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 [1980] and Rifkin [2014]), 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:

Ritzer follows with a response to the commentaries in “Dealing with the Welcome Critiques of “Prosumer Capitalism.”

Bonus: all items are ungated!!!  Happy reading!

Written by katherinechen

October 2, 2015 at 7:42 pm

Posted in culture

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10 Responses

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  1. Hmm…like a forced D.I.Y. – Had never singled it out that way. Remember when people used to pump your gas and wash your windshield? (depending on your age..)

    Liked by 2 people


    October 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm

  2. How does prosumption differ from what Lambert calls shadow work? (Except the obvious, namely that a book on shadow work is likely to sell more copies than a book on prosumption, which sounds like the evil twin of a wasting disease that primarily afflicts wealthy women in Victorian romance novels?)

    Liked by 2 people


    October 2, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  3. This is definitely a must read. I am working on the critiques now. Thank you for posting. I hope to make others aware of their prosumption. I have been feeling increasingly alienated by some of these practices and now have better articulation of the concept.

    Liked by 1 person


    October 3, 2015 at 6:19 am

  4. Beth’s example of pay-for-street-parking app’s suggests to me another line of investigation: to what extent are smart phones (VERY smart phones!) facilitating our evolution into prosumption humans whose value-added activities enrich those who exploit, technologically & financially, inter-mediation opportunities?

    Liked by 1 person

    Howard Aldrich

    October 4, 2015 at 4:18 pm

  5. For persons new to prosumption, may I suggest Kelvin Lancaster’s 1966 paper in the Journal of Political Economy, “A New Approach to Consumer Theory” (pp.132-157)? Fifty years later, one sees a discussion of consumers-as-producers (as in this excellent post and its links); Lancaster actually devised a mathematical account of this phenomenon. His insight is still meaningful as he insists that value is created in this piece of the prosumption process because consumers get utility from complex products they fashion from purchased goods and their own efforts. This implies that some (most?) prosumption is not forced DIY or capitalistic enslavement. Rather, it is welfare increasing household activity.

    Liked by 1 person


    October 5, 2015 at 2:46 pm

  6. krippendorf, I just finished speedreading Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work (which builds on Ivan Illich’s term). Lambert’s use of shadow work, which is defined as “unpaid jobs (like commuting) than an industrial economy spins off for its citizens” (p.4); these tasks are transferred to consumers via understaffing and automation. While several examples of Lambert’s shadow work do overlap with Ritzer’s articulation of prosumption, others do not – for example, the aforementioned commuting to and from work, the intensification of parenting to the point that children have supervised playdates rather than free range time, and the expectation of emotional labor among workers. Lambert also doesn’t acknowledge much of the creativity possible with his definition of shadow work – see his discussion of 3-D printing, for example, he portrays it as a way for manufacturers to get consumers to print spare parts rather than maintaining an inventory.

    Howard, you’re correct; Ritzer does note the incorporation of the smartphone, as does Lambert.

    Thanks, Randy, for the reminder about process of prosuming as being important/valuable for some prosumers.

    Liked by 1 person


    October 7, 2015 at 3:54 pm

  7. Reblogged this on whisper down the write alley and commented:
    Some of my students who are reading Nowtopia by Chris Carlsson may find this concept of “prosumption.”


  8. […] heard of prosumption until the other day. I came across this scientific article because of a fellow blogger. I am now more aware and would like others to be a bit more aware as well. We can not make fully […]


  9. While I find Ritzer’s recent work on prosumption fascinating, the claims concerning job loss are both overstated and unsubstantiated. There’s a lot of theory, but very little data beyond anecdotal evidence.

    I have a paper under review that examines the effect of implementing self-service technology in a low-wage labor market that relies on unskilled routine forms of work (i.e., supermarket cashiers). There are in fact more cashiers now than there were when self-checkout lanes were first implemented. Likewise, case study data from seven stores over a six month period suggests that self-checkouts have not eliminated jobs, albeit for largely social and organizational reasons including theft, customer willingness, maintenance, and collective bargaining agreements that prohibit replacing employees with technology. Home Depot experimented with automating front end sales on the early 2000s with disastrous results; customers fled to archrivals Lowes whose stock, in turn, nearly doubled and shortly thereafter CEO Robert Nardelli was fired. Just because you can automate and go the prosumption route, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should.

    In fact, some chains have begin to remove self-checkout lanes from stores due to customer complaints as well as theft (which is significantly higher through self-checkout).

    My sense is that while these technologies may not be eliminating jobs, they are contributing to perceptions of being overworked that run contrary to data on hours worked.

    What surprises me is how many economists have jumped on the “end of work” bandwagon after dismissing Rifkin as a neo-Luddite. Maybe they’re just trying to take advantage of recent technology fears to publish articles and promote books. David Autor just published an article addressing these resurgent fears (“Why Are there Still So Many Jobs?”, JEP) that I think provides a use counter-narrative.


    Christopher Andrews

    October 8, 2015 at 5:28 pm

  10. Hi Chris, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, we have seen instances in which attempts to introduce prosumption have failed. I would categorize those under “disruptive” prosumption when consumers don’t follow expected routines.
    Is data available regarding jobs like bank teller clerks, now that ATMs and smartphones are options?
    BTW, when I was writing my commentary, a colleague sent me this link, which seems appropriate to your argument:–37246



    October 21, 2015 at 4:19 pm

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