“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.
1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?
The answer I provide to this question is often contingent on the context in which I’m asked. Is the question being asked at an academic conference, with family or friends, or perhaps while doing fieldwork? My general response — I used to simply say that I studied religion (religious studies). Partly because it was a nice quick sentence that bundled everything up into a simple box. But it was also an exercise, as I was curious about what responses and questions people would come up with for me. How did they envision something called religion? Some would ask if I was in training to be a clergy or priest, while others would begin to talk highly about all the good deeds that religions were doing in the world. Some might ask me a question about a very specific recent news story that a so called religion had been mentioned in, or they might ask what I hope to do with a degree in something like this, and others might start talking about the need for the separation of religion and the state (or politics). It provided an opportunity to engage them on their views of the topic of religion and then explain how my own study of “religion” addresses what they were talking or asking about — hopefully extending the conversation into a variety of directions that challenged us both. This can be a longer exchange and so other times I say that I study religion from a social scientific or anthropological perspective. It’s interesting that when I answer this way, I get a lot less of the responses and questions I just mentioned. Instead, since I added the word “science” it seems to justify my study as somehow more legitimate. The question may arise on what I hope to do after I finish my PhD, or they may offer a critique against “religion” in the world — but either way my description usually satisfies them more quickly.
Social Justice for Sale (Part I of Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice) addressed how recent advertisements from companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Gillette promote varying aspects of social responsibility via campaigns of unity, diversity, and social justice. Is this the dawn of the ethical corporation? Is this about changing minds and perceptions to create unity? Do these campaigns challenge the system or is this just about maintaining a status quo?
Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice Part II:
The Hidden Costs of Super Commercials of Unity & Social Justice
Since that Coca-Cola hilltop commercial first played 50 years ago, the image of inclusivity the brand portrays today is salient as ever. Yet, the company is accused of dehydrating communities around the world of one of the most vital resources: water ( In Town With Little Water, Coca-Cola Is Everywhere. So Is Diabetes). Greenpeace notes that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were found to be the worst plastic polluters worldwide in global cleanups and brand audits. The company is also charged with violating workers’ rights in a number of countries such as Columbia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia (Coca-Cola: Drinking the World Dry). Who are they really including in their messages of “unity and positivity?”
As I drive through my home city looking for a place to eat lunch, I feel overwhelmed by advertising that offers what seems to be an endless array of food options. Do I want fresh and healthy or fast and fried? How about vegetarian, seafood, gluten free, halal, burgers, pub food, buffet, Chinese, fine dining, Indian, local, or organic? While my options seem endless, there is one type of food that seems to be available on every street ‑ “authentic.” And with so many selling it, how does one differentiate between the inauthentic and the authentic? Continue reading “Marketing the Authentic Taco”
NPR ran a story the other day based on a Daily Beast article about the disappointing reality that a lot of popular craft whiskeys that cater to the discerning consumer with an appreciation for the finer things are actually not produced in artisanal small batches at all but instead hail from the large Midwest Grain Products (MGP) factory in Indiana. How to tell you’re getting the “real thing”…? Check whether the product is “distilled by” or “bottled/produced by” the company—a big difference when looking for the origins of the whiskey you’re consuming. Continue reading “Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That…”
Maybe you’ve seen the commercial for the new Cadillac ELR…? It’s been understandably lambasted for the way it relies on “American Dream” rhetoric to sell a car. Everyman actor Neal McDonough is obnoxiously smug, and the appeal to what makes America great resorts to downright icky sanctimony and casual insults about what “other countries” are like. We are strong-willed and hardworking and awesome in every way. They flounce around with long vacations and a devil-may-care work/life balance that prioritizes cafés. Yeah, it’s pretty bad. Continue reading “Advertising the American Dream”
During a recent coffee run to Starbucks, an advertisement caught my eye – it read – “Ethiopia Single-Origin.” They’re many things about this ad that strike me as curious, especially the ways in which ‘Origin’ as a single and monolithic “thing” is juxtaposed over and against the country Ethiopia which is, like all places, quite heterogeneous.
These terms coupled together create a homogenizing effect through mythological constructions of singularity and originality. What could possibly be singular about the country Ethiopia and the coffee beans produced there (consider, for example, in Ethiopia, there are over 90 individual languages/communication systems operative)? Just a brief consideration of the (cross-cultural and geographical) travel involved in the producing, manufacturing and selling of commodities like coffee beans from this place and that ought to shift such discourse on the perceived distinctiveness of such claims. Continue reading “Fabricating Origins …One Coffee Bean at a Time”
In the post-game commentary about how terribly author Reza Aslan was treated in that online FOX News interview, in the rush by scholars of religion on Facebook to identify with a misunderstood scholar just trying to do his job, and in the backlash now coming out against the way that he authorized himself by trotting out his degrees, one thing seems to be lost: this was a great moment for global capitalism. After all, a book tour (not the thing most scholars ever set out upon, by the way) is designed to do nothing else but sell, and so the interview was just one more moment in a marketing plan. I’m not criticizing it, since many of us have books we hope to sell, but suggesting that we’ve missed the point if we fail to remember that publicity is all both sides in that dance are going for (either to sell more ads on TV or the web or more books on amazon.com). Continue reading “Are You Buying It?”