Ritual, Embodiment and the Paradox of Doing the Laundry


  • Maryann McCabe




Paradox, ritual, embodiment, agency, subjectivity, materiality


Paradox often provides a starting point for cultural analysis of consumer behavior. The paradox of the laundry in which mothers find the laundry a boring and repetitive task yet hesitate to relinquish the chore to others is examined through the embodied experience of women’s laundry rituals. Performance of the ritual generates feelings of competence in cleaning clothes to an absolute standard of cleanliness and feelings of caring, nurturance and love of family. For mothers, the ritual goal of cultivating subjectivity in children about presentation of self to the world depends on drawers full of clean clothes. Laundry rituals are transformative because they ignite and renew emotions relating to a perceived parental role. This article discusses implementation of anthropological practice in terms of incorporating ethnographic research findings into advertising communications. In the implementation process, agency is key in bridging discourse of mothers and discourse of advertising and in producing culture.


Ahearn, L. M. 2001 'Language and agency.' Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 109-37. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.30.1.109

Bourdieu, P. 1984 Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Csordas, T. J. 1990 'Embodiment as a paradigm for anthropology.' Ethos 18 (1): 5-47. https://doi.org/10.1525/eth.1990.18.1.02a00010

Csordas, T. J. 2012 'Psychoanalysis and phenomenology.' Ethos 40 (1): 54-74. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1352.2011.01231.x

DeVault, M. L. 1991 Feeding the family: the social organization of caring as gendered work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Witte, M. 2011 'Touched by the spirit: converting the senses in a Ghanaian Charismatic Church.' Ethnos 76 (4): 489-509. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2011.620711

Desjarlais, R. and C. J. Throop. 2011 'Phenomenological approaches in anthropology.' Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 87-102. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092010-153345

Douglas, M. 1966 Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203361832

Entwistle, J. 2015 The fashioned body: Fashion, dress & modern social theory, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity.

Featherstone, M. 1991 'The body in consumer culture.' In M.

Featherstone, M. Hepworth and B.S. Turner (eds.) The body: social process and cultural theory, pp. 170-196. London: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446280546

Geismar, H. 2011 "'Material culture studies'; and other ways to theorize objects: a primer to a regional debate." Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(1): 210-218. https://doi.org/10.1017/S001041751000068X

Gell, A. 1998 Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Goffman, E. 1956 The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Goffman, E. 1974 Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Handelman, D. and G. Lindquist (eds.) 2005 Ritual in its own right: Exploring the dynamics of transformation. New York: Berghahn.

Hansen, K.T. 2004 'The world in dress: anthropological perspectives on clothing, fashion, and culture.' Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 369-92 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143805

Hicks, D. 2010 'The material-cultural turn: Event and effect.' In D. Hicks and M.C. Beaudry (eds.) The Oxford handbook of material culture studies, pp. 25-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hochschild, A. R. 1989 The second shift: working families and the revolution at home. New York: Viking.

Hodder, I. 2012 Entangled: an archeology of the relationships between humans and things. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118241912

Holbraad, M. 2011 Can the thing speak? Open Anthropology Cooperative Press. openanthcoop.net/press/2011/01/12/can-the-thing-speak/ accessed March 12, 2017.

Holland, D. and K. Leander. 2004 'Ethnographic studies of positioning and subjectivity: an introduction.' Ethos 32 (2): 127-139. https://doi.org/10.1525/eth.2004.32.2.127

Ingold, T. 2012 'Toward an ecology of materials.' Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 427-442. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-081309-145920

Ingold, T. 2013 Making: anthropology, archeology, art and architecture. London: Routledge.

Kuchler, S. and D. Miller. 2005. Clothing as material culture. Oxford Berg. https://doi.org/10.2752/9780857854056

Latour, B. 1993 We have never been modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lewin, E. and L. M. Silverstein. 2016 Mapping feminist anthropology in the twenty-first century. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2006 'Subjectivity.' Anthropological Theory 6 (3): 345-361. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499606066892

Malefyt, T. and M. McCabe. 2016 'Women's bodies, menstruation and marketing "protection:" interpreting a paradox of gendered discourses in consumer practices and advertising campaigns.' Consumption Markets & Culture 19 (6): 555-575. https://doi.org/10.1080/10253866.2015.1095741

Malefyt, T. and B. Moeran. 2003 'Introduction: Advertising cultures–advertising, ethnography and anthropology.' In T. Malefyt and B. Moeran (eds.) Advertising cultures, pp. 1-33. Oxford: Berg.

Maschio, T. 2015 'Everyday things: an anthropologist's take on emotion and the sense of the sacred in consumer rituals.' Journal of Business Anthropology 4 (2): 342-351. https://doi.org/10.22439/jba.v4i2.4896

Mascia-Lees, F. E. 2016 'The body and embodiment in the history of feminist anthropology.' In E. Lewin and L. M. Silverstein (eds.) Mapping feminist anthropology in the twenty-first century, pp. 146-167. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Mauss, M. 1979 'Body techniques.' In Sociology and psychology, essays by Marcel Mauss (trans. B. Brewster) pp. 95-123. London: Routledge

Miller, D. 1987 Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Miller, D. 2005 'Introduction.' In D. Miller (ed.) Materiality, pp.1-50. Durham: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822386711-001

Miller, D. 2009 'Buying time.' In E. Shove, F. Trentmann and R. Wilk (eds.) Time, consumption and everyday life: practice, materiality and culture, pp.157-169. Oxford: Berg.

Miller D. and J. Woodward. 2012 Blue jeans: the art of the ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520272187.001.0001

Miyazaki, H. 2004 The method of hope: anthropology, philosophy and Fijian knowledge. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Moeran, B. 1997 Folk art potters of Japan: beyond an anthropology of aesthetics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Olsen, B. 1993 'Brand loyalty and lineage: exploring new dimensions for research.' In L. McAlister and M.L. Rothschild (eds.) Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, pp. 575-579. Provo UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Olsen, B. 1999 'Exploring women's brand relationships and enduring themes at mid-life.' In E.J. Arnould and L.M. Scott (eds.) Advances in

Consumer Research Volume 26, pp. 615-620. Provo UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Postrel, V. 2003 The substance of style: how the rise of aesthetic value is remaking commerce, culture and consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.

Potter, J. 2004 'Discourse analysis as a way of analyzing naturally occurring talk.' In D. Silverman (ed.) Qualitative research: theory, method and practice, 2nd ed., pp. 200-221. London: Sage.

Quine, W. V. 1966 The ways of paradox and other essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Skoggard, I. and A. Waterston. 2015 'Introduction: toward an anthropology of affect and evocative ethnography.' Anthropology of Consciousness 26 (2): 109-120. https://doi.org/10.1111/anoc.12041

Stewart, P. J. and A. Strathern. 2014 Ritual: key concepts in religion. London: Bloomsbury.

Sutton, D. E. 2001 Remembrance of pasts: an anthropology of food and memory. Oxford: Berg. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781350044883

Svasek, M. 2005 'Introduction: emotions in anthropology.' In K. Milton and M. Svasek (eds.) Mixed emotions: anthropological studies of feelings, pp. 1-23. Oxford: Berg.

Thompson, C. J. and D. L. Haytko. 1997 'Speaking of fashion: consumers' uses of fashion discourses and the appropriation of countervailing cultural meanings.' Journal of Consumer Research 24 (1): 15–42. https://doi.org/10.1086/209491

Turner, V. 1967 The forest of symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Urban, Greg. 2010 A method for measuring the motion of culture. American Anthropologist 112(1): 122-139. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01201.x

Urban, Greg. 2017 Corporate compliance as a problem of cultural motion. Rutgers University Law Review 69(2): 1-37.

Van Maanen, J. 2011 Tales of the field: on writing ethnography, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226849638.001.0001

Viveiros de Castro, E. 2009 'The gift and the given: three nano-essays on kinship and magic. In S. Bamford and J. Leach (eds.) Kinship and beyond: the genealogical model reconsidered, pp. 237–268. New York: Berghahn.

Weiner, A B. 1992 Inalienable possessions: the paradox of keeping-while-giving. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520076037.001.0001