A CONCORDIA BASED RESEARCH PROJECT ON THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE CONSUMER SOCIETY
Context of the Research
consumption" occurs when a product or service is produced in one
culture but consumed in some other culture. The globalization of markets
has resulted in an exponential increase in the incidence the cross-cultural
consumption of commodities such as Coca-Cola, Levis jeans, IBM computers,
and of services like credit cards and package tours. While some goods
and services have been notably successful at penetrating foreign markets,
however, others have failed. How are these successes - and just as important,
failures - to be explained?
are ideally positioned to study processes of selection/rejection of
goods and services across cultures, because of their position as cultural
insiders - or "marginal natives" - and their attentiveness
to the particularities of local power relations, knowledge systems,
and desires. Scholars and practitioners of international marketing are
aware of this, and have recently begun to try and incorporate anthropology
into their practice: "the successful marketer must be a student
of culture" states Philip Cateora in International Marketing. However,
the focus of most market research remains on the marketplace. Marketers
have yet to position themselves as an anthropologist would "in
the home" in an attempt to perceive things "from the native
point of view".
The student of marketing
has little or no interest in products once they have been sold. By contrast,
the "domestication" or "afterlife of the commodity"
is of primary interest to the student of the anthropology of consumption.
Traditional models of consumer behaviour fail to recognize how creative
and indeed "productive" this process of domestication-through-consumption
can be. Consumers may find uses for products never imagined by their
manufacturers, or may reject products for similarly "obscure"
reasons. So too may consumers evidence significant creativity in terms
of the range of meanings they impute to commodities.
By way of example, in Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women, Timothy Burke (1996) explores the ways Zimbabweans have redefined the use-value of Western personal care products. He found that Zimbabweans not only use Western cosmetics and toiletries, such as Lifebuoy soap, in the ways intended by their manufacturers, but also use them in smearing practices, as medicine, and as fish bait. As another example, in her research on low-income households in Cairo reported in Between Marriage and the Market, Homa Hoodfar (1997) found that women prefer kerosene burners to gas or electric stoves because the former (being portable) allow the women to cook out of doors on their balconies, where they can socialize with their neighbours. When it comes to cooking in Cairo, social considerations take priority over considerations of efficiency, modernness, etc.. Many more examples of the novel uses and alternative meanings found in or for commodities when they cross cultural borders are discussed in Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities - edited by David Howes (1996).
Project Funding and Team Membership
Consumption research project is funded by an $88,000 research grant
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The members of the Cross-Cultural Consumption research team share an interest in exploring the processes whereby "foreign" gooods are domesticated in our own and other cultures, and in considering and critiquing the role anthropological concepts and techniques might play in marketing and advertising research. The team has developed its own research paradigm, which we call the "cultural economy of consumption." The two most basic tenets of this paradigm are: 1) that cultural difference persists in the face of globalization, and 2) that consumers should be regarded as agents.
Objectives of the Research
The project has five main objectives:
1) To conduct a series of in-depth ethnographic studies of the reception and "domestication" of select goods and services of North American origin in select markets around the world, such as Russia, Egypt, India and Brazil. Sample questions: What meaning do local people attach to goods or services of Western origin? What new or alternative uses do such goods acquire in the post-purchase context of the homes or businesses and lifestyles of their consumers?
2) To examine how products and services which emanate from these same "exotic" locales are received and contextualized in Canada by Canadian consumers. This branch of the research will involve turning the anthropological lens back on our own society, and draw on the product-country image literature (e.g. Popadopoulos and Heslop 1993) as well as classical anthropological research techniques (McCracken 1989; Joy and Dholakia 1992). Questions include: What is Russian about Russian vodka? How do images of the rainforest impact upon the meaning of goods from Brazil?
3) To take the empirical findings and reflections on method of the field researchers and consider how they might be translated into terms accessible to students of international marketing. This branch of the research is concerned with carrying forward the dialogue between anthropology and marketing that has begun to take shape through the publication of works by Eric Arnould (1989) and John Sherry (1995), among other practitioners of "marketing anthropology."
4) To consider the question: To what extent has the world already become a single marketplace as a result of the globalization and standardization of products? The suggestion that cultural differences are increasingly being eroded through the world-wide replacement of local products with mass-produced goods which originate in the West must be taken seriously and examined empirically. In pursuing this investigation, the focus will be on the standardization of products and markets in the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA).
5) To consider the question: What business do anthropologists have in international business? What are their ethical responsibilities? What can anthropologists bring to the elaboration of an ethics of international marketing practice? Anthropology has often been associated with cultural and ethical relativism. However, in the face of the globalization of the consumer society, with its sometimes detrimental consequences for local cultures (see Classen and Howes 1996), there is a pressing need for anthropologists to help articulate a cross-cultural ethics of marketing practices, and to reflect on what role anthropologists might play as mediators between local cultures and global marketers.
In terms of methodology,
for the anthropological component of the research, both classic and
emergent anthropological fieldwork techniques will be used. The classic
approach involves: field immersion, interview skills, sensitivity to
nuance and symbolism, attention to contextual embeddedness, and a cross-cultural
perspective. Emergent approaches stress reflexivity, sensitivity to
power relations, gender-race-class divisions, and also emphasize the
contingent and contested character of any and all cultural representations.
differ in important respects from market researchers: for example, anthropology
rejects the notion of "behaviour" in favour of one of action
or agency; anthropologists centre their research in the home as opposed
to the marketplace, and focus on what people do, not just what they
say. For example, anthropologists are interested in analysing the arrangement
of consumer goods in the living room as a source of information on meaningful
categories to the consumer, and a possible counterpoint to express preferences
and associations elicited by direct questioning (see McCracken 1989;
The principal forum for the communication of the results of the research will be the "Cross-Cultural Marketing Summit Conference" to be held at Concordia University in April 2002. This conference will be open for other scholars interested in the phenomenon of cross-cultural consumption and globalization of the consumer society to present papers. Watch this page for more information about the conference.
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