1990s, when Ben Fine was working on a research project for the Leverhulme Trust on the relationship between female labour market participation and the rising ownership of “white goods”. The standard reasoning of mainstream economics was that such consumer durables freed women from housework to engage in the paid labour force, and the wages from participation in the labour market covered the cost of labour saving devices. But for Fine this explanation was inadequate. Consumption of these goods was increasing across the spectrum and not necessarily associated with female labour force participation. How could this be explained?
Consumer theory within mainstream economics has for years been narrowly focused on the concept of “utility maximisation” where the individual has fixed preferences over fixed goods. But this theoretical framing is severely limited in that it cannot account for why such preferences arise and why they apply in some cases and not others. Fine turned to other social sciences for explanations and found a vast array of theories and variables. The long-established disciplines of sociology, anthropology and psychology, and relative newcomers such as marketing and business studies, each had their own understandings of consumption. But, while each might offer more plausible accounts than mainstream economics, each tended to exist in its own disciplinary academic silo.
Following an extensive review of the social sciences, Fine devised the Systems of Provision (SoP) approach to understanding consumption, drawing on theories from political economy and other social sciences (while rejecting mainstream economics). The SoP approach is based on the notion that consumption is linked to production in a vertical systemic process. The drivers of consumption are unique to what is being consumed as well as time and location. Consuming is seen as a social rather than an individual practice, oriented around often well-established social patterns of consumption norms.
It is only by careful analysis of the (usually contested) relations between agents along the chain of provisioning, with attention to the features of the commodity and its context, as well as associated cultures, that we can understand the factors that lead to specific consumption outcomes. In contrast to other approaches which assume a kind of universality, for the SoP approach, understandings of consumption are rooted in the specifics of what is being consumed, where and when. Put simply, the factors which shape consumption of peanut butter will be different from those for education or motor vehicles which will be different again across countries, from urban to rural, and different today from a century ago.
The SoP framework
The SoP approach has evolved over the past three decades. The complex drivers of consumption outlined above have been synthesized into five broad thematic elements which are common to the social sciences but not found in mainstream economics. These themes are interrelated and the boundaries between them may be blurred.
- Agents – SoPs are determined by participants in the system – not just those who consume and those who provide but also the state, which may be provider, regulator or policy-maker. Those who are excluded also have a role (the homeless have a part in influencing the SoP for housing, for example).
- Structures – these take different forms such as organizational, institutional and social, formal or informal. For example, there may be legal structures or social structures that would impact on a SoP such as income levels, race and/or gender. Structures will intersect.
- Processes – these may relate to specific activities in the SoP such as how labour is employed, how advertising is used. Other more abstract processes will also shape the SoP such as processes of globalisation, privatisation and financialisation.
- Relations – on one level the SoP analysis will be concerned with the relations between the agents within the system. The priorities of the different groups may be conflicting which means that the way the SoP operates will be contingent on who exercises power and how. The SoP also exists within wider relations such as class, gender and race which will have a bearing on consumption outcomes.
- Material cultures – Both production and consumption are rooted in specific meanings and cultures. Systems are reproduced (or not) by prevailing narratives and these change over time and will be different for the different agents. Material cultures are often so deeply ingrained and taken for granted that they can be difficult to detect. The SoP approach seeks not just to identify these narratives but also to consider their origins because those that shape cultures wield considerable power.
Over the past thirty years, the approach has been applied to a range of sectors and contexts since its humble beginnings in consumer durables. SoP studies have explored patterns of exploitation in the global fashion industry, the role of fridge freezers in food consumption, the impacts of avocado consumption on small farmers in Colombia, inequality embedded in the provision of essential services in the UK, cultures of car dependency that prevent sustainable transport systems and the role of the food industry in rising obesity. Many more applications are discussed in our book.
The approach draws attention to the extensive and complex channels which underpin specific social, environmental and economic outcomes. It shines a light on the often unacknowledged contested structures and configurations of economic, political and cultural powers that underpin the normalization of social outcomes. As such, the approach provides a valuable tool in identifying leverage points for interventions and pressure for change.
Professor Ben Fine is Emeritus Professor of Economics, SOAS University of London, and Visiting Professor, Wits School of Governance, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is Chair of the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy (iippe.org).
Dr Kate Bayliss is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and a Research Associate at SOAS and the University of Leeds. She has worked on a number of case studies applying the Systems of Provision approach including the provision of water in England and Wales and electricity in Zambia.