Our greatest deficit is not economic; it's social. As a cultural and consumer anthropologist who has studied the recession for the last two years, I believe the downturn led us to this situation. With this knowledge, I feel we are in a position to have a great year, but not because the economy will necessarily rebound (although that would be nice). 2011 will be great because we'll start to create and live by our "sense of social" — the sum total of relationships we create with others and our ability to leverage these relationships to create a mutually beneficial way of life.
Besides my firm's research, another reason I believe we are headed in this direction comes from a very unusual place: Papua New Guinea. In the late 1990s, my wife and I did our dissertation research with a group of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer horticulturalists in that region. Last May, I had the chance to go back and visit with our friends there to help them, in part, transition into a cash economy. Among other pieces of work I had to do, I decided it was important to talk with them about the recession in order to prepare them for their new way of life.
The moment came for my "speech" (all the stereotypes were in place: an enormous group of us crammed into a traditional bush house, dark, fire going, smoky, drinking tea, telling stories), and almost instantly I realized they had the "sense of social" that we desperately sought back home. Why? Because the people in this area only knew a life based on "social currency" — the ability to exchange, share and trade using the social relationships you have built up around you. What I now understood was that our recessionary rite of passage in the United States had put us on a journey to rebuild our store of social relationships.
A specific tradition practiced by these people relates to our current post-recession situation. In this part of Papua New Guinea, people create "eilusanmin" or wild pig tail bags. These bags are traditional string bags that hang in the Men's Houses in villages. After wild pig hunts, men take the wild pig's tails and attach them to these bags. If you've placed a wild pig tail on a certain bag, then it signifies that you have the ability to take and share resources in the area where that bag resides. In short, a tail on the bag is sort of like "money in the bank" — except that in this community, exchanging resources means creating a series of mutually dependent relationships, not simple transactions that end at the point of purchase. In other words, their economy is primarily relational, not transactional, and wild pig tail bags represent their "sense of social."
When I think about these bags in relation to our society today, I ask myself: where have all of our wild pig tail bags gone, and how can we get them back? One way we can start this process is by looking for the signs of social going on around us and engaging with them. Think of these opportunities as wild pig tails to collect, hang on your wild pig tail bag, and build your "sense of social."
One good example of a "sense of social" event was the recent "Messiah at Macy's" by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The company meant to take people by surprise by staging a rendition of the Hallelujah chorus in a department store. And they did. The Opera Company created the space, with enormous commitment and effort, for a major "wild pig tail" moment to happen. Looking at the response, it clearly worked — they struck just the right chord for people. What's fascinating to me when I watch the video is how everyone feels part of the performance, which shows the strong "sense of social" that the opera created.
We can't all orchestrate a flash mob rendition of Handel's Hallelujah chorus. But I do have a simple recommendation: Start building up that stockpile of social relationships. Starting right now, embrace and create opportunities to have honest-to-goodness conversations with people. Measure the quality of 2011 by the number of great conversations that you create, and watch your wild pig tail bag and your "sense of social" grow.
We're all poised for a great 2011. Dare to live socially — it will be worth it.
Robbie Blinkoff is a cultural and consumer anthropologist living in Baltimore. His most recent work is thewildpigtailproject.com — an arts and anthropology project to help build the world's "sense of social." Mr. Blinkoff is managing director of Context-Based Research Group and teaches courses in anthropology at Goucher College. His e-mail is email@example.com.