Book Review: Cross Cultural Consumption: Global Markets Local Realities David Howes, ed. London: Routledge; 1996

Lena Mortensen

 

"What happens to commodities when they cross cultural borders?" Howes' recent edited volume, Cross-Cultural Consumption, sets out explicitly to answer this very question. Through a diverse and highly accessible set of collected papers, inspired and adapted from a special issue of Anthropogie et Sociitis on "Culture and Consumption," the reader finds an excellent introduction to the major themes in the anthropological approach to consumption. Situated squarely within the booming literature on the globalization of consumer society, the papers in this volume are expressly geared towards students of consumer studies from a range of disciplines. Howes makes his objectives clear - this book is actually intended as a teaching tool (p.8), which likely accounts for its notable clarity. Unlike many similar ventures, Howes et. al.'s pedagological approach allows him to openly pose a set of ethical questions by way of conclusion, challenging the reader to actively reflect on the issues raised in the various chapters.

That "cultures and goods stand in a relation of complex interdependence" (p.1), is by now a widely recognized feature of consumer studies in anthropology. Using this perspective as premise, the papers in this volume address the interface between the local and the global. Ulf Hannerz's popular "Creolization Paradigm" provides the appropriate framework for discussion. After rejecting the polar extremes of global homogenization and local fragmentation, Howes reifies another persistent dichotomy: that real and constructed distinction between the West and the rest'. Although the world of commodity flows presents multiple opportunities for various border crossings, it is this primary division which the book adopts as its central concern. The volume is thus divided into three sections, each tackling a separate dimension of this transformative boundary. "The Mirror of Consumption" addresses the popular anthropological theme wherein Western goods are incorporated into non-Western cultural contexts. The second and more intriguing section "Consuming the Other" takes a more novel approach by examining the ways in which non-Western goods move in the Western world. Finally, "Consumption and Identity"focuses on strategies for resisting capitalist penetration.

The chapters that follow cover a broad range of continents, countries and cultures. Given the complexity of the issues, it is odd that the authors describe their project in terms of such delineated boundaries. In constructing the concept of "cross-cultural consumption", Howes, et. al. begin from the premise that cultures indeed have borders and that consumer goods typically originate from within only one given set of "cultural borders.' By posing the question "what happens when the culture of production and the culture are not the same," they construct a model of commodity transmission which fails to recognize that consumer goods themselves are always already hybrid products whose constitution reflects multiple cultural zones well before they enter the consumption spaces discussed in this book.

Three chapters by Classen, Comaroff, and Philibert and Jourdan, form the first and least evocative set of studies. Essentially these are treatises in the localization' genre, without the depth and acumen of many similar contemporary works. The localizing strategies of countries and cultures on the periphery' of the capitalist core form the organizing principle for most of this volume. Given the import to this theme, it is surprising that this first section should turn out to be so thin. The brief, complementary essays by Philibert and Jourdan prove particularly unenlightening. In a classic anthropological setting (the South Pacific), they rehearse classic anthropological themes (in what ways does the world economic system alter traditional exchange systems), albeit refashioned (and therefore renewed) in the contemporary discourse of production and consumption. Comaroff's chapter comes closest of the three to introducing original analysis. In her discussion of the "paradoxical emergence of folk dress'" in colonial South Africa, she acutely illustrates the layered forms of agency and process, summarized as "structural regulation, selective self-expression...and unevenness of commoditization" (p.37), which constitute the complex history of localized Western fashion among the Tswana.

Constance Classen's article, in a poetic attempt to mirror the hyper-real proliferation of Western consumer goods in the highlands of Northwest Argentina through a surrealist presentation style, comes across as somewhat shallow. Drawing on family narrative and adopting the tone of the familiar, Classen recounts a series of vignettes designed to convey the irony and supposed disjuncture between once traditional' settings and the peculiar forms of capitalist penetrations. The reader is meant to be bemused. However, this play on the quaint' reifies the notion of a timeless tradition, currently under threat of pollution by the homogenizing forces of Coca-Cola and shopping malls. This bemusement comes at the expense of declaring all non-western commoditization as hybrid' and surreal,' terms which normalize certain processes and identities and marginalize others. Although in the end Classen calls upon the reader to celebrate the strength of the "distinct local identity" and its ability to "selectively incorporate the products and technologies of the global market" in the face of cultural imperialism (p.53) - an issue of true substance, the trivializing tone of the essay up to this point undermines the sincerity of her summary.

In the second section the reader encounters more novel approaches to the interfaces of cross-cultural consumption. Turning inward', these second three chapters by James, Weiss and Hendrickson, focus on how the West consumes the other', a much neglected look at the equally hybrid, shifting and non-monolithic self'. In "Cooking the Books" James explores how "food provides a flexible symbolic vehicle for self-identity, precisely through the invocation of sets of inflexible cultural stereotypes'" linking cuisines to cultures (p.80). James divides her analysis into the four discourses of "global food", "expatriate food", "food nostalgia," and "food creolization" as they reflect and refigure the mark of new Englishness' in attitudes to food and consumption (p.91). She skillfully demonstrates how this highly malleable marker - simple food' - can communicate nationalism, cosmopolitanism, localism' or other referential identities in accordance with the perspective and placement of a person in this migratory world.

Carol Hendrickson's chapter on Maya export products in the U. S. is equally fresh and evocative. Although her study is somewhat impromptu and her analysis preliminary and therefore brief, the mere subject matter - the myriad forms of communicating the Maya other' through mail-order catalogues - presents many raw opportunities to explore the construction of cultural forms and commercial relevance as social inequality and political crisis become points of consumer demand. Her discussion of authenticity and tradition, as well as the juxtaposition of play' and the very serious political horror that has been the experience of most of Guatemala's Mayan communities, provide obvious points of departure for examining the paradoxical encoding of power relations in cross-cultural' advertising. The obvious next step here would be use her observations on "the commodification of political-social causes and concerns" as the basis for a study to asses how such imagery effects the perceptions and consumption patterns of the intended audience (U. S.).

The case studies are nicely rounded out by the last three chapters in the third and final section "Consumption and Identity". Two chapters, those by Howes and Bredin, investigate some of North America's internal others'. In "Cultural Appropriation and Resistance in the American Southwest", Howes outlines a number of current struggles over the use and abuse of Hopi imagery and the potential resources that Anglo-American law might provide for Native communities working to limit the commercial exploitation of their cultures and religions. Unusual in both content and approach, this chapter offers a welcome active/applied angle to the volume's otherwise fundamentally descriptive and analytical trajectories. Bredin's work on "Transforming Images" closes out the case studies appropriately enough by introducing the now popular topic of indigenous appropriation of communication technologies as strategies of resistance in the face of electronic colonialism'. Mary Crain's study of Ecuadorian Indian women in the tourist market of the Ecuadorian Andes is particularly rich. In this chapter she describes the restrictive social constitution of "Indian" as a tourist commodity and how Native women have adopted and subsequently shifted the parameters of staged tourist performance' to exercise their own agency (albeit limited) in the production of cultural meaning. In linking the practices of ethnic tourism to the "resurgence of neo-colonial schemes of representation," (p.136) she exposes the complex process inherent in manufacturing tradition and the limited means available for economically marginalized communities to subvert the dominant stereotypes.

In their Epilogue, Howes and Classen rehearse the themes of the volume in order to raise questions designed to "bring out the ethical dimensions of cross-cultural marketing and consumption." While some of the points they highlight certainly merit attention in a volume such as this, on the whole their overly moralistic discussion comes across as somewhat essentialized and ultimately ambiguous. This reader would have instead enjoyed more probing of the meaning of borders' as the organizational axis of this book. In presenting nearly the full range of themes which make up the corpus of anthropological studies of consumption, the authors sacrifice to some extent the coherence a more limited project might have produced. Taken together, the chapters in this work are somewhat uneven in terms of quality and content. As it stands, the book requires a more comprehensive conclusion than that provided. However, despite the criticisms presented here, this volume on the whole does successfully accomplish its objectives. The issues raised are clear and comprehensive and the personal flavor of many of the chapters help make the issues more accessible and immediate to the first-time reader. I would certainly recommend it as an introductory reader for students interested in consumption.