Danny Miller, Professor of Anthropology at University College London and editor of the Journal of Material Culture has been a key figure in the shift of focus to ‘consumption’ across a breadth of disciplines – economics, politics an sociology as well as in anthropology.
A leading scholar of material culture, Miller argues that consumption is not simply an additional topic or subject of study but is transforming fundamentally the premises of many of these disciplines – which, resembling the rhetoric of politicians, have conceived of production and the economy as a basis of social organisation.
Miller’s core argument is rooted in the notion that the world is shaped by consumption practices, as opposed to the idea that consumption is a secondary or passive activity, shaped by or reflecting the form of economic organisation, or that it is simply functional.
Thus he rejects Marx’s economic determinism, the Frankfurt Schools pessimistic approach to consumer society, the idea that consumption is opposed to sociality, and arguments about cultural imperialism and globalisation that see consumption as causing global homogenisation. In exploring the significance of material culture, Miller draws on Foucault’s theory of power and Latour’s work on technology.
He roots his argument in the centrality of mundane, everyday, household activity. As an anthropologist he is concerned with exploring the meanings of material goods – and has found that the same goods (and television programmes) have very different meanings in different cultural contexts.
His early work on ‘the Young and the Restless’, for example, shows how the consumption of this US soap in Trinidad is best understood not as foreign domination or cultural imperialism, but as providing material for exploring highly localised questions about Trinidadian society and culture.
In his study of shopping in north London he found that, a far cry from indulgent individualism, hedonism or creating a ‘lifestyle’, most shopping was highly routinised and best understood as the expression of responsibility to others.
It is a moral project about relationships, and mostly involves women provisioning their households. Subsequently Miller has worked on clothing, with projects on denim and the sari; and has also studied, again in Trinidad, first the Internet and most recently Facebook.