The Intersubjective Facet of Research: Consumption Studies Part 5

In the last post I drew on some interesting current thinking about the role of theory, academics, and universities in meeting contemporary challenges. As I write this, I find my thinking on the topic broadening to consider any sort of problem solving context, whether in a university, in a business, or in the public domain. I think we can start to apply these criteria more generally to the way we seek to answer a range of different questions.

Today, I’m going to continue to develop on these ideas by explaining on how consumer and marketing research (or more generally many other kinds of social scientific research) should have three dimensions, facets, or “faces,” and that it 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.

We’ll discuss each one in turn, beginning with the way that they investigate their issues and contexts, moving next to the methods they use to investigate these issues and contexts, and then following up with the all important communication of results through the representation of the research.


Investigative Contexts.

My Thesis Supervisor, Stephen J. Arnold of Queen’s University, and I used to have some great talks over great beer in the century-old Grad Pub in Kingston. Queen’s has that air of an old university that encourages engaged retrospection, long thoughtful conversations and, yes, the imbibing of mead. I’d often ask him, “But Steve, what *is* consumption? What does that mean.” He’d smile at me, like I’d just unlocked some important doors, and tell me, “Rob, consumption is Life. Consumption is Everything.” It seemed too easy. There was literally every topic out there in the world to study, and I was one of the very few interested in using whatever method at all suited studying them. I was like the guy with the Electric Harvester 2.0 in the Land of Low-Hanging Fruit.

All sorts of “consumption” occur in the real world of human interaction, from watching television, eating a multigrain Subway sub and taking a vitamin to driving and shopping to using a condom, posting on a web-page, or recycling. These Consumptions are located in a complex social network. Abstract knowledge about these consumptions is wrapped in representation and is also located in another complex social network.Just how complex and wrapped up is it all? Well, Figure 1 is just a start to try to and presented these different layers and constituents that come into play once we start to try to understand consumption.

So how do we think about gaining knowledge in this world? Originating in the objectifying and problem-solving intellectual traditions of the German Historical School, intersubjective epistemologies guide us in this realm of “really real” consumption. They seek to adapt perspectives drawn from the study of materials and the natural world to the study of human affairs. Think Consumer Research as Physics.

  • An example: Consumer meets ad for Brand Q. Ad affects consumer. Consumer buys Brand Q.
  • Another example: aggregate consumer behavior that predicts how consumers will respond to a promotion like a coupon or a free night’s stay, or that pull out patterns of shopping behavior from scanner panel data (a consumer who buys three or more cans of Campbell’s soup is four times more likely to buy a large package of napkins in that purchase as one who doesn’t; it’s a correlation; who cares why?). Complex models, like Consumer Particle Accelerators. Experiments with everything held constant except the one variable of interest. That sort of Capital K Knowledge about Consumers and Consumption.

As we talk about investigation of consumer culture, trying to get at this ever-so-sticky realm of the really real gets trickier and tricker. What about culture, after all, is “Real”? Well, there are meanings that have (despite what postmoderns tend to assert) some general stability and significance. There are meanings of symbols, there are meanings of rituals or practices, there are linguistic elements and their meanings. In short, there is a whole symbolic vocabulary, and a set of institutions and processes that go along with it, that people treat almost as solidly as the tables in front of them.

Decoding these meanings, unraveling these processes, then becomes a verifiable undertaking, one in which we can assert that we have found meanings, language, practices, and institutions that are “really real.”

  • Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine, in one of those dreadful brain-mapping studies, that we could actually map out the associative neural net that surround a person’s meaning set. Say it is the meaning set surrounding Paris Hilton or Carlos Camejo (you know, the guy who didn’t die). Those meanings, those connections, “really” exist, not only in some inscribed-on-the-brain sense, but in the way that they affect a range of responses from knowledge and memory association to eye movement to erotic arousal. Now, if we could map another person’s association, and another’s and another’s, we could eventually come up with a knowledge of overlapping meanings. The one’s that overlap the most would be culturally shared meanings, like Paris Hilton is Rich and Stupid, or Carlos Camejo had one hell of a bad trip when he woke up under the knife during his own autopsy. These meanings really exist. They are shared in intersubjective dimension between people. We can really get at them somehow. We can verify them. They are really real. That’s the intersubjective perspective in a nutshell.

I’ve tried to build all of these perspectives into Figure One, which is at the top of this posting. In creating Figure 1, I’ve tried to pay heed to the fact that Consumption Studies takes place in an institutional and industrial context. We are working here in Universities that are, in a very real way, “factories” for the production of something called “knowledge” and also “knowledge workers.” The two chief products of a University are research papers and workers.

As Figure 1 illustrates, I consider the material and discursive resources of the industrial field to be an important intersubjective context. Studies of actual marketers doing actual marketing are still somewhat rare in Marketing Research, which always strikes me as strange. There are some good articles, but not nearly enough of them. Yet businesses are the main staging area for marketing practices. They create, influence, and respond to the consumption meanings that circulate in the wider social system. And, because consumption meanings center on objects created by businesses, they are subjects of intense commercial scrutiny. The model says that we need to pay attention to the way that industrial contexts interact with other contexts relevant to the presentation of research, such as with the institutionalized context of the research field, including its objectified literature, traditions and practices. So the role of consulting comes into play here. The role of students and MBA programs comes into play. So too do grants and research foundations and bodies. They all have an influence on the research that is done and the type of research that is seen as legitimate and worthwhile—both in terms of methods and in terms of topics.

Investigative Methods.

Let’s turn to methods. Given that we’re philosophically inclined in the intersubjective dimension in objective sorts of problem-solving, then we are drawn to use intersubjective methods that study the harder, realer elements of the social world. The intersubjective aimis to uncover shared patterns and the “pattern of the patterning” of consumption meanings.

This is Science As We Know It, right? To do it, we need systematic techniques that are concerned with the refutability, universality and replicability of knowledge claims. This leads to nomothetic techniques that view knowledge about consumption as separable from the individuals who contain it and the individuals who investigate it.

As illustrated in Figure 2, the abstract analytic coding and interpretation of empirical data elicited in interviews (e.g., Thompson, et al. 1989), projective tasks (e.g., McGrath, Sherry and Levy 1993), questionnaires (e.g., Sirsi, Ward and Reingen 1996) and field observation both offline (e.g., Belk et al. 1988) and in the virtual world of the Internet (e.g., Kozinets 1997, 2002) can all serve this function, as can the analysis of artifactual data used by techniques such as semiotics (e.g., Mick 1986), literary criticism (e.g., Stern 1989, Scott 1994), and historical methods (Smith and Lux 1993).

Research Representations

Finally, how does this intersubjective knowledge get presented to people? In representing the intersubjective position, scholars tend to use the familiar abstract thematic formulations and models concerned. The models and theories would be concerned more with constructs than with context, in the interest of parsimony and in the fulfillment of rhetorical tradition. These formats of concise traditional modes of knowledge presentation are standard in the harder social sciences like the natural sciences, physics, economics, and even that soft-but-wants-to-be-hard science, psychology. Thus the familiar format – literature review, theory, method, findings, conclusions, references-is the norm in all of marketing and consumer research’s top-tier journals.

Situated within an objectified, “omniscient,” distanced narrative stance, this form of research tends to present knowledge from a system-level view that suggests if it doesn’t actually assert generalizability and universality. There are neat and tidy concepts and relations. The text tends to be written in an impersonal third person formats as if it is written about someone else: “Consumers believe,” “Consumer’s say that their culture is…” “They practice,” “It responds.”

Because procedural elements are highly significant to intersubjective representations, we can expect detailed invocations of procedural rigor. These rigor concern attempt to rhetorically minimize the impact of the reflexivity of the consumer researcher. In judging the research, these have been among the most significant evaluative elements of this form of research [e.g., see Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) “trustworthiness” criteria invoked by Wallendorf and Belk (1989) but later abandoned by Belk; see also Hunt (1991, p. 42)]. The end objective is for the representation to accurately render, or accurately correspond to, the social consumption reality it presumes to represent.

In the next blog posting, we’ll talk about the Subjective Dimension of Research.

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