New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities,
by Grant McCraken,
Hillman Chartrand ©
From Elizabeth I through Beau Brummel to Wedgewood in the department store; from the myth and magic of patina through the fashion industry to modern television advertising, Grant McCraken applies, perhaps unconsciously, the inductive method common to his Canadian predecessors - communications economist, Harold Innis and his media guru successor, Marshall McLuhan. The book explicitly, however, reflects the fact that the author is a cultural anthropologist who has, happily for the reader, chosen to apply his talent and technique to the study of his own civilization. Less happily, it also reflects that the book is, in actuality, a set of previous papers loosely hung together.
For those seeking a "straight arrow" to some Great Truth, this book will prove frustrating. For those looking for eclectic, well researched and well documented observations of cultural reality in the late 20th century, the author offers almost Victorian thoroughness with a mild dose of theory resulting in the growing realization, as one reads, of the intimate relationship between culture and consumption. This is the book's intent, and its most important contribution.
The book, however, also makes another contribution, at least for this reader. Many observers are increasingly concerned about the "blindsiding" that results from disciplinary or professional training -- law, medicine, administration or economics. For example, an economist is taught a theory of consumer behaviour based on very narrowly defined rationality. Rooted in Benthamite assumptions of radical egalitarianism, the economist is taught taste and style do not count. McCraken clearly demonstrates that such a theory is simply inadequate, given the economic reality of the modern marketplace.
McCraken begins by describing a consumer boom in 16th century England in which, he argues, it was not the court of Elizabeth I, not Louis XIV a century later, that revolutionized the nature of consumption. To keep Catholic and other nobles loyal in troubled times, she exploited the "hegemonic power of things to communicate the legitimacy of Her Rule". Before Her Time, the family was the traditional unit of consumption. One bought for future generations. One bought that which would last because it took five generations of patina to move one's family into the "gentle" class. She, however, forced those aspiring to rise above their station to spend now, for themselves -- to be the prettiest peacock at court, the most generous. Like the potlach (praised as the quintessential example of "caring" capitalism by George Gilder in his influential 1981 paean to the Reagan Revolution entitled Wealth and Poverty) members of the court were compelled to consume their way to honour, power and gentility. This shift from long-term to short-term consumption had a dramatic impact on the evolution of Western culture contributing to the breakdown of feudal society. At the same time, however, in England and other European countries, punitive feudal 'sumptuary' legislation remained in place to be used by the State to restrict "status fraud", i.e. persons of the lower classes dressing or otherwise pretending to a higher station in society.
McCraken goes on to explore the consumer revolution of the 18th century with particular emphasis on the role of Josiah Wedgewood in shifting the source of fashion from the nobility to the bourgeois marketeer, or what McCraken calls "market ethnographers" who watched for patterns and regularlities and adjusted products and marketing strategies to take advantage of emerging opportunities. By the 19th century such observers of society attained unprecedented social mobility. Thus McCraken notes: "In the person of Beau Brummel we see nothing less than the abrogation of powers of influence that had previously been possessed only by the monarch".
Continuing his journey towards the present, McCraken highlights the emergence and impact of the department store, mail order catalogue and advertising. In fact, McCraken manages to shift the entire focus of the Industrial Revolution from the production-side, which is the principle object of economic analysis, towards the consumption-side. He also demonstrates that older patterns of consumption, e.g. patina, remain vestigal part of contemporary consumption.
The last third of the book is focused on more theoretical issues but still spiced with real world observations. McCraken considers issues like: clothing as language (which he effectively discounts); "meaning" manufacture by advertisers who place a product within a positive, socially acceptable context and try to transfer the acceptability of the context to the product; rehabilitation of the "trickle-down' theory; the evocative power of things; and Diderot Unities and Effects, i.e. forces that compel the individual to maintain cultural consistency in consumption as well as forces which encourage the individual to change lifestyle.
While McCraken's work can be seen in the context of the emerging field of consumer hedonics -- consumers buy fulfillment of fantasies, not solutions to problems -- an approach pioneered by Hirschman and Holbrook, the fact remains that McCraken roots this new concept of consumer behaviour in the history of Western civilization. For those concerned with the economic implications of the arts, McCraken provides a foundation upon which much fruitful research and study can be conducted and from which a greater appreciation of the North American "yuppie" trade deficit will surely emerge.