“…heirlooms can evoke one of several notions of family continuity and the individual’s responsibility thereto…”
-- Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption II
The back story: of teenage girls and their grandmothers' jewelry
I conducted some research with teens aged 15 to 16 recently, about their relationship with technology. One of the questions I asked them was this: if your home was about to burn down, and you knew your family and pets were safe, what five objects would you take with you, and why? Much later, when I was compiling the results of this project into a report, I noticed something quite interesting. About two-thirds of the young women named an object of cross-generational significance. Most of these were items of jewelry, such as "my grandmother's ring".
I was sorry that I was no longer able to probe deeply into this topic, and in any case, it was far outside the scope of the project. But I was still fascinated. What was the meaning of these treasured objects? I own a few myself, and recall how proud I was to be entrusted to carry these precious items across time into the next generation. Although not valuable in the conventional sense, each of these objects is individually listed in my will. I wondered if the objects are significant to the teens in my study because they are invested with meaning about the passage into adulthood, a meaning perhaps more important than the monetary value of the objects. I wondered if girls are more likely to get such objects than boys are. And I thought to myself that someone like Grant McCracken probably knows what this is all about, because a) he is a really smart guy and b) he is an anthropologist.
I believe this was the incident that really pushed me over the edge, and forced me to buy one of his books. This decision was taken with some trepidation, since I know his working vocabulary alone is plentiful, beautiful and scary in action. Was I really up to the task? And which book to read?
I settled on Culture and Consumption II, which is not a book about conducting lab work on tuberculosis bacteria at all, but is about "markets, meaning and brand management".
What a genuine treat. And I mean that sincerely. This book is compelling. And like few business books* you will read in your career, it has the potential to change your thinking in profound and lasting ways.
“It is time to see that goods carry many meanings additional to those of status and that some of these meanings are very deliberately at odds with the status system and the objectives of conspicuous consumption.” **
Consumer society explained
Mr. McCracken is at his most adept when he explains the ways in which our consumer society is as rife with meaning as the society of any aboriginal bushman. He provides many engaging examples of how our relationships with objects are part of our constant and evolving definition of our very selves; part of our battle for status in society; and sometimes our refuge from that battle. This is a man who loves consumers with the tenderness and absorption that many men reserve for their children. And indeed, we need someone to love us, because we have often been dismissed as grasping hollow vessels that mindlessly serve the corporate machine.
"As the contemporary world becomes more dynamic and transformational, consumers find themselves living in a fluid, unpredictable world.”
The Royal Ontario Museum as a clash of cultures
The ROM is a venerated institution that houses everything from Egyptian mummies to dinosaur bones. In one section of the book, Mr.McCracken contrasts the mission of the institution from the perspective of the staff and its de facto place in the lives of visitors. As a cultural analysis, this brings quite a different lens to the visitor experience than most of us would have.
The ROM has recently had a controversial renovation designed by Daniel Libeskind – the Crystal. Although not discussed in the book, I understood more fully than before why a successful immigrant from Jamaica would want to contribute $30 million to this institution to fund this renovation, and put his family name on the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. It made sense to me before, but now I can see the nuances that made this particular philanthropy almost inevitable in some way.
If you are part of any institution that has ever held itself above its customers – whether it be a university, a museum, a library, or even a banking institution -- you simply must read this chapter.
A suggested reading strategy, lest you think I am completely bonkers
There are many other gems in this book. But you will have to wade your way through a document that is occasionally hip-deep in academic language, and asides that you probably need advanced degrees to follow. Virtually every paragraph has citations. I thought those might be my undoing until I decided to ignore them.
Even after that momentous decision, I had to accept the fact that some passages were unlikely to reveal their meaning to me no matter how many times I cast my eyeballs over them. And I struggled with Part Three, a section about "the way in which mid-century modernism and certain notions of social mobility were played out in the 1954 Buick and subsequent car designs". I struggled along without relief until there was finally a reference to Sunday drives, a tradition I remember well from my youth. [Although we usually drove to see refineries, a phenomenon you will understand if you have an engineer in your family, afterwards we drove through new suburbs under construction.]
So don't get bogged down in the language. Understand that this kind of language is how academics demonstrate their chops. It does not mean you are an idiot. It means you are not an academic. Take comfort in the fact that most academics would be completely at sea in your annual budgeting process, and keep reading for the good stuff that will follow. Or as a skiing instructor once said to me, "there is always snow on the other side of the ice".
This is not a conventional business book. It's much better.
* I don't think it was intended as a business book, I have re-purposed it
** All "quotes in italics" are from the book, Culture and Consumption II, by Grant McCracken