It’s always been a question of mine as to how the USA operates for in the minds of their citizens – how they think of themselves and how they can operate without huge amounts of the tradition behind them – says an “old European!”.
Claude Fischer, Professer of Sociology at the University of California has made a brave attempt in his new book to capture the essence of the historic and changing modern USA. “Made in America – a social history of American Culture and Character”
Broken down in to a few key subjects the whole gamut of American experience as nationhood is painted with a broad brush. But within that sketch some clear and useful terms of reference are created.
The main chapters are titled: Security, Goods, Groups, Public Spaces & Mentality. There’s a lot here for marketeers to get their teeth into.
Fischer identitifies the dynamic of security within the nation creating a potential environment for unsecure actions and contradictoraly increasing risk [gun law]. Such is the perversity of the “modern” world and perhaps not something only created in the U.S.
This contradiction he posits is one whereby, the security reinforced a sense of self reliance in 20th and 21st century Americans and that they remain “reasonably anxious about the future.” pp58
This is a real gem of a chapter for those folk involved with sales and marketing the quotes come thick and fast. e.g:
“Post modernist theorists take an ironic stance and say that Americans “celebrate” shopping. They argue that people buy goods to express their identities to bond with like-minded others, and to resist anomie of mass society.”[emphasis added] pp60
“most writing on consumption reeks of moral judgment and snobbery and some times reverse snobbery [Slow Food?] Indeed he suggests that academics all too often fall into the trap of just demonstrating their own stance towards the world. [Isn’t that ever the way?]
Fischer does a lovely job on such snobbery when he says:
“Western intellectuals criticise elephantine American cars, fast food, Hollywood blockbusters and trips to Disneyland, but not pricey European automobiles, well aged wines, exhibitions of avant-garde paintings and excursions to Tuscany” [Ouch!]
His extensive reading [you’ve never seen such a bibliography as in this book!] enables him to draw on the experiences of Americans towards the consumer society noting that historians site the emergence of the consumer soiciety in 17th century America onwards and upwards towards the credit boom of the 1980’s and “luxury fever”. [ Luxury fever – the symptom named?]
Why do people over buy? Claude Fischer lists the triumverate of
1) to imitate others – status
2) satisfy uncontrollable desires – emotional release
3) announce who they are – identity
“..consumers get caught up in competitive races to gain status, to experience yet greater thrills or to keep refurbishing their identities” pp73
Once or twice Fischer takes to task the economics “profession” with its predilection for consumers only indicating their “needs” through their purchases. He takes on the “satisficer” model where people/consumers have preferences and tastes and are not blind takers.
On advertising he says, “…whether advertising significantly creates wants among adults – or accurately reflects their wants remains and open question.” pp77
On Luxury and Indulgence
Fischer reminds us that the complaints about wealth and display have been around since the 19th century exampled by the complaints on the profanity of Christmas 150years or so ago.
He concludes that the data and records do not clearly or necessarily show that the last and current centuries are anymore consumerist than previously seen. pp85
Daniel Bell(1976) “the single greatest engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic [of self discipline] was the invention of the instalment plan” i.e.credit cards?
One of the clear ideas that any student of the USA has to accommodate is the question of “voluntarism”. I think it is here that the true essence of Fischer work will benefit readers from outside the U.S.
He notes that de Tocqueville and other visitors to the U.S. considered them “unusually individualistic”
To quote it was noted the “..indifference with which Americans leave old habitations, friends and relations…. Attachments seldom exist beyond that of ordinary acquaintances – these are easily found where ever one may go.” pp97
Fischer suggests that Americans have more loyalty to family, church and nation that other western nations where the loyalty might be based on race, tribe And yet, the principle on which this is built is one of voluntarism whereby:
“Americans generally see “community” as an obvious and uncomplicated virtue. …Americans are unconflicted in their affection for community, at least in part, because they typically choose their communities rather than inherit them.” [emphasis added]pp98
On equality –
“American equality not of outcome but equality of opportunity, treatment and freedom.” pp100.
Sounds good in theory but you do have to wonder how the poor in the US feel about their current “outcomes”? This is perhaps belies the need for greater critical analysis here.
[Very apposite to the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK in 2010] Claude Fischer reports that the,
“Voluntaristic approach to religion exampled by going to church if it “meets your needs” rather than as a duty or obligation.” pp153
He states that a recent survey of American Catholics shows 75% would more likely follow their own consciences that that of the teachings of the Pope.
Public spaces –
For a non-sociologist it is interesting to see the introduction of the concepts of private, parochial and public in relation to public spaces per se.
The concepts as Fischer admits are vague and shifting:
” Many constitutional struggles…concern precisely where to draw the line that bounds public space.” pp162
- Private: home – intimate & friends of intimate
- Public: where “strangers typically encounter one another”
- Parochial: vague but nonetheless important space in-between private and the public, reserved for acquaintances from neighbourhood bar: “where everyone knows your name”
A note in the text here draws the same framework into “virtual space”
- Private: email
- Parochial: comment by invitation to discussion group [not sure this is necessarily so anymore]
- Public: posts to web – fully public
I would suggest the ability to be parochial on the web is somewhat limited and not necessarily the raison d’etre of people worldwide that is coming to the fore e.g. Twitter, Jaidu, , Ameba, Weibo etc. Very much in the frame today in the UK with “super injunctions” and Twitter simply “broadcasting” what cannot be reported by mainstream media.
528 pages – actually half of that is the actual read, the rest is notes, bibliography and index so don’t get intimidated!
A very interesting read with some helpful terminology and definitions to place the Americans in context.