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Why and How to Make Objects Last

The Self-Repair Manifesto from ifixit.com If you can't fi… Flickr - CC BY 2.0

A doctoral student at the Center for the Sociology of Organisations, Julie Madon has just received the Treilles Foundation’s ‘Young Researcher’ prize for the quality of her research on the obsolescence and durability of objects.

How did it feel to receive the award?

A lot of joy. Doctoral work is quite lonely and often invisible, especially during the first few months when you don’t have many results to show. Seeing my research rewarded after four years of work is  very gratifying. I also felt very happy for my colleagues and friends Brianne Dubois(1)Dubois Brianne, 2020. « Redéfinir une juridiction professionnelle. Artistes et assistantes de production dans les projets d’art contemporain », Sociologie du Travail, 63 (3). and Maël Ginsburger(2)Ginsburger Maël, 2022. « The more it changes the more it stays the same: The French social space of material consumption between 1985 and 2017 », British Journal of Sociology, 73 (4), pp. 706-753., who also won this prize for their work. Brianne worked on the ‘little hands’ in contemporary art and Maël on the French’s ordinary consumption practices. Celebrating these kinds of events together is even more exciting and heartwarming.

Your PhD thesis focuses on consumers who seek to extend the life of their household goods, their motives and their practices. Why this subject?

I had already worked on environmental practices during my master’s degree in sociology at Sciences Po. My dissertation focused on the lifestyles of members of two environmental collectives: a youth movement and an eco-village(3)The youth movement is called WARN, for We Are Ready Now! The name of the eco-village is undisclosed.. I had studied how these collectives organised themselves to support their members in making drastic life transitions (changing places of residence, career changes…), as well as smaller shifts (reducing meat or energy consumption, etc.).

My thesis supervisor, Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, suggested a new subject when I started my thesis: planned obsolescence. The issue was in the media and on the legislative agenda, and non-profit organisations, such as Stop Planned Obsolescence (FR), were filing complaints. I could have approached this issue from a legal or legislative angle, by probing how market practices are regulated, or by studying how various stakeholders lobby to defend their points of view. I also could have examined the commercial world to understand why designers and sellers produce short-lived objects. But I was still interested in more mundane and concrete aspects at the individual level. I like to push open doors and study infra-ordinary elements we don’t talk about much. How do consumers deal with their objects? I searched for personal stories about products longevity while seeking to identify major social trends.

What did you analyze about lifestyles and their connection to the ecological transition?

I explored enablers of low environmental impact practices, how they spread, and how they are sometimes jeopardized. Consumption is framed by a series of norms and constraints. This is especially visible in what I call ‘longevity practices’, i.e., practices by which individuals seek to make objects last. The adoption of these practices depends on what individuals are used to do and think since their earliest childhood. They are thus unevenly distributed in social space, and strongly linked to social class and gender. For example, many of my interviewees were taught by their parents to take care of their belongings and buy “only what’s necessary” because they come from modest backgrounds. Moreover, women are more involved in the care of domestic goods (gentle handling, maintenance, cleaning) and are often in charge of market and non-market exchanges (second-hand buying and selling, borrowing, giving). Meanwhile, men value technical knowledge of objects through repairs and DIY. But what I most observed is that these practices are also highly dependent on the material, temporal and cognitive resources of individuals at any given moment. One of my interviewees, a committed environmentalist, replaced her washing machine rather than repair it because she was on sick leave during that period and didn’t have the bandwidth to take on the mental load of sending for a repairman. This kind of example underscores the importance of change in market offerings and current regulations to support individual practices.

Another issue that systematically appeared in my surveys is the diffusion of small gestures. Spreading one’s practices can be hard: the people I interviewed don’t talk about their lifestyle all the time, because they don’t want to ‘antagonise’ those around them, as they put it. This was the case of a mother who was interested in zero waste and de-consumerism, but who continued to give her daughter’s new presents at Christmas to avoid ‘turning them off to environmentalism’, she says. At times, respondents even concealed their environmental practices, because of the stigma around being a ‘token environmentalist’, a ‘cheapskate’ or a ‘tacky’ person who doesn’t update belongings. Avoiding radical discourse often paradoxically allows them to more effectively spread their practices through gentle diffusion. I’ve called these ‘pacification strategies’(4)Madon Julie, 2023. « “Tu peux être écolo sans être extrémiste”. Les écologistes entre engagement par le mode de vie et évitement du stigmate », Politix, 139 (3), pp. 95-116.: they involve either adopting ‘tacit’ practices, i.e. acting without commenting on what you’re doing; or adopting a more nuanced, positive discourse. A young environmentalist I interviewed explained how he tried to talk to his colleagues at a large company. He preferred to say that he was ‘interested’ in these issues, which he saw as a ‘challenge’, rather than talk about militancy or activism. With the media’s emphasis on environmental urgency, people committed to the issue are less likely to encounter these problems in the future.

In an article published in The Conversation(5)Madon Julie, 2019. “Fighting planned obsolescence is not just a “bourgeois bohème” issue” (Lutter contre l’obsolescence programmée, pas qu’une affaire de bobos), The Conversation., you assert that the fight against planned obsolescence is not just a “bourgeois/bohème” issue. What do you mean by this?

What’s interesting about the product lifespan is that the issue appeals to a wide range of people, because it has so many different meanings. Some might be interested in it because they want to reduce the impact of their consumption on the environment: replacing an object has a cost in terms of natural resources and waste treatment. Some are interested in planned obsolescence from a consumer defence perspective: in this case, it’s a question of fighting against the abuses of the commercial world and preserving purchasing power. And some may want to make their objects last because they’re attached to them, or because they’re passionate about repairs and DIY.

These various interests in product longevity are unevenly distributed in the social arena. ‘Ascetic intellectuals’(6)Bourdieu Pierre, 1970. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.– the young, urban and environmentally conscious people that the media often refer to as “bourgeois bohème” – are among many others interested in this issue. These include affluent, right-wing individuals who like to buy new things but want to ‘get their money’s worth’ when they consume – in other words, they want reliable products; and older, rural, do-it-yourself households that have already been equipped for a long time but don’t feel the need to renew their interiors, and keep things as a matter of habit.

After years of studying consumer lifestyles, what kind of consumer are you? Have you made any changes to your lifestyle?

We know that individual actions aren’t the most impactful since they are so constrained. Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier eloquently discusses this in a Le Monde podcast on the subject that I highly recommend(7)Listen to the Chaleur Humaine episode of July 5, 2022: “The injunction to “small gestures” for the climate can be counterproductive” – « L’injonction aux “petits gestes” pour le climat peut être contre-productive ».

Nonetheless, I still believe that if people like me who are working on these issues don’t change some of their most polluting practices, then nobody else will. Over the past few years, I’ve decided to reduce my air travel as much as possible. Today, I would never think of taking a domestic flight. Last summer, I tried going to a sociology conference in Norway by train. Other colleagues have done it too, sometimes coming from farther away. Once you’ve made the effort, you realise it’s feasible.

I hope that this kind of action will change things, because it takes place in a professional setting, and is therefore more collective. Asking my laboratory to fund train travel instead of air travel or talking about it to my colleagues and on social networks is a start. I’m lucky enough to work in a laboratory that is sensitive to these issues, and funded my trip: it’s often more expensive to travel by train than by plane, which is an aberration. But I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it in other, more reluctant organisations. This brings us back to the need to change market offerings to facilitate individual and collective practices.

What are your upcoming projects?

I’m currently working with Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier on a collective research project called ProVirCap that Laure Bereni is leading. I’m conducting semi-directive interviews with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) managers to understand their professional trajectories, their activities and the issues they encounter as they go about their work. It’s a fascinating job. I’m also glad to work as a consultant in a consultancy called Etéicos, where I conduct field surveys and offer my expertise to public and private players, always with the goal of making a positive impact. In addition to the social and cultural aspects integral to our missions, I’d like to develop the environmental aspect of seeking out more offerings in this sector. I plan to continue in this field, which I appreciate for the freedom it offers and the synergies it can create.

However, I’m not planning to leave the world of research altogether. I have many colleagues, who have become friends, with whom I have developed invaluable intellectual ties, and I am pursuing research projects. I’m thinking in particular of the sociology of the environment collective coming together at Sciences Po, under the leadership of Charlotte Glinel and Marion Michel. We have plans for seminars, study days and, above all, book publications. I’d also like to pursue some personal projects. I’m thinking of the publication and promotion of the thesis, but I’m also thinking of more personal inquiries that could be published in academic or alternative formats: books for the general public or documentaries, for example. In any case, I feel that the scientific methods and demands of research will continue to nourish and inspire me for a long time to come.

Statements gathered by Samia Ben, communication officer at CSO

Julie Madon is a doctoral student at the CSO, where she is working on a sociology thesis entitled ‘The art of making things last. Practices, resources and negotiations of consumers to slow the obsolescence of domestic goods’, which she defended on June 27. Alongside Aliénor Balaudé and Charlotte Glinel, she published an article in socio-Anthropologie entitled ‘Three sociologists in an armchair. What constrained digital switchover does to survey conditions and collected materials.’(« Trois sociologues dans un fauteuil. Ce que le basculement numérique contraint fait aux conditions d’enquête et aux matériaux recueillis «)

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

Notes
1 Dubois Brianne, 2020. « Redéfinir une juridiction professionnelle. Artistes et assistantes de production dans les projets d’art contemporain », Sociologie du Travail, 63 (3).
2 Ginsburger Maël, 2022. « The more it changes the more it stays the same: The French social space of material consumption between 1985 and 2017 », British Journal of Sociology, 73 (4), pp. 706-753.
3 The youth movement is called WARN, for We Are Ready Now! The name of the eco-village is undisclosed.
4 Madon Julie, 2023. « “Tu peux être écolo sans être extrémiste”. Les écologistes entre engagement par le mode de vie et évitement du stigmate », Politix, 139 (3), pp. 95-116.
5 Madon Julie, 2019. “Fighting planned obsolescence is not just a “bourgeois bohème” issue” (Lutter contre l’obsolescence programmée, pas qu’une affaire de bobos), The Conversation.
6 Bourdieu Pierre, 1970. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
7 Listen to the Chaleur Humaine episode of July 5, 2022: “The injunction to “small gestures” for the climate can be counterproductive” – « L’injonction aux “petits gestes” pour le climat peut être contre-productive »

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Why and How to Make Objects Last