What Santa Claus Can Teach Us About Social Enterprise
Speaking of New Scientist, recent discussions re the commercialization of charity got me thinking about the broader implications of the recent NS piece on "The Santa Delusion," examining the ethics of telling kids that St. Nick is real.
I'd always thought of this issue in terms of its implications for trust in adults and religion, but the article got me thinking about how the Santa myth relates to my own thinking on identity and design.
The key link: Santa's role in mediating relations of exchange by providing a free space beyond them.
John Kremer, reader in psychology at Queen's University Belfast in the UK, agrees. "Santa Claus is part of the mythology of childhood, which is full of white lies," he says, and Santa may have a useful social role to play. Kremer cites the work of the American psychologist George Homans, who argued decades ago that all social relationships are based on reciprocity and the balancing of rewards and cost. This is starkly revealed at Christmas, says Kremer. Each gift must be carefully matched in value with another, each card must be met with a card, or you risk embarrassment or worse. "Children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participants."
Santa is the perfect solution. "Because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas," Kremer says. "This allows children to learn the ropes of gift-giving, without having to play an active role."
In fact, I'd argue, the value of Christmas as an exchange-free zones goes even further, in that helps normalize corporate identity as a meta-economic institution. On one level, the child relates to the family as a corporate entity beyond exchange; perhaps even more significant, the child relates to branded commodities as objects originating beyond the system of commerce.
Which brings us back to social enterprise. As I've suggested here before, social enterprise isn't really new; you can find variations on the business-charity hybrid throughout recorded history, if not before. What distinguises social enterprise more than anything is the degree to which we've allowed the business metaphors to dominate the frame.
And this is where we seem to have it backwards. Rather than reducing the allegedly obsolete values of traditional charity to units of exchange,social enterprise could achieve a more--dare I say it--sustainable revolution by highlighting the transformative dynamic within business.
This requires more than glib assertions that doing good is more profitable for business in the long run, a rhetorical strategy that relies on quantified evidence that simply does not exist. Rather, we need to rethink the nature of business itself. The Santa myth persists, I think, because at base we sense it isn't a lie--the family, society, even modern branded commerce have morphed into identities beyond mere exchange.
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