Why Do the Natives Wear Adidas?

ABSTRACT - The roots of consumption of Western objects within primitive ritual behaviors are explored. In particular, the concepts of socially distant reference groups and emerging elites are used to explain this type of consumption.


Eric J. Arnould and Richard R. Wilk (1984) ,"Why Do the Natives Wear Adidas?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 748-753.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 748-753


Eric J. Arnould, Ministry of Planning, Niger Republic

Richard R. Wilk, University of California


The roots of consumption of Western objects within primitive ritual behaviors are explored. In particular, the concepts of socially distant reference groups and emerging elites are used to explain this type of consumption.


Peruvian Indians carry around small, rectangular rocks painted to look like transistor radios. San Blas Cuna board boxes of dolls, safety pins, children's hats and shoes, marbles, enamelware kettles, and bedsheets and pillowcases in their original wrappings. Japanese newlyweds cut inedible three-tiered wedding cakes topped with plastic figures in Western dress. Kekchi Maya swidden farmers relax in the evenings to the sounds of Freddie Fender on portable cassette players. Bana tribesmen in Kako, Ethiopia pay a hefty price to look through a view-master at "Pluto Tries to Become a Circus Dog." Tibetans, bitterly opposed to Chinese rule, sport Mao caps. Young Wayana Indians in Surinam spend hours manipulating a Rubik's cube. The most elaborate White Mountain Apache ritual, the girls' puberty ceremony features traditional tests of endurance and massive redistribution of soda pop. When a Swazi princess weds a Zulu king, she wears red touraco wing feathers around her forehead and a cape of windowbird feathers and oxtails. He wears a leopard skin cloak. Yet all is recorded with a Kodak movie camera, and the band plays "The Sound of Music." In Niger, pastoral Bororo nomads race to market on camelback carrying beach umbrellas. Veiled noble Tuareg men carry swords modelled after the Crusaders' weapons and sport mirrored sunglasses with tiny hearts etched into the lenses.


Behind these incongruous and sometimes hilarious images lies a serious problem for consumer research. Why and how do Western consumer goods penetrate the material culture inventories of the rest of the world? The issue is one with vast economic and ethical dimensions as the infant formula scandal demonstrates. Its cultural and political dimensions are highlighted by radical nationalists' rejection of them. Witness Khomeini's Iran. The flourishing demand for Levi's in Eastern Europe, where crimes "in favor of private property" (Hyde 1983) are punished underscores the difficulty of policing the flow.

Because we come from a society in which consumption is an accepted part of "human nature," even anthropologists have tended to see the diffusion of Western material culture as logical and self-explanatory. Review of a large and divers body of literature related to the theme of consumption yields conflicting, but equally smug explanations:

1) Demand flows from human beings' innate acquisitiveness. Modern sociobiology claims this is so (Wilson 1975).

2) Machiavelli and Hume shared the belief that novelty is inherently interesting, so that foreign goods will always be more attractive than local ones (Burnham 1968; Wilks 1979).

3) Demand is the product of corporate coercion. Conservatives see the spread of Western goods as progressive modernization. Liberals see it as a pernicious effect of unchecked advertising and wish to regulate it (Ewen 1976), Marx and Engels (1848) decried it. (See Paran 1962).

4) Some industrial goods are so objectively superior that non-Westerners adopt them to cope with pressure on subsistence resources. Adoption is adaptive. This is the vulgar materialist position (Harris 1979).

5) As freud proposed "acquisitiveness and possessiveness come from fixations at or regressions to two different stages of psychological development" (cited in Belk 1982).

6) Acculturation studies emphasized that bearers of "little traditions' began to emulate the behavior of bearers of "great traditions," including consumption behaviors because of their desire for cash wealth (Stout 1947).

The belief that there is in fact nothing to explain is reinforced by cross-cultural consumer research carried out in societies where goods already circulate as commodities and where differences in consumer behavior can be reduced to quantitative ones (Douglas 1976; Hempel 1974).


These explanatory propositions are based upon premature assumptions about the universality of human motivation, upon ethnocentric interpretations of non-Western behavior, and ignorance of the economics of "gift economies" (Gregory 1982). In their universality, they can account neither for particular adoptions or rejections of consumer goods, nor for the sometimes bizarre consequences of their acceptance.

In fact, there is nothing logically inevitable about the flow of material culture form our own tradition to others. The flow is highly selective. Western cuisine tends to be adopted with less enthusiasm than do Adidas (Goody 1982). The famous failures of Campbell's tomato soup in England and in Italy for different reasons, alerted marketing managers to the influence of taste and affect in screening foreign foods even in consumer societies. The many international marketing errors documented by Ricks (1983) have brought the point home. Furthermore, we have learned that highly selective adoption of goods within our own "mass" consumption society can seemingly unintentionally provide the marketing devices to set apart a new ethnic group from its encompassing constituents. How then, can we account for this selectivity and the sometimes drastic, sometimes imperceptible impacts of the transfer of material goods from the West to other traditions?


It seems safe to say the people's motives for wanting foreign consumer goods, and the uses to which they put them, that is, their willingness to innovate, and the effects of innovation, are bound up with pre-existing systems of exchange, display, and consumption. An alternative to the advertising models of consumer demand which stress the internal processes by which societies negotiate and assign meanings to goods is needed. But a general model or theory of consumption seems beyond reach given the diversity of systems anthropologists are fond of parading before would-be generalists, and busy managers concerned with the bottom line. Is the alternative to insipid universal explanations interminable ethnographic inquiries? Hopefully not. In the remainder of the paper, I will sketch in some notions which may help to explain why the natives wear Adidas.

Systems to Gift Exchange

Perhaps the fundamental point is that consumption in many peripheral societies is colored greatly by the economics of gift exchange. Gift economies as Mauss (1967), Sahlins (1972), Gregory (1982) and Hyde (1983) have shown are based upon very different kinds of "economic rationality" than that which governs most exchanges in our society (Reilly and Arnould 1983).

Both the means and ends of gift exchange are distinctive. As Mauss pointed our in 1925, three norms as fundamental and unquestioned as our own concept of individual maximizing behavior lie at the heart of gift exchange: These are the obligations to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Goods are not predominantly acquired in the market-place on the basis of agonistic relations amongst transactors and through a rational decision amongst alternate choices, but are bestowed upon one in acts of apparent altruism.

The operation of these norms results in a constant flow of goods passing from hand to hand. As we know from studies of the kula and the potlatch, amongst others, individuals were at best their temporary proprietors. If goods cannot be personally appropriated, if in fact they are in alienable, at the same time they enrich the patrimony of the group.

In their movement, gifts set up a perpetual reciprocal flow. Behind the concept of the "Indian Giver" bequeathed to us by the Pilgrims, we can discern the Native American's urgent concern that the movement of goods be reciprocal. The moment the movement stops, the gifts cease to be gifts; the parties cease to be partners and become strangers. The Native Americans' grave concern was that they not also become enemies.

Although they are now rare, systems of gift exchange developed myriad forms. The "destruction" strategy of the Kwakiutl (Drucker 1965) or the "finance" strategy of Mt. Hagen in New Guinea (Gregory 1982) are just two of many. But close study shows that it os the modalities of the movement which give distinctive meanings to the objects. And the boundaries of this movement often define the tribal entity. We might, haft-jokingly refer to tribes as benefit segments!

In consumer society, a market transaction normally creates no affect; the sometimes actively antagonistic social boundaries between buyer and seller remain intact. The immediate object after all is consumption of the good. In gift economies by contrast, every transaction makes, maintains, or redefines social relationships. The focal point is not the goods, which are often standardized, but the transaction. If in our society "Coke is it," and the "it" is a happy communion provoked by consumption of Coke, in gift economies, the reverse would be the case. Coke would be the recipient of special status by virtue of its role in the celebration.

The ends of gift exchange are not accumulation. Potlatchers might amass hundreds of blanket, kula partners fathoms of shell necklaces, and New Guinea highlanders a thousand pigs, but the aim of such accumulation was always dispersal in order to widen and enrich gift obligations. Sometimes gifts were consumed, sometimes even destroyed, but because the giving was all-important, gift debt was never erased. Therefore, the key to individual success in such systems was to create and manage elaborate, interconnected networks of gift debt sometimes called "ropes" or "roads" in local parlance. Significantly, traditional concepts of wealth, such as the Hausa notion of arziki gloss as disposition over persons, not goods. Gift debt creates personal obligations.

When we look at consumption in peripheral societies of the world where the memory of gift economies is strong, we can now see that objects are often evaluated in terms of their worth, not their value (Hyde 1983). Worth is made up not of labor and capital (congealed labor), but of social history. Thus, when kula partners exchanged shell bracelets and arm bands, or potlatching numayms gave blankets, boxes, and coppers to their guests, the exchanges were accompanied by lengthy accounts o, genealogies, rights to proprietorship, and the objects' histories. In the process the prestige of the exchanging parties was inflated, but the worth of the objects was also felt to increase. Worth cannot be acquired in the marketplace. Is it possible that advertising might create it today?

Conservatism and Change

We can begin to get a glimmer of why some societies resist the consumption of foreign manufactures, and why the selection is often very peculiar. Where worth is a product of history, alien goods may simply have no attraction. This is still notably the case among pastoral peoples where livestock has such powerful, overlapping, polyvalent meanings. On the other hand, the need to systematize complex ropes of debt may make standardizable goods popular. Thus, cowries, trade beads, blankets, and even bottled beer have often been quickly assimilated to tradition. The apparently whimsical consumption choices of tribal peoples may also lie in selecting Western goods which are dissimilar to those already preallocated in the complicated calculus of gift obligation.

If gift exchange is so fulfilling, why do tribal societies accept consumer goods and marketplace exchange at all? Lewis Hyde (1983) remarks that there are always times when we wish to act upon our disconnection from the group, times when bonds become strictures. The "excitement of commodities" may lie in this possibility of alienation. Youth, who are often prohibited from full participation in gift exchanges, are among the first to be lured away. As Hyde says, "all youth wants to be alienated from the bonds that nurture, to be the prodigal son. Sometimes we go to market to taste estrangement" (1983: 67, 68).

Consumption Spheres

The nature of inequality in gift economies is another fruitful point of departure for understanding changing styles of consumption in peripheral societies. Inequality of access to circuits of gift exchange was the rule, and precise ethno-sociographic market segmentation models held sway. Goods were often ranked into discrete, inconvertible spheres of exchange. Rights to exchange them were associated with particular statuses or estates. Goods thus played an important role in:

"making visible and stable the categories of culture...they make and maintain social relations...they are good for thinking" (Douglas and Isherwood 1979: 59-64).

In consuming goods, the nuances of age, gender, lineage, and other relationships were negotiated. Elders exchanged high ranking goods, and goods were high ranking because they were consumed by elders. Similarly, if precious morsels of flesh are reserved for consumption by males, then, as among the Gurage, it becomes an instrument of gender distinction (Farb and Armelagos 1980).

Examples of rankings from Woodlark Island, home of one of the groups involved in the kula, and from the Tiv of central Nigeria are shown in Table 1.



The Dele of Zaire had a ranking system similar to the Tiv with the addition of raffia cloth to the prestige or middle sphere.

As indicated in the table, spheres could be ranked in terms of the periodicity of the exchanges, the units involved, the social units concerned and the rank of the exchangers (Douglas and Isherwood 1979: 151). The higher the rank, the more likely one or more of three rules of exclusion, not unlike sumptuary laws, were likely to apply to exchanges.

1) Demanding a "high fee" for admission, such as being of a certain age, lineage, estate, etc.

2) Setting the rate of internal transactions so high that only big men could participate

3) Simply refusing to transact with outsiders (Ibid: 140).

Such systems of meaning and social organization are relatively robust. The social fabric can stretch to accommodate occasional innovations as long as the influx of new goods is slow and the quantities limited. It is worth recalling that such systems build in disincentives towards innovation in consumption because goods are imbued with worth rather than value.

The arrival of European goods in quantity has sometimes posed insoluble dilemmas for such systems, and sometimes provided new resources for them. The Dele system of ranking survived because the elders successfully applied rule 3 above, refusing to accept Belgian francs for prospective brides. The Tiv system did not. European money burst the bounds of non-convertability asunder. Money value replaced worth and the gift economy collapsed (Bohannon and Bohannon 1968).

Sometimes a single consumption good is a key symbol, its circulation providing a recurrent summation of age, or gender, or prestige, or authority relationships. The precious stone axes traded over wide areas of the southern hemisphere were one such good which organized meanings in all these areas. When ritually worthless steel axes were indiscriminately introduced to all social groups by traders or missionaries, the immediate overthrow of the "periodic table" of material culture entrained virtual ethnocide (Sharp 1968; Metraux 1959). Such dramatic cases indicate how deeply consumption habits are embedded in the social organization of the societies now being integrated into the global economy.

The global world view which is constituted by a system of exchanges organized into consumption spheres constitutes a special sort of arcane knowledge of etiquette and protocol. When curious migrants venture outside of the gift economy they return not only with goods which throw off their culture's material calculus, but also with competing arcane secrets. Competition over the right to define the meaning or material goods, and the status of those who wish to transact and consume them then often kicks off a process of explosive demand for Western goods. Fruitless quests to resynthesize the categories of culture and society through a resynthesis of material symbols ensue. The famous cargo cults of Melanesia are a kind of conspicuous consumption ritual designed to master a new material protocol. Not so different are the arrivist strivings of the nouveau riche.

In some cases, new consumer goods invigorate the circuits of gift exchange. Secluded, married, Muslim Hausa women have created a new privileged exchange sphere by adopting a minor refinement of a traditional, but low ranking good. Enameled Czech and Hong Kong casseroles and trays have replaced pottery in their exchanges and have been elevated to high rank. Women build up enormous caches of enamelware from the sales of prepared foods. Enamelware is exchanged during baptisms and marriages to create networks of gift debt. But the boarded up symbols of wealth and power also serve a very practical purpose. Young, unmarried girls, who may move about freely to sell the prepared food, are attracted to the women with the largest caches. They work for them as unpaid clients in hopes of one day building up their own board (Cohen 1969). Hudson's Bay blankets provoked a similar florescence in the gift economies of the North American Northwest in the 1890s. It is possible that the enormous quantities of bottled beer now being imported into New Guinea from Australia also serve to invigorate a new prestige sphere.

Consumption and Social Class

Perhaps it has become evident that what we are after here are elements of that most elusive aspect of economic theory, an explanation of how demand arises and how supply stimulates it while at the same time filling it (Mintz 1979: 65; Gregory 1982). A third and final perspective which is useful in this regard comes from consideration of the dominant social dimensions in the societies under discussion. In Africa, in Melanesia, in native America, the predominant social cleavages were permeable, vertical ones between lineages, clans, moieties, and tribes. These were not the rigid, horizontal market segments defined by income or social class or race more familiar to market researchers.

These societies displayed much greater uniformity in material culture than many northern Eurasian societies have ever displayed (Goody 1982: 204). Even in precolonial states

"the court remains for the purposes of consumption, the domestic group writ large. One finds neither the elaboration of the functionaries, nor the transfer of cooking and other household tasks from women's to men's work." (Ibid: 205)

on the scale one finds in Eurasian societies both historical and modern. The colonial experience can be thought of as one which transformed the nature of market segments from those whose consumption differed quantitatively, to those between which consumption differs qualitatively. New sociographic and benefit segments were created.

Changes in consumption habits accompanied a change in production systems. Formerly everyone, even the rulers had been involved in primary production. Colonialization changed this. Mobilization of migrant wage labor on plantations and mines, and individualized sales of cash crops and tax liability led to decreases in the cohesiveness of consumption units and rendered collective processing of raw agricultural goods problematic (Ibid: 182).

To serve the demand created by their labor requirements, the colonizers introduced novel industrial foods. Some actually helped to overcome the seasonal consumption rhythm of glut and scarcity inherent in much tropical agriculture, tinned fish for example. Bread, that compact and easily transportable energy source and historically the food of conquerors, also arrived (Ibid: 180). Other cheap energy foods which had at an earlier date transformed working class consumption habits in Europe (Mintz, 1979) were also introduced: sugar, tea, coffee, and bottled beer. These rapidly became among the most important imports to Africa as they have become in contemporary New Guinea (Gregory 1982: 154-155).

What of the new bureaucratic, military, and entrepreneurial elites who arose to fill the shoes of departing colonizers in these countries? The social position of these groups is highly ambiguous for they represent a new kind of group, the legitimacy of whose entrenched differential access to resources and power to rule is in doubt. With them, the gift has stopped moving.

Since a model for a differentiated haute cuisine, couture and architecture is lacking within their own cultures, what these groups have done, Jack Coody (1982) argues is to borrow the "gear of western modes of consumption." The attachment to traditional consumption modes is still strong in a reduced sphere of domestic gift exchange, but formal occasions require formal food, drink, and clothing "which tens to be defined" as Eurasian, and is obtained through impersonal market transactions. Both Moslem and European cultures provide the models. Hence one see the curious juxtaposition of leopard skins and movie camera "consumed" during a ceremony at once formal and at the same time domestic, that is, the marriage mentioned at the onset of the paper.

In explaining the presence of Gulf Coast Olmec artifacts in Pacific Coast, Oaxacan ceremonial centers in ancient Central America, Flannery (1978) argues that emerging elites are the consumer group most prone to borrow systematically both the symbols and the content of the symbols of other vultures. They emulate elites who have a secure and stable social status. This argument applies to the modern, emerging elites as well. Competing groups may even choose to emulate the consumption habits of different foreign elites: one group may choose Adidas, the other Nike.

Here consumer research will find themselves on familiar ground. The issue here is the impact of socially distant reference groups on the aspirations of groups who have indeed become consumers in the commonly accepted sense of the term (Cocanougher and Bruce 1972). In many communities the southern hemisphere, local groups provide "normative standard" of authenticity in consumption modes in certain milia, preserving as they do the canons of gift exchange. But amongst socially displace proletariats and elites, Eurasian reference groups now provide "comparative" consumption standard. But note, their influence will be unpredictable, because recipients may be attracted to reference group members' activities which recipients reinterpret in locally significant terms. Thus, clues to the evolution of consumer behavior in these societies in dynamic processual analyses of the points of reference between local and distant reference groups rather than in parochial or even comparative studies of given consumption habits.


The foregoing comments aimed to shed some light on the curious consumption habits of our multitudinous neighbors of the southern hemisphere who represent the growth markets of the coming decades. Their apparently comic choices are often dictated by powerful social imperatives. Mary Douglas has already make this point in another context (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Douglas 1966). Following Mauss (1967) and Hyde (1983), I have tried to suggest that the eros-inspired exchange of gifts differs from the logos-inspired commerce of goods, and the passage from one to the other engenders unique forms of consumer behavior.

I have not dwelled on gift exchange and consumption in our own culture. Perhaps some of my remarks may aid us to understand why gifts are sometimes numbered amongst our most valued goods. Maybe we can see why the relationships and obligations forged in the flood of gifts accompanying marriages sometimes outlast the marriages themselves. We may also guess why the postman, that apparently altruistic agent of the gift of communication between loved ones, receives a gift at Christmas in some homes. I would simply like to suggest that the study of gifts and consumption in our own culture is also worthy of study. In any event, I hope these hopelessly abbreviated comments help us to learn why it is that the native wear Adidas.


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Eric J. Arnould, Ministry of Planning, Niger Republic
Richard R. Wilk, University of California


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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