HomeWork and Consumption, from the 19th to the 21st century

Work and Consumption, from the 19th to the 21st century

Travail et consommation, XIXe-XIXe siècle

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Published on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 by João Fernandes


The division of scholarly research into distinct sub-fields often leads to a fractured understanding of objects of study that are in fact inter-connected when viewed at the level of individual experience or institutional life. Breaking down these barriers between sub-fields can thus provide a fertile means of generating new scholarly perspectives. Such is the aim of this symposium, which will bring together research on consumption and on work, in an effort to promote dialogue between what are currently rather disconnected fields.



The division of scholarly research into distinct sub-fields often leads to a fractured understanding of objects of studythat are in fact inter-connected when viewed at the level of individual experience or institutional life. Breaking down these barriers between sub-fields can thus provide a fertile means of generating new scholarly perspectives. Such is the aim of this symposium, which will bring together research on consumption and on work, in an effort to promote dialogue between what are currently rather disconnected fields.

Indeed, more often than not, research on consumption ignores production and/or the work of selling, while studies of labour make little reference to the worker’s role as a consumer or potential consumer. The history of the working classes in the nineteenth century has been heavily focused work and production, while consumption appeared for many years as a bourgeois practice (Auslander, 1996;Tiersten, 2001). Meanwhile, with regard to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, historical studies of ‘mass consumption’ have tended to obscure the question of social stratification. Sophie Chauveau (2006, p.4) writes for example that mass consumption redefines « the way in which social integration takes place at a time when the notion of social class is disappearing and when one’s sense of belonging is no longer defined by one’s professsion ».

In sociology, the sub-fields that focus on work on the one hand and consumption on the other developed separately, even if statistical studies of consumption take significant account of socio-professional categories. The pioneering work of Frédéric Le Play on working-class budgets, developed notably by Maurice Halbwachs (2011) or Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe (1956) has been extended in recent statistical studies to take account of other social groups (Siblot et al., 2015). Such statistical work maps consumption systematically in terms of socio-professional categories in order to underline inequalities in the budgets of different social groups (e.g. Chauvel, 1999, INSEE, 2009).  But it does not examine professional groups or the relationship between work and consumption in detail. Meanwhile qualitative research on consumption and lifestyles typically has little access to the workplaces of the individuals studied and thus deals with segments of workers’ social space rather than specific professional groups (for example Hoggart, 1957; Perrot, 1961; Verret, 1988; Weber, 1989; Schwartz, 1990). Similarly, in the sociology of work, qualitative studies that consider workers’ consumption are rare.

And yet work and consumption are intimately linked and, above all, intermingled in the daily lives of working people, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to dissociate work-time from time for consumption, notably when the latter brings the worker into contact with the (material or immaterial) product of his or her labours. Whether in production or service work, employees can find themselves involved in the development and sale of products even where this was not initially expected to be part of their work. It is their qualities as consumers that are brought into play in such situations. Finally consumption itself can be conceived as a form of work, whether as an aspect of domestic work (Delphy, 1978) or as unpaid work evaluating products and services (Dujarier, 2014).

In other words, this symposium aims to rethink the relationship between work and consumption in the spirit proposed by Frank Trentmann (2004), who argues that: ‘Any serious discussion of consumer society must trace the practices and meanings of consumption as they are woven into social structures and actions that lie beyond the shop counter. Instead of oppositional models of analysis (consumption versus production) and of sequential models (consumer society after class society), the challenge of the next generation of work will be one of integration.’

These questions will be approached form a cross-disciplinary perspective (history, sociology, political science, anthropology) and contributions may focus on any type of work and any form of consumption. Three themes are envisaged: the relationship between businesses and the consumption of their employees; consumption and social identities among particular groups of workers; consumption, work and social mobilisation. Proposals addressing the categories of gender, class and race are particularly welcome, as are contributions that address countries other than France.

Theme 1: The relationship between businesses and the consumption of their employees

Consumption is often seen as an activity that is outside of work, but a number of studies have explored the ways in which consumption is present within the workplace. The question of eating at work has recently received attention, for example (Bruegel, 2004; Bouchet et al., 2016). Management practices that foster or provide a framework for consumption have existed for many years, notably in the form of workplace canteens, discounted products for staff or other benefits in kind (Tanner, 1999; Clarke, 2012; Gallot, 2013). In some cases, it is employees themselves who organise consumption in the work context – through cooperatives or comités d’entreprise (workplace committees), for example.  This symposium aims to register the diversity and evolution of these practices, exploring their role in the construction of identities (class, gender, ethnicity) and in shaping behaviours.

How have company policies and practices evolved in this area since the nineteenth century?  To what extent and by what means do businesses seek to mobilise their employees in their capacity as consumers? How are the identities of worker and consumer articulated when one buy or acquires goods at work? How should we understand practices such as the resale or sharing of goods acquired at work with friends and family?

Where industrial work is concerned, the attachment of workers to the means of production has often been evoked, but what of the relation of workers to the product of their labour, particularly once those who work in manufacturing are able to consume the goods that what they produce?  To what extent does the relation to the product of one’s labour – or in the case of sales jobs the product one sells – create an attachment or identification to the business or brand?

We might also consider the relationship between work and consumption in professions where embodied forms of consumption (dress, make-up) imposed on staff play a significant role in the construction of the brand (cabin crew, fashion industry…).

Theme 2: Work, consumption and social identities

A further set of questions arise about the ways in which workers/professionals express social identities through their consumption. Given that goods and services are classed and produce class distinctions in social space, consumer practices can be considered both as indicators of social belonging and as conscious or unconscious strategies put in place by individuals to express a specific social identity (Veblen, 1899; Bourdieu, 1979). This suggests that we might usefully reflect on the consumer habits and lifestyles of those who work in the same profession or business. Are there certain forms of consumption that are characteristic of a particular group of workers? What role does work activity play in the forms of consumption adopted by these workers? In what cases can their practices be seen as strategies of distinction on the part of individuals and groups who seek to position themselves in proximity to another class, gender or ethnic group (Albert, 2013; Menoux, 2015; Bernard, 2016)? 

Dress habits appear a particularly fertile subject for analysis in relation to this theme as important markers of gender, class and ethnicity (Gallot, 2012; Avril, 2015). Spending on services such as restaurants and tourism (Furlough, 2005) might be another line of enquiry, for example, where voucher schemes offered through employers provide access to these services. Foreign travel for events such as medical congresses can perhaps provide a means of reinforcing through consumption a social status acquired through work. Contributions might also explore the consumption of cultural products where this is directly facilitated by membership of a particular profession (e.g. journalists whose press card gives free access to museums and galleries).

A further approach would be to consider the ways in which specific forms of workplace sociability have implications for consumption practices in which the employee’s identity is at stake (either within or outside the workplace, with or without colleagues): this might take the form of expectations about alcohol consumption, for example, or conversations in which cultural capital is foregrounded in ways that prompt particular types of consumption. Addressing such questions might allow us to consider the issue of apparent discrepancies between an individual’s consumption and his/her social status, discrepancies sometimes noted by colleagues or friends.

Theme 3: Work, consumption and social mobilisation

The theme of collective mobilisations and the forms they take is a classic question in labour history. Consumption has been an important motive for collective struggles as a number of historians have shown: E. P. Thompson in his classic article on the moral economy of the crowd (1971), Michelle Perrot in her work on strikes in 19th-century France (1974) or Lawrence Glickman in his study of the demands for the living wage in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century (1997). Building on these studies, we invite contributions on any form of mobilisation of workers in which consumption plays a determining role: strikes about the cost of living or those aimed at restarting production and consumption, but also demonstrations and riots where relevant. How are the roles of worker and consumer articulated in such mobilisations? How does this change from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century?

The discourse of the labour movement on this question is also worthy of examination. In the nineteenth century, it was dominated by the idea that the capitalist system, in seeking to produce more goods at lower cost, rested on the exploitation of workers and created a downward pressure on wages. Mass consumption was condemned on the grounds that it degraded working conditions or undercut the revolutionary aspirations of workers through embourgeoisement.Demands formulated in terms of ‘purchasing power’ or a ‘living wage’ emerged gradually, indicating a significant change in conceptions of the value of work. Employees’ demands came to focus more and more on the quantity of goods that could be bought rather than on the quantity or quality of work done.

We might also ask whether it is possible – and productive – to analyse consumer mobilisations using the tools of the history and sociology of work.  Studies of the ‘politicisation of consumption’ in the UK (Trentmann, 2008; Hilton, 2003) or in France (Chatriot, Chessel, Hilton, 2005) have opened the way for such an approach. Research has focused on forms of consumer mobilisation that concern the world of work, such as cooperatives (Furlough, 1991) or on phenomena such as boycotts and white lists (Vincent, 2005). The question of the revolutionary or insurrectionary potential of these movements intersects with the preoccupations of labour history (Stovall, 2012). Consumers have mobilised to improve working conditions, as in the case of the Buyers’ Social League (Chessel 2012) and in a rather different vein, commuter associations also mobilise today at the intersection work and consumption. Finally, we might also ask whether struggles involving women workers give a greater place to issues of consumption than those involving men.

Submission of proposals

Proposals of no more than one page in length should be sent to travailetconsommation@gmail.com

before November 30th, 2016.

Decisions will be communicated by December 17th. 

Organizing committee

  • Anaïs Albert (historian, Centre d’histoire du XIXe, Université Paris 1) ;
  • Amélie Beaumont (doctoral student in sociology and political science, CESSP/Cresppa-CSU, Université Paris 1) ;
  • Jackie Clarke (historian, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Glasgow) ;
  • Fanny Gallot (historian, CRHEC, UPEC-ESPE). 


  • Albert Anaïs, « Les midinettes parisiennes à la Belle Époque : bon goût ou mauvais genre ? », Histoire, économie & société, 3/2013 (32e année), p. 61-74.
  • Avril Christelle, Les aides à domicile. Un autre monde populaire, Paris, La dispute, 2015.
  • Auslander Leora, Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.
  • Bernard, Lise, « Des ascensions sociales par un métier commercial. Le cas des agents immobiliers », Politix, n°114, vol 2, 2016, p. 73-98.
  • Bouchet Thomas et al., Manger au travail en France et en Europe de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours, Arbre Bleu, 2016.
  • Bourdieu Pierre, La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Editions de minuit, 1979.
  • Bruegel Martin, « Le Repas à l’usine : industrialisation, nutrition et alimentation populaire », Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, n° 51-53 (2004), p. 183-198.
  • Chatriot Alain, Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel et Matthew Hilton (dir.), Au nom du consommateur. Consommation et politique en Europe et aux Etats-Unis au XXe siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2005.
  • Chauveau,  Sophie « Regards sur la consommation de masse », Vingtième Siècle, 2006, 3, p. 3-7.
  • Chauvel Louis, « Du pain et des vacances : la consommation des catégories socioprofessionnelles s'homogénéise-t-elle (encore) ? », Revue Française de Sociologie, 1999, 40-1, p. 79-96.
  • Chessel Marie-Emmanuelle, Consommateurs engagés à la Belle époque : la Ligue sociale d'acheteurs, Paris, Les Presses de Sciences Po, 2012.
  • Clarke, Jackie, « Work, Consumption and Subjectivity in Postwar France: Moulinex and the Meanings of Domestic Appliances 1950s–70s », Journal of Contemporary History, n°47/4 (2012), p. 838-859.
  • Delphy Christine, « Travail ménager ou travail domestique ? », in A. Michel (dir.), Les femmes dans la société marchande, Paris, PUF, 1978, p. 39-54.
  • Dujarier Marie-Anne, Le travail du consommateur,  De Mac Do à eBay : comment nous coproduisons ce que nous achetons, Paris, La Découverte, 2014.
  • Furlough Ellen, Consumer Cooperation in Modern France: The Politics of Consumption, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1991.
  • Furlough Ellen, « Tourisme, mouvement ouvrier et critique de la consommation en France (1945-1985) », in Alain Chatriot, Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel et Matthew Hilton (dir.), Au nom du consommateur, Paris, La Découverte, 2005, p. 391-404.
  • Gallot Fanny, « La revanche du soutien-gorge. Le corps des ouvrières de la lingerie (1968-2012) », Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire [En ligne], n°38 (2013), p. 61-78.
  • Glickman Lawrence, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1997.
  • Hilton Matthew, Consumerism in Twentieth Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Hoggart Richard, The Uses of Literacy. Aspects of Working Class Life, London, Chatto & Windus, 1957.
  • INSEE, Cinquante ans de consommation, Paris, INSEE, 2009.
  • Menoux Thibaut, « La distinction au travail. Les concierges d’hôtel de luxe », in Quijoux Maxime (dir.), Bourdieu et le travail, Rennes, PUR, 2015, p. 247‑66.
  • Perrot Michelle, Les ouvriers en grève. France 1871-1890, Paris/La Haye, Mouton, 1974.
  • Schwartz, Olivier, Le monde privé des ouvriers. Hommes et femmes du Nord, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1990.
  • Siblot, Yasmine, Marie Cartier, Isabelle Coutant, Olivier Masclet et Nicolas Renahy, Sociologie des classes populaires contemporaines, Paris, Armand Colin, 2015.
  • Stovall Tyler, Paris and the Spirit of 1919 ; Consumer Struggles, Transnationalism, and Revolution, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Tanner Jakob, Fabrikmahlzeit. Ernährungswissenschaft, Industriearbeit und Volksernährung in der Schweizt 1880-1950, Chronos Verlag, 1999.
  • Thompson Edward P., « The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century », Past and Present, n°50, 1971, p. 76-136.
  • Tiersten Lisa, Marianne in the Market: Envisioning Consumer Society in Fin-de-Siècle France, University of California Press, 2001.
  • Trentmann Frank, « Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption », Journal of Contemporary History n° 39/3 2004, p.373-401
  • Trentmann Frank, Free Trade Nation. Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Veblen Thorstein, Théorie de la classe de loisir, Paris, Gallimard, 1970 [1899].
  • Verret, Michel, La culture ouvrière, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996 [1988].
  • Vincent Julien, « L’économie morale du consommateur britannique en 1900 » in Alain Chatriot, Marie-Emmanuelle Chessel et Matthew Hilton (dir.), Au nom du consommateur, Paris, La Découverte, 2005, p. 231-246.
  • Walton Whitney, France at the Crystal Palace: Bourgeois Taste and Artisan Manufacture in the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992.


  • 61, avenue du Général de Gaulle
    Créteil, France (94010)


  • Wednesday, November 30, 2016


  • travail, consommation, styles de vie, mobilisations, entreprise, alimentation, ouvriers, femme


  • Comité d'organisation
    courriel : je [dot] groc [dot] eem [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Amélie Beaumont
    courriel : beaumont [dot] amelie [at] gmail [dot] com

To cite this announcement

« Work and Consumption, from the 19th to the 21st century », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, https://calenda.org/383178

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