I love that The Atlantic has covered Red Associates’s work in ethnography and insights. They have brilliant ethnographers and I would recommend them as an awesome and insightful supplier.
Although the article contained a point that I believe is misleading.
These imponderabilia turn out to have huge consequences if you want to sell a personal computer in China. “We find that these objects have meanings, not just facts,” Madsbjerg says, “and that the meaning is often what matters.” So to sell a personal computer in China, for example, what matters is the whole concept of a “personal” computer, which is culturally wrong from the start. “Household objects don’t have the same personal attachment [in China as they do in America]. It has to be a shared thing.” So if the device isn’t designed and marketed as a shared household object, but instead as one customized for a single user, it probably won’t sell, no matter how many gigahertz it has.
I absolutely disagree with these findings and business insights for marketing. I don’t think this is the case for all Chinese people. I can see how Red Associate’s conclusions are on point for very specific segments of the population, such as families. But as we all know, market segmentation does reflect how people group themselves.
Technology use within families is entangled in power relations. A computer company may target “families” as a target consumer group because marketing data shows that parents purchase computers for the family. But in actuality, teens want the computer as their own personal object. So once the parent buys the computer for the family, the teens will employ all these practices to “own” the computer as her/his personal object.
If anthropologists only spoke to parents, then they get one side of the story. But if we take the family from a holistic perspective, then we can treat each individual with their own vision for technology use. Some of these goals may line up with other family members while some may conflict. All fo their desired uses and meanings for a technology are considered valid. I have a hard time imagining any youth telling me that they view the computer in their house as a “shared thing.” I think they would say something like, my parents see it as a shared thing, but I mainly use it or we fight for it or I try to use it when they are at work.” You know - typical teen stuff!
If anything, I’ve seen Chinese people more attached to their computers and mobile phones because those are the ONLY things that they can claim that belongs to them. It’s their space. Apartments are small, space is crowded, sometimes rooms have to be shared, in-laws come over any time - everyone is nosy - but the digital tool is their object.
Even migrants who buy a PC are very attached to it and have strict rules around sharing it because it is considered a personal space.
In China, most migrants live in a work-dorm situation. The employer provides a monthly salary and a place to live. But this creates a different set of issues, such as storage space inside dormitories.
I’ve spent so much time in massage parlors talking to migrants about how they ensure their PC is not stolen when they are working. It’s fascinating to find out who they trust with their computer, where they put it, and what kind of job provides a dorm room that is safe enough to store their computer.
Take a walk in any electronics mall or on Taobao and you’ll see ads that sell computers as a personal object. It just isn’t true that a computer won’t sell if isn’t advertised as a shared object.