Context of the Research

"Cross-cultural 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?

Anthropologists 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

The Cross-Cultural Consumption research project is funded by an $88,000 research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The team was formed in July 1998 to explore some of the issues arising from the globalization of the consumer society. The team is strongly multidisciplinary and transcultural in orientation. It consists of Constance Classen, Sally Cole, David Howes, Myrian Hivon, Homa Hoodfar, and Joseph Smucker (all of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University), as well as Annamma Joy (department of Marketing, Concordia University). and Michael Huberman and David Ownby (both of the Department of History, Université de Montréal). Other resarch associates include Anne Darche of Allard-Johnson Communications and Jean-Sebastien Marcoux (Marketing, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales) and the following students in the Sociology and Anthropology Masters/Magisteriate programme at Concordia: Paige MacDougall, Anne-Catherine Kennedy, Taline Djerdjian, Shaya Nourai, Christian Johnson, Scott Harris, Karina Gonzalez Soto.

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.

Anthropologists 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; Classen 1996).
Communication of Results

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.

References Cited

Appadurai, A. ed. (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnould, E. (1989) "Toward a broadened theory of preference formation and the diffusion of innovations: cases from Zinder Province, Zaire," Journal of Consumer Research 16: 239-66

Brewer, J. and Porter, R., eds. (1993) Consumption and the World of Goods. London and New York: Routledge.

Burke, T. (1996) Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. Durham: Duke.

Cateora, P.R. (1996) International Marketing. Chicago: Irwin

Classen, C. and Howes, D. (1996) "Epilogue" in D. Howes, ed., Cross-Cultural Consumption. London and New York: Routledge.

Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B. (1979) The World of Goods. New York: Norton.

Friedman, J., ed. (1994) Consumption and Identity. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Hoodfar, H. (1997) Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics and Survival in Cairo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Howes, D., ed. (1996) Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets, Local Realities. London and New York: Routledge.

Joy, A. and Dholakia, R. (1992) "Remembrance of Things Past: The Meaning of Home and Possessions of Indian Professionals in Canada", Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 6: 385-403

Levitt, T. (1983) "The Globalization of Markets", Harvard Business Review 83: 92-102

McCracken, G. (1989). "Homeyness: A cultural account of one constellation of consumer goods and meanings." In E.C. Hirschman (ed.), Interpretive Consumer Research. New York: Association for Consumer Research.

McCracken, G. (1990) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches
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Popadopoulos, N and Heslop, L., eds. (1993) Product-Country Images: Impact and Role in International Marketing. New York: International Business Press.

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Sherry, J.F. (1995) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. London: Sage.

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Tobin, J.J., ed. (1992) Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society. New Haven: Yale.

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