Category Archives: Ethnography

State of the Craft: Reflections on the 2010 CCT Conference, Part 1

cct_logo.jpgI just returned yesterday from attending the 5th Consumer Culture theory (or CCT) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, held at the Grainger Center of the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin School of Business. The conference is an annual get together dedicated to people who are doing cultural research in the field of marketing and consumer research.  I thought this was the best CCT Conference yet, with some lively conversations, great facilities, and the highest quality sessions ever.

I’m going to provide some recap and reflections of the conference in the next few blog entries this week. I’ll start in this entry with the first session, which provided plenty to think about, as it seemed like it was intended as the “kick-off” session of the conference. 

 The session was called “Pushing the Theoretical Boundaries of CCT” and it began with a very nice overview of the CCT research by Gokcen Coskuner-Balli of Chapman University. Gokcen’s presentation reflected on marginalization and stigmatization in the field, looking at a range of different marginalized consumer groups, including Star Trek fans, stay-at-home dads, and immigrant women, and comparing them to the out-group or marginalized status of CCT researchers in the overall field of consumer behavior and marketing. Her presentation offered lots of strategies and practical advice on negotiating and ameliorating the low-status, less-access-to-material-resources implications of this lower status.

The session closed off with a good presentation by Lotte Salome of Tilburg University that presented some of her subcultural research on lifestyle sports and argued that we need to build in more emphasis on producers, something that has been argued by a lot of people, such as Norm Denzin, and brought in through a lot of research over the years, including that by Lisa Penaloza, and, I think, by the American Girl and ESPN Zone research I have been involved in with my research team members.

The middle presentation of the session is the one I’ll focus in on. It was delivered by by Eric Arnould of the University of Wyoming, and was co-authored with Craig Thompson of the University of Wisconsin, and Markus Giesler my colleague at York University’s Schulich School of Business. It was titled “Three Waves of CCT: On Transcending Anachronistic Rhetorical Conventions.”

The presentation took a historical overview of consumer culture research, and argued that there were three distinct stages of waves of this type of research that we can understand by virtue of the way the work was written, or its rhetorical gestures.

This was a fairly complex presentation with a lot of diagrams, terminology, and slides, and the presenter, Eric Arnould whipped through most of them at a pace that left me wishing he had more time to linger on and digest their richness. I hope there’s a paper published out of this (Craig just told me via comment to this post that there is indeed one).

Looking at cultural articles in the area of retail (a fairly small subsegment of overall cultural consumer research), the authors purported to examine the genealogy, the rhetorical scientific language “games” of the articles, and to examine the epistemology, ontology, and axiology of certain key “exemplary” texts.

Now, for those of you who are not up on your philosophy of science, it’s well worth brushing up on.  I learned this from classic works in our field authored by Beth Hirschman, Laurie Anderson (then Hudson), and Julie Ozanne,:

  • ontology is how scientists and philosophers reason about the nature of reality,
  • epistemology is what the nature of knowledge or understanding consists of, and
  • axiology is about our purpose or goals

You can find much more detailed definition on Wikipedia, or other online philosophy encyclopedias if you like. Reading through this stuff brings into sharp relief (belief?) the torturous birth pangs of the field of what is now called CCT in the 1980s.Back to the presentation….

They termed the First Wave to be the Romantic Era, which ran from the 1970s to late 1990s. The ontology was the reality of “the cultured consumer,” the epistemology was “scientism, post-positivist, and assimilationist” and the axiology was anti-establishment (as exemplified by the study of alternative retail markets such as swap meets, etc., such as in John Sherry’s work, like Sherry and McGrath).

The Second Wave‘s ontology was that of “cultured groups” (a move, apparently from the reality of individuals to groups-change in level of analysis?), the epistemology was “narrative reflexivity” and the axiology was critical engagement with firms. Exemplary texts here were Lisa Penaloza and John Sherry’s work on Niketown, or Penaloza and Gilly’s work on the Changer and the Changed that looks at marketers as cultural change agents who teach immigrants to be consumers.

The epiphanous present moment is included in the Third Wave, which they called “Towards cultural marketing management” and in that third waves they saw the ontology as one that engaged or focused upon “networks, post-natural and post-authentic” (again, the networks seems like a level of analysis change), an epistemology that is multimodal, multiple method, multisensory, and uses multiple diverse teams, and an axiology of engagement with both consumers and managers.

So there seem to be two trajectories in the historical overview. The first was towards a more network-embedded view of consumption. The second was towards an engagement with both producers or firms and consumers or consumer communities. We could see both trajectories as interlinked.

The presentation highlighted the very interesting differences from seeing brands as collections of associations in people’s information processing noggins (a la Kevin Keller) to seeing brands as part of a “brand matrix,” a type of actor-network theory of brands and branding in which brand are cultural insertions that take on a life of their own and affect various constituents and stakeholders (beyond the consumer-sounds a bit like Kotler’s megamarketing on the brand side).

But the defining moment in the presentation, and the biggest controversy and most pointed attention to it came from the summary, in which the presenter called for there to be “no more case studies” in consumer culture research. Apparently, this is part of the epistemological trend towards more multiple methods research, more diverse research teams, and, apparently, the move to multi-sited ethnography.

No more case studies? Let’s pick up that discussion-and it was one of the big discussions at this year’s conference-in tomorrow’s posting.