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.