Sustainability in Practice: A study of how reflexive agentsnegotiate multiple domains of consumption, enact change, andarticulate visions of the 'good life'

  • Thomas Schroeder

Student thesis: Phd


A small proportion of people claim to live and consume in ways they consider moresustainable in social and environmental terms. As yet, we do not know how many exactly,but possibly no more than 5‐10% of the population. The thesis intentionally focuses on thisminority finding there are at least three reasons why it is interesting to do so. First becausethey are all but ignored in sociologies of practice in the context of sustainable consumptionwhich considers this minority an insignificance and focuses almost exclusively on a'mainstream' majority which more closely maps onto the stereotype of 'consumer society'.Second because we think we can learn much from juxtapositioning this group empiricallyagainst the spectrum of theories of practice to devise more robust and appropriatetheoretical explanation of how these subjects, in the context of everyday practice, negotiatethe many interpretations and contradictions involved in trying to put 'sustainability' intopractice. Third because by understanding them better we can reflect on theoretical,empirical and policy implications for nudging this minority of the population to a higherpercentage.The thesis sits at one end of a spectrum of positions in theories of practice applied toconsumption, and in particular with a normative interest in sustainable consumption. It alignswith those who seek to re‐insert the reflexive agent into accounts of practice, with particularreference to the conceptual construct of the 'citizen‐consumer' and the context of politicalconsumption (Spaargaren & Oosterveer 2010). Referring to theories of consumption, thethesis adds perspectives on how people negotiate multiple domains of consumptionsimultaneously since everyday practice involves interactions across multiple domains (suchas eating, mobility, householding); and yet typically in theories of practice these areartificially separated into single domains. The study therefore considers the implicationswhich domains have on how particular practices are carried out, first separately (per domain)and then as they come together (in a cross‐cutting domain perspective). The study thentakes theories of practice as a springboard to develop a theoretical position and frameworkwhich better fits the narrated accounts of the 37 subjects who participated in this study. Initeratively co‐developing a theoretical framework and multiple 'stages' of empirical research(using grounded theory methodology) the study seeks to explain theoretically how subjectsjustify their 'doings' (drawing on 'conventions' and 'orders of worth' (Boltanski & Thévenot2006)); how they appear to muddle through as best they can (introducing 'bricolage' (Lévi‐Strauss 1972)); and how subjects appear to devise decision short‐cuts when approachingdecisions characterised by the multiple contradictions of sustainable consumption andincomplete or 'too much' information (introducing heuristics (Gigerenzer & Gaissmaier2011)).In joining calls to re‐insert the reflexive agent to account for how, when and why subjectsenact changes towards trajectories which they consider 'more sustainable' in their ownterms, the study takes inspiration from Margaret Archer's morphogenesis approach (1998)and explores her model of multiple modes of reflexivity, announcing certain modes as 'betterfitting' conditions of late modernity. The study finally finds that contrary to a notion of theun‐reflexive agent, the citizen‐consumer is able to articulate visions of the 'good life'. Inaddition she is able to fold these visions back onto everyday practices performed in the past,present and future, laying out normative guidelines and positive accounts of how to achievepersonal or societal well‐being and happiness. The overarching positioning of the study ismuch inspired by Andrew Sayer's (2011; 2000) 'normative turn' calling upon social sciences tore‐instate research into the things about which people care. The study is therefore guided bythe overarching question of how people translate th
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSally Randles (Supervisor) & Alan Warde (Supervisor)


  • reflexive agent
  • reflexive agency
  • normativities
  • normativity
  • grounded theory
  • normative turn
  • multiple contradictions of sustainable consumption
  • theory of conventions
  • orders of worth
  • bricolage
  • morphostasis
  • iteration
  • morphogenesis
  • political consumption
  • narratives
  • sustainable consumption
  • good life
  • happiness
  • well-being
  • visions of the good life
  • theory of practice
  • heuristics
  • decision making shortcuts
  • citizen-consumer
  • consumption practice
  • cross-cutting domain perspective
  • practice theory

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