Edward Pemberton - The Domestic Politics of Global Consumption

A customer paying for a purchase in a shop using a debit card.

About my PhD

My PhD looks at the everyday politics of globalisation in a country like the UK. I study how people understand their position in the global economy as workers, consumers and citizens and what this means for our politics. My research particularly focuses on consumption, an aspect of economic life which is relatively understudied, particularly in terms of its political dimensions. How much are people aware of where the goods they buy come from and the conditions in which they are made? How should we understand the links between exploitative global networks of trade and production, and the living standards that underpin democratic legitimacy in an advanced capitalist democracy like the UK? And what are the potential barriers to a more just economic global order that might arise from domestic political contestation around some of the most mundane aspects of daily life?

What made me interested in this topic

I've always been fascinated in how things are made and where things come from. The fact that much of what we buy and consume often comes from countries on the other side of the world has become so taken for granted I wanted to uncover what it was doing politically, and how people actually understood their relationship with the goods they consume and the people who produce them. I'm really interested in everyday and feminist methodologies, so by using an approach which focuses on people's consumption behaviour I hope I'm able to draw out some of the more far-reaching consequences of what might otherwise be considered the unremarkable aspects of daily life.

What’s new about this work

When people talk about trade and globalisation, a lot of assumptions have been made about who wins and who loses in these exchanges. A lot of work in this area focuses on labour and production, but I wanted to tell the other side of the story - what those goods go on to do in people's lives when they are produced. Studying consumption is a challenge, so I've had to employ creative new qualitative methodologies, using interviews and diary studies that help me understand what people buy and why they buy it. This gives me a rich account of how people experience consumer society and provides an opportunity to reflect on how things were produced, to dig into some of the aspects of life that are often taken for granted. I hope that this will help me to tell a story about the politics of globalisation that's able to reflect how it's embedded in people's feelings, values and culture.

What impact my research could have

I hope to bring the cutting edge political economy work around global value chains into conversation with questions around domestic politics. Firstly, if working conditions and labour standards are to be improved in the global South, it's important to understand what barriers to this might be presented by the domestic political concerns of rich democracies in the global North. And secondly, as we face an uncertain future, with the looming prospect of trade wars, climate change and populist politics, it's important to understand the material constraints that underpin our daily lives if we want to know how politics can meet and respond to these challenges.

What’s most interesting to me about my work

Without a doubt, the most interesting thing about my research has been speaking to all my participants. I feel really privileged to get to spend the time to talk to people and get a brief window into their lives, asking them questions about things that range from the burning political debates of our day, to the mundane matters like how they do their weekly shop. The quiet struggles, conflicts, satisfactions and joys that lie behind every economic decision that people make are fascinating to me, and it's amazing to explore and uncover these things with the help of the people who generously give up their time to speak to me.

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