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2017 11 Desjeux D. MA Jingjing, « The Enigma of Innovation », in Cultural Change

The Enigma of Innovation,

in Maryam McCabe and Elisabeth K. Briody, Cultural Change From A Business Anthropology Perspective, Lexington Books, chapter 7, pp 165-185,

Dominique Desjeux and Ma Jing Jing

Changes, or innovations, do not come solely from individual characteristics, but are inserted into a social system, a system of concrete action made up of actors who have converging and diverging interests, who are involved in relations of power and of cooperation and who are seeking to survive, to gain new territories, or to limit the hold of other actors in their everyday life. Recent theories of cultural change draw on the concept of assemblages as a tool to enhance understanding. This concept originates with the work of Deleuze and Gatari (1980), and was further developed by Latour (2005) and by Akrich, Callon Latour, (2006). They used the term acteur-réseau (actor-network) to describe a network of animate and inanimate entities. They made reference to non-human entities as actants. In the version of assemblage theory which we share for some parts, agency (conscious action) is ascribed to human (individual and group) entities, and meaning is ascribed to non-human entities and objects.

Understanding cultural change, and innovations in particular, often requires consideration of the whole assemblage, as a network of people, groups, practices, circumstances and objects. We can then understand better how the whole assemblage has a mutually influencing effect and also changes together. Lack of stability or variation in an existing assemblage may be a sign of change which is underway. Innovation is seen as something which is related to cultural change, but distinct from it – as was noted in the introduction, innovation is purposeful, unlike cultural change.

Understanding the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of innovations makes it possible to understand why a new technology, a new product or a new service is accepted or refused by the actors associated with this innovation. For a doctor, a biologist, a chemist or an engineer, a new technology is neutral and rational. It should therefore be diffused without difficulty. However, it emerges that there is no diffusion of ideas or material objects without resistance. Typically these “resistances to innovation” are explained by the “irrationality of actors”. However, it is in this supposed irrationality that the enigma of innovation lies. The work of the anthropologist is to elucidate this enigma by displaying the social mechanism that seems irrational from the point of view of natural sciences and economics.

Elucidating this tension means resolving the enigma of innovation. The objective of this chapter is to show how an anthropological approach makes it possible to deepen this knowledge of the social mechanisms which underlie social customs and innovations, based on the example of the consumption of drinks in China.


Theoretical Approach

Anthropological Analysis Related to the Diffusion of Innovations

Innovation is a disruptive element in a more or less balanced social system just as much as it is a new idea, good or bad. The contribution of anthropology is precisely to show the relative organization of material, social and symbolic constraints in the system of action which we have to analyze as “total social facts”, to use the expression of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1925) in his famous article later published as a short book, The Gift. Here, I use the word “new technology” intentionally, to show that the problem is the same whether it is applied to a new agricultural technology, a new digital technology or a new drink, as we will see in the case of China below. In all of these cases, an innovation will affect a social organization which is in place, whether this is in a company or with the final user. It will benefit certain actors and disadvantage others. It will be liked by some and will shock others, particularly in terms of morality and social norms. It will resolve a problem and create others. An innovation is therefore never socially neutral.

This does not mean that nothing should be changed, nor that the engineers who propose changes are wrong. Instead, it means that we should not be surprised when some actors are opposed to the change and others approve of it. It is this interplay between those who win and those who lose which can be analyzed by anthropology, in order to minimize the losses and optimize the gains, and hence improve the chances of better negotiation and acceptance of a change, depending on the interests of various parties. Today I know that this objective is largely utopian, but I love this reformist utopia. In La question agraire à Madagascar [The agrarian question in Madagascar] (Desjeux 1979) I noted that a technical innovation which seemed to be beneficial for farming practices actually caused a loss of income for certain sections of the population (primarily women) and so understandably met with resistance.

The important point to retain here is that a new technology, an innovation, is never socially neutral, and that there are actors who can gain and those who can lose from it. Innovation is not only not limited to an individual, it not only develops within an interplay of collective actors, but it is also embedded in a political context which itself very often depends on geopolitics, on globalization, and which surpasses the mere analysis of interactions between actors at the local level. The social conditions of the diffusion vary depending on what I termed the scales of observation of reality, in another book written on Les stratégies paysannes en Afrique Noire [Farmers’ strategies in sub-Saharan Africa] (Desjeux 1987).

Innovation and the Scales of Observation

In the book Les sciences sociales (Desjeux 2004) I showed that the explanation of social and individual phenomena varied depending on scales of observation. Scales of observation, in an analogous manner to scales on maps or plans, refer to the focus which is applied to social phenomena in order to study them. The micro-individual scale makes it possible to observe individuals placing an emphasis on their motivations, their cognitive processes and the meaning that they give to their action. Causality comes mainly from meaning. The two interactionist scales, the microsocial scale (which most often applies to the interplay of actors organized around the utilization of consumer goods in the home and family space) and the mesosocial scale (which has to do with the interplay of actors mobilizing larger collective bodies, such as large organizations, companies or the market) include the practices, the usages, the social interactions, the power relations and the networks which organize the interplay between these actors. Causality varies depending on the situation.

The macrosocial scale makes it possible to observe the correlations between effects of belonging, such as social class, gender, generation or ethnic, political or religious culture, and social practices linked with consumption or the environment. Such correlations are an indicator which can be used to initiate consideration about what the true mechanism of causality is. The macrosocial scale is also the scale of observation of geopolitics, and of the major values that structure cultural areas throughout the world across history, as the German sociologist Max Weber (1904-5) showed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

My observations between 1969 and 2016 centered largely on diffusion processes related to the mesosocial scale (e.g., companies, NGOs, ministries), and on the microsocial scale (e.g., families). An innovation typically goes through three major stages: 1) the invention of an idea, 2) its diffusion or its failure to diffuse through a system of action, and 3) contact with an end user, whether it is a company or a household. In China I worked upstream, during the invention stage.

All along the diffusion itinerary (which here we could called the drink itinerary) the abstract idea to be transformed into an object or service, circulates in a non-linear manner and undergoes a process of continual change from an innovation-invention to an innovation-reaction, from one group of actors to another. It is transformed constantly each time when it passes from a system of invention, which may be in a company within the R&D department, to a system of production associated with a factory, to a system of marketing transformation, and subsequently to a system of “hard” distribution or digital distribution (“click and mortar”), then to a system of use and consumption with the final user before potentially entering once again into a new system of transformation by recycling. It can disappear at any moment, and that is what happens most often. Very little invention/innovation finally emerges.

In this social process of innovation, consumption involves trying out an invention as an innovation. At this stage, the innovation may be the result of a new idea transformed into new technologies, or the result of an old technology in a new milieu. At this stage innovation may be either “high-tech” or “low-tech”. Paradoxically, the fact that it is new in a new place is important, not the novelty of its technical content. It is equally complicated to gain acceptance for new mass consumer products, to introduce existing agricultural techniques into a region in which they are unknown, and to promote new environmentally friendly practices. The latter are even very often more difficult to promote, because they make daily life more complex, whereas life had been made simpler by new consumer technologies such as refrigerators, washing machines, quilts or ready-made meals.

In this chapter, we focus on understanding and explaining the “drink itinerary,” defined as the innovation, production, consumption, and disposal of non-alcoholic drinks in China. In particular, we consider their drinking practices, and examine how a company may respond (or fail to respond) to the changing beliefs and expectations surrounding traditional and commercial beverages.


The Innovation Trigger

It is not always possible to follow the entire path of the production of an idea, then of transformation of the idea into an action or a concrete object. It is a fraction of this process that we wish to present in this chapter. The point of departure was a question asked by the R&D department of an international food group operating in China. The data contained in this article come from an anthropological research project aiming to understand the practices, norms and mental representations relating to the consumption of drinks in China, carried out in collaboration between Dominique Desjeux (anthropologist and Professor Emeritus at Sorbonne University), the CIRAD (the French association for agronomic research and international development cooperation), Danone Waters China and Danone Nutricia Research.

However, instead of centering on the brand and its territory, and looking at the end consumer to see what might correspond to this territory, the company agreed to look first at the end user. We explored end user practices throughout the day, over the course of weeks, and during holidays, as well as while he/she was at home, at work, or in transit. We considered different stages in the consumer life cycle and generation effects, thereby illustrating consumption diversity pertaining to drinks. This microsocial approach centered on the consumer, not only from a personal point of view based on his/her experiences, but also with respect to consumption in different rooms in the home, the way in which the consumer produces or purchases and consumes drinks, social interactions and power relations between members of the family, and the conception of the body and health in China. We mobilized our team of French and Chinese anthropologists created with Zheng Li Hua and Yang Xiao Min in Guangzhou (Canton) in 1997.

Methods and Sampling

We carried out our qualitative study on the consumption of drinks in day-to-day life in four Chinese cities: Guangzhou (in the south), Shanghai (on the east coast), Beijing (further north, also close to the east coast) and Chengdu (located relatively centrally). It was an exploratory investigation, based on 70 semi-directive interviews, observations and round table discussions (two round tables, made up of 10 young people, in one case between 18 and 25 and in the other between 25 and 30, talking about daily life in a couple). This investigation sought to discover all of the possible practices relating to drinks, the material, social and cultural dimensions of their use, the acquisition and consumption of these drinks and the effects of life cycles on the diversity of use of these drinks.


Practices and Methodological Principles

Our study is based on five practices and methodological principles. The first is induction, a method enabling a cultural exploration without testing specific hypotheses. Our study focuses primarily on the microsocial and mesosocial scales.

The second principle is that of ambivalence. All social phenomena have a positive and a negative side.

The third principle has to do with the qualitative generalization of results in a different way from quantitative or experimental approaches. In qualitative investigations we generalize the functional mechanisms of society, such as that of power relations being organized around areas of uncertainty. The latter are found in most societies, such as for instance surrounding “sorcery”, as I was able to show with respect to the Congo (Desjeux 1987). The most important and least expected generalization is that relating to the diversity of practices, and not their frequency. Very often, within a given domain, this diversity can be reduced to four or five major usages. It is this diversity of use, which is generalizable, in particular when working on the consumption practices of the global urban middle class. What may vary, however, is the importance of particular practices in a certain culture. Statistical frequency has no meaning here since in a quantitative survey we work with samples of about 20 to 70 individuals.

The fourth principle is based on an emic perspective, understanding the social logic of actors from their point of view without judgment or accusations. The method consists of reconstituting and understanding the constraints that organize the calculations of the actors.

The fifth principle is symmetry, which assumes that it is equally relevant to work on an innovation that has succeeded or one that has failed.


Taking the Customer, His Usages and His Culture as a Point of Departure

To understand the social conditions of the diffusion of a new drink in China, it is important to recognize that there is no drinkable tap water in large Chinese cities. One of the daily practices is boiling water. In 1997, I lived for three and a half months at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, in Guangzhou. Every morning, with my two Thermos flasks I went to fetch boiled water to enable me to make my tea during the day. Today mineral water tanks (large tanks which dispense drinking water) are probably in the process of replacing Thermos flasks, because they make daily life easier. In many families, boiling water remains a major daily practice.

In China, water occupies an important place in the daily lives of families, as it is situated at the crossroads of five major practices in the management of drinks. The first has to do with the physical management of the body, which is associated with hydration and thirst. Consumption of non-alcoholic commercial beverages (e.g., soft drinks, bottled water) varies strongly depending on the seasons, and peaks in the summer. The second is organoleptic management, which requires a choice between a bland drink and a drink with a taste. The third practice involves materials management and logistics of the production, sales and subsequent use of drinks, depending on their practical use and the concrete system of material items that promote their use. The fourth has to do with the social management of the use of drinks, in other words the social context of the consumption, such as the people with whom we are drinking and special social occasions. The fifth practice has to do with symbolic management in terms of “cold” and “heat”, associated with the balance of the circulation of energy, Qi, 气and health. Commercial beverages are therefore part of a more general system of management of traditional and modern drinks, which are intended to preserve health or promote the return to good health, to provide diverse tastes, or to restore energy.


The Transition from Domestic Production to Commercial Consumption

Traditional Beliefs and Practices

In the city, access to drinking water is problematic. Chinese families have to produce their own drinking water at home using tap water or buy bottles or tanks of water. Traditionally in China boiled water is drunk from morning until evening, lukewarm or at ambient temperature, on its own or with infusions, or for tea. Additives to the water may give it a certain taste or promote health. These practices occur particularly in south China.

Cold water and iced drinks are not recommended. They are linked with a ban that is particularly internalized by women from puberty onwards and associated with the beginning of their periods. Ice cubes do not seem to be a key element of Chinese drinks culture. However the refrigerator is a form of domestic technology that is used in the management of cold drinks. Today commercial drinks are in competition with or exist side-by-side with the traditional ways water is prepared and consumed at home. In fact, bottles and tanks of water ease the lives of Chinese families at home, on the move, and at work.


Current Practices

Today there is easy access to mineral water and to purified bottled water, as well as most other commercial beverages. At home, the Internet seems to play an increasingly important role in ordering consumer goods, especially commercial drinks. Some Chinese can spend the whole week without leaving home, and order everything they need on the Ali Baba website, which has become the most important Internet shopping venue in the world. When on the move, consumers can easily find most drinks in supermarkets, boutiques, kiosks, or machines in the metro stations.

The drink itinerary both forms a system and conditions what people drink. It is related to a set of concrete objects. In the home, we note the tap, the filter, the electric kettle, the Thermos flask, the jug, glasses, cups, the refrigerator, an Internet connection, water tanks or bottles, and cans of various commercially-produced beverages. While on the move, Chinese consumers typically take a plastic bottle, a Thermos flask or other flask with them; knapsacks feature a special pocket where the bottle or Thermos flask can be put. Consumers find different sorts of drink machines, selling cold drinks in summer and hot drinks in winter, with heating cupboards, cans, and trash cans. At work, there are water fountains and electric kettles. All of these items are tied to the preparation, consumption, and disposal of non-alcoholic drinks. They do not determine usages relating to drinks, but without them the consumption of commercial drinks is more difficult.

Seasonal Beliefs about Beverages

Beverage consumption varies strongly depending on the season. In winter, Chinese consumers avoid consuming drinks that are physically and symbolically cold. Instead they look for hot drinks. During the periods of transition, the body needs to be helped to get used to the warming conditions in spring, using cool drinks to compensate, and conversely in autumn herbal teas and hot drinks are used in order to compensate for the cooling environment of autumn. In summer, the body needs to be hydrated, and the fire produced by the heat needs to be soothed.

The meaning and therefore the positioning of commercial beverages with respect to heat are not clearly fixed by the norms of Chinese consumers. Commercial beverages tend to be classed as cold and are therefore seen rather negatively by some Chinese, those who are sensitive to the symbolic system of the traditional management of cold and hot. Any bans on or stipulations of commercial drinks within Chinese families remain vague and flexible, and are a regular source of conflicts.

Taste Preferences

Choosing a drink for its taste often equates to a decision-making process between what seems natural, bland and healthy and something that may have a bitter taste, is artificial, and has unknown ingredients. The taste of water is often considered bland, or even bad, when it comes from the tap. However, when it is boiled, it is considered healthy. Blandness is associated with being healthy.

The tastes of the Chinese vary from drinks perceived as nauseating (e.g., “too sweet”, containing milk), and those that are pleasing (e.g., “light, mild and refreshing”, cool acidic taste [酸爽Suān shuǎng]). These pleasing drinks are good to drink (Hǎo hē 好喝) and slip down (滑Huá) the throat. The “light, mild” taste (清淡Qīng dàn) is positive, distinguished from a “bland” taste (淡dàn). Bland is considered a neutral word although it can be used in a negative meaning when applied to drinks. The negative meaning of the word “bland” partly explains why drinks that taste good are sought after, in particular sweet commercial drinks, but are not considered healthy. The important thing is not to drink them too often since that often results in an accumulation of unhealthy ingredients in the body (e.g., sugar, coloring agents). Sugar may be perceived positively (e.g., having a good taste, creating a social link, restoring energy) but may also be viewed negatively if it is consumed in excessive quantities and leads to obesity or diabetes.

Sugar, which adds taste but can become unhealthy, has a particular relationship with blandness, which has no taste but which is healthy. Here we simplify a complicated but significant association in Chinese culture—that opposites are both in tension and in harmony, just like Yīn is associated with Yáng (阴阳), and female with male.

Other Effects on Consumption

Generational Differences

Studying the development of commercial beverages has parallels with how Chinese families function, including the divisions and tensions within them. We see the effects of agency on the “consumption” assemblage—the different viewpoints of people of different ages lead them to favor different practices with respect to drinks consumption, and in some cases to impose their practices on others. The divisions reflect a generational effect. Three major generations can be identified in Chinese society.

The first is the generation of scarcity, born before 1980. Its norms of consumption are often much more austere than those of younger generations, and hence infrequently linked with pleasure. It is associated with the symbolic norms of hot and cold linked with traditional Chinese medicine. This generation generally takes care of the grandchildren and conveys these norms to them.

The second is the generation of economic reform and the single child family. This generation began about 1980 (Bālíng Hòu 八零后, born “after 1980”). As the sandwich generation, it is caught between traditional norms and the demands by children for a drink with more taste.

The most recent generation is the generation of abundance. Born around 1995-2000, the parents of these children have greater purchasing power, at a time when there is significant development in the commercial drink market and its infrastructure. This generation is subject to strong pressure in school, at least for children of the upper middle class. School pressure works against the consumption of commercial drinks, which are viewed negatively by teachers and some parents.

Life Cycle Differences

The diversity and divisions relating to the use of non-alcoholic drinks also vary depending on life cycle effects; we identified four major stages in China. The first stage in the life cycle includes young non-adults (未成年人Wèi chéng nián rén “people who are not finished”) from 7 to 18 years. This group can be subdivided further. Elementary school students between the ages of 7 and 12 are only supposed to drink water. Middle school students between 13 and 15 begin sneaking soft drinks despite prohibitions from their parents, grandparents and teachers. High school students between 16 and 18 years old are under significant pressure because they are preparing for the national competitive examination, the Gāo kǎo (高考), which enables them to go to university afterwards. They therefore increasingly feel the need for such high-sugar drinks in order to boost their performance in examinations.

During this stage of the life cycle commercial beverages are generally forbidden. They represent moments of relaxation that compete with school time. However, they are allowed (or even required) after sports, as a social activity to make friends, or prepare for examinations. During this same stage, girls learn about the ban for them on cold drinks. The “young non-adults” are considered children (hái zi 孩子). This term formally signifies that children owe obedience to adults including grandparents, parents, and teachers.

The second stage of the life cycle is that of young adults (青年人Qīng nián rén “green, immature person”). This stage begins at the end of high school, around 18 years of age, to the birth of the first child, between the ages of 25 and 35 years. This life cycle stage is much more flexible in terms of social norms and bans, except for young women when they wish to have a baby; when they are expecting a baby, commercial drinks may be entirely forbidden. It is likely that this life cycle effect overlaps with the generational effect. The most recent generation, born after 1995/2000 and already accustomed to commercial beverages during childhood, is more open to these drinks when arriving, for instance, at university.

The third stage is that of older adults (中老年人Zhōng lǎonián rén), those who are older than 35/40 years, most of whom were born before 1980. They are beginning to pay attention to their health and set a good example for their children by limiting their consumption of commercial beverages. Some older adults consider these drinks off limits.

The fourth stage of the life cycle includes retired people (老年人Lǎonián rén). They are very concerned about their health problems, and for some of them, care related to traditional Chinese medicine. They prefer hot drinks such as soups rather than commercial drinks that symbolically are “cold,” and hence seen as a poor choice, particularly for women.

These different stages correspond to three major phases in the understanding of the relationship with health and nutrition. During childhood, it is important to pay attention to “nutrition” (营养 Yíngyǎng), in the sense of encouraging growth and giving children a good start. Young adults need to “maintain their health” (保健bǎojiàn), in the sense of keeping active. For adults and the retired, it is necessary to “feed life” (养生yǎngshēng), in the sense of slowing down the loss of energy. These three mental representations of health, which develop as a function of stage in the life cycle, correspond to changes in human energy over time. First energy grows, then it is maintained, and finally it diminishes.

Gender Effects

Consumption of commercial non-alcoholic drinks is also affected by gender. The pressure seems to be stronger on young women rather than young men to refrain from cold drinks, particularly when young women are expecting.

It also seems that the commercial drink consumption is sensitive to the effects of social class and income. However, our data at the microsocial scale does not permit us to examine this likely pattern in any detail. For this a quantitative survey would be necessary with a larger sample size.


Tensions Arising at Home

Through our study of commercial beverage consumption, we have been able to document tensions in China. Sometimes the tensions are high, involving some combination of the paternal and maternal grandparents, the two parents, and the only child. These tensions involve supporters of traditional Confucian authority, often designated using the term “filial piety” (孝xiào). Those adhering to the principles of Confucianism are generally against sweet commercial drinks containing sugar, and are generally in favor of a traditional, strict educational system based on memory rather than creativity. They differ from those who have a more flexible view of parental authority and an educational system that fosters creativity. These tensions also vary depending on the priorities that families have related to success at school, good health and the proper socialization of their only child.

However, a new social norm, which is implicit and diffuse, is emerging in China in China, that authorizes the expression of emotions and of pleasure. This norm appears to be similar to one experienced in the West between the 19th and 20th centuries, as shown by the sociologist Eva Illouz (2012) in her book Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. A roundtable discussion carried out in 2014 with Ma Jing Jing and Wang Lei (Desjeux et al 2014) certainly showed the erotic dimensions of pleasure, which were non-existent in the first roundtable discussion that we carried out in 1997 (Zheng and Desjeux 2002). This new norm goes against the norm of unquestioning obedience. As a result, there are many more negotiations between parents and children than 20 years ago, and hence a potential opening for the commercial beverage market. However, comparatively speaking, parental authority seems to be much stricter in China than in France, Brazil or the United States (Desjeux and al., 2016). For example, in 2017, in a new research I found the same debate on family authority and flexibility in São Paulo, Brazil.


The Role of Social Norms

Integration of commercial beverages into family life is likely to occur when parents allow it. Some young people adhere to the ban on commercial drinks imposed by their teachers and parents. However, this norm becomes less and less applicable the older young people get, particularly as they approach the end of secondary school. Other young people may ignore their parents’ rule about consuming commercial beverages. Peer groups may tolerate, encourage, or even promote such beverage consumption after sports or before an exam, when it increases students’ energy or allows them to make friends.

Beverage consumption becomes a game between parents or grandparents and the children. One of the ways in which parents exercise control is by limiting their children’s pocket money. However, this method of control can only be an occasional practice. Maneuvering by the parents and grandparents is limited because the child is an only child; no one wants to have a poor relationship with his/her only child. Children control a strategic area of uncertainty with respect to their parents; they can give or withhold love, as I have already observed in France (Desjeux 1991). Their agency is therefore an important factor in the changes which are underway in beverage consumption.

The analysis of power relations between adults and the child shows that there is sales potential due to the social transgression linked with the consumption of commercial drinks, if this consumption is not too strongly opposed to the goals of success at school and good health. This is also sales potential associated with the progressively increasing independence of young people.

If the norm surrounding commercial beverage consumption is relaxed, the drinks market for children can be developed. The market is subject to a field of forces, including changing norms, practices, and behaviors. Our interpretation differs from those that are purely individual-oriented, centered on desire and motivations, as put forward in the approaches of marketing and psychology. We are not suggesting that the marketing approach is incorrect, only that it is different. The marketing and psychological approaches may be quite relevant when one is facing a store shelf or computer screen, in other words at a particular moment in the acquisition of goods and products. Anthropology adds context to our understanding of beverage consumption. It provides the framework or cultural overlay for beliefs and expectations, including their changing patterns and hence the collective constraints guiding individual choices on which marketing focuses.


Variation in Beverage Consumption

Beverage consumption practices vary. They depend on the time of day (i.e., between the morning and the evening), “sedentary” times or times of transportation, and ordinary periods versus exceptional occasions. Since in China water from the tap is not drinking water, the Chinese boil all tap water before consuming it. This is often done in the morning. Water is a way of purifying the body and “feeding life” at the moment of getting up. There are two kinds of breakfasts, the traditional kind based on soup or soy milk, and the modern kind based on coffee, fruit juices and milk. Breakfast involves making a decision between traditional and modern dishes or drinks. Traditional breakfasts require a certain amount of time for preparation; they are perceived as being healthy. Modern breakfasts require no preparation and are not always perceived as being healthy.

Breakfast may be eaten at home, on the way to work or school, in school or the office, and at the “Dān wèi” (单位, a work department) for those who work in the public sector. Water must be boiled for breakfast when one eats at home. For those who stay at home, that boiled water can be used all day, including for making tea. Commercial soft drinks are generally not part of breakfast. Water that is boiled in the morning can be used all day, for those who stay at home. It can also be used to make tea. Commercial soda-style drinks are generally forbidden during breakfast.

While on the move, some of the Chinese drink traditional and/or modern beverages which they put in their Thermos flasks or buy at shops or from machines in the metro stations. Commercial drinks are considered acceptable.

At school, young people have easy access to drinking water. Commercial drinks are strictly forbidden at primary school. In junior high school or high school, it is possible for students to buy commercial drinks in the small shops located next to schools, and then drink them—usually in secret. At work, the beverage consumption norm is flexible. The workplace is often equipped with a kettle and/or a water fountain for use with a Thermos flask.

At lunchtime, commercial beverages are generally forbidden for everyone, and particularly sweet drinks such as soda. It is not common to drink during meals as a rule, except soups, hot water or tea. The evening is a more flexible time for consuming drinks other than traditional drinks, especially when returning from work and after dinner.

The drinks permitted at home are those that are perceived to be healthy, nutritious, and purifying for the body (e.g., boiled water, cereal soups, and homemade soy juice). Chinese families try to address the uncertainties linked with the quality of the drinking water by themselves; they are concerned with everything that could threaten the health of their child or other family members. Sweet commercial drinks are generally not allowed. On the other hand, they are permitted in the workplace, when one is in transit and in the evening.

However, when we observed the size and number of the supermarket shelves devoted to commercial beverages, we noted a gap between stated norms and actual practice. Interestingly, in the few home refrigerators that we saw, we did not see many commercial drinks perhaps because sweet commercial drinks are a source of concern for some Chinese families. Today, each member of the family maneuvers around the rules, trying not to exceed the social limits so as to avoid sparking too many conflicts.

Beverage consumption and its meaning also vary depending on the occasion. Water is generally stipulated on ordinary family occasions throughout the day, unlike commercial beverages, which are forbidden or only tolerated.

However, water, whether hot or lukewarm, is not allowed during social gatherings away from the home. Instead, commercial drinks or alcohol, become the beverages of choice. These beverages become part of the face-saving strategies (Miàn zi 面子) of the Chinese. The notion of blandness comes from analogical reasoning, which is strongly present in traditional Chinese culture. It associates a bland taste with a bland social relation, bringing the risk of a loss of face for the host. The risk of having a bland social relationship makes it obligatory to consume commercial drinks with a strong taste, symbolizing a strong social relationship. Commercial drinks are considered acceptable before an examination or after sport. As a general rule, everything that promotes success in examinations is allowed in China. On the other hand, in the event of illness, traditional herbal teas are generally stipulated.

In qualitative research, the analytic criterion is not frequency or quantity, since these elements cannot be demonstrated statistically. Instead, qualitative researchers emphasize the existence and diversity of practices that are situation-dependent. The context, the actions people take, and the objects associated with them, represent variables that can explain practices and meaning. We do not consider the product’s image and its symbolic dimensions as explanatory variables that trigger a decision. Instead, we use them to explain the meaning that consumers employ to justify their purchase decisions. In a counterintuitive manner, the meaning ascribed to a practice at this microsocial scale of observation is not independent of it. Meaning is constrained by social norms, whether that involves accepting them or breaking the rules. Meaning reinforces the effect of the situation, which leads to action.

The Symbolism of “Hot” (热rè) and “Cold” (冷lěng)

For some of the Chinese, the symbolism of health and what is healthy revolves around two key notions: that of “cold” (冷lěng) and that of “heat” (热rè). All of this is known to specialists (Yang 2006). What is less well known, and more difficult to estimate, is the proportion of the Chinese who live in accordance with the principles of traditional medicine. Previous research on body care practices and use of cosmetics in China (Lei 2015) shows that some Chinese adhere to traditional principles, while others are opposed to them, and still others adhere to both traditional and western medicine principles and practices. Agency features here again – in the existence of alternative cultural models, human actors can decide which they choose to adopt.

In traditional medicine, the basic principle is that the body is in good health when energy (Qi 气) circulates correctly inside the body. It circulates well when heat and cold are balanced in the body. The categories of heat and cold are symbolic, and do not correspond to some actual temperature. These categories are not entirely constant across China. The categorization of a particular foodstuff as symbolically hot or cold may vary depending on family or region.

Women are thought to have colder bodies, due to their monthly loss of blood, and are also supposed to have less energy. Therefore, they have a heat deficit and need to consume more foods and drinks categorized symbolically as hot to restore the body’s balance. They must avoid “cold” products, and hence to some extent, commercial drinks; while such drinks may be neutral, they may be categorized as cold products. However, for some of the Chinese, commercial drinks are not part of the system of categorization into hot and cold. Commercial drinks are seen in an ambiguous way, in that they have both positive and negative associations.

The symbolic category of cold is of particular importance to body and health care, especially for women. Women believe they run a higher risk of illness or infertility than men if they drink cold beverages. Cold drinks may simultaneously threaten the proper functioning of organs such as the heart, liver or lungs; symbolically, these organs contribute towards the proper circulation of energy (Qi), the ability to have children, and the aesthetics that their body and face represent. This belief explains why boiled lukewarm water is a way of dealing with the problem of cold drinks and righting the balance of Qi for women. Boiled water has a strong positive symbolic charge, which means that commercial drinks can have a negative symbolic charge.

Yet, commercial beverages, one way or another, are becoming integrated into the care of the body and the regulation of heat and cold. The meaning ascribed to commercial drinks is neither stable nor automatic, but rather follows the dynamics of the development and divisions of Chinese society.

Some of the Chinese attach great importance to the symbolism of hot and cold, while others do not and categorize it as a “superstition”, and still others are somewhere between the two positions. Thus, even though Chinese women are not equally sensitive to cold products, the symbolism behind them which is often associated with commercial drinks, remains problematic today.

If we look at the relationship between the life cycle and beverage consumption, we can see that the commercial beverage market is structured with little left to chance. Some adolescents partake during exam periods and while playing sports. The market is much more open for young adults who do not have any family pressures (even if they already experience work pressures) since they are generally in good health, are financially independent, and like the taste of commercial drinks. With middle-aged adults, market share is lower compared to young adults. For old people, too, the market seems to be relatively limited, and China’s population is aging. However, it is entirely possible that in the years to come, some of the beverage consumption practices associated with young non-adults and young adults may extend to the older generations.



The Social Framework for Innovation Success

Our anthropological study shows that drink choice is subject to significant social constraints in terms of what is stipulated, allowed, or forbidden. This choice varies as a function of tensions crossing the generations, between those who adhere to the traditional Chinese system of beverages and those who prefer to make compromises by drinking modern commercial beverages. Here again we see the importance of agency, with the consumers themselves deciding which cultural model they will adopt.

These tensions require a negotiation between the cultural goals of good health and of pleasure linked with taste: boiled water is healthy but bland while a commercial drink has taste but may be bad for one’s health. A compromise, for the Chinese, typically involves choosing the commercial drink that is perceived to be the least detrimental to one’s health, but while has a pleasant taste. This compromise takes into account price, particularly when the consumers are young and have little money, and brand, an indicator of quality and taste. Choosing a particular brand is often a way for consumers to identify the quality they are looking for. However, the satisfaction drawn from the product is more important than the love of the brand.

Our anthropological investigation makes it possible to identify those social groups able to purchase commercial drinks. The primary group, consisting of young people between 18 and 35 years of age, is positioned to allow themselves this treat. Another group includes those adults who are on the move in the metro, on trains, in cars or on foot, regardless of age. Finally, this group includes those who are outside their home, at work, at a restaurant or have just finished playing a sport.

Diffusing Anthropological Findings within the Firm

It is within this triangle of social norms, practices and the effect of the life cycle that Chinese consumers make decisions between hot and cold, natural and artificial, light and sickly sweet, pure and impure, healthy and unhealthy, and bland and strong tasting. This emic classification is significantly different from the one proposed by marketing, whether in terms of motivation or revenue. The diffusion of anthropological data from anthropological consultants to the R&D department to the marketing department may face a variety of issues (e.g., data reliability, representativeness). Yet, the anthropological methodology prides itself on its validity. The difference in disciplinary approaches lies at the heart of the enigma of innovation.

This situation forced us to reflect on how to proceed so that our results would be used by the company. We were not content with simply presenting our results. We organized an activity (the nature of which is confidential) to stimulate reflection on the part of all the anthropologists and the in-house teams of the company.

Saying that there is a difference between the information produced by anthropologists, by R&D or by marketing does not mean that one of the three actors is better than the others. It simply means that information is not socially neutral because it is produced within a specific cognitive frameworks. Our anthropological framework emphasizes practices—what consumers do given certain constraints. It also emphasizes the social forces leading consumers to act and places less stress on consumer needs and wants.

However, marketing focuses first on consumer needs. References are frequently made to the famous hierarchy of needs created by Maslow (1934), which poses many problems today due to the evolution of what can is considered a primary need. In the 1940s, the period in which Maslow was writing, food was thought to be a primary need. Since the year 2000, electrical energy and mobility may also be considered primary needs.

Thus, for inventions/innovations produced by anthropological investigation to be “diffused”, they need to be transformed, “reinterpreted” or “translated” (Callon 1986) using the mental frameworks of marketing specialists who review and react to anthropological findings and recommendations. Working meetings involving diverse disciplinary backgrounds and professions allow the information to be translated from one professional universe into another.

We participated in such a working meeting. After it was over, the company proposed a series of key findings of the study. At this point, the anthropological data was transformed and reduced to a slide with six columns. Crucially, this simplification enabled the data to be reinterpreted by company employees. As a result, an invention was produced—an idea had the potential to be transformed into an innovation and end up finally with consumers.

However, data reduction by itself is not sufficient, because the cognitive models or frameworks of marketing experts do not correspond to those held by anthropologists. Briefly, the framework for marketing is organized around three questions: What are the needs? What do I like? What are the motivations? These three questions can also be phrased: Why do I like something? What meaning do I give to it? What are the psychological barriers that prevent me getting it? Desire is central for marketing professionals. For anthropologists oriented to explaining cultural practices, it is the set of constraints and the interplay of actors that are central. This disciplinary difference was so great that the Chinese firm’s general management had difficulties understanding the “insights” from the anthropological study. We found some basic similarities between the two approaches. We settled on the following: Consumption practices corresponded generally to individual needs, motivations corresponded to trigger events, and the combination of occasions for use, Chinese symbolism relating to management of the body and health, and the constraints corresponded to the social norms which promoted or forbade consumption.


The diagrams above display summarize the overall findings.

They represent the cultural change in progress in the area of drinks via 2 assemblages, one representing the old status quo, and the other representing the current situation. The effect of agency is apparent in a number of areas. Firstly, people choose whether or not to adhere to the old traditional systems of belief about symbolic hot and cold. Secondly, taste plays a role in their choice of drink. Thirdly, only children have greater bargaining power with their parents than previous generations did, and so are more likely to be able to gain compromises in being allowed to consume commercial drinks. They may also transgress any bans in secret. Such agency-related changes interact with changes in other areas involving larger groups (such as school authorities), social circumstances (a rise in the use of restaurants, increased journey times to work) and inanimate actants (such as drinks machines). It is the assemblage as a whole which changes over time.

Following this anthropological research, for ideas to diffuse within the company a great deal of time and energy were required. The process of diffusion of an idea is not purely mental. In this case it also required a great deal of energy, mobility, computers, budgets, mobilization of internal networks in the company, and work carried out in French, Chinese and English. The results produced within the company corresponded partly, but only partly, to the sociocultural framework proposed in the anthropological conclusion. This is entirely to be expected—not in a moral sense, but in the sense that this the normal path followed in the diffusion of innovations. Our anthropological investigation was reinterpreted with respect to the objectives and the constraints of actors within the company. This reinterpretation made it possible for them to create an invention that could be diffused within the company. Otherwise, we would not have known whether our results were useful to either the firm or the end user.

Innovation will always be an uncertain phenomenon; in this sense there will never be an answer to the enigma of its success or failure. However, based on the example of non-alcoholic drinks presented here, it is possible to lift part of the veil masking this enigma. Some, but not all, of this unknown derives from the ability of actors to agree to a reinterpretation, transformation, and translation of their ideas all along the collective process of innovation; this process begins with an invention and, with luck, ends with an innovation for the end user. It is a process on the microsocial and mesosocial scale that incorporates actors and objects, meaning and interest, relations of power and cooperation, and both material and imagined attributes. The resolution of the enigma of innovation is to be found by taking into consideration this uncertain combination.

Paris Guangzhou, May 2017





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