Reflections on ACR 2008 in San Francisco

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-hypothesis generation entry. If you haven’t checked it out yet, please scroll down and do so. Check out the three amazing interpretations in the comment section by some very bright and talented blog readers. And please feel free to add your own comments/interpretations…

Okay.

Last year, I was asked by Punam Anand Keller, the duly elected President of the Association for Consumer Research, to co-chair this year’s Doctoral Symposium. It was a huge honor to be asked to do this for ACR and of course I immediately said that I would be happy to do it. My co-chair was the wonderful, organized, thoughtful and easy-going researcher Meg Campbell from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Of course, having Meg involved that sweetened the deal even more. The funny thing is that I first met Meg in 2001, during the very first ACR Doctoral Symposium when we sat on the very same panel. There’s another synchronistic moment of solicitious synchronicitous synchronicity-for those of you (like me) who are keeping track.

The Doctoral Symposium is a forum for Ph.D. students interested or involved in the field of consumer research to learn about the field and theories of consumer research, and also to meet and hear from some of the most prominent and upcoming of consumer research professors. Choosing people wasn’t difficult-we have a wealth of wonderful people in our field who are both prominent and high-status and kind enough to come a day early and volunteer their time to share insights with students. We invited many of the top people in our field-of course, there were also many high-fliers and big thinkers who we couldn’t have at the Symposium for one reason or another.

I’m going to reflect mainly on the Doctoral Symposium, since that was the focus of my attention this year. I’ll talk a bit about the overall conference, which I thought was remarkably well-organized,and put together in a spirit of bridge-building and cross-disciplinary/interdisciplinary  exchange.  I hear that conference registration was at an all-time high and that it was expected to crack one thousand for the first time in history. That’s a major accomplishment.

This year we tried to structure the Symposium in a different way that we hoped might help better meet students’ needs. Meg and I figured that students at different stages of the Ph.D. program had different needs, and wanted to get different things from their participation at the Symposium. We had three groups: (1) about to enter, just entered, or pre-examination Ph.D. students, (2) post-exam or early dissertation students, and (3) late exam or “job market candidate” students.

Moving from a scary, slow start, the enrollment response was gratifying. We had the largest Symposium registration in recent years: 130 students. Last year I believe that the registration was just over 100 students.

The Symposium started with sessions that helped students to plan for and organize their burgeoning careers. I was very happy to see that the discussions in these three rooms were radically different. In the rooms with the new students, there were some deep discussion about how to choose a thesis chair, how to study for exams, what the role of political power wan in chairing a thesis, In the post-exam phase there was a lot about what constitutes a good thesis topic, how to conduct an efficient literature review, how to improve one’s thesis writing, how many studies to include in a thesis, what the risks were in choosing a currently-fashionable topic. Finally, in the job market groups there were presentation and discussions about publishing in the two top journals in the field-JCR and JM, represented by Managing Editor Mary Ann Twist and Editor Ajay Kohli, respectively–giving students’ detailed, helpful concrete suggestions for successful publication.

The next session synthesized current theory across four broad domains, and made it targeted and accessible to the appropriate student group. We split the field of consumer research into four groups:

  • Affect, Motivation, Intention and Goals
  • Attitude and Persuasion
  • Behavioral Decision Models and Choice
  • Consumer Culture Theoretics

In each session, there was interesting overlap and synthesis showing how we are looking at some major problems in the world of consumption and consumer behavior through a number of sophisticated theoretical lenses, and how these views both contrast with and complement each other. I would have loved to have seen even more coordination and complementarity, to enhance what was already there. That might be something to think about and consider working on for future years.

After lunch, we had a plenary session where five top luminaries in the field presented on the open theme of “Inside/Outside”-an invitation to reflect on how consumer research insights were drawing on and also affecting academic,  interest group, journalistic, social, and other constituencies outside of our small but growing field of consumer research.

Russ Belk opened up with a stirring, stimulating, inspiring presentation that encouraged students to stretch themselves, take risks, and dare to investigate the questions that interested them. Punam Keller followed with a fascinating case study that revealed high-profile research she had with the US Government to try to help single mothers to better manage their financial affairs. Her approach was both practical and scientific, and has resulted in her research gaining wide use among public agencies, and her further appointment to important advisory positions within government committees-also meaningful, inspiring stuff.

John Sherry then presented an erudite, well thought out, imaginative presentation charting the course of consumer research and the problems it could answer. Some of the problem areas that John recommended nascent researchers investigate was the interface of economic, social, and ecological consumption interests, and he proposed that we would need new ways of understanding moral communities and the notions of obligation. One of John’s slides showed a first person view of a shopping cart, headed down a diverging road with a sign that indicated the rider would be forced to choose a path. John indicated that this was the situation that many thesis students had been told they were forced to choose from, but that this wasn’t true.

The words of Led Zeppelin echoed in my head:

“Yes there are two paths you can go by,
but in the long run,
there’s still time to change
the road you’re on.”

Is it true? One of the students later asked about this, and it seemed to me that the assembled professors could not offer very much in the way of enthusiastic encouragement for students to try to honestly cover every angle of consumer research in their academic careers.

The next talk, by John Lynch was also pragmatic and applied. He presented research he had conducted to help understand how to work with a sophisticated consumer group-young professionals-to save more effectively for retirement. Like Punam Keller’s presentation, John’s focus was on combining rigorous research with important real-world questions and coming up with actual policy implications that can be readily used and adopted by government agencies. I found this fascinating and inspiring stuff.

The final of the three Johns-and no, we didn’t plan it that way-was John Deighton, the current editor of the field’s top journal, the Journal of Consumer Research. Oddly, John had no PowerPoint slides. He said he’d been working the speech on the airplane and it was last minute. He read his speech off of his laptop, which he apologized for, and predicted as he started that his talk would end in “failure.”

I’ll tell you more, lots more, about John Deighton’s presentation to the Symposium in my next blog entry. You’ll have wait until then to see if his predictions of failure and embarrassment were realized.

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