Theory in the Real World: Consumption Studies Part 4

Recently, a lot of the scholar-bloggers (we need a new term for that breed: schloggers? scholgers? bloggademics?) that I read regularly and whose work I respect have been talking about the role of theory and academics in the world. Henry Jenkins and Grant McCracken, two of my “usual suspects” have been writing cutting-edge posts that questions our scientific theory-as-usual thinking.

On September 14th, Grant McCracken wrote one of those wonderfully introspective essays for which he is famous that looked at how his intellectual mechanism tended towards a scornful attitude for those who “don’t get it” and how this locked out further investigation and even meaningful communication. Examining “the meta-pragmatics of scorn” he found that “scorn depends upon a presupposition, and this presupposition has the effect of making us assume the very things we are supposed to be surfacing for study.” This is so true. Once we start looking down at others who don’t understand, we ourselves stop learning. And it’s even more amazing to me that this attitude is particularly prevalent among academics, we who are supposed to be continually learning and open-minded (that’s the goal, no, really it is). Yet as Gant points out, we are often so busy “congratulating one another” for how smart we are that we completely railroad our own efforts to continue thinking and problem solving.

He then went on to a deliciously discerning comparison of academic cultures are Harvard Business School and McGill University. At Harvard they engaged in plainspeak and faculty were unafraid to ask for or offer clarification of what they meant. “Very smart people were expected to interrupt other very smart people, when they did not understand. But in the cultural studies world at McGill, questions of this kind seemed to happen. No one ever asked for terms to be defined or arguments to be clarified. There was a prevailing feeling that “we all get this” and that a request for clarification was therefore unnecessary, even gauche, perhaps even a declaration of intellectual deficiency.” And at “McGill people spoke in the abstract language of a high altitude postmodernism, complete with rhetorical stunt flying” that was meant to impress rather than inform.

The differences seem stark and familiar. Have you ever been “treated” to a presentation by someone who was so smart they couldn’t explain to you what they were saying? Ever heard an expert who was so far beyond your intelligence that she or he couldn’t translate his knowledge into things that mattered in your world? Ever been put down for not knowing, or asking a question, rather than taught? There’s a problem in academia. And as Grant rightly points out, scorn, disdain, and the closed nature of specialized language are big parts of the problem.

On September 10th, Henry Jenkins wrote a blog posting on the interface between academics and the real world. He began by talking about how powerful, applied theory has historically had three important components, all related to the idea of disparate communities and cultures making meaningful and purposive contact. First, the “network forums” where formerly separate social and intellectual communities could knit together. Secondly, the “contact zones,” the places where different subcultures of researchers and thinkers were brought together. Third, the “border languages” that researchers created and used to spread their ideas from one discipline to another.

He cites Fred Turner’s book about Stewart Brand: From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. There’s a powerful quote about Vannevar Bush, the MIT Professor and administrator Vannevar Bush who got FDR to fund the National Defense Research Committee during World War II. At this point, things began to gel in a very interesting way. Powerful convergences started to happen between corporate, government, and academic research, driven by the contingencies of wartime and the brilliant organization of the sponsors. Here’s the cite about “Rad Lab,” about the creation of a powerful new context for multidisciplinary research at MIT.

It brought together scientists and mathematicians from MIT and elsewhere, engineers and designers from industry, and many different military and government planners. Among these various professionals, and particularly among the engineers and designers, entrepreneurship and collaboration were the norm, and independence of mind was strongly encouraged. Formerly specialized scientists were urged to become generalists in their research, able not only to theorize but also to design and build new technologies. At the same time, scientists and engineers had to become entrepreneurs, assembling networks of technologists, funders, and administrators to see their projects through. Neither scientists nor administrators could stay walled off from one another in their offices and laboratories; throughout the Rad Lab, and even after hours, in the restaurants and living rooms of Cambridge, the pressures to produce new technologies to fight the war drove formerly specialized scientists and engineers to cross professional boundaries, to routinely mix work with pleasure, and to form new, interdisciplinary networks within which to work and live.”

I find this description very instructive. What drove them was “the pressures to produce new technologies to fight the war” and what it produced, organizationally, was boundary spanning and “interdisciplinary networks.” As we ponder the biggest challenges our species is likely to ever face, the growing environmental crisis, our human clash of civilizations, and all of the social fallout that is going to come from it, I believe that we are going to need resolve that resembles wartime resolve. We focus best in time of crisis. That’s good because we do have a big set of collective crises on our hands right now.

Henry Jenkins went on to write about the pragmatic way that his students engage with theory, as opposed to the way it is discussed in other “Big Ten institutes.” Here’s what he said:

In a liberal arts classroom, students tend to circle a theory like a pack of raptors and rip it to shreds in the course of a discussion, leaving only the tattered bits on the table, or they choose sides, some embracing, others critiquing the theory, and butt heads together like charging rams, to see which one can withstand the pressure. At MIT, the tendency is to tinker, to take the theory apart, reduce it to component elements, and then reassemble it again in a better form. It is a brainstorming and problem solving culture: a theory is only valuable if it allows us to do something we want to do and the test of a theory is its applications in the real world.

That latter possibility sounds like a good business school discussion to me. If anything, there’s another possible modality to this beyond the ripping, choosing sides, and reassembling styles. That is the outright disinterest or rejection of theory that can sometimes be seen in practical programs like business schools. “Oh no, not another *theory*…” In those cases, theory is seen as irrelevant, as a mere erudite ivory tower exercise. B-school students and even faculty can harbor a sort of anti-intellectualism that is a type of impatience, a ready-shoot-aim action orientation, but might also just be a type of cover for intellectual laziness. I haven’t seen a lot of that, but I have seen enough of it to be alarmed.

Henry also talk about his program, the Comparative Media Studies program (of which I’m proud to say that I am an Affiliated Faculty member) and its emphasis on “applied humanities.” He see that the programs goal is to figure out “what the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences might have to contribute to helping our society adjust to a profound and prolonged period of media change. The goals of the program are activist, and derive from an intellectual acceptance: “to embrace and promote the emergence of a more participatory culture.”

The means are also fascinating and nothing short of revolutionary. Henry says that to achieve the goals of the CMS program, he has created a “lab culture” for the humanities at MIT. Building on the MIT tradition (I really like the way Henry uses the venerable MIT brand in his postings; he’s not only a great brand manager but a great co-brander as well), he has done several things to bring classroom learning out of the classroom and into the world:

  • created centers and labs which emphasize experimentation and research
  • organized conferences which bring together researchers from many different disciplinary backgrounds
  • had students and faculty participate in larger national networks and projects which bridge between different spheres of activity

Then, and this is extremely important, he talks about how the CMS program places and emphasis on public communication of ideas. This step is so critical and yet it’s virtually ignored by most academics. Why don’t we talk about communicating to the public? Why are so few academics good at or interested in it? Why do we tend to be so insular? A key, as Henry states, is “to strip our language of specialized terms or concepts that might impede its ability to circulate within these larger social networks.” In other words, write so that your neighbor could understand what you are writing. That’s what has attracted me to doing ethnographic research. Although the most closed-minded of my colleagues criticize me for doing “journalism” rather than “science,” the upshot of my work is that I can share it with the average reader, they can read it, and they can understand it and perhaps work with its implications.

Henry also talk about the current MacArthur Foundation current initiative on Digital Media and Learning. The CMS Project nml is one node in this much larger network of researchers. But here is some of what they are doing:

  • field work and ethnography on young people’s existing practices
  • developing curricular materials to support new media literacies
  • rethinking the place of the library within an information culture
  • forming after school programs and experimental schools
  • designing and distributing computer and video games designed to foster computational and design skills
  • editing and publishing books to guide parents and policy makers
  • creating and maintaining a blog to insure the circulation of these ideas to the larger public

This is a fantastic model of a project that enables intellectually meaningful connections between various scholars, thinkers and connected projects. And it has also done a good job publicizing the efforts and products of the research and thinking. Motivation has also been a key outcome. As he says, “Above all, MacArthur has instilled in us a sense that what we are doing can make a difference in the world.”

I think we need more programs like this one in business schools. I’m certain that many of my colleagues are working on programs like these, and I’d love ot hear more about them. Many of the programs I’ve seen tend to have some of the puzzle pieces in place, but miss some of the most important other aspects. Many of them, for instance, will work with big business to try to solve their problems on an intellectual, but will do very little to actually build workable tools, or even better communicate the fingings to larger constituencies, or to have particular social goals.

One of the things that I like about the CMS program is its combination of a wide social purview with a narrower, academic focus.

What might a program that looked at “applied consumer research” or even “applied CCT (Consumer Culture Theory)” look like? What if our goal were to try to figure out what Marketing Science, Consumer Research, and the Social Sciences might have that could contribute to helping our society adjust to a profound and prolonged period of industrial, technological, and cultural change. What if we took on some explicitly activist goals of our own “to embrace and promote the emergence of a more ethical and environmental business and society.”

In this last objective, I’m drawing on a wonderful book that I’m currently reading called Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University by Michael M’Gonigle and Justine Starke. M’Gonigle is Professor and Eco-Research Chair at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and Starke is a Research Associate, also at U. Vic.

Their book talks about the University and tracks its history and origins over 900 years as a medieval site of philosophical and sacred understanding. Right now, they argue convincingly that Universities are largely tools of the corporate world, sources of corporate ideas and training grounds for the world’s managerial elite. Yet, tracking the many reforms and social movements that have come out of university campuses throughout history, they see much more potential in Universities. Examining numerous initiatives across North American and Europe, they believe that we are on the cusp of developing a “planetary university” a university reinvented to be at the forefront of the sustainability movement, creating new democratic, participatory models and working systems of local and global innovation that can deliver on promises of social and ecological betterment.

It is these sorts of questions about the role of the academy and of research in the real world that concern me right now.

I’m theorizing about what our theories—particularly our theories of business and management studies—can and should be. It boggles my mind that a number of universities are now devaluing the most practically oriented top-tier academic journal (Journal of Marketing) because it is “too managerial.” This is a sign that our academics are becoming overly theoretical and irrelevant, an overreaction away from the overly pragmatic approaches that marked the earliest history of the field of management studies and marketing. But it couldn’t come at a worse time. The world is changing incredibly quickly: culture is intermixing in volatile and amazing ways, business is frothing and morphing, consumption is pushing into new frontiers, technology is being injected deeper and deeper into the human core, and environmental signs of rapid and unwelcome change are all around us. This is a time when we all need to be thinking about practical issues, boundary spanning, bridge building, motivation, change for the better.

This is powerful stuff, and it segues into and is a part of my discussion about a new Consumption Studies. Drawing on these ideas, I aim to continue to develop this notion about research having three dimensions, facets, or “faces,” and that it consequently must communicate in relevant language to three different types of constituents or readers:

  • (1) intersubjectively to fellow academics, theorists, other thinkers (yes, even laypeople), and all systematic builders of organized arrangements of understanding;
  • (2) subjectively, to the feeling, emoting, empathizing and sympathizing audience who wants context with their content, interest and entertainment with their information; and
  • (3) collectively, with criticism and directionality to those with a sense of purpose, objectives, and social goals. I’ll continue this discussion in my next posting.

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