Williams, C (2002) 'A critical evaluation of the commodification thesis', in The Sociological Review [no volume or issue numbers in this electronic copy] 525 - 42.
It is often assumed that commodification is increasing and will dominate all activity in capitalist societies. Commodification here means 'the production of goods and services by capitalist firms for a profit under conditions of market exchange' (525). [We might want to quibble already, and suggest that it is the logic of commodification that is of more interest here -- that activity takes place as if commodities were being produced]. This view can be critically evaluated at each specific step. Non commodified activities exist, may even be growing, and require explanation: are they simply left over, are they an integral part of postfordist production, are they sites of resistance or 'spaces of hope'?
Commodity production is supposed to be a unique form of economic production: goods and services are produced for exchange, exchange takes place through money and markets, and the whole process is driven by the pursuit of profit. It is assumed that this form of production is becoming dominant, not only in theory but in policies as well -- as in those designed to increase paid employment or to diminish economic inequalities. Theorists mostly recognise the persistence of non commodified forms, but see these as less relevant or as merely traditional. Capitalist production is now seen as globally unchallenged [there is a reference to Habermas on the colonisation of the life world here, although strictly speaking both market mechanisms and system imperatives are the ones doing the colonising for him]. Little evidence is produced to support these themes. Commodified 'ways of viewing' the social world are sometimes cited, but again with little evidence [which would be a reply to my point about commodity logic above]
The thesis can be tested by examining the amount and extent of unpaid work which remains in modern economies, especially work relating to 'self provisioning'. Secondly, any non-monetised exchange can be examined, and finally exchange can be analysed to see if it does always follow the logic of profit. Taking these in turn:
(1) Recent work has argued for the fundamental reappraisal of the value of unpaid work, especially unpaid domestic work, and unpaid community work 'i.e. unpaid work conducted by a household member for a person living outside their household' (529). The UN itself now argues that the value of such work should be calculated and displayed in 'satellite national accounts'. Unpaid work is measured by both the volume and value of inputs and outputs. Both are surveyed using time budget studies -- apparently these begin by asking 'whether people perceive their activity as work or leisure' (530) and then asking for details to be recorded of work [lots to discuss here of course, see below]. UK data show that 'unpaid work occupied about half of working time and this share grew [between 1961 and 1975]' (530). Other advanced economies seem to have similar shares. 'Economic life, in consequence, appears to be far from totally commodified' (530).
(2 ) Some nations, indeed, show that unpaid work is increasing as a 'proportion of people's total working time' (530), and this is not just because paid working hours have been reduced. This is so significant that it is possible to talk about a 'second "great transformation"... a de-commodification of economic life' (531), especially as these data probably underestimate the degree of unpaid work that goes on. Indeed, time budget data is unreliable for paid work as well, since people do not actually work all the time, but also engage in meal breaks, travel and socialising [leisure?]: similarly, amounts of time spent in unpaid work do not include time spent planning and managing activities, which can go on in 'leisure' [an interesting further complication for the view that work and leisure are always completely separate]. In particular, 'the emotional and affective activity involved in family work... is [often] portrayed as leisure and socialising' (531). [Well, they may indeed be seen that way -- is Williams claiming too much for the notion of 'work', here? Just about anything humans do could be classified as work -- eating and sleeping as body maintenance, sex as emotional labour and so on. Ironically, this tendency to insist that work is everywhere may lead to a form of commodification? Some feminists began to demand wages for unpaid labour]. Since most of the people who do this unpaid work are women, this may be why its value has been so underestimated.
(3) Turning to monetary relations, a recent estimate suggests that '80 million Americans... spend five or more hours of each and every week on voluntary services and charitable activity' (532), 11 per cent in England. Another UK survey found that there was an interesting social class difference --'6.8 of such exchanges were not monetised in affluent suburbs and 15.6 per cent in low-income neighbourhoods... 70.3 per cent were exchanges between kin' (533) [the result of the withdrawal of welfare?]. Such exchanges are less common where kin are not involved, and are affected by 'norms of reciprocity': Williams thinks that payment has replaced trust here as strangers can be relied on less to reciprocate.
(4) The exchange of goods is often simply taken as market-like behaviour, even in pre-capitalist societies. However, the exchange experience can be richer than it seems, and social norms can underpin even market exchange [Polanyi is cited here, but this is Durkheim's point, surely?]. There are obvious alternatives in activities such as the garage and car boot sales, for example, where transactions can also reflect 'forms of sourcing, commodity circulation, transaction codes, pricing mechanisms and value quite different from those that typify more profit-motivated market-oriented exchange' (535). There are also alternative local currencies. Non-profit motivated activities such as 'the celebration of Christmas accounts for about four per cent of total annual expenditures... [while]... 0.3 per cent of household income goes into the gift economy centred on family and friends' (535).
(5) Even paid work may not be pursued for strictly profitable reasons, again especially in low-income areas in the UK: 'only half... of the cases where paid informal work was conducted in low-income neighbourhoods, did suppliers do it principally for the money [90 per cent in more affluent neighbourhoods]' (535) about 30 per cent of such transactions 'were conducted for rationales beyond the profit motive [sociability and redistribution]' (535). [This is self report data presumably? We know from Bourdieu how common it is to feel shame about asking for money and how euphemisms are required]. Non profit motives might also be detected in more formal economic activities as well, including mutualisation, and 'public private finance initiatives' (535) [a real failure to penetrate the surface form here, surely?]. In certain areas, exchange takes place without a profit motive -- for example 'amongst owners of horticultural nurseries... [and other]... small business owners... [especially where]... business has emerged directly out of their hobbies' (536). [Of course, leisure theorists have noted this kind of work as well -- see, for example, Moorhouse].
How might the persistence of these activities be explained? Some recent theorists [including Castells -- see page 536 for a list] have seen this as the product of postfordism. Here, the costs of social reproduction have been shifted back to the non-commodified sphere, as a form of privatisation, especially of social services. This reduction of social costs is necessary in order to maintain competitiveness and is seen reflected in overall data on the decline in expenditure on 'social protection' in EU statistics (536). The shift towards self servicing is another example -- 'food acquisition' and 'assemblage and construction' are some examples [what Ritzer calls getting the customer to do the work] (537). [This is a fascinating development which promises to renew the contradictions in advanced capitalism described by Habermas and Offe, between commodity production and welfare, between principles of exchange value and use-value? No prizes for guessing which form will win though?]. Non commodified activity can also be seen in more cultural and political terms, as a reassertion of agency, a reaction to intensification of paid employment, a search for human values and pleasure. This might be why it those in employment engage in unpaid activity more than the unemployed (537). These are 'sites of resistance to the logic of commodification', chosen positively as an alternative. [I'm not sure the example of do it yourself activity works here though -- the labour may be non commodified, but the materials are classic commodities, bought from high street DIY superstores, with all the usual contradictions about whether people really do choose to replace their kitchen or are persuaded by advertising and consumerism].
More research on these non commodified areas is required. The political potential of these alternatives might also be explored, especially their capacity to 'reconstruct moral economies and spaces of hope' (538). [Is this just the old hope that consumption can restore human life while leaving commodified production intact? This is the sort of liberal illusion that Marx criticized in 1857! Is it really likely that non-commodified will replace commodified relations is the issue, surely? Are we close to the slogan 'from each according to his income, to each according to his need'? Maybe the former will just help humanise the latter?]
[Some very interesting points for leisure are raised here obviously. This article can be seen as evidence that the work/leisure distinction is clearly unsatisfactory, especially given unpaid and voluntary work. However, I'm not sure the ambiguities have been fully identified. Williams argues that unpaid and voluntary work seem to be completely unaffected by commodification, enough to be a radical alternative to it -- but we leisure theorists can think of problems with that. For one thing, there are arguments that leisure is increasingly becoming commodified, so that commodification may be advancing in some areas as well as retreating in others -- the leisure industry is the perfect example. The case study of D I Y shows the problems, as above. Perhaps this article needs the old division in Parker's work -- there is work, there is leisure, and there is also the third sphere of activity, which may be non-commodified work, but could equally be commodified or work-like leisure?]
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