"What do anthropologists study?"
"The stuff everybody in a group takes for granted."
"Ah....what about the exceptions to the rules?"
After spending many years in the bowels of the beast, working in and around the advertising industry in Japan, it has become increasingly clear to me that the anthropological ethics of informant anonymity and non-judgmental description, combined with an engrained distaste for hierarchy, produce radically unrealistic descriptions of culture and other industries in which who’s who and incessant value judgments are fundamental elements in what is going on.
This was brought home to me while trying to teach a fine ethnography of a Japanese advertising agency. I suddenly realized that my students were assuming that the way the making of advertising was described in this book was the way in which advertising is made in Japan—instead, that is, of the way advertising is made by second-rate hacks who are assigned to the international division because they aren’t good enough to cut it in domestic advertising, where the budgets are orders of magnitude larger.
It is reinforced by my work with members of teams whose ads have won awards in a major Japanese advertising contest. There are certainly good reasons to believe that contests like this one reinforce established hierarchies, especially given that the juries are made up of people who have previously won awards. They are also, however, arenas in which current hierarchies are contested, genuinely creative work is celebrated, and innovation legitimized.
It now seems to me that anthropological theory is gutted by the assumption that a culture is uniformly shared and an ethics of professional presentation that preclude consideration of why some individuals are outstanding, instead of average, examples of what we are talking about. By focusing on the average, we lose sight of the exemplary and thus of a critical factor in social and cultural change.
Special thanks to Patricia Lange, who startedthe thread on Savage Minds that stimulated this remark.