What does it mean to consume?

I spent this past weekend at the Association for Consumer Research’s North American conference in St. Louis, MO. Although I spent some time seeing high school friends – I did grow up there, after all – and dancing like Elaine from Seinfeld at the big gala at the City Museum, most of my time there consisted of seeing panels. Lots and lots of panels. Very, very interesting panels.

The area of marketing I’m most interested in is Consumer Culture Theory: that is, in a very basic sense, looking at the ways that culture and consumption intersect. Of course, a conference about consumer research is going to focus primarily on consumer behaviour. But as I went to quant and qual panels, as I looked at graphs and equations and p values and structural models, it seemed to me more and more as though everyone was using the term “consumption” a little bit differently. A fascinating paper by Yoo Jin Kwon and Nyoung-Nan Kwon on the Korean practice of “selca”, an abbreviation of “self-camera” – i.e. taking pictures of oneself and sharing them with one’s social networks – discussed the pleasure in the consumption of one’s own image, and in the consumption of others’ reactions to it. An interesting paper by Paul Ballantine, Paula Arbouw and Lucie Ozanne on beginners in the voluntary simplicity movement asserted in part that voluntary simplifiers substitute the consumption of time - as in, the time required to do the more complex work of managing a materially simplified life – for the consumption ofgoods.

Of course, in a market economy, consumption isn’t limited to what we buy. We can consume experiences, or services, or any number of intangible things. But is there a limit to the utility of the word “consumption”? If we exist in a market economy, can we really be said to consume everything, necessarily?

Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between a wider market economy and a specific relationship or instance. Not every relationship or exchange or action is consumption-based, even in a market economy (I would argue; others would argue differently). Theoretically we “consume” the air we breathe, but in most instances there is no market significance to air; it’s free and equally available to all. Nor do we really consume the time that passes in the day, since it’s going to pass whether you like it or not. (As I well know, pushing thirty as I am.)

So why does time suddenly become a form of consumption when, say, it’s a part of voluntary simplification? Yes, we’re using more time to do different tasks now that we’ve changed the way we consume goods, but is that time really being consumed, or is its use just shifting? Is its value just changing – or, more specifically, the material value of what we do with it? It would still pass either way, after all. And in a similar sense, can feedback from our friends about our photographs be said to be consumption? Inasmuch as it is an experience, I suppose so, but is this social relationship distinct from a market relationship?

Of course, you could be said to consume compliments, if you think of a personal relationship as a market exchange. (And there are plenty of folks who do, for instance, especially when it comes to something like the dating market.) And when I posed the question about his paper to Paul Ballantine after his session, he very kindly explained that he saw the time spent as consumption because, essentially, the consumption behaviour was shifted from goods to time.

It’s certainly a defensible point. I’m just wondering, really, whether it might be useful to consider further the limits of the term “consumption” – whether a more complete concept of the term’s meaning in different contexts might lead to a richer understanding of consumption behaviour in general.