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Culture and Consumption.

Culture and Consumption

Grant McCracken. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988, 174 + XV pages.

The title of the book, both tantalizing and evocative, piques one's curiosity to examine its contents and when that is done, it is difficult to put it down. As one who has cautiosly crossed disciplinary boundaries, I can empathize with the author's experiences, and I found the book to be both ambitious and enriching in the insights it offers.

The theme that integrates the various sections and chapters of the book is the relationship between culture and consumption in the Western world. It is curious that this topic has failed to capture the imagination of most anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, since consumption is a thoroughly cultural phenomenon. As one of the few but early entrants in the discourse on culture and consumption, this book should provide impetus for more research in this area. It is, as the author suggests, both tentative and experimental.

The topics "culture" and "consumption" each merit total attention. At the outset, the author defines culture as the set of ideas and actions by which we interpret and shape our lives. Likewise, consumption is referred to as more than puchase behavior and is located in a sociocultural context. We are thus prepared for what follows: a macrointerpretive analysis of the interplay between the two. Making cautious forays across disciplinary boundaries allows the author to view one field in the context of the other. McCracken, in the true anthropological spirit, rises to the challenge and provides a "thick" description and a deeper understanding of the cultural assumptions and principles that provide the warp and woof of Western society.

There are three major sections in the text. The first deals with the origins and history of consumer behavior in the West. The second section is theoretical, and the third is called "practice." The book ends with a chapter that looks at consumption in the context of both continuity and change.

The first chapter examines modern consumption as historical artifact. Three perspectives provided by McKendrick, Williams, and Mukerji, respectively, are used as a backdrop to discuss the origins of consumer culture and society. The analysis is intricate and demanding in its focus on cultural ideas and values in the "great transformation" as separate from the Industrial Revolution and its institutions. In Chapter 2, the historical development of "patina" as a measure of distinction between high and low-standing individuals is instructive. The discussion in Chapter 3 on curatorial consumption versus modern consumption is both ethnographic and lyrical. Together, these three chapters set the tone and stage for the chapters that follow.

Chapter 4, which opens Section 2, makes the point that material culture is a closed code that provides society with a fixed set of messages. Thus clothing is not a language because it is constant in its "semiotic responsibilities." It cannot be used to express affect and emotion as wide ranging as irony, ambivalence, surprise, and hope, all of which can be represented through language.

Chapter 5 is the essence of the book. It provides a theoretical account of the movement of meaning from the constituted world to the individual consumer vis-a-vis cultural objects and goods. Advertising and the fashion system, he argues, move meaning from the constituted world to goods, while rituals move meaning from goods to the individual. Thus consumers use goods to orient and define themselves within a socio-cultural context. The questions this chapter raises are related to what the author addressed in his preface--the tentative nature of his analysis and the emphasis on Western culture. First, the emphasis on the individual and the use of the objects in the definition of "self" have to be modified even in the context of Western society. Inasmuch as we identify individualism as a central organizing cultural principle, we should also recognize its ideological role. It is this ideological component that both mystifies and signifies its importance. It is this concept that should be re-examined in the light of the idea that all cultures are constructed realities.

Second, the focus on person-object relations and material culture has shown that what gets produced in the clothing industry, for instance, depends on a prior classification of status, time, place, activity, and categories of people. Production in this sense follows a definite cultural logic. Thus this study is a critique of utilitarian and materialist thought that dominates Western culture. In the tradition of Sahlins (1976), McCracken makes the case that culture mediates our perceptions of what is natural. By showing how advertising and the fashion system create classifications, he shows that what we take as "natural" is actually built upon an arbitrary cultural logic. What is lacking in his approach, however, is any indication as to how cultural analysis is linked to historical and political factors. The study does not therefore raise questions about cultural dominance and how meaning structures are formed and negotiated by competing segments within a society (Keesing 1987).

In cultures that define the person-object and person-person relationships differently from that of the West, and where the collective is given more importance than the individual, the observation that goods are both the creators and creations of the culturally constituted world will have to be reconsidered. Furthermore, the transfer of meaning from the world to goods does not happen in non-Western contexts through the fashion system or advertising, although these two institutions have been slapped on to many cultures through the colonial context. While the emphasis on the transfer of meaning in a culture is brilliant, the corresponding focus on the individual and the use of objects for the completion of the "self" ignores the impact of forces larger than the self in contributing to both continuity and change.

Chapter 6, which opens Section 3, is a bold attempt at using the trickle-down theory of fashion to explain gender differences. It presupposes the existence of a dominant and subordinate group--in this case, men and women. Due to the overarching changes introduced by the feminist movement, he says that women have begun to appropriate the "tailored authority look" (read men's clothing) in the workplace. Presumably, by wearing the "right" clothing, they have strategically positioned themselves as people who can make decisions and be taken seriously. This is a selective process of appropriation and as more women are involved in this activity of "chasing-up," men are involved in "flight." That is, men, being the superordinate group, are trying harder to differentiate themselves from women as more women are trying to look like men. In this process, the traditional qualities associated with women that are symbolically reflected in their clothing are redefined.

The author has adapted Simmel's trickle-down theory to make it more useful for studying gender, age, or ethnic differences. First, gender is seen as "relational." Second, the author identifies the power relations of the two groups--dominant men and subordinate women. Third, he discusses the strategy of a subordinate group to appropriate some of the power of the dominant group vis-a-vis clothing. What is unclear, however, is the meaning of "gender" in the cultural context. This term in his analysis could be simply replaced by the terms "dominant" and "subordinate." Thus it merely describes rather than analyzes the "construction of gender" as he claims in the title. The situation of women and the dominance of men is merely recognized as "given" and not as the problematic. Thus his exlanatory framework is less satisfactory and less critical than it is purported to be. Even though he does not make cross-cultural references, it is clear that this theory will not be applicable to such situations or contexts.

Chapter 7 is like a breath of fresh air after the chapter on gender construction. Objects, as he notes, can indeed tell us who we are and who we wish to be. But this is a difficult chapter to understand in relation to the rest of the book. This is really the first time that the author mentions other cultures and other times. "Displaced meaning," according to him, occurs at both the individual and group levels. At the group level, this concept can be applied to the study of revitalization movements among colonized nations such as India, New Guinea, and many of the African nations. The cargo cults of New Guinea are only one of many famous examples of a group aspiring to acquire "cargo" (goods) that the colonizers possessed. At the individual level, it can be applied to the study of accommodation and persistence as exemplified through the use or non-use of "goods" in a multicultural or cross-cultural context.

The importance and impact of the concept of "product constellation" in socializing as well as making visible cultural categories is explored in Chapter 8. This is particularly interesting to both consumer behaviorists and marketers, since managerial implications are more graspable than in the rest of the book. If individuals can maintain an internal consistency in the goods they own because of the cultural meaning vested in goods, they can use them effectively to preserve existing meaning or transform it radically. While this is intuitively appealing and places emphasis on an individual's ability to transform and change his or her own life, the structural situations that constrain and encourage action are never discussed. Social structure is a given in such analyses, and individuals have the ability to refashion their lives with great ease and alacrity. This leaves some doubts about the uncritical use of the concept of "individualism."

Chapter 9 is a fitting end to this insightful and thought-provoking book because it takes us back to the beginning and to the importance of a historical and cultural framework to understand change and continuity in consumption. Goods not only exhibit cultural principles and categories, but they persuade and convince members of the importance of these factors. Likewise, goods are used to bring about changes, although one is told that individuals or innovative groups bring about these changes. In the author's own words, this study is just one that should herald a series of studies on a society "that makes change its constant, and radical transformation its rule of thumb." What is ironic is that the study of change is examined purely at a cultural and individual level, although these very individuals live in a socio-economic and political context which defines and shapes their actions.

Ultimately, even though humans are suspended in "webs of significance," (Geertz 1973) it is perhaps important to go beyond interpreting cultural meanings. There is much too much homogeneity in the view that culture is a collective phenomenon represented in public symbols. This needs to be balanced with the view that knowledge in a culture is distributed and controlled (Keesing 1987). The view that "ideology and material culture are one" (page 132) raises many doubts and questions about the nature of the relationships between culture and consumption as identified by the author. On the other hand, this book, as a cultural "object," can and should act as a springboard for further explorations of the links between culture and consumption.

Overall, this book is an important addition to the literature in consumer behavior and has symbolic and substantive value in generating and promoting further critical thinking. The discourse on culture and consumption has just begun.

Roger A. Dickinson Professor of Business Administration University of Texas at Arlington Arlington, Texas
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Author:Joy, Annamma
Publication:Journal of Retailing
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1989
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