prosumption: from parasitic to prefigurative
Many of you practice prosumption everyday without realizing it. If you bus your own table after a fast food meal, do self-check out at a store, or review a manuscript for an academic journal, you are engaging in simultaneous production and consumption. Organizations are increasingly introducing prosumption into routines without corresponding compensation, or, as George Ritzer notes in his essay in this The Sociological Quarterly summer 2015 issue, savings, for the prosumer.
Here’s the start of Ritzer’s “Prosumer Capitalism” essay:
This essay involves a further, albeit still early and provisional, analysis of the relationship
between prosumption and capitalism. It is made necessary by the rapid changes
in the nature of prosumption, its relationship to the changing capitalist economic
system, as well as the growing literature on them (Piketty 2014; Rifkin 2014;
Ritzer 2014). Like its predecessor (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010), this analysis
deals with the ever-expanding prosumption on the Internet, but it goes beyond
the now antiquated notion of Web 2.0, as well as devoting greater attention to
prosumption in more traditional settings. It also reflects significant changes in
my own conceptualization of prosumption, especially the idea of the prosumption
continuum (see Figure 1). The poles of the continuum involve a needed
reconceptualization of production as prosumption-as-production (p-a-p) and of
consumption as prosumption-as-consumption (p-a-c). More attention is devoted to
three types of capitalism (producer, consumer, and prosumer), as well as to the
“grand narrative” of producer capitalism > consumer capitalism > prosumer capitalism.
New to this analysis is another grand narrative relating to exploitation in
capitalism: singly exploitative producer capitalism > doubly exploitative consumer
capitalism > synergistically doubly exploitative prosumer capitalism. From a Marxian
perspective, prosumer capitalism is seen as an even more “magical” system than its
predecessors, at least as far as the capitalists are concerned. There is also a reexamination
of capitalism in light of other important recent characterizations of that economic
system. While others foresee the decline or even demise of capitalism (Rifkin
2014) or shift the focus to increasing inequality (Piketty 2014), this analysis foresees
the continuation of capitalism,2 albeit in the form of prosumer capitalism. The conclusion
takes a pessimistic perspective on the fate of the prosumer in contemporary
capitalism (in contrast to Toffler  and Rifkin ), although some thoughts
are offered on a more optimistic scenario. The essay ends pessimistically with some
recent examples of capitalist expansions and incursions in prosumer-dominated businesses
(Zopa in banking, Airbnb in short-term domicile rental, and Uber in the taxi
While Ritzer has a largely pessimistic view of where prosumption will lead, I have written a cautiously optimistic commentary covering the varieties of prosumption, which I dub “from parasitic to prefigurative.” Many of the examples that Ritzer and I discuss come from the so-called sharing economy, including the controversial pay-for-street-parking info apps discussed by epopp in this orgtheory post.
Here are my commentary’s central claims:
Ritzer’s analyses have mostly focused on organizations that deploy prosumption
as a means toward the end of profit. However, by studying organizations and groups
that view prosumption as both a means and an end, we can gain deeper insight into the
impact of prosumption. Thus, I examine several types of prosumption across the three
sectors of the market: for-profit organizations, the state, and nonprofit organizations/
voluntary associations. I further Ritzer’s critique by arguing that prosumption shifts
what used to be organizational and state responsibilities and risks upon individual
persons, emiserating workers and overloading individuals’ decision-making capacities.
While this shift has been portrayed as enhancing market efficiency and empowering
consumers, it can widen inequality, as it allows organizations to simultaneously overwork
employees and clients while understaffing. Those with resources can opt in and
out of prosumption when they please, reinforcing the illusion that prosumption is a
freely made choice, rather than one that is imposed for the ends of profits or efficiency.
However, not all individuals have the means to prosume, and their communities may
be unfairly stigmatized by prosumption. Moreover, attempts to promulgate parasitic
prosumption threaten to undercut access to public goods.
On the other hand, Ritzer’s (2015) mention of “dangerous giants” suggests that not
all persons will mindlessly prosume according to convention (p. 439). I elaborate on
three forms of prosumption that present potential counterpoints to conventional
prosumption. With transformative prosumption, prosumers engage in agentic action
and meaning-making. In violating prosumption conventions, the practice of disruptive
prosumption counters the push for profits and efficiency. When coupled with democratic
or collectivist ways of organizing, prosumption assumes a prefigurative cast,
enacting a society that prosumers desire rather than replicating the status quo.
I quite enjoyed writing the commentary, as it allowed me to reflect on additional ground beyond a previous prosumption article.
You can read Ritzer’s article on prosumption here. Ritzer’s essay is followed by commentaries by:
- Marie-Anne Dujarier “The Activity of the Consumer: Strengthening, Transforming, or Contesting Capitalism?“
- Robert J. Antonio “Is Prosumer Capitalism on the Rise?“
- Detlev Zwick “Defending the Right Lines of Division: Ritzer’s Prosumer Capitalism in the Age of Commercial Customer Surveillance and Big Data“
Ritzer follows with a response to the commentaries in “Dealing with the Welcome Critiques of “Prosumer Capitalism.””
Bonus: all items are ungated!!! Happy reading!