Tag Archives: daniel miller

An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

daniel-millerDr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is Professor of Material Culture at the Department of Anthropology University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has specialised in the study of material culture and consumption.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Daniel Miller (@dannyanth) is an anthropologist who has contributed foundational theoretical and empirical work to the study of material culture. Even though Danny’s work is in academia, his research on consumption continues to influence the commercial world. As such, EPIC invited Danny to be one of the keynote speakers in London.

After reading Danny’s work for over a decade, I was beyond excited that I got to meet him at EPIC. In this interview, Danny tells us about his applied research on hospices and his current massive, multi-year, global social media research project that recently led up to what some called the “facebook kerfuffle.”

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

theory-of-shopping the-comfort-of-things2 417dC-J121L cache_46_ea_46eae409706da6c82c8046c5f650c494Did you ever imagine that your work would become required course reading and end up on almost every anthropologist’s and sociologist’s shelf?
It’s something of a paradox that anthropologists who specialise in social research are still often represented in the highly individualistic mode of popular culture which is devoted to the individual as a `name’. I come out of a more European tradition which is why there is very little out there about myself.  The work that I do and is found on people’s shelves is not really about me as an individual. I derive most of my ideas from a specific literature, mainly in anthropology, such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but also from many other academic disciplines, such as insights from the sociologist Simmel or the philosopher Hegel. In turn my own work will be reflected mainly as citations in other people’s academic writings and interests. So really I am part of a process, trying to employ an extraordinary legacy of ideas to help us understand our contemporary world.

Read Danny Miller's piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

Read Danny Miller’s piece: Photography in the Age of Snapchat

I guess one reason for the popularity is that word `contemporary’. While anthropologists tended to look to things with long traditions, I am currently writing about `snapchat’ and I think my work coveys my excitement and enthusiasm for the world we actually live in. By the same token I think people have responded to my desire to leave behind the more obscure jargons of academic and try to create a writing style that re-integrates the humanity and poignancy of people’s lives alongside our more abstract and academic concerns. I hope people enjoy this intense engagement, which is just fine, because I certainly do, and in some ways I feel I have only just started my work.

Hopefully this also reflects a wider realisation, that approaches such as `big data’ and perspectives modeled on science, look terribly important and promising. But again and again people come to the realisation that to understand the world there are no short cuts, and the best way is the patient qualitative and engaged research that is the delight of anthropology.

Why did you agree to speak at EPIC?

To be honest I knew very little about EPIC, and the main reason for my involvement was that my Department at University College London was partly hosting this year’s EPIC and so it was natural for me to be involved. Having said that I have been a long term supporter of acknowledging and fostering the relationship between anthropology and applied work, including commercial work. Most students in anthropology will end up somewhere in that sector and I think it is appalling the way many academic anthropologists try and ignore the importance of this relationship and pretend all their students are going to end up as pure academics.  As I argued in my talk I think anthropologists have just as much to learn from the applied sector as the other way around.Read More… An interview with Anthropologist Danny Miller about his latest research on social media & hospices

Jeans, Indian film, and fashion

headshot of Clare Wilkinson-WeberClare Wilkinson-Weber (@clarewilkinso10) studies costume, fashion and performance in Indian film, and craft in the contemporary global economy. Her latest book is Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. In this post for our genes (and jeans!) edition, she writes about the social meaning of jeans worldwide, and in Indian film in particular.

Dr. Wilkinson-Weber’s contribution to this edition’s music mix is Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unwittingly turned himself into an object of ridicule for claiming that among the various freedoms denied to Iranians was the right to wear jeans. In no time at all, social media immediately buzzed into life to prove Netanyahu wrong – at least with regard to jeans-wearing.  Setting aside all the claims and counterclaims that might be made (and have been made) between Israel and Iran, what is striking about this example is that jeans-wearing should have been invoked as an indicator of a free citizenry in the first place.

Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward first drew our attention to the protean nature of denim around the world in their essay, Manifesto for a Study of Denim (Miller & Woodward, 2007).  Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though, for just as the association with youth, autonomy and individuality has valence in location after location (just ask Mr. Netanyahu), so also, as anthropologists might expect, there is also some important variation. The Global Denim Project, hosted by University College London, gives a taste of the research that is being done to probe both the continuities and discontinuities of jeans production, circulation, and consumption.

Ranbir_Kapoor_at_the_NDTV_Marks_for_Sports_event via bollywoodhungama

Ranbir Kapoor at NDTV Marks for Sports
CC BY-SA Bollywood Hungama

Wearing jeans carries few to no connotations of political liberty in India; they are, though, resiliently symptomatic of modernity, and by extension, of the wearer him or herself as modern. With the “consumer-citizen” having taken on the mantle of normativity in urban India, the more ubiquitous and familiar jeans become, the more modern the sartorial landscape appears to be.  Wearing jeans, as opposed to wearing a uniform, a business suit, or an item of “Indian” or “traditional” clothing, is an act that speaks of individual motivation, global fashion consciousness, and personal choice.  Jeans are not considered suitable for many of the same settings from which they are debarred in Western society (formal occasions, workplaces and so on).  Media events though are a key exception, and film award ceremonies commonly feature major male film stars (though not female stars) wearing jeans — sometimes quite dramatically distressed jeans — under a formal jacket and with formal shoes.

As a peculiar distillation and selection of the broader dress spectrum in India, film – even in the “realist” mode – can clothe a larger or smaller number of cast members in jeans, depending upon the tastes and preferences of director, designer, and actor.  Extras (known as “junior artists”), dancers, all can wear jeans, though only if they are, like the hero or heroine, young.  But when putting denim on lead actors, female or male, more strategic thinking comes into play. Dressing the leads communicates about the character’s flair and distinctiveness, and also serves to confirm the actor’s credibility as a style leader in their own right.

Appearing in jeans – any jeans — began in the 1970s as an unmistakable sign of heroic energy and fashion consciousness; since the floodgates have opened to allow in more global brands, as well as corporate alliances between designers and textile producers  (e.g. Diesel and Arvind Mills), having a pair of jeans by itself no longer proclaims the wearer’s sophistication and distinction from non-wearers (formerly committed to synthetic trousers and working men’s pajamas).  Now that these self-same working men (though not yet women) wear jeans to dig ditches and build offices, the rich must exploit their knowledge and access to exclusive brands to keep themselves apart – a gambit that only works to the extent that fashion knowledge becomes more widely disseminated, since jeans, to put it baldly, are difficult to make appear different one pair from another.  So it is among the topmost consumers that squabbles erupt over ever-finer discriminations in the jeans they buy, their choices basically revolving around particular brands, some of which have only entered the sub-continent in the last few years.

In a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy.

Film stars are in this top layer as personal consumers, although as product endorsers, they attach their names to brands as mundane as Levis and Wrangler.  And in a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy.  Stars are by no means universally lauded for their personal taste: far from it.  Even designers lament the “cluelessness” of some of the celebrities they have to dress.  But tales from the film world contain plenty of evidence for stars issuing firm directives that they will only wear the most exclusive, most hard to get jeans, meaning that the “regression to the mean” to which denim is strangely prone can befuddle the most enlightened consumer.

Stars want top brands because they feel they have “earned” them, but the intensely personal experience of wearing jeans is a factor in their choices as well.  From the point of view of the wearer, fit, finish, and internal detailing set apart the exclusive brand label from the cheapest variety.  There is also the “feel” of denim, where – in one of the curious paradoxes of jeans that simultaneously explains their massive popularity – the softer, the more relaxed, the more “used” it feels, the more comfortable and desirable it is.

In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans as casual wear… That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography.

In 2013, jeans are so common for film heroes as to have become banal.  Young women wear jeans in films to a marked degree as well, but the as-yet unquestioned propriety of saris and salwar-kameez in India means that play with women’s costume remains more complex — spanning Western and Indian styles, and incorporating fusion where possible, to a much greater degree.  What one doesn’t see in film so much is the irruption of jeans into the dress of characters that are in fact much more prone to sartorial reductionism than either heroes or heroines: I mean here older character actors.  In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans either as at-home wear or as casual wear to put on at weekends.  Women pair their jeans – typically of the loose “Mom” variety – with a kamiz (tunic top); men opt for a kurta.  This is not the stuff of “fashion” in the conventional sense, although it does suggest some shifts in fashion understood as a variety of self-making, with clothes as its primary device.  That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography.  In films, for the most part, jeans maintain their association with youth while older characters stick to their saris and suits, in keeping with the expectation that the young hero and heroine are the ones with emancipatory ideas in mind, while the oldsters stick to the values of tradition.

Which in turn provokes a final thought: if it is a small matter these days for youth to get access to jeans – in India, in Israel, in Iran – what does it mean when jeans spread into other generations? Do the wearers thereby acquire the “freedoms” of youth? Or do they take on the dress the better to suppress such imaginings?

Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim*. Social Anthropology, 15(3), 335–351. doi:10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00024.x

A clip from the film Dulaara featuring Clare’s contribution to this edition’s music mix
Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy/”My Pants are Sexy”) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay: