Tag Archives: anthropology

Popular Culture Goes All Anthropological

[In Dinner for Schmucks] Steve Carell earns his laughs not with wit […] but by investing all his faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions.  

The Steve Carell character is funny because he doesn’t "get it."  We can rely upon him to leap to the wrong conclusion.  He’s "often wrong but never in doubt."

There is something endearing about this guy.  We wish we were as sure of anything as he is of everything.  He may be a bull in the china shop of daily life, but he means so well we cannot fault him. 

There is something flattering too.  Because by this standard, we are all social virtuosos. We do get it.  By the Carell standard, each of us is a genius.  

But something more than intellectual slapstick going on.  When the Carell character [hereafter, Carell] gets it wrong, he makes a small piece of our culture materialize before our eyes. 

In Dinner for Schmucks, Carell states the obvious, "She’s talking to the lobster."  This is funny because a smarter person would know that the obvious "goes without saying."  

When Paul Rudd is accused by a ventriloquist’s dummy of looking down her dress, Carell asks, "Tim–were you?  God, don’t do that man."  We understand that this discipline of gaze, this new standard of male sensitivity, does not apply to an inanimate object, even an animated inanimate object.  But Carell doesn’t quite see this.  (The joke within the joke: is the dummy sufficiently animated that social rules do apply to her.  But of course it’s a mute question because, this is the still deeper joke, this is really just dummies in conversation.]

Carell doesn’t grasp what the rest of us take for granted.  In fact, he draws some of his humor from the fact that he is violating rules the rest of us obey but cannot see.  And in this respect he acts as a kind of dowser.  He can detect and to bring to the surface cultural rules otherwise invisible. 

The Paul Rudd character in I Love You, Man is almost the perfect opposite.  He couldn’t find cultural rules with both hands and a map, as they say.  The humor of this movie turns on the fact that the Paul Rudd character [hereafter, Rudd] doesn’t understand how to act like a guy.  Almost every male socialized in our culture gets "guyness."  Somehow Rudd just missed it.   

What a splendid piece of anthropology.  The movie acts of a catalog of the rules of maleness.  Which is a way of saying that Rudd ends up drawing his comedy from the same well as Carrel, from the violating of cultural rules that govern the rest of us invisibly.  

All comedy, with the possible exception of slap stick, toys with the expectations installed by culture.  This is why the Billy Crystal character in Mr. Saturday Night is always saying, "Do you see what I did there?"  He is asking the viewer to admire the intelligence with which he played a trick on our cultural expectations.  

But it seems to be that the rise of this school of comedy marks a shift of some kind.  I am not sure what to call this school.  We could use the names of its leading directors: Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, John Hamburg or its stars: Steve Carrel and Paul Rudd.  Or just call it culture comedy.  

But the question is this: why culture comedy now?  If I weren’t rushing to get to the airport and would have a go at it.  I would be your grateful for thoughts and comments.


Friend, Tad.  2010.  First Banana: Steve Carell and the metriculous art of spontaneity.  The New Yorker.  July 5.  pp. 50-59, p. 50. 

Will Digital Culture ever invent a Homer Simpson?

First Observation:

Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years."  The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.   

Second Observation:

In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal.  We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.

The question:

Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list?  Will we ever create our own Homer?

Some thoughts:

I am not being argumentative.  This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy.  However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.

There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher.  Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off.  And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys.  It won’t happen by evolutionary accident.  It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."

Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list.  They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."

But there is an argument that says "never."  The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land.  Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash.  Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover." 

Let’s push things a little further.  (And again I do this for the sake of argument only.  Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus."  Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.  

By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)  

I’m just asking.  

The Upshot:

This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers.  With Sam Ford moderating, of course.


Anonymous.  n.d.  "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.

Bauerlein, Mark.  2009.  The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future.  Tarcher.  

Carey, John.  1992.  The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939.  Faber and Faber.  (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)

Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  NYU 

Keen, Andrew.  2008.  The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values.  Broadway Business.  

Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press. 

Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others.  2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly.  Double Issue.  No. 1105 and 1106.  June 4 and June 11.  here.


Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.  

Kagan’s smile: negotiating difference in the American body politic

It’s lunch time at 100 Highland, and I am watching the confirmation hearings.

Russ Feingold is imploring Elena Kagan to be god-like as she exercises the powers with which she will be endowed as a (likely) member of the Supreme Court.

Feingold is solemn.  Kagan is watchful.

Then, quite suddenly, a small show a humor from Feingold as he acknowledges her origins

I also hope we will continue to see greater diversity on the court in other ways, including representation from MidWestern and Western states.  It’s important that all Americans feel that the court represents their life experiences and their values.

And here Kagan is suddenly all smiles (as pictured).

It’s one of those things that strikes a Canadian.  In the US, there are some differences that are considered non-provocative.  People will shout out passionately to declare their loyalty for a sport’s team, a university, or in this case a part of the country.  No one takes offense. More likely, they will shout "Go Wildcats" in support of their own team.

In this non provocative world, everyone, apparently, gets to shout their enthusiasms, and no one minds.  At the very worst, they will shout back with their own.  This part of the American body politic, body cultural, is entirely non zero-sum.  Your enthusiasm costs me not all.  These identity differences are, as they used to say during the English Reformation, things indifferent.  We can let them stand.  We don’t need to fight them out.

But only some enthusiasms are allowed.  Had Feingold and Kagan shared a broad smile over a shared political or gender identity, as in "Hey, let’s hear it for Heterosexuals," or "We are lawyers. Hear us roar," there would have been an explosive controversy and an abrupt end to Kagan’s judicial aspirations.

Which raises a possibility.  Could the US now so cruelly divided by provocative difference, ever be a place in which all differences, even gender and ideological ones, are things indifferent.  Isn’t this a crude measure of what we’re heading for: a world in which every identity differences is treated with this sense of largesse.

There are several anthropological and political science questions here.  What precisely is the difference between identity differences that are and are not provocative?  How do the things indifferent become things indifferent?  What would we need to do to move things different into the things indifferent category?  

A couple of posts ago, I was worried about the formation of an American body politic in which the phrase "You just don’t get it" is heard so often.  One place to go to work on this issue is to have a closer look at Kagan’s smile

Virginia Postrel was kind enough to interview me for Enterpreneur Magazine.  

You can find an edited version of the interview at Enterpreneur.com here.

For the full version of the interview in which you will find me chatty and discursive.  


Virginia Postrel: What do you mean by “culture”?

Grant McCracken: I was just watching the movie I Love You, Man.  It’s a funny movie, and it’s a wonderfully observed piece of anthropology.  The Paul Rudd character doesn’t understand how to act like a “guy.”  Somehow this knowledge has escaped him.  That’s what culture is: the meanings and rules with which we understand and act in the world. 

This makes culture sound amorphous and absurdly abstract, I know.  But let’s put this another way.  Culture is the very knowledge and scripts we will someday build into robots to make them socially sentient creatures.  At the moment, we’re still teaching them to climb stairs. The more difficult task is to read social situations.  Unless we’re autistic, most of us do this effortlessly and in real time.  That’s because we have this knowledge “built in.”  Notice what it will take to build it into robots.  This is programming, exact, finite, and incredibly specific programming.  Nothing amorphous or abstract about it. 

VP: What’s the biggest mistake business people make when they think about the intersection of culture and commerce?

GM: Business people think that because they can’t see it, culture doesn’t exist.  They suppose that the moment of sale consists of a rational decision, a calculation of interest, a pursuit of benefit.  But every purchase is shaped by meanings and rules.  Whether a new product finds a place in the market depends on whether and how it squares with the meanings in our heads.  Think of all the innovations that were technically brilliant but failed because the consumer “couldn’t really get a handle on them.”  This is another way of saying that the innovation was not designed or positioned in a way that made it consistent with the culture in our heads.

VP: What can a small startup without the resources to have a dedicated “chief culture officer” do to make sure it pays attention to the relevant cultural trends?

GM: Start ups have access to lots of culture knowledge.  No need to hire a guru or a cool hunter.  They can boot strap this knowledge.  (They probably do need to read Chief Culture Officer.  I can’t urge this strongly enough.  But, hey, it’s my start up.)  The thing is to formalize all that cultural knowledge we have in our heads.  Right now it’s tacit knowledge.  Like how to be a guy.  Or things we know about culture, about television, cocktail culture, the local food movement, Burning Man.  We have to get it out of our heads onto the table.  And then we have to tag the changes we see happening.  Then we need to build a big board in order to track the changes that matter to us and we have to start making estimates about when they will reach our markets.  For the culture knowledge we don’t know, the trick is to start combing media more systematically.  In Chief Culture Officer, I talk about an investment firm in NYC that keeps track of culture by having 5 people read 300 magazines.  We don’t need to hire a cool hunter or a guru to learn about culture.  We just have to pay attention. 

GM: I think Alan Moore put his finger on the problem here in Crossing the Chasm.  In the early days, tech start ups are selling to people who are savvy enough to figure out the value proposition and make the product work.  Eventually, however, we are speaking to much larger audiences and this means talking to people who don’t get tech.  Now we have to build not from what’s technically possible.  Now we have to build to what fits in the world of the consumer.  Consumers are no longer coming to us.  We must go to them.  We have to cease being an engineer for a moment and become an anthropologist.  We must find out who the consumer is, how he lives, and what will make the product make sense to him.  In a perfect world, we build a product that understands the consumer so perfectly, he or she doesn’t even need to read the manual.  We all remember our first experience with the iPhone.  It was as if the iPhone understood us so completely, it was teaching us how to use it.  This is cultural knowledge in action.

VP: Could you give us an example of a startup that beat the big guys by understanding culture?

GM: The world of carbonated soft drinks is filled with examples of start ups that managed to spot the next trend and steal a march on the big guys: Snapple, Red Bull, Vitamin Water, Odwalla, and so on.  These startups spotted the trend and rode it to glory.  They get in early and ended up owning the market.  In the book, I try to show how Snapple accomplished this miracle.  The rewards here at breathtaking.  Snapple sold to Quaker for $1.7 billion.

VP: People often say, “You can’t teach taste.” At least when it comes to business, you disagree. Why?

GM: Culture is a body of knowledge like any other body of knowledge.  Saying we “can’t teach taste” is like saying we can’t teach finance, operations, or human relations.  Of course, we can.  But of course we have lots of people in business who have a vested interest in making it voodoo.   This is the way gurus, cool hunters, and various agencies keep themselves in business.  It’s time to get culture out of the black box.  I don’t say we don’t need gurus or agencies.  For certain purposes, they can create exceptional value.  I do say that they should not be allowed to make themselves sole source for what we know about culture.  In the run up of 1990s, serial startups found that the guy who was CFO for the last startup was now CMO for the next one.  The C-Suite is filled with fast learners, with mobile learners.  We need to get culture into this mix. 

VP: A.G. Lafley is one of the heroes of Chief Culture Officer. What can entrepreneurs learn from him?

GM: He’s the guy who helped teach P&G, that great temple of marketing, that it had much more to learn about being consumer focused.  In Game-Changers, Lafley insists that the marketer must dolly back from narrow utilities to see the larger social and cultural context, to see the consumer in all of his or her complexity.  This is the corporation making sure that the product services is “not about us,” not about what the engineers can build, not about what the marketer’s can sell, not about what the corporation has traditionally done.  It’s about who the consumer is and how he or she lives.   It’s about that software in his or her heads. 

VP: What’s wrong with “cool hunting”?

GM: Cool hunting is heat sensitive.  Cool hunters only care about the latest stuff, the fads and fashion.  But culture is vastly more than this.  It is deep cultural traditions.  These traditions change, but they do so slowly.  And when they change, they do not show on the cool hunter’s radar.  Hard to know how to quantify this, but my guess is that fads and fashions make up only 20% of culture.  Slow culture is all the rest.  What kind of professional ignores 80% of his or her domain?

VP: You’re a creative, divergent thinker, yet you seek to avoid what Claude Levi-Strauss called “wild thought.” How do you balance creativity and structure, and what would you advise entrepreneurs about striking that balance?

GM: I’m Canadian, a notoriously tidy people, the Swiss of North America.  But I am prepared to go where ideas take me.  I have this from my parents and from my education at the University of Chicago.  (The latter looks a little like Lafley’s P&G.  It accepts that the exercise is “not about us,” but about the ideas.  You adapt as you must to honor them.)  I think this makes me like most entrepreneurs who know that good things happen only when wild creativity is routinized and systematized.  Entrepreneurs have range!  They are there when the big ideas happen, driving people “outside the box.”  They then find a way to rebuild the box.  They then find a way to make something actually come out of the box.  Then they find a way to put that something out in to the market where it turns into ROI.  Phenomenal!  They are very smart and very determined.  But they are also masters of many cultures. 

VP: You introduce the idea of the “lunch list” as a way to stay in touch with culture. What is it, and how would it apply to the owner of a small startup?

GM: No one can keep track of contemporary culture but there are people who really understand individual pieces of it.  The CCO solution?  Take these people to lunch.  (Or otherwise engage them.)  My editor at Basic Books, Tim Sullivan, is a great guy to take to lunch.  He will give you the world of emerging ideas. He will let you his astounding powers of pattern recognition.  Chefs, journalists, politicians, CMOs, diplomats, all can give us a glimpse of the forces shaping the world.

VP: You talk about “fast culture” and “slow culture.” What do you mean, and how do their implications for business differ?

GM: Fast culture is great churn of our culture at any given time.  Some of the fads will cool into fashion, some of the fashions will cool into trends, and some of the trends will actually stay on to become culture.  But most fad, fashion and trend just keeps going, out of our world, eventually out of memory.  As I was saying above, it is fast culture that preoccupies us most. 

But there is also “slow culture,” and these are the long standing traditions that are part of our bed rock.  These get some attention from the academics.  The historians have warmed to the idea of culture over the last 30 years especially and this has results in some very useful work.  I am just reading a book called Hotel: An American History by Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, a wonderfully interesting look at the hospitality industry as it has shaped and been shaped by the American culture.  We need to know about fast culture, but this is like taking a major leaguers’ stats for the season and not the career.  We need to know about slow culture too.

VP: Why would Chris Rock make a good chief culture officer?

GM: Mr. Rock knows about African American culture and he knows about non African American culture, and knows how to pass back and forth between them.  This makes him a cultural entrepreneur.  We might say he’s in the shipping business. Anyone who knows two pieces of our culture is well on his or her way to mastering the larger whole.  It’s a lot like language learning.  The second language is always the toughest.  The third and fourth come more easily. 

VP: How can social media tools help small businesses keep in touch with culture?

GM: Twitter and Facebook are great ways to listen in on the conversation and to engage in it.  I recently did an interview with Bud Caddell at Undercurrent and I liked his idea that you have to keep provoking the world with comments, suggestions, and experiments.  The reactions will give us a sense, a kind of GPS signal, of where we are, of what’s happening “out there.”

VP: Does being Canadian give you an advantage as an anthropologist?

GM: An American journalist asked Martin Short why it was so many American comedians were Canadians by birth.  Shore said, “Oh, that’s because you grew up watching TV.  I grew up watching American TV.”  My sister and I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons.  We enjoyed them immensely, but there was always a small sense that we were watching something from another world.  Now that we are a diverse society everyone has access to a difference of this kind.  As a culture we are so decentered that everyone has an exceptional point of view. 

VP: How much TV do you watch every week?

GM: I watch the national average, plus I have friends who are not as diligent as they should be, so I watch their hours too.  As a civic gesture.  TV is a wonderful listening device for our culture.  The networks and cable run out a constant series of experiments (aka, new shows) and these shows are so expensive that choice are made with great care.  Which is another way of saying the experiments are very carefully crafted.  Then the TV view audience votes with their viewership and we see, hey presto, America likes Modern Marriage and it doesn’t like the show that comes after it on ABC, Cougar Town.  It’s not impossible to draw cultural conclusions from this event. 

VP: What do you make of Lady Gaga?

GM: Lady Gaga burns brightly at the moment.  She has crafted herself in the tradition of David Bowie and Madonna, changing dramatically, vividly, and often.Indeed, Lady Gaga ups the transformational cycle.  Bowie changed several times.  Madonna changed many times. Lady Gaga appears to change with every performance.  So we can take her as a measure of the speed at which we change.  But she is also a fad struggling to stay on as a fashion and then a trend and then a fixture in our culture.  Bowie and Madonna made the cut.  Chances are she will not.  But I hope I’m wrong.  She is a vivid, interesting presence.  (The real mystery here is why the music is so utterly ordinary.  Bowie and Madona were transformational here too.)

VP: You ran a “CCO boot camp.” Who came and what did they do? Do you have plans for more?

GM: We had a great mix, people from the strategy world, the C-suite, entertainment industry, the military, designers, senior managers, grad students, a real range.   In the morning, we reviewed 6 parts of American culture.  In the afternoon, we looked at how to monitor and manage culture for the corporation.  It was amazing fun.  I am now planning to do one for a gigantic corporation.  I now have a poll on my website to see where people want the next one held.  At the moment, Boston is winning. 


Brooks, David. 2001. Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster.  

Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. London: Faber and Faber.

Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and popular culture: a cultural history. Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fitzgerald, Frances. 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster.  

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Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.  

Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Revised. NYU Press.  

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

Lamont, Michele. 1992. Money, Morals and Manners: the culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Martin, Roger.  2007. The Opposable Mind.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2009. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Reprint. Penguin.

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Warner, W. Lloyd, J. O. Low, Paul S. Lunt, and Leo Srole. 1963. Yankee City. Yale University Press.  

Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. University of California Press.  

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Rusting Buicks and the destruction of wealth

[This little essay was originally posted February 26, 2010 and then was lost when Network Solutions was attacked by malware and "misplaced" my database.  I wanted to get it back in circulation.  Apologies to those who have seen it before. Special apologies to those who left comments on the original post.  There were some beauties.  Thank you, Network Solutions for being entirely uncooperative, unreliable, and unrepentant.]

Picture yourself in the hinterland of British Columbia.

You are many hundreds of miles from Vancouver.  

You are in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of road so desolate it feels like something out of an X-Files episode. (Cue the X-Files orchestra for that eerie theme music.)

There’s a mining camp at one end of the road and a mining camp at the other.  Most everyone here get an hourly wage. And the wage is generous.  (These rough necks are paid like princes.  Who would come to this god forsaken place otherwise?)  And because there is nothing much to do here, the roughnecks work extra hours, most days and even Sundays.  Add "time and a half" and "double time," and it’s not long before these people are worth a bundle. 

Periodically, they head for town.  For most the destination is Vancouver, many hundreds of miles away.  Guys, they are mostly guys, will hitchhike for a while. And they take buses when they must, and eventually they say, "F*ck it, I’m buying a car."  And they do.  They buy a Buick with all the trimmings.  And away they go.

The trouble is, the guys have been drinking since they left camp and by this time they are often blind drunk, and so, well, it’s not uncommon to come off the road and wrap the Buick around a tree.

And here’s the weird part.  The guys don’t get the Buick fixed.  They just keep going. What they have done to the Buick captures what they do for the remainder of this trip to Vancouver and for the duration of their stay there.  Make a hash of things.

The "skid row" in Vancouver is there to greet them.  The card sharks, hookers, and bars are seasoned tourist professionals, skilled at various kinds of value transfer.  It will take a couple of weeks.   But eventually our guys will wake up in a gutter without a dime.  

And here’s the other weird part.  They will brush themselves off, and go back to the hinterland.  Some will do this many times over several decades.  Which is way there are so many rusting cars on the roads of the interior of BC.  

From an conventional point of view this is deeply irrational behavior.  Why endure the privations of life in the bush, and the exertion and the danger of this kind of labor, unless you are going to keep some part of what you earn? Surely, the point of coming here is to earn your way out.  Not to spend your way back in.  But the hinterland is a prison to which inmates keep returning by choice.  In a sensible world, people would come here just long enough to make enough to buy the motel, dry cleaning store, or bowling alley that will release them from wage labor forever.  But no, they take their stake and they squander it. These guys seem bent on destroying wealth.  

Which brings us to Pirates.  I know you were waiting for the Pirate passage.  I’m reading a nice little book called And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis.  Here’s a passage.

After his raids, Captain Morgan and his men would sail to Port Royal to whore and drink and spend their money.  The more carelessly they could rid themselves of their gold, the happier they were.  "Wine and Women drained their Wealth to such a Degree that in a little time some of them became reduced to Beggary," reported pirate chronicler Charles Leslie.  "They have been known to spend 2 or 3000 Pieces of Eight in one Night…"  Morgan "found many of his chief officers and soldiers reduced to their former state of indigence through their immoderate vices and debauchery."  Then they would pester him to get up a new fleet for further raids, "thereby to get something to expend anew in wine and strumpets."  (location circa 664 in the Kindle version of this book)

Which brings us back to British Columbia, and an aboriginal practice called "potlatch" when rival communities would take turns dumping Hudson Bay blankets and other valuables into the Pacific ocean.  One of the explanation for this practice is that it is undertaken as a very deliberate act of wealth destruction. ( I don’t know the literature here as well as I should so I am penciling these data in provisionally.)

This destruction of wealth is a wonderful thing.  Wealth for miners, pirates, and perhaps aboriginals is charged with potentiality.  To keep this wealth is to do its bidding.  Once you’ve made a small fortune in a logging camp, some convention says, you must leave the hinterland, pay that motel, and "start a new life."  Which these loggers and miners devoutly do not wish to do.  Hence those trips to town.  These loggers are fighting demon wealth.  

Our loggers, miners, pirates (and aboriginals?) are defending their way of life.  They are destroying the money that threatens it.  They can see the potentiality of all this wealth, they can feel the cultural instructions embedded in it, and they are damned if they will give in it.  Better, easier, truer to their life missions, to piss this money away.

Actually, there is nothing irrational about this behavior.  It has a job to do and it does well. But there is no economic model that came help us retrieve the rationality of this behavior, I don’t believe.  To do this we need to look beyond "rationality" narrowly defined, beyond "interest" and "benefit" as it is usually construed. We need to capture the culture that supplies the meanings that shapes the lives that demands the destruction of wealth the results in all those rusted Buicks.  There’s a method to the madness.  In fact, it isn’t madness.  

Indeed, under carefully scrutiny a lot of economic behavior, even the b to b variation thereof, is not fully rational.  But when the economists find things that do not find the paradigm, they insist these are "irrational."  Um, but surely there is a grey area in between. That economic actors are not rational doesn’t mean that are irrational.  The trouble is that the idea of rationality is so narrowly defined is to leave much of the human experience out of account.  It is true that actors are sometimes not rational but they are almost never not interested.  They are always driven by an idea, a concept, a preference, an "interest," and almost always this idea, concept, preference or interest comes from culture.

So when Adam Smith excises culture from the proposition in a sense he assumes what he means to prove.  And he leaves us with a model that can’t explain new Buicks any more than it can rusted ones.  I mean if transportation is the object of the exercise, there’s an awful lot chrome that doesn’t seem germane.  And no, we may not put the model on life support by evoking status competition and conspicuous consumption.  Nice try, Mr. Veblen but there are so many more cultural meanings besides status at issue in any give Buick that you did not so much rescue the model as cleared the way for a more thorough going assessment of its insufficiency.  

I guess this post is my way of saying there is a lot of learn from loggers, miners and pirates.  It’s just so very difficult to get them to come in for guest lectures.  

  • Posted on: Fri, Feb 26 2010 3:23 AM

Melville Herskovits: the Elvis of African-American studies

PBS has "must-see" viewing tonight.  (It’s on at 11:00 on my PBS station in NYC.  Check the PBS Independent Lens website here for local listings and more details.)

It’s a documentary called Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness.  Melville Herskovits (1895-1963) established the African Studies Center at Northwestern, the first at any American university, and he wrote The Myth of the Negro Past, which help re-defined black history.

Harvard history prof, Vincent Brown, calls Herskovits the "Elvis of African-American studies."  (Coincidentally, this wins our "best metaphor" award for Winter 2010.)

Here’s what the Independent Lens says about the Herskovits accomplishment:

When a white, Jewish intellectual named Melville Herskovits asserted in the 1940s that black culture was not pathological, but in fact grounded in deep African roots, he gave vital support to the civil rights movement and signaled the rise of identity politics.

Pictured: Vincent Brown, Professor of History at Harvard and project advisor, Christine Herbes-Sommers, Executive Producer, and Llewellyn Smith, Director and Producer of Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness.

Note: this post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was restored December 26, 2010.

Conflict ethnography and the biggest picture

9965225773_d0a69d7876_zThe conflict in the Middle East is producing a new kind of ethnography.

The creator is David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, now seconded to the United States State Department.  Dr. Kilcullen earned his Ph.D. studying guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia and East Timor. He’s since studied counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and iraq.

Kilcullen calls it “conflict ethnography.”

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a “close reading” of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface differences between our societies and these environments (of which religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on their own terms.

What I like about this is that it captures that holistic impulse that is, I believe, the first intellectual reflex of the anthropologist.  It seeing things in context, in relation to the other bits and pieces that defines the anthropologist’s data set.  This holistic inclination is there in Boas, in Malinowski, in functionalism and in structuralism. (It departs the field only with the advent of the postmodernism.  But then so does everything else that makes anthropology useful for the study of the real world.)

Now it would be self-dramatizing of this ethnographer to compare what we do in the study of North America to what is happening in the mind of a counterinsurgent in real time with conflict flaring and lives on the line.

But there is a similarity.  Too often the “value add” of ethnography is said to be its ability to capture what is going on in the heart, mind and life of the respondent.  And this is so.  But what anthropology also brings to the table is the ability to show how all the data fit, one with another and each with the whole.

It is this second function that cannot be delivered by the ethnographic pretenders who are now legion in the world of marketing.  All they can do is ask questions, take pictures, and submit invoices.  They do not know about the life of the consumer writ large, or the life of a culture, writ larger still.

But anthropology has yet to make good on its holistic impulse.  It is not comprehensive enough.  No, what we do are lovely, little water colors of ships in the harbor and it remains for McKinsey to supply a map of shipping lines, and a sense what goods are moving in what volume, from and to which ports, and how all of this makes a regional economy hum.  This is truly holistic and most of our client cannot live without this biggest picture.  It would require of anthropologists a strategic intelligence we do not cultivate, quantitative skills we do not normally master, and a methodological multiplicity that we for some reason believe to be unbecoming.

When does the field grow up…and into it’s birthright?


Anonmymous.  n.d., David Kilcullen.  Encyclopedia Entry in Wikipedia.  here.

Kilcullen, David.  2006.  Twenty-eight articles: fundamental of company-level counterinsurgency.

Kilcullen, David.  2007.  Religion and Insurgency.  Small Wars Journal Blog.  May 12, 2007. here.
(source for the quote)

O’Grady, Stephen.  2006. The World’s Moved On: What David Kilcullen Can Teach us.  Tecosystems.  December 22, 2006.  here.

Packer, George.  2006.  Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”?  The New Yorker.  December 16, 2006.  here.


Peter McBurney, thanks for the head’s up


The conference of professional ethnographers is meeting again this year in October.  I can’t make it, but it looks like a great line up. www.epic2007.com