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Connecting the Cultural Dots

Jonathan Bean on how our recursive relationship to the stuff around us can help us understand taste, culture, and the changing world.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Jonathan Bean’s work exists at the nexus between so many different fields, it’s hard to sum up what he does in a few words. He’s a designer / marketing guru / tastemaking expert. An academic / sustainability consultant / technologist. An architect / sociology ambassador / culture fiend. The plethora of ideas and terms that could be used to describe Bean’s work may in part be why he has such an affinity for (the decidedly non-abstract) objects. A proponent of Material Engagement Theory, Bean believes that objects play a critical role in “making the world what it is.” That objects (and thus, design) offer a unique opportunity to communicate meaning—meaning that can’t be articulated by words or ideas alone.

“In design school, you’re taught to make models and draw things in order to understand concepts and problems,” Bean says. “When you’re trying to work through a particular problem, you make a model. Then you’ll throw it away. You'll make another one and you'll rip it in half and you'll make two more models. You'll put them all together and then you'll have an idea that you actually could not have had without making that model.”

The recursive relationship between people and objects, Bean says, can be used to try and understand ideas that are decidedly not physical, like culture and taste. It’s an idea he and several colleagues put into practice when they launched a recent study of the cultural movement happening at Red Rooster, the Harlem restaurant of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. dscout caught up with Bean to discuss the project and how it brings together his disparate fields of study.

dscout: You’ve said that your work focuses on connecting the dots between objects, meanings and doings. What do you mean by that?

Jonathan Bean: As academics we want to understand how society and culture works. There are a lot of different articulations of how to apply practice theory to research, but many of them emphasize that there are ultimately three things you need to pay attention to: objects, meanings, and doings.

That’s because people are complicated, culture is complicated, and culture is different in different places. But if you take a step back and ask—“What are the objects involved in this practice? What are the meanings involved in the practice and what are the doings?”—you can usually get a pretty good sense of what’s going on in a particular cultural scene.

Researcher Zeynep Arsel and I have written about it as a process of problemization or instrumentalization that happens between objects and meanings. For example, not washing your dishes after dinner—that’s problematic. You should probably do that. And the link to the doing is pretty clear, right? And then instrumentalization. If you want to be someone different, you’re going to set out to do something different with the idea that it actually transforms you and what you’re doing in the world. And, whatever that something is, if you do it enough, the relationship between doings and the objects transforms meanings, and transforms what you think about yourself. There’s a connecting of the dots.

Right now you’re an Assistant Professor at University of Arizona, looking at the nexus between the fields of design, sustainability, sociology, and marketing. Why do you think looking at the intersection between those fields is important?

When I was doing my PhD at Berkeley I studied with Galen Cranz, who was one of the people in the 1960's and 1970's who came knocking on architecture's door from the social sciences, saying “something's wrong here.” And in architecture today, the environments that architects are producing are, by and large, not well suited for the people who are using them. What’s interesting is that today, research has picked up momentum and become enormously important in every other realm of design—and yet it’s a tradition that’s faded within architecture.

I remember this moment at Berkeley when I saw this flier for a class on “Creativity and Innovation in Marketing,” and it was one of those flashes of insight that you have all too rarely in your life. I’d been in design school for almost 10 years at that point, and I'd never once taken a class on creativity or innovation—the things that are supposed to be at the center of what designers do, right?

Research is critical to our understanding of how culture is changing. Researchers need to be on the front lines, looking at that.

Jonathan Bean

Ultimately, I realized there needs to be much more interface between these different disciplines, so we can really understand one another. Designers complain all the time that people in business don't understand what they have to say. That’s a common problem for researchers too, right? It's like “We have the answers! Look! Read our report.” I realized that one of the fundamental problems is that there's so little crossover. Designers make almost no attempt at learning to speak the language of business. And that’s a fundamental ethnographic principle, right? Ethnography means really understanding what people mean when they're talking. Research is critical to our understanding of how culture is changing. Researchers need to be on the front lines, looking at that.  

Corporate research today seems to have transcended being just a business endeavor—it’s really playing at the cultural level. Companies aren’t just interested in how products work, they’re interested in the bigger conditions that have to be satisfied for a product to work. What do you think is driving that kind of engagement?

Well, one thing that we know is that millennials, and the generation after millennials, are extremely interested in things like sustainability, equity, and social justice. And it’s not just a surface-level interest—they’re deeply invested. They want to make the world into a fundamentally different place than the place they were born into.

From a human perspective, it’s tremendously exciting to be able to look forward to that scale and level of change. But for businesses, it means that the approaches they’ve used in the past aren't going to cut it anymore. It's not enough to take the same cereal you've been selling for the last 20 years and put it in a recycled box. It’s not enough to sell a car that gets three or four percent better mileage. It's not enough to be a little bit better than you were in the past. People really want fundamental change.

That's sort of a double challenge for designers and for researchers, because not only do you have to imagine what the change might be, there’s also no right or wrong answer. There are a million different possibilities and trajectories and pathways. But at the same time, it’s an issue of culture change.

For example, right now we have all of the technology and skills and knowledge to make 99% of all new buildings net zero energy. And we can do this at a comparable cost, especially for larger buildings. So it should be an easy choice to make, to build sustainably, right? But people are used to building buildings in a particular way. So fundamentally it becomes an issue of culture change. I think anyone who has tried to make a major change in something runs into this at some level, of having to nudge culture in another direction, rather than continuing with the status quo. And doing this kind of cultural research with people who are experts in how culture works and how it changes—that’s the only way to get there. You're not going to get to a more sustainable future by convincing people to buy a car that gets a little bit better gas mileage or to hop on their bike one day a week instead of driving. Those are great things to do, but they're not enough.

That's where marketers come in?

It's not just marketers. It’s also anthropologists and sociologists and people working in policy. It’s all of those coordinated efforts together to transform culture.  

It’s more than ten years old now, but there’s a project in Japan called “Cool Biz” that’s a really great example of this, which I learned about from my practice theory colleague Kakee Scott. They realized they could significantly reduce the amount of energy that Japan was using to cool office buildings if people stopped wearing suits in the middle of summer. The project is in Tokyo, and it’s really hot and humid there in the summer. Yet people were wearing wool suits to work, and so by the time they got to the office they were really hot, and they’d want the air conditioning set very low to compensate. That uses a lot of energy.

They realized that it wasn't just enough to convince men it was okay to wear short-sleeved shirts. They needed to coordinate with department stores to come up with new fashion, and a new way of dressing at work that was considered acceptable professionally. They needed to invest in advertising and messaging to make it clear this was something that a lot of people were doing, not just one or two outliers, so it would become the norm. It also ended up being a way to advance gender equity, because, as we’ve seen in recent studies, men and women’s clothing and experience of comfort in the workplace are different. So while men were frequently too warm at work, women are often way too cold. And they realized that if they got everyone wearing similar levels of clothing, they could find a thermostat setting that would be more comfortable for most of them. And along the way they saved enough energy to prevent building more power plants.


It’s these kinds of coordinated attempts at shifting culture from the ground up that are really interesting. It means marketing a new kind of practice. A new constellation of objects, meanings and doings.

Speaking of that constellation—you recently did a big project studying Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem restaurant Red Rooster. How did that fit into the triad of interests you're exploring?

It started as an academic research project sparked by my colleague Hanne Pico Larsen. Fundamentally, Red Rooster is pretty different from just about any other restaurant, or really even any other cultural scene in New York, in terms of diversity. One thing that became clear as we started talking to people was that the restaurant meant lots of different things to lots of different people.

This was particularly interesting from my perspective as a marketing researcher, because a sort of cardinal rule of marketing and of branding is consistency. Everyone you talk to, even if they don't have a marketing degree or have never taken a marketing class, they know that a brand is supposed to be consistent. And here we were with a restaurant that changed radically from visit to visit. Even if we were just gone for a couple of months, we would go back and the place would be subtly or completely changed.

And we would talk to people and ask them what it was they liked about the restaurant and the brand and we’d get completely different answers. We were really curious: what were the characteristics that made this place popular for so many different people?

We’d done some interviews, and a lot of participant observation—the kinds of methods that are accepted and typical in fields of folklore, and in the tradition of environmental design research.

Unfortunately, and I think that this is probably familiar to anyone working in a business setting, that kind of data with particular audiences doesn't get you very far. We wanted to show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the ways in which we had heard consumers relating to and perceiving the space were common. That those feelings were shared among the larger set of consumers and patrons of the restaurant, rather than just the ones that we happened to sit next to and talk to, interact with, in the years we had studied it.

You wanted to show that there was a group of people, beyond who you'd spoken with, that were having the same response?

Not just to show that there was a group of people that were experiencing the same thing, but to show that that was the motor of it. Because different people saw different meaning in the restaurant, but all of those meanings coalesced around this cosmopolitan mission of the restaurant. That’s when we brought in our colleague Bernardo Figueiredo, since he works on cosmopolitanism. For the customers at the restaurant, it was largely—with a few exceptions—a positive experience. We were hearing so many different perspectives from people and different reasons why they liked the restaurant, but they were all pointing in the same direction. Everyone would get to the same spot eventually. 

And from a methodology standpoint, you had people capture those moments while they were in the restaurant, live?

Yes. Part of our challenge with the project was figuring out how to conduct the interviews themselves. Doing a lot of long form interviews in the restaurant was just impractical, expensive and time-consuming. So it became apparent quickly that we needed a qualitative research platform.

We realized very quickly that dscout could give us that ability, to capture live moments and go back and forth between people interacting with really specific objects in the space. Red Rooster is just littered with stuff, it’s like a giant haystack of stuff that’s really meaningful, and we wanted participants to be able to show themselves interacting with those objects, but to show show us what was going on in the whole restaurant.

One of the things that influenced our methodology was that it was virtually impossible to ask people to record themselves in the actual dining room, because it was just so loud. There was so much music and background noise.

And then one of the other really interesting things that we’d uncovered in our earlier research was the restrooms in the Red Rooster. They're these single occupancy ADA compliant restrooms, they're quite large. Restrooms in New York city, as a rule, are pretty awful places. But Marcus Samuelsson had made the decision to really invest in the restrooms at Red Rooster and make them nice places. There's a beautiful tile floor, and crystal chandeliers, and all of these framed photographs of people, some black, some white. When Marcus showed us the restrooms, he’d said, “These are all pictures of people who could be my family members.” We said, “Well, are they your family members?” He said, “No, no, but they could be. That could be my aunt. Look at how proudly she's standing next to that television. That could have been a prized object of hers.” It turned out all of the photographs came from flea markets and that kind of thing. But most people identified the photographs as family photographs. They assumed they were pictures of Marcus' family. Seeing all the stuff together helped cement what the place was all about. This is a place that's about the multicultural crowd in the dining room, about really good food, about having a lot of fun. About having a sense of connection to people, to family and of having a sense of civic responsibility, of doing things for other people.

And we realized that we could get people to go in the bathroom and record a video to tell us about their thoughts on the restaurant, which would overcome the acoustic limitations of the very loud music in the dining room. And it would get people to step away from their own experience and to go to this place that was designed to push people into a particular direction of experience with the brand. And one of the things that surprised me the most when we were looking at the videos, was how well they really captured people’s emotional register, which is normally such a hard thing to capture in research.

Why do you think you could get that kind of emotion in these samplings?

If you can capture someone in the moment, there’s something that comes across then—a spark. You can see it over and over and over again in the videos we collected—the essence of how Red Rooster made people feel. It's this incredibly optimistic place.

The dscout videos really captured that, and that was greatly validating for us in terms of answering the question of whether or not it was something that was ubiquitous all around, and not just the experience of the people we’d been lucky enough to sit next to. It was such a clear through line that nearly everyone who participated in the research, they were all having a really good time at the restaurant. That’s the real value of the brand. It feels like a cosmopolitan future that a lot of people would really like to see. That's extremely difficult to actually experience. But when you go to Red Rooster for an hour and a half it's yours. And the participant videos allowed us to see that, and it was so much more impactful than asking someone: is this more or less meaningful than the last restaurant experience that you had? That doesn’t really tell you what you need to know about the quality of the interaction a person is having with the space, or with their surroundings.

It’s interesting to think about the potential that offers a researcher, when the place actually shapes behavior. When it evokes a response from the people within it. It’s tricky to document that as a researcher when you’re in the space yourself, but also a much richer experience.

It connects pretty strongly to the concept of new materialism or object-oriented ontology. The idea that it's not just people that make the world what it is, but that objects actually play an important role too. Objects are not just props for our experience. They actually shape us, and our interactions with our everyday environments restructure the way we behave, and what we think of as the horizons of possibility.

We’re looking for opportunities for change. That’s really at the core of our experience as humans.

Jonathan Bean

When you think about these complex cultural moments, or what’s happening when someone is having the kind of transformative experience that we saw happen over and over again at Red Rooster—the magic is that they’re realizing that they can have a different experience than what they’d originally imagined. There’s this actual moment where the world is reshaped, and the stuff around the people plays a huge part of that.

I think that’s something designers tend to take for granted—that recursive relationship, that stuff shapes people and people shape stuff. But what I like about this theory is that it shows how in our everyday environments our interactions with stuff restructure the way that we restructure what we think of as our horizon of possibility. That's not an accident and it's not something that people are doing because they're being manipulated by marketers. It's a fundamental human quality. We're seeking out these moments and these possibilities. We’re looking for opportunities for change. That’s really at the core of our experience as humans.

Jonathan presented the Red Rooster study at EPIC 2017. The full paper, coauthored with Bernardo Figueiredo and Hanne Pico Larsen, is available on the EPIC website (with free registration). 

dscout is a proud supporter of EPIC. If you're a people nerd, you'll love their content and annual conference, this year in Honolulu.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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