June 05, 2006


Caption: Dr. Big Jim Fuzzy Rooster has attempted ethnographic research among chickens, but his strange looks have limited his success.

Who would have thought that majoring in anthropology would ever be a practical decision? Yet a fascinating article in Business Week titled “The Science of Desire” shows that this is in fact the case as major corporations increasingly turn to ethnographers and other social scientists to perfect their marketing strategies.

According to the article, “The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ ‘unarticulated desires.’”

Holy Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the internal colonization of the lifeworld by the system, Batman!

According to that contemporary German philosopher, “the imperatives of autonomous subsystems [such as corporations or other bureaucracies] make their way into the lifeworld [i.e. our personal space where we’re off the clock, so to speak] from the outside—like colonial masters coming into a tribal society—and force a process of assimilation onto it."

Translation: the corporate-dominated world is no longer just interested in sucking up your labor power and getting in your billfold—it wants to get inside your head. And it’s getting better at it.

[If you have a real masochistic streak, you can read all about this in Habermas’ two volume Theory of Communicative Action, which El Cabrero once did for reasons that now escape him.]

It’s kind of fitting that ethnographers are pioneering this colonization of our inner lives, since their predecessors pretty much did the same with real colonies in the “developing world.”

Here's a thought: why don't we have some underground agents join the corporate ethnological world and tell their bosses that research indicates people don't want their entire existence to be strip mined for someone else's profits? Any takers?



Anonymous said...

Hey they've been doing this since the early seventies and look how successful it has been so far! Do I really need all these electronic gizmos? Oh quick I better check and make sure I am not missing something else I don't really need to buy.

El Cabrero said...

Good point. But I'm still trying to get over the fact that anthropology majors are employable...