The anthropology of contemporary culture

The useful anthropology of contemporary culture is a distressingly small library.  (I have listed some titles below.  This is not an exhaustive list, but neither is it a very partial subset of the complete universe.)

So it's a joy to welcome a new book by Kate Fox called Watching the English

In the opening moments of this book, we find Fox summoning courage enough to continue her work.  She is breaking the cue rule in an English public space, the better to see, exactly, what the cue rule is and how it works.  (Roughly, the cue rule is, of course, "stand in line, wait your turn."  But of course with all social rules there is lots more to it than that.  More below.)  Oh, perfect.  You want quiet fury, try breaking the cue rule in an English public space.  Thus does the anthropologist sacrifice her happiness on our behalf. 

A book like this wants to honor its academic origins and objectives without failing to make itself agreeable, and I think Fox hits an almost perfect compromise.  Watching is formal without being too writerly, and amusing without being too readerly. 

But the real test is the simple one.  Does the book illuminate things you did not see, does it reframe things you thought you knew, does it make the world more legible?  Yes, on all counts.  This is a book Anthropologists can admire and non-anthropologists can read. 

There were a couple of quibbles for this reader.  The older I get the more I think the secret key to English life might be Castiglione's The Book Called the Courtier.  And there is no mention of it here. 

Watching the English has the advantage of an intelligent choice.  In the place of long and windy treatments of the meanings at large in English culture, Fox examines the rules at play in any given social situation.  This has advantage of relieving Fox of postmodernist self absorbtion…and we actually learn something. 

All social life is rule-bound, of course, but the English, living in the close quarters of a small island are positively Japanese in the codification of public life, and then in their secret, anarchic way, entirely Italian in their willingness to rework these rules in real time and on the spot.  (Hence Fox's need to break the cue rule.)

The challenge of focusing on rules (and I haven't finished Watching so I can't say whether this is acknowledged by Fox or not), is that the English have historically had a habit of marking people of high standing by releasing them from the rules.  (One of the privileges of being a Cambridge don is that the college "stay off the grass" rule does not apply to you.)  This is precisely the logic of the sumptuary legislation of the medieval and early modern period.  People of very high standing have access to everything, and this permission is gradually taking away as we work our way down the hierarchy. 

And this brings us back to Castiglione.  His idea that the courtier should conceal art with art is, perhaps, another way of saying not just that effort should not show, but that rules not apply.  Certainly they should not ever be seen to apply.  The courtier's grace is not rule-bound but intuitive, instinctive and therefore not very rule-ish at all. 

But I digress.  This is a wonderful book.  It manages to do in a few hundred pages more than American anthropology has done in the last ten years.  It shows how a Western, first world, culture works as a culture. 


Arensberg, Conrad. 1955. American Communities. American Anthropologist 57: 1143-62.

Brand, Steward. 1988. Indians and the Counterculture, 1960s-1970s.  History of Indian-White Relations: Handbook of North American Indians. editor Wilcomb E. Washburn, 570-572. Vol. 4. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Caplow, Theodore. 1984. Rule enforcement without visible means: Christmas gift giving in Middletown. American Journal of Sociology 89: 1306-23.

Carrier, James G. 1990. Gifts in a world of commodities: The ideology of the perfect gift in American society. Social Analysis 29: 19-37.

Carrier, James G. 1997. Meanings of the market: the free market in western culture. Explorations in Anthropology. Oxford. New York: Berg.

Carrier, James G. 1992. Occidentalism: The world turned upside-down. American Ethnologist 19, no. 2 May: 195-212.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. 1967. The book of the courtier from the Italian, done into English by Sir Thomas Hoby, anno 1561, with an introduction by Walter Raleigh. Tudor Translations, 23. New York: AMS Press.

Caughey, John L. 1984. Imaginary social worlds: a cultural approach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Di Leonardo, Micaela. 1998. Exotics at home: anthropologies, others, American modernity. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Drummond, Lee. 1996. American dreamtime: a cultural analysis of popular movies, and their implications for a science of humanity. Lanham, Md: Littlefield Adams Books.

Fox, Kate. 2008. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fox, Richard Wightman. 1983. Epitaph for Middletown: Robert S. Lynd and the Analysis of Consumer Culture. in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980. eds Richard Wightman Fox, and Jackson T. J. Lears, 103-41. New York: Pantheon.

Hsu, Francis L. K. 1963. Clan, Caste, and Club. New York: Van Nostrand.

Huber, Richard M. 1987. The American Idea of Success. New York: Pushcart Press. 

Katz, Donald R. 1992. Home fires: An intimate portrait of one middle-class family in postwar America. New York: Aaron Asher Books.

Klein, Richard. 1993. Cigarettes Are Sublime. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Kluckhohn, Clyde and Florence R. Kluckhohn. 1946-1964. American Culture: Generalized orientations and class patterns. in Conflicts of Power in Modern Culture. editors Lyman Louis Finkelstein Bryson, and R.M.Maciver, 106-28. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.

Kugelmass, Jack. 1988. Between two worlds: ethnographic essays on American Jewry. Anthropology of Contemporary Issues. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. 

Merelman, Richard M. 1984. Making Something of Ourselves: On Culture and Politics in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miner, Horace. 1956. Body Ritual among the Nacirema. The American Anthropologist 58: 503-7.

Schneider, David. 1968. American kinship: a cultural account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spradley, James P. 1970. You owe yourself a drunk: an ethnography of urban nomads. The Little, Brown Series in Anthropology. Boston: Little, Brown.

Traube, Elizabeth G. 1996. "The Popular" in American Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 127-51.

Varenne, Herve. 1977. Americans Together: structured diversity in a midwestern town. New York: Teachers College Press .

Varenne, Hervé. 1986. Symbolizing America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Vogt, Evon Zartman. 1955. Modern homesteaders: the life of a twentieth century frontier community. –. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Warner, W. Lloyd. 1953. American life: dream and reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilk, Richard. 1999. Consuming America. Anthropology Newsletter 40, no. 2: 1, 4-5.

Wolf, Eric R. 1969. American Anthropologists and American Society. in Reinventing Anthropology. editor Dell Hymes, 251-63. New York: Pantheon Books.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1993. The Fine Line. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press


7 thoughts on “The anthropology of contemporary culture

  1. Jeremy

    There’s probably an unspoken rule about correcting others, but I’m willing to stand patiently and take my turn in the queue to do so.

  2. Alan

    Thanks for that biblio, Grant. I would certainly add Paul Fussell’s Class. And for that matter, I might also add the plays written by A.R. Gurney … “The Dining Room,” etc.

  3. Mr. Paramecium

    It’s the queue rule, not the cue rule. QUEUE. With a Q.

    It seriously undermines trust in anthropology if its practitioners can’t even use the right words for the things they’re studying.

  4. Grant McCracken

    Mr. Paramecium

    I give you the definition of “cue” from the Merrium Webster dictionary online.

    Main Entry:
    French queue, literally, tail, from Old French cue, coe, queue, from Latin cauda
    circa 1749

    1 a: a leather-tipped tapering rod for striking the cue ball (as in billiards and pool)

    1 b: a long-handled instrument with a concave head for shoving disks in shuffleboard

    2: queue

  5. John McCreery

    What a remarkably parochial reference list! The only thing I see that isn’t either about USAnians or the British is Francis L.K.Hsu, which was long in the tooth when I read it decades ago.

    For Japan, check out

    Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves
    Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires
    or, I’ll toot my own horn, John McCreery (2000) Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, a look at changes in Japanese society through the eyes of the researchers at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, who started looking at Japanese consumers from a 360° perspective back in 1981.

    Plenty of other stuff, too, if you look for it.

    And then there’s China, India, Korea, Thailand…. Lots of stuff to read out there.

  6. Grant McCracken

    John, point very well taken, and thanks for the reference, actually when I prepared this list, I searched by ProCite data base using America as my keyword. Not that I am very well supplied with the non-American, but hey that’s my speciality. And thanks for the reminder of your exemplary work. Did you see this article in the New York Times recently, the one that says that Japanese consumer patterns changed fundamentally in the 1990s. Tabuchi, Hiroko. 2009. “When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson From Japan.” The New York Times, February 22 (Accessed February 22, 2009). Let me know if you have thoughts on this story. I would be honored to (cross) post them here. Thanks again. Grant

  7. John McCreery

    Grant, my sense of what’s happening with Japanese consumers is largely informed by the work of trendwatcher Atsushi Miura (, who points out that the period of rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s was driven by the Japanese Baby Boomers, who, in contrast to their American counterparts, are a much narrower age cohort. The Japanese boomers were born between 1947 and 1949, since which Japan’s birthrate has steadily declined. Coming of age and entering the labor market as the 1970s began, they were also the first generation to embrace the Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best ideal of a nuclear family living in the suburbs, with a separate but equal division of labor between husband and wife, and dads who wanted to be friends instead of distant authority figures to their kids. They were the market whose purchases of homes, cars, and consumer durables complemented Japan’s exports and made Japan the fastest growing economy in the world. Now they are in their 60s, retiring and throttling back, worried about the future and what will happen to their kids. The Boomer Jrs were the next big demographic wave but ran smack into the collapse of the 1980s bubble in 1991. As Japanese companies embraced neoliberal principles and began to restructure their operations, a minority of the brighter and more ambitious have become the _katchigumi_ (the winners) courted by luxury brands; the majority have become the _makigumi_ (the losers), who have been relegated in large numbers to temp staff positions and, even if full time, have seen their incomes stagnate. There is also a lot of talk about spoiled kids who have grown up without their parents’ drive and discipline. I have written myself (in a short piece for a Chamber of Commerce newsletter) that the serious question is why, in the face of economic hardship, young Japanese act more like conservative bankers than budding entrepreneurs. I have also speculated about the psychology of people who have grown up in a society that is both highly structured and materially affluent; the prevailing attitude revealed by numerous studies is “I like what I have, leave me alone.”

    Hope this is helpful.

Comments are closed.