I am in Las Vegas this week as a judge for the OMA Awards. One would think my eyes and ears would be riveted to signs and displays. Outside the Global Shop Expo, I should be focusing my anthropological heart and mind on gambling, the spatial layout of the resort/casinos, the press of human life as in decends into unabashed hedonism. And in many ways these are indeed the places my mind has indeed gone to, but they are not the primary places. No, after half a day at the Sands and the other half at the Bellagio, my mind goes to toilets and bathrooms.
The flush toilet is recognized in the West as an icon of modernity. It is often the first thing that pops to mind when thinking about the bathroom, but the thing we discuss the least it is often hidden within larger bathrooms and is the last object we want to display when we give the tour of the home. Even with the lack of willingness to talk about toileting, we take the toilet as a symbol of our civilized nature. Toilets, like basins and baths, are often in attractive colors or designs. We tend to believe that our toileting habits are the best, as are our toilets, and that they reflect progress, hygienic superiority and the civilizing nature of our world-view. But interestingly, in the 1930s only 30% of American houses had indoor flush toilets. In the economic boom following WWII a fully-fitted bathroom, then later multiple bathrooms, became standard even in modest American homes.
Sometimes aspiring families in poor countries or countries enamored with the image of the West will install a porcelain pedestal in their home to demonstrate modernity, status and progress. The toilet gives them the upper hand in terms of social capital. They may even install the toilet even if there is no piped water connected to make it work or a sewer system in which to deposit “the goods.”
Here in Las Vegas, they are symbols of opulence and leisure. Materials, colors and even sounds are orchestrated with the precision and artistry of Mozart. And it is not just Las Vegas – there is a men’s room in Hong Kong that is something of a tourist attraction because of its striking view of the city. The point is that bathrooms, toilets and plumbing are more than they perhaps seem.
In all cases, excreta must be completely disassociated from the individual generating them. They should be invisible (even unscented where possible) and above all anonymous. The system of flush toilets we use lead to communal sewers and make the separation of the individual the waste not only possible, but mandatory. Toilets provide a strange, powerful link to a shared identity where everyone not only poops, but that poop becomes part of the collective identity, both physical and metaphysical.
So why does any of this matter? It matters because we often stop looking when we seek out insights about the uncomfortable or the mundane. Ask a person about their toileting habits and the answers will be half truths. Ethnography is often thought of in terms of interviewing with a brief home tour, but toileting provides an example as to why asking people about their preferred product benefits doesn’t work. You have to expand the realm of inquiry and the means by which you collect data. If you want to understand people’s “shit” you have to visit public bathrooms, talk to the kids, etc. Similarly, if you want to understand the motivations behind buying a car, or a beer, or anything else, you have to expand the scope of inquiry to tease out those pieces of information that would normally go overlooked. In part, it’s because people don’t know what they don’t know, but it’s also because we often take our own cultural practices for granted. With something as simple as bathroom behavior, it’s easy for us to get lost in our own worldview and stop searching. Digging deeper reminds us that the mundane is often more complex than it seems. Understanding that complexity means understanding new sources of revenue, innovation and branding potential.