In a recent posting on the Harvard Business blog site, anthropologist Grant McCracken explains why the idea of a “new normal” — “the idea that when income, credit and confidence return, Americans will not return to our free-spending ways” – is off base.  He believes that once the immediate crisis is past, American consumers will resume breakneck consumption rates.

Why?  In short, because we as Americans have developed an enduring set of practices that involve making and maintaining social lives through consumption.  These practices are not ephemeral, and we will not simply slough them off in the face of the “Great Recession.”  They run deeper, and they’ll be back soon enough.

In his short piece, McCracken paints a portrait of “Susan,” a composite of consumers he has known through research.  Susan has a garage full of stuff – so much that her cars are relegated to the driveway.  She just spent $45,000 to remodel her kitchen/dining/living room into a single “great room” so she can better socialize with dinner guests and not feel “like a servant” in her own home, shunted away in the kitchen while her guests yuck it up on the other side of a wall between her and the living room.

Let’s review some ways we might interpret Susan:

Susan is a shallow, grasping materialist whose life is empty and meaningless, and so she is trying to fill it with stuff.

Susan is just exercising her god-given right to spend her (or her family’s) well-earned money however she sees fit, and who are we to criticize her.

Susan is a status-seeking machine.  This is all about display.  Susan is asking us to look at what she has, can afford to have, etc. – and to register her relatively high position on some scale of social hierarchy.

To some extent, McCracken turns away all of these options in favor of a less sound-bitey, but more satisfying, conclusion:  Susan’s consumption practices are acts of personal and social self-definition.  From the garage to the great room, her consumption enables her to enact, socially, the kind of person she wants to be.  (By the way, McCracken focuses on someone with quite a bit disposable income, but this process of personal/social self-definition can hold in different ways all across and up and down the socioeconomic spectrum.)

In an exchange with a commenter to the piece, McCracken sums it up nicely:  “Americans are especially interested, for several technical reasons, in using the object world, their material culture, to [define themselves].”

What I like about this post is that it represents classic anthropology.  McCracken is trying to see things from Susan’s point of view.  He resists easy judgment passing.  He’s sympathetic to Susan; he credits her with being as much a smart, self-aware person as his readers and commenters.

Personally, I do wonder if perhaps Susan is grasping and materialistic in ways that I (again, personally) find disheartening.  But McCracken’s point is that, whatever your judgments are, Susan is so much more than that.  She is an American socio-cultural creature whose life is sensible and meaningful to her given her time and place.  (By the way, I don’t mean “meaningful” in some cosmic sense; I simply mean that that she does what she does for reasons that fit, given the rest of her context.  She is not an idiot or a dupe.)  Morally judge her if you will, but if you want to understand her, leave your judgments at the door.

By the way, McCracken mentions a just-published book called Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What, by Lee Eisenberg.  I bought it and I’m in the middle of it.  If you’re deep into retail, marketing, or the science of consumption, you won’t find much new here.  It’s breezy and a bit over-general.  But, Eisenberg is a fun writer and he’s concentrated lots of stuff in one place, with half the book on the current state of the “Sell” side, and half on the “Buy” side.  I recommend it.  Eisenberg mentions this fun website – check it out, too.

[Anthroguy (Hank Delcore), TheAnthroGeek (Jim Mullooly), and two other Fresnans (anthropology alum Alecia Barela and current anthro major Kim Arnold) are in Philadelphia presenting papers at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting.  They will share a panel with two former Fresno State anthro students, Michael Scroggins and Anne Visser, now pursuing graduate studies at Columbia and the New School, respectively.]

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