John: Hello, and welcome to Decoding Culture Podcast on This is HCD. This is the first episode of decoding culture. I thought I’d give the listeners a short summary of what it’s all about. The podcast will focus on the importance that culture plays in all areas of business and society, from how it shapes organisations to how it influences consumer experience, design, and larger societal trends. By exploring culture through anthropology and ethnography, the podcast will give listeners new perspectives on innovation, marketing, leadership, organisational culture, design, consumer behaviour, and also border trends. Decoding culture will include guests from across disciplines that are in different ways influenced by culture and anthropology in order to provide multiple perspectives on how culture shapes human behaviour. My name is John Curran and I’m your host.
I’m a business anthropologist, executive coach, and CEO of JC and Associates, which is a consultancy which explores how culture shapes organisations and consumer behaviour.
For this first episode, I spoke to Dr. Laetitia Mimoun, who’s a lecturer on marketing at Cass Business School in London. We explored how her research interest was influenced by anthropological theory, especially around liminality and how this shapes area of consumer behaviour and culture. This is something she calls consumer liminality and she’s going to talk about this more in the podcast. Listening to Dr. Mimoun’s thinking around this was enlightening because she raises an important point. For example, if there is an emerging trend where consumers could also be in the liminal phase. In other words, they are always in transition.
She links liminality here with Bowman’s theory of liquid society, where there could be a permanent liminality. Therefore, no one is really in a fixed state. We also explored how Dr. Mimoun is influenced by anthropological interpretive methodologies to help generate research data for her work. I will also be giving all of my guests the symbolic anthropologists’ notebook, to study any topic of company they wish to. Dr. Mimoun was the first to accept the notebook, and believe me, it is really worth listening to find out where she’s going to take it.
Let’s get into the conversation.
John: Well, hello, Dr. Mimoun, welcome to Decoding Culture.
Laetitia: Thanks, and good afternoon.
John: One of the things that would be really good to start off will is getting a bit of an understanding about you and your role as an academic in marketing here as Cass Business School, how did you get into academia and also, the idea of marketing?
Laetitia: So, I started after my studies as an assistant product manager in a big fast-moving consumer goods company, we were selling dairies. I got after a time a bit frustrated because we never had the time to ask questions, so for example, at the time, we had a big packaging project where we’ll be introducing front-of-pack labelling. It’s when you put the nutritional label at the front of packs, and we were very afraid that it would change consumer attitude toward our project, but we didn’t have the time to ask about why and how and in general, the evolution of the market and nutritional labelling. It is because I wanted to ask all of these questions, the why, the how, the how individuals are situated into structures that I got into academia.
John: Okay, so you studied first in France, is that right?
Laetitia: Yes, I did my PhD in HAC Paris in France. I joined Cass Business School last year in September.
John: Fantastic. Then what was the PhD area looking at?
Laetitia: My PhD was in consumer cultural theory, which is a field of marketing, which looks more at the symbolic, experiential, ideological meanings of consumption. Specifically, I was looking at consumer liminality and how it might be evolving in contemporary society.
John: Okay, has that been something, this idea of consumer culture and liminality, is that now part of your interest within academia and marketing?
Laetitia: I would say that’s even central to my interest nowadays.
John: Okay, so those two big chunks, we’re going to talk about those in a bit, what type of research areas are you exploring at the moment?
Laetitia: Well, maybe I should start with the context, because that’s what’s accessible. I’m looking at a number of contexts, which are related to consumer liminality, such as flexible lifestyle, like the one that freelancers or independent contractors might have. I’m also looking at different forms of access-based consumption. As well as the lifestyle of recurrent migraines.
John: Does that relate to the – are you exploring things then like the Gig Economy, or is that then coming into that, or…?
Laetitia: I can say that the Gig Economy is coming into that, it’s interesting that when I wanted to look at consumer liminality, I started with migraines, but then I moved onto study flexible workers, including those who are part of the Gig Economy, what we are looking at is how ideological and structural influence such as those which are carried by the Gig Economy phenomenon influence financial culture and consumption.
John: Okay. You’ve mentioned the concept of liminality in relation to consumers and consumer culture, so that setting of lovely images in my mind of the anthropological concept of liminality. I’m just wondering, what does liminality mean for you in relation to what you do as an academic?
Laetitia: We, in consumer research, start the same as everyone when we are talking about liminality with its anthropological routes. That of Turner who studied rights of passage and called liminality the middle phase, such as when, for example, adolescent become adult in a small-scale society or tribe. Then with what Turn explored, and defined liminality as a betwixt and between phrase, this kind of transitional extraordinary and in between stage or phase, which allows all of these transitions and transformation. We are using that to understand consumers and consumer culture. As consumer researcher, we look at liminality, for example, when we are studying life transitions of consumers.
For example, we are looking at how positions might help a high schooler become a university student and let go of their attachment to the high school and family and even childhood and move onto something that will connect them to entering adulthood. We saw that position are central. You have to let go of some of the position which incurred your adolescent identity and adapt transitional position, which will then help you move on in a way and transform.
John: Is liminality, you mentioned, Victor Turner, the anthropologist, is liminality a stage in transition where you are neither before, you’re neither afterwards. It’s a, I don’t know, you’re in a no-man’s land.
Laetitia: The traditional view of liminality assumes that there will be a beginning and an ending. A big part of my doctoral dissertation was to try to understand how we can think of liminality and consumer research, when we are more and more entering what Bowman has called: Liquid society, where social structures are changing so fast that they cannot really serve to incur identity long-term projects. In this idea, there might not be any more ending to these transitions that consumers are going through. What we saw is that even if we could argue with Bowman that there might be, based on Bowman, that there might be some form of permanent liminality, such a state is very difficult to achieve.
John: This is really interesting. Look at Bowman, this idea of liquid society, right, you’re arguing then that there’s a potential to be constantly in the liminal phase or the liminal space, is that right?
Laetitia: In a way, yes and no. My research looks at flexible workers. In particular, consumers who have a flexible lifestyle. These are individuals who often live in in big cities like London and they have a flexible work, they are freelancer, for example, and a flexible home, for example, a flat share. This includes really more people than you can imagine, as nowadays, between 20 and 30 percent of our population in London is involved in flexible work.
John: That’s a lot.
Laetitia: That’s a lot. According to research and organisational science, people who are engaged in flexible work could enter permanent liminality, or what they call permanent liminality. This idea that you are constantly transitioning. Never stopping the transition.
John: I’m really interested in this because I think we have this traditional sense that we move from one state to the next, and even this idea of change and change management, you might have liminality as part of it, but you’re going to get somewhere at the end of it. It’s quite innovative, quite radical what you’re saying here, that people who work, or some people, the 20/30 percent, could potentially find themselves always in that space. But to be a be devil’s advocate here, if they’re choosing to be in that space, surely, then that’s the endgame, they’ve gone through it.
Laetitia: The first thing is, can there be this permanent liminality? My argument is that in contradiction to some finding of organisational science, if you look at consumer lifestyle, and not only as your life within an organisation, it’s nearly unmanageable. It’s too exhausting, too demanding to be permanently liminal. As a result, consumers tend to reengage, re-incur in some kind of stable identity. That might be answering the first point of your question. The second thing is that if they choose to be permanently liminal, is this an endgame? I think that here I want to focus on the notion of choice, because what we are looking at are dynamics or empowerment and disempowerment.
On the one side, you might be choosing to constantly change flexibility, uncertainty. On the other side, you have structural forces, which force you in a situation where that seems to be the most logical choice. You cannot really say that consumers who engage in a flexible lifestyle or at least or stick to a flexible lifestyle are fully choosing to embrace this kind of permanent liminality. They’re rather answering to the structural force of the market, which does not necessarily allow them to seek a stable job, a stable home by seeking and embracing change.
John: I guess that’s one of the big political arguments against the Gig Economy and brands associated with it. So, the Uber’s of the world where obviously, you could do a snap ethnographic study of Uber drivers and they’ll all talk about flexibility. What you’re talking about is actually, there is some stability in relation to things like rights and those areas, as well. They are – it’s the societal structures that are forcing them into that space.
Laetitia: Well, I’m not saying that it’s bad or evil or anything, there is no moral judgement here. I’m just pointing out that there is a tension between the fact that there is a structural force, such as the way the regularisation, globalisation, etc., the way rights are changing, which encourage people to pursue flexibility. At the same time, that choosing and seeking a liminal lifestyle, might be empowering in some way because it brings an ideological component to the situation of uncertainty. You are not simply being in an uncertain state, which is purely the no man’s land of liminality, as you mentioned it before the fact that you have no idea of where you will be tomorrow and how much you will make, what will be your income? Will you be able to afford your bills? Also, that now you are embracing this uncertainty as something which has ideological value.
John: Okay, can you develop that a bit, that’s quite interesting, the ideological value?
Laetitia: This is what we see, for example, when we study the consumer lifestyle behind it, we see that you can embrace some consumption practices, such as constantly changing your hobbies, thinking novelties with new brands, new restaurants, all of this new marketing practices all the time to bring a different side to increase your flexibility because you are not only enduring it in your work, for example, but also embracing it as a social status, for example.
John: It goes back to your point about societal structures moving really quickly. I’m just wondering about brands there, that you mentioned. I guess what it conjured up in my mind, if we look at something around wellbeing and healthy living, and vegan, plant-based burgers versus that, it does feel that there’s a pace, that you either have to follow or you don’t, who are you in that space?
Laetitia: That’s quite interesting, I think that this goes back to this idea of liquid consumption, which has been introduced by [inaudible 00:14:14] who are working on Bowman’s theory. The idea is that to answer these constant changes of society, one of the ways to do so is to engage in consumption, which his increasingly Amphenol and access-based and dematerialised. Being able to access and to make the most of this type of consumption might be what distinguished the elites of the current constantly changing world.
John: You also mentioned this idea, which feels quite traditional, I think how anthropologists’ things around this idea of social status, and the cultural artefacts that we consume, so if things are moving so quickly, how do we, the big we, the consumers and cultural groups, how do we make social status?
Laetitia: That’s a very broad question.
Laetitia: It probably has many answers. I know quite a few researchers who are looking at that. So, I will probably give an answer which is quite specific to my context.
Laetitia: Going back to my flexible consumer lifestyle, what we find is that if you have flexibility, you can look at it from the point of view that we used to look at it for a long time, so if you are 35 years old or 40 years old, that you still live in a flat-share, that you do not own property, that you don’t have a certain job, not a permanent job or anything, if you look at it from a traditional viewpoint of solidity, you might be at the bottom of the social status. If you look at it from a different viewpoint and the viewpoint that many flexible consumer adopt, thanks to this flexibility ideology, which is increasingly prevalent in the marketplace, you kind of look at it as a source of social status because you are able to embrace change and uncertainty and being able to embrace change and uncertainty is increasingly valuable in society.
John: I see, so in a way you become the expert.
Laetitia: Yes, exactly.
John: It’s about the actual lifestyle then, not just what you’re coming in relation to brands that’s giving you the social status, it’s who you are and how you live your life?
Laetitia: Yes, well, that’s the point of lifestyle, really, the integrated constellation of brand and products. In the case of flexible lifestyle, this constellation is constantly changing.
John: Are we going to see this as a norm, this notion of flexible lifestyle, right, is the concept itself part of liminality to a new norm somewhere around societal structures, or are we going to see this as this is what young people coming out of university or whatever will have to embrace? We see this a lot in business, for example, business books, it’s all about startups, lean, agile, etc., it’s coming from this almost t-shirt, jeans philosophy of flexibility and people working from home. I’m just wondering, where will it be sitting in the cultural space?
Laetitia: There are different things and they should not be exactly confused. On the one hand, there is the ideology of flexibility. This is a broad marketplace ideology and it is increasingly prevalent in many different spaces of life. The idea that we need flexibility, that flexibility should be valued, overvalued, such as reliability or stability, or ownership. That’s true and that’s quite prevalent. It is increasingly likely that flexibility be valued in many different spaces and contexts. This is why you find it in some business, this is why you find it in some lifestyle. This is why you find it in wellbeing talks and healthcare, etc. Something else is the flexible lifestyle in itself, which is building on this ideology in reaction to structural changes.
To allow some of those who might otherwise feel disempowered by those structural changes, to be once again empowered. This is what I study. I argue that while it might not become a norm, because I cannot make these kinds of predictions based on my data, we see that this is not limited to young adults. This is not something that university students only engage it. It’s not something that is only in their 20s. The proof of that is in my research, we are looking at people who are 30 years old and older to avoid that argument.
John: What then, if we look at that cohort, the 30 plus, what would we be seeing then? I’ve framed the stereotypical 20 plus startup mentality, etc., all cool and it all feels and looks nice, right, but what does this older cohort, what are they experiencing? Or what does their flexible life look like if it isn’t just confined to the younger?
Laetitia: The point of their structural life is that what we used to see as marker or adulthood, for example, owning a home, purchasing one’s home, having a permanent job, getting married, staying in one place for a long time, all of these things are in a way dissolving. It’s not simply that they are postponed. I think this is what you were mentioning initially. Young adults, 20 plus, who are experimenting in order to accumulate social and cultural capital before settling down. The point is that these things not owning, relying rather on access, on rental, on things which are much more liquid and flexible, not necessarily having a single job, but changing constantly of carriers is disseminating throughout age groups, especially among people who adopt a flexible lifestyle.
This will also be reflected in the consumption. We do see less attachment on owning products. So, you have to rethink luxury symbols. If the luxury is not to own a home, or to own an extremely expensive car, because these are things you cannot carry. If you have to constantly change home, or change work, you need to be able to carry. This is where the liquid consumption kind of concept comes into play.
John: If I’m right then, that’s really interesting, so you don’t see having the nice car, or the status markers as the key point of your social capital, it’s more about how you navigate and negotiate that flexible world, right? The things you follow, the things you do rather than the things you buy.
Laetitia: Yes. While my research is not necessarily on status and luxury, other researchers who also study liquid consumption have shown that there are many other ways to express status in liquidifying society, such as for experiences, and through different lifestyle markers, as well as the ability to adapt to trends all the time.
John: It sounds, having to do that, quite tiring. If you are constantly having to do that. It reminds me a little bit of Goffman’s idea of the impression management and the performative aspect of displaying who you are.
Laetitia: Yes, you know, we all are acting in a way to manage the impression that others will have of ourselves, so permanently we are all good players at that. It is exhausting and I think that’s why the argument of permanent liminality, it’s one of the main weakness of permanent liminality. It’s the fact that we have limited resources limited time, and at an individual level and throughout one life, so when looking at consumers rather than at workers, it is difficult to sustain such a rhythm of change, out of the ordinariness, constant transitioning.
John: I want to quickly move on then, to again, you talked about your field of research and your interest areas, being an academic. How do you source data? What are your methodologies? You’re influenced by the anthropological theory here; I’m just trying to think about how do you understand these groups that you’re studying?
Laetitia: I’m deeply influenced by anthropological and sociological theory and by the field of research, which is called consumer culture theory. As part of this field, we often rely on interpretive methodology. This will, including my case, different interview methods, such as auto-driving, which relies on pictures interpretation, but also more classical interview methods, such as semi-structured interviews. I use different observations online and offline, including fantasy observations. I have used a number of archival methodologies, where I have been, for example, analysing advertising, analysing media data.
As well, on another research project, sometimes we have two big datasets. Especially when we rely primarily on media data. In those cases, we tend to enhance our qualitative approach with automated content analysis. Here we bring a bit of mixed method approach, where we combine qualitative analysis of a subset of data with more quantitative and computer-based analysis of larger data sets. I’m thinking, for example, when you analyse media data over 30 years. The limited capacities of our brains mean that we kind of need the help of computers.
John: It sounds like then you have this fantastic cultural toolbox of methodologies, flexibility in its own right there, right? One quick point, as well, you mentioned as we were setting up, that there is a specific way or a definition in a way of understanding consumer culture. How would you define consumer culture?
Laetitia: Consumer culture as a field of research in marketing appeared at the end of the 80s in reaction to the more rationalistic and utilitarian view of consumers that researchers used to have at the time. The point was to look at different sides of consumer behaviours, such as their experiential side, their more ideological, sociocultural sides of consumption. As a result of that, we have started looking at culture not necessarily as a unified homogeneous system with shared value, a shared way of life, but rather to look at the multiplicity of meanings, which can shape consumers’ understanding and experience of the realities in which they live.
John: We’re coming to the end, I think we could literally probably do a whole series of podcasts on this idea of liquid consumption and – I can see so many different strands of how it shapes these ideas, the social structures as you mentioned. My last question, which I’m asking all guests on the podcast is, I’m going to give you, hand you over now the symbolic, anthropological ethnographic notebook and say to you, if you want to take that notebook and go and study anywhere, where would that be and why?
Laetitia: Well, that’s a big question. Recently, I’ve been interested in the darker side of those liminal lifestyles. Where a consumer might be failing at sustaining this form of permanent liminality, as we have mentioned, it’s quite challenging and exhausting. One of the contexts that I will be interested in is to look at digital nomad, but how specifically, those who have failed or come back from a digital nomad life. Looking at bit at why that happened, and how it has impacted their identity and how that shaped now, how they are situated in society and in terms of consumption.
John: Just for some listeners who don’t know what digital nomad means, can you just say what that is?
Laetitia: Digital nomads are people who choose to work at distance for a digital mean. As a result, are able to very regularly, like every month or so, change where they live. They can work in Turkey one day, Indonesia the next month, and the next month after that in Canada, for example.
John: Okay. Well, listen, Letitia, thank you so much for being on Decoding Culture.
Laetitia: Thanks for inviting me.
John: Good luck with the up and coming semester.
Laetitia: Thank you very much. Bye.
John: Thanks for listening to the Decoding Culture Podcast. If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit: thisishcd.com, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect with other human-centred designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
End of Audio