branding cultures at MIT: mapping intiatives

The MIT brand cultures laboratory is beginning to take shape. This is the brain child of Henry Jenkins and an enterprise I am honored to be part of.

The officer in charge of research initiatives, Alec Austin, wrote to ask me about research topics and I penned him this reply.

Dear Alec,

Thanks for the note, and the list of topics.

My interests are various and most of them are best pursued with a combination of industry numbers and ethnography, a sort of "Malinowski meets the Harvard case study method".

As to topics, there are, thanks to the embargo that intellectuals have imposed on popular culture as a legitimate topic of study, now hundreds of possibilities begging for scrutiny. I hardly know where to start.

Here’s one possibility. There are lots of others.

I have the distinct sense that we don’t know nearly enough about the cultural producers, especially in the film, music and magazines biz (bizes?). For instance, it would be interesting to build a statistical picture of Hollywood that begins with a calculation of "how many people think about becoming an actor" and runs all the way up to the "magic circle of 8 big stars," with all the nesting circles in between ( e.g., people who get as far as their SAG card but not much further). Finally, this would look like a hierarchy with, say, 8 to 10 worlds.(FN1)

Then we would add to this a "snakes and ladders" portrait of the fast tracks and the slippery slopes that take people suddenly up and down the hierarchy. (Sorry, I think Americans call this game "Chutes and Ladders." This is the last vestige of my Canadian upbringing.) Clearly, this is changing fast. For a movie aspirant, TV used to be one a reliable chute. These days, it’s actually a ladder. The new media will create a new recruiting system.

Until we have this picture, we can’t really answer the question, "how many are called, how many chosen?" Nor can we calculate how big a risk a would be actor is taking. We need maps of this kind for directors, producers, agents and so on. I know it sounds onerous but someone would have to go to Hollywood and start talking to people there. I am guessing agents might have the best sense of how to construct the actor map. (I think breaking into SAG headquarters might be called for. I wrote them once for numbers and was absolutely stonewalled. Clearly, the map we are talking about here would be very bad for SAG business.)

Once this map is in place, it would be interesting to do ethnographic interviews with the people who occupy these worlds, this ziggarat. I believe it’s probably true that any given actor has an imperfect, perhaps utterly mistaken, impression of the world in which he/she lives. Likely, the actors’ notion of the map underestimates the risk and so overestimates the likelihood of stardom. The thing here is to get into, and then past, the "just so" stories that aspirants use to sustain their optimism ( e.g., "You know, George Clooney waited for x years to get his first movie part and now look at him.") There are lots of things to think about here. One of them is the aspirant’s multiple selves. ‘I know I look like a waiter, but I am in fact the next Brad Pitt." It is a strange, slippery world, but I think it resembles the world of the civilian (non movie aspirant) more and more.

Normally, the producer world and the consumer world of Hollywood are separated by a silver screen. We see the actor, not the person. But there are moments when Hollywood actually makes movies about Hollywood, even when the portrait is unflattering. "Swimming with sharks," is one case in point, but of course there are plenty of others. (Altman’s The Player.) This sort of thing must filter into the aspirants’ understanding of the industry. So much of our understanding of the contemporary world is mediated by the movies, it’s inevitable that this should be true of the players’ understanding of their industry.

Finally, I am not sure this is properly designed, but something like it needs to be done for marketing, advertising, publishing, magazines, and the other cultural producers. One very last point: one of the things that I like about this topic is that it is the kind of thing that would interest a broad public, and written in an accessible way, it would give the student who undertakes it an extra-academic audience for his/her work. It should also, and this is one test of whether anthropology is well done, serve the aspirant as a useful indication of their best strategies for risk management.

Anyhow, thought I would through this on the table. Just for the record I am interested in ethnographic work with any cultural producers or consumers, but I am distinctly not interested in projects that spring from and never escape the postmodernist and "critical" banalities that govern so much work in the current social sciences. As you can see from this research vista, I believe that comprehensive, integrative models are still possible, that this culture, for all its richness, dynamism, and multiplicity, is still a culture. (It is, I believe, Rousseau’s self dramatizing conceit to think otherwise. Actually, this is the nicest thing we can say here.)

Best, Grant

Footnote 1 (FN1)

I have naively posited one world, when in fact there are many more: indie (Sundance level), indie (SxSW level), indie (someone’s basement level) and then there are the various porno demi-mondes into which some actors descend while waiting for their "break" or because they have missed it. (Notice my Victorian assumptions here. Perhaps the "adult entertainment" industry is more properly thought of as a parallel universe, not a subordinate one. Who knows.) These various pieces of the industry are sometimes interconnecting (as feeder systems, as new chutes and new ladders, etc) and sometimes they exist sui generis. And this last is really interesting. Now we have cultural production happening utterly untouched by the gravitation field and various inducements (and punishments) created by the Hollywood mainstream. Every so often one of these enterprises (an actor/director therefrom) comes to Hollywood, as if a message from "deep space," and things in the mainstream change dramatically.

6 thoughts on “branding cultures at MIT: mapping intiatives

  1. Peter McB.

    Grant, I find this reseach agenda as fascinating as you do. However, I wonder whether others outside Hollywood would find it so. In case your bosses at MIT need some persuasion, here are some instrumental reasons for pursuing it:

    1. The methods developed in pursuing this research will be applicable to other domains (eg, the other culture producers you mention).

    2. As the non-culture-industry business world moves to a freelance production model (ad hoc teams, people having portfolio careers, employees as freelance entrepreneurs, etc), the actual lessons learnt from studying Hollywood will have application beyond the culture industries.

    3. As we increasingly become a knowledge economy, one could argue that all industries are becoming culture industries. Even motor vehicle manufacturers, as you argue in your book, need to create and manage meanings and their diffusion through a society, not only cars.

    In telecoms, we always said that Permission is the fifth P of marketing (since most countries require telecoms operators to first have a licence). The sixth P is Purport.

  2. steve

    I would love to read a book that explored Hollywood in this way. Professional-quality ethnography combined with hard numbers and probability analysis, ideally accompanied by good narrative storytelling, would be very useful for getting a picture of the interlocking worlds that make up “Hollywood acting.” I don’t know how easy it would be to break off the acting part from all the other spheres and professions, but you’d have to limit the detail somewhere.

    Incidentally, there is a sociologist’s book (author escapes me at the moment) called The Stars Are Not Enough about the careers of physicists. The career theory employed doesn’t contribute much, but the mapping of the profession and the integration of interview data with the maps is quite good.

  3. Grant

    Peter and Steve, well, let’s the three of us do this project. In fact, I have a friend who is even today talking to a Hollywood contact, so the ball is rolling. I wonder if it’s the kind of thing we could wikapedia (sp?) with various parties invited to sign on and hold forth, we could supply more data and overarching analysis. It’s a thought. I will keep you posted. Best (and thanks), Grant

  4. Peter McB.

    Grant– the wiki is a nice touch — we could allow the subjects of the ethnography (actors, studio heads, et al) to participate too, and so to comment on the analysis as it is created. Reflective and self-aware subjects. Does anthropology have methods yet for reflective subjects, writing their own version of events at the same time as the ethnographers? (A serious question.)

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  6. Mike Madison

    I tracked this post on my blog, but I wanted to post a comment as well: A number of us in legal academia have argued that ethnographic expeditions of this sort are desperately needed in order move copyright law in a more sensible direction than it is going today. If this Hollywood project goes forward, I hope that you’ll consider sharing some of your results with colleagues in law schools.

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