Haley Crawford contributed to this story.
When it comes to understanding the whims of contemporary culture, cultural anthropologist, University of Chicago PhD, and author Grant McCracken is the authority. In a world that has seen countless technological, sociopolitical, and migratory shifts in just the past year, understanding the forces that shape our daily lives is key to getting a grasp on where these trends are headed next. McCracken’s 35-year career takes this understanding to the next level by delving into how we operate as a society, particularly in North America. His two latest books are particularly striking examples of his deft ability to perceive and unpack cultural codes and anthropological trends.
“Last year, I wrote a booked called The New Honor Code, which was an attempt to address the failing moral compass of contemporary culture,” McCracken shared. “My upcoming book called Return of the Artisan is a treatment of how the artisanal movement has transformed parts of the world of capitalism and a great chunk of consumer taste and preference.”
The anthropologist’s work also goes beyond just theory – his insights on how cultural forces shape the economy are key for business leaders looking to comprehend how societal shifts will impact the business world.
“I also take on projects for clients,” McCracken explained. “Netflix asked me to look at the new TV viewer, and State Farm asked me to look at millennials. These are opportunities to look at some aspects of North American culture that I might not have had a chance to look at before. I’m also in startup mode. I’m starting a little company, the name of which is still in flux, and the idea is to map the future and to give people a clear idea and a first indication of where the world is going.”
McCracken’s sought-after expertise is rooted in years of exploring the macro and micro shifts that have affected the American population since World War II. His approach to analyzing culture is split between using anthropological and ethnographic tools, as well as a statistics-based database called The Griff, which he created. These tools enable McCracken to track cultural changes before they hit the market.
“I begin with the consumer culture that was in place after World War II and try to show all the changes that have transformed it in the subsequent 50, 60, or 70 years,” McCracken said. “From there, we can ask ourselves, how do we make culture now that we know the basics? What are the new properties of culture and how do we use those properties to create better television, better advertising, and better social media?”
The anthropologist’s work runs the gamut from the consumer trends of the 20th century all the way through to where Generation Z is headed in a post-pandemic world. His analysis of how Covid-19 shook our world is just one example of how the changes to how we live out our daily lives is deeply impacting the global economy.
“It was astonishing to see people leaving New York City in flight,” McCracken said. “The United States Postal Service identified changes of address for 300,000 people in a relatively short period. People with deep pockets went out to places where they might have a summer home or some connection and took up residence there and got involved in the local economy for a short while – it was a temporary sort of engagement. But eventually they began to feel more and more connected to that community and they began to participate more fully, if only as consumers, in the artisanal economy in place there. They came to love a world with artisanal proportions, with its very human scale. The whole scaling down of the world has appealed to some people to the point that they will make extraordinary efforts to stay.”
McCracken shares his insights with corporate clients from Google to Unilever at his annual Culture Camp, taking place this June 9th and 10th, 2021.