Vol. 7, No. 1, December 2005

The Limits and Possibilities of Branding Culture in Handicraft Economies

By Frederick F. Wherry
University of Pennsylvania

Large retailers such as Pier-1 Imports, World Market, and Ten Thousand Villages, to name but a few, have emerged as major players in the market for handicrafts. According to the database of artisanal products maintained by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2003 the global export of wooden furniture generated $US 16.6 billion; ceramics, $US 1.4 billion; candles and tapers, $1.4 billion; and artificial flowers, $US 1.3 billion. Although handicraft artisans constitute a significant segment of the world economy, little is known about how the different countries these artisans populate gain a comparative advantage from branding culture. I argue that the conventional understanding that "those who can, do" fails to explore the connection between private matters (talent, traditions, skill) and public issues (national orientations to different representations of culture) [Swidler 1986; Biggart and Guillen 1999].

I use archival evidence, trade data, and interviews with key informants to demonstrate that as each nation-state worked toward defining its own identity and marking itself apart from outsiders, it created niches for some types of cultural commodities but made other types nearly unthinkable (Wherry 2006a; Wherry, under review). Thailand's more favorable approach to cultural heritage contrasts Costa Rica's reticence to appear too "ethnic." I explain how these understandings and appreciations of local culture mediate the rise of new marketplaces. In each country, one artisan boasts of how well she or he has done in the handicraft market, as if individual talent, good luck, and the dedication to honing traditional practices fully explained the different outcomes that artisans experience in the same country. Some international tourists believe that Thai artisans do better in global markets than Costa Rican artisans because Thailand has more stocks of cultural heritage than Costa Rica does. Thailand lays claim to uninterrupted cultural traditions, free from the stain of colonialism, but Costa Rica seems to have been a virgin wild before the Spaniards seized hold of it. One crafts broker from the United States remarked that buying crafts and furniture from Chiang Mai was nearly risk-free because his pool of clients had a pretty good idea about what to expect from "Amazing Thailand": the land of gold-roofed Buddhist temples, the spectacle of saffron robes suspended in morning mist (a barely perceptible procession of cloaked monks carrying silver alms bowls), white sand beaches, teakwood furniture, hill-tribe and local crafts, and sex on sale.

By contrast, in surveys of international tourists to Costa Rica, it becomes clear that most people know, before ever arriving, that Costa Rica is a great place for lounging on the beach and for visiting the jungle, but ask what they know about Costa Rica's indigenous cultures and expect to draw a blank, because, it is vaguely believed, the indigenous groups reside in those other countries around there, you know, Guatemala and places like that. In Costa Rica, one finds the lush jungle, the carefully manicured coffee plantations cooperatively owned by small-scale landowners, brilliantly plumaged parrots, oversized butterflies, clean seas, and an even cleaner social conscience. (They abolished their military to invest in people rather than bloodshed.) As the visitor takes home a bag of Costa Rican coffee or a picture of her jungle trek, she confirms what everyone already believed to be true about what Costa Rica is and, by extension, what the country and its citizens produce.

My investigation into how these countries' cultures are branded focuses on how the public expectations about a country affect the stances that artisans, brokers, governments, and other actors take with regard to the production of cultural commodities such as handicrafts. The way that brokers and consumers make sense of their handicraft purchases relies on their patched-together understanding of these public perceptions. When one hears "Made in Thailand," one conjures a different set of images about the types of products and the character of its producers than one does upon hearing "Made in Costa Rica." These images connect the purchased good to its country of origin and to similar goods around the world. These images also evoke historical myths, symbols, and practices. The way that one makes sense of the purchase is often a mish-mash, in Robert Wuthnow's formulation, as if from a rag drawer:

Rags have been used before, although quite often for a different purpose than the one to which they are about to be put. They are still usable as cloth, and this property renders them more useful for some purposes than for others. To make something elaborate such as a quilt, we... have to piece together our projects by using a variety of rags [Wuthnow 1996: 95-96].

In the handicraft market, buyers stitch together the rationale for purchasing cultural commodities from bits and pieces of history: travel accounts, posters, pamphlets, museum visits, National Geographic, The New York Times (travel and arts sections), other high-brow magazines and newspapers, and direct experience with a place, a person, or a thing. The accumulation of these rags in memory's drawer enable artisans, brokers, and buyers to make sense of what they do, what they sell, and what they buy. Some countries have rag drawers more conducive to the export of their cultural commodities than do other countries.

In both nations, one sees how the country's overall reputation for cultural heritage corresponds, in part, with the comparative advantages that its handicrafts obtain in global markets. Going back to the roots of each country's traditions, one finds that the comparative advantage that Thai artisans enjoy in cultural markets and the comparative disadvantage that the Costa Rican artisans endure do not emerge "naturally." Each country "worked" its reputation for culture according to how the nation-state defined itself and in response to a set of historical contingencies. Frank Dobbin's understanding of how the United States, Britain, and France developed their industrial railroad policies becomes even more salient in the market for cultural commodities: "History has produced distinct ideas about order and rationality in different nations and modern industrial policies are organized around those ideas" (Dobbin 1997: 2). The imperative to define the national identity emerged in reaction to the threat of colonization, as a response to pressures within the nation-state for social unity and political control, and with concern for the nation's status within the world community of nations. The ideas about national identity that emerged from these histories shaped the state's export promotion policies for handicrafts and the contours of its appeal for international tourism.

The nation state has worked its cultural image, in part, through the identity of its exported products. The nation's exports justified its freedom from colonization (in the case of Thailand) [Wherry, paper under review] and its worthiness to act independently of its colonial master after decolonization (in the case of Costa Rica) [Wherry 2006]. For the former, the nation's exports confirmed that Thailand was unique among nations (in the exotic items it produced) but was also en par with the European powers in its adaptation of modern practices and in its production of modern commodities for export; therefore, the Thai were in no need of being civilized by outsiders. For the latter, the nation's export platform tried to eliminate any hint that the country was unique in indigenous exotica. In order to be en par with its former colonial master, the Costa Ricans insisted they were as modern in their practices and in their products as any European nation. To prove itself a member of the global mainstream, the Costa Rican nation-state was willing to shed indigenous identities and practices for universal (read: white European) ones. These orientations to national identity-- one acculturated, the other assimilated-- shaped the opportunities available for the promotion and export of indigenous handicrafts in Thailand and Costa Rica.

As the state developed symbolic boundaries to define its own social identity and to differentiate it from the identities of its neighbors and of other outsiders, the state created niches for some types of cultural commodities but made other types nearly unthinkable. Cultural objects conforming to the state's self-image were more likely, at least, to escape state-imposed restrictions, if not to enjoy state-sponsored supports. By sketching the biographical moments in which these cultural commodities were born, one can understand why some handicraft economies are better able than others to use their cultural traditions effectively in the global crafts market.

The state's promotion of cultural commodity exports (e.g., handicrafts, ethnic food, etc.) resembles an individual engaging in face-work to create and maintain a favorable self image: the state works on the impression that others have of it by putting on a "face" that confirms its favorable self-image (Goffman 1959). As an actor on the world stage, the state "takes a line" in the international division of labor by portraying itself as possessing a modern (prestige symbols: high technology exports, industrial production) or traditional economy (stigma symbols: low technology exports, extractive industries) [Goffman 1963]. The state and private sector agents are not always aware that they too are taking a line. Indeed, the rationale for promoting export in one sector but not another is justified in technical terms. However, Frank Dobbin's study of the railroad promotion policies demonstrates that there are numerous ways to achieve the same sense of technical efficiency in constructing railroads, but the selection of the most appropriate option depends on the shared understandings (the public culture) within the nation-state. Likewise, an earlier assessment by Jaques Maquet describes the design of trains from the United States, Britain, and France as signs of each country's public culture that also take technical efficiency concerns into account. In short, the shared understandings of a nation-state become refracted in the state's way of seeing which economic policies may be viable, efficiency and profit considerations notwithstanding.

What are the public cultures of Thailand and of Costa Rica, how did they take shape over time, and how do they affect the livelihood of the handicraft artisans who dwell therein? I explore these questions by first witnessing each country engage in the arts of impression management at the World's Fair; then I review how geopolitical issues and changes in the macro-economic environment further shaped the public's understanding of what it means to be Thai or Costa Rican and what types of goods and services from such culturally identified places might make the most sense to producers, exporters, and consumers.

My findings highlight the "non-economic" considerations that condition production and consumption in artisan economies (Colloredo-Mansfeld 2003). In other words, it is not enough to possess stocks of symbolic capital; the capitalist inherits a collective understanding (orientation) of the uses (appropriation) to which different types of symbolic capital ought to be put. It is not only that former agricultural workers are being pushed out of farm, factory, and protected government employment while being pulled into handicraft production and tourist services (Pérez Sáinz and Andrade-Eekhoff 2003), but it is also that both the workers and the capitalists "see" (sometimes subconsciously) the production of some types of cultural commodities as a means to protect cultural traditions and to validate a favorable cultural identity for the nation-state. There is a deep structure of inequality in the social statuses of different nation-states, relative statuses based on the inter-state comparison of prestige and stigma symbols. This enduring set of status perceptions orients the course of the country's economic development. These perceptions sometimes divert economic development energies away from those stocks of symbolic capital easily appropriated but socially stigmatized. At other times, these perceptions intensify the state's motivation to support material culture and to protect cultural traditions in order to promote both economic development and a favorable social identity of the nation-state.

As actors reach into their mental rag bag to account for what they make and what they sell, they find a set of enabling and disabling images: indigenous communities known for their nobility versus those known for savagery (Kyle 2003); traditional forms versus innovative designs (Wherry 2006b); regionally-specific traditions versus country-wide traditions. The groups and strategies sanctioned by the nation-state's cultural orientation create as much comparative advantage in the handicraft sector as do capital, labor, and knowledge. Therefore, to understand the success of artisans in global markets, it is not enough to think about the individual qualities of the artisans or of the particular cultural contributions of their group to world culture, one must also think about the public culture that makes the promotion of particular cultural sectors of the economy thinkable.


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