State of the Craft: Reflections on the 2010 CCT Conference, Part 2

cct_logo.jpgSo where we left off was in the CCT’s Future presentation that was the middle of the kick-off session of CCT5 2010’s conference on cultural consumer research

The presenter called for “please no more stand alone case studies.”

John Deighton, the editor of our flagship journal the Journal of Consumer Research, JCR, said in the session that he thought that statement was “provocative” and asked for other opinions in the room.

I asked for a clarification. I was wondering if the statement meant that we needed more integrative conceptual thought work that integrated across multiple domains. This is something John Deighton has called for recently, and it’s a great move because it is big thought pieces-of the kind that Russ Belk is known to write, or which Susan Fournier has done-that move the field to a new and more integrative level.

reconciliation_web.jpgSo, for example, if we were to write about contemporary consumer’s relationships with nature, we might integrate individual empirical research articles and pieces on river-rafting, camping, sky-diving, hiking, scuba diving, gardening, surfing, Mountain Man rendezvous and even Burning Man into a conceptual piece that looks at the various contexts and meanings that surround the contemporary “consumption” of nature. No extra empirical research needed. Just add deep though. Integrate. Build theory.

Eric used the American Girl research written by Nina Diamond, Stefania Borhini, Mary Ann McGrath, Al Muniz, john Sherry, and myself as an example. He talked about how it didn’t simply study the American Girl Place retail store and leave it at that, but also did the ethnography out on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in people’s homes, in some other American Girl stores, online in the web store and through analysis of the books, printed magazine, and the catalogs. That makes great sense to me. And it also seems like it studies a single phenomenon, but does it in a relatively sophisticated way.

  • This is actually a pretty minor controversy, I think, based more on statement that needed some elaboration than any genuine conflict in the field. Eric’s statement makes this clear, and I second his call for more quality ethnographies.

So we can see that a sharing of different opinions in the field is certainly not always bad. Questioning assumptions and having a bold oppositional vision can move a field forward. If there really is something seriously wrong with the field that needs fixing, pragmatic considerations need to be weighed against how much potential there is in the new vision. The weight of the past shouldn’t keep us back from changing if there is great potential in changing or great error in continuing.

But change of this type can also have the effect of creating the appearance that people in a field have unclear or shifting standards. That certainly does not inspire confidence, especially for junior people who need clear guidelines so that they can get their careers going with some confidence that their work will be published.kumbayah.jpg

  • So I want to use this blog entry to assure junior people that I think, for the time being, nothing about ethnographic acceptance in CCT has changed. And for the foreseeable future nothing will change. The standards we enjoyed, and that you probably toil under very diligently right now are, at least if I have anything to say about it, very much intact.


This was not a discussion about ethnography so much as it was about case study it seems, as Eric, in his “Popeye” persona (see comment) offers.

One big confusion was between “stand alone case studies” and “single site ethnographies.” So I will go on a little bit of a tangent here, and talk about why there are at least six reasons why I think doing away with individual ethnographic studies as discrete empirical journal article contributions would be a very bad idea. And, conversely, why we should continue on our present course. This may not have been what Eric said, or meant, but there was enough confusion in the room and beyond it into other venues and sites that I think it is worth defusing that ticking bomb in public. And here are my points.

  1. First, context is good, going deep into a single context is also good, and ethnography leave unclear what the difference is between “single” and “not-single”. Context is our business-that’s what we do and do best. And “single-sited” does not have a very precise meaning. I think the American Girl piece was still single-sited. It dealt with a single, albeit very complex, brand. We just followed it around and noticed where it went. The same with my work on Burning Man (online and offline, at the airport, at stores, in different cities along the way, at regional meetings), and Star Trek (conventions, fan clubs, Star Trek parties, Halloween, people’s homes, and so on). Culture lives in many locations, that is why it can be borne. Good ethnographies rarely stay in one GPS location—this is part of the translocal consumer culture phenomenon that our colleague Joonas Rokka is writing about.
  2. Second, people are always going to label ethnographic pieces by their context. Who cares? As long as we actually do a good job of developing theory and building on it when you read the articles, should we focus on what the people who only read the titles call them? Did I write the Burning Man ethnography? Yep. And if you read it you know I developed some theory from it, too.
  3. Third, and most importantly, it’s very very difficult to do a good ethnography across many different sites or phenomena. It is hard enough, time-consuming enough, and challenging enough to do a good ethnography that looks in a focused way at only one cogently defined phenomenon. Will it be seen as more generalizable if we look at three sites? I seriously doubt someone trained in generalizability would see an N = 3 as really more significant than an N = 1. What if we just said, as I have been wont to do, that we talked to 5,231 Star Trek fans across 26 countries. Doesn’t that have a better ring to it?
  4. Fourth, we need to stay the course. We have gotten where we are as a field largely on the strength of ethnography as we have been doing it. That’s why ethnography is recognized as the gold standard of consumer research by designers and by many forward-thinking firms like Intel and P&G. Why would we abandon the techniques that have gotten us, and our colleagues in industry like Grant McCracken and Rita Denny, so far?
  5. Fifth, who is going to teach these new forms of ethnography? If this is an emerging trend, then let it emerge with powerful examples that illustrate the benefits. Perhaps, as Eric’s comment suggests, examples are already emerging (I also thank him for suggesting that my work is exemplary in this regard). If so, junior scholars should attend to this work by staying tuned with it, but, I think, no changes in the immediate present are required. Keep the discussion in mind, and continue to watch as quality standards becomes clearer and evolve, gradually, as they always do.
  6. Finally, and just as importantly, the strength of complex cultural work is never to verify its own theories in other sites. Never had been and never will be. We are not equipped in the scientific rhetoric knowledge game that way. Let me explain.

 Ethnographies are great for generating theories from the field, from real life. Real life is highly complex, requiring us to look at and consider many different possible constructs, categories, and relationships before we settle on a greatly reduced set that we find to be important.

 We should not do things like social psychology, which deals with micro-individual processes, using cultural methods. Sample sizes are for counting individuals-we don’t focus on the study of individuals. We look at meanings, rituals, and cultures. Sample sizes of sites does not make sense to me, since sites are social construction and, if we are to note and understand the networked nature of social reality, they are all interconnected in complex ways.

  • If we go back to ontology and epistemology, the root level of philosophy of science and ask about what kinds of knowledge we are after and whether we are working inductively or deductively, for the most part, the answers become clearer.
  • Are we focused on the dynamism, complexity, and multifaceted nature of actual human cultural reality, or are we seeking universally generalizable propositions and then verifying them? The former, of course. That’s our ontology and it guides our epistemology.

How many discrete, separate, ethnographies do we need to do to be seen as theoretically relevant? One, I would say. One good one. One good one with rich, thick, theoretical ideas.

Could they be with strange, odd, marginal groups? Definitely. Stuff that I found studying Star Trek fans and Burning Man burners is becoming increasingly mainstream now. I found phenomena sketched out in high relief in these “weird” field sites that help me to understand the emerging mainstream. And they are fun to study, to boot. How they look to others as “weird science” actually doesn’t bother me much. It may be bad P.R., but it’s perfectly fine as science.

Similarly, we could get great theory from interviewing one single person, if it was a real good interview. Recall what Susan Fournier did with brand relationship theory (based on a sample of N=3). How many of Craig Thompson’s masterpieces were written based on samples of three? My Ideology of Technology article in JCR last year used a sample of six. But all of them had, I think, big, valuable, intriguing, useful theoretical ideas. The field will sort the value of the theory out. It sure doesn’t come from the sample size. Reading Eric’s comments, his point seems directed more at the quality and attentiveness of the ethnography (vs. “case study”)—a point I wholeheartedly embrace. Maybe we need more clear delineations of the differences between case studies and ethnographies, then.

  • As Denzin, Lincoln and Guba have all written extensively about, if we can be persuasive and novel and suggest new things then what we contribute has the potential to be valuable and useful to other scholars, other writers, and people in general.
  •  We are theory generators. Not theory testers. Not theory verifiers. Quantity is not a quality of quality ethnography.

 Now, having written this, I am grateful for the provocation, because it is an opportunity for discussion and clarification. I wanted to write this blog post to assure everyone involved that there is no lasting confusion. The ground is not shifting. I believe completely that ethnographies of single phenomena are here to stay in our field and beyond.

I welcome comment and continuing commentary from anyone, including of course all those involved at the conference and interested in it, using this blog or through other means. And my coverage of the intriguing events and presentations of CCT 2010 will continue in the next blog posting…

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