xrematon

August 20, 2018

Think Like An Anthropologist

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 3:08 pm
Tags: , ,

This is the alluring title of a book I recently read. Look at the picture below and you will see that the volume itself is rather attractive: a very satisfyingly textured cover of a delicate turquoise in minimalist design.

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As someone who remains deeply fascinated by people, both at the level of the individual and the collective, I was keen to find out how to hone my thinking skills in understanding and making sense of human beings. Who doesn’t want to know about culture and society? Its aligns with all those big existential questions around making sense of who we are, what is our place in the world, what makes us special and what connects us with others.

However, it seems that turning this into a formal branch of academic study makes getting all the answers to these grand questions rather problematic. You end up getting bogged down in layer upon layer of caveats and additional questions; and it seems that learning to think like an anthropologist is actually about learning to understand how our attitudes towards understanding societies and cultures has changed over the past 150 years.

The problems begin when thinking about the central area of focus – culture – which seems like a good solid concept but the more you try to ‘go somewhere’ with it, you realise that it is actually a slippery thing which has slipped away.

This is addressed in the first chapter which sets out how culture has been interpreted differently over time, showing therefore that it is a subjective concept. It has limitations. Let’s think about some concrete examples.

You cannot connect culture with a place too tightly, contrary to what we might initially think. As the author notes,

“What if we want to get even more specific? Can we speak of ‘London’s culture’? Or do we need to be more exact and speak of third-generation Bangladeshi Britons in Tower Hamlets? …And yet further, can we necessarily call someone whose grandparents came from Sylhet to East London in the 1970s a ‘third generation Bangladeshi Briton’? What if they couldn’t care less about ancestry? What if they consider themselves a ‘native’ Londoner?”

Nor is culture fixed in time. The author gives the example of some seminal studies done on tribes in Zimbabwe but in these “the Ndembu are presented very pristinely, as if the huge political and economic challenges and changes taking place simply didn’t register.” In fact, at that time, the 1950s and 1960s, North Rhodesia was full of anthropologists studying culture change and the dynamics of culture change in emerging urban centres, but it is that atemporal study on the Ndembu that has the biggest impact on students!

And then when you try to make sense of has been found out, it is necessary to make analogies to what is already known and understood. In other words, all understanding is relational and more revealing about the attitudes of the one interpreting than providing insights about the subjects of anthropological study. It seems that the dangers come when trying to make the leap from the observed specific to general theories or principles onto which to hang all these little ideas. The theoretical packaging that goes around it all reflects more of our values. It is the study of the particulars that stands the test of time – ethnography – spending time with people to watch how they behave and what makes them tick.

As a curious consumer (in all senses), I think I am doing that already, thank you.

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June 19, 2018

The Rituals of Dinner – part I

Table manners – are they dead or alive? Getting better or getting worse over time?

If you ponder these questions, then the above book is for you: The Ritual of Dinner – The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser. It covers how people – across time and across cultures – behave at the table going from how such behaviours are learnt as part of growing up and then played out during the process of a formal meal with invitations, sitting at the table, getting the food eating it and then at the end of the meal.

As you might imagine, it is a fascinating read, but with a major shortcoming: it is dated. The book was written in 1991 and updated with an additional chapter in 2008 and so misses out on the developments in food culture from the past decade. This is significant as it has been all too easy for the author to perceive, from the perspective of their understanding of the subject and the experience over their lifetime, that we have reached a nadir in table manners and respect for food.

Yes, compared to earlier generations, it could appear that we are dismissive of food, seeking poor quality but highly convenient options. Food is a means to an end – refuelling out of necessity and not an end in itself to be enjoyed and shared with others. Eating is an individualised activity – not just because we often eat on our own but this is designed into the structure of food options – as captured in this memorable description of the burger:

Every burger is self-contained, as streamlined and replete as a flying saucer, and just unmistakably as a child of the modern imagination….Hamburgers are ready very fast (we do not see, and therefore discount all the work which this speed and availability presuppose), and they take only a few minutes to eat: informality in this case cuts away time and clearly signals a disclination to share.

I do not wish to deny that eating has become individualised – in a way this has become truer than ever as much of all that we do in our lives, whether work or leisure, is done alone – think of working home alone, watching your personal choice of content on your own device, as well as having your own meal to fit in with your particular schedule and taste and health preferences. Woe betide any school child that tries to share or swop food – with much better awareness of allergies and intolerances, across all generations, we all know better than to simply offer what is on our plate/in our packed lunch with someone else – what if they are wheat intolerant?

However, I think it is fair to say that, in certain cultures, in particular more Western and urban populations, as well as among our beloved Millennials, food has been re-evaluated. We are now willing to invest significant time and effort into looking at, preparing, sharing and eating food. Some have argued that food now plays the role that music did for earlier generations – a way of establishing identity and defining their relationship with current society.

This is not to say that we are necessarily cooking more, eating healthier or adopting better table manners (I don’t think it would be hard to find evidence to challenge those assertions, in particular if you think about the rise of streetfood, food that is meant to be eaten with hands such as pulled ribs or even the rise of food in bowls- effectively taking us back several centuries when we only had a spoon and knife with which to eat). No, what I would like to challenge instead is Visser’s implicit assumption that food is not important to us – it is and having a beautiful social eating experience is an aspiration and experience that people hold dear.

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December 15, 2016

The new Design Museum – photo essay

Filed under: Innovation,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:45 pm
Tags: , , ,

Something visual for a change….

This week I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Design Museum, moved from its old site in London Bridge to a newly refitted building off High Street Kensington.

The building is nestled alongside Holland Park and set a bit of a way back from the bustle of the street. The museum is also close to the block of luxury flats which were developed simultaneously and formed part of the same property deal (more detail on this, and about the architects, can be found here.)

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The most striking feature about the building is the huge (some might say over-sized) atrium into which one walks on entering.

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The atrium certainly creates a lovely airiness, but it also means that everything else is either squatting in underground bunker floors or squeezed off at the edges. As an example of the latter, let’s take the cafe, often an important part of the museum experience – a place to sit, rest weary legs and chat after gazing at an endless vista of intriguing displays. In the Design Museum, the cafe is not more than a glorified small alcove off to one side of this atrium. It has no access to daylight (there are no windows) and, even though I visited at a non-peak time (early-ish morning midweek), it was already very full.

However, I did enjoy spying other elements of interest in the building, such as the spiralling beams coming off the triangular skylights…

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…as well as the concrete pillar stretching up one side.

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As my visit had no ambitions beyond getting an impression of the museum, I did not explore the exhibits in any detail. but here are some that caught my attention.

Firstly, one almost de rigeur for a design museum – a vase made by 3D printing – surprisingly light.

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Secondly, the more ‘off the wall’ item – a jacket woven from human hair – which I found personally so repulsive that I couldn’t to be near it any longer than was required to take this picture.

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Thirdly, a rather random, whimsical offering – a close-up from a kitchen mock-up constructed entirely out of wood.

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My final image are the water jets you come across as you walk back to join Kensington High Street. I am sure they will be a great hit with children on hot summer days, though I don’t think you will find me coming back to appreciate them. I would rather spent the time admiring the rural aesthetics of my garden.

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