Monthly Archives: October 2012

From Hallowed To Shallow? The Evolution of Halloween As A Consumer Ritual

It's that time of year once again, Halloween u...

It’s that time of year once again, Halloween ushers in the best holiday of the Holiday season! Taken at La Mesa Oktoberfest in 2007 but still relevant every Halloween. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It’s scary how our consumer culture latches on to a spooky cultural tradition and manages to find ways to make it economically viable. That being said, I am excited about all the leftover mini-snickers bars I am going to have this year.

I thought it appropriate to try and find some sort of anthropological explanation of the origin of this frightful holiday. And i’ll be darned If I didn’t find an entire dissertation; well, a very thorough and interesting article from 1998 that was published in the Washington Post AND co-authored by one of my favorite practicing consumer anthropologists – Patricia Sunderland.

The link to the article is here: but the full text is below for your convenience. This is a treat, not a trick. Go grab a pumpkin’ spice latte and hunker down-this is a good one:

Halloween, perhaps our weirdest annual celebration, is even stranger than it seems. Unlike the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, it is neither patriotic nor historical, yet it is celebrated nationally. Unlike Christmas, Easter or Passover, Halloween is not associated with a particular religion. Yet it weaves spirituality, death and religious beliefs into our present and historical imaginations.

Halloween is hugely popular, infused with its own set of immediately recognizable symbols, rituals and stories. Yet most Americans have little, if any, sense of the hidden meanings and motives of the event in which they so enthusiastically participate.

Even its origin is complex and uncertain. Many Americans have heard rumblings that Halloween is a “pagan” or pre-European-Christian holiday with roots in Celtic traditions. A common and slightly elaborated version of this notion holds that Halloween is a descendent of the Celtic Samhain festival, which, on November 1, marked both the Celtic New Year and the day during which dead souls were believed to revisit Earth.

But the name “Halloween” has distinctly Christian origins. In efforts to stop seemingly non-Christian celebrations, the Roman Catholic Church incorporated Samhain festivities into the Christian calendar.

In 731 A.D., November 1 was declared All Saints’ Day (All Hallows Day). October 31 thus became All Hallows Eve, in time shortened to “Halloween.” Even with the encouragement of activities such as masquerading pageants of saints and the further, complicating step of adding Nov. 2 as All Souls Day to the church calendar after the year 1000, some “non-Christian” elements survive in Halloween.

Some elements, however, have a distinctively Native American heritage. One key symbol-the pumpkin-was unknown to Europeans before Columbus. But it was part of the sacred trinity of native American foods: squash, beans and maize, which appears in the form of candy corn and the corn shocks that decorate front porches. The original European version of the jack-o’-lantern was a turnip.

Some students of the holiday maintain that trick-or-treating is linked to Irish Samhain traditions and thus became popular about the time that the Irish began immigrating to the United States in large numbers. Presumably during Samhain, people opened their doors and provided food to the wandering dead, so people eventually started dressing like wandering dead souls and demanding food.

Others suspect that the custom was introduced to replace, or at least mitigate, the pranks or even destruction that typically accompanied the holiday even in the most conservative rural communities.

In Hoxie, a town of 1,500 in northwest Kansas, senior community members recall that, in the old days, “a certain number of outhouses became horizontal,” when loose items such as garden hoses, trash cans and lawn furniture were dragged onto Main Street to block traffic the next morning, local dumpster services spent weeks cleaning up.

However, trick-or-treating may be a relatively recent phenomenon coinciding with population shifts from rural to urban and suburban environments. It is, after all, difficult to go door to door when the doors are miles apart. Despite popular laments that Halloween is no longer the holiday “it always has been,” folklorist Tad Tuleja argues that trick-or-treating may have developed during the 1930s as a means to control young people’s Halloween night pranks.

The words “trick or treat” apparently were not in use until 1941, when they first appear in files of Merriam-Webster, Inc., after being used as the title of a poem in The Saturday Evening Post. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “trick-or-treating” first appeared in The Sun in Baltimore in 1950. But the practice may be considerably older.

Finally, many students of folklore see in Halloween a connection to England’s Guy Fawkes Day, the Nov. 5 commemoration of a foiled attempt to blow up the king and Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes Day features bonfires, children soliciting “a penny for the guy” and pranking.

Halloween also may be related to early American harvest festivals, with apple bobbing, hayrides, and many local variations of games to divine the identity of a future mate. Those games probably derive from traditional beliefs in Britain and Ireland that spirits loosed on Halloween made the day particularly good for augury.

Connections to death, disorder, endings and to what Western traditions take to be the separate and set-apart world of the spirits all are consistent elements in tales about Halloween’s origin.

Cultural anthropologists, who study the forms and meanings of human culture, have found that among the most intriguing meanings of Halloween are those listed below, each of them a window into the cultural and social dynamics of the country.

Dark Harvest
The quintessential symbols of Halloween fall into three major categories. Symbols of death include graveyards, ghosts, skeletons, haunted houses. Symbols of evil and misfortune are witches, goblins, black cats. Symbols of harvest are pumpkins, scarecrows, corn shocks and candy corn.

The first two categories tap deep, irresolvable, pan-human dilemmas. Ways of dealing with and symbolizing death and evil are represented in some of the earliest archaeological remains of human ritual activity. One traditional means of facing the reality of death is to view it as a transition and to continue a relationship with the dead.

Hence the various rituals for keeping the departed involved in the present world through seances, graveside visits, prayer or other communication. Ideas about an afterlife or notions of ghosts and vampires also can be understood as attempts to challenge the finality and fear surrounding human mortality.

Ritual Reversals

Cultures have ways to challenge death but have a hard time beating it. Likewise, no culture has eliminated misfortune and evil, though humans keep trying. Typical American methods are control and avoidance-locking up, shutting out, buckling up, watching out, staying away.

Yet on Halloween, scary things suddenly are embraced wholeheartedly, brought to front porches and displayed. And children, those innocents whom we most want to protect from death and danger, are an integral part of the annual ritual.

At Halloween, Americans are doing something that all human beings do—confronting the unknown with special symbols and rituals.

For a while, we pull these fearful and painful realities into a relatively contained and public context. We share them with our children. We create a special and safe moment during which danger and death, skeletons and strangers can safely be part of our experience. Then we lock our doors again and return to our everyday, safe American lives. Halloween reverses the usual order of many things in many ways.

Anthropologists have analyzed rituals of reversal in settings around the world. Days when the living walk around as if dead, and the dead are thought to walk around as if living, are not that unusual. In fact, Halloween can be seen as the American inversion ritual par excellence.

During rituals of inversion, people can violate otherwise solid social codes. Less powerful people can break the rules, reverse the order of expected actions, flaunt otherwise unacceptable ways of dress or behavior or reverse the usual roles of parent-child, boss-worker, male-female.

Thus, it is common to see groups of children “threatening” adults for candy. Everyday people don masks of the famous. Adults dress like children and children like adults. Pranks and mockery ordinarily not allowed become commonplace.

In the past, many anthropologists focused on the conservative functions of rituals, considering the reversals a sort of social pressure-release valve. In this view, the Halloween ritual means something like:

“Let the children eat as much candy as they want, let the poor be rich, let the dead walk the Earth, let us get scared out of our wits and let us make fun of those we usually must respect. Afterward, we’ll be better able to cope with, and settle for, our usual lives.”

But that doesn’t get at the power of ritual to make everyday life different.

More recently, anthropologists have shown that maintaining the status quo is not the only result of rituals of reversal. The rituals can actually reshape the usual order of things.

For instance, the gay community has actively used the holiday to assert a new and more visible social presence and power. The fantasy elements of masquerade, which temporarily permit one to be virtually whomever he or she wants to be, can foster true personal liberation and change. Playing a Halloween prank on a too-serious boss may change the tone of the office after the holiday.

The ritual reversals of Halloween also have potential power for children, serving as an opportunity to go to the door of the spooky house, visit a graveyard or visit the otherwise not-too-friendly neighbor.

Nevertheless, Halloween is still profoundly about sociability and norms. Reversals must fall within socially prescribed boundaries. Pranks and jokes are not supposed to cause permanent harm. Children are expected to say thank you at the door. Halloween can reinforce neighborliness and pro-social behavior.

Horror Stories

The symbols and rituals of Halloween link disorder and danger with cultural ideas about order and safety. But chaos still lurks, in reality or, much more often, in durable legends.

Virtually everyone has heard at least one story about poison or razor blades in apples, hypodermics in candy or dangerous items in grab bags. Each year, these stories are revived, and precautions are taken. Some call for an end to trick-or-treating, many parents allow children to visit only homes of people they know and many hospitals provide free candy X-ray service. Every year, new horror stories emerge, and old ones are retold.

Many social analysts have reasoned that these stories, while often thought true, are really examples of “urban legends” in the making, much the same as accounts of giant alligators in city sewers or rodents in soft-drink bottles. Horrible Halloween incidents occur occasionally. But how many people have firsthand evidence of someone hurt by Halloween candy? Seen in context, our fears about dangerous treats often seem more like ritual retellings than strictly rational worries.

Shopping malls and many schools now offer a “safe” alternative to neighborhood trick-or-treating so children will not be exposed to presumed danger. Local customs have changed accordingly. A resident of Severn, Md., says that “no one hands out any homemade items or home-filled treat bags, knowing that, when the children get home, their parents will” trash those items.

Strictly speaking, however, one should have no more reason to trust mall shopkeepers, whom the family does not know personally, than to mistrust people a few blocks away in another neighborhood. But the warnings and annual repetition of horror stories are expressions of society’s profound belief that the world is a scary place for children, who need protection, especially from individual, unaffiliated strangers.

The Market for Fright

As a result, tension often is genuine between the trick-or-treat tradition and increasingly mobile, unstable neighborhoods with perceived “stranger danger.” The marketplace has jumped to deal with such fears by minimizing the unknown.

For example, every Burger King restaurant looks alike and every “treat” dispensed there is exactly what parents expect. So a Burger King executive told a food-industry trade magazine last year that “increasingly, it is more of a challenge for parents to provide a controlled, safe, fun experience. And taking kids to Burger King to get a Halloween-themed toy is . . . a safe alternative for kids.”

Recently, retailers have offered worried parents free bagels in Pittsburgh, 99-cent “monster eyes” with purchase of a Taco Bell meal and glow-in-the-dark treat buckets from Jack in the Box. All are part of what makes Halloween a $2.5 billion bonanza for retailers.

Moreover, this is part of a larger message. Through Halloween safety reminders and sponsored activities, children are taught that schools, hospitals, organizations and retail establishments have their interests at heart while individuals in homes do not.

What effect such beliefs might have on American culture remain to be seen. But they accord nicely with one of the two major contemporary shifts in American Halloween celebration. One is a transformation of the homemade neighborhood character of the event to one framed by institutions, corporations and consumer culture.

Because both adults and children participate and because the event involves decorations, candy, costumes and many other consumer products, Halloween is a marketer’s dream, reported to be the fastest-growing retail season. Market researchers say 78 percent of households distributed treats in 1996. Halloween ranks as the leading holiday for U.S. candy sales, ahead of Christmas for the $20 billion annual U.S. confection industry.

Tita Rutledge, owner of a Baltimore costume shop, says the two weeks surrounding Halloween generate one-third of her store’s total annual income. House and party decorations sell briskly nationwide. Holiday packaging, on cereal, for instance, and product tie-ins from costumes to coupons increase every year. “Slasher” movies light up the marquees; mock haunted houses for neighborhood fun or organizational profit pop up from coast to coast.


The second major trend in U.S. Halloween customs is an increasing tendency to regard the holiday as one also for adults. Halloween has joined New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday as the most popular party dates for American adults. As one shop owner summed up the situation: “Halloween is becoming more of an adult holiday. Parents don’t want their kids out trick-or-treating, so they have more time for themselves.”

Anthropologists expect customs and cultural traditions to change over time. Baltimore provides an interesting nearby example of the way Halloween seems to be melding with other, primarily adult, events.

One is the Maryland Renaissance Festival, now in its 22nd consecutive year. The festival, which occurs on weekends for two months preceding Halloween, encourages costuming, and some buying and renting by adults is done for the festival. Another such event is a local novelty, the Halloween wedding.

Rutledge describes outfits she made for a Halloween wedding last year. The bride wore a red velvet dress a la Queen Isabella of Spain, and the groom wore matching doublet and tights. The father of the bride was festooned in a blue velvet tunic, tights and boots. The bride’s mother appeared in a yellow underdress with blue brocade top. The noble nature of the costume choices made a good fit for a wedding, where high style and ceremonial dress are already the rule.

A manager at Baltimore’s A&M Costume Gallery also cites increased Halloween wedding business, though she describes the typical mode as bride and groom dressed in conventional white while guests are costumed for Halloween.

Rutledge also describes a Cinderella Halloween wedding featuring glass slippers and gold painted pumpkins.

Over time, will such intermingling and merging of celebrations result in new Halloween stories? Will researchers soon examine evidence and imagine that Halloween was the Celtic time for marriages? Will we see a direct connection between “who-will-I-marry?” divination games once popular as a Halloween activity and Halloween wedding parties?

New forms of Halloween seem to be burgeoning, particularly in urban areas where anthropologists often seek rapid cultural change.

Halloween is a continually fascinating aspect of the constantly changing social world and of human’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent traditions, confront danger and death in novel ways and remake symbols to fit new realities.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, pop culture, Rituals, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

The Dead Man’s Hand: A Little Bit of Poker Context

Dead Man's Hand

Dead Man’s Hand (Photo credit: 917press)

Last night I played in my first Texas Hold ’em tournament:  a quarterly event at a local bar whereby winners of the weekly games have the opportunity to compete for a cash prize in a 5 table tournament style event.

I had been anticipating this game for at least a couple of months:  so excited to have earned my stripes and the respect of my new poker peers and to be competing against some pretty respectable players.

I rolled in ready to go and hoping to at least make the final table.  But I was determined to at least have a good run.

I went out in the first hand.  My pocket cards:  Ace and 8 – The Dead Man’s Hand. Well, technically the Dead Man’s hand in standard five-card poker is two aces and two eights – but the superstition translates to my hand in question as a pocket hand in Texas Hold ’em.

And in all fairness (to defend my folly): at the river I had 3 Aces:  a damn good hand to go all in with after being raised to 2/3rds of my chip stack.  Unfortunately, my opponent also had an ace to match the two on the board – and a Jack to make the boat that he made on the flop.

Aces and 8’s used to be my favorite hand. I would raise pre-flop whenever I had it and seemed to win with it most of the time.  It became my favorite hand when I beat a friend of mine all in with it in my first home-game.

But I should have known better.  It is nicknamed for death.  But from whence does this moniker come?

Well, legend has it that it was the hand that Wild Bill Hickock was holding when he was shot to death by Jack McCall in Deadwood’s Saloon #10 on August 2, 1876.

I found a great telling of the tale by History blogger Daryl Putnam, detailed below:

“The true, but infamous story, of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok by Jack McCall and the poker hand he was holding forever after to be known as the Dead Mans Hand.

If you are a poker player worth your salt you most assuredly have heard of the Dead Mans Hand. The Dead Mans Hand, consisting of a pair of aces and a pair of eights, is known as the unluckiest hand you can hold. But, do you know why this poker hand is so infamous?

On the evening of August 1, 1876,   James Butler (wild bill) Hickok was playing poker in a  Dakota Territory saloon in the town of Deadwood with several other men, including a man by the name of  Jack McCall. Jack had lost heavily that evening and was angry at his bad fortune at the table. Wild Bill, feeling a little sorry for McCall, generously gave him back enough money to buy something to eat, but advised him not to play again until he could cover the rest of his losses.

The following afternoon when Wild Bill entered Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon he found another man sitting in his preferred seat. Wild bill, being a gambler, gunfighter and ex-lawman, had made many enemies along the way and always sat where he could see the room and the front door. After some hesitation, Wild Bill joined the game, reluctantly seating himself with his back to the door and the bar.

Jack McCall, also known as Crooked Nose Jack, was already there and drinking heavily at the bar when he saw Hickok enter the saloon and take a seat at his regular table in the corner near the door. McCall slowly crept around to the corner of the saloon where Hickok was playing his game. McCall pulled a double-action .45 pistol from under his coat and shouted  “Take that!” and shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

 Hickok, now slumped over the table with a bullet hole in the back of his head, had been holding a pair of eights, and a pair of Aces. The news and the manner of Hickoks death quickly spread and the poker hand he was holding has ever since been known as the “Dead Mans Hand“.

Jack McCall was tried twice for the shooting. Once in Deadwood, where he was found not guilty by a jury of his friends, and again in a Federal Court in Yankton, Dakota Territory. The second trial resulted in a guilty verdict and McCall was hanged for Hickok’s murder on March 1, 1877 at the age of 24.”


Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, poker, pop culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Things I’ve Learned From Playing Poker In Bars

First let me start by saying that where I live it is perfectly legal to play poker at bars. For “fun”, anyway. There are several companies / leagues in my neck of the woods that promote free tournament-style Texas Hold ’em Poker nights at different bars around the area. The winners get a bar tab and the bar gets a bunch of people to come in and drink: everybody wins.

I have been playing / studying the bar poker scene for about a year and a half and tonight am playing in my first quarterly tournament (having won a seat by winning a regular-night bar game). In all fairness, and to “toot” my own horn, It would have been my second had i not had to ask my best friend to be my surrogate in another recent tournament because I was traveling for work.

Anyway, the point of this blog, in honor of having reached this milestone, is to record some of the data I have collected and reflect on my analysis of the ethnographic experience thus far.

And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Texas Hold’em Poker, here is a link to the basics of game-play and terminology so I don’t have to do all that here:

Venue Dynamics:

Free poker nights are usually held at “neighborhood” bars: regardless of the city or locale (urban versus suburban, etc.).  These bars typically are sports themed and also host open-mic nights or double as a local music venue.  Typically speaking these venues also have pool tables and  dart boards and can be counted on for game night and fight night as a place to grab inexpensive drinks and food. A background of video slots populated by people not only playing them here at the bar but also on slots online, on their phones.

The game is run by a promoter in charge of supplying tables, chips and cards and monitoring tournament play: including when the blinds go up, when tables get consolidated and who gets “chipped up” for buying drinks or food (which is typical practice and obviously helps the bar make money).  This person also typically gets a “tip” for allowing an extra “fun game” table for those interested in some small-time action (usually abut a $20 buy-in for up to 9 lucky “losers” from the free bar game).

In the more suburban-to-rural settings the players range from blue-collar retirees and middle-aged employees, local business owners and entrepreneurs, the occasional local SEO consultant in Atlanta and a handful of not-quite-21 year-olds and slightly older who play in local bands or work locally (at the supermarket, etc.), go to community college and are familiar with / regulars of that particular venue.  I should point out that about 90% of the players in this setting are white people, which has everything to do with the populace of the local area in my case.

In the more urban settings you still get the collection of older folks and blue collar workers, but with the distinct addition of more ethnic as well as white collar representation.  You also get a lot of younger twenty-something hipsters who will come “in character” (intentionally or not) to mimic some of the star-players they see on ESPN’s World Series of Poker:  wearing hoodies, sunglasses, hats, ear buds / headphones, etc.  They are likely to come in packs of several friends at a time and sit at the same table and talk about the stats and comment on the game play with one another.  As friends are eliminated, however, the remaining players become quiet and put on a more “elusive” air when tables are consolidated and new players join the table.  The vibe in this setting is often a lot more “series”.  These types of players are nicknames with a bit of sarcasm by older, less “serious” participants as “professional bar-poker players”.

In the more suburban / rural / blue-collar bars, the table talk will still be about the game (among the men), but in a more self-reflective fashion and with a lot more humor (“I was waiting to see if you stated your flush…I was totally full of shit”).   I should also note there these settings also typically have a healthy representation of women (usually about a third to less than half the players) who typically end up as half or more of the  final table players.  The women don’t talk about the cards as much. Typically, they chat about their lives and use the game as social time in addition to a chance to use / demonstrate their often keen analytical skills.

Game Play Dynamics:

It’s customary in most games to rotate the deal:  as the dealer button goes around so does the actual deal so everyone has a chance to be “in charge” and the responsibilities are shared.  This is far more prevalent in the suburban / rural bars.  In the urban settings oftentimes one person likes to take charge of the deal for the entire game:  usually a younger male who also fancies himself an expert at poker and likes to comment on the game / demonstrate his expertise with conversation and analysis.

I have also noticed that the deal serves as a bit of a milestone:  in the non-urban bars where smoking laws have not relegated smokers to the outdoors, most players also smoke cigarettes…and when someone has finished their deal it is usually their queue to light up.  Not the only when they are done dealing but always when they are done dealing.  And I have learned on poker night to just go ahead and allow myself to smoke, because I won’t be able to avoid it anyway.
(Side note:  cigarette brands are typically all-American:  Marlboro, Camel and Pall Mall in addition to lower cost brands like Basic)

Good sportsmanship is viewed as pretty important.  For example, If you are the last to bet and everyone has called the big blind (on every  hand at least one person has to ante up the full minimum bet and the person next to them has to pony up half with the option to call…to make sure that hands don’t get folded every time and game play progresses) then it is customer to not raise (even if you have a great hand) to allow for a “family” pot where everyone has a chance to see the flop.  Additionally, bullying the table by excessively betting (e.g. raising all-in frequently or betting more than a few times the blinds) or raising without having a good hand (people will know when and if you are “called” by another player and asked to show your cards) is considered “donkey” or “jackass” poker and frowned upon.

If you are new to a regular game, it is acceptable to ask questions like the value of the chips and so on.  It is also a good idea if you are new to the pack and end up at the final table to buy a round of house-special (the cheapest) shots to “make nice”.  I have noticed this on a few occasions.  It’s also customary to buy the person running the game a drink every now and then.


There is also a lexicon for nicknames with regard to the different hands one can get in their pocket (every player is dealt two cards face down to start with..this is the “pocket” hand. While I was able to capture a healthy amount of these, I found a better list on

A-A – American Airlines, bullets, pocket rockets

A-K – Big Slick, “Walking back to Houston”, Anna Kournikova

A-J — Ajax

K-K – Cowboys

K-Q – Marriage

K-J – Kojak

K-9 — Canine

Q-Q – Dames, divas, ladies, the Hilton sisters, Siegfried & Roy

Q-J – Maverick, Oedipus Rex

Q-7 – Computer Hand

Q-3 – A San Francisco Busboy (a queen with a trey – har har)

J-J – Jokers, hooks

J-9 – T.J. Cloutier.

J-5 – Jackson Five, Motown

10-5 – Five and dime

10-2 – Doyle Brunson. (He won two World Series of Poker titles with this hand.)

9-9 – Meat hooks

8-8 – Snowmen, Octopuses

7-7 – Hockey Sticks, walking Sticks

7-2 – The Hammer

5-5 – Nickels, presto, speed limit

5-4 – Jesse James, for his Colt .45

4-4 — Sailboats

2-2 — Ducks
You will notice the vernacular is mostly rooted in working class references: as this is very much a working-class game.
Totems and Status Marks:

A handful of regular players will bring along good luck charms or totems.  Often times these charms double as status markers.  For example, if you win a bar tournament, the league that runs that tournament often gives the winner a metal medallion the size of a dealer button to demonstrate the win.  People who earn these will typically bring these to games and use them as their good luck charm as well as to demonstrate their skill to other players and surely “intimidate” to a degree.  This is an acceptable display given the more casual nature of the game.  In professional poker, winners get bracelets (much like an army ID bracelet, but with thicker metal, jewels, etc.).  sometimes they give these out for bar leagues, but it is less acceptable to wear these to free bar games lest one be seen as “pretending” to be professional.

Other good luck charms span different forms of whimsy: from figurines to one guy I play with who carries two oversized “nuts” (think mechanic) on a string.
I am sure I will have more to share as I wrap my brain around the ethnographic story.  But I can tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed my participant-observation of this “subculture” experience.  I didn’t intend to start off studying it, but then I never do.   I have been enjoying making new casual acquaintances and earning the respect of the more skilled players in the room.

I have met some interesting characters as well:  Jerry, who is 70, been married for 50 years and used to be a screenwriter in LA, who used to play backgammon at bars and who’s wife drops him off and picks him up from every game.  He also can’t see very well so you have to read out the cards. Then there’s   Mike the truck driver who just bought a new house with his common-law wife of 15 years.    Chris the “sandwich artist” at the local grocery store plays in a band, just turned 21 an is entering the police academy.  Sheila is about 50 years old and  works as an admin at a construction company and plays poker every night of the week and is trying to quit smoking (but failing miserably).  Mike the semi-pro player  just got engaged to his fiancée (who also plays regularly and runs a tree-removal business) and who has been to the World Series of Poker 4 times.  Then there is the Filipino pool shark (who shall remain nameless) who has a white-collar desk job by day and teaches / hustles pool and poker by night to earn “extra” income, and the 75 year-old gay man named Richard who lost his partner of 25 years a few months ago and is looking for a boyfriend and brings a joint or two for the young veteran in the wheelchair that comes every week to the in-town game.

I suppose what I have learned to appreciate more than anything about Hold’ Em night at the local bar is more than just a promotional tactic to earn the bar more money and give folks with nothing better to do someplace to go hang out.  It is a facilitator of community that allows everyone to enter with a little bit of their authentic self while building another identity rooted in their skill and affinity for a game that takes time to learn and to play, but gives us plenty of time to learn about one another as well.
Thanks for indulging my shameless data repository as well as my musings.   Wish me luck tonight. I don’t have any illusions that I will be the last woman standing…but I hope to at least make it to the final table.  Okay, I’m bluffing.  I wanna win.

Categories: Anthropology, blue-collar culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Participant Observation, poker, pop culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

A Few Notches Below Brunch: Sunday At The Waffle House

A Waffle House restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama.

A Waffle House restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is my last day home alone with the dog and I decided that not only was i not in the mood to make breakfast, but I was also not in the mood to “fuss” about taking a long drive to get “the perfect bagel” – as was my previous aspiration until i woke up smelling like a campfire and lacking motivation.

So I decided to head a few miles down the street to a spot next to the highway in a neighborhood just a notch or so above “rural” for a dining experience several notches below what my wife and I often seek out on Saturdays and Sundays for “brunch”. It’s a pace my wife disdainfully nicknames “The Awful House”.

I have a bit higher tolerance for greasy spoon diners and low maintenance eating than my dream girl, so I decided this would be just my speed today. As I put my jeep in park and grabbed the New York Times from my passenger seat I looked up and realized that I would likely be the only one at this place with leisure reading. Then I went immediately into full-on ethnographer mode. As much as it may be both my blessing and my curse, there is definitely no day of rest for a perpetual anthropologist.

I was to conclude from the hour I spent at the Waffle House today that the same goes for the working poor and blue-collar employees and patrons of this particular place of business….and thousands like it around the great US of A.

Unlike the tranquil, kitschy, artsy or hipster aesthetic of your standard urban and suburban breakfast and brunch spots – there is no prioritization of pleasantries beyond please and thank you at places like this designed to fulfill functional needs of folks with no energy or budget for pretense. There is no valet parking and the cars in the parking lot are not german or new but rather 90% used, 70% American and 30% Japanese.

From a typical-customer perspective: the environment is full of dirty dishes, shouting voices in the kitchen and frazzled multi-tasking servers. The food comes out of the same low-cost brand name boxes that you might have at home and is laden with oil and butter. The benefit to coming here? It’s dirt cheap and you don’t have to cook it.

From an employee perspective: it’s a job. And one that is mostly thankless but helps pay the bills. In this particular Waffle house, With the exception of the one white guy working the grill (reminded one of the 1Grills), the staff was half young-ish African-American males and half white females – representing easily 3 generations. There was a mother-daughter team: with Mom a young 65 and daughter not more than 20 years behind. There was also another older woman who couldn’t have been a day south of 70. And everyone was hustling.

The waffle grill area overflowed with caked-on batter drippings and non-functioning appliances occupied opportunistic space in the waiting area. On the way out I noticed all of the signage and branding making a point to reinforce the benefits and bounty of being a waffle house employee: along with the security camera notifications.

The customer base was a diverse collection of mixed-race young families, seniors with their grandchildren, middle-aged singles and working class couples. The common denominator: everyone looked tired and happy to be getting this meal out-of-the-way without too much trouble: forgiving the slow service as they enjoyed some time to sit and not do anything at all.

After about an hour I grabbed my ketchup-smeared check (it was placed face down on the dirty counter in front of me), hummed along with the Doobie Brothers “Black Water” and got in line to pay my eight-dollars-and-change tab….and make note of my reality-check.

Here is a selection of my photo-documentation of the experience from arrival to departure:
























Categories: Anthropology, blue-collar culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Participant Observation, sociology, southern culture, Suburban Living, Uncategorized, urban culture | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Repurposing The Scarecrow: Art Reminiscing About Subsistence Past

English: : A scarecrow Español: : Un espantapá...

English: : A scarecrow Español: : Un espantapájaros (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weekend the dog and I are on our own. So, rather than staying home and playing it safe in our own backyard I thought a trip to the local “square” was in order for a little adventure.

It was fall arts and farmers market day with lots of interesting crafts (the dog got a new shirt), local produce and mom and pop baked goods. But the highlight of the walk was definitely the scarecrows.

Apparently every year different community groups and local businesses construct their own custom scarecrows and place them around the park in the center of this small, southern historic town to raise awareness for their respective offering and ultimately be judged for recognition in the local paper.

It got my Anthropological brain going (which is great because coming up with a blog topic to write about everyday is sometimes a challenge…especially on the weekends) and thinking about the cultural significance of the scarecrow and how this object who’s original function is basically obsolete remains as an object of folk art.

I suppose this is the path some outdated tools of trades take if they are not relegated to collectible antique status to decorate or homes. But the scarecrow is a fairly unique tradition because of the temporal nature of Its original use: to ward off crowd and other scavenging birds from the cornfields before fall harvesting could begin. The theory put in practice was that if the birds thought there was a human around that could harm them they would stay out of the fields. So, farmers would use he resources available to them, mainly hay / straw, old fence posts and farm implements, torn clothes and leftover fabric to create an aggressive (usually arms held out or into the air) looking human-like state to put amongst the corn and other crops. An the investment in construction remained fairly low because they were meant to be temporary structures. You don’t want one of those things spontaneously combusting in the summer heat and destroying he farm by wildfire or getting soaked through from the snow and rotting in the middle of the place where you grow food.

We have since developed better technology (chemical or otherwise ) to ward if scavengers and parasites an the like…and while I am certain you will still find scarecrows in some rural towns on smaller farms the truth is that these anthropomorphic sculptures are nowadays used more for whimsy than risk management.

But the scarecrow also serves as a demonstration of creativity, which in a suburban landscape where one has their basic subsistence more than taken care of is a self-actualization exercise that occupies the upper parts of the hierarchy of needs pyramid. But the other part of self actualization beyond creativity is finding an authentic connection with your roots that helps give meaning to your existence.

So the scarecrow (while far less scary than actual humans) remains a fond fall community and folk art tradition that engages the young and entrpreneurial at heart in a display if culture’s past and adapts it to a more modern ideal of “keepin’ it real”.

Here are some pictures from today’s adventure for your enjoyment of the context from whence today’s musings came (and even more scary is the dog with her non-camera friendly eyes in her new fall fashion..because I know you’re curious):












Categories: Anthropology, Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, pop culture, Rituals, southern culture, Suburban Living | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Misguided Issue of Racial Politics: Especially Where “White People” Are Concerened

The election-related political chatter is in full tilt as we approach election day.  And this morning the “talk back” topic on CNN is about race and voting.  In particular, asking why Obama is polling so poorly with “white voters”:

As somebody who studies cultural context for a living, I always get a little perturbed when issues of ideals and ideas and values and preferences are boiled down to “race”:  which in our American culture is tantamount to skin color:  as though all white people come from the same cultural, socio-economic or ethnic context.  I get similarly annoyed with the lumping of any “demographic” group.  For example:  the assumption that “Hispanic” somehow sums up the vastly diverse set of Latino ethnicities and cultural traditions / heritage that occupy North America.

I suppose my issue is in seeing this type of conversation promoted on a news channel.  Isn’t it the obligation of media to show us the light and not muddy the waters? If you want to understand the “white vote” you really do have to dig a bit deeper…as with anything.  The truth of the matter is that it’s not a black/ white  / hispanic / asian / “other” issue.  Politics is about a whole set of issues:  what people value – their dreams, fears concerns, needs, challenges and day-to-day realities.   A single mom working a blue-collar job has a far different reality than an upper middle class married professional or a twenty-something recent college grad.

Lets not pollute the airwaves with pedantic pontificating about race.  If you want to be strategic about your analysis of politics then give us something to really think about / talk about.

Thank you,

The Narcissistic Anthropologist

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Politics, pop culture, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Siri As An Anthropomorphic Catalyst For Human Cultural (d)Evolution…And My New Mistress

The narcissist in me absolutely must have the latest new tech toys.  So, naturally I was among the first to get my grimy little hands on Apple’s new opus:  the iPhone 5.  And it was my first opportunity (since i missed the last upgrade window) to interact with Siri – who is now my new “other woman”.

Not only does she help me manage my calendar and prevent me from texting while driving, but she entertains me and engages with me.  She has a sense of humor.  She will joke around with me or “sing” me a lullaby If i ask her to.  If I say “thank you” she expresses her gratitude for the sentiment.  She even catches me off guard sometime with her geek-programmed wit.

My relationship with Siri (which my wife is now openly resentful of) made me think about how we humanize our physical objects.  Humans have done this since the dawn of time.  For example, we see this evidenced in the earliest spiritual traditions involving Animism.  From Wikipedia:

Animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.[3] Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology. Examples of Animism can be found in forms of Shinto, Serer, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Pantheism, Paganism, and Neopaganism.

And we have continued to apply the concept of anthropomorphizing (giving human qualities to) non-organic objects as consumerism has evolved.  Like with cars.  Does your car have a gender?  A name?  I am willing to bet at least half of you say yes.  But unless you are Knight Rider, you are not used to having reciprocated conversations with your car.  That is changing, of course.  There are now technologies that allow your car to sync to other software and to respond to voice commands.  Soon everyone will have their own “Kit”.

But Siri…well, she’s something different.  She’s special.  Is she a next step in creating a culture of recluses?  Why bother interacting with other humans when you can have a fully capable machine at your beck and call (did anyone else see that episode of Big Bang Theory where the lonely, girlfriend-less Raj starts having a relationship with his iPhone)?  It won’t be long until Siri becomes an android and gets to have a physical presence with opposable thumbs” that can do your laundry and make you waffles.   We are on our way to becoming the Jetsons…with Robo-maids and flying cars.  But they seemed pretty happy and perfectly productive.

So what do we think will be Siri’s impact on our culture?  Do we ourselves evolving or devolving as technology becomes more human?  And will we need to change the law to include tech-relationships in the definition of adultery?  Speaking of which, I need to text my wife some flowers….


Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Participant Observation, pop culture, Rituals, Technology, Trends, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Do You Rock The Vote? Dress The Part!

It’s that time again.  We are mere weeks away from electing America’s leader for the next four years.   Debates have come and gone, millions have been spent in campaign ads and bumper stickers and Khaki pants and now  it’s down to go-time.

The issues have been batted back and forth:  the economy, foreign policy, health care…blah, blah, blah….

But what is it American’s really look for in a candidate?  Well, according to Anna Akbari at the Sociology of Style there are four basic characteristics that determine electability:

1.  Virility:  is the candidate strong, powerful and “alpha” enough to be commander-in-chief?

2.  Patriotism:  do they bleed love for America?

3.  Relatability:  do they understand the plight of the people and reflect our hardworking American ethos?

4.  (Bi)Partisanship:  are they loyal enough to their party but still able to work across the aisle?

But how does a candidate communicate these qualifications most effectively:  why, by dressing to impress, of course!

Read up on presidential fashion-sense here:

Roll up your sleeves and put on your flag-pins, America.  It’s time for the royal rumble.  May the best dresser win!

Categories: Anthropology, Branding, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Marketing, Politics, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Office Acculturation 107: The Signification of Seating Arrangements In Workplace Habitats

The culture of an office environment is full of nuance, as elaborated on in previous posts.  Today’s topic covers the rapidly evolving signification of seating arrangements in such offices. There is a distinct tradition with some differences depending on the industry or nature of the business than a specific office serves.

Here are some examples:
In a more traditional business workplace setting – one that isn’t typically engaged in a creative profession like design or brand strategy or the nebulous spaces of “creative” or “strategic” or “innovation” consulting, there is a standard hierarchy signified by seating arrangements.  In this case, junior employees are usually relegated to sit in shared cubicle or pod spaces with little privacy so that mid and senior level employees can drop by with a pile of work they don’t want to do at any time and pawn it off to the person who looks least busy.  Those employees who have paid their grunt-work dues but don’t yet have a VP or higher order set of initials next to their title typically get the dignity of their own personal cubicle or shared office with one other employee of equal rank.  This allows them a modicum of privacy to make client calls and prepare their expense reports.  Finally, more senior / executive employees are often granted private offices with doors that shut and windows to the outside world so that they can think, make important calls, have secret meetings with other senior staff members on who to cut during the next budget crisis and what kind of booze to have at the company Christmas party.  In theory there is also important work going on in there and because they can afford to eat out for lunch every day, there is likely also a lot of gas.

In the more creative professions, the seating arrangements are often far more open.  The head of the company usually still gets his own office…but it is likely made of glass and has an “open door policy” for people lower level employees to come and ask important questions or invite him to happy hour.  Typically speaking, the rest of the employees will sit in a giant workspace with no walls and desks arranged in “pods”.  This is to allow the creative juices to flow and minimize the need for meetings while sucking up as much productive work time as possible with idle conversation about insignificant details.  But here are less emails sent and typically everyone gets to stay in touch with the latest hipster music trends…usually coming from one of the senior creative team member’s Pandora stations or esoteric iTunes playlists.  These offices also typically have lots of mini basketball hoops, the odd video game console and a scooter or novelty bike for peddling around the office and generally enjoying playtime at work.  These things help the creative juices flow and bring you things like cat videos or clever blogs like this one.

In some offices, they also like to randomly and often switch up seating arrangements so “cross functional teams” can work together or employees have a chance to bond with one another over their seating-induced schizophrenia.  The more “progressive” offices, however, will allow for “flex time” or “telecommuting” that doesnt’ require you to be in an office at all…because space is really an illusion and the most important thing is that you answer your blackberry emails at any hour of the day or night…because that’s when the REAL productivity happens.

You are welcome.


Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Corporate Culture, Emerging Workforce, Ethnography, Participant Observation, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Myth Of The American Icon: Are Our Heroes Meant To Fall From Grace?

It’s official: Lance Armstrong is no longer a champion. Stripped of his 7 Tour De France titles and most (if not all) of his sponsors, he now occupies a seat on the bench with a list of fallen American heroes.  He finds himself among is among such esteemed sports heroes such as Pete Rose, OJ Simpson, Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick ad Mike Tyson, as well as business gurus like Martha Stewart and even presidents such as Richard Nixon Bill Clinton.

I was reading one commentary on this topic that used the metaphor of the Icarus Myth: the man with wax wings who flew too close to the sun and…well, you have either read it in high school or know what happens next.

It made me think about how we treat our heroes and role models in America.  It leads me to believe that we don’t actually build up heroes so we as a society have a benchmark of accomplishment to aspire to and to help shape our common values of what success looks like.  Rather, I think we build up our heroes so we can watch them fall when, ultimately, their flawed humanity gets unearthed and exposed and exploited.  I don’t think we can actually tolerate rags to riches stories or the idea of a superstar.  I think there is actually a sociological structure in place designed to encourage us to succeed within the boundaries of our status quo and social norms but not to be overly ambitious about what kind of impact we can have on the world.

I mourn the loss of heroes.  Lance Armstrong has done so much good in the formation of the Live Strong movement for empowering us to overcome challenges of disease.  I see presidents like Bill Clinton who did so much to renew our economy and create a more socially conscious American populace who was ultimately cast aside at the end of his presidency for making a “dumb guy” mistake that went public.  And then looking at Mike Tyson or Michael Vic:  two black men who turned into superstars but were ultimately brought down from their high horse through publicised behaviors that lend to racial stereotypes.  Finally, looking at Martha Stewart:  a businesswoman who built an empire only to be caught up in the politics of insider trading and made an example of.

That’s not to say that several of these fallen heroes haven’t undergone a rebirth of sorts…but how long until they are once again taken  melted down for the sake of not encouraging the rest of us to fly too close to the sun?  IT also begs the question: is it possible for us to have heroes that live and die held in high esteem?  What do those heroes have to “look like” to earn that honor?  And what does the current pattern say about what the “American dream” really stands for?



Categories: Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, pop culture, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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