Knowledge Integration: Understanding obsolescence

Our interdisciplinary perspective on obsolescence starts with the assumption that product lifetimes are more than a property of objects, a rationally calculated number that is inscribed in a product’s design. The lifetimes of things made, used and disposed by humans can rather be seen as an important characteristic of a given material culture and as rooted in current human-object relationships. The research focus “Understanding obsolescence” aims to integrate conceptual knowledge and empirical results from the different disciplines that are involved in the research group to build a sort comprehensive “Theory of obsolescence”. It will serve as baseline to develop transformations paths towards sustainable consumption and production.

So far, we would argue that a study of obsolescence needs to differentiate analytically between practices interacting with objects on the one hand and practices communicating about objects on the other hand. Obsolescence is materially produced when short-lived artefacts are designed, created, positioned, used, devaluated and disposed of and which can be observed among others in measurable lifetimes or amounts of waste production. But obsolescence is also created in communications qualities of consumer goods, their values and meanings are negotiated. Both aspects are deeply interrelated and form the background for a material culture where short-lived products have become the norm. Material culture is inscribed into and reproduced by human-object relationships, therefore they are the key to understanding obsolescence.

The research in this realm focuses on the interwovenness of practices in different societal fields (industry, marketing, politics, consumption) and how they “work” together to bring forth obsolescence. The analysis will shed light on the question of how obsolescence is created as a social attribution and its relation to other socially constructed meanings like „novelty“, „innovation“, „desirability“, „distinctiveness“.


Contact person: Melanie Jaeger-Erben

Relevant publications in this priority area:

Jaeger-Erben, Melanie & Proske, Marina (2017): What’s hot what’s not – The social construction of product obsolescence and its relevance for strategies to increase functionality. Paper (accepted) to the PLATE – conference, 8-10 November 2017, Delft University of Technology.