Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

https://www.dukeupress.edu/fabricating-transnational-capitalism

Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power.  Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion.  These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality).  We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical,  pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them.  We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.

Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits.  It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion.  This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus.  The negotiation of value had to be its own section.  As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China.  Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism.  The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention.  We both described and interpreted these legacies.  Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità.  Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.

These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.

Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses.  Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters! 

Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?

Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism.  Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.  As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences.  Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.  

Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches.  In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry.  We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China.  China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism.  The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.

Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?

Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms.  What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another.  That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken.  It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.

Sarah Besky on her book, Tasting Qualities

Tasting Qualities by Sarah Besky

Interview by Shulan Sun

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520303256/tasting-qualities

What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

My main aim in the book is to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the place of quality in contemporary capitalism. The book explores how colonial industries—and the forms of labor and organization that emerged within them—endure not only the formal end of empire but also changes in financial markets, technologies, and the climate itself. I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates colonial forms of marginalization and environmental degradation, including the plantation, into the present. Another key intervention of the book is to show how quality matters even at the bottom end of the global market. I illustrate how a push to shift from plantation-based to smallholder tea production has undermined the efforts of plantation workers to organize and secure both consistent wages and non-monetary benefits such as housing and healthcare. Paradoxically, laborers find themselves defending the colonially rooted plantation as an institution. They do this by asserting their ability to coax quality out of marginal plants and marginal lands.  I hope to show in the book how the ideas of quality work to hold the plantation together, not just as a form of land tenure but as a more tentacular and spatially non-contiguous form of accumulation.

At one point you said that quality means many different things for different people, and that quality is far from a high-brow concern (178). I am wondering, how do you decide which qualities to focus on in this book? Why do you choose to focus on the quality of the relatively low-cost CTC tea, for example?

I didn’t start with quality as the focus of the project at all.  This attention came later, while I was working through materials I collected in the Indian Tea Association archives.  Over and over again, quality appeared as the object of analysis for industrial scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and regulators.  This made me think about what I knew about contemporary food studies, in which a great deal of wonderful work had been done about foods that were considered good in the sense of both refined or desirable taste and good in the sense of having been ethically or responsibly produced.  What was evident in the industrial archive for tea was that quality was something that was actively being worked on—something that had to be produced—in the colonial project of Indian tea production.  From that perspective, quality was not a more-or-less-than proposition.  No tea—not even CTC—would have been considered as having less quality.  Its qualities would just be understood differently.  This led me to think not about what quality is—as in, how different consumer or producer groups imagine and sustain it—but what quality does—as in, how consumers, producers, and, crucially for my argument, the players in-between such as scientists, tasters, and brokers—work with quality.  What I noticed was that these industrial doings-with-quality collapsed three different dimensions: the quality of bodies (particularly those of tea plantation workers); the qualities of materials (tea itself, but also soil and water and milk); and the qualities of markets.

Given that insight—that quality in the world of Indian tea is always already considered to be actively there—CTC turned out to be a better case study in some ways that higher-end single origin teas like Darjeeling or Assam. The misconception that I wanted to counter was that cheap things are cheap because they require less work, or because they possess less of something that other similar but more expensive things have. It turns out that CTC, the low-cost, dark, tannic basis of most Indian chai, is pored over, debated, and considered just as intensively as Darjeeling.  More importantly, the CTC plantations of the Dooars, where part of my fieldwork took place, have been the site of perhaps the most intensive recent mass experiments on the quality of bodies, markets, and materials in all of Northeast India.

I am really inspired by the way you incorporate feminist STS scholars’ perspective in your book, it provides a refreshing way to think about the interaction between nature, market, and bodies. Can you comment a bit on how this perspective informed your project in and beyond this book?

I worked on Tasting Qualities concurrently with a School for Advanced Research-funded volume, How Nature Works, which I co-edited with Alex Blanchette of Tufts University.  The group that contributed to that volume was collectively interested in seeing how the feminist conversation on more-than-human worlds might be enriched by feminist critiques of late capitalist labor.  Again and again, work by scholars like Karen Barad, Michelle Murphy, Annemarie Mol, Heather Paxson, and so many others provided a lens for attending to tea’s material qualities alongside the gendered dynamics of production and questions of value, which I had begun to explore in my first book on Darjeeling tea.  Since the Tasting Qualities project was about finding a way of thinking about capitalism and colonialism that challenged facile, linear understandings of commodity chains, this work was crucial.  Analytically, I allowed me to put the sensory side of quality on an equal footing with the economic side.  I should say also that this work also helped me think through the role of masculinity and expertise in producing quality.

In your book, you discussed how words, things, and senses intertwined with one another in tea brokerage business by focusing on how the communicative infrastructure, as a kind of fixed capital, created the grounds for the construction, circulation, and maintenance of qualities of tea. You also move between “historical and ethnographic registers, as well as between auctions, archives, plantations, and the offices of private and public operators in the industry” (19). Can you elaborate on how such communicative infrastructures are changed or reproduced by this shift of spaces, temporalities, and desires? 

In 2009, I came to Nilhat House in Kolkata, India’s oldest and largest tea auction center, to ask how organic or fair-trade teas were compared by expert brokers to conventional teas. International certifications like fair trade and organic, it turned out, did not matter to the how the tea brokers at Nilhat House did their work, so I began to train my attention on how valuation was done more generally. I observed brokers tasting tea and selling tea in live outcry auctions much as they had been for the past 150 years. But a few months after I arrived in Kolkata, new government policies and corporate reforms began to change how Indian tea was traded. Specifically, the Tea Board of India, the government bureaucracy regulating the trade, initiated a major effort designed to control the cost of mass-market tea in India.  Among other things, that effort featured a move from live outcry auctions to online, digital auctioning.

The form of those proposed digital auctions has shifted over the years, but the attempts to realize that reform gave me a good window into the communicative infrastructures that I’m concerned with in the book, namely, those that comprise the system of classifying and pricing tea.  Numbers are one part of this infrastructure. Both lot and warehouse numbers used to delineate between different kinds of tea and the numbers that signify prospective—and then actual—prices travel back and forth among the spaces you mentioned. Those travels are archived in the ledgers of the companies that sell tea at auction and (until fairly recently) helped finance plantations by offering advances on prospective sales.  Ethnographically, I observed how brokers coax quality out of those numbers through a complex choreography on the auction floor.

Words are also, of course, key to this communicative infrastructure, but the words I was interested in actually do not travel as extensively as the numbers. Before Indian teas are auctioned, brokers evaluate them using a glossary of some 150 English words.  This glossary was devised at the end of the British colonial period by industrial chemists who aimed to subject the aesthetic judgments of brokers to experimental scrutiny. Like other vocabularies for describing commodities, these teawords performatively reproduce gendered and classed distinctions, but they do much more.  When they circulate among brokers and managers, teawords subject plantation conditions to experimental adjustment.  In the book, I study this experimental work by drawing on theory from linguistic anthropology and work in STS on processes of qualification in commodity circulation.

In the book, you made some provocative and, like you said in the book, seemingly counterintuitive suggestions. One of such suggestions is that tea bags that are created by blending different varieties of tea offers a certain kind of regularity and consistency of flavor and texture, and it is this kind of blended-ness that enables the quality of tea endure (chapter 2). Reading this, I couldn’t help but thinking about other blended flavors, and wondering how they too came to be seen as singular despite the fact that the ingredients are highly variable. Can you talk a bit about how do you see different actors in the tea industry shaped this kind of oxymoronic “consistency in variability”?

Tea brokers, who are also professional tea tasters, evaluate teas knowing full well that they will not be consumed by themselves.  Nearly all tea that passes through Nilhat House will wind up in a blend, so what brokers provide to the market is a sense of what a particular tea’s qualities might offer to a blender, from color to cost.  Blenders do their work behind very tightly closed doors, so it was not easy for me to observe that process in action. What was more interesting to me was the way in which brokers’ messages about individual lots of tea reverberated back to plantation managers and growers, either through direct contact with brokers or through interventions by tea scientists.  Growers can now select clonal varieties of teas that—under the right environmental conditions—will have particular qualities that some blenders may desire.

Blending has a fascinating history.  As I suggest in the book, the process of tea blending was bound up with a whole host of British colonial anxieties about health, race, and class. That blended tea from Indian plantations would become such an important component of British consumptive life was far from a foregone conclusion.  In the debates about blending for the British market, as well as in contemporary debates about whether smallholder-grown tea can compete with plantation-grown tea, it is the prospect of blending that matters as much as anything.  Frustratingly for anyone who understands the inequalities and injustices they embody, plantations remain the industry’s benchmark platform for providing blendable quality teas to the mass-market.

Roberto J. González on his book, Connected

connected-cover

Interview by Patricia G. Lange

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520344211/connected

Patricia G. Lange: According to your book, the people of the remote community of Talea in Oaxaca, Mexico have a saying that “a bad compromise is better than a good fight.” How does this maxim emblematically illuminate what it took to secure their right to be connected to mobile networks and the internet?

Roberto J. González: For almost a decade, villagers dreamed of being the first in northern Oaxaca to have cellular service. They repeatedly petitioned the big telecom firms Telcel and Movistar, and when these companies turned them down, they petitioned state and federal regulators, who weren’t any help either. Eventually, in 2012, villagers decided to work with Rhizomatica, an NGO dedicated to helping indigenous communities get connected, and together they were able to create their own non-commercial DIY cellular network. Like most fledgling technologies, it had glitches and limitations—but it worked.

Now, I suppose when Big Telecom denied them service and government regulators ignored them, Taleans could have occupied the state capital, or kidnapped government officials, or had a protest march or hunger strike. But instead of a fight, they decided to find a compromise, a nonconfrontational kind of direct action—building the community cellular network—which worked well for several years.

By 2014, some people began accusing those operating the network of mismanagement. In this case, in order to avoid a “good fight” that might have politically divided the pueblo, village authorities came up with a bad compromise: to give Movistar another chance to provide cellular service. The company accepted.

Patricia G. Lange: A key cultural characteristic that you focus on is Talean openness to outside ideas. The Taleans’ willingness to experiment with innovation seems to have ironically both spurred support for their community-based, autonomous network—and hastened its “downfall.” Given that Taleans ultimately abandoned their community cell network in favor of a major telecom company, what does it mean to say that they are “ecumenical when it comes to technology”? How was your perspective and analysis influenced by teaching in Silicon Valley?

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Melissa Gregg on her new book, Counterproductive

Interview by Ilana Gershon

https://www.dukeupress.edu/counterproductive

Ilana Gershon: When did the argument for Counterproductive come to you in the process of researching and writing?

Melissa Gregg: After I came up with the title, because I didn’t want to change it! The title helped me pursue two related ideas. First, that productivity is a misplaced goal in information jobs, since work is about the mind as much as the hand. Second, that for all the talk of freedom and flexibility in the modern office, we do not appear to be thriving with the newfound ability to manage ourselves. This is unfinished business from my last book, Work’s Intimacy. I wanted to understand the origins for the types of productivity pressures expressed by the workers I had interviewed at the dawn of the smartphone era. Back then, we had no language to explain the simultaneous sense of compulsion and pleasure that came with online connectivity. The vocabulary of labor seemed totally inadequate. I had always been fascinated by self-help genres for business, so taking an auto-ethnographic approach to time management texts and tools soon revealed obvious consistencies in genre and form despite the technologies of the period. From there, the components of an analysis came together. The rituals and refrains of charismatic gurus could be placed in the broader history of religious thinking embedded in capitalism. I also came to appreciate that much bigger ideas – like life priorities and mortality – were at stake in ostensibly utilitarian “Getting Things Done” principles, just as they were underpinning many of the actions of my earlier research participants.

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Michael Prentice’s Ranks and Files

My dissertation explored how corporate hierarchies are embedded within genres of communication in South Korea. I conducted fieldwork in the headquarters of one of Korea’s largest domestic steel conglomerates where I followed how top managers across expert departments controlled subsidiaries through different techniques. My main theoretical focus in the dissertation was connecting things happening in the “office,” like making PowerPoints and holding meetings, with our understanding of the nature of corporate entities themselves. Following how different departments drew on documents, systems, and projects, as modes of control, I made the broader claim that organizational borders take shape around the categories and pathways traced in different genres.

Page 99 interestingly lands directly on what I called the “pig’s feet” incident. It is one of a few places in the dissertation where I discuss hoesik (sounds close to “way chic”), one of the most visible genres of corporate culture in Korea. Hoesik refers to after-hours eating and drinking between coworkers or partners. The event at hand took place between two Human Resources teams, one from the headquarters and the other from a subsidiary. We met at a famous pig’s feet restaurant off of a back alley somewhere in Seoul. I described how the event brought together two teams through conviviality and consumption in which the overt hierarchical relations between their organizations would be momentarily set aside. It was a generally gregarious time, until an abrupt moment in which a mid-ranked manager from the subsidiary team brought up work. He lamented that the headquarters team made too many requests at the last minute. Interestingly, he directed this to the junior-most member from the headquarters, Ki-ho, who was responsible for collecting files from the subsidiaries. It was a strange encounter: Ki-ho was socially subordinate (in rank) but pragmatically superior (in terms of files). In the chapter, I used this incident to discuss the tension between rank hierarchies (which are made very explicit across speech, writing, and behavior), and organizational hierarchies (which are embedded into modes of knowledge production or even occluded altogether, like in group encounters). Hoesik is normally considered a domain outside of formal work itself, but I argue it was one social genre tied to a broader reorganization of corporate relations between the headquarters and subsidiaries.

Michael M. Prentice. 2017 “Ranks and Files: Corporate Hierarchies, Genres of Management, and Shifting Control in South Korea’s Corporate World.” Phd. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Michael Prentice is currently a research fellow in the Digital Trust & Security program at the University of Manchester where he is researching cybersecurity issues in cross-cultural workplaces. His book manuscript explores how changes to reform historical issues of hierarchy in the Korean workplace are channeled through changes to communication and interaction. He received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2017. You can reach him by email at michael.m.prentice@gmail.com.

Keith Murphy on his new book, Swedish Design

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100526160

Interview by Ilana Gershon 

You explain in your book that Ikea is “a simple microcosm of the social democratic order” (p. 202), which might surprise some Ikea shoppers who don’t think in terms of a politics of form.  Could you explain how you trace in your book the ways that design in Sweden is viewed as self-evidently a political project?

I think outside of Sweden and the Nordic countries, most people’s familiarity with Swedish design (if there’s any familiarity at all) starts and ends with IKEA, since it’s the largest furniture company in the world, and one of the most recognized global brands. But yes, this doesn’t mean that the long history of ideological links and influences between social democratic politics and design — especially furniture design and industrial design — are easily gleaned by, say, shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong. But in Sweden, it’s a different story.

The core premise of the book is pretty simple: in Sweden there are lively and vibrant connections between political values espoused as traditionally “social democratic” — equality, transparency, care, and others — and the design of everyday things, including furniture and other home goods (think IKEA), cars (think Volvo), interior architecture, and so on. According to the cultural logic sustaining these relations, everyday objects, just like the state, are designed to take care of people in their everyday lives, and this is not by accident. But what does that really mean? How are these connections between things and politics actually constituted, how are they maintained and cultivated, and who is invested in perpetuating them? Perhaps an even simpler way of phrasing it is, “Swedish design is political, but how exactly is it made to be political?” If shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong don’t readily recognize the cultural and political background of the furniture carefully staged in IKEA showrooms, but shoppers in Sweden do (at least to some non-trivial degree), that’s an indication (to me at least) that there’s something going on in Sweden that’s worth taking a closer look at.

Of course it’s difficult to analytically apprehend Swedish design — and “design” more generally — as just one simple category, or one more or less coherent thing. You can’t talk about Swedish design without focusing on particular forms — typical modernist forms like squares and straight lines — or particular discourses, social actors, institutions, practices, and more. All of it matters, irreducibly. While design historical analyses tend to center and elevate famous designers and their famous objects, it’s a perspective that often leaves out so many other relevant conditions that render design and designing more than simply stuff and its making. Which is to say, you can’t really just look at one factor, like iconic chairs, or superstar designers, in order to understand the cultural and political significance of design. Instead you’ve got to follow how these factors connect and alight upon one another, across a bunch of different domains. And ethnography is a really good way of doing that.

So in the book I trace some of the different ways in which design has been constructed and cultivated as a sociopolitical project in Sweden, moving between different domains, and focusing on different forms at different scales. I follow the progression of discourses of both “good design” and “a politics of care” in Sweden from their modern origin in the 19th century up through their more recent manifestations in the early 21st. I look at specific social actors, including not just well-known designers, but also politicians and activists from the past, and less well-known designers of the present, to explore the harmonization of ideologies between design and social democratic politics over time. And I examine different institutions and their practices, including the small-scale motions involved in studio design work, and the exhibitionary protocols of museums, fairs, and even IKEA, to show how objects acquire different but complementary meanings in their circulations through social space. All of this is directed toward understanding how design, acting as a method of world-making, gives form — including specific shapes, objects, discursive forms, forms of social organization, political forms, and more  — to the everyday world in Sweden.

How do you think that a strong training in linguistic anthropology shaped your analysis of Swedish design?

There are probably dozens of ways in which my background in linguistic anthropology helped push the kind of analysis I ended up producing in this book, but I’ll stick with three. First, I think linguistic anthropology, especially the version I was trained in at UCLA, really rewards attention to small details. One of the earliest lessons I learned in linguistic anthropology, when I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was that language, a phenomenon so familiar, intimate, and present in our lived experience, is practically bursting with unrecognized meaning, which you can start to see clearly once you turn your gaze toward the details. When I started my fieldwork — which, by the way, was originally more concerned with hand gestures and body language than with design – this attraction to small details was my basic stance for conducting research. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I transposed that training onto an analysis of common forms in furniture and other designed things, stuff that, like language, suffuses everyday experience but whose complex webs of meaning are typically just barely recognized.

Second, I think theories developed and worried in linguistic anthropology are widely applicable beyond the domain of language (a point that Costas Nakassis usefully articulated in 2016). Of course there has been a longstanding trend in the social sciences and humanities to use language as a model for explaining non-linguistic phenomena (“linguistic magic bullets,” as Charles Briggs has described it). But from my point of view, one of the problems with this trend has been trying to apply an analysis based on linguistic properties onto non-linguistic things, rather than using the theory to understand the properties of the things themselves, for what they are (that is, not trying to make them “look like” language). This is why Pierce is so useful (as opposed to, say, Saussure), because his semiotic is derived from logic rather than from language, which means to analyze material objects from a Piercian perspective, you’re not forced to transduce a language-based model into some other semiotic framework, and thus assume some analytical lossiness in the process. But it’s not just Pierce and semiotics that helped me examine Swedish design. I ended up drawing on Austinian performativity, and, quite unexpectedly, the version of pragmatics offered by Deleuze and Guattari, because these perspectives resonated with how design work is accomplished in the studio. Assumptions derived from Goffman, Garfinkel, and the Goodwins about how meaning is activated and transformed through social interaction, and Duranti’s close attention to the various forms that politics takes across social modalities, all of this undergirds much of my overall analysis. Basically, it feels like (to me, anyway) linguistic anthropological theory is very useful for understanding pretty much anything.

Finally, and this relates to the previous two points, linguistic anthropology really prepares you to pay attention to form. Whether it’s thinking through sociolinguistic variables, allophones, collections of conversational instances or similar hand gestures, and more, we often find ourselves dealing with linguistic features that, from a phenomenological point of view, exist as formally distinct, yet from a social or analytic point of view, are treated as examples of the same thing, that is, as having matching forms. I sort of adopted this idea and ran with it, to see how far I could take it: that social forces work to match different forms in ways that allow them to be seen as examples of the “same thing.” Thus, in Swedish design, squares and equality, chairs and democracy, and blonde wood and care, all of which obviously take different forms, can nonetheless be made to formally “match” one another through complex semiotic processes.

I was wondering if you could explain a bit for readers of this blog one of the very imaginative arguments of your book, an explanation of how designers who are in a profession that is supposed to be constantly innovative manage to create an internationally recognizable Swedish style. 

Part of my argument is that designers themselves are only partially in control of the designs they create. This is obviously true when we look at constraints like the design brief, which can specify things like an object’s materials, size, costs, colors, etc. And clients can often intervene and ask for changes in a given design (this is usually not something that designers appreciate). But there are other conditions that, in combination, tend to lead to the preservation of a particular Swedish design style over time, even as designers themselves innovate in their own work.

I try to trace this across different domains, including in the studio, where designers sit quietly at computers sketching the lines of their objects and talking their ideas through with colleagues. One of the things I began to notice when I watched and re-watched video recording of these interactions is that there is a strong preference for “typical” Swedish design forms, like squares, rectangles, and straight line, that regularly plays out in the ways that designers talk and evaluate their work, accompanied by a dispreference for deviations from this norm. That is to say, emergent designs that “look” or “feel” Swedish tend to get publicly assessed as “good,” while those that “look” more experimental are assessed less judiciously. One effect if this is that “Swedish looking” objects tend to get more designerly attention, and tend to make it through a design process intact. This, even while designers shy away from overly affiliating with some normative concept of Swedish style.

There are other factors that preserve and cultivate Swedish design. Many institutions like museums, galleries, media, government and semi-government authorities, and stores like IKEA all have some investment in stitching together design style, material objects, and social democratic ideology. Designers may themselves see this investment as antithetical to their own individual creativity, however once they release their objects into the world, they lose significant control over how those objects are described, re-described, and displayed. And there’s a network of loosely orchestrated social actors and institutions in Sweden always prepared to render actual tokens of design as examples of a more abstract “Swedish design” type.

There’s more to it, of course, but I want to point out that at different scales and in different ways, language is crucial to the project of cultivating Swedish design. It’s not just about specific objects and their forms, but rather how language and form and political values co-constitute one another in and across cultural domains in Sweden.

If you could imagine the anthropology of design becoming a vibrant subfield, what are the still unexplored questions that scholars could start tackling?

I’m obviously biased, but I definitely think the anthropology of design should become a vibrant subfield. And in some ways it is already! I’m certainly not the first anthropologist to deal with design, although when I started doing this work in the mid-2000s, I did face a fair amount of skepticism. But nowadays there are lots of anthropologists, in North America and Europe in particular, who are turning an analytical eye toward design in one way or another.

There is a bit of a problem, though, in terms of how an anthropology of design might continue to take form. It’s similar to the problem that Alfred Gell discusses at the start of his chapter, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” while ruminating on the anthropology of art: to what degree are anthropologists who study design “captured” by their own object of inquiry? Designers, many design researchers, and – frankly – capitalists of various stripes, love to tout the salutary power of design without fully acknowledging design’s many downsides (of course what this means depends on what particular kind of design you’re looking at). One worry I have is that anthropologists of design get seduced by the very seductive discourses of design that espouse the kind of “goodness” we’ve come to desire in ourselves as a discipline. I often feel myself falling into this trap. But on the other side, there’s also the possibility that anthropology’s sharp critical edge will dismiss design as, yes, a tool of capitalism, and thus an oppressive force that should be pushed back against and heavily critiqued. This is something that I also often feel. It seems to me, though, that a dynamic anthropology of design should tack back and forth between these two perspectives, to not settle on one particular hill, but rather to turn a skeptical but curious gaze toward the vast valley in between, figuring out what design is, as a form of human action, and what it’s doing for particular groups of people in their particular social worlds.

In my book I’m offering a close analysis of design in Sweden. I’m not claiming design works this way everywhere (clearly it doesn’t), but I do hope that I’m providing tools for people to use to examine how design works in other contexts. It’s sort of a truism at this point to say that design is political, but one of the things that anthropologists can offer is a critical analysis of how design operates as a political force in different parts of the world. We can also explore design as a mechanism of social control; or as aesthetic hegemony; or as a generator of ideology; or as a mediator between institutions and ordinary people. A design anthropological framework can be applied to more than just objects. It can be applied to cities, processes, spaces, infrastructures, and more, and it will always include people, things, ideologies, and practices, without necessarily excising any one (or more) of them. Basically, I think there are innumerable projects that a design anthropological framework could be useful for.

 Has your fieldwork for this project changed how you buy furniture or other objects for your home?

Yes and no. When I came back from the field, I decided I needed to buy much nicer furniture for myself, because living in a comfortable, beautiful home is — according to the Swedish model — a kind of care. But I quickly discovered that the furniture market in the US is basically split into only two segments: the low-end stuff, like IKEA, Target, and the MDF things at Crate & Barrel; and the high-end stuff that I really can’t afford. There isn’t really any mid-market furniture, stuff that looks nice and is of decent quality, but that isn’t super pricy. So I’ve basically had to stick with IKEA (sometimes moving up from MDF to actual wood or metal!) and some other random used furniture. But I do now pay a lot more attention to how I decorate my place, and how I use color in my apartment, and the materials of the things I buy (I’ve recently entered a cork phase, for some reason). Lighting is important, too. And I’ve recently decided to do what many of my Swedish friends have done: invest in nice furniture slowly, over time, but always prioritizing it as something worth spending money on, because feeling comfortable in your space is a worthwhile goal.