“By saying that someone becomes the owner of something, we are referring to a market transaction, while by saying that something is a good belonging to someone, we emphasize the fact that it has been incorporated into the world of someone, of which it has become an integral part.”
Michel Callon and Fabian Muniesa, 2005: 1233

 

One of the most important concepts in contemporary economic sociology—the notion of “singularity”—can be illustrated through a well-known advertisement from the 1970s: the “My Bologna Has a First Name” campaign for Oscar Mayer. This short TV spot featured a song whose lyrics many Americans, young and old, know by heart:

            My bologna has a first name,

            It’s O-S-C-A-R.

            My bologna has a second name,

            It’s M-A-Y-E-R.

            Oh, I love to eat it every day,

            And if you ask me why I’ll say,

            ‘Cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A.

Here’s a link to the original 30-second spot. 

The central conceit of the ad, that consumers can differentiate among commodity lunchmeats such that one can be singled out as “my bologna,” is a nice illustration of the process of singularization, in which supply and demand relationships are shaped not only by prices but by the qualitative attributes of products. When a product is considered in a class by itself, that is the ultimate expression of singularization, as Harvard economist Edward Chamberlin first described it in his 1933 book, The Theory of Monopolistic Competition (probably one of the most lucid and sensible books ever written by an economist about markets—highly recommended).

Michel Callon and Fabian Muniesa took this idea further by looking at what happens to products after purchase. As the quote above from their 2005 Organization Studies article indicates, Callon and Muniesa are interested both in the market transaction (the price, the exchange of money for goods) and in the subsequent process through which the purchased object becomes integrated into the life and identity of the new owner. This illustrates the special contributions of sociology to the analysis of economic behavior: while economists (even the behavioral sort) would consider the purchase the endpoint of the analysis, Callon and Muniesa can go much further, delving into the social lives of transacted objects—a inquiry that until recently has been left to practitioners in marketing and consumer research.

One reason the Oscar Mayer bologna spot remains one of the most famous commercials of all time—35 years after it first appeared—is precisely because it illustrates a common but rarely discussed aspect of everyday economic experience: the bonding and identification process which occurs between consumers and their products. Many of us have these experiences of what psychiatrists call “cathexis” with consumer goods, but lack a common vocabulary to discuss this experience, since it falls outside the hegemonic discourse of economics—except perhaps as a perplexing “stickiness” in consumers’ brand loyalty or in producer pricing, virtually all of which gets black-boxed as “irrationality” or “noise” in models otherwise devoid of social influences. A few astute cultural critics have tried to unpack this process of bonding between products and consumers, notably Herbert Marcuse, who wrote of consumption-crazed 1960s America, “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fit set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”[1] But other than these occasional critical reflections, the consumer experience and the post-purchase fate of objects were simply excluded from scholarly inquiry, leaving the field to practitioners.

Thus, the Oscar Mayer bologna commercial emerged not from a theoretical model consumers’ relationships to products, but through inductive inquiry—including focus groups consisting of children as participants (a methodological innovation, since virtually all consumer research prior to the 1970s was done with adults).  In fact, my mother—who worked at the advertising agency handling the Oscar Mayer account—says that the phrase “my bologna” actually came from me! Apparently, I opened the refrigerator one day to make a sandwich, and was dismayed to find, instead of the Oscar Mayer bologna I expected, some alien brand of lunch meat, at which I exclaimed, “Mom, that’s not my bologna!” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story, since I have no memory of the event, but I do know that the term “my bologna” struck a whole generation of kids as an apt description of their relationship with a branded product.

Portrait of the sociologist as a young artist: me about age 7 drawing advertising storyboards with one of the art directors at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. As you can tell from the art director's storyboard, this was while the team (which included my mother) was working on the Oscar Mayer account.
Portrait of the sociologist as a young artist: me about age 7 drawing advertising storyboards with one of the art directors at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. As you can tell from the art director's storyboard, this was while the team (which included my mother) was working on the Oscar Mayer account.

 

That in itself is rather strange upon further reflection. There is something particularly odd about identifying with one’s food to the point of anthropomorphizing it. “My bologna” is so fully singularized that it has both first and last names! The jingle almost makes it sound as if the lunch meat is an imaginary friend, except that it’s embodied and edible. So the product is defined by the child (as “my bologna”) while at the same time, the product defines the child; this is not made explicit in the advertisement, but is a kind of unspoken consequence of the cathexis between the lunch meat and its consumer. The child identifies with the brand Oscar Mayer as—the advertisers hope—the adolescent will later identify with specific brands of jeans, and the adult will identify with certain brands of automobiles and laundry detergent. (I examined this phenomenon at length in Pop Finance, in the context of investors’ stock picks; see particularly Chapter 2 on “identity investing.” Socially-responsible investing is a major instantiation of this phenomenon, as is the rapid growth of niche investment funds designed to meet the highly specific “economic-expressive” needs of various religious sects, along with secular interest groups.)

This process of mutual definition between product and consumer is termed “co-elaboration” by Callon and Muniesa, and—in my opinion—it’s a brilliant insight. Two points strike me as particularly important to note. The first is that the “sociotechnical process” of consumption does not stop with the purchase of goods: in fact, that’s only the beginning. Second, Callon and Muniesa take a radical, innovative theoretical stance simply by refusing to give precedence to human agents in their model of economic relations: products and consumers enjoy equal status and powers of defining reality. Indeed, tools of calculation—including everything from pencil and paper to abaci and computers—are co-equals with humans and products, sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating with one another.

This recalls the writings of science fiction and cyber-punk authors from Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick through William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, in which carbon-based and silicon-based life forms exist in tension with one another. The theme of much of this literature concerns the emergent agency of the latter (such computers or robots and cyborgs) against their creators; here, we could think of Hal9000, the computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who becomes a character in the narrative by defying his intended function as a tool for astronauts and asserting a will of his own—“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.” Fast forward 20 years from the making of that film to the late 1990s, when children around the world began playing with “tamagotchis”—keychain-sized electronic “pets” that expressed needs for food and water, and which could die from lack of care. And sure enough, by 2001, humans were clearly accustomed to attributing agency and independence to the products and tools they bought, snapping up “Personal Digital Assistants” to fill the roles once occupied by human secretaries and spouses.

By putting human agents on an equal footing with “products” and “tools,” Callon and Muniesa do much moe than open the door to considering products as semi-autonomous agents in economic life, which is radical enough in itself. In addition, the theory of “co-elaboration” provides a way for scholars to examine a phenomenon of increasing importance in contemporary consumer activity: the ways in which products and tools change the people who buy and use them. (This has become a popular topic among futurists, many of whom write of an imminent “posthuman, biocybernetic” era in which humans and machines become seamlessly integrated.) Marketing practitioners, particularly in high-tech, have been aware of this and leveraged its profit potential for some time—perhaps most notably in the case of Apple Computer. After circling the drain in the late 1990s, leading to predictions of its imminent demise, the firm not only survived but thrived by treating the purchase of their electronic devices (supposedly their main business) as simply the beginning of a lengthy consumption process whose object was the personalization—singularization, if you will—of their products. However much profit Apple makes from the sales of iPods and MacBooks, the business model clearly centers on the subsequent purchases which enable consumers to make the products their own—notably music and software from iTunes.

These consumption possibilities, in turn, change us as consumers. Anyone old enough to remember wax LPs knows that people listen to music very differently now that it is no longer delivered to us via albums, which constrained listeners to consume songs in full and in a specific order. Naturally, there were ways to get around those constraints (getting up and moving the needle on the record player to skip to a favorite song, or creating a “mix tape” by recording songs from multiple albums), but they were cumbersome and inconvenient. Now, instead of listening to music in a format created by others, we can readily and cheaply create our own musical content and play order. We can buy music in much smaller quanta than were available even a decade ago, and due to the lowered cost of search, we may broaden our listening habits and preferences because we can buy one song at a time rather than investing in whole albums.

Recognizing the socio-cultural implications of economic activity turned Apple Computer from a dying firm to one of the most successful in its industry. Other computer manufacturers, like Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Compaq, did not see these possibilities, and instead saw themselves in a traditional economic way, as sellers of computers and other electronic equipment; their main concern was to make the sale. To the extent that they were concerned with what happened to their products after the sale, it was only in a technical sense, such as selling replacement toner and ink cartridges. The social life of products, and the ways that products can exert social influence on consumers, was not part of their business model. Those firms are suffering economically, while Apple has been doing better than ever.

By raising such issues as the “co-elaboration” of products and consumers to the level of scholarly inquiry, Callon and Muniesa’s theory showcases the strengths of a sociological approach to economic issues. In essence, they show how economic sociology picks up where economists leave off, examining phenomena of great theoretical and practical interest that often fall between the disciplinary cracks within social science. Their theory allows questions that have formerly been the domain of marketing and consumer research practitioners—questions about the post-purchase “lives” of products, how products shape and define their consumers, and how consumers use products as tools to understand themselves and make themselves understandable to others—available for sociological inquiry. This gives us reason to look forward to a future of fascinating research in hitherto un- or under-explored realms.  

 


 [1]Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One Dimensional Man. London: Routledge. p. 9.

 

U1300513INPOnce upon a time, the phrase “The Lady or the Tiger?”–taken from an 1882 short story of that name–was a byword for impossible choices. The story took place in a mythical kingdom where justice was dispensed through the workings of chance. The accused were presented with two identical doors behind which awaited opposing fates: one concealed a hungry tiger, who would immediately devour the accused, while the other concealed a beautiful woman, whom the accused would have to marry on the spot. This doesn’t present a problem until the accused man is the lover of the King’s daughter; when the lover asks the princess for a hint as to which door to choose, she has to decide whether she’d rather see him dead or married to another woman. The story ended without the author revealing the princess’ choice or the lover’s fate; the unresolved puzzle thus secured the story’s role as a topic of speculation and “thought experiments” for generations to come.

This is by way of prologue to the economic sociological news that an American woman was recently offered a live tiger in exchange for her virginity. Now the woman has been running an auction for her virginity since September, so the offer didn’t come entirely out of the blue. But still, the offer of a live tiger (by a zookeeper in an undisclosed location) is incomparably bizarre.

It’s also deliciously ironic, in that it brings “The Lady or the Tiger?”  into a 21st century Western context, in which everything can be legitimately and publicly commodified so that there is no longer an irreducible opposition between lady and tiger. Instead, they are being offered as equivalents for exchange. Reduction of everything to a price tag puts everything up for grabs, and everything on an equal footing.

I stress the legitimate and public commodification of virginity, because of course, intact hymens have been put on the auction block for hundreds–perhaps thousands–of years. It still happens openly all over the world: Nick Kristof of the New York Times has done an excellent series on the selling of young Vietnamese girls (by their own families) into sex slavery in Cambodia. It even happens in the US, albeit under cover; since selling other people’s bodies is against the law, we only hear about it when there is a criminal investigation or a dramatization, like those surrounding the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.

But what if you want to sell your own body? And what if you want to define it as an act of free market rationality–“I have something of value, and I should be compensated for it.” Or how about framing the sale of one’s hymen as a feminist act, by keeping the profits rather than having them expropriated by men or older women, as was the fate of Moll Hackabout (see below)? 

These are precisely the ideological claims of the lady–one Natalie Dylan, aged 22, of San Diego–who is being offered a live tiger in exchange for being sexually penetrated for the first time. Dylan’s reasoning, in her own words, is as follows (the phrases in boldface are my emphasis):

And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism…  And for what it’s worth, the winning bid won’t necessarily be the highest—I get to choose.

Bidding for this prize was up to a reported $3.8 million earlier this month. Natalie’s ability to construct a narrative of empowerment and autonomy around the auction stems in part from her training in Women’s Studies, in which she received an undergraduate degree from Sacramento State University. She says the auction started as a “sociological experiment” on the value of virginity, as well as a practical means of raising money to fund her graduate studies in marriage and family therapy. She was inspired in part by her older sibling, Avia, who earned enough in three weeks working as a prostitute at Nevada’s Bunny Ranch brothel to put herself through graduate school. Sisterhood is powerful!

Avia and Natalie Dylan (not their real names).
Sisters doing it for themselves: Avia and Natalie Dylan (not their real names).
So Dylan presents herself as a feminist capitalist, extending the logic of the market to an extreme that only slightly surpasses what Madonna and other female “entertainers” have been doing for decades. Dylan adds that she has been praised for her “entrepreneurial gumption” by an unnamed Fortune 500 CEO–a claim I have been unable to verify independently. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true, given what Frankfurt School sociologist Jürgen Habermas calls the creeping “colonization of the life-world” by capitalism, in which “systemic mechanisms –for example, money – steer a social intercourse that has been largely disconnected from norms and values.”
 
Habermas means that concepts, values and modes of thought associated with the market have intruded into daily life to such an extent that individuals become increasingly unable to think–or act–outside the hegemonic system. Everything gets (re)packaged in market terms–that is, everything is (eventually) assigned a price. This impoverishes our world and our relationships, as if we eliminated words, images and gestures from our communication, and replaced them instead with number systems like binary or hex. More “efficient” and “precise”? Possibly. But can those qualities really be traded off against the powers of allusion, metaphor, and symbolism?
 
Habermas’ ideas have their roots in the work of founding sociologists, like Karl Marx (who wrote of the “internal colonization” of humans by capitalist ideology) and Max Weber, who observed the competing relationship between value-rationality (in which entities can be measured on their own terms, and cherished for their own sake) and instrumental rationality (in which entities are measured by their exchange value).  The increasing dominance of instrumental rationality is linked to the process of modernity, and it not only “flattens” the world by reducing everything to its value vis-a-vis something else (usually money), but it reduces our own autonomy as humans. As another contemporary social theorist put it in a recent essay,
The life-world, by and large, characterized by value-rationality, begins to be eclipsed and absorbed in instrumental rationality, making persons become means to political and economic ends not in their interest, nor under their control.
Herein lies the fallacy of Natalie Dylan’s empowerment reasoning, and–to be fair to her–the reasoning of the many, many men and women who make the same claims. Dylan and people like her have no real “autonomy” or “control” in the market system. According to Habermas, and to Kant, when you live in a world turned upside-down, where instead of socio-economic structures serving human needs, humans become subordinated to the systems, you have no means to mount an effective challenge. By profiting from the trophy status of her virginity, Natalie Dylan isn’t doing anything new–consider all the marriage markets, past and present, in which a woman’s ability to command a wealthy husband is contingent in part upon her intact hymen–and she’s certainly not subverting anything. This isn’t her fault, or a weakness on her part; it’s the human condition in what Max Weber would call modern, rational-bureaucratic societies.
 
This scenario differs from the plot of The Matrix only in that there is no cabal–no specific people or institutions–who can be overthrown in order to change the system. The horror of it all is that many people and institutions contribute, often unknowingly, to the commodification of themselves and others, making the system incredibly difficult to change. So Natalie Dylan isn’t “hacking” the system of women’s sexual commodification, nor is she going to alter it with her auction. Certainly, the process will change her, and from what I’ve read of her, she seem to both underestimate that change and overestimate her own power to control her experience within this colonized life-world.
 
While writing this post, I’ve been conducting a little thought-experiment of my own: what would I have done if Natalie Dylan had been my student? Answer: I would have tried to do what I aimed for with all the students I ever taught, which was to inform them, and show them how to think critically and clearly. I doubt that just discouraging her, or conveying my concern about the effects the auction might have on her, would have made much of a difference. And for a 22-year-old, even parental disapproval would likely be ineffective (though I’ve wondered how her parents responded–something I have not seen addressed in any of the news coverage).
 
So, had she been my student, I would have asked Dylan to do three things:
  • First, read about the colonization of the life-world by the market, using selections from Habermas, Marx, Weber, Kant.
  • Second, write a paper describing a world in which selling sex (or reproductive material) wasn’t the only way for a young woman to make a big pile of money quickly, just to see if she could imagine such a thing–and to help her begin to see what it means to be “colonized” by an idea (somewhat like the strategy employed by the high school counselor working with the white supremacist teenager in American History X).
  • Third, I would ask her to analyze her auction plan in relation to the valuation of other women’s virginity: what does it mean that she expects to command enough money for her hymen to put herself through graduate school, while the Vietnamese parents interviewed by Nick Kristof (see above) can barely clear enough from the sale of their virgin daughters into brothels to open a little hut selling rice and vegetables? Is it acceptable to her to profit from the same social system that led soldiers in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and many other war zones, to target virgins for rape in order to inflict maximum damage on the enemy?

Perhaps none of these exercises would have changed Dylan’s mind. But I think we’d be hearing a lot less from her about empowerment. Instead of claiming “I’m seizing control of the commodification of women’s sexuality for my own benefit,” I imagine she’d say something more like, “I’m willing to enter into this corrupt and unfair exchange because it’s the only way I can make a fortune in a few months.” I’d prefer unpleasant accuracy to pleasant (self)deception any day. And maybe a more accurate perception of herself and her actions would lead her to do something positive, like donate proceeds of her auction to help the women whose trophy-virginity was taken without consent or compensation.