Out of the Box(es) and On to Bricolage: Consumption Studies, Part 8

As Anderson (1986, p. 167) keenly notes, “there is nothing in principle that rules out programmatic synthesis.” I am echoing the ever-echoed battle cry of consumer behavior great and JCR founder Robert Ferber’s (1977) impetus for an “interdisciplinary ideal” here, in stating that we might profit greatly from a Consumption Studies that deliberately and conscientiously trespasses into the minefields of theoretical-methodological intermarriage (how’s that for a mixed metaphorical message?).

The trajectory of my narrative has been towards two grounding notions. I’ll detail them before moving into a detailed example that uses a bricolage approach to unpack and critique high technology consumption meanings.

Grounding Notion Numero Uno: The disciplines or “régimes” (as Michel Foucault liked to call them) that study consumers and consumptions have grown up focusing on particular consumption contexts that have become their “favorites.” Of course, there is a ton of slippage. The disciplines are each composed of links between related and favored paradigms, theories, methodologies and research programs, but the general point holds that the herd has its favorite watering holes and most of them tend not to wander too far away from them.

Grounding Notion Numero Dos: The contexts of Consumption Studies might in the future be usefully broadened by epistemologically encapsulating intersubjective, subjective and collective categories. That’s a mouthful. What I’m trying to say here is that we can increase our horizons and maybe even the types of impact we have by valuing three different kinds of knowing. And that trinity of knowingness will lead us to investigate, describe, and convey consumption as lived experiences, as a set or system of social meaning, and as an ideology or ideologies with power commitments and ramifications.

Despite the neatly polarized differences of these epistemological categories, in real world consumptions it is crucial to note that these domains inevitably overlap. Even the most subjective consumption experience operates through intersubjective realms of shared meaning. Even the most lucid and objectified consumption meaning is attenuated by the idiosyncracies of subjectivity. Even the most innocuous of consumptions is freighted with the damning yoke of ideology. And that’s exactly the point. Consumption studies acknowledges what was unmentionable. In the real world, type of knowledge are leaky, porous, and interpenetrating.

So that leads us to a leaky, porous, intrerpenetrating method: Bricolage. Yep, bricolage. To be honest, I really don’t like it any better than you do.

This crosscontextual research approach, approach is frequently deployed in cultural studies and also used in some areas of anthropology and sociology. Bricolage can be conceptualized as the ‘piecing together’ of a “collagelike” set of “tools, methods, and techniques” from “competing and overlapping perspectives and paradigms” in order to “provide solutions to a problem” or represent researcher “understandings” and “interpretations of the world or phenomenon under analysis” (Denzin and Lincoln 1994, p. 2-3; Thompson et al. 1998). Because of that it isn’t capable of being systematized into a single set of rigorous guidelines. So it doesn’t always seem all that rigorous. But its application can be, as long as individual techniques are used with respect to their own long-standing procedural traditions and judgmental criteria.

Although the research paradigms of methods such as textual analysis, semiotics, deconstruction, interviews, content analysis, and survey research might conflict, in bricolage their contextual perspectives and research practices or tools are nonetheless –often idiosyncratically—adapted to the pragmatic contingencies of individual research ventures. But they’d need to each be used in a way that is true to their own heritage. Deep and substantial, not dilettantish, which is the problem with the approach.

Vital to bricolage is the assumption that analytic methods can be unmoored from their encapsulating theories and employed to study the contexts within which they can reasonably be argued to fit. This proposition might seem heretical were it not for the already well-documented tendencies of theories and methods “to migrate away from one program toward another,” and the fact that theories and methods have historically possessed contestable boundaries and formats within and between established approaches and programs of research (Anderson 1986, p. 165-6; Aronowitz 1988). The examples I love to use are of ethnography being used to study non-humans. First it was used to study primates like chimpanzees and gorillas, then wolves. Ethnography is one of those “bricolage-y” techniques that is so open-ended it has gained employment in almost every field, from economics to education to geography to animal husbandry.

Objectified as they may be, paradigmatic assumptions, theories and methods are, after all, social constructions. My assertion is that they should then serve the goals of researchers who use them, not just the goals of the researchers who founded tem or who reinforce their boundaries.

Lets that that the collective goals of the consumer research community really, truly do include creativity, diversity, broader definitions, a global perspective, social relevance, and “genuine interdisciplinarity,” as Bill Wells (1993) convincingly asserts and I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree. If that is so then the guidelines for coherently coordinating multiple methodologies that investigate the subjective, objective and collective contexts of consumption can offer us a way to balance the divisions between methods of contextual inquiry, to cognize them, and to and invigorate them.

Two Introductory Exemplary Examples.

There are many cultural studies that use bricolage in order to examine consumption. In one short study, John Fiske (1994) studied the popular consumption of Fox television’s “Married…With Children” television series in 1989. He deployed historical analysis of the socio-cultural and economic context and production of the series and in situ subjective observations of one group of teenage viewers as they watched the show, and drew on critical theoretic and Marxist categories to critique the show and the capitalist society that inspired and maintains it.

In another cultural study, also with distinct consumption studies implications, duGay et al (1997) investigated the cultural story of the Sony Walkman (and how relevant so many of their analyses seem now viewed in light of the iPod generation and the rise of that product). They employed a bricolage utilizing a multifarious authors, methods and knowledge representation styles, including historical analysis, introspection, surveys, abstract models, semiotic analyses of advertisements, and photo-essays of consumption in use. Their study connected a range of consumption contexts: the historical production of the Sony Walkman and its insertion into the global cultural stream, the way representations of the product’s meaning circulated and were industrially managed; the way these meanings were absorbed and altered through consumption; the ways in which the product became part of the lived experiential identities of consumers; and the effects that Walkman use had upon the regulation of cultural life in modern societies.

In my next posting, I’ll offer up a detailed illustrative examination of the meanings of high technology consumptions that I wrote several years ago to illustrate these methodological points.

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