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.)
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. Dont hesitate to say this makes no sense. It really is a space probe. We dont 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 doesnt 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 thats 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 doesnt 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.