Devising a new approach to capitalism at home

  • Kaori O'Connor University College London

Abstract

In this paper I argue that if anthropology is to secure its future, it has to return to one of its historic projects, that of seeking to understand our own society. As Boas (1904: 522) put it, anthropology must study human culture in all the variety of its forms, past and present-including the society in which we ourselves live. In our society today, nothing is more central to everyday life than capitalism, its workings and its products. I describe my own doctoral research in which the concept of capitalism as a cultural system, as developed by Sahlins (1976, 1996, 1998) and by Mintz (1986), is used to undertake a cultural analysis of the relationship between products, corporations and society. In doing so, I point to ways in which anthropology can provide unique insights into commerce. My work focuses on a single producer, product and cohort of consumers-the elite American corporation E. I. du Pont de Nemours (Dupont), the man-made fibre Lycra, and the so-called 'baby boomers', born in Britain and America between 1946 and 1964. By examining the history of this corporation, its invention and marketing of the fibre, and the significant role played by Lycra in the material life of this specific cohort, I was able to trace changes in social values through changes in products, gaining insights not easily obtained by direct observation or conscious explanation. By concentrating on the baby boomer cohort of consumers born between 1946 and 1964, I was able to explore changing attitudes to age in Anglo-American society, where the aging of the population is an urgent concern.

Author Biography

Kaori O'Connor, University College London
Dr Kaori O'Connor is an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. Her on-going research interests include the baby boomer cohort and its associated culture, man-made fibres, and the relationship between technology, business and society.