Monthly Archives: September 2007

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.

The Collective Facet of Research: Consumption Studies Part 7

In the last two entries on this topic of Consumption Studies, I spoke about the intersubjective facet and then the more subjective facets by which we can pass on understanding about consumption(s). There have been some excellent papers written recently on the topic of “what consumer research constitutes” and about new forms of “validity” in alternative forms of consumer research representation (such as, for example, Sherry and Schouten’s resonance criteria in regards to Poetic forms of representation, which I’ve written about on this blog previously). However, one of the areas that I believe had gone absent in recent discussion is the collective context of research, its moral fiber if you will. In some sense, recent discussions about the equivalent theoretical potency of cultural consumption studies have threatened to throw the baby out with bathwater, in that they may be over-emphasizing the intersubjective theoretical contributions of the field to the detriment of having a critical take on issues. I’m not stating here that the intersubjective isn’t important—it most certainly is. But I am stating that a more powerful consumption studies, and consumer research in general I believe, might take into account some critical dimension that seeks to position the research and theory as a contribution of one kind or another to a social project.

Collective Research and Contexts

Investigative Contexts.

Collective epistemologies got their philosophical chops from Hegelian and Marxist dialectic. The basic idea here is that what counts most as understanding is knowledge that allows the fulfillment of individual and collective human potential. It is science in its most idealistic form, and it is inescapable political and activist, and that makes a lot of people (rightfully) squeamish. Mixing science and politics is like mixing religion and politics, right. Science should be “Value Neutral,” right? Hmmmm…

Collective epistemologies say there’s no place to hide. Scientists are inevitably influenced by ideologies. That’s the way it is. Science is ideological. Or maybe Science is an ideology. Consumption is ideological. It partakes of multiple ideologies, or as I’ve been calling them lately in research I’ll share with you soon, overlapping “ideological fields.”

A collective view sees knowledge of consumption as an opportunity for an ongoing dialog about domination, diversity, change and social betterment. The central focus here, familiar to those who have read the critical theory, feminist studies, and some postmodern work in the consumer research field (and lots of humanities, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies work in other fields) is towards a rational and reasonable understanding of social or individual potentiality, prediction of its likelihood, and increased action in attempting its fulfillment. A collective epistemology therefore draws attention to the social and moral contexts surrounding consumption. It does so in order to expose differing ideological positions on social betterment. And then it takes a big step by suggesting that the findings propel us in one direction, by advocating.

A great example of this kind of advocacy comes at the end of Henry Jenkins’ latest book “Convergence Culture,” when he begins to list out all the ways that we might make the media more participatory and democratic, and how this would lead to a better society.

He calls himself a “critical utopian” and says that he wants to “identify possibilities within our culture that might lead toward a better, more just society” (p. 247). He talks about media literacy, about media concentration, about the power of consumption communities, consumer advocacy groups, downloading as activism, and he says that his own frustration with media culture inspires him to want to talk and write about “how we might rewrite it” (p. 247)—or how our thinking and research might allow us to restructure aspects of our social world in ways that are more equitable and life-affirming. Powerful stuff!

In My Figure 1, I illustrate three major communities or groups with similar interests that act collectively to represent and further the interests of their members. The consumer community, encapsulated and interacting with the range of other communities in society, is a central context. In the world of the consumers, we see the influence and maintenance of the hegemonic and ideological properties of consumption. Various ideologies help preserve the cultural, historical and economic realities, they define global and regional economic disparities, they financially privilege and deprivilege various classes, races, ages, ethnic groups and genders at the expense of one another, and they glorify and ridicule certain types of consumptions, meanings, and belief systems. But they also resist them and seek to bridge them.

Next we see the collective interests of industrial communities. These industrial communities are important influences on consumer realms, acting discursively and materially to foster certain naturalized representations of consumption in the minds and practices of consumers. MY intention here is not to suggest a demonizing of industrial communities, whose interests and objectives are complex refractions of the entire social system and whose members may also benefit from an actualizing of their unrealized potential, but to suggest an exploration of their social implications.

Finally, the collective interests of consumer researchers and academics as a whole may also be relevant, as consumer research itself is a specialized “product,” manufactured within research communities that are a type of institutional “factory” situated in a field of power- and value-laden commitments and relationships (see, e.g., Fox 1991).

Investigative Methods.

The urge to inject a Collective facet into research leads to methods that find value in exploring social science as an enterprise of social betterment. This leads to approaches that use specific disciplinary problematics to reveal and destabilize the implicit power and value-laden sides that may be hidden within “ordinary” “everyday” consumption (like, say, filling up your car with gas, buying a cheap pair of shoes, or turning your air conditioner up…what happens when we track out all the implications that come from voting with our dollars in this way?).

These methods are grounded in sociocultural critique, the view that consumption can best be understood as a system that masks deep-seated conflict and modes of domination. The researchers’ job is publicly unmasking it. And in this day and age, who else is going to do that? Artists, maybe. Some good leaders and politicians and members of the government, perhaps. But thinkers and academics have always had a privileged position in terms of unmasking domination. That’s why they’re usually the first to be jailed (or worse) in any political upheaval. That’s our job.

As illustrated in Figure 2, a collective dialectic utilizes information from individuals, groups, texts and artifacts, gathered directly by the researchers through ethnography (e.g., as in the garage sale ethnography of Soiffer and Herrmann 1987) or interviews (e.g., Thompson and Hirschman 1995) or indirectly by others (e.g., as in the terrific but underrecognized “retextualized” feminist analysis of African fieldwork of Thompson, Arnould, and Stern 1998 in the revolutionary journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture).

With an eye to facilitating the actualization of human potential, this empirical or artifactual data is used as the basis of an analysis through which a sociocultural system is critiqued and more beneficial alternatives envisioned (a la the classic and also much-maligned critical theory overview of Jeff Murray and Julie Ozanne 1991). Although probably the most well-developed school of critical scholarship in consumer research is that which uses feminist readings (e.g., Bristor and Fischer 1993, Fischer and Bristor 1994; Stern 1989, 1993, 1996), a foregrounding of many other moral perspectives is possible through, for instance, hermeneutic or deconstructive readings that foreground the role of consumption ideologies in maintaining class (see Murray and Ozanne 1991, Hetrick and Lozada 1994), race (e.g., Arnold and Fischer 1994), ethnic group (Penaloza 1994), sexual preference (Kates 1998), Americo- or Eurocentric (Arnould 1989; Sherry 1987), capitalist mode, and ecological boundaries and forms of hegemonic social control and domination. These collective concerns are important areas where consumer research intersects in productive ways with other disciplinary fields, like anthropology, sociology, feminist studies, queer studies, and cultural and media studies. They are critical in more ways than one. They open up our field to make greater impact far and wide in interdisciplinary academic and, we can hope, social and political circles.

Research Representations.

Representing moral knowledge or “praxis” that brings abstracted theoretical knowledge together with constructive moral action, collective research representations build on a foundation of accuracy and add in inspiration. In so doing, they forge their knowledge claims from rational and persuasive argumentation, fired with the right and wrong of moral codes. They are the stuff that tends to rouse students, the stuff that tended to inspire smart people to want to enter into this field in the first place.

In this arena, where research is a contact sport, research narratives don’t just unpack social meanings but they reveal and interrogate the operation of power in social life and science. Judgments of the quality of collective research are based upon an evaluation of their inspirational quality, and the persuasive power of their analysis and rhetoric.

Certainly, research quality is determined materially through research’s use of social facts and knowledge, as well as in the faithful representation of and allegiance to the collective ideology of an established critical discipline (e.g., Marxism, feminism, ecology). But it must also pack a rhetorical wallop.

Good collective consumer research presents a melange of perspectives that link the deeply personal to the systemic and offer up a complex and morally structured argumentation that highlights the “beneficiaries” and “victims” (Guba and Lincoln 1989) of consumption and consumer research. It uncovers inclusions and exclusions, privileging and marginalization and, in first person plural tense, offers a glimpse of better ways: “We can see,” “We should,” “We must.”

For example, Venkatesh (1998a, p. 195) uses market value and cultural capital theories to examine racial and ethnic diversity in the United States and then “urges” an approach of “mutual asset formation” which channels “multicultural forces into positive social ends.” In another example, Venkatesh, Meamber and Firat (1997) critically study marketers’ colonization of cyberspace. They do this through a theory-driven investigation of the relationship between cyberspace’s presentation of the simulation and the real. They subsequently use postmodern problematics to interrogate and critique some of the issues surrounding marketer control over consumers in the commercially colonized forum of networked computing.

With these three faces of research developed, I’ll turn next time to a bricolage approach that combines them in productive ways.

The Subjective Facet of Research: Consumption Studies Part 6

So we’ve spoken in the last blog entry on consumption studies about the intersubjective facet. I didn’t want to call that facet the “objective” facet because it sounded like I would be glorifying or valorizing it, and I really am not sure I know what an “objective” statement or fact is, anyways. And that’s sort of my point here with the subjective dimension. The term “subjective” is unfortunate and I would welcome suggestions for better terminology. I certainly don’t mean to oppose subjective with objective, but mean instead to signal that the power of this mode of understanding, of knowing, takes place inside of the subject who is experiencing the research (as written text, as visuals, as audiovisual representation).

The Dimension of Subjective Knowing

Investigative Contexts.

Subjective knowing and understanding is rooted in the intellectual traditions of German idealism. Subjective epistemologies tend to favor the primacy of discourse and ideas over that of sensory data, stressing the essential role of individual consciousness in human affairs. This sort of idealism of course can limits the types of contexts that are considered ripe for research exploration.

Subjectively-focused consumption research has, quite rightly, tended to focus almost solely on particularly juicy types of consumption and consumer as its primary source of insights. This is why we often tend to get the “weird science” label stuck onto consumer culture research. Visually, things like Star Trek conventions, Burning Man gatherings, sky-diving cultures, comic book costume shows, Second Life avatars, football fans, and all sorts of other colorful manifestations of “offbeat” or “marginal” consumer behavior are far more interesting to represent than ordinary, vanilla types of consumption, the Homers and Marges of the world collected on their comfy couches consuming their 6 hours of terrible-vision per day. Similarly, emotional topics like racism, divorce, sexuality, and child-birth and rearing make for far more luscious topics for introspective or poetic representations that seeks to convey these moving moments and momentous meanings.

Although by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, Figure 1 attempts to illustrate other important subjectivities that may impinge upon consumption and the consumption research process. So there is the individual marketer, and other institutionally-situated actors (for instance, advertisers, regulatory workers) who are actively involved in the business of understanding, creating and influencing the consumption experiences of others (see, e.g. Kover 1995).

These members of other tangentially-related communities, may not even share the type of particular consumption with the consumer of interest. Yet they will nonetheless significantly influence its lived experience. The subjectivity of the consumer researcher who researches and produces the text is also a force shaping and negotiating the success and types of insights afforded the research consumer who is its intended audience.

Investigative Methods

The philosophical basis in idealism has led to methodological traditions that assert the value of exploring social science as a subjective enterprise. They also tell us about participative understanding, about considering the moment of resonant understanding as the irrefragable vantage point from which to understand particular human activities.

This emphasis on participative understanding, on seeing through the others’ eyes, leads to an idiographic approach that is based on the view that consumption can be understood through a transmission of first-hand knowledge of unique events. Idiography spotlights the generation and analysis of accounts that allow one to ‘get inside’ consumption situations and grasp how they are involved in the flow of everyday life.

As illustrated in Figure 2, these subjective accounts can be generated from the consumer researcher’s own autobiographical consumption experiences as a member of extant culture [as in introspection (Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995), as the participant aspect of ethnographic participant-observation, or as autoethnography (see, e.g., Hayano 1991)]. The subjective accounts of others can be elicited through “existential-phenomenological” (Thompson et al. 1989) or other “long” (McCracken 1988), active or ‘deep’ interviews (Holstein and Gubrium 1995) or various types of projective techniques (e.g., Heisley and Levy 1991; McGrath et al. 1993) that seek to get a sense of walking in the consumers’ own brand of moccasin.

Research Representations

In the act of knowledge representation, subjective positions tend to lead to situated descriptions that are concerned with context. These rich, literate descriptions of context portray a plethora of consumption qualities. In this sense, they are rightly termed “qualitative.”

The social situation of community membership (Haraway 1988) and the reflexivity of the consumer researcher are often deemed relevant qualities of subjective representations and can be explicitly acknowledged and explored through, for instance, introspective and hermeneutic methods of elaborating pre-understandings and prejudices (see Arnold and Fischer 1994).

Narratively intimate, this type of research presents first person perspectives, rich and nuanced description. It pays heed to different personalities, places, moods and hungers in its language: “I feel,” “I wish,” “I desire.”

Vivid literary and so-called experimental modes of representation -poetry, performance, pictorial slide shows, videographies, infinitely hyperlinking web-pages-stress researcher subjectivity while simultaneously attempting to ‘close the gap’ between the subjective consumption experience of the researched consumer and the vicarious insights of the research consumer. For example, the Presidential Session of the 1998 conference of the Association of Consumer Research focused on “Alternative Representations of Consumer Research,” and featured Morris Holbrook and Takeo Kuwahara exploring stereographic and three-dimensional representations, John Sherry, John Schouten, and George Zinkhan “capturing consumption through poetry” and Deborah Cours, Deborah Heisley and Melanie Wallendorf engaging in a performance presentation.

Evaluations of the subjective quality of all such representations must, ironically, be intersubjective and concerned with:

  • (1) a reasoned assessment of the presentation of subjectivity and the philosophical thoroughness with which its avenues are explored, and
  • (2) the consumer, “audience” or “reader” of the and their own subjectively experienced perception of resonant feelings of empathy, verisimilitude and vicarious consumption experience—what the early Thompson called the Eureka moment (see Holbrook 1990, Thompson 1990).

Common consensual “realities” and interpretive conventions inform subjective judgments. Therefore, the subjective quality of research is a subject that not only can be judged, but around which there often arises considerable “objective” agreement (Anderson 1986, Holt 1991, Thompson 1990). Can you experience the irony of that with me now? Do you feel it? Goooood…..

Next, we’re going to talk about the Collective Dimension of Research, the moral stance of research (and why we would need that) and then we’ll move on to summarize these findings, and demonstrate what this sort of research might look like.

Toronto is a Broken City

What is going on with this wonderful hometown of mine?

When I grew up in Toronto, it used to be proudly called “The City the Works.” And it was. And it did. But not any more. It makes me mad and disappointed and activist. Toronto should be renamed “Broken City.”

Arrgh. I’ve got to get all this off of my chest. It’s been two years of living here and this Broken City bugs me every day. First let me say that Toronto still has so many good things going for it that make it a great place to live. The city itself is incredibly cosmopolitan, a lot of fun, has great architecture, cool politics, good bars and lots of beer choice, a fantastic & accepting attitude, top-notch universities, some great hospitals and doctors, there are diverse neighborhoods, tons of interesting private and public spaces, great walking places, and lots and lots of great people. But this is increasingly becoming a difficult place to live because it is overloaded with people, the prices are way too high, and most of all the public services we are (over)taxed for simply aren’t being provided. It’s a very poorly run city. My many American friends who live in the mighty Land of the Free, you may have gripes, but at least your cities are well-run, organized, and your politicians generally accountable (arguable, yes, but you haven’t seen the other side). Toronto is full of potential, but it’s a fallen city, sinking deeper into the dregs every day.

Here’s my latest gripe. The one that sent me completely over the edge. A couple that we socialize with was telling us that, about a month ago, a huge tree branch fell onto their car. The car was parked on a city street, under a city-owned tree, on a clear day, and this massive branch just cracked, split, and fell on top of the car. It totaled their car. Done. Kaput. They are still driving a loaner vehicle as the shop tries to figure out if they can fix the car or should trash it.

Here’s the mismanagement part. The city of Toronto does not take care of its trees. They don’t prune them, trim them, inspect them, or cut them. After every storm of any windy significance, the street is littered with fallen tree branches–many of them honking huge–all along the sidewalks and streets. Some streets are blocked for days, because they city also takes its sweet time cleaning them up. So there is dead wood hanging all around us. Yes, I mean the politicians and city workers too.

And here’s the kicker. If you wanted to trim the tree, if you had the extra time and inclination to do it, guess what. You can’t. It’s illegal. It’s on city land. So you just need to wait for those dead old branches sitting over your house to topple. They could fall on your car, your house (we know someone that this happened to), your dog, or God forbid your kid. It is insane.

How about this? If you want to cut your own tree, yes, your own tree in your own backyard that you paid for and still pay lots of taxes to own, you can’t. It’s illegal. The city requires you to get their permission and pay for permits even to trim branches off your own tree. You might hurt the tree, they say. This is an environmental move that makes no sense to me. It starts to confuse environmentalism with some sort of urban fascism. And that’s bad for environmentalism, because it radicalizes it and builds resentment.

When I lived in Chicago, we just dialed 3-1-1 if a tree needed trimming. The city came out and did it, free of charge, usually within the same day. Done. Your tax dollars at work. I never felt bad about paying my Chicago city taxes, or my American income taxes for that matter. There was always value there. I’m a consumer, and I got my money’s worth out of the quality public services in Chicago. Why can’t the Toronto government provide value for its (grossly inflated) tax dollar Why can’t the Canadian government? Why don’t Canadian consumers demand more? Is this what happens when you never have a Revolution? You know what? It’s Revolting!

  • Why can’t the Toronto government create decent parks for our kids to play in, instead of dirty, weed-filled, run down patches of land, constantly under threat of being developed into high-rises?
  • Why can’t the Toronto government do something about the incredibly bad traffic gridlock on the road here? This city wasn’t built for this many people. The public transportation is overcrowded, with rush hour congestion almost unbearable. The public transportation is overpriced and poorly serviced. The car and truck pollution stinks. Getting expensive bi-annual emissions certification for ten million cars isn’t the answer–having far less cars on the road is. We need solutions to move people around this fine city. We need them yesterday.
  • Why can’t the Toronto government clean the streets when the snow falls? Or when the leaves fall?

It’s pathetic, this broken city. It once worked so well, It could work well, with some willpower and proper organization, a reduction in bureaucracy and some motivated workers it could easily work again. But Torontonians and Canadians need to start demanding more of their “leaders”–there is no leadership, no accountability for the poor state of this city.

  • Why can’t we get a decent bike path here?
  • Why can’t we get proper garbage service? Why do the garbage collectors leave the trash bins all over the road? Why do they pick and choose which garbage they will or won’t take?
  • Why can’t we order things from other countries without being taxed on it? Why won’t mail order businesses like Amazon and eBay work properly here? Why is the mail service so terrible?
  • Why can’t we get mail every week day? Instead, we get it every other day. In the USA, we get it every day but Sunday, regularly. Why is that?

I won’t even talk about the Health Care House of Horrors here. That’s a full enough topic for another blog. Or two.

Yes, I’m confusing Toronto issues with Canadian issues with Provincial Ontario issues. Hey, I’m griping. In expanding and ever-widening circles. Broken city in a broken country. It’s dismal and sad to see.

It is broken, broken, all broken. And the shame goes to the people who run it, and the people who live in it and let it be run into the ground in this way. What can we do, together, to change it?

Today, the Canadian dollar broke through and made it to parity with the US dollar for the first time in 30 years. But have we seen the significant savings of the Canadian dollars climb? The cost of imports from the USA has sunk 15 percent since the beginning of the year, but the savings have not been passed on to consumers. They’ve been kept by Canadian businesses. Why? Because the country is run by oligopolies and local monopolies, and complacent Canadians and the weak government here won’t compel businesses to do what’s right. They never do. American wouldn’t take that sort of nonsense, not for very long. Canadian have become highly proficient at it.

All that needs to happen in for Torontonians and Canadians to start to organize, to say things aren’t right, and to start to put their own houses in order. I hope, I truly hope, that we do it, and soon. When should we meet to get this going?I hope it’s before the next branch falls on one of us.

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.

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.

Mauling Mattel and Blasting Britney Spears

It’s been a bit of a media feeding frenzy lately in the entertainment and business pages. For starters, let’s talk Britney. Britney Spears appeared last night on the MTV Video Music Awards in a performance that is being ripped into by the media. made perhaps some of the cruelest cuts of all in their story, which I quote here:

“As in most train wrecks, it was hard to focus on just one thing as the Britney Spears disaster unfolded. There was just so much that went wrong. Out-of-synch lip-synching. Lethargic movements that seemed choreographed by a dance instructor for a nursing home. The paunch in place of Spears’ once-taut belly. At times she just stopped singing altogether, as if even she knew nothing could save her performance. Designed to drum up excitement for her upcoming album, Spears’ kickoff to the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night became another example of how far she has fallen.”

Beyond that, on page after page of Internet assessment, and gossipy TV show after TV show, stories asked if Britney is Washed Up? and, apparently even worse, “Is Britney Fat?”

Everyone, apparently, loves a train wreck. And it is this aspect of media, which acts delightedly to knock heroes from their perches, that I believe traditional media and media reception theories don’t account for very well. In many of the blog comments I read today, fans stood up for Britney, seeing her as a victim of needless media cruelty (and maybe I just like to side with the underdog but count me among those). But the media keeps on ripping. Britney was idolized as a near-child star, a Golden Girl. Now that she’s a mother of two and getting older, and a little bigger, the media seems to have turned on her like a rabid raccoon. “The paunch in place of Spears’ once-taut belly.” Whoah. That’s definitely hitting below the belt.

In a related story, I actually feel a little bit sorry for poor old Mattel–but only a little bit. The embattled and venerable toy company is really taking it on the chin with its toy recalls for lead paint and tiny magnets that little kids can swallow. Mattel is a brilliant company but like all manufacturers of physical toys they are fighting a difficult battle to keep kids attention and get their “share of playtime” among a generation that loves videogames and screentime.

Mattel has been brilliant in building the Barbie franchise that every academic loves to hate. They have done interesting retro things with the Fisher-Price brand of late, releasing a series of classic toys that appeal to nostalgic boomers and Gen Xers as they have their kids. They also recognized the immense value in the American Girls brand and have done a masterful job of managing that franchise.

But these three waves so far of recalls, August 1, August 14, and September 5, have really begun to put pressure on the company and the stock. Robert Eckert, the company’s chairman and chief executive warned at a press conference last month that there may be more toy recalls. He said that the company was stepping up its investigations into its Chinese factories. He released a statement last Tuesday saying that:

“As a result of our ongoing investigation, we discovered additional affected products. Consequently, several subcontractors are no longer manufacturing Mattel toys.”

It’s interesting the spin that the story has received, with Mattel being linked with its (usually hidden behind the scenes) Chinese factories. This reminds me a bit of the way Nike came out and blamed its subcontractors during the sweatshop furor of the late 1990s. And Mattel’s share price has been, according to the financial reports, “surprisingly resilient.” That’s amazing, given the incredible amount of press that this story has received and the sheer scale of the recalls. Why hasn’t it been more affected?

I think that the media needs to ask more questions about the Chinese-finger-pointing spin the story has received. Senate hearings are going to help a lot with that, and thank goodness for a US Government that isn’t afraid to put its corporations on the stand. Where are the lessons learned? Or isn’t this just business as usual, and look-at-you, you’re the one who just got caught?

Britney and Mattel: two flavors of train wreck. The media seems to love to report on them. But the media makes money either way. Mattel is going to have to advertise even more to regain the faith and trust of their consumers. So they’ll need bigger media spends. And if they crash and burn, that’s a big story too, and the media reports on it, and sells advertising while they’re doing so. Bad news is good news.

And even on the financial and entertainment pages, baby, if it bleeds, it leads.