Organic Intellectualism, Conclusion, and References: Consumption Studies, Part 12 of 12

The Consumption Studies paper was originally written in 1998 and submitted to the Journal of Consumer Research. Although I received some very interesting and encouraging feedback, the paper was rejected. And for very good reasons, I believe.

The illustrative example of technological consumption meanings demonstrates a focus limited to only a few contexts relevant to the topic, and is certainly flawed and needs to be developed further (some of that work I have started to do here, and will continue to do). But it seeks to prove a point about the different lenses that get lumped together as “qualitative” work, and how they actually differ and complement each other.

Through that example, various overlapping contexts provided occasions for coordinating techniques of introspection, textual and historical analysis, and critical theoretic cultural criticism. A big ingredient that was missed in the original version that you saw posted here, which was picked up in subsequent revisions to the original document, was the inclusion of the intersubjective voice of others, of consumers reflecting about their own technology consumption. In fact, in subsequent revisions that included consumer interviews, it was this element that rose to the forefront, completely overshadowing the semiotic reading of the technology ad and the overt green criticism (implicitly, it remained). In future blog postings, I’ll have more announcements about the final deposition of the paper that this once was. I think the open format, showing you (the public, as well as those of you who practice “The Craft” of Re:Search) the tricky process of journal submission, rejection, and revision, can be quite informative.

On to the analysis, and the conclusion for this lengthy set of blog entries.

As the cultural meanings of that one single advertisement (the Sun Microsystems ad) met the subjective perceptions of one particular reader (yours truly), the result was a subjective account that highlighted the way in which science fiction meanings from the macro-social field had been appropriated by the industrial field of high technology marketing. The sociohistorical contexts of this association were empirically examined through textual interpretation and historical analysis. A collective framework that drew from contemporary criticism of consumer culture, particularly its social (e.g., Murray and Ozanne 1991, Rosenblatt 1999) and ecological (e.g., Ross 1991) aspects then explored the macro-societal ramifications of this conjunction of meanings. It concluded with a consideration of the collective context and a suggestion of a response from the research community.

Consumption studies such as this one can draw attention to a range of heretofore under-explored contexts. In the commingling of these different contexts, each of which impacts consumption, new configurations for consumer research might be suggested that might help begin the process of envisioning more inclusive, participative and ecologically sound social alternatives to contemporary consumption.

That is a major goal.

Conceiving of other crosscontextual consumption studies infers asking how, in the lived experience of individual consciousness and social relations, the intersubjective social meanings of other types of consumption get played out. It means continuing to ask about the moral ramifications for the suppression or actualizing of human (and ecological) potential.

Assuming such a perspective infers that philosophical polarities, and their attendant theory-method superstructures need to “get real” (Wells 1993) in order to ‘get along.’

It requires acknowledgment that the social reality that encompasses “Consumptions” is not linguistic, dynamic and multiple on the one hand, or material, immutable and singular or dialectic, moral and socially conflicted, on the other, but a synthesis: simultaneously and irreducibly all of these.

Truly living from within such a view of research means envisioning a consumer research that views consumption knowledge as similar to life itself: an ineluctably bumpy and unavoidably messy affair.

The very real tensions -especially of the axiological variety-that exist between paradigmatic theory/methods will not simply evaporate. (Recent ACR debates certainly attest to this.)

I believe, but still may have a difficult time proving it, that understanding when pursued as a terminal goal is qualitatively distinct from understanding as means to attaining prediction and control.

In the same manner in which the tensions and overlaps in the meaning of a word, symbol, or action (inevitably) exist within even the most single-minded text or actor, paradigmatic research tensions can coexist in research that deliberately manages them by strategically aligning epistemological perspectives in order to accomplish a cooperative or loosely coupled structure.

One the major obstacles hampering this type of coordination of contextual inquiries may arguably not be methodological, but psychological. It has been noted that researchers generally tend to refuse to acknowledge the equivalent validity of other “competitive” paradigmatic approaches. Burrell and Morgan (1979, p. 36) venture that relations between research paradigms are best described as “disinterested hostility,” perhaps because, as Giddens (1976, p. 142-4) maintains, researchers differentiate and identify themselves based on what their own research paradigm is and is not.

Good ol’ stinkin’ primate territoriality, short-term monkey tribe horizons, shit-slinging and chest-beating, and battles cries for scarce resources are the metaphors for the major “scholarly” impediments to the realization of Ferber’s (1977) “interdisciplinary ideal” for consumer research. There are, as Anderson (1986, p. 167) keenly notes, few systemic incentives encouraging interdisciplinary research, and considerable professional disincentives discouraging synthesis.

And that’s the rut we’re in as qualitative researchers living sort of on the margins of the field. But sometimes the ruts are the most fertile parts of the field (or the goat’s life).

Thinking of what we do as a unified field (a la “CCT”), the winding and branching streams of contextual inquiry in consumer research might find themselves naturally running together. This could happen if they were they to ground themselves in the same contexts, i.e., in theoretically rigorous examinations of issues that are socially, historically and politically relevant.

In so doing, they would be following Italian cultural studies theories Antonio Gramsci’s (1973) notion of the “organic intellectual,” a very useful and generative concept within the field of cultural studies (see, e.g., Hall 1986). You can also read here the original sections from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. I’ve loved this idea of the organic intellectual ever since I came across it as a Ph.D. student in 1996. It seems to fit extremely well with the age of technology that we are in, where academics have every opportunity to step down from their high perches and engage one-on-one with people who are doing their own interesting work, engaged in their own important and urgent issues, carrying their own intriguing opinions and theories, and who also, sometimes, might benefit from an academic perspective on matters.

As I see it, the organic intellectual is a scholar with responsibilities that commit research activities to three goals:

  • (1) social relevance: investigating currently vexing, situated social problems in realistic contexts,
  • (2) theoretical rigor: being at the very forefront of intellectual, theoretical work and, simultaneously,
  • (3) populist communicative activism: attempting to transmit in a meaningful way the ideas thus generated to those beyond the confines of an intellectual elite (fellow scholars, formal students) or even of a dominant social class (among whose ranks we might include business managers, the business press, prominent consultants, or the business intelligentsia), i.e. to the affected, or general, public.

The concept of the organic intellectual refocuses the contexts of contextual inquiries in consumer research.

The focus on social relevance means that the collective contexts that consumer research considers shift away from the interests of the industrial (and various research and academic elites) towards those of particular consumer communities and other macro-social communities, e.g., government, public institutions, general society.

The emphasis on theoretical rigor is a strong suit of contemporary consumer researchers. But new and more comprehensive theory might be required in order to investigate consumption in this manner, as a complex interrelation of multiple contexts. Not so much new theory, and new methods, but “Rosetta stone” type code-switching and translation patterns. How exactly do we cross the various sub-disciplinary bridges, how to we build expertise in highly fragmented solos, how do we cross divides in whays that keep everyone happy that “rigor” was served and “validity” was not compromised? The primary contexts we would need to cross would include research, macro-social, micro-cultural and industrial domains, and the view from the intersection of these points is at once highly revealing (thus the edgework is risky and exciting, perhaps not for juniors, or on the other hand exactly for juniors) and also much more informative than the view from any one of them alone.

Finally, the organic intellectual’s emphasis on populist communicative activism practically requires a reconsideration of the subjective contexts (identities, roles, practices) of consumers researchers and research consumers (who may shift from being fellow academics, to members of the public). This suggests radical alterations in our modes of research presentation and the distribution of our discoveries. These sorts of shifts won’t happen overnight, but I like to think that more engaged and engaging forms of research representation, such as the videographic forms that Russ Belk and I have been exploring along with many other consumer researchers, will help to provide some strong examples. In terms of straightforward organic intellectuals, Henry Jenkins has always been my role model in his work, and his blog is exemplary in this regard. He doesn’t talk down to people, he shares his research openly, he is seeking multiple conversations abotu topics that matter, and doing it in a way that is both rigorous and accessible to intelligent and interested people.

Engaged increasingly in general public discourse about consumers’ consumption, rather than specialized business discourse about consumer commerce, a consumption studies focus would bring the consumer research field into closer alignment with the “issues” orientation of similarly oriented subfields of anthropology, sociology and cultural studies.

Organic intellectual work in consumption studies points us to research impact, an impact that comes from balancing description and accessible abstraction in theory. It directs us to pursue research whose legitimacy comes from balancing procedural rigor and social conscience in persuasive rhetoric –providing a mixed and arranged marriage of science and praxis.

And that’s all about Consumption Studies….for now. Thanks for Listening!

Here is the reference list for all 12 segments:


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