The Word Works

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Winners' Circles (The Anthropological Observer)

Published By: John on 01/06/11
Categories: Winners' Circles Consuming Japan Advertising

The previous post addressed the influence on the author of being a participant in the industry he is studying. Here the focus shifts to his academic training as an anthropologist and how that is reflected in the structure of the book.

The anthropologist who peers over the shoulder of the adman in me is the product of late 1960s graduate training in anthropology at Cornell University and two trips to Taiwan (1969-71 for dissertation fieldwork; 1976-77 for advanced training in Chinese). It was during the first of the trips to Taiwan that I was asked the question to which this book is my latest answer.

Clancy Engler, the Maryknoll missionary who was priest of the local Catholic parish in Puli, where my fieldwork was based, had been in Taiwan for fifteen years and spoke Taiwanese like a native. The first time he asked me, “What can an anthropologist teach someone like me?” I had no ready answer. It seemed absurd to imagine that a fresh-off-the-plane, green behind the ears, just starting to learn Taiwanese young anthropologist like me would ever have anything to teach an old hand like him.

A year later, I had an answer. I could point out a few things about Taiwanese ritual of which Clancy was unaware. I had had the extraordinary privilege of spending a whole year with no other obligation than to talk to people and look for answers to whatever questions occurred to me?\and more important here, my training as an anthropologist had given me questions to ask that had never occurred to a priest busy running his parish.

The late 1960s were an exciting time to be a novice anthropologist. All sorts of new ideas were in the air. I was excited by Claude Lévi-Strauss’ advice in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked to look for the logic in tangible qualities (that later would help the adman a lot when it came to talking with art directors). Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger epitomized a renewed focus on social and cosmological categories and, in particular, on people and things that fall in the cracks between them (which later resonated a lot with my advertising colleague’s rule-breaking habits and endless search for something new).  I was persuaded by Clifford Geertz that ethnographers should strive to produce “thick descriptions”(1973:3-30). I was particularly impressed by the opening paragraph of Geertz’s essay “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man.”

Toward the end of his recent study of the ideas used by tribal peoples, La Pensée Sauvage, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss remarks that scientific explanation does not consist, as we have been led to imagine, in the reduction of the complex to the simple. Rather, it consists, he says, in a substitution of a complexity more intelligible for one which is less. So far as the study of man is concerned, one may go even further, I think, and argue that explanation often consists of substituting complex pictures for simple ones while striving somehow to retain the persuasive clarity that went with the simple ones. (1973:33).

Geertz’s amendment of Lévi-Strauss is a fair amendment of what this book strives to be. It substitutes complex pictures of Japan’s advertising industry for the simple ones with which it begins. The research it describes begins with a simple visual image of a range of mountains that captures a bit of commonsense knowledge about the industry’s overall shape. The research uses scientific tools to analyze the structures that underly the topography and the processes that have led to their formation. It also employs interpretive, historical and ethnographic methods to explore what the history revealed by the scientific analysis meant to some of the key figures involved in making that history.

But reader be warned: neither science nor interpretation can claim to be a complete account. Japan’s advertising industry is a very large and complex business. An active trade press, government and private researchers have been generating data about the industry ever since the 1950s. This data stream is a river flowing into an ocean where it mingles with other political, economic, and cultural information. The picture presented here will be complex but it remains at best a cartoon. Those who wish to learn more or to challenge its depictions will have plenty of work to do.


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Geertz persuaded me that ethnography should produce thick descriptions. The only problem was that he never explained how to do it. It was my good fortune, however, to spend a year at Cornell while the British anthropologist Victor Turner was teaching there. Turner remains to this day my model of how a great fieldworker goes about his research.

Turner was British, and like other British anthropologists, was trained in social anthropology, regarded back then as the branch of sociology that studies people who lived outside Europe and North America, where the rest of sociology conducted its research. A former Communist turned Catholic and a member of the Manchester School, he was deeply immersed in Marxist theory and, it now seems to me, conceived of his research paradigm in terms of infrastructure (production and reproduction) and superstructure (ideas, religion, art, theater). Thus, his research began with sociological fundamentals: demography, village maps and house diagrams, kinship, marriage, property, inheritance and succession to office. These would be synthesized in an overview of social structure and process that would frame his research on more cultural topics: rituals, symbols, social dramas and the role of performance in social life. He taught his students that we begin with social structure and process, to which we add what we see (our own observations) and what we hear (the native exegesis, what the people whose lives we study tell us). None, he insisted, are the answer to the ethnographical puzzle. All are pieces that go into the final picture.

Turner’s model defines the structure of this book. Following this introduction, Part I will present the results of social network analysis of the credits associated with the ads that appear in the 1981, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2006 editions of the Tokyo Copywriters Club Advertising Copy Annual. This analysis shows us who worked with whom as members of the teams whose ads won places in these volumes. It allows us to identify key figures in the networks that connect the members of these teams and to trace several distinguished careers over the decades covered by these data. It also reveals the impact on both networks and teams of fluctuations in Japan’s economy and, on the media side, of the rise of TV and decline of print media during the period in question. Part II begins by recounting the history of a long and sometimes heated debate over what the roles of copy in advertising and of copywriters in producing advertising should be. I concludes with extracts from conversations with several of the key figures identified by the network analysis, to explore how they see this debate and the ways in which the industry has changed over the years in which they have worked in it. The conclusion pulls together what we have learned, examines the limitations of the study in terms of both data and method, and suggests directions in which similar research might be improved.

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