In the Polish language, the word ‘microculture’ arguably does not carry many connotations. Our daily reality is dominated by culture in its general sense: European, Polish, pop or niche culture for that matter. Look at a yoghurt cup and you will find ‘live cultures’ there. In the realm of research, microcultures are normally studied by biologists dealing with microorganisms, but they should also be important to researchers seeking to learn about consumers as analyzing them can help us understand how are trends formed. Meanwhile, the West is seeing a growing interest in microcultures, not only among researchers and marketers but also from broadly understood administration and business, which find it vital to explore the ongoing changes.
Cultural glasses and codes
The study of the cultural environment has been important for a long time, although it does not seem to have gained a strong foothold in commercial terms. At strategic meetings, semiotic analyses and extensive ethnographies are sometimes treated as curious and inspiring, but when it comes to making decisions, preference is given to statistics, charts and large databases. But, culture has always been in the focus of attention for social sciences. Franz Boas, one of the precursors of cultural anthropology, active at the turn of the 20th century, began to draw attention to the fact that every observed element of culture is worth studying, and that no culture is better or worse than any other.
The anthropologist’s work is essentially about understanding how culture determines people’s perception and understanding of the world. In his opinion, culture is highly determinative, an idea he strongly emphasised in his popular concept of Kulturbrille, i.e. cultural glasses that all of us wear. Martin Lindstrom, one of the popular branding consultants, a self-proclaimed ethnographer with a detective bent, now uses the concept of cultural glasses to give managers around the world a broader perspective, so that they remember not to lose touch with the community of real customers, and not only look at them through the lenses of corporate documents.
Another popular, and more modern, the concept of culture influencing our perception and affecting consumer choices was provided by a contemporary French anthropologist, Clotaire Rapaille. He created the notion of a culture code, the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing, be it a car or coffee. In his approach, the culture that surrounds us is like a filter in the process of applying meanings, which is why they are not universal around the world. For example, the culture code of cheese in France is ‘alive’, while in the United States it is ‘dead’, which strongly influences the approach to this food product at any stage from purchase to the storage, to its uses in the kitchens. Rapaille wrote extensively about his observations and experiences in working with culture codes in his book entitled The Culture Code. He describes, for example, the research that helped create the well-known Chrysler PT Cruiser model, which, despite its non-distinctive technical parameters, attracted so many people willing to pay for the car’s original and sentimental body that queuing lists had to be drawn up.
All this is based on a cultural code defined as identity. Interestingly, the pile-up of orders resulted from the decision of the new German management who decided to choose a smaller production line as they did not expect sales to take off. This choice was supposedly influenced by a different mindset of the Germans, for whom the car’s culture code was engineering. The author offers us visions of a universal code for human hearts. And although I generally distrust such magical solutions, observations from the automotive market make it fair to say that culture codes in that particular context have a strong influence on that market. As regards Poland, it can be assumed that the status is still the dominant code. This was demonstrated by the sales of car models targeted at senior managers and by the words of a buyer, overheard by the blogger who quoted them, saying that that now everyone in his hometown would believe that he had become an executive director.
Culture on a micro-scale
Against this background, it is easy to perceive microculturalism as a way of looking deeper into cultural phenomena, with a focus placed not only on dominant cultures but also on emerging ones, some of which might evolve to be dominant on a local or even global scale. As microcultures are not dominant, they often do not get actively expressed – for fear of running against prevailing norms and customs. This in turn could lead to surprising eruptions, as when a microculture strongly manifests its impact that hardly anyone realised before. This is clearly evidenced by massive social protests that are now taking place all over the world, including the anti-racist demonstrations in the United States and women’s protests in Poland. The sheer magnitude of the protests against the abortion ban came as a major surprise to the Polish government, and the ensuing narratives became part of a broad debate, with many brands choosing to get involved.
Ujwal Arkalgud and Jason Partridge, who at the end of last year published a book Microcultures: Understanding the Consumer Forces That Will Shape the Future of Your Business, proposed the definition: “A microculture refers to the nuanced and particular sets of meanings that substantially sized groups of the most dominant consumers attribute to an idea, trend or topic at any given point in time. It then, in turn, gives direction to—and indicates the broader shifts that will happen in—the marketplace and impacts the mainstream (or macroculture).” They propose an approach whereby we should not look at microcultures as well-known segments from the innovation diffusion model, such as innovators or early adopters. These are sets of beliefs and values that pose a specific challenge for the mainstream, but at the same time are common to relatively large groups, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.
The extremely important part of shaping a microculture is building a symbolic capital
Microcultures are a specific justification for our behaviours and choices, including consumer choices. At the risk of oversimplification, they may be called a kind of packaging for trends. And we are not talking here only about significant and pronounced social phenomena, but also about usual consumer behaviours, such as drinking milk or playing computer games. For example, as early as several years ago, adult gaming evoked mixed opinions, and video games were generally considered as a pastime for children and teenagers. Now the perception has changed dramatically, and video games have gained the status of entertainment similar to television, influencing everyday language and customs.
Arkalgud and Partridge point to co-working as an interesting example showing that today’s microculture can turn to tomorrow’s macroculture. Until fifteen years ago, co-working was practically non-existent, and today, offices are flexibly shared in every large city of the world. Furthermore, the microculture of co-working has heavily influenced the planning and designing of traditional offices and the work model itself. Co-working offices set standards for modern office space.
There’s one interesting thing about the rise of co-working: although it introduces a completely new market model, it does not mean it has been pulled out of a hat. Brad Neuberg, who coined the term co-working, admitted that similar ideas had already existed, such as artistic communes or journalistic newsrooms, but from the market perspective, co-working was something new, as it connected with the concept of an open community of employees. The symbolic capital of professionalism, a sense of freedom and belonging, as well as the host of cultural artefacts, such as a foosball table in the workplace, all built an atmosphere of uniqueness – something that larger companies wanted to offer their employees, too. Importantly, microculture does not have to develop around a completely new market phenomenon. It may also refer to a new edition of an old idea, normalisation of new habits, structural change or breaking the accessibility barrier. In this approach, microcultures are a specific testing ground for possible changes, verifying their social value.
Microcultures are an inseparable element of negotiating the macroculture
Microcultures emerge and interact with each other, and some of them become part of the dominant system. By observing and analysing them, we can obtain a good picture of the trajectory of the changes we are likely to see. Especially now, when online communication allows microcultures to grow rapidly. Building symbolic capital online is much easier. Just take a look at the popular Facebook profile photo overlays. They have become instruments of manifesting one’s own beliefs, something that helps build group identification. As COVID-19 restrictions make us increasingly active online, it becomes even more important to observe these phenomena because they are likely to become widespread faster than ever before.