Consumption Studies

Several years ago, I began writing about a new project that sought to re-envision some of what we do as consumer researchers. Although the way I did it may have been flawed and overly ambitious, I’m going to use this blog to try to reformulate some of those ideas, and I’d enjoy hearing any interesting thoughts and contributions to this l’il project. The central idea is to formulate a type of Consumption Studies that acknowledges the diversity of approaches to studying consumers and consumptions. The initial ideas came before the more theoretically-inclined reformulation of interpretive consumer behavior into Consumer Culture Theory, but they compatible with that orientation, although intentionally a bit broader.

My reformulation starts at the beginning of the field of consumer research. In the mid-1980s, the field of consumer research saw a flurry of new activity marking the appearance of anthropological (Sherry 1987), “naturalistic inquiry” (Hirschman 1986; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) and semiotic (Mick 1986) disciplines and methods, and other “alternative ways of knowing” (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Over time, these have been developed and joined by existential-phenomenology (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989), various forms of literary criticism (Stern 1989, 1993, 1996; Scott 1994), introspection (Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995), autodriving (Heisley and Levy 1991) and other projective techniques (e.g., Heisley, Levy and McGrath 1993), critical theory (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, Murray and Ozanne 1991), historical methods (Smith and Lux 1993), feminist theory (e.g., Bristor and Fischer 1993, Fischer and Bristor 1994), postmodern perspectives (Firat and Venkatesh 1995) and hermeneutics (e.g., Arnold and Fischer 1994).

The successful development of this diverse group of analytic frameworks and methods within consumer research has generated its own set of problems. Although all were once (and by many, still are) viewed as “alternative” (Hudson and Ozanne 1991), each particular area contains diverse and complex discursive and investigative traditions. For instance, variants of ethnography within consumer research have included not only naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988) but impressionist (Sherry 1997), “critical” (Peñaloza 1994), and “retextualized” ethnography (Thompson, Stern and Arnould 1998). Under the rubric of apparently uniform doctrines such as semiotics lurk very different traditions, texts and techniques (Mick 1998).

If one digs deeper, one can find that even disparate ontologies and epistemologies can seek shelter under the same disciplinary bridge. It has become more and more difficult as these inquiries grow in popularity and complexity to identify commonalities across their disciplinary and discursive boundaries that can guide their coordination into multimethod research, so as to achieve truly interdisciplinary, rather than merely multidisciplinary, studies (Ferber 1977, Wells 1993).

That elusive quest for interdisciplinarity is important to consumer research. If knowledge claims exclude useful forms of understanding and methods that are not in their purview, stultification, debilitation and the lack of relevance will result (Wells 1993).

Interdisciplinarity provides increased opportunities for communication across scholarly fields, unexpected discoveries and tangible social benefits.

A philosophical argument might also be considered. Assume that there are different and equally relevant forms of knowledge into which different methods tap (and these are points that I will explore in depth as this argument unfolds). If we accept as true that other forms of knowledge offer relevant contributions, then a purist’s approach to methodological rigor is relativistically invalidated by equally relevant research approaches founded in different domains. It is surpassed, it would seem logical to assume, by those more multidimensional, multiperspectival and inclusive approaches that can meaningfully account for the types of knowledge elided by singularizing approaches. That’s the argument I’m going to further here—that broader views are better. Of course, the tradeoff is that broader may not necessarily be more accurate or replicable. But if the broader view can encompass the replicability of the narrower view, and expand on it, then it seems to be offering more towards the objective of understanding on every level.

The terrain whose interdisciplinarity this article seeks to explore is not the entire field proper of consumer research. Rather, it is focused on a more delimited territory of contextual inquiry which we might term Consumption Studies. Deploying Sherry’s (1995) useful terminology, we can unite the plenitude of above-mentioned studies by classifying them as forms of contextual inquiry.

Contextual inquiries examine and represent the complexity and plurality of the social and cultural world in a relatively non-reductive manner that attends to its realistic and naturalistic embedding in multiple contexts. Contextual inquiries specifically devoted to consumption-related topics could fall under the heading of Consumption Studies. The term is intended to indicate that these inquiries are not constrained by nomenclature to the overt behavior of individual consumers but drawn, instead, to the multifaceted, shared, and even contradictory sets of meanings, practices, consequences and identities that contemporary consumption –or perhaps, in more properly pluralistic fashion, consumptions—entails (see, e.g., duGay et al 1997, McCracken 1997, Thompson and Haytko 1997).

Consumption Studies, therefore, examines the cultural, societal, moral and phenomenological aspects of consumption. They explore, describe and analyze the rich content and linkages of cultural identities and consumption practices, of consumption objects and social meanings, of the macrosocial and ethical concerns associated with marketing and consumption in a commercial culture. They need not specify causal linkages, but they can, and often do.

It is well worth noting that I am going out of my way with this definition of contextual inquiry not to automatically exclude analyses based upon quantitative data, nor to automatically include all research based upon qualitative data. The focus here is on topic and orientation. I am being extremely inclusive and, again, those are treacherous waters for academics to be treading in. Particular methodologies and forms of data are more suited to and more commonly accompany particular research philosophies. However, if quantitative methods (such as, say multidimensional scales, causal models, and detailed survey analysis) were to focus upon the complexity and plurality of consumption contexts as they naturalistically occur, they clearly could be, or at least be a part of, the contextual inquiries of which I speak.

Currently, our multidisciplinary (but not, generally speaking, interdisciplinary) field operates without a thorough map of the sprawling subdivision of Consumption Studies. This is true more of its methods than of its topics, which I think are pretty thoroughly summed up in Arnould and Thompson’s (2005) amazing article on Consumer Culture Theory (or, as they later named it, Theoretics; see Arnould and Thompson 2007).

Researchers seem to be approaching contextual inquiry as if it were composed of numerous, methodologically distinct subdivisions, when in fact it can be viewed in an equally complex, but considerably more unified fashion. To facilitate the conjuncture of diverse contextual inquiry programs and methods, as this discuss proceeds I am going to aim for a generally comprehensive purview of this sub-field of Consumption Studies, but exclude other types of inquiry which do not attend to the richness of multiple contexts in naturalistic, cultural and phenomenological modes of inquiry.

Again, my goal is inclusion. The intention here is not to suggest any sort of hierarchization of Consumption Studies above other forms of consumer research, which are often extremely useful for establishing causal linkages and descriptions of processes (versus those of content). These other methods of investigation are equally worthwhile. They are excluded from the purview of this article because their linkage with Consumption Studies faces considerable epistemological obstacles.

An interdisciplinary Consumption Studies would provide for the theorizing of the consumption of research alongside the research of consumption, the business of research production alongside the research of business production and the meaning of consumption research alongside the research of consumption meaning (see, e.g., Peter and Olson 1983; this is one of my favorite marketing articles of all time).

It might signal a ripening within the field of consumer research, demonstrating a willingness to actively engage and combine the multiplicity of complex, contradictory and –even within their own native academic terrains—fragmented and hotly contested paradigmatic analytical frameworks and methods. It would seek not to water down theories and methods in order to merge them, but to sharpen them through critical awareness of their subtleties, oppositions and links. The result would be an outline not of the monologic convergence or brutal integration of methods, but the ways in which their most useful elements can be intentionally used to further understanding of consumption through contextual inquiry.

Seeking a more paradigmatically encompassing approach, Hudson and Ozanne (1988) have previously identified four alternative approaches for incorporating diverse research programs and methods within consumer research:

(1) a supremacy approach that seeks the superiority of one approach,
(2) a naïve synthesizing approach that ignores differences in underlying foundations,
(3) a dialectic approach which applies the methods with an appreciation for their divergent philosophical foundations, and
(4) a relativistic alternative.

Exemplifying a supremacy position, Shelby Hunt (1991) proposed “scientific realism” to amalgamate all consumer research –alternative or not—in a conceptual framework based in correspondence or triangulation with “objective reality.” Paul Anderson’s (1986) influential “critical relativism” outlined the logic for viewing scientific knowledge as consensual agreement among members of a research community and propounded that methodologically divergent consumer research approaches be considered “incommensurable,” and uniquely evaluated vis a vis “their unique modes of production and their methods of justification” (p. 156). Left underdeveloped and unrealized by this polarizing polemic was the abstruse yet obviously appealing option of a dialectic approach.

I want to see how far we can go in developing this dialectic option. In so doing, the arranged marriage of reluctant epistemic partners is a pragmatic necessity. In the days and probably weeks following, interspersed by whatever turns my crank enough to enter it into the blogosphere, I’m going to overview this conjugal arrangement in Consumption Studies by exploring the continuum-like properties of a range of ostensibly dichotomized polarities. First I want to apply a philosophical insight that dates from Plato’s time to identify three distinct but interrelated ways to investigate and understand consumptions. Then I want to explore corresponding methods and their intersections. Depending on how this goes, I may provide my original and somewhat lengthy (but still unpublished) example of an interdisciplinary contextual inquiry that examines the consumption meanings of high technology products in order to illustrate the approach. That example was later expanded into an article that is upcoming in JCR, quite an interesting expansion that I may elaborate a little bit. Finally, and hopefully with some assistance from other thinkers in (and out?) of our field, I’d like to offer up some implications for future research in Consumption Studies.

So that starts this little Consumption Studies ball a’rolling…..


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