Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Mona Domosh, Selling America

Sorry for the lateness. I couldn't break myself away from election coverage.

Mona Domosh offers a very unique and conversational piece about approaching advertisements as way to analyze culture. Specifically, she is interested in national identity and imperialism in the late 19th century and provides a tale from her own research about how studying advertising can illuminate our understanding of culture (or perhaps, analyzing culture can better help us understand advertising).

Domosh argues that advertisements should be understood as “cultural documents, participants in the shaping and reinforcing of public culture” (141). Within the context of imperialism, these cultural artifacts help construct and reinforce ideologies of nationalism. In her research on 19th century companies engaged in overseas marketing, Domosh introduces two theoretical framework that she found particularly useful. First, she draws form Judith Butler’s notion that cultural artifacts are iterative, “that the images and words on ads are meaningful to us because they are drawing on themes and stories, or narratives, that are familiar to most people” (144). Second, she evokes Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’, which she describes as acquiring “an intimate familiarity with cultural codes and meanings” (144) in order to develop adequate interpretations.

Domosh then provides an example of an ‘intellectual puzzle’ she encountered in her own research. She writes about being a bit bewildered by a Singer Sewing Machine Company trade card that was circulated at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Because I wouldn’t do it justice to summarize the blow-by-blow of her story (but it’s definitely worth a read), I will summarize her two main points. First, without properly placing the advertisement in its context (of the economic and social dynamics of the time as well as the prevailing advertising strategies of Singer at the time), she would have had difficulty understanding the advertisement and likely misread its intent. Second, she implies that the journey of discovering meaning is not one that has straight path but, rather, is full of dead ends and retraced footsteps. For me, her evoking of ‘thick description’ – which Geertz uses to describe how to conduct ethnography – suggests that researchers need to interact with their research in a more immersive manner than they are used.

She closes by noting that her main concern is “break[ing] down the boundaries between cultural and economic geography” (150). The chapter itself is part methodological piece, part case study, and part call for new research on advertising within geography. It’s a easy interesting and easy read and definitely worth a look.

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