My impressions about Purchasing Power and Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out

Por João Matta

Purchasing Power (Elizabeth Chin)

This book discusses deeply important concepts like consumption, ethnicity and childhood and at the same time it describes people and their lives. I found it fascinating because not only does the author argue about these concepts, but she presents her findings to support the arguments she puts forward. Her arguments are based on her experience in New Hallville. The patterns of social behaviour in New Hallville are the same as in some Brazilian big cities. Some years ago, I conducted some research on children (9-11 years old) from São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Ribeirão Preto, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife. Consumption in general for those Brazilian children is pivotal in the way in which they interact with their families. For Chin, the consumption of New Hallville children “is an important medium through which many of these children´s everyday social and kin relationships are created and maintained” (p. 88). Also in Brazil, consumption is a good way in which we can understand different aspects of children lives: relationships, behaviour, desire, sexuality, needs and values. Chin also argues that “children today are quite often adept at critically analyzing the industry´s attempts to create desires for their products, much more so than their parents or grandparents were when they were young” (p.68). Throughout my research in Brazil we saw several cases where children showed some critical capacity to argue about marketing and publicity strategies which create desires for brands. There is no reason why some journalists, parliamentarians, government authorities and Brazilian institutions should insist on looking at children as a kind of powerless group when it comes to judging the commercial intentions of advertising and marketing.

Three out of the sixteen years of my career as a marketing professional I worked for Mattel in Brazil where I learned many things about this company and its marketing strategy for children, including Mattel´s aims with ethnically correct dolls. Chin has a deep understanding of the issue. Indeed, all questions pointed out by Chin about ethnically correct dolls are evident within the company. Ethnically correct dolls put business first and, actually, do not consider the social class issue. As demonstrated by Chin, these kinds of toys are not recognized by black children as part of their lives. She argues that most children build their own world through their imagination, transforming some Barbies even the blonde ones into whatever they want. With this we can conclude that they do not need ethnically correct dolls to play. The Newhallville girls also did not identify black Barbies as being black. The depth of her research was possible only because she became part of the community and she was open enough to listen to these children without any preconceptions.

Not only did she involve the children in her study but she also turned them into little researchers. During her ethnography, the children became dynamic participants coming up with a questionnaire, conducting interviews, analyzing data, writing a report and presenting their findings to an audience of scientists. In the last chapter of the book titled Afterword: the Return to the Scene of the Crime she tells how she engaged the children transforming them into researchers, presents her opinions and her methodological choices. She developed her method throughout the research, not before. Her book is a good example of ethnography engagement since she was so absorbed in her fieldwork. The ethnographer needs to go to the field with few assumptions and methodological procedures previously established. Chin tells us the way in which she found her own method while conducting her fieldwork. Moreover, she also tells us how much she was personally transformed after having left the field and about her personal involvement with the children, especially one of them, Tiona.

In conclusion, this book describes fieldwork with a specific group of children. However, not only does it discuss the findings from the field, but it also presents an engaging argument about consumption, ethnicity and childhood. This book contributes a great deal to our understanding of these issues. I intend to adopt it as one of the books in my bibliography for my courses in Brazil. This book is a good example of ethnographic approach. If the authors of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out had carried out their research in a similar manner to Elizabeth Chin, then I am sure, their book would have been deeper and presented both sides of argument for and against the internet instead of just considering the positive aspects.

Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out (Ito et al.)

According to its authors, the aim of this book is to document and analyze how the youth consume media. They document some practices of some teenagers and kids but they do not discuss and reflect on their findings in-depth. At the beginning, the book presents some preconceptions about how the youth use new mediums. The authors assume three genres of participation based on categories of youth online behaviour and try to fit their research findings into these: for them, young people and kids either hang out, mess around or geek out and nothing else. These three categories are not used to present all their findings because they also present case studies to support their arguments. They use the following three: hanging out, messing around or geeking out – and they do not discuss the links between the categories. It seems that the authors went to a field to find examples to support their preconceptions.

On the other hand, the authors present the internet in only a positive light. The authors treat the internet as if it were a territory free of risks to the youth. They say that the internet is a place without restrictions where young people can show their own work, build identities and express their creativity. This is true to some extent, but we have to consider that not only is the internet a place with risk, but it can also be dangerous for young people and kids. It has been proved that using the internet carries numerous risks as well as good opportunities for young people. Not only is cyberbulling becoming more common, but also Paedophiles using the internet to groom children is a growing problem, not to mention the easy availability of pornography.

The authors also affirm that the traditional way in which children learn does not interest them and the internet is more interesting due to its content. The authors believe that the internet is the place where the following practices were created: socialization, gaming, living in community etc. All these practices were prevalent among young people long before the dawn of the internet. Of course, the internet just takes it to the next level because the technology allows millions of young people to access the same information at the same time, but the internet is not a free space without risks as the authors seem to believe. They argue that the internet should be used freely for learning and they disregard the problem of discredited research sources. We have to consider the issue that young people believe everything they find on the internet. They also believe that everything published on the internet is more trustworthy than the content they find in the books. Moreover, the authors seem to separate people´s life online from their actual life. Their analysis does not consider the inextricable link between an individual´s life online and offline.

Reading this book I remembered the years when I worked as a marketing researcher. I went to the field with just one goal: to understand the consumers´ behaviour and to create three or four genres for my clients to work on. The idea was to find the most representative genre in terms of quantity and economic value so as to allocate all the advertising and marketing investment in this of consumers. The categorizations shown in this book are similar to those applied in market research. This kind of approach might create and strengthen some stereotypes including geeks are not sociable, a genius has to be antisocial, the young are always rule breakers, the adults are kind of executioners etc. This book talks about important issues but the authors arguments are not just based on their field experience. As I wrote before they start their fieldwork with premises and preconceptions about the internet and young people.

Purchasing Power x Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out

These two books are different because they discuss childhood and youth in different ways. While Chin argues in-depth about consumption and ethnicity related to childhood, the authors of Hanging out and […] create behaviour categories in which they try to generalize kinds of behaviour and say a young person is either this or that. I believe that anthropological understanding of childhood is more aligned with Chin´s work rather than the findings of the other book. Purchasing Power does not reach the point where children´s behaviour is categorized, Chin argues about the topics from the particularities of each child. The way in which the authors of Hanging out and […] describe the behaviour of young people sounds shallow for me.

In conclusion, Chin avoids early use of theories and concepts and rejects preconceptions which the authors of Hanging out and […] do in their book.

CHIN, Elizabeth. Purchasing Power: black kids and American consumer culture. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota, 2001.

ITO, Mizuko ET AL. Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: kids living and learning with new media. London, UK: MIT Press, 2007.

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