When Good Theories Go Bad

Theory in Economic Anthropology and Consumer Research

 

RICHARD Wilk

Indiana University

April 1998

 

Paper presented to the 18th Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology April 17-18th, 1998 Evanston, IL, AAA Meetings, December 2, 1998, Philadelphia.

 

 

How important is high-level theory in economic anthropology? This paper contrasts the approaches of practicing social scientists in consumer research and marketing (which could be defined as a sort of applied economic anthropology), with current economic anthropologists. I discuss the role of elite "high theorists" in both disciplines, and the contrasting ways that theory informs practice. In marketing and consumer research, much of what passes for theory is really just taxonomy, and low-level generalization. Yet the empirical work actively engages those propositions, and is sometimes used to invalidate them. In anthropological work on consumption, there is a great deal of quite high-level and abstract theory, but fieldwork and research rarely challenges or reflects upon these theoretical premises. The gulf between observations and the theories that drive and inform them sometimes threatens to swallow the whole enterprise.

 

Introduction

 

The goal of this paper is to compare the ways two disciplines, consumer research and anthropology, go about using theory to understand a single form of behavior, which both fields label "consumption."1 My intent in this quick survey is to suggest that theoretical sophistication is not necessarily a good thing in the daily conduct of empirical research, especially when that sophistication provokes loyalty to a pure version of a particular theory. Not surprisingly, I will reiterate some points made by Rutz and Orlove in their introduction to the SEA volume on the Social Economy of Consumption, surely one of the best collections published by this society (1989).

Some years ago I was standing with a Belizean farmer, a clever man who had the misfortune to live very close to an agricultural experimental station. We were watching three PhD agronomists struggling to get through a barbwire fence, just twenty feet from a perfectly good gate. He asked me, in all innocence, why it was that the smarter people get, the stupider they behave. That’s something similar to the point I want to make about theory; like a pair of binoculars it can help us see some things very clearly, but often at the expense of tunnel vision that excludes essential background. And used the wrong way, it ruins our perspective on everything and makes important things look insignificant.

This is not meant in as an attack on cultural or socioeconomic theory. The problem is how theory is used, and how it is brought into engagement with empirical data. When theory informs research activity, and the results of research are used to question and modify theory, no matter how distant and indirect the connections between theorizing and research practice, I think the situation is healthy. But when theory becomes a domain where small elite groups can strut the latest hot French fashion down the runway, or a matter of faith founded on moral convictions about the state of the world, we have problems. Fieldwork then becomes a search for confirmation, illustrations for stories we have already written. In general, I think economic anthropologists are much more sensible than most anthropologists in their use of theory, so don't take this as a blanket indictment of our sub-discipline. I am sure that absolutely nobody in this room is guilty of the abuses I am going to discuss. (A theoretical overview also gives me an opportunity to be cranky in a sweeping and generic way; forgive me if I paint a bleak picture, for I will end up arguing that there is light at the end of the tunnel.)

 

Consumer Research: Mid-level and Proud

 

One way to understand the role of theory in the anthropology of consumption is through contrast with another discipline that goes about its work in a very different way. Over the last 20 years consumer research has emerged from marketing departments, growing gradually into a separate discipline centered on the Association for Consumer Research (ACR) and the Journal of Consumer Research (JCR). The membership of the ACR and the readership of JCR still overlap with the more traditionally applied American Marketing Association, but ACR is much more academic and research-oriented. At recent meetings a bit more than half of the papers had a directly applied point, aimed at helping advertisers and retailers sell their goods, while the other half were theoretical, or could be classed as "pure" empirical research.

The disciplinary roots of Consumer Research are complex. The founders of the Association were mainly social and behavioral psychologists, but early members included people trained in economics, organization studies, management, and sociology. The last ten years have seen a rapid rise in the influence of anthropologists in the ACR. John Sherry, an anthropologist at Northwestern, was recently president, and Eric Arnould, my contemporary in graduate school at Arizona, has been an editor of JCR and is now program chair for the annual meeting. Ethnography and other qualitative research methods have become commonplace, and there is now even a textbook in "postmodern marketing," laden with the obligatory French theorists and thick prose (Brown 1995, see also Firat et. al 1987).

I have a general sense of the role of theory in Consumer Research from attending three ACR annual meetings, reviewing papers for the JCR, several smaller workshops organized by consumer researchers, and from a brief stay as a visiting lecturer in a marketing department last year. For this presentation I also reviewed all the papers in the last year of the JCR.

These articles reference an extraordinary range of sources in many disciplines, including some I had never heard of before like "Psychonomics" and "Chronobiology." Psychology journals are numerically predominant, and there are no references to classic social scientists like Weber or Marx. There were also no references to recent high theorists of consumption, like Foucault and Walter Benjamin, whose names have seeded bibliographies in the humanities and social sciences like caraway in rye bread. In a whole year, only one reference was made to Bourdieu.2

Instead of grand theory, consumer researchers are prolific users of heuristic simplifications and mid-level theories. These are often relatively simple propositions about the way people think, communicate, or evaluate information, which are often directly challenged by research findings. Mid-level models are treated as provisional, are made fully explicit, and produce easily measurable consequences. A good example is a paper on reference prices – the ideas that people have about what something should cost, which they bring to every transaction (Briesch et al. 1997). The authors test five different models of how reference prices are formed, based on combinations of memory, communication, and cues from the product characteristics or the transaction itself.

In the JCR, graphic depictions of causal models in the form of structural equations (figure 1) are fairly common (Hui et al. 1998, figure 2) This example models the connections between when a delay occurs, and the type of delay, in predicting how angry consumers get while waiting for service.

Of course, this kind of model strikes most anthropologists as hopelessly culture bound, mechanistic, and worse, lacking an underlying theory of culture or human behavior. They seem highly quantified versions of ethnocentric ad-hoc common-sense explanations. The social psychological obsession with measurement and correlation analysis is often more concerned with replicability than with theoretical coherence. The analytical categories are usually common-sense middle-class concepts that may work with the usual research population of Business 101 students, but they are of questionable universal validity. Besides, the research problems and results often seem limited and trivial, as in one study of why prices that end in the digit "9" are more attractive to consumers (Schindler and Kirby 1997).

When you take this kind of work to other countries and other cultures, many of these shortcomings become obvious – as in new cross-cultural work on "materialism," which could easily be seen as the imposition of western categories of thought and knowledge to other cultures (Rudmin & Richins 1992). The real theoretical premises of this kind of work hover above, rarely questioned, something absorbed in graduate school as a set of commonsense premises about human beings as goal-seeking partially-rational thinkers, and hardly worth repeating or making explicit in research papers.

Yet at the same time, within this empirical and relatively untheorized research tradition, people are asking some very important questions. There is growing interest in cross-cultural research, and in consumption that has direct and dramatic environmental effects. More importantly, the lack of theory makes consumer researchers extraordinarily open to new ideas, models, and methodologies. Their research practice is guided more by what works than by theoretical parsimony, which means that they actually reject models on the basis of empirical data, and they have few qualms about poaching good intermediate models from any place they can find usable ones, whether its in psychophysics or garbology.

 

Anthropology and Consumption: The Role of High Theory

 

Can we say any of these things about the study of consumption in Anthropology? I don’t think so. I can't claim to have read more than a sample of the current flood of research, though I struggle to keep up with the help of an annual graduate seminar. In anthropology, I find, consumption has been overtheorized, to the point where fieldwork and theory rarely make contact, except when one is explicitly driving the other. In anthropology in general, and especially in economic anthropology, we have very different theoretical propositions about the causes of individual and group behavior, and to a large extent consumption is just another of the arenas where theorists perform their magic for the crowd.

In Economies and Cultures I argue that theories of human nature are founded ultimately on unquestioned propositions about who we are, and what makes us uniquely human. I divide them into three groups, the social, the cultural, and those based on individual rational choice. It’s not hard to find good, clear examples in the anthropology of consumption of each kind of theory put into practice.

Many archaeologists looking at ancient material culture use a relatively simple utilitarian theory of consumption as economizing behavior, positing for example that people adopt new technologies because they save labor or increase output. The idea of consumption as an expression of individual rationality can also be found in cultural ecology, for example in the work of Dan Gross and collaborators among four South American forest cultivating groups. They argue that it is perfectly rational for the Bororo and Kanela to engage in cash cropping and wage labor to get money to buy wristwatches, handguns, household goods, and tools. By engaging with the market they produce more efficiently, and the goods they buy are effective ways to store value for the long term, in an environment that offers few such options (Gross et al. 1979: 1046-1047). A more socioeconomic approach to consumption rescues the idea of rationality by including status and prestige among the values that consumers seek to maximize.

Social theories of consumption in anthropology are generally drawn from Thorstein Veblen or from Marx. They depict consumption as driven by class competition and striving for social advantage (check overheads), and/or from the alienation of workers from the products of their own labor, the breaking of the organic unity of a primordial economic cycle based on use-values. Consumption holds groups together, divides them from each other, and modes of consumption are the products of types of economic formation. A classic example is Mintz’ work on sugar in Britain and the Caribbean (1979, 1985); a more recent version, also historical, is Burke’s study of soap in Zimbabwe (1997). He argues that the British colonial regime used issues of hygiene to divide and control their subjects and soap therefore became an important way of making class, ethnic, and gender distinctions for both the colonists and the colonized. Social theorists have lately concentrated almost exclusively on the theme of consumption as either domination or resistance, to an extreme point where we are rooting out the hidden power relations that lie behind every bite of every meal, and the lather on every bar of soap.

Cultural theories, in contrast or in concert, focus on the meaning of consumer goods, on the ways they create similarity and difference among and between people, and the way that they create personal identity. A cultural theory argues that want and desires are products of ideology and identity, not rational choice, class, or power, or group membership. The purest version of a cultural theory is presented by Sahlins in Culture and Practical Reason, where he argues that consumption is no more than the surface reflection of underlying structural oppositions and binary categories of cultural order. So North Americans don’t eat horses because they are "bad to think with;" taboo because they cross boundaries between nature and culture. In Stone Age Economics Sahlins tells us that in band-level societies consumption is extremely limited, the consequence of a cultural economy based on generalized reciprocity that decreases everyone’s incentive to produce.

It makes sense that anthropologists have concentrated their efforts on cultural models of consumption, since cultural difference is one of the major lessons we have to teach the world. The vast majority of anthropological work on consumption takes this approach, from Annette Weiner on the Trobriands, to the recent book Golden Arches East edited by James Watson. We tell everyone that each culture is different, and therefore each consumes in its own way. When the Chinese eat McDonalds hamburgers, they do it in a uniquely Chinese way that only an anthropologist can adequately interpret. As the articles in Tobin’s Re-made in Japan tell it, when the Japanese take up the Tango, or play Baseball, or visit Disneyworld, their consumption is still uniquely Japanese, and has to be read as part of a local and unique Japanese cultural reality. Yet these reassuring tales of the survival of local difference and the continuing cultural embeddedness of all consumption seem a bit unreal in a world where every village will have access to a global satellite telephone system, starting in September of this year.

We offer the uniqueness of culture at the expense of the general and comparative analysis of processes of change, which were once carried out under the now discredited rubric of "acculturation." If today we have any general comparative models of consumption to offer, they consist of weak evolutionary linkages of types of consumption with the conventional levels of social organization. In bands people give gifts, in Chiefdoms they redistribute staples, in early states the elites amass fine crafts for mortuary ritual.

In a perceptive article on theory in anthropology, Ulf Hannerz argues that both the evolutionary history and the argument about radical cultural difference constitute what he calls the "anthropology of the Other," which thrives in the small-scale local communities that are today largely extinct (1986). This style of anthropology shrinks from engagement with complex, hybrid, urban society. As he says, "It flirts with them, in occasionally expounding on the view from Bongo Bongo towards modern society, but this seldom results in serious engagement." (1986:364)

The immediate result of this emphasis on cultural difference in consumption has been a kind of tribal isolation of each case study from all others. We have no well grounded theory that lies somewhere between the poles of radical cultural difference, or the subsumption of all modes of consumption into an all-encompassing capitalism, a theory that does not begin by dividing gifts from commodities, even if we later admit that they can be combined. In the meantime, other disciplines, notably history and cultural studies, have been producing masses of fascinating material on consumption, creative and heterogeneous, and largely free of attempts to fit consumption into overarching theories of human nature(e.g. Slater 1997, Mackay 1997).

 

Conclusions: Theoretical Purity and Theoretical Practice

 

The three models of human nature I have just used are no more than heuristic devices. In practice most anthropologists mix them in some way, and economic anthropologists tend to be less purist than most. But they are not mixed in equal proportions. I was struck, at the 1997 SEA meetings in Guadalajara by a remark made during one of the discussion periods, perhaps after Ron Waterbury's paper on the first day. I don’t recall exactly who said it, but it went roughly like this; "I only use a cultural explanation after all the economic ones had failed." I think a lot of theory, when put into practice, works exactly like this. Clifford Geertz, discussing the controversy generated by his book Agricultural Involution (1964), expressed almost the opposite sentiment, that he would never use an economic explanation until all the cultural and historical ones had failed! (1984). On figure two I have sketched some variations on this "default option" model of the use of theory. We use our favorite, and use a backup theory to deal with the things that don’t fit. This leaves us free to reject the third option as just plain wrong. The alternation between number one and number two provides some dynamism, and possibility of change.

This begs the question of where our theoretical preferences come from in the first place. In the standard philosophy of science models it comes from our training, from books, influential thinkers, and scholarly communities like the SEA. The social constructionists also tell us it comes from our own social context, from our class and gender position and from the theorists’ geopolitical position (Latouche 1996, also Wilk 1985). There is also a personal level at which we choose theories that make sense, for us, out of our own experience, because they offer insight and provide a basis for our political commitments and passions. Some proponents of postmodernism even argue that there is no difference between theory and personal engagement, between what we say about others and what we think about ourselves (cf. Moore 1994: 107-128. Theory is deeply engaged in all these things. The degree to which our own personal worldview is consonant with our theoretical perspective is always in question, but it is not a unique issue to anthropologists. Some research suggests that an academic training in particular discipline (the example was economics) actually changes the political opinions and worldview of students (Scott & Rothman 1975).

Theory and status are also intertwined in interesting ways in the discipline of anthropology. As a class project this semester, my graduate proseminar students have been surveying the topics of articles in major and minor anthropology journals over the last 30 years. We are finding that higher status journals consistently print articles with more theoretical focus. Of course theoretical work may just be intrinsically of interest to the broader readership of the elite journals. But one could argue the same for methodological papers, which rarely appear in mainstream journals anymore. Instead I think we are looking at a status and reward system which favors high theory over empirical work, which rewards people who clearly state widely shared suppositions, instead of challenging them.

For all of these reasons, our theoretical commitments run very deep. And this affects the choices we make of what to study, and how to study it. But it also means that our work is often chosen to bolster, rather than challenge, our theoretical beliefs. The three paradigms of social theory I’ve outlined then become almost religious matters of faith, instead of provisional generalizations, subject to modification. It follows that when theory and faith are so closely intertwined, challenges to theory and orthodoxy are more likely to raise strong emotion, because they are more than theoretical arguments – they are personal and political. This emotional and political content attaches especially strongly to theories of consumption because the practice of consumption is itself so often cast as a moral issue. Almost every study of consumption is in some way enmeshed in making moral judgments about consumption as socially positive or destructive, as false, or dominated, unequal, addictive or unhealthy.

This is a tremendous amount of baggage for theories to carry, and also maintain their internal consistency and external validity. When we search for consistency, theoretical arguments tend to be more encompassing than they should be- they are totalizing, in the sense that we want them to explain everything, instead of having limits. I have argued elsewhere that our major theories in economic anthropology are each partial representations of human nature, that all humans have the capacity for acting rationally, socially, and culturally, that beliefs, calculations, and group identity all make a difference. Instead of blotting this complexity away in the interest of theoretical purity, we would do better to pay more attention to the kinds of things that don’t fit any theory, that fall between the cracks and disappear.

There is a serious practical problem with theoretical purification as well. Most of us are familiar with economists who are so single minded in their devotion to rational choice theory that they are blind to the absurdities it produces in practice. Last year, for example, at Indiana University, the faculty council was asked to vote on a proposal to lower parking fees for the large number of secretaries and staff who make less than $16,000 a year. A committee chaired by an economist was appointed to examine the proposal, which they rejected on the grounds that it was an "inefficient re-allocation of salary," which would merely encourage more of the low-paid staff to commute by car instead of riding buses.

But when it comes to giving useful advice on problems of consumption, at least economists have practical recommendations; raise or lower the price. Anthropologists who have only a single cultural theory of consumption are generally helpless when faced with policy problems. If our answer to every question is that consumption is embedded in history and culture, and we have no recommendation for change, then people will simply conclude that we are useless and stop listening. In applied work, theoretical purity is often self-destructive.

Of course any theory has its place, if only in the classroom to provoke students or to inspire creative thinking. But when our theories are too high, too abstract, and too pure, they will not produce directly testable statements about the world. Instead they provoke reductionism, and consistency at the expense of reality, and this is the point where - to return to my title - good theories go bad. This is not to say that I suggest we take consumer research as a model to emulate. I am not recommending that we become psychologists and adopt more path-model flow charts and go back to testing banal hypotheses with correlation analysis. But given the rate at which we are consuming the resources of the planet, and the urgency of figuring out ways to change consumption practices, I don’t think we can afford the luxury of high theory any more.

Notes

1.                  This paper is the result of numerous conversations with my graduate students in introductory and advanced classes on theory in sociocultural anthropology and economic anthropology, and I wish to thank them all for being a fair and critical audience, and for always asking the tough questions. Many thanks to Anne Pyburn, whose ideas and interests continue to inspire me to think things through. Daniel Miller and Alan Warde contributed key insights, though they cannot be held responsible for what I did with them. Nathalie Arnold, my brilliant research assistant, did much of the primary research in the Journal of Consumer Research, with her usual thoroughness and intelligence. Finally I would like to thank Rhoda Halperin, whose misreading and misunderstanding of my work made me angry enough to write this paper in the first place.

2.                  The most frequently cited anthropologists are Grant McCracken, Mary Douglas, Daniel Miller, and Eric Arnould.

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