The Philosophical Basis of Consumption Studies: Consumption Studies 2

To all of you who have hung in there for the past two weeks, while I’ve only been sporadically contributing to this page: THANK YOU. The holidays are over, the kids are tucked back into school, baseball season is over (my son’s team won the Toronto City Championships) , and I can start to get back to work again.

I want to begin by picking up on the ideas in my prior post about a new way to think about what we do as consumer researchers, which I termed Consumption Studies.

So let’s start that up again…..

The neat philosophical boundaries I want to question are those between the intersubjective, subjective and collective forms of understanding that constitute the terra firma upon which we construct our different approaches to studying consumers and consumer culture.
In so doing, I think we should examine how these cultural and contextualized ways of studying consumption manifest epistemologies. Epistemologies are theories of knowledge, or ways of knowing what we know. There are different positions we can take towards knowledge, or thinking about how we know what is true. In this discussion, I’m going to play with the idea that we can usefully think about three different positions that process from a different kind of investigating consumption and a different way of representing that knowledge about consumers and their consumption. Although there is apparent overlap due to the difficulty in finding new terminology (work with me here…we’ll unpack this and improve it as we go), the three positions are:

1. Position 1: sees consumption intersubjectively as a system of social meaning
2. Position 2: sees consumption subjectively as an element of lived experience
3. Position 3: sees consumption collectively as aspects of subordinating ideology

Let’s talk about each of these in turn.

Intersubjective Consumption Studies: Consumptions as Systems of Social Meaning

symbol wheel of religionThis perspective understands consumption (or let’s pluralize it to mark its diversity and call it “consumptions”) as systems of social meaning. The idea here is that the meanings about consumption are shared between people to greater or lesser extents. They are words, symbols, rituals, actions, actions, vocabularies, and so on. They have a significance that is known to the tribe, to kin, to early adopters, to subcultures, to groups, to the mainstream, and so on.

Knowledge about consumption originates in intersubjectively available empirical data from consumers. We can get at it through interviews, participant-observation, and projective techniques or through a detailed interpretation of consumption artifacts. In that case, we might be using techniques like semiotics, literary criticism, or historical methods. This perspective approaches consumption as a set of dynamic systems of circulating social facts, whose actual configuration and movement patterns can be approached, apprehended and conveyed as an abstract set of bounded relations. That part is key so let me rephrase it. Unlike a postmodern approach that would argue that all consumption is “free-floating” signifiers, full of sound and immensely padded advertising budgets, but signifying, unfortunately for the brand manager, nada, this perspective is linguistic, it is informational, it is signal-to-noise rational. It says that consumption is a language and that people understand that language and that researchers can decode it, too. It’s not ever perfectly shared, there are lots of inflections, and even some regional dialects that are really tough to pick up, but overall, we can understand what people are doing. And translating it is our job.

For examples of this approach, we don’t have to look far. McCracken’s (1986) encryption-oriented “movement” model is a classic abstract theoretical formulations of this type of consumption process. Another good one is Thompson and Haytko’s (1997) competing, decryption-oriented “dialogical” model, which portray both the path of consumption meaning exchange and transmutation at a level of analysis stretching from society to individual. Thompson and Haytko complicate the structuralism of McCracken, but their model certainly isn’t “poststructural” in the way that the term is usually used (where it would be real difficult to end up with a poststructural diagram). It’s just more complex, more sensitive to feedback loops between consumers and cultural agents & intermediaries.

The actual content of consumption system, their associative linkages, as it were, can also be portrayed through abstract theoretical forms as exemplified in the sacred-profane patterns unearthed by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989) and the belief-centered food networks colorfully illustrated in colored diagrams by Sirsi, Ward and Reingen (1996) in their multiple award-winning work on food communities and consumption beliefs.

Okay, that’s the first one. Here’s the second one.

The Chili Experience

Subjective Consumption Studies: Consumptions as Lived Experiences

The last view saw knowledge about consumption as living in a decoding function, where consumption was seen as a set of social meanings, and those meanings could be decoded, translated, and thus “understood.” In this view, consumption is seen as an experience that needs to be conveyed. Consumption here is an organic element that is contextually interwoven into the vast range of situations, relations and moods that constitute the subjective experiencing of everyday life. It’s very personal. It’s very resonant. And as my Sherry and Schouten definitely describe it, it’s very poetic.

In this case, consumption is present as a descriptive accompaniment to more intersubjective, abstraction-centered theory in Celsi, Rose and Leigh’s (1993). You “get” skydiving in their dramatic opening descriptions of a female skydiver’s jump in a different way than you do from their process descriptions of “high risk consumption.” The narrative is powerful and particular and you feel an understanding that comes from identification, from being there, from A-ha-ing it. That’s the kind of knowledge that Position 2 craves: I understand it not because I’ve “translated” it and boxes it up in a system, but because I identify it, I relate to it, I feel it in some way.

This form of knowing consumers and consumption is perhaps most fully realized in the stylistically-transgressive poetics of Sherry (e.g., 1997) and Schouten (e.g., 1991), the visual research of Heisley, McGrath and Sherry (1991) and Heisley and Levy (1991), and the vivid confessional narratives of Brown (e.g., 1995), Gould (1991) and Holbrook (e.g., 1995). This type of knowing is certainly legitimized by the philosophical school of German Idealism of Kant and Hegel. It is continually stylized by the humanities and thye arts, and the media (why do we love movies and TV so much…?). The resonance of this form of research is what makes videography so compelling and powerful, and also so controversial as a research methodology. This is research that approaches consumption as lived experience that must be experienced, identified with in some way, in order to be understood. It entails the participative empathy of Dilthey and Weber’s verstehen. It also asks for a detailed, skilled, artistic, reflexive, intimate conveyance of the specific, a “resonant” (Holbrook 1990) or “perceptual” (Thompson 1990) portrait of consumption’s intricate experiential tapestry that is still somewhat unusual in our field.

Now, the third position.

Collective Consumption Studies: Consumptions As Ideology

Ideology ColaPosition one was all about language and systems. Position two is about identification and experiencing. This third position is where politics and power come into the equation.

Position three takes on the perspective that consumption is ideological. Consumption is built around naturalized socio-historical configurations, and it serves a powerful purpose. It favors certain members of society by making that form of society seem natural or inevitable. Meanwhile, it excludes other configurations as unnatural, biased, unpredictable or grotesque. As with the critical theoretic, feminist, Marxist and deconstructive frameworks explicated by Bristor and Fischer (1993), Murray and Ozanne (1991), Hetrick and Lozada (1994) and Stern (1993, 1996), consumption research in this vein makes it necessary to try to yank apart the consumption meanings ‘yoked together’ with specific cultural activities and social relationships. So, while this view may see the translation of Position one to be necessary, it also sees a further step here, of stirring up a viewpoint that will instigate action. So the knowledge about consumption that counts here is knowledge about how that type of consumption helps to benefit those in power, or disenfranchise certain groups, or distract people from the prevailing power structure. It is about using consumption studies to connect the dots on a macrosocial and political level. It is about power, politics, and activism.

This approach is political. Its form of understanding is to persuasively argue for improved conditions that actualize inherent human and social potential. Research from Position Three is political, where politics is defined as the ‘art of the possible’ (see Habermas 1984). It uses a moral stance to uproot the “hegemonic” formations that fix and confer inevitability on the relation of consumption to social identity, political interests and other relations of power (see, e.g., duGay et al 1997, Thompson and Haytko 1997). The idea behind hegemony, a term coined and expounded by the brilliant Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, is that the dominant forces in society govern not through overtly oppressing people, but by subtly and slyly gaining their consent, by manipulating them, often with pleasurable distractions like beer, donuts, Internet porn, and The Simpson’s Movie (okay, he didn’t actually say beer, or donuts; actually, the examples are mine).

Fischer and Bristor’s (1994) do a nice job of showing these hidden power relation in their feminist deconstruction of marketer-consumer portrayals in Philip Kotler’s textbook. This is the goal of understanding in Position 3 mode. You must employ a communitarian and collective focus and then interrogating, destabilize and unsettle taken-for-granted consumption assumptions. You do this to properly place consumption as a site of social struggles. These are struggles between people (we can call them consumers, producers, prosumers, citizen-consumers, people, homo consumerens, or whatever you like) about how they will define, out of the multiple and contradictory subject positions that are available to them, how their life will be lived and how they will find meaning in it.

Beyond Isolation And Integration

Here is the punch line that I’ll continue to explore. Yes, we can understood consumption as (1) systems of social meaning to translate, (2) as elements of life to experience and (3) as a hegemonic ideology to expose and resist. This tripartite understanding accords with the notion that the knowledge claims of human beings are fundamentally and universally rooted in three types of understanding: (1) understanding in an abstract, theoretical sense, (2) understanding in a concrete, personal sense and (3) understanding in a moral, dialectic sense. See where I’m going here yet?

It all starts with the big Greek dude. The Emperor Supremo of the Dead White Males.

The Man: Plato

These three basic forms of understanding, or epistemes, appear in Plato’s (1986) metaphysical and elemental Forms of

  1. “the True” (perception of objective truth),
  2. “the Beautiful” (subjective judgment of aesthetics), and
  3. “the Good” (moral sanction).

They also appear to relate closely to the three distinct worlds of experience delineated by Sir Karl Popper (1974):

  1. the “objective” (it),
  2. the “subjective” (I), and
  3. the “cultural” (we).

They correspond also to Immanuel Kant’s (e.g., 1949) essential ideal categories of:

  1. “pure reason” (logical and objective inquiry),
  2. “judgment” (aesthetic evaluation and art) and
  3. “practical reason” (morals).

And they also correspond to Jürgen Habermas’ (1984) classification of the three type of “validity” claims:

  1. “objective truth,”
  2. “subjective sincerity,” and
  3. “intersubjective justness.”

I could go on and on. The philosophers have been busy at work on this one for a few millennia. Suffice it to say, this seems to work on the level of philosophy.

But however universal they are in the aetheric realms of philosophy, when we try to operationalize these ideas into theories that have methods that involve doing stuff, we find these ideas and their tidy little domains bumping right up against one another.

Like, it’s kind of obvious. The intersubjective is built out of the subjective. The moral terms of the collectivity are reproduced in the most subjective of spaces.

Because these are, as the philosophers assert, equally valid types of knowledge, its all one big messy conundrum. Problems appear when a research approach based upon adherence to only one type “attempts to corner the market on truth” and claim that its own epistemological base is either the only real or the most consequential one in existence (Wilber 1997, p. 23).

Michel Foucault (1980, p. 131) called the discursive set of accepted discourses, and the “techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth”–combined research philosophies, methods, and theories—a “régime of truth.” Because these régimes of truth have fundamentally contradictory natures, especially as regards their goals—what people are going to do with them—all simplistic attempts to integrate them into one neat little package are doomed to fail. Laurie Hudson and Julie Ozanne (1988) rightly noted this almost twenty years ago. Yet what if we could see these modes of research as equal partners, all necessary and essential forms of knowledge? That’s the idea I’m playing with here. The idea I’m calling a Consumption Studies. What if we got intentional about this? What would it look like? What would it do?

Lacking abstraction or some form of theory, consumer research could become indistinguishable from business journalism, unrecognizable as social science. Without also having an anchor in complex and detailed contexts, consumer research lacks a connection back to everyday lived experience. Devoid of a moral compass, consumer research abandons its ethical potential, and may hide and serve repressive forces (in fact, because we’re in business schools most of the academy, and most of business, naturally assumes that that’s exactly what we do). That’s a big one for me, and why I’ve always been attracted to cultural studies. Maintaining a balance in the tensions between these three forms of knowledge is essential if Consumption Studies are to be:

(1) intersubjectively accurate, yet not sterile and soulless,

(2) descriptive yet not fictional or journalistic, and

(3) critical yet not a diatribe.

Rather than detailing a research approach based upon an exclusive or near-exclusive reliance upon one form of understanding, I’m thinking about a research approach based upon a respectful balance. Basing this alignment of research on three epistemological positions offers a considerably more structured and comprehensible approach than attempting to disentangle the near-infinite variety of incommensurable “unique” paradigms proposed by Anderson’s (1986) critical relativism. It confers many more degree of freedom and more paradigmatic insight than Hunt’s (1991) integrationist proposal. Grounded in the philosophical similarities and differences of consumption studies, it satisfies the boundary conditions of Hudson and Ozanne’s (1988) provision.

As this discussion proceeds, I am going to try to explore what a multidisciplinary and multimethodological efforts Consumption Studies might do, might look like, and might accomplish. Your comments, critiques, and suggestions are, as always, most welcome.

One Response

  1. rpwagner September 5, 2007

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