Bumper-Sticker Theory <debate> <long>

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 17 Feb 1996 12:39:27 +0900

In reply to JMartin's suggestion,

>How about a thread on why functionalism and
structuralism were discarded

Martin Cohen writes,

"A bit of oversimplification, but here is my quick take on
this: It would be nice to say it is because they were
replaced by models that work better and tell us more, or
least direct us to better research. But I think the real
reason is that academics is driven, to a large extent, by
fads. We like to rebel against the old profs who had
rebelled against their old profs. You can build a career on
a new perspective if enough people follow. You can build a
career by chosing to follow the right new perspective.
Working with old models doesn't get you anywhere before
you make tenure. At its worst, this leads to what Walter
Goldschmidt has called "bumper-sticker theory". That is,
theoretical orientations that can be reduced to thin slogans.
I'll wait for the Kuhnians to reply.

I say, Hallelujah! Here I would add the proposition that the
state of affairs Martin describes reflects the pervasive
market-orientation that now permeates academia as much
as the rest of modern life. I suggest as an exercise to the
reader, try substituting "academic theory" for "ad" in the
following paragraphs:

"Like religion, magic is rooted in ritual, and in their use of
symbols, ads and rituals seem alike. But here, especially,
caution is needed. For where rituals are said to repeat
traditional patterns and are validated by faithfulness to
their prototypes, ads are supposed to be new creations. In
the realm of ritual, innovations are either ignored or, if
recognized, justified as rediscoveries or revelations. Ritual
repeats received ideas. Ideally, at least, ads do not.

"In advertising, innovation is openly celebrated. As in
scholarly research plagiarism is evil, flagrant imitation a
sin. Ads belong to a world in in flux, where 'meaning is
constantly flowing' (McCracken, 1990, p. 71) and, thanks to
new technology, the ownership of meaning is more than
ever up for grabs (Barlow, 1994). Ritual assumes a settled
world in which cultural categories are fixed, where cultural
principles never change. Advertising assumes a world in
which traditions are being replaced, where media-based
messages propose transformations in relationships
between persons and goods (Leiss, Klein, & Jhally, 1990, p.

"If our categories and principles now seem as uncertain as
the truth in our metaphors, that is the world in which we
live. In our rampant jungle of symbols (no orderly forest
this; see Turner, 1967), we need strategic reasons to guide
us. Our metaphors point in many directions. As makers,
researchers, and managers, we need, I propose, more
thought devoted to how we choose among them."

(McCreery, 1995, "Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On
Choosing Metaphors" in John Sherry, ed. _Contemporary
Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological
Sourcebook_. New York, London, Delhi: Sage, p. 326)

John McCreery
February 16, 1997