Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Consumption of Culture

Economists say things like, "There's no accounting for taste". Indeed, Nobel Laureate Gary Becker once wrote an article dubbed, "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum". On the other hand, Richard Peterson writes towards the end of his article "The Patterns of Cultural Choice", "Much exciting work remains to be done in accounting for the patterns of taste that have been identified." This desire to answer questions many of our brightest economists dismiss leads me to read these kinds of sociology papers, even when they are quite difficult to understand.

This paper seems to be a discussion about how sociologists might begin to understand the patterns of cultural choice. Peterson wants to use the words "patterns" and "choice" to explicitly state that there can be multiple paths to how culture comes into existence and that ultimately there is an "open voluntaristic element to patterns of cultural choice."

How can we begin to understand cultural choice? We must understand how people spend their time and money. Also, we can ask them subjective questions about their values. These research methods amount to surveys and diaries in an effort to obtain a glimpse into the details of other people's lives.

Ultimately Peterson states that we want to know four things from these surveys:

1. Specifics - Peterson critiques past surveys and diaries that may not have asked for specifics. For example, rather than asking people to write down whether they watched television, we might also want to know what they watched. Also, there may be differences in values, consumption, or time allocation between people who are deep sea fishermen versus bass fishermen. The details matter!

2. Significance - Which of the specifics of people's choices seem to be highly predictive of their other choices? That is, what are the leading indicators for other choices made in their life?

3. Distribution - What is the distribution of people into certain cultures? Say that there were five possible cultural choices and people were evenly distributed. That would say that people are selecting into different cultures. But, if people grouped with greater frequency in one or two of the cultures then determining cultural choice is quite difficult.

4. Type -We need to know the characteristics of the people selecting into the culture to see if there are significant traits beyond consumption choice and time allocation that determine which culture a person selects into.

The use of diaries and other methods seems to be a neat and interesting way to go about understanding the decisions people make. I've been reading an interesting book called "Portfolios of the Poor" which utilizes a diary method for household expenditures amongst the poor in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa. They then constructed income and consumption flow charts for the people and were able to gain a thick description of financial instruments used and major life events through explanation in the diaries. Through seeing how people spend their money they discovered numerous items of cultural interest. For example, it is not uncommon for a poor household in India to spend more than 50% of their meager total annual income on a wedding to help improve their status in the community. Also, people in South Africa spend enormous amounts of money on funerals. These can be very important things to know if we're trying to build financial instruments to help people financially who live on $2 a day.

But, my final question is the following: Are these sociologists doing marketing, or, are marketing people doing sociology?

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