Household Consumption and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century

30–31 May 2017, Bologna, Italy

In May 2017, the University of Bologna’s Department of History and Culture hosted a workshop entitled “Household Consumption and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.” The workshop was co-convened by RCC alumnus Giacomo Parrinello (Sciences Po, Paris) and professor of contemporary history Paolo Capuzzo (University of Bologna). The event was co-sponsored by the RCC and the University of Bologna. Twelve scholars from the US, Germany, and Italy convened to discuss the links between consumer culture (and practices) in the household and ecological transformations on multiple spatial and temporal scales.

By Giacomo Parrinello


The papers, all pre-circulated in advance, were grouped into three panels: food and the kitchen, household technologies, and energy and the home. The three panels were preceded by an introduction by the conveners, which presented the central concern of the workshop: the apparent contradiction between awareness of negative ecological impact of mass consumption and the affects and identities embedded in consumer practices.

The first panel took place in the afternoon of May 30, and was opened by DANIEL PHILIPPON (University of Minneapolis), followed by ANASTASIA DAY (University of Delaware), ELISABETTA TIZZONI (University of Florence), and MICHELLE MART (Pennsylvania State University). The papers of this panel discussed the role of food consumption and the kitchen as sites of “distancing” from the ecological consequences of consumption but also of increased awareness, which in turn reflected both in new food practices as well as in kitchen design and appliances.

The second panel included NINA LORKOWSKI (Technical University of Berlin), WOLFGANG KÖNIG (Technical University of Berlin), HEIKE WEBER (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), and SINA FABIAN (Humboldt University Berlin). Together, they explored particular objects and technologies that gained increasingly central places in household consumption habits in the twentieth century—from the water boiler to the automobile—and the discourses, conflicts, and contradictions concerning their ecological impact.

The third panel, which included REBECCA WRIGHT (University of Sussex), NINA MÖLLERS (RCC/Deutsches Museum), FEDERICO PAOLINI (University of Campania Vanvitelli), and MANFRED STOPPOCK (University of Bayeruth), investigated domestic energy consumption. It touched upon the affective dimension of energy uses in the home, the representations and discourses surrounding it, and the values and expectations linked to it by users.

The papers showcased a great variety of sources—autobiographies, exhibitions, handbooks, and interviews—alongside more traditional archival sources and methods, including social anthropology, literary studies, quantitative sociology, and visual analysis. Despite their diversity, which testifies to the complexity of the subject, some commonalities and answers to the questions laid out in the introduction emerged during the workshop. First, the apparent paradox between environmental awareness and unchanged consumption practices does not seem to be such a paradox after all: different social groups may have had different reasons to persist or change consumer practices, and it is necessary to consider these factors, and actors, on a case-by-case basis. This also includes considering the role of sentiments, emotions, and values, not only as alternatives to rational behaviours, but as important factors that can determine different kinds of rationality and shape consumer practices in very different ways—ways that perhaps also vary depending on the practices involved (e.g. the sentiments and rationales of hygiene practices differ from those of cooking). Second, consumer practices at the household level are embedded in multiple power relationships. The field of forces that shapes consumption practices includes political movements, regulations, and industrial policies, but also ecological dynamics, as exemplified by waldsterben’s mobilization in the debate on car use in 1970s Germany. Third, it has become apparent that an important aspect of the ecological and material dimensions of household consumption—the large-scale and broad implications—remains largely to be explored. While the ecological impact of consumer practices is relatively easier to discuss and quantify in terms of output through waste, its impact in terms of sourced materials is largely unknown. Overall, the workshop has thus confirmed the extreme relevance of the topic and indicated more than one fruitful path for an exciting and promising area of scholarly inquiry

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