Kinship

Anthropology and Account Planning

My book

My book entitled “The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Human Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies” is finally out from Cambria Press. Cambria Press has been professional and fast, and I am glad I could talk to them not only as an anthropologist but also as a marketer. The book is available for purchase from Amazon.com. It means a lot to me and to those people who shared the toil of proving a Newtonian idea to Platonic academics. But what I am trying to do today is not to pontificate on the delights of successful scholarship but to understand why I got hired by an advertising agency. It’s quite a leap from kinship terminologies to account planning, isnt it? Yes, I wrote this book three years ago (then peer reviews, editing and waiting), and since then I’ve read a lot on culture and consumption, but still… What’s the connection? Overtime I’ve worked with or talked to a bunch of account planners. We both seemed to focus on the same thing: culture. Account planning as a representative of the “voice of the consumer” and a subsidiary to creative agency work emerged in the late 1960s. That happened around the time when anthropologists decided to take “the native’s point of view” and dropped out of business, military and the government. Anthropologists became enamored with their worldwide humanistic mission and hence unwilling to cooperate with the government or the corporation. Anthropologists believe that all cultures are constructed but they refuse to be part of this construction. They prefer to keep the cycle “student-teacher” closed. These days account planners know more about ongoing pop culture, media and technology than an academic anthropologist. They are realistic, optimistic, competent, ironic and professional. But then all the account planners I’ve met are dropouts from various graduate programs: drama, comparative literature, law or medicine. They became disenchanted with the manistream and tapped into their childhood fantasies. Or, they became disenchanted with their childhood dreams because dreams do not pay the bills.

Anthropologists who enter business have some catching up to do. But they bring into adversting agencies, design shops and manufacturing corporations that subtle thing called authorship. In a world driven by ownership, with all the hierarchies and bureaucracies stemming from it, authorship is rare but increasingly valuable. Anthropologists in business are capable of generating content from bottom up (i.e., without taking anything for granted and deriving a truth from signs only) that adds to the traditional creative content and helps define in every specific case where a brand ends and a culture begins, what is a good and what is a service, who is the consumer and who is the producer, who is the manager and who is an employee, who is the investor and who is the entrepreneur, etc. This analytical job leaves the cultural code bare and allows the creatives to recombine it into a new unique whole. Culture is permeated by a kind of mystical kinship that makes this kind of analysis and this kind of synthesis possible.

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Consumption and Adoption

People share with goods the fundamental quality: both people and goods tend to circulate. Anthropologists have a history of describing tribal societies in which children circulate between households as if they were goods. Inuits and Melanesians are now especially famous for that. Oftentimes a newly-born is named after a recently deceased relative or neighbor, takes on his soul and status and grows up living in a new house with a new set of parents. The child may address them as ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘younger brother’ or ‘younger sister’ depending on the relationship his deceased namesake had with them during his life. These bizarre practices have been recorded among ethnic groups as far apart as the Khoisans in southern Africa, the Dravidians in India, and the Ob-Ugrians in western Siberia.

Anthropologists have developed a sense that tribal, or “cold,” societies produce, exchange, distribute and consume (sometimes literally as ritual food) people/persons/bodies/souls/names/kin terms, while industrial, or “hot,” societies do exactly the same thing to goods and symbolic signs. Meillassoux, Godelier and other French Marxists and their American sympathizers (think of Terry Turner) summarized human evolution as a transition from “systems of reproduction” to “systems of production.” The phenomenon of adoption has been a recalcitrant aspect of kinship theory, for it baffled both positivists (why would there a need arise for extensive networks of adoption if genealogical connections are at least as good in expanding one’s universe of kin?) and constructivists (if people openly construct kinship, what is there to demystify and denaturalize?). Do people adopt children (and enter in other relations of ritual/fictive kinship) in imitation of existing genealogical bonds and as a way to fill in genealogical gaps (kinship), or in an attempt to cope with the constant emergence of new generations and new phenotypes (production)?

Once again we find that kinship and economics are mysteriously related.

In the 1980-1990s, Western companies began to capitalize on the disparities in labor prices and buying power between the First World and the Third World. Nike, Inc. developed a new business model that involved the outsourcing of the production of sneakers and soccerballs to Indian, Pakistani or Southeast Asian teens. Saving millions on the production end, Nike could then splurge on marketing in the U.S. Around the same time, Western Europe and the U.S. experienced an explosion in transnational adoption, with the Swedes as trailblazers in this new intercountry adoption movement. Indian, Pakistani, Southeast Asia, Chinese and Russian kids found new homes in Stockholm, for the Swedish government declared adoption a “social responsibility.”

Over the past 20 years adoption has developed its own global marketplace supported by a network of international organizations and legal statutes. Or do I have the right to apply the term “marketplace” to the process of giving a biological child as a gift to foreign parents, on the one hand, and donating money to a foster institution in gratitude for its services in locating and negotiating the transfer, on the other? Does Angelina Jolie expand the bounds of materialism and consumerism by “shopping” for kids in Ethiopia, Cambodia and Vietnam, or does she fulfill the ancient human desire to think in terms of “human” (think of Lewis Henry Morgan) rather than “nuclear” family?

Or, note another intriguing similarity: mass customization, consumer-generated content, co-creation are all equally recent business and management trends that invite the consumer to participate in the production of goods. At the dawn of writing, every book was handwritten and unique (there are very few of those left in national libraries and museums). The Gutenberg revolution allowed people to generate an unlimited number of book copies. Now Google digitizes those very books that Johannes Gutenberg brought into our possession. All we need is a file, or a web link.

These days the producer supplies the market with bare ingredients, oftentimes giving you just a digital file or a piece of software from which you, the consumer, can generate a product the way you like it. As Europe and the U.S. were moving into Information Age, they discovered the gene, and now we understand ourselves increasingly as scripts to enact rather than as finished fruits of nature. With transnational adoption, the situation seems to be similar: biological parents offer “raw” human material, uniquely characterized by such phenotypic and geographical features as ethnicity, race, gender, age and locality, and it is up to the First World adoptive parents to raise these children as personalities and citizens.

Or, think about the phenomenon of European re-creation of American Indian cultures from books and movies. I remember watching a Bulgarian youth prancing in an Indian warbonnet in front of a mirrot, waiting for his friend to take us to a powwow. “Mom, do I look like Indian?” he yelled across the hallway. “Sure, son, as long as your mother is one” was his mother’s response. The consumption of American Indian cultures leads to “reverse transcultural adoption”: for it is the self-conscious choice of European men and women that challenges the traditional authority of their biological parents, rather than the solicitation on the part of a foreign couple.

Culture induces massive tectonic shifts in society. Surprisingly they rarely come in isolation from each other, and such seemingly disconnected spheres of life as transcultural adoption, customization, digitization, and genetic engineering are affected by the very same process of adding new codes and then enacting their scripts.

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Kinsumption

Finally, after exactly a year of working at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, I’m entering the fields of global blogging. Ploughing my way through the myriads of brands my illustrious agency has amased, I finally achieved some level of clarity between the order of theory and the order of practice. Time to blog…

And by way of kicking off my thinking on advertising, marketing, business and consumption, I decided to coin another new term. Before it was gignetics, now it is kinsumption.

Kinsumption, ain’t it something? This is what happens when an academic anthropologist, with a background in evolutionary, sociocultural, linguistic and other kinds of research, moves into the private sector. At some point Australian anthropologists invented the term “kintax,” instead of syntax, to refer to the propensity of Australian aboriginal languages to bend grammar to reflect social structure. So, I guess I am not alone here.

But seriously, what am I talking about here? I was inspired by the classic volume by Grant McCracken entitled “Culture and Consumption I,” which documents how individualism and consumption were born in early modern Western Europe out of the traditional concern with “family status.” Remember? The original function of objects in European culture was to increase family status and preserve continuity between ancestors and descendants. Patina on an object was an “icon” that signified the duration of the family. Then something happened, and Europeans started to shop for new commodities instead of inheriting timeless artifacts. Fashion came to replace patina.

The argument itself has a patina on it. Most famously, in the 19th century the British legal historian, Sir Henry Sumner Maine, advanced a theory according to which European societies evolved from status (kinship status, status obtained at birth) to contract.

But back to ‘Culture and Consumption I.” As a result of the collapse of the original family estate system, a whole new order of cultural meanings came into being. Advertising and fashion industries evolved as main mediators between culture and material objects (or between culture and production).

Complementing Grant, I would add museums here as well. Museums emerged with modernity. If fashion is about novelty, museums are about antiquity, and advertising is about currency. The continuity between past, present and future has therefore remained intact. An object leaves the hands of a designer, makes a pause in an ad agency and achieves immortality in the hands of a curator. The collapse of one “kinship” order leads to the creation of another kinship order. Where are the noble families in this new order of consumption? Brands are these families. And iconic products (Harley Davidson motorcycles, pardon my banality) continue to be valued for their symbolic patina.

That’s what I mean by kinsumption.

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