Methods, Intersections, and Context: Consumption Studies, Part 3

Okay. In the last entry about Consumption Studies, we talked about philosophy. Today we’re going to explore methodologies.

The purpose for exploring where methods overlap is not to try to come up with some formulaic method-blending recipe. Rather, I mean to foreground already present areas of intersection in order to foster a more wide-ranging, flexible and, most importantly, deliberately combinatory set of ways to study consumption.

In consumer research, individual studies can certainly confirm to the philosophical basis of more than one form of understanding. For example, the Burning Man paper I wrote tried to bring a resonant sense of being there to the initial part of the paper, but then proceeded to a more macro decoding of the cultural meanings of the events’ practices. However, the problematics-that is, the types of problems that research texts grapple with–often tend primarily to be focused within single categories. So while I tried to be resonant in the Burning Man JCR, that paper was mostly about “intersubjective” meanings and generalizations about the difficult relationships between communities and markets. When I wanted to do something resonant about Burning Man, which would have a subjective effect, I wrote poetry (liked the “Desert Pilgrim” published in CMC), or edited together videographies (like “Rituals Without Dogma”).

To give another example, while Fournier’s detailed contextual inquiry on the relationship between three women and their brands could have been cast into a socially critical light, that wasn’t really the point. Instead aims for the precision, predictability and generalizability of an intersubjective mode. There are many extant studies of consumption that cross boundaries and cannot cleanly be fit into one and only one form of understanding. In general, however, it methodological moves toward the coordination and integration of forms of understanding has been taken without conscious recognition. Without a guidemap, so to speak. So a structured and reasoned approach may provide the foresight for this movement to be taken in a much more impactful and structured manner.

Doing so requires an exploration of epistemic linkages and what I’m going to call the “slippages” between ways of knowing.

Let’s take as a starting points three proposals that allow for considerable interaction between the intersubjective, subjective and collective forms of understanding. Here they are:

Point 1: Consumptions are meaningful only in context. In consumer research, this point has been rendered obvious by the pioneering contextual inquiries of scholars such as Russ Belk (1984), John Sherry (1987), and Grant McCracken (1986), to name just a few.

Point 2: This is a considerably slipperier one. Contexts are infinitely extendible. Theorists from the hardest to the softest of the social sciences have proposed epistemological approaches that emphasize the boundedness of knowledge claims (e.g., Campbell 1988; Sternthal, Tybout and Calder 1987). For example, Culler (1982), a respected scholar of poststructural thought, asserts that Derridean deconstructive theories do not deny truth per se but only insist that truth and meaning are context-bound. Therefore deconstruction could be identified, according to Culler (1982, p. 215), “with the twin principles of the contextual determination of meaning and the infinite extendability of context.” According to deconstruction, any type of ultimate context is “unmasterable, both in principle and in practice. Meaning is context bound, but context is boundless” (ibid, p. 123). These assertions do little to simplify matters. As Koestler (1976) notes, reality, including the sociocultural consumptive reality studied by contextual inquiry, is composed of contexts (e.g., the individual consumer, the brand) that are also parts of other contexts (e.g., the household, the product category) that are parts of other contexts (e.g., a geographic region, household rituals, religious rituals, socio-demographic income realities, a company) in endless infinite regress. Knowledge claims about consumptions thus can only be true or even meaningful in context (“the contextual determination of meaning”) and the contexts of consumption (both in the discursive and the material sense are potentially infinite in reach (“the infinite extendibility of context”).

Okay, point two is biiiiiig.

But hear me out. This point numero duo a space offering some bona fide conceptual leverage. It tells us that in order to be intersubjectively meaningful, the potential infinity of possible investigative universes must be reduced to a manageable number. And this leads to the third and final point.

Point 3: In order to be understood and integrated, contextual inquiries need to delimit and specify the contexts they will examine. In order to be integrative, a contextual inquiry might include these specific contexts examined using intersubjective, subjective and collective forms of understanding. It is in the overlapping explorations of these demarcated, particular contexts that opportunities exist for truly interdisciplinary and boundary spanning works.

There are multiple influences that will conspire to narrow a given researcher’s investigative grid. These would include, for instance, the intersubjective theoretical and methodological leanings of the research community, the popular problematics currently circulating within certain cultural-industrial-academic social spheres, the determining properties and constituent dynamics of the consumption phenomenon itself.

As well, the subjective social field or “habitus” of informants (Bourdieu 1984) and the skillset and proclivities of the researcher(s) would be impactful (Levy 1996). As McGuire (1989, p. 215) notes, “knowledge involves representation, but only selective representation.” All knowledge, all information, all understand is selective, delimited, demarcated.

In this selection of knowledge, poststructural perspectives fulfill a valuable role. They help us remember to include the representation of subjective and collective contexts and subtexts that are missing (and perhaps suppressed) from the traditionally objectifying representations of empiricist science (Anderson 1986, Firat and Venkatesh 1995). They also usefully undermine the reductionist tendencies of such conceptualizations. Yet as their relativist tendencies might suggest, the number of contexts -relevant and irrelevant-that poststructuralist perspectives might find worthy of inclusion are potentially infinite. It is for precisely this reason that a coherent integrative research approach requires that ww find some way to limit and organize these contexts.

That this limiting and organization of context can be accomplished is enabled by the objectification function of social construction (Berger and Luckmann 1967). In the social world of symbolic interaction, objectivity does exist “as an accomplished aspect of human lived experience” (Dawson and Prus 1995, p. 113). “We can deconstruct any text, disseminating and fragmenting its meaning into its different contexts and codes. . .Yet, particular texts are consistently read with the same meanings, located within the same codes, as if they were written there for all to see” (Grossberg 1996, p. 157).

The material and discursive referents that underlie consumption contexts are subjectively and intersubjectively meaningful. “Self-understanding is connected integrally to the understanding of others. . . . [because] language. . . is a medium of practical social activity” (Giddens 1976, p. 24-5).

So this means that context can be specified with reasonable accuracy within a given research text. Particular contexts -however rhetorically subjective and institutionally-influenced their manifestation-can therefore serve as the basis of particular consumption studies.

It may be that contextual inquiries often study very dynamic cultural phenomena, and that observation inevitably alters findings. This could be in the actual observation, in a physical observer effect principle kind of way, or in a representational manner, sort of like the Rashomon effect, the effect based on the famous story in which the observers of an event are able to produce significantly divergent but equally plausible accounts of what just happened (a great article on the “The Rashomon Effect” was published by Karl Heider in the March 1988 issue of American Anthropologist).

Specific attention to intersubjectively specifiable consumption contexts such as temporal positioning and subjective biases can, in principle, address some of these contingencies. Situating the study, the researchers, and the topic in historical, sociocultural and reflexive contexts will provide clues that potentially allow future researchers and readers to construct their own theories about the dynamism and universality of themes and processes.

The material and discursive patterns of social webs of meaning, of lived subjectivity, and of collective potential intersect in numerous and fertile ways. Detailed intimate descriptions of experiential consumption are clearly compatible with a verstehen of empathic understanding. Concretized with precise contextual description (for instance, historical, social, cultural, demographic, ethnic categories), they can also can serve as the source code of objectified theory for an N=1 study, as they have within numerous historic studies, such as those of Sigmund Freud (Dukes 1965). Sartre (1981, p. ix) states that the person is “summed up and for this reason universalized by his epoch, he in turn reproducing himself in it as a singularity.”

The intensive analysis of a small body of empirical materials (cases and processes) might reveal universal social experiences and processes (e.g., Denzin and Lincoln 1994, p. 202). Subjective information from acts of introspection (Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995) can therefore complicate and nuance an abstract theory of the patterning of consumption relationships, or can inform critical social critiques.

Subjective contexts (such the embodied intelligences of consumers, researchers, research readers) are inextricably entwined within intersubjective and collective contexts [material reality, moral reality and the discursive realm of “language games” (Wittgenstein 1965)].

Contextual inquiry that touches on one form of understanding unavoidably references the others. For instance, Thompson and Haytko (1997) exemplify such a study, in which researchers transmute the subjective impressions of twenty interview participants regarding their own lived experiences of fashion into abstract theoretical formulations about systems of social meaning, and draw collective conclusions about the role of fashion as ideology and lived hegemony.

Consumption studies are enriched by consumer research’s vanguard that recognizes the “researcher as instrument” (Sherry 1991) as the obverse of “researcher reflexivity” (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993) and “praxis” (Murray and Ozanne 1991) as the flip-side of the “value-ladenness” of theory (Anderson 1986).

When linked to a new and more deliberate recognition of the contexts of consumption, the trajectory of this sort of thinking may be to suggest a strategic widening of the traditional contexts considered in qualitative research, consumer culture theory, or contextual inquiry. Before proceeding with an extended illustrative example that explores high technology consumption, let us move first to a more detailed description of some of these different investigatory contexts, and how their consideration is important to investigations of contemporary consumptions.

And that sort of deliberate recognition is something I’m going to explore as we move into a more systematic understanding of what this Consumption Studies, as an integrating field of inquiry, might look like. Stay tuned.

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