Thursday, April 19, 2007

Book Review: Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture by Marvin Harris

In this book, Harris explains deeply held cultural beliefs which seem to confuse.

For example, while Westerners think that Indians would rather starve than eat their cows, Harris points out that what Westerners don't understand is that Indians will starve if they do eat their cows. This Cow Love is based on very pragmatic reasons, for which religion, a cultural construct, was created to support. And so, from Pig Love to Pig Hate, from War & Savage Men, from Messiahs and Witches, Harris looks at each cultural riddle and gives equally pragmatic theories.

Why is this important in marketing?

Well, for one, we must deal with Sacred Cows ~ both in terms of the companies we work for (and with) as well as those held dear by the markets we wish to reach. This could open quite a few eyes which want to see & sell in a global marketplace (as well as offer ways of seeing and surviving corporate cultures).

But it's not just these concepts which are illuminating. Nor is it the ability of the business savvy reader to extrapolate the ideas of the re-distribution of goods (and demands and expectations thereof). Or even for the lessons in Cultural Materialism (Harris' work in which ideas, values, and religious beliefs are the means or products of adaptation to environmental conditions and/or ecological and evolutionary systems). All fascinating, yet Harris offers something more.

Harris takes what we think we know, what we have been taught ~ and still teach years after his work ~ and re-examines it all. No longer must we accept anything we've been told, but are asked to search deeper, to scrutinize and study, and to come up with evidence for what we believe or state. We must also be prepared to change our beliefs and thoughts.

That alone is a lesson worthy of learning.

But there is more ~ and this is why I highly recommend this 'unusual' book to marketers (or anyone who feels they must specialize). In discussing overspecialization Harris wrote this in the Preface:
I respect the work of individual scholars who patiently expand and perfect their knowledge of a single century, tribe, or personality, but I think that such efforts must be made more responsive to issues of general and comparative scope. The manifest inability of our overspecialized scientific establishment to say anything coherent about the causes of lifestyles does not arise from any intrinsic lawlessness of lifestyle phenomena. Rather, I think it is the result of bestowing premium rewards on specialists who never threaten a fact with theory. A proportionate relationship such as has existed fro some time now between the volume of social research and the depth of social confusion can only mean one thing: the aggregate social function of all that research is to prevent people from understanding the causes of their social life.

The pundits of the knowledge establishment insist that this state of confusion is due to a shortage of studies. Soon there will be a seminar in the sky based on ten thousand new field trips. But we shall know less, not more, if these scholars have their way. Without a strategy aimed at bridging the gap between specialties and at organizing existing knowledge along theoretically coherent lines, additional research will not lead to a better understanding of the causes of lifestyles.
Here's an invitation, a challenge, to concentrate more on building bridges between specialties and to create meaningful bodies of work, rather than to compartmentalize and specialize to the degree that we explain & learn nothing.

Marketing is one one of those areas which already touches on, draws from, so many areas that we should be among the first (or more ardent) adopters of this practice of integration for a purpose.

The 'average' marketing person looking for a step-by-step outline of actions to follow, or guiding principals clearly listed, will be disappointed with this book. But for those who enjoy a meaty meal of ideas to slowly digest over time, adding this set of nutrients (views & ideas) to their steady diet of 'how to' books, this is a rich feast. For those above-average marketing pros who are serious about understanding society and culture, this is required reading.

The Whore's Rating: Buy It. And I mean that in general ~ per this review (NWS).

Title: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Author: Marvin Harris
Publisher: Vintage; Reissue edition (December 17, 1989)
ISBN-10: 0679724680
ISBN-13: 978-0679724681

The Whore's Book Review Rating System:
Buy It: A must have for your shelf.

Buy It Now: Not only a 'must have,' but so good, you should rush order it.

Check Out: Go to your library and read it. (If it means more than that to you, then you can buy it or put it on your wish list.)

Pass: Not worth your time or money.

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