Daughters, Dress Shirts, Spotted Dick

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes about an anthropology of consumption

An anthropologist friend despairs at his subject. It has, he says, collapsed into the assertion of necessary relations between brothers-in-law and beavers. It is obsessed with classification. He barely exaggerates. Its history, as Douglas and Isherwood proudly recall,[*] has been one of ‘continuous disengagement’ from the ‘intrusive assumptions of common sense’. It is therefore scarcely surprising that perhaps the most insistent claim throughout this history, and at no time more insistent than now, is that the common sense of daily life itself, vernacular thoughts and actions, are not what they seem, that they contain within them or in some sense reveal a pattern, a structure, even a logic, which their agents do not know and which it is the task of the anthropologist to uncover, infer, impute, to in some way make plain.

The claim has been pressed in many ways. Its two classical protagonists have been French. Emile Durkheim and his collaborators in the équipe of the Année Sociologique started from the strong assumption that societies were coherent, argued that this coherence lay in their morale and suggested that this morale could be seen in the correspondence between forms of organisation and categories of belief. What the correspondence was, exactly, remained unclear, but the Durkheimians’ explanation seemed to be that the sentiments engendered in a collective life crystallised into a cognitive frame which had moral force. Forty years later, Claude Lévi-Strauss turned this argument around. If sentiments played any part at all, he asserted, it was as the consequence and not the cause of cognition. Cognition is its own explanation. It has an irreducible and invariant ‘structure’ which shapes contingency in any environment and which can be seen in them all in patterns of myth, marriage and culinary practice.

Neither account is obviously true. To have to choose between them is to have to choose between an implausible reduction of thought to feeling and an extravagant assertion of its exhaustive powers. Neither is even immediately intelligible. No one, still, is sure what Durkheim believed, and Lévi-Strauss’s work has had innumerable commentators almost all of whom have suffered rejection by the master and a subsequent loss of faith. Nevertheless, it is his which proposes the less preposterous mechanism and promises the more expansive explanations. Even those averse to common sense have found it the more seductive of the two. Mary Douglas is one.

In Purity and Danger, she used a weak variant of it to argue that the pure was to the impure, the ‘sacred’, as Durkheim had set up the more general opposition, to the ‘profane’, not as the patently clean was to the patently dirty but as order was to disorder. Dirt, as she put it, was matter out of place. She equivocated, though, about whether the hostility to its disorder was cognitive or emotional. In Natural Symbols she retained the equivocation and proceeded to elaborate her classification of cultural places with the simple machinery of ‘group’ and ‘grid’. Societies of ‘strong group’ are societies in which individuals are not constituted as discretionary individuals at all but as prescriptive statuses in various sorts of corporation. Societies of ‘weak group’ are ones in which individuals are constituted as individuals, or at least as members of less demanding collectivities whose relations with other such collectivities are themselves discretionary. West African lineages are an example of the first. Mediterranean villages are an example of the second. Societies of ‘strong grid’ are societies in which the lines defining exchange and communication are sharp and strictly maintained. Societies of ‘weak grid’ are ones in which this is not so. Indian villages, perhaps, are examples of the first. De Tocqueville’s America, at least in its early stages, would be an example of the second. Now, in The World of Goods, she turns this machinery to try to explain consumption.

To explain consumption is to explain why people save and spend as they do. To do this, one has in a money economy to determine the relations between incomes, prices and tastes. The economists’ difficulty has always been that tastes do not seem to stand in any consistent relation to the other two. Indeed, they do not seem to stand in a sufficiently consistent relation to anything. This has not, of course, stopped economists modelling the relation. But in their successive attempts to specify or with stiff-lipped parsimony to ignore it they have, in Kelvin Lancaster’s happy phrase, succeeded in producing what seems like nothing so much as a series of attempts ‘to extract the minimum of results from the minimum of assumptions’. They have elegantly failed to sustain common sense. In Douglas and Isherwood’s view, of course, their mistake is precisely to have tried to. ‘Forget the idea of consumer irrationality; forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing and shelter; forget their usefulness.’ Consider instead that they might be ‘good for thinking’. Consider the possibility of ‘synthesising’ Lévi-Strauss’s theory of social life as the communication of words, women and other goods. Consider, that is, extracting every result from just one assumption.

‘Instead of supposing that goods are primarily needed for subsistence plus competitive display, assume that they are needed for making visible and stable the categories of culture.’ See them as the means by which people pursue ‘the general concern to control information’. Take them as moral markers which serve to include and exclude in the general grouping and gridding. But do not go too far with those structuralists who deny agents any agency. Do not see people as mere carriers of messages, as birds of paradise, so to speak, doing unreflective dances with goods in an already constituted world. Follow instead those Californians who call themselves ‘ethnomethodologists’, those sociologists who ‘take it for granted that reality is socially constructed’, that it ‘consists of logic in use’, and who concentrate on the ways in which people negotiate and ‘account’ themselves within it. In other words, see the movement of goods as a series of messages with which people announce and achieve their ambition to be in rather than out, up, if that is where in is, rather than down.

If this vision is true, economic man is a fiction moving in a frictionless world. He is of no group, in no grid. No wonder, the authors claim, that we cannot make sense of his spending and saving. No wonder that his ‘utilities’ seem ineffable, inexplicable and unpredictable. But even in Chicago economists do not take their assumptions quite so seriously. Milton Friedman, for instance, has proposed that saving and spending at any one time will be prudentially related to expectations of income over time. American blacks save more at any given level of income than American whites because they have fewer physical assets and fewer human assets as well. They thus have to insure more against the future. James Duesenberry has proposed that spending on luxuries competes with saving, and will increase in direct proportion to the desire to maintain or improve one’s standing. On this view, American blacks save more because at any given level of income they have less need than whites, whose average incomes are higher, to spend to defend their status in their own community.

Albert Hirschman has extended this to propose that the ‘relative income hypothesis’ is strictly conditional. In homogeneous societies, societies which Douglas and Isherwood would perhaps describe as weakly grouped and weakly gridded, an increase in incomes for some, far from exciting envy and emulation, may for a time give rise to peaceful anticipation of delights to come. In segmented societies, on the other hand, societies of somewhat stronger gridding and grouping, societies divided by lines of faith or race or entrenched status, an increase in incomes for one group may excite not only envy and emulation but also real discontent amongst others who will see it as further grounds for the resentments they may already feel. If some incomes rise in a white society, other whites might for a time take heart. If white incomes rise in a mixed society, blacks might have good reason to despair and dispute.

None of these three models is a model for Crusoes. All suppose that individuals are set down in social relations which they may or may not expect to continue, but with which they have come to terms in order to maintain and perhaps improve themselves. None of the models, it is true, explicitly reads the desire for money and goods as a desire to send messages. But it is not at all apparent that for them to do so would in any way add to what they can already explain and even predict. Indeed, all that Douglas and Isherwood can marshal by way of criticism of the first two (they misquote Hirschman, give the wrong reference to his paper and then ignore it) is that Duesenberry cannot explain the ruinous spending of the Bordeaux nobility during the Hundred Years War, or Friedman ‘the thriftlessness, the let-tomorrow-take-care-of-itself, gather-ye-rosebuds attitudes of the labourer pouring away his transitory income in beer’. Since by their own account both can explain the first, for ‘a lord who did not make a good show of himself and his following risked oblivion, and oblivion would surely end in his estates being given to a more pressing claimant on the king’s good will,’ and since the hideously offensive characterisation of the second carries with it no argument or evidence of any kind, even Chicago emerges unscathed.

Nevertheless, although one corollary of Douglas and Isherwood’s assumption that individuals save and spend to ‘account’ themselves in ‘reality’ is not inconsistent with what the economists have said, another is. In exactly the way in which she argued that the material properties of things did not explain their classification as pure and impure, Mary Douglas would seem here to be implying that the properties of goods do not explain how people see them either. Daughters, dress shirts and spotted dick, to take three of her own examples, all have their mundane uses, but each can in principle be substituted with or for anything else. The economists, however, have always made some sort of distinction between those things that people have to have and those that they do not, between ‘necessities’ and ‘luxuries’. All have accepted that the poor will spend proportionately more on food and other necessities than the rich. All have accepted ‘Engel’s Law’. It would be difficult for Douglas and Isherwood to reject it. What is curious, therefore, is not so much that they do not but that they embrace it so whole-heartedly.

From it, and from a very selective reading of information from the Family Expenditure Survey for 1974, they proceed to distinguish three kinds of consumption. The first is that of the poor. The second is that of relatively prosperous people in the middle. These spend proportionately less of their incomes on food and proportionately more on expensive durables and home decoration. The third is that of the ‘middle classes’. These spend less on both food and durables (although the latter are very income elastic) and more on ‘information’, on telephoning, travelling, reading, entertaining and being entertained, on social life in its ordinary sense. There are, it seems, two sorts of luxury, not in itself an unreasonable view, if a somewhat simple one, but only the second is ‘information’. The original argument has shrunk. Only the middle classes now consume or send this ‘information’. Nevertheless, we might expect to hear that like the desperate if apocryphal New York hostess who tucked a crisp one hundred dollar bill into each guest’s napkin, they do it, as Veblen saw of the rich in America then, because of their distressingly ungrouped or ungridded state. We might, in the economists’ language, expect to hear that only they have a taste for it. We might even hope to hear a refutation of the counter-argument, that only they can afford it. We hope in vain. For we are invited instead to consider a wholly different possibility.

This is that the distribution of consumption classes within societies is directly analogous to the distribution of production classes between them. Economists have made a great deal of Colin Clark’s initially simple distinction between the primary sector of an economy, producing food and other raw materials, the secondary sector, producing manufactured goods, and the tertiary sector, ‘producing’, if that is the right word, services and administration. Those interested in economic growth have used the distinction to ask their questions about growth. Those interested in trade have used it to ask their questions about the nature and direction of international exchange. Douglas and Isherwood believe that the answers that each has offered can be extended to explain changes and exchanges in domestic consumption.

Students of economic development have pointed to ‘linkages’. If a country does not export its primary products in a raw state but processes them itself, it will have to set up some manufacturing industries to do so and perhaps even some services as well. Having done so, it will have raised its level of internal demand. Douglas and Isherwood appear to believe that analogous linkages can effect a transformation of poor households into rich. I say ‘appear to believe’ because even by the standards of this exasperatingly allusive book there is scant suggestion of how this might actually work. The examples they adduce all seem to show how it does not. The affluent car workers in Luton, for instance, sitting in solitary contemplation of their durables, are said to have a ‘high technology linkage’ whatever that may mean, but a ‘low social linkage’. Coal miners in Yorkshire, on the other hand, escaping from their grimy cottages to the club, have a high social linkage but a low technology linkage. Desperately attempting still to salvage argument, any argument, one might facetiously infer that making it is a matter of meeting.

Alarmingly, this inference is all too exact. Students of international trade have noticed that exchanges take place not only between countries which have something different to offer each other but also between those which do not. Coffee growers export to car makers and car makers to coffee growers. Car makers also export to each other. This complexity raises difficulties for theories of international trade which Douglas and Isherwood excitedly if somewhat casually take to be the same difficulties which beset economic theories of consumption. But their point is once again to hint by analogy. We appear to be being invited to consider that just as something might be done about the economic and political distance between north and south if the rich countries would listen to UNCTAD and import more primary products at higher prices and on more generous credit, so something might be done about the economic and social distance between Highgate and Brixton if the rich would listen to the anthropologists and ring up the poor. ‘Where the argument leads,’ the authors disarmingly conclude, ‘is hard to see.’

It obviously leads nowhere at all. We have been removed from existing theories of consumption and even from some of their more illuminating extensions. We have been introduced to a weak and equivocal structuralism and then taken swiftly past ethnomethodology (with a whistle-stop at epidemiology too) into something posing as ‘information theory’ which, in its presumption that food and drink carry as much meaning as poetry and ballet, at a ‘stroke dissolves the Cartesian dichotomy between physical and psychic experience’. We have then been pressed back into an unconsummated union of micro- and macroeconomics. We have been drenched with pretence and detached from all sense.

Yet a truth remains. More than fifty years ago one of Durkheim’s pupils, his nephew Marcel Mauss, suggested in a modest essay which Douglas and Isherwood unaccountably ignore that what people exchange ‘is not just goods and wealth, real and personal property and things of material value’, but rather ‘courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances and feasts’. His interest was exchange, and not consumption, and he confined himself to societies in which markets were undeveloped or altogether absent. His point was to argue against what he took to be the utilitarian view that societies can only reliably be held together by rational contract. He wanted to show, and believed that he could most clearly show from small or archaic communities, that there was a collective moral sense which informed each person’s actions but transcended them and expressed itself in the présentation totale of gift-giving. The question now, more than fifty years and several structuralisms later, is whether one can decide between this and the other motives that have been proposed, motives as narrow, exact and commonsensical as those on which the economists rely or as vague and arcane as those mooted here; and if one can, whether something deeper can be said about the structure or logic or grammar which in some way governs such a motive.

The answer in each case is almost certainly not. The Durkheimians were only able to observe the patterns. They imputed the motives. The structuralists have elaborated these patterns. Yet they too have imputed the motives, and also the structures which they believe frame and explain them. It has been a consistently arbitrary exercise. In the linguistic terms which are so often used to press an analogy where none has been shown, we have no idea at all whether there is a syntax of social life, let alone what it is, and merely an ad hoc semantics predicated on the most primitive psychology. If there is a necessary relation between beavers and brothers-in-laws we have as yet no idea how to find it. We have still to rely upon perception, tact, and a strong, if not exactly commonsensical, grasp of human reality. But there is none of these in The World of Goods. It is, as an information theorist would say, a work of pure noise.

[*] The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption by Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood. Allen Lane, 193 pp., £6.95, 22 November, 0 7139 1163 8.