collective consumption

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This concept was central to neo-Marxist urban social theories developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Manuel Castells and others argued that advanced capitalism required increasing state involvement in the so-called means of collective consumption. To reproduce an adequate labour-force, provision of individual means of consumption (commodities such as food and clothing) was no longer enough; services such as education and mass transportation were also needed. Unlike individual commodities, the latter were consumed collectively, being services used by many people rather than goods consumed individually. Particular features of collective consumption, notably the state's role in its provision and the opportunities it appeared to offer for political mobilization of consumers, underlay the significance of the concept for these urban social theories.

Subsequently, however, the distinction between collective and individual consumption was much disputed. It is difficult, for example, to see just how services such as education are consumed ‘collectively’—although they may be collectively provided. As used in practice, therefore, the term collective consumption now has no very precise meaning, although it normally refers to services (rather than goods) which are directly provided by state agencies instead of by the market; or, at least, to services provided with considerable state involvement, for example through subsidies or regulation. (In that sense, of course, it is a misnomer—since it does indeed indicate collective provision of services which are then consumed individually.) Later writers have developed more complex classifications of the social organization of consumption, and used these to analyse the nature of urban politics and the role of so-called consumption sector cleavages in social stratification and in determining political attitudes. For an overview see Peter Saunders, Social Theory and the Urban Question (1986). See also urban sociology.

Subjects: Sociology.

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