Tag Archives: American culture

Ethnographic Walk-About (or, what to do with the rest of your summer)

A former student is searching for what to do next.  With her summer…or her life.  She’s flexible.  

Here is the reply I sent her this morning:

Dear Jennifer (not her real name):

Thanks for your note.  Great to hear your voice again.

It feels to me that you are more or less uniquely positioned to do an ethnographic walk-about.

You have a great eye, a great voice, you are not wedded to any particular ideology or cultural camp, you have a breadth of experience, you are mobile in almost every sense of the term.

It feels to me like everyone is burrowing, sticking to what and who they know. There is stuff happening “out there,” but people are so shocked by the new that they can’t manage the novelty. So they are not mobile.

I would get someone to give you a mandate and just go looking. My hero her is Frances FitzGerald’s 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster. She doesn’t make the mistake that hobbles a good deal of American journalism and scholarship, the mistake that supposes that only on the margin are we going to find something new and interesting. She casts the net wide.  And that’s especially important now, because cultural innovation is taking place everywhere.  The avant-garde no longer owns the ingenuity or courage necessary to reimagine the world.  

Go have a look! Most people are not looking. And most of those who are, are looking through lens so particular that they ALWAYS find what they are looking for, and miss what is really going on.  All we know for certain is that Americans are as usual reinvented themselves as a furious pitch and pace.  We don’t have a clear idea of who and what they are becoming.  And that’s probably a bad thing.

Good luck and keep me posted.

Best, Grant

Purchase FitzGerald at Amazon by clicking here.  

Photo: Ms. FitzGerald from her wikipedia entry.  

Square Inch Anthropology

I just had lunch with a young professional called Gloria who wanted to talk about what might be involved if she were to prepare herself for a career as a Chief Culture Officer.

We had a good conversation and at some point in the proceedings, I found myself encouraging her to work on her "square inch anthropology."

I had never actually heard of square inch anthropology before.  It just sort of thing you find yourself saying.  

Here’s what I think I meant.  To do the study of contemporary American culture, we are obliged to break it down into square inches.

A case in point.  I was telling the young professional about a project Mark Earls, Andrew Barnett, Ana Domb, and I did last year when we were commissioned to study "cocktail culture" in the Northeast.  "Cocktail culture" makes up one square inch of my map of American culture.

We interviewed hundreds of people by the end of the Cocktail Culture project, and Gloria and I ended up talking, for some reason, about two of them, a couple of women in a bar in Brooklyn who were "dolled up" and entirely glamorous in a not too assuming way.  Gloria has some interesting thoughts on these women and we christened their style "Betty Page."  This is a square inch too.

Square inch anthropology says, in effect, "look, we don’t claim to know everything about this culture, but we do have relative confidence in one or two things within it.  In this case: Cocktail culture and the Betty Page style."  We may now make claims to knowledge without pretending any overarching knowledge or competence.

Why proceed by square inches?  Here are 5 reasons.

1) American culture is vast, endlessly various and changing all the time.  We can’t know it top to bottom.  We can’t map it end to end.  The best we can hope for is to establish small pieces or pockets of clarity.

2) We can’t be entirely certain we have something.  We are always on the look out for more data and we are perfectly happy to discover that "cocktail culture" or "Betty Page" femaleness actually isn’t anything after all, or that it isn’t the something we thought it was. Our square inches are posted as possibilities.

3) As we begin to accumulate square inches we are in a position to begin to assemble them into patterns.  If the squares are provisional, so are the patterns.  We are constantly reassembling, looking for a better configuration.  And the good thing about the squares is that they prove to be ever so slightly magnetized, which means that they will often "suggest" connections, and when we made them proximate they will come together with that wonderful magnety "snap."  

4) Square are an excellent way of getting starting, of baby-stepping your way to an understanding of American culture.  We are not claiming to know everything about this culture.  We are merely claiming to know, if a tentative, provisional way, about this square inch.

5) Square inches are an excellent medium of exchange.  As it turned out, I had a clue about cocktail culture.  Gloria in turn had some useful things to say about the Betty Page thing. Swapping square inches in this way is really fun.  And it’s generative, very gift economy. Gifting Gloria with my square inch did not diminish it.  Taking possession of her Betty Page square inch left her none the poorer.

In a perfect world, we would turn www.squareinchanthropology.com into a place to post things we think we know about American culture.  (Perhaps not surprising it’s available. I checked.)  Please will someone give this a go!

Acknowledgments (and thanks)

To James Michael Starr, the artist responsible for the image used in this blog.  John Wong created the image.  For more details, click here.

Why do American parents call their kids “buddy?”

I am stuck in meetings all day, but I do have an anthropological question for you to feast on.

This weekend there were lots of people out to enjoy the glorious fall weather in my little town. And on several occasions, I heard parents call their kids "buddy."

"That’s weird," I thought to myself.  Nobody ever called me buddy as a kid.  (As I recall my Dad called me "Chief."  Quite odd all on its own.)

So the question is:

When did this start?

What does it mean?

Why THIS term of endearment…when there are so many to choose from?  I think we can be certain the English parents wouldn’t dream of using this term.  And there was a time when American parents didn’t dream of it either.

And what does it tells us about changing practices in American child rearing?

And what does THAT tells us about the changing state of American culture?

I guess that’s five questions.

Please, start your engines.

post script:

This post was supposed to go up yesterday.  But I must have done something wrong with the WordPress "publish on" feature.  The image I know is odd.  It’s a partial picture of a scooter I found parked in a garage in New York City last night, proof I guess that this naming convention goes beyond kids even to inanimate objects. 

Glee as the new American Idol

Is Glee the new American Idol? Could be.  Certainly, Glee has momentum at the moment, and American Idol after a long and spectacular run in the first moments of its decline.  This image, from Google trends, shows Glee over taking American Idol some time in the last quarter…at least as a search term on line.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Glee is the new American Idol.  We may not be correct but we do at least have the opportunity for speculation that would not otherwise occur to us, and with this, we have the opportunity for an early warning.  (The Chief Culture Officer is prepared to be wrong much of the time in order to be "sighted" some of the time.)

Some things don’t seem to change at all.  Both shows seem devoted to the endless recitation of popular culture that is actually not all that popular anymore.  American Idol seems determined to ignore most of what has happened to music since the 1990s.  Glee the same.  (Readers of this blog will know that I take these to be one of several indicators that the "alternative" sensibility of the 1990s is now on the wane.  More evidence?  The decline of Parks and Recreation and Community and of NBC and the now departed Ben Silverman who used to work there.)

But there are some interesting differences.  American Idol devotes itself to intensely personal stories, as kids claw their way to the top.  It’s all terribly authentic. Some of the point of the exercise is to get to know these kids, to root for them, to watch a star being born.   Glee on the other hand is an exercise in flat out artifice.  We don’t get to know the "real" actors beneath the characters and there isn’t very much to get to know about the characters themselves.  This is musical theater, with much more emphasis on the music than the theater.  Indeed, the Glee plot is finally just a device for song and dance delivery. There is some dramatic continuity, some dramatic tension, but its exists for the purposes of cheap sentiment more than character development.  

Indeed, Glee appears designed for modularity.  We can break kids out for song and dance purposes and we can drop celebrities in.  I noticed today that show co-creator Ryan Murphy is suggesting that Susan Boyle appear as a lunch lady.  And with this the possibilities are endless.  Wayne Newton as the janitor can’t be far away.  Just so long as you are recognizable and can burst into song.  And this really is artifice.  Now every actor and character is just a place keeper, a pretext for the infusion of more music.

At their best, the 1990s were a time of unstinting authenticity.  I remember an editor of an alternative music magazine telling me that he couldn’t get photos of the bands he was covering because the bands insisted that a photo would demand that they "pose" and that was precisely the sort of falsehood their music was designed to refuse.  

Pose?   In the era of Glee, it’s "where would you like me?  And what expression should I wear?"  It’s not about authenticity.  It’s about being as emotionally compliant as necessary. Stardom is so precious a capital, we will pay anything for it.  We will endure TMZ coverage and much, much worse.  

By this reckoning, and it’s only a reckoning, American culture is now governed by the rules of musical theater, where kids live for the "one big break," and make any compromise necessary to get there.  This takes us several light years away from the sensibility that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s.  Chrystal Bowersox has something of this sensibility, and her victory, if that’s what happens on American Idol, may be last hurrah.  


Stack, Tim.  2010.  Susan Boyle to play McKinley High Lunch Lady.  Entertainment Weekly. May 19.  here.

Trend watch: from Woody Allen to Monk

I’m old enough to remember cocktail chatter in New York City in the 1960s.

It was usual for people to talk about their neuroses, their hang ups, their therapists, and their tortured pursuit of mental health.  The paradigm was Freudian and the exemplar was Woody Allen, a man who managed to turn his symptoms into a comic style and cultural touchstone.  Cocktail chatter feasted on this cultural motif, because it was more intelligent than comparing Zodiak signs, plus it was funny, human, disarming, and, usually, more revealing than comparing Zodiak signs.

Here’s the thing.  I can’t remember someone talking like this for some decades.  Apparently, people stopped using the Freudian, the Allenian model. The trend is dead. This fundamental pattern of self and social revelation has changed.

When and why did this happen?  And why didn’t someone tell me?  (I could just have gone back to Zodiak signs.)

The immediate causes for this trend are not mysterious: the decline of the Freudian paradigm as an cultural influence, the rise of pharmaceuticals, our inability to spend a day or two a week in analysis, the renewal (and triumph?) of that long standing American impatience with reflection.  (Reflection takes stillness.  We prefer movement.)

But I wonder about another possibility.  Did we abandoned neurosis as an explanation (and a party game) because new explanations rose to capture our attention?  Specifically I’m interested in cocktail chatter that refers to our attention disorders or our location on the Autistic spectrum. These days our explanations are more neurological than psychological.  And our exemplar is (perhaps) Tony Shaloub as Monk.

And why should these new explanations have appealed to us?  There are some easy answers here too. We are more and more aware that the incidence of attention disorder and Asperger’s syndrome.  By this time, everyone knows who Temple Grandin is and we "get" her condition in a way we never did before.

If the Allenian model was confessional and humanizing (e.g., "These are my failings"), the new model prizes involuntary intelligence and an almost mechanical responsiveness.  The new failings make us wittlessly capable automata.  In the new regime, our weaknesses arm us as problem solvers.  But there is nothing much performed or willed about this behavior. Monk’s intelligence is an obligatory intelligence.  He doesn’t chose to do it.  It acts itself out in him.

In the old regime, cocktail chatter claimed human qualities that made the speaker more scrutable, more transparent, more human, I always thought.  The new cocktail chatter has us claiming qualities that are a little machine like.  And it makes perfect sense that we should find this flattering, that this is a comparison we would wish to encourage.  After all, since the fall of the Freudian regime, machines in the digital domain have made astonishing strides.  Who wouldn’t welcome comparisons with a powerful machine based intelligence and the virtually (eventually) sentient machine?

We might say that if the old regime made us more human, the new one makes us less.  But this of course accepts the terms of the old regime.  If cocktail chatter is anything to judge by, we are now in the process of working out new models and metaphors.  Whither and why?


McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Our new porousness and "latent inhibition" diminishment.  This Blog.  May 24.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  The Monk in nous.  This Blog.  June 25.  here.

Note: This example was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted December 26, 2010.