By Julie Bilby
Michael B Griffiths is Director of Ethnography at Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China. He is also Associate Research Fellow, White Rose East Asia Centre; and External Research Associate, Centre for International Business, University of Leeds, UK. We excerpted part of his book, Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In, on Wednesday.
Shanghaiist: How long have you been working in China and what keeps you here?
Michael B Griffiths: I came first to China in the year 2000 and taught English on the rural fringe of a small market town in Zhejiang Province. At the time, hardly anybody was doing English teaching in China. You didn’t see any foreigners then. I didn’t apply myself to learning the language at first. I was only twenty-one years old.
China just became something I couldn’t live without. Although I have, at various times, tried to walk away from it, I’ve ended up coming back. For a while I worked for a wholesale firm in the catering supply business and they were moving their purchasing over to Asia. I was a stock controller, and later the ‘Far East buyer’, partnering with agents in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. I did that for a bit but the job wasn’t really delivering, so I started applying for courses at universities. At that time, the British government was funding universities at the intersection of China and business. I won a scholarship to do an MA at Leeds University.
That year I worked harder than I’d ever worked before. I met my wife that year as well – she’s Chinese. And I just studied. At the end of that year I won another scholarship to do a PhD. I started off doing what you’d know as consumer research but I ended up moving progressively towards the intersection of anthropology and sociology. I spent much of the next five years in my wife’s home town, learning not only the language but also learning the cultural grammar of what gets done and how you do it.
SH: So you completed a PhD before you started working in advertising?
MBG: I finished the PhD in 2009. My wife had a baby at the same time. The universities were slashing jobs. I published a couple of papers – one of them was in a top journal as well – but it was hard to find a job. Then, I resurrected the connection to consumerism that had sort of been there at the beginning of my PhD, and it seemed that all roads led to Ogilvy & Mather. I was recruited right out of the third tier city that I’d been living in. I consider myself very fortunate – O&M is massive in China and doing lots of interesting work.
SH: That’s a pretty unique career trajectory… there are not many advertising practitioners with PhDs
MBG: The journey here has been tough. I often get young people calling me up to ask how they can get my kind of job. But it’s not like you can get here in two or three easy steps. I spent years living in towns where I couldn’t easily speak to people, so have experienced intense isolation, and all of those frustrating cultural differences. Never mind learning the language, it’s also the sense of being assimilated by the local culture, finding those things about myself that I was not willing to compromise on. Joining O&M was like a way back into the international sphere, whereas previously I’d been making sense of it basically on my own, writing my book. I always tell these kids it’s not like you can just do an internship, attend a course or seminar and get it. Even if you went and did something substantial like an MA in Anthropology or whatever – which would be great – it’s the experiences you have along the way, the people you’ve known, that furnishes you with those perspectives that are useful.
SH: I know that you recently published a book about Chinese consumers. Can you give a brief overview of the book topic, how you arrived at your thesis, and what, if anything, you found to be unique about Chinese consumers?
My book, Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In, is significant because most existing literature about Chinese consumers continues to reproduce an unhelpful contrast between individualism and collectivism – on a spectrum with the nebulous west on one end of the spectrum and China, representing the East, on the other end of the spectrum. This is a mammoth over-simplification! My own experience of China is that Chinese people don’t fit these simplified categories – collectivist or interdependent, or whatever. My research sets out to find a “third-way” through these oppositions — to show that Chinese are individuals, yet they are nevertheless culturally conditioned. That is, that their individual capacity to act, to intervene, to manipulate, to create, is as important a factor as the social and cultural environment they inhabit.
SH: So, you’re saying that the individualism versus collectivism debate in the academic literature doesn’t make any sense?
MBG: It doesn’t make any sense at all. On the one hand you have an idea very familiar to marketing — that individuals are rational, self-maximizing actors with self-defined ‘aims’, ‘goals’, ‘objectives’ to explain why they do things. And on the other hand you have the contrasting idea that Chinese people are not like this at all: that their actions and behaviors are determined by their cultural make-up, as if they’re not free, as if they have to behave according to a ‘Confucian’ blueprint for practice. But if we’re interested in what Chinese people do and how they do it, when and why they do it different ways, then these models are of extremely limited utility.
You see the influence of this way of thinking right across the marketing industry. Many other books on the market are full of insight into consumers, yet reproduce iterations of these oppositions. That is because marketers believe behavior goes back to a single, identifiable cause – that behavior is driven by a fundamental psychological and /or cultural model. But in fact people’s behaviors are almost limitless diverse and only contextually relevant. We don’t explain all of Western people’s behavior by reference to the Bible; we accept that people take up positions in relation to dominant cultural discourses. So why don’t we do that with China?
Of course, it was only recently that you would have got yourself in trouble for professing an interest in Confucianism instead of reading Maoist texts. These underlying cultural narratives – like Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Marxism, Chinese Christianity – all of this is in the mix, but all of this gets overlooked when we come up with these simplified models. The truth is, of course, that China is immensely more complicated than that. Chinese people – and this is what my research seeks to show – like people everywhere, take up positions in relation to dominant cultural narratives or discourses.
This doesn’t mean that all those things about Confucianism (for example) are not true or relevant, it just means that – in terms of what individual people do on the ground in an everyday way – it’s intensely more complicated than that.
So that’s the sort of broader background to my book. The real value of the research is the way I set out to show that. It’s a systematic analysis; basically its structural anthropology though in a postmodern way. It’s about looking at the different ways that people position themselves through their speaking and acting, and disaggregating that into, let’s say, the most reducible … I’m tempted to say elements but that’s not right… discourses. Discourses are simply systems of meaning that have a certain internal integrity whilst also being connected to everything else. I’ve taken progressively deeper slices through this material, looking at really fundamental issues – things like morality in a Chinese context, authenticity, knowledge and social rules, practices, norms, and sociability in terms of personal character etc. I’ve shown how individual Chinese uniquely make use of prior cultural material in these areas. But that’s really only the first half of my analysis. The second half goes on to show how there is a particular pattern or “grammar” informing how individual Chinese are differently doing this, across different, let’s say, types or kinds of individuals – across fields of social engagement. So the combination of those two phases of analysis adds up to a systematic demonstration that Chinese consumers are, at once – simply speaking – free and determined. Their individual identity is both informed by their individual capacity to act, and by the cultural stuff around them.
Michael B Griffiths is Senior Director, Ethnographic Research at Ogilvy & Mather, Greater China. He is also Associate Research Fellow, White Rose East Centre; and External Research Associate, Centre for International Business, University of Leeds. His book, “Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In,” is available at on- and offline bookstores worldwide.
Julie Bilby is a former advertising art director. She is now Program Director and a Lecturer in the Bachelor of Communication (Advertising) program at RMIT University, Melbourne. Julie is currently researching a PhD – looking at the role and value of advertising creativity in China.