Consumers Mold Globalization: Anthropologists Discover Cultures in Constant Flux.
by Melanie Takefman

From Concordia’s Thursday Report vol. 27, 3, (October 10, 2002) page 3

Women of all shapes and sizes belly-dancing in Montreal health clubs is not a conventional symbol of globalization. In its Canadianincarnation, the Egyptian dance is an enriching fitness activity that promotes positive body image for women.

Yet this,too, is globalization, says Concordia anthropology professor David Howes, who heads a research project called Cross-Cultural Consumption. The study focuses on how North American goods and services are received and domesticated in foreign markets, and, conversely, how Canadians interpret foreign goods.

Initiated in 1998 with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Cross-Cultural Consumption has enabled 12 Concordia graduate students to conduct field research in such countries as Egypt, Cuba, India and Iran.

“We often think that the West influences the whole world and that no one influences us,” said Taline Djerdjerian, a master’s student in cultural anthropology who conducted research in Egypt. “But globalization is a two-way street.”

Djerdjerian, who was born and raised in Egypt, concentrated on the Egyptian obsession with mobile phones: 90 per cent of her informants claimed that the introduction of mobile phones is a positive development. Moreover, they have discovered novel uses.

For example, a caller would alert a friend of his arrival at a designated meeting spot by ringing, hanging up and having his number displayed on the screen. Teenage sweethearts also give each other an unanswered ring to show their affection late at night.
Djerdjerian explained that aside from being more affordable and convenient — a land-based phone requires an application to the government and can take a year to materialize — Egyptian mobile phones offer a plethora of services like news, movie listings, horoscopes and fatwas (religious decrees).

The trend also reinforces close-knit relationships between family and friends. “Egyptians always want to feel close to each other, so mobile phones have given them the opportunity to do this even more than they were accustomed to,” Djerdjerian said.
McDonald’s and the Coca-Cola corporation have also infiltrated Egypt, but with modest success. The “McFalafel” sandwich, a mass-produced version of the popular Egyptian snack, became a laughingstock; it’s like getting a poutine at McDonald’s, Djerdjerian said with a laugh.

Similarly, due to recent events in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a boycott of Israeli products and U.S. companies that support Israel is gaining momentum and has targeted McDonald’s as well as Coca-Cola. As a result, local brands have gained popularity.
When it comes to Egyptian culture in Canada, Djerdjerian remarked that besides appropriating belly-dancing as a form of exercise, Canadian women tone down the provocative aspect of the dance, whereas in Egypt, “the sexier it is, the better.”

Similarly, Djerdjerian holds that Egyptians are championing the trend towards a worldwide marketplace. “They look at globalization as a process that is inevitable,” and believe that “If we’re culturally and socially confident, we can make the best of the situation.”

Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier carried out field research in Cuba and found that Latin America’s only socialist country is a hold-out from the global consumer society, though not entirely as a matter of choice. Many Cubans want to join the Free Trade Area of the Americas and believe that socialism is compatible with international commerce.

However, the U.S. embargo, as well as the Helms-Burton law, which allows the U.S. to punish any company that trades with Cuba, causes Cubans stress.

The embargo has forced Cubans to be very resourceful. For example, having no access to replacement parts for American brands, they have found innovative ways to fix and maintain machines and appliances purchased before the 1950s. Cubans are also ardent recyclers, constantly chasing tourists for their cast-off plastic water bottles.

Boudreault-Fournier, an MA student in cultural anthropology, explained that aside from the embargo, the choice and availability of products are the defining elements of a socialist economy. The Cuban state monopolizes many markets, impeding variety.

Furthermore, the recent liberalization policies which have resulted in the introduction of U.S. dollars into the Cuban economy has created a two-tiered economy: “dollar” stores, where imports are sold in U.S. dollars, and stores that sell for pesos, the local currency. Since dollars are scarce, merchants will buy the entire stock of a certain product from a dollar store and sell it on the street for pesos. As a result, product availability and price fluctuate wildly.

Boudreault-Fournier’s experience in Cuba made her realize how much Canadians consume and that our market is restricted as well: “It isn’t because we have many choices that we are free.”

Furthermore, while Western TV producers may control media in most of the world, the Cuban government uses television as a propaganda tool. All programming must be educational and endorse values like family and generosity. The classic Canadian Degrassi series is among the few to make the cut.

Boudreault-Fournier is studying the circulation of the image of Che Guevara as an example of how a Cuban cultural product is received in Canada. In Cuba, Che Guevara is the ultimate socialist revolutionary. Outside of Cuba, his image is the emblem of anti-globalization movements, but is also marketed for commercial profit.

If there is one common thread in the Cross-Cultural Consumption project, it is that consumers are not passive: They have found ways to manipulate the global market instead of being manipulated.

“We often think of consumers as swallowing whole whatever they are fed,” Howes said. However, “consumers manifest great creativity in the uses and meanings they ascribe to things.”

Djerdjerian added: “We have to give credit to them [consumers in poor countries]. They are active and educated, not ignorant, helpless and backward.”