Home Marketing Marketing and American Consumer Culture: A Cultural Studies Analysis
Mary Douglas, a British social anthropologist, developed what is known as grid-group theory over the course of a long career. This theory argues that human beings face two major problems: the first is identity and involves an answer to the question “who am I?” and the second involves behavior and involves an answer to the question “what should I do?” We solve the first problem, our identities, by belonging to a group that has either weak or strong boundaries and we solve the second problem, our behavior, by belonging to a group that has either few or many prescriptions or rules. Douglas calls these groups “lifestyles.” Political scientists like Aaron Wildavsky call them political cultures and argue that is our membership in a political culture that shapes our voting behavior. There are, then, four possibilities as far as lifestyles are concerned.
Different grid-group theorists use different names for the four lifestyles but the formulation above is common.
In their book Culture Theory, Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky explain how the four lifestyles come about (1990:6-7):
Strong group boundaries coupled with minimal prescriptions produce social relations that are egalitarian.... When an individual’s social environment is characterized by strong group boundaries and binding prescriptions, the resulting social relations are hierarchical [sometimes known as elitist].... Individuals who are bounded by neither group incorporation nor prescribed roles inhabit an individualistic social context. In such an environment all boundaries are provisional and subject to negotiation.... People who find themselves subject to binding prescriptions and are excluded from group membership exemplify the fatalistic way of life. Fatalists are controlled from without.
Individualists and elitists (sometimes called competitive individualists and hierarchical elitists) are the basic lifestyles in all societies. Egalitarians are critics of the status quo and try to elevate fatalists, who generally find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder.
What we must recognize is that it is our membership in one of these lifestyles, and we are generally not aware that we are a member of a given lifestyle, that plays an all-important role in our lives as consumers. These lifestyles can be seen as four different consumer cultures operating in the same society and antagonistic toward one another. We can see the way members of the four lifestyles consume popular culture in the chart that follows. It was made by my students a number of years ago and has been updated, but it shows how the four lifestyles shape our pop culture preferences.
Lifestyles and Popular Culture Preferences
We can say that every advertisement and commercial also primarily appeals to one of the four lifestyles. That means if you are a marketer, it is important to recognize that these lifestyles exist and determine which one would be most interested in some product or service you are selling.
Grid-group theory suggests that there are four target audiences, the four “lifestyles” to which we belong that determine so much of our decision making when we are shopping, finding mates, traveling, voting, and doing many other things.
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