May 27, 2007
Cultural Biases and Academic Research: Housel's Review of The Toothpaste of Immortality

Earlier today, I wrote about a piece from the last issue of The Journal of Popular Culture which focuses particularly on how the image of the celebrity endorser is constructed, a question which I think is particularly interesting in an age where a larger number of people than ever might be considered a celebrity of sorts and in which well-known fans within fan communities serve a pivotal role as either grassroots marketers or grassroots critics of one's product or brand.

In this vein, a review toward the back of the current issue caught my eye as well. The Rochester Institute of Technology's Rebecca Housel provides a look at an interesting book that hadn't yet crossed my radar: Elemér Hankiss' 2006 book from The Johns Hopkins University Press, entitled The Toothpaste of Immortality: Self-Construction in the Consumer Age. Hankiss, a sociologist, looks at what patterns of consumption in advertising means in American culture.

But what I found so fascinating was much less the book but rather the review.

Housel writes about Hankiss' review of what handbags means to the consumer, which he explained that these accessories represents "home, security, and identity to women," according to Housel. She then writes:

I wish I were kidding, but this is no joke. Hankiss calls women "socially handicapped." Although the hypothesis of why women carry handbags and what handbags might mean is not as big a slap in the female face as Hankiss' belief that women wear high heels "to 'raise' themselves to the level of men" (44) (385).

The incredulous review from Housel finally settles on complimenting a couple of chapters in particular but primarily just praising Hankiss for citing some impressive theorists--that's probably not what one wants to read in a review of their book.

However, the review raised some important points about what we do in analyzing culture, or trying to come to understand trends. First of all, the academic falsity that the self can be removed from the process is never the case, and Housel's excerpts are a reminder of that. Having not read Hankiss' book, or even knowing Hankiss, I have no idea what his particular prejudices are, but the review is a reminder that one cannot escape their own experiences and stereotypes, so that all research may be in some way touched with "the human stain." The key is being up-front about that and not trying to hide under some thinly veiled layer of objectivity...and trying to combat that lack of objectivity when it does pop up.

To return to the issues I raised last week regarding Bruce Leichtman's comments about WWE fans and high-definition television, I'm interested again in how these cultural biases work their way into professional discourse. I have contacted Leichtman and TelevisionWeek as well to try and figure out what type of research his comments were based on, and I contacted WWE as well. They were not aware of his research, but I will write a followup post if I find out more.