Edited by Paige MacDougall and David Howes

Montreal: Concordia University, 2001

Below you will find two excerpts from the Culture and Consumption Field Research Handbook, namely, the “Introduction” and a section defining the “Anthropology of Consumption.”

If you would like a copy of the complete Handbook please contact the Principal Investigator using the link provided on the project homepage. We will be happy to supply you with a copy while supplies last.


by David Howes

The Culture and Consumption project is concerned with studying the globalization of the consumer society both from the standpoint of the margins and the standpoint of the centre of the “world system”. Our aim is to follow the adventures of seven key commodities as they make their way out from North America to other corners of the globe, and to track a series of other commodities which make their way to North America from these distant parts. Throughout our concern is with analyzing the transformations in meaning and use which these commodities undergo as they cross cultural borders. The transformations may be described in terms of “domestication,” “indigenization,” “creolization” or “recycling.”

In preparing for the field, it is essential to read the “Introduction” and “Epilogue” of Cross-Cultural Consumption as well as Constance Classen’s chapter on “Coca-Cola, Sugar Cane and Hypermarkets: The Surreal Life of the Argentine Consumer.” Our aim is to emulate the Classen chapter in the chapters we write for the book which comes out of this project. (The Classen piece is noteworthy for its conversational tone, lively anecdotes and critical stance.)You have also been supplied with a copy of Richard Robbins chapter on “The Making of the Consumer” from Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism by way of background on the recent history and nature of the consumer society. You should take these sources with you to the field.

This text is intended as a Field Research Handbook. It begins with a brief description of the Culture & Consumption project (taken from the original grant application) followed by a section called “The Afterlife of the Commodity” which contains some notes on methodology - that is, on how to approach the study of the objects of consumer culture.

The main body of this Handbook is devoted to providing you with the background information you need to carry out a successful fieldwork, hence the sections on fieldwork tips and consumption patterns leading up to the eight sets of background notes and interview questions on the “Eight Key Products for Comparison.” You are asked to make a particular effort to record as much data as possible on these eight categories of products in order to permit informed comparisons to be made based on the research of all the members of the team. The anecdotes from Paige MacDougall’s field research in Mexico (which are included along with the background notes and interview questions) are intended to give you a feeling for what sort of information is potentially relevant to the project and how to go about writing it up. In addition to recording anecdotes and observations, you should always be on the look out for patterns. The main thing is to Record, Record Record! In other words, take copious notes and not a few photographs, and keep reflecting on how the consumer trends you see fit together to form a pattern.

At the same time that our attention is focussed on the eight key products, it is important that each of us “follow our (anthropological) instincts”and look into whatever other products seem promising - that is, seem as if they will shed some light on the process of globalization. The sections on “Unforseen Products” and “Alternative Product Suggestions” are about what sorts of other things you might find it useful to look into, and how to follow up on a particular lead when you think you have found one. To keep the issues raised by globalization squarely in mind, make a point of re-reading the “Epilogue” to Cross-Cultural Consumption a couple of times while in the firld.

In addition to exploring commodities that travel out from North America, remember that we also want to trace the “careers” of a select array of articles which originate elsewhere and are imported to North America.. Globalization is a two-way street, after all. Mexican beer, Russian vodka are obvious examples, but it is not just alcohol we are concerned with. Make a point of asking some of your informants what they think their country’s most important exports consist of. Emphasize that it is not just quantity that counts, but quality. What exports are they most proud of?

The Handbook concludes with a selection of entries from the Annotated Bibliographies which members of the team have been writing over the course of the last term. It also contains some excerpts from other studies which it is useful to mull over.

When you get back from the field, you will be engaged in an intensive process of mining the notes you took in the field for the material for your report to the team and for the chapter you have engaged to write. The more material you collect the richer your report and subsequent writings will be. All the best!.


by David Howes

Anthropology of Consumption Defined

The anthropology of consumption treats consumption as an act of appropriation, rather than passive reception, by the consumer. In this approach, the consumer really is sovereign, because it is recognized that the consumer is the final arbiter of the meanings and uses of commodities.

The anthropology of consumption is primarily concerned with what could be called the “afterlife of commodities” - that is, with what happens to products after they are purchased and enter into the particular “worlds of goods” which consumers construct out of the total system of goods in a given culture.

By using the methodology of participant-observation, the anthropologist enters into the consumer’s own space and analyzes not just what people say about the products they buy, but also what they do with them: for example, the way people position products in the home, the ways they insert them in particular social relationships (e.g. having a friend “drop by” for coffee), and the ways they use them up and dispose of them.

The anthropologist also seeks to understand the categories which consumers themselves use to organize their world - that is, to learn how to perceive things “from the native’s point of view.” The “native’s point of view” is inferred from a fivefold analysis of: 1) the relational, 2) the biographical, 3) the contextual, 4) the sensual, and 5) the social aspects or dimensions of commodities, as will be explained further below.


What features differentiate this product from other similar products? With what other products would this product be associated by consumers?

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas in The World of Goods, "all goods carry meaning, but none by itself ... The meaning is in the relations between all the goods, just as music is in the relations marked out by the sounds and not in any one note" (emphasis added). The implication of Douglas' observation is that studying a product in isolation will add little to one’s understanding of the meaning and value it holds for people: one needs to study the sorts of constellations the product enters into with other products in order to fathom its sense.

Some items go together (e.g. fast food and paper plates) while others do not (e.g. a Chippendale chair in a high-tech office): the challenge is to identify the principles that account for such groupings, or in other words, the patterns that inform different “constellations of goods.” For example, a Rolex watch, BMW automobile, and squash racket (among other things) defined the American Yuppie of the 1980s; a tattoo, Doc Marten boots, and Sony Walkman defined the Generation X youth of the 1990s.

The relational approach to the study of consumption advocated by Mary Douglas agrees with one of the key recommendations of the Young and Rubicam Brand Asset Valuator study: "we recommend that whenever possible, market studies should include a breadth of brands, as consumers often make telling connections between completely disparate brands."


What can the social history of the product (or similar products) suggest about current market position and future trends?

One of the most significant recent developments in the anthropology of consumption is the idea of treating objects as persons, and therefore as having biographies. This approach is nicely summarized by Joan Vastokas in the following passage from a book edited by Stephen Riggins called The Socialness of Things

Every manufactured object has a life and a life-history of its own. In the process of its production, whether by hand or machine, the artifact is born, stamped with the conscious intentions and unconscious expressions of its creator(s). Then the artifact lives out a life in time and space of greater or lesser duration, both as a meaningful and expressive object in itself, and as a ritual performer in social and cultural life. Finally, it dies, passes out of use, destroyed or deposited in the garbage dump or in a museum.

As Celia Lury writes in Consumer Culture, "tracing the social and cultural movements of objects, leads to a focus on the dynamic, processual aspects of material culture, pointing not simply to the small-scale shifts in an object's meaning as it traverses circuits of exchange, but also to broader transformations in the organization of material culture itself."

Consider the biography of the Sony Walkman. The first models of the Walkman had two jacks for earphones, so that individuals (normally couples) could listen in pairs. This was because Morita, the inventor of the Walkman, thought it would be rude to listen to music alone. Sony's original conception of its target market was one of urban, mobile, young music-listeners. Very quickly, however, the Walkman got taken up by people who did not fit this mould - that is, by non-youths, who sought out non-urban spaces (i.e. people involved in outdoors activities generally, such as backpackers, hikers, fishermen). The Walkman soon underwent modification: first, the jack for the second earphone disappeared on account of people using the device in a more individualistic fashion than its inventor imagined or intended; following that, the casement began to be re-fashioned for each of the different outdoor pursuits in which the device could be used, and there is now a Walkman for virtually every sport or leisure activity.

Biographical research, then, is mainly concerned with determining what the social history of the product (or similar products) might suggest about current market position and future trends. This focus enables the researcher to discover product features which have been accentuated in the past which might be accentuated again, as well as those features which have tended to be suppressed.


In what sorts of contexts is this product most likely to be consumed? What sorts of meanings and uses are attributed to the product by consumers?

The contextual dimension differs from the biographical dimension of analysis primarily by virtue of its focus on the current uses and meanings of products, as opposed to their history. Research in this domain reveals that consumers invariably customize or personalize the objects they buy in the process of consuming them. One particularly flagrant example of this is the use of Kool-Aid as a hair dye by teenagers. Kool-Aid has the advantage over Miss Clairol, for example, of being much easier to rinse in and rinse out, and coming in a much wider (and lurid) array of colours. Needless to say, Kool-Aid was never designed as a hair dye by its producers. Note how it is only by analysing how the object is used after it is bought that any of these consumer-added uses and meanings are discovered.

The phenomenon of recycling is of particular interest to study here. Recycling is the subject of two recent exhibition catalogues - Charlene Cerny and Suzanne Seriff’s Recyclede Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scarp Heap and Jeremy Coote et al Transformations: The Art of Recycling. Recycling can be as simple as re-using a newspaper you have read and would otherwise discard to stuff your shoes when they are wet, or to polish your shoes on, or as a make-do sunhat on the beach. These examples involve alternative uses. At the other extreme is the meltdown of the original object and its refashioning as something else. For example, a British artist melts down plastic shampoo and other bottles and then pours them into moulds to make chairs. There are many creative uses for cast-off objects, such as empty soft drink cans: for example, in some places they are used as bricks (their ends left visible because of their pleasing shape), or they can be fashioned into oil lamps with a wick. Of course, amongst poorer people such inventiveness (or re-inventiveness) is an extremely valuable trait, because it is impossible to buy things new. Recycled objects can also frequently be found in religious costumes, as jewelry (the safety pin as earring), as musical instruments (the tin drum), as bulding material (old car license plates used as siding for a house), as footwear (old tires re-fashioned as sandals), and art. Regarding art, it has been said that the use of found objects by Picasso or Braque, for example, “layers into a work of art several levels of meaning: the original identity of the fragment or object and all of the history it brings with it; the new meaning it gains in association with other objects or elements; and the meaning it acquires as the result of its metamorphosis into a new entity.”


What is the sensory profile of the product? How does it (or how can it be made to) resonate in each of the five senses?

It is possible to think of products as bundles of sensory attributes - colour, shape, texture, sound, scent. The sense appeal of a commodity is important to its success on the market, but what determines sense appeal? Research has shown that it is not only the pleasantness (or hedonic quality) of the sensations provided by a product that determine sense appeal, but also the appropriateness of those sensations given the associations they provoke. For example, a trial involving pine-scented facial tissues found that respondents perceived the tissues as "fresh" but also complained that they were "rough." This was because of the association of pine scent not only with freshness, but also with pine needles, which are of course prickly or abrasive.

Traditionally, products have been distinguished by the visual logo of the company that made them, and by their packaging. This is now changing because it has been recognized that multiplying the sensory channels through which one appeals to potential consumers augments the chances of the product registering in their consciousness. Now a product wants to have not just a particular look (colour and shape), but also a particular sound, a particular scent, and a particular texture. Appealing to the consumer through multiple sensory channels enhances brand recognition and satisfaction.

The capacity of sensory stimuli to capture attention and trigger associations has made them important tools of marketing, as is reflected in the recent rush to trademark characteristic scents and sounds of products. For example, Harley-Davidson recently applied to trademark the distinctive VROOOM, VROOOM! sound of a Harley motorcycle engine reving. Japanese motorcycle manufacturers are contesting the application.

Cultures vary in the way they evaluate or rank the different senses, as do individuals. Some cultures (or individuals) are more visual, others more tactile, still others more verbal, and so on. Account needs to be taken of the differing (and sometimes conflicting) sensory preferences within a population in order to ensure that product design and advertising messages have the right sensory mix. If the sensory mix is not correct, the message will not have the desired impact.


What social constraints most influence the consumption of a given product?

Zygmunt Bauman makes an important point in Thinking Sociologically

All commodities have a price-tag attached to them. These tags select the pool of potential consumers. They do not directly determine the decisions the consumers will eventually make; those remain free. But they draw the boundary between the realistic and the feasible; the boundary which a given consumer cannot overstep. Behind the ostensible equality of chances the market promotes and advertises hides the practical inequality of consumers - that is, the sharply differentiated degrees of practical freedom of choice.

Bauman's point may be read as an implicit critique of the "lifestyle" concept in contemporary market research. He is asserting that there are certain boundaries to the exercise of freedom of choice and the construction of self. These boundaries have to do with what may broadly be called the individual's class position in society. The "lifestyle" concept tends to elide considerations of social class, but Bauman cautions against this. He is saying that there exist constraints quite independent of the seductive or other powers of the advertising image which subtly shape consumption, and which need to be attended to by the researcher.

One of the most in-depth studies of the pervasive effect of distinctions of social class on consumption patterns is Pierre Bourdieu's monumental work, Distinction. In it he traces the basic divides in taste in contemporary French society to different experiences of class. For example, the immediacy of working peoples' tastes, as expressed in their preference for going to see a movie as opposed to an art museum, or fast food as opposed to haute cuisine, is said by Bourdieu to derive from the immediacy of their work experience, and the pressure imposed by their needs. In brief, they are more used to physical work than mental work, and because their access to basic sustenance is not guaranteed, they have a respect and a desire for the sensual, physical and immediate. The higher class individual, who has been raised in the abstractions of education and mental labour affects a different sort of taste: a taste based on desire and respect for the abstract, distanced and formal. This abstraction is also a function of the person's access to the daily necessities being relatively secure.

It is important not to overstress the role of social class in the construction of personal identity and consumption choices. It is nevertheless important not to ignore this major influential factor, even in an ostensibly classless society like the U.S. (in reality anything but classless). The point here is that image is not everything. One needs to preserve a certain distance from the discourse of style to perceive the larger social context that is shaping consumption choices.