My goal in this article is to apprehend claims about person–product relationships now circulating in the world of business. I take up approaches that presuppose the embeddedness of economic action in shifting networks or assemblages of people and things (human and nonhuman actors), and that call attention to the agency distributed within such networks. I discuss the work of Michel Callon and his colleagues and specifically their notion of "the economy of qualities" (Callon et al. 2002). I pose two sets of related questions. First, can we translate marketing claims that relationships between consumers and corporate brands define a locus of value creation into the terms of Marx's theory of value? And how might this translation revise not only the marketing claim, but also Marx's understanding of surplus value creation? Second, can we translate the claim that value creation hinges on a dynamic relationship between corporations and consumers into terms of a theory of participatory democracy? That is, what sort of political potential might inhere in this relationship? In particular, how might this relationship endow consumers with agency not only in value creation but also in "making things public" (Bruno Latour 2005b)? I address these questions of commodity networks and consumer agency with a set of visual props drawn from my research into the sociotechnical lives of an iconic type of global commodity: Coca-Cola brand soft drinks.
In the past, Cultural Anthropology has published a variety of articles on the anthropology of corporations and consumer activism. See for example, Shao Jing’s essay about the economy of HIV/AIDS in rural Central China (2006), Danilyn Rutherford’s essay about the revival of tradition on an Indonesian frontier (1996), and Catherine M. Cameron’s essay about avant-gardism as a mode of cultural change (1990).
About the Author
Robert J. Foster is a Professor of Anthropology, Professor of Visual and Cultural Studies, and a Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester.
Also see Robert J. Foster's Anthropology News article on the Coke Complex Issue, "Show and Tell: Teaching Critical Fetishism with a Bottle of Coke."
Links from the Essay
Questions for Classroom Discussion
Questions related to the main argument of the piece
Do you find the notion of appropriation of consumer agency by corporate brands novel and interesting? Do you think it’s ironic that consumers end up repeatedly paying to use the products of their own creativity? (almost like continuing to pay rent on a house you own)
How does this essay extend current discussion on the relationships between consumers, companies and brands? How does the author claim companies “manage” relations between consumers and the brand?
“Value is: refreshing a new generation of consumers”. How, according to the author, does reproducing demand keep the commercial project alive?Does commercial rhetoric about ‘value co-creation’ go beyond merely reproducing demand to actually generating new kinds of demand?
How, according to the author, is the ‘voicy consumer’ dynamically produced and managed by businesses? Does the author seem to suggest that the threat of the so-called voicy consumer is a recent phenomenon? If so, what factors might be said to potentially contribute to such emergence?
What abstract forms of the use value of goods, in terms of their subjective, symbolic and emotive potential, does the author suggest can be extracted by businesses towards surplus value generation?
Do you think the author’s analysis of use value extraction from consumer actions goes only as far as engaging with the rhetoric of corporate advertisement or do you think it drills deeper into the mechanisms of product development itself?
What do you think corporate advertising rhetoric most often hides? What do you think it reveals? What kinds of ‘double binds’ does it thrive on? What contradictions does it attempt to iron out in order to make the potential advantages to the customer of use-value extraction by businesses seem natural and self-evident?
Questions on theory and conceptual framing
The author’s analytic frame merges ideas from science studies and economic sociology to extend Marx’s theory of value. What alternate analytic frameworks might you use to analyze the same phenomenon of corporate branding? How many different kinds of projects might you be able to craft using these various analytic lens?
Might the use of alternative analytic frameworks generate different interpretations of value creation than the one the author presents? What implications might this have for critiques of corporate globalization and cultural hegemony?
How does the author revise existing theory on marketing claims? In what way does he extend Marx’s theory of surplus value, as he claims to do? Do you find his notion of use value extraction interesting?
How does the author use existing theory in his work? Do you think his choice of theories frames his work nicely? What other theories might have been potentially useful to this analysis?
The author makes the bold claim that surplus value (i.e. profit) can be extracted not only from that abstract entity called labor power that Marx identified, but also from the very use value of a product itself, which had mere utilitarian or aesthetic significance for Marx. Does Foster’s ethnographic example bear out his claim? Do you think his contention about use value extraction holds true across time or is it a unique symptom of the current historical epoch? If the latter, then what distinguishes the current epoch?
Do you think this author’s analysis moves away from a framework of discourse and towards a framework of action on the part of businesses and consumers? How does it sit in relation to Foucault’s analysis of the role of social discourse in guiding individual action?
What explicit post-structuralist moves can you identify in the way this work has been approached? For instance, use of the performative idiom in analyzing the reproduction of demand, use of dynamic as opposed to static models in understanding value creation etc.
How does the author’s analysis of dynamic stabilization and destabilization complicate simplistic interpretations of commercial activity as reinforcing corporate hegemony, or conversely, of consumer agency as overthrowing corporate dominance?
What do you find interesting about the author’s analysis? To what extent do you agree or disagree with it? What potential caveats in his theory of value creation and extraction do you detect, if any?
What’s new about this piece? Do you think the author’s idea of the appropriation of customer creativity towards corporate profit is new to anthropological literature on the new economy?
What do you make of the author’s attempt to extend the notion of value co-creation to a theory of participatory democracy? What do you think of his notion of “making things public” in the context of brand value creation? Are you convinced by his analysis of the possibilities for activism inherent in it?
What significance do the theoretical insights of this article hold for worldwide activism? What insights does this article offer on the current state of globalization, neo-liberalism and free-market ideology?
Do you think the notion of ‘anticipation’ of the productive process by businesses has been well developed by the author? In what ways does he claim consumer research helps with the anticipation process? Is it fair to equate this with the notion of intellectual piracy or is that taking it too far?
Does the abstract and slippery nature of value creation diminish the legal possibilities for customers wanting to make intellectual property rights claims on produced goods? How might corporate law be modified to take into account the distribution of labor inherent in such nebulous ideas as ‘value co-creation’?
How does the notion of value co-creation described in this article differ from the notion of participatory design? Do you think current practices of corporate branding rest on the rhetoric of participatory design even as they deviate from its objectives?
What do you think are the theoretical, analytic, methodological, literary and textual strengths (and weaknesses) of this piece?
Questions on method
What do you find methodologically interesting about this piece? Do you think the author’s methods are explicit in his description? How might you have gone about the same ethnographic work differently, and what implications might your approach have had for your findings, in terms of both the possibilities it opens up and those it shuts down?
What do you think are the challenges of doing ethnographies of corporations? What problems of access to material, resources and people might you encounter in these situations and how might such challenges differ from other forms of denial of access in alternate field-sites?
What do you make of the author’s approach of juxtaposing two different ethnographic cases and highlighting the different insights each generates? Do you agree with his comparative analysis? Do you think he handles the comparison well or does the comparative strategy inevitably set up certain artificial dichotomies between the two cases that might not in fact exist?
Questions related to activism
How much hope do the author’s conclusions offer for consumer activism? How optimistic or pessimistic do you think this piece is on the issue of consumer agency? Do you think the situation of corporate brand dominance in the new economy is more optimistic than the author makes out, or conversely, more pessimistic? (General)
What insights could you draw from this piece that might be relevant to the purposes of law and advocacy and might help in advancing citizens’ claims against global corporations? What kinds of demands might consumers be entitled to make of corporations, based on their realization of the exploitation of their own creativity by these corporations?
Questions on broader contextualization
What academic streams do you think this work might be relevant to?
How might the insights from this work be relevant to your own research?
How would you club this piece with others in designing a course syllabus? What thematic categories do you see it fitting into? What different literatures does it draw on and contribute to?
This work has distinct activist implications and yet maintains academic rigor. Think about how it differs in structure, content and style from other kinds of formal writing. How does it differ from journalistic writing, for instance? How does the nature of critique tend to differ in the two kinds of writing? Assuming that ethnographic methods are not all that different from investigative journalism, how might you take the data you collect and write an anthropological account, on the one hand, and a journalistic account, on the other? What role does the individual subjectivity of ‘informants’ or ‘collaborators’ play in each?
Other Questions raised by the article
In your opinion, how has commercial branding evolved over time? In particular, how has the locus of agency in value creation shifted over time? Does this shift correspond to broader socio-economic and political shifts? Would this article have been stronger if it had incorporated some kind of temporal analysis of shifting commercial practices?
With reference to the two ethnographic examples the author uses, do you think that agency is entirely performative in any given context or are there structural preconditions that enable or disable agency to a greater or lesser degree in different situations? Think of examples with which to support your position.
What other corporate brands besides Coca-Cola would you like to critique as the author has done? (General) How different might the author’s insights on ‘value co-creation’ be in the case of different categories of commercial products and different contexts of exchange? Can you think of products or services that might diverge sharply from the author’s model of value creation, or contexts in which his analysis might break down?
In-Class Activity or Homework Assignment
Discourse Analysis - Have students or groups of students choose popular coporate brands, visit their websites and analyze the goals, language and imagery they invoke through their advertising. Also have them compare corporate discourse with popular discourse on these brands gleaned from blogs or wiki discussions and ask them to comment on the mutual reinforcements and fissures they observe between these discourses. What insights does such a comparative analysis offer on how popular imaginaries about brand value are created?
In the November 2007 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Robert J. Foster explicates the power of commercial “branding” in the contemporary global economy, arguing that reflexive intervention on the part of business has become central to commercial practice. Businesses must be constantly creative about generating value while reckoning with the threat of the “voicy consumer” produced in this very process who is simultaneously “better informed, more critical, less loyal, and harder to read.” Foster’s essay asks not only how marketing claims about “value co-creation” in the relationship between consumers and corporate brands might be translated in terms of Marx’s theory of value, but also how this translation might revise both the marketing claims and Marx’s understanding of surplus value creation.
Analyzing two types of images drawn from his research into the iconic global commodity of branded soft drinks -- the first an ironic and playful portrayal of soft drinks as modern complements to traditional ways of life amongst the highlanders of Papua New Guinea, and the second a critical portrayal of soft drinks as signs of the evils of corporate globalization by student protest groups -- Foster raises vital questions about “the limits and possibilities of consumer agency in the economy of qualities” for organizing publics.
This essay elaborates anthropological theory about the current economy by pointing out that what it reflects is not the dematerialization of things into events but “a shift from the permanent transfer of ownership of things to the ongoing rental of things”. Thus, in buying branded goods, customers end up paying repeatedly to recover the value of their own productivity and subjectivity. However, Foster’s insightful analysis of ethnographic material reveals that, even as consumer agency provides an enhanced capacity for surplus value creation exploited by firms, it can simultaneously open up new possibilities for activism by serving as a source of disruption and destruction of value, assembling publics around issues of concern using new communication technologies. This essay ought to be of relevance to a wide range of scholars, varying from political economists, globalization theorists and anthropologists of corporate culture to post-Marxist analysts, agency theorists, and theorists of consumer activism and health social movements.