Vogel’s and Cagan’s Creating Breakthrough Products meets Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value
Bruce M. Tharp, Industrial Designer and PhD Candidate in Anthropology | The University of Chicago
How do Anthropology and Industrial Design understand the notion of “value,” and what can their different perspectives offer one another? This question arises out of the intellectual collision of two books published in nearly the same month: Craig Vogel’s and Jonathan Cagan’s Creating Breakthrough Products (2002) and David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001). The two books set the stage for an anthropological discussion of value from which Industrial Design pedagogy might benefit. In contrast to the voluminous theorization within the social sciences, Vogel and Cagan tread on relatively pristine ground when formulating an understanding of value within the fields of Industrial Design and new product development. I take their perspective as representative of how design practitioners and academics generally understand and might talk about value in relation to products and their users, though this should in no way diminish their innovative approach. Contrapuntally, the overwhelming majority of this paper will survey the vicissitudes of the anthropological and sociological theory before arriving at Graeber’s inspired suggestion of value as action surrounding an object rather than a particular quality or inherent attribute. Bringing Industrial Design and Anthropology into dialogue is challenging not only because they represent two very different disciplines (though nearly the same age), but also because of the former’s proclivity toward practice and the latter’s theoretical legacy. Yet, this is precisely why it is worth bringing them both into conversation—though here admittedly my intention is to provide a point from which design theory and practice might begin to re-conceptualize notions of value through ethnographically-influenced anthropological thinking.
Vogel and Cagan rightly take value as the key domain when contemplating or creating compelling products, and they specifically target those that have extra-ordinary impact—a distinctive, “significant” value-quality. “Breakthrough products are driven by a complex combination of value attributes that connect with people’s lifestyles” (2002: 54). Within anthropology Graeber more broadly sees a theoretical value project as “one that seeks to move from understanding how different cultures define the world in radically different ways (which anthropologists have always been good at describing) to how, at the same time, they define what is beautiful, or worthwhile, or important about it. To see how meaning, one might say, turns into desire” (2001: ix). Both books similarly believe in theorizing value as a way to improve practice. Difficulty quickly arises, however, when considering the many meanings (polysemy) of “value.” Vogel and Cagan cite two of eight1 dictionary definitions that serve their argument: “value is the relative worth, utility, or importance of one item versus another; the ‘degree of excellence’; or something ‘intrinsically valuable or desirable’” (2002: 56). They deny, with post-modern/post-Fordist market reasoning, the popular notion of value as some cost-benefit relationship, or in their language, that “the service or features a product provide[s] for the price it cost” (2002: 56)