Microtargeting or Macrotargeting? On Politics and Culture

What’s for Dinner? The Pollster Wants to Know sets out a basic anthropological argument—people’s behaviors and traits are not isolated, discrete units, easily analyzed as individual phenomenon. They are linked, interconnected, patterned.

As Kim Severson opens, “If there’s butter and white wine in your refrigerator and Fig Newtons in the cookie jar, you’re likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. Prefer olive oil, Bear Naked granola and a latte to go? You probably like Barack Obama, too. And if you’re leaning toward John McCain, it’s all about kicking back with a bourbon and a stuffed crust pizza while you watch the Democrats fight it out next week in Pennsylvania.”

Voting patterns are linked to eating patterns. Any wonder politicians are always stuffing down the local “delicacies”?

Severson’s article then goes onto discuss microtargeting: “The idea is that in the brand-driven United States, what we buy and how we spend our free time is a good predictor of our politics. Political strategists slice and dice the electorate into small segments, starting with traditional demographics like age and income, then mixing consumer information like whether you prefer casinos or cruises, hunting or cooking, a Prius or a pickup. Once they find small groups of like-minded people, campaigns can efficiently send customized phone, e-mail or direct mail messages to potential supporters, avoiding inefficient one-size-fits-all mailings.”

Karl Rove, President Bush’s ex-adviser, and Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s ex-adviser, both practiced microtargeting, looking for those wedge issues. And indeed, that captures one part of the story about everyday life. Local context, social relationships, like-minded people, that’s a powerful way to think about culture. Republicans tend to drink Dr. Pepper, Democrats go for Pepsi.

But Coca-Cola is the American brand, recognized the world around. And Obama’s campaign is aiming for this sort of “macrotargeting.” “The idea is to build a unified, all-encompassing Obama brand that works well across all kinds of media platforms. ‘I would say we’re old-fashioned in that you have to look at America as a whole,’ said Bill Burton, Mr. Obama’s national press secretary.” The larger patterns, the things that unify people across lines of class and gender and race, that’s another powerful way to think about culture too.

Generally these patterns of culture are harder to recognize—people pick up on the daily wedge issues, on the things that make us different. Most social science research is built on this approach. But as Robert LeVine argues in his classic Properties of Culture, this focus on individual variation generally comes at the expense of understanding consensus.

As LeVine writes, “It has long been known to social psychology that many behavioral and attitudinal characteristics exhibit the J-curve of conformity behavior, in which the overwhelming majority of individuals in a population respond identically and only a few deviate. Such characteristics are unsuitable for unsuitable for correlational analysis, because their distributions approximate unity too closely… Thus behaviors or attitudes believed on the basis of empirical data or an investigator’s intuition to have J-curve distributions are usually omitted from sociological and psychological research. It is also not considered worthwhile to conduct a national survey of 1,600 persons to fund out what the investigator believes he knows as a member of society under study, namely, that the vast majority of other members share certain of his views or practices; ‘common sense’ suggests the futility of such research. Yet it is precisely these widely shared orientations that are the objects of study for the anthropological student of culture (70).”

In the end, wedge issues as well as common issues matter to people. This time around, I think the economy, the war, and energy resonate across the United States. I am less certain how these issues resonate with our underlying “shared orientations.” Americans have favored an individualist ethos, with common purpose always lurking in the background. But the problems that face us right now are larger than any one person or group. That I know.

But let me get back to the newspaper article. A good journalistic piece, and one that will resonate with a lot of social scientists out there. But it misses asking one crucial question. Its own main point. Why? Why should eating and voting be linked? How can we make sense of that?

The common approach would be to take up one side on the nature-nurture debate. Drew Westen, with his book The Political Brain, would argue it’s all emotion, that brains are conservative or liberal (at least that’s how his argument plays out in the public sphere). George Lakoff, with his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, would argue that it’s all framing, that controlling the messages and the presentation of ideas is what makes the difference.

Both recreate the J-curve problem, based on the assumption that individual variation is what is going to explain individual patterns. Oh, both are savvy enough about anthropology and culture, but when push comes to shove, it’s back to how one idealized person acts.

Indeed, both refer to brain science to get their points across. We’re hard-wired for emotion, not for cool, dispassionate thinking. Or to draw on an interview with Lakoff, a single word can act “as a trigger, a neural pathway carved into the brain that immediately and automatically summons up a person’s intrinsic values—the values which define identity and beliefs.”

So, in the end, somehow the brain has to account for this. Patterns of deep brain connections. Patterns of associating learning and neural plasticity.

But we forget.

The patterns are already there. The structure comes for free. It is not nature versus nurture. Culture does not fit into either of these, despite repeated attempts to make it do so. Culture is not about explaining individual variation, and whether genetics or learning account for what some person did when. Culture is about why the person did what when.

This perspective is quite different than the view that cultures are discrete traits, things that we can treat in the same variability approach as attitudes. As Greg wrote in What’s the Culture in Neuroanthropology, “[T]he cultural scorecard method substitutes a blanket list of qualities for any real understanding of how cultural differences in development (including ideology, behavior, environment, customary practices, and a host of other elements) actually produce neural differences. For example, to understand the effect of material poverty on brain development, we can’t simply equate income level with brain development. We have to understand how poverty would be manifest in people’s lives — do they have enough food? access to schools? work at a young age? face few employment prospects? — including other social factors that might mitigate the effect of absolute material privation.”

The structure of culture as micro and macro makes it difficult to grasp as an object. Both the micro and the macro characterizations are partly right, but more than half wrong (as it pushes aside the other dynamic…). Moreover, behind either characterization lies a trait view, where all sort of things—brains, genes, religions, personalities—become assumed causes.

To get beyond that trait view, it is often useful to go back to ethnography. To what people know and experience and what that can tell us. Say, a local expert. So I’ll return to Kim Severson’s article. Her end works as well for me as for her.

“JoAnn Clevenger, the owner of the Upperline restaurant in New Orleans, doesn’t need a data set to identify how customers might vote. She just watches what they order. ‘The Republicans are more formal and have more attention to structure when they eat,’ she said. The classic example would be her delicate trout meunière. Democrats tend to order earthy, down-home food with lots of juice for sopping, like Cane River country shrimp with garlic, bacon and mushrooms.

“But lately she’s seen a lot of interest from both sides for her Oysters St. Claude. The oysters are coated with corn flour, gently fried and then slipped back into their shells and covered with an adventurous, Morrocan-style sauce seasoned with ground whole lemons, garlic, cayenne and paprika. It’s the ultimate crossover dish, and she believes it’s popular this year because voters are being pulled in several directions. ‘You have a respect and a yearning for the past,’ she said, ‘but a feeling like you want something new and exciting that says let’s go all the way’.”

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