anthropologist and economist

In sum:

One of the places that anthropology and economics must intersect has to do with the question of cultural meaning. If value in anthropology comes from meaning and meaning is not in any sense constrained, then as we shall see in this post, an economic point of view is difficult to sustain. Thanks to Steve Postrel for his comments and participation. (It’s worth emphasizing, I think, that these remarks from both me and from Steve are experimental and exploratory.)

In total:

I asked Steve Postrel of SMU to look at yesterday’s post and he was kind enough to give me a detailed reply, to which I then replied, as follows


Your comment was really helpful:

I think an economics of meanings is possible as long as we can identify what the source of scarcity is. Economics only works when there is choice under constraint, so meaning generation would have to be costly for some reason in order to get any traction.

I am trying to think about how to think about it. In a Schneiderian strategy, I am just going to follow this line of thought wherever it takes me. Don’t hesitate to say this makes no sense. It really is a space probe. We don’t expect survivors.

Meanings qua meanings are not scarce. In the material world and especially in the artistic world, I can attribute any meanings to any object.

Credible, shared meanings are more scarce. I can only hope to get your assent to my attribution of meaning, if I conform to the “periodic table” of meanings.

This doesn’t have to make for scarcity. The meanings of public culture are there for the asking. My use, say, of a war memorial to contemplate sacrifice does not diminish its value or meaning to you.

But credible, shared meanings begin to take on scarcity when the meanings of the private domain are exposed to public scrutiny. I can claim any meanings for myself that I want. (And this is a growth industry with individuals empowered to make larger and more various claims in a kind of solipsistic vacuum. Maybe people now cherish the notion that they are the king of France. I believe history will one day show me to be the one true claimant. But that’s another topic.) But if I want these meanings to be publicly ratified, I am obliged to display, perform, variously present them to public scrutiny.

This becomes one of the reasons I go to the marketplace. It is, among other things, a market of meanings in which I must make a choice under constraint. A Mercedes gives me a claim to certain kinds of meanings. It allows me to present, perform, display a bundle of meanings to do with status, age, sophistication, etc. It allows me to lay claim to these meanings in a manner that the world can recognize and ratify. (“We know who you are.” “We accept who you are.”) I have surrendered economic value to get cultural value.

This is fine (though probably addled) as far as it goes but it cannot account for the significance of the Gillette razor (not to lose our valuable talking point). This gives me a claim to certain gender meanings. But there is no public audience. The audience is myself. But the thing still works. Here the brand contains meanings that allow me to declare and perform certain notions of myself that I am then more prepared to recognize and ratify in myself. What starts private, stays private. But the rest of the argument holds. I go to the marketplace and surrender value for the best brand/product for this private definitional purposes. (And I am ignoring here that my public performance of my social identity will draw some of its force from my private recitation of the identity. So the private and the public do connect, eventually.)

So there is scarcity in two places. The economic producer can lay claim to meaning if and as they build it into their brands and products through design, marketing, advertising, etc. We can speak of brands and companies “making meanings” in this way. [This doesn’t quite work, does it?] They must risk investment, resources, effort to secure meanings that they then hope to sell “at a profit.” [hmmm.] The economic consumer is also choosing. To the extent that brands compete by claiming different meanings and claiming the same meaning more or less successfully, the consumer is in a position to choose between alternatives.

Does this work at all?

Steve’s reply (and the first real acknowledgment of my claim to the throne of France):

Grant: I think you’re on the right track. That’s pretty much the kind of thing I had in mind. BTW, it reminds me of your essay on why clothing is not a language–infinite number of meanings possible with language, but not an infinite number of social identities possible in an anthropologically realistic society.

I’m not sure about this, but I think we can classify different kinds of meanings which have different sources of scarciy. Virginia convinced me that most, if not all, consumption-based meaning is really about identity, but within that there are subtypes. For example, social status claims are inherently constrained by the zero-sum nature of relative superiority (although various well-established self-delusions enable most people to think they are above average on some attributes). So any status competition immediately operates in a condition of scarcity.

Private meanings are constrained by your inner bullshit detector in combination with your true qualities and abilities. If I own a set of weights then maybe I am physically fit–but if I don’t use them much, I rely upon a delusion that I use them more frequently than I do or maybe just that thinking about using them makes me more of a fitness-conscious person. (I think private meanings of this kind should be distinguished from fantasies, although one set should be somewhat predictive of the other).

And of course, there is the role of competition among those trying to provide you with ready-made meanings (e.g. Gillette and Schick). Not only is Gillette’s ability to make you feel manly by buying a Mach III constrained by the social fact that lots of obvious wimps use the product and by the private fact that you don’t feel especially tough while shaving (and bimbos don’t appear to lather you up like they do in the commercials), but by the competitive fact that Schick interferes by saying “Real men use 4 blades” or something. Only one product can be the most macho at a time, which constrains the meanings that can be generated.

There’re probably other categories or classification schemes that might apply; these were the first that came up in my mind. Anyway, apres vous, le deluge, Your Highness.


9 thoughts on “anthropologist and economist

  1. Steve

    You haven’t mentioned stipends. The stipends are decent in a lot of programs, and the work is certainly more stimulating than anything in the corporate world. Psychic benefits, in a phrase.

    Is your blog syndicated on livejournal?

  2. fouroboros

    Very nice, Grant. A periodic table of meaning? Like this?

    Would you not say that “markets” in many ways have been stripped of their “meaning” in the communal, social facilitative sense? Maybe you are saying that. It seems a few are coming to this realization now that their slide rules are failing them, but the people or profit dyad still sends us crashing to the walls with it’s swings. Are you aware of any research into intangible, non-discursive valuations of markets?

    We spend a lot of time drilling into clients–wrong word–exposing clients to, the metaphysics of brand identity and the power of small archetypal cues. Trading economic wherewithal for cultural power, value for value, as you note–achieving what my group calls statue sense. It’s an interesting vocation, but obviously not for the businessperson or marketer who’s in a hurry to check off a box. Some might call them people too busy for business. Gillette people, perhaps.

    Thanks for the great blog. I’ll be back.

  3. grant

    response to Fouroboros:
    Yes, exactly, I think meaning must be publicly constructed and validated but it exists in profusion and admits of individual choice, precisely bec. an individualistic society has many, many creatures with a great diversity of “meaning needs.” And yes, this makes marketing a more demanding scholarly and intellectual exercise than it used to be. People used to say, “well, it isn’t rocket science.” At this rate, it is someday going to make rocket science look like child’s play. And thank you for the phrase “too busy for business.” Well said.

  4. Anonymous

    I really appreciate blogs like this one becuase it is insightful and helps me communicate with others.
    thanks.also, that guy billyz, I really need to talk to you about that cure you mentioned. need others.
    thanks.also, you to appreciate and I really mentioned. guy talk insightful me one becuase really you this that blogs that communicate to it with helps billyz, is I cure like about

  5. MT

    The scarcity that motivates competition is status–or the number of places in the pecking order. No one can be higher than the King of the World or #1 on the pop charts, and while there’s an infinite number of communities or subcultures possible in which to establish prestige and influence, there’s only so many in practice. In my own experimenting I thought I might have spotted a natural right to intellectual property in this area (note that plagiarism is a sort of natural wrong). I’d love some comments.

  6. MT

    “For example, social status claims are inherently constrained by the zero-sum nature of relative superiority (although various well-established self-delusions enable most people to think they are above average on some attributes). So any status competition immediately operates in a condition of scarcity.”

    D’oh! I confess, I didn’t read to the end of the post before I made my comment above. Just got excited to find a context in which something I’d been thinking about was germane to bona fide scholarly discourse–and I jumped too soon to the self-satisfying conclusion that nobody had made my point yet. Oh well. I’ll pat myself on the back for having recognized it as germane.

  7. MT

    Maybe I can make something closer to a contribution here by explicitly making a point I gestured toward with my link. It’s that these artifacts and the styles we assemble from them symbolize status and affiliation more than they do personal identity, and they are necessary only because no one reading this blog lives and works in a single small community and so in regard to most everyone he or she meets, he or she carries either zero reputation or a reputation that is enormously impoverished compared to the tribal village days. That’s probably not an original point either, but I don’t see it above and I’ve read pretty carefully now.

  8. MT

    Not that costume and status symbols don’t figure in Papuan or Amazonian native culture…. I guess I’d have to argue, to compensate for the diminished pervasiveness and strength of reputation, costume and diversity of styles are doing additional kinds of psycho-social heavy lifting in modern versus ancient society. I dunno. Suddenly I feel I’m out on thin ice.

Comments are closed.