Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Meaning of Clean (And Dirt)

The Meaning of Clean (And Dirty)
British anthropologist Mary Douglas put it very simply in a famous essay about food taboos: the definition of dirt—what she calls pollution—is cultural. Dirt is “matter out of place.” It is not necessarily unpleasant smelly stuff, or stuff that soils your kitchen counter. Dirt is fine in a flower pot. It is not okay in your souffle. Pretty obvious, right? Not necessarily.
These things are culturally determined. One person’s gross stuff may be another persons delicacy. And as anyone who has shared a kitchen with another human being knows, one person’s “clean enough” is someone else’s big, nasty mess. Learning local definitions and checking carefully before applying your own (or your company’s) definition is important, here.
We were recently in China, where we were looking into household cleaning practices for a maker of household cleaning products. We learned that what counts as clean may not match up with our American understanding of what clean means.
Take the exhaust fan over the stove, for example. For a Chinese householder, that thing needs to be grease-free, and the Chinese folks we visited spent most of their cleaning effort (and most of their cleaning product) trying to keep the greasy mess out of the hood above the stove. I don’t think I have touched mine in two years, which would probably be appalling to any of the Chinese people we spoke with. But I don’t do that much stir-fry, really, so I don’t think there'sa fire hazard (yet). On the other hand, water is the universal solvent of choice for cleaning most hard surfaces in Chinese middle-class households. You have to do the ethnography of cleaning. That critical step has to be taken before a product designer or marketer begins to ask survey or focus-group questions about cleaning.
Consider “green” cleaning products in North America and how these are marketed. Here, product designers are up against a difficult set of cultural questions. What smells count as "clean" smells? What kind of clean is clean enough, and where? And when? Does “green” mean the same thing to everyone? (We know it doesn't; the interesting part is just element of "green" matters to whom). And how do the many different cultural traditions in North America weigh in on these green cleaning questions? Folks interested in sustainable, green cleaning products (and people concerned about water pollution) need to know about this stuff.
Without a solid grounding in the real practices of real people in real households, the questions designed for a standard A & U (Awareness and Use) survey or for a product-testing focus group could easily go wrong in two ways: they could ask dumb questions, or they could miss asking questions that matter. It makes sense to do the ethnography of clean up front to understand the range of practices and beliefs that matter within a cultural tradition; then build survey questions to discover the patterns that hold true in the larger market. Otherwise, your results might be“matter out of place.”


  1. Oh, wow! Good blog concept. Got me thinking about an example I've noticed in my own culture: apples. When I pick up the apple, it's like any other foodstuff. As I'm eating the apple, it's a healthy snack, and obviously clean enough to consume. THE MOMENT I finish eating my apple, the remaining core becomes garbage, and I'm sorta icked out by holding it until I can throw it away.

    Of course, there's nothing objectively dirtier about the apple core. Heck, I could probably nibble off a few more edible scraps if I tried. But my culture conditioned me to think of apple cores as inedible garbage... so I do.

    --- Ashkuff | http://www.ashkuff.com | Bored with reading about others' adventures? Burning to venture out yourself? Let this applied anthropologist remind you how!

  2. Check out this apt story about cleansing & moral judgment:

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