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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a major goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the reference list for all 12 segments:


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Considering Consumer Freedom: From Paris Hilton to Consumption Literacy

Sorry for all the gaps in posting. I feel kind of guilty. I just returned on Sunday from the Association for Consumer Research annual North American conference, which was held this year in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a great conference this year, although the doctoral consortium was marred by some very strange comments that presented a “blast from the past” sense of derision towards the work that cultural consumer researchers do. In every group, as I’ve been writing about here, there is inclusion and exclusion. And certainly consumer culture researchers are still in that marginal, slightly-stigmatic state in our field. Even when it isn’t mentioned as overtly as it was this year. It’s a topic that concerns me, and I’ll keep coming back to it.

This year, David Mick organized a great session that I wrote about last week. Renan Wagner had some great comments and thoughts (using some Baudrillardian insights) that I tried to pick up on in my further comments here…but let me know if I missed something. I think the Epistemic Session on consumer freedom went very well. For today’s posting, I’m going to provide a complete and slightly expanded version of the short speech I gave in that session. Here it is.

* * * ** * ** * ** *

Epistemic Session Comments-Robert V. Kozinets

originally presented on Friday October 26, 8 a.m., Peabody Hotel, Forest Room, Memphis, Tennessee

In the last decade or so, we consumer researchers have increasingly been asking ourselves questions about consumer freedom and the levels of constraint that consumers do or do not face:

* Are Consumers Truly Free, or Does the Market Construct Freedom?” (Baudrillard 1968; Debord 1967; Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Gabriel and Lang 1995)

* Can Consumers Escape the Market? (Kozinets 2002)

* Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market? (Arnould 2007)

* Are All Attempts at “Real” Countercultural Change Co-Opted by Commercialism? (Frank 1997; Heath and Potter 2004; Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007)

In case you haven’t read the aforementioned papers, the answers, of course, are: No, No, Definitely No, and Yes, But It’s Okay.

However, in order to enter into a coherent and meaningful discussion of a topic like this, we need to first get onto firmer semantic ground, particularly as Eric and I attempted to do in the two papers I just mentioned, where we sought to define our terms (Arnould 2007; Kozinets 2002).

* What exactly do we mean by “Consumers”? Are these just people? All people? Human beings? Middle-class Americans living in style in the era of late capitalism? People who are acting in a certain way in a certain kind of system?

* What about “escape”? What is that about? Isn’t there a romantic, return-to-some-ideal-state utopian sense conveyed by the use of this word.

* What is “Culture”? There’s another huge referent. Are we talking about all of society society? Or “just” consumer culture?

* “Freedom.” There’s an ideologically locked and loaded term if ever we’ve encountered one. So full of all sorts of baggage, and imprecise as well. Are we talking about freedom from, or freedom to? Freedom from what oppressions, exactly, and to do what, particuarly? Freedom to choose in what way, which things, how?

* Finally, the biggie: The Dreaded Market. That alleged, villainous oppressing bugaboo.

Are Consumers Truly Free to Make Choices in the Market, or are they oppressed, manipulated, deviously twisted, constrained and held down? As the ACR bulletin board discussions on this topic by Eric Arnould, Nik Dholakia, Russ Belk, and Craig Thompson quickly pointed out, the terms Market and Consumer are just aca-speak for examinations of the relationships between individual and society, self and collective, agency and structure. This is the old question of social control, cast in “perfect” ideal typic terms.

But markets and freedom to do what we want within them are always relative in reality. In a market society do I have the same “freedom” to choose to consume as does Paris Hilton? Do I even have the same freedom to act, to move around, to go where I want, wear what I want, do what I want? She seems an icon of pure consumer control, consumption unencumbered by any strictures. Perfect Consumption: All-Consuming. Judging by the paparazzi pictures, I’d have to say no. By virtue of Paris’s position in the social hierarchy, she has much more freedom as a consumer, as a person in a commercial, market-driven world, than you or I do.

Similarly, we have much more freedom that those others who seem out of control, without control, beyond control of their lives as consumers. Are the underprivileged, the impoverished, the disadvantaged, the underclasses of the world “truly free” of the market-of social controls? It’s difficult to think of that type of freedom in the same way that we think of Paris Hilton’s freedom. The notion of escape would be almost strange to them. It’s likely that they don’t want to break out of this alleged prison of social consumption control, this gilded cage, so much as they desire to break in and enjoy its bountiful harvest.

My colleague Andy Crane is in the field of Business Ethics but he and his colleagues are busy examining issues of consumer culture. He recently wrote a paper with a colleague that talks about the notion of “Consumer Responsibility” (Caruana and Crane 2007). Citing Zygmunt Bauman’s (1993, 1995) work, these author state:

…that highly bureaucratized institutions engender an ‘adiaphoric’ (amoral) context for consumer choices. When organised within this matrix, people’s choices are framed squarely in terms of utility and satisfaction, this rationalized marketing vernacular neither allowing nor calling for morality. More than this, he argues that corporations not only allow consumers to forget about moral issues but they actively assist in ‘forgiving’ consumers from engaging in moral choices. We might view current managerialist depictions of consumer responsibility to mythologize about ethical and social concerns on the one hand, whilst at the same time, expunging moral dilemmas that may inhibit the efficiency of the marketing process. (The bolding is mine.)

Indeed, we have a responsibility, a burden, to vote at the cash register, to make our choices. And we exercise this freedom almost automatically, naturally, many times a time. We have to exercise this freedom, paradoxically in order to have the essentials of life: food, drink, warmth, space, a place to sleep.

So a people living in a commercial society of course we have various levels and degrees of freedom, and varying levels and degrees of constraint. This is what my co-authors and I called in our ESPN Zone article for JCR “inter-agency”: always there is the culture in the individual, and the individual in the culture, inextricably intertwined.

We are talking about some very big questions. In some ways, this grand view-from-thirty-five-thousand feet level of philosophical discussion can blur the details and make muddy the investigation of particulars that would be more pragmatically useful to consider. What if we move from disengaged macro-question down to more engaged micro-questions and micro-politics?

So rather than asking if consumers are truly free, what if we asked questions about the cultural and structural elements of our society that cause every one of us to eat genetically modified food every single day? What if we asked about how the cultural and structural elements of our society, and the individual proclivities, that perpetuate the consumption of crack or crystal methamphetamine in our streets and homes? Or about the structures, proclivities, and elements of our society that perpetuate the choices that lead to overeating and obesity, or choosing to start smoking, to buying MP3s online rather than CDs in a retail store, to prevent people from fixing their own cars, making healthy dinners, or taking public transportation?

What if we started to ask (as Russ Belk’s clever inversion did on the ACR web board) not how free might consumer be, but How Free Should Consumers Be? How Free Should We Be? Free to consume handguns, semi-automatics, and child pornography? Free to eat shark’s-fin and tiger-paw soup? To gobble up the last of our planet’s endangered species in foul-tasting tonics for impotence? Obviously, many people think that there should be some limits on our freedom to consume. But what and where? How?

Our investigation would then lead us into very different places. We would have to look at regulatory structures, including government regulation and its enforcement. We would need to start thinking about Consumer Rights and what that means-a right to consume, or not to consume? A right to choose to live so as not to consume in a certain way as well as to choose to consumer in certain ways? It would lead us beyond simple marketplace mechanisms like choice among products and services in a category, into other, intertwined, complex forms of social control?

I think that these grounded micro-investigations would lead us to think not only about the flow of materials and services, but also the flow of behind-the-scenes production and material resources. It would lead us to think about the flows of information about them, such as Nike’s old Cambodian sweatshops, and Mattel’s lead-laden Chinese toy factories and, on the positive side, Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. At the ground level, these questions about choice would almost inevitably draw us towards thinking about information flows and blockages in our society and culture, and what an actively engaged, participatory citizenship would look like and feel like in the consumer sphere.

We would start to move to models of Consumption Literacy. My son in Grade Four has a textbook that has media literacy sections throughout it that seek to teach kids how to read labels and judge commercial claims. For instance, the kids are presented with pictures of products promoted using cartoon characters like Sponge Bob, or nifty names and loveable labels like Hawaiian Punch. The textbook then unpacks the claims one by one, and subjects them to interrogation, and explains the difference between implied and overt message claims in product packaging. This isn’t merely “media” literacy, it is applied consumer research, code switching, even inoculation. And we are on the other side of this issue, teaching marketers this craft of encoded messaging, while leaving it to communication studies departments to teach decoding skills to young consumers.

But taking consumer freedom seriously might ask us to do more. We would start to more seriously research and teach consumers about how to engage their freedom, expand it where necessary, and understand the incredibly difficult and painful need to contract it for the greater good. What a wartime-like sacrifice that would be.

We might think about how to unite and align the needs of the society, of our species even, as best as we collectively and sagely could discern it, with the needs, signals, cues, hints, and suggestions that we as individuals process and make meaning out of every day in hundreds of ways.

So in a time of rapid change and multiple crises such as the one we now face more than ever before, perhaps the questions we need to think about and consider collectively are not just about how free we are, but how free we need to be? Perhaps what we want to also consider is what consumption related freedoms we might be best, we might be smartest, to begin to do without.


Arnould, Eric J. ( 2007), “Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 611 (1), 96-111.

Baudrillard, Jean (1968), Le Systäme des Objets, Paris: Gallimard.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Postmodern ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1995) Life in fragments. Essays in postmodern morality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Caruana, Robert and Andrew Crane (2007), “Constructing Consumer Responsibility: The Role of Corporate Communications in Defining Responsible Modes of Consumption,” University of Manchester and York University Working Paper.
Debord Guy (1967), The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (3), June, 239-267.

Frank, Thomas (1997), The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Gabriel, Yiannis and Tim Lang (1995), The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentations, London: Sage Publications.

Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004), The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can’t Be Jammed, New York: HarperCollins.

Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.

Thompson, Craig J. and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli (2007), “Countervailing Market Responses to Corporate Co-optation and the Ideological Recruitment of Consumption Communities,” Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (2), 135-52.

Are Consumers Truly Free?: Epistemic Sessions and A Planet in Peril

Are consumers free?, asks a new “Epistemic Session” at the Association for Consumer Research this Friday morning. I’m delighted to be on a panel session organized by David Mick of U. Virginia, along with Tom O’Guinn of UW-Madison and Lisa Penaloza of EDHEC.

It’s a tough question, philosophical, maybe a bit abstract. As soon as you scratch the surface of that question you begin to encounter the fact that the values of the collective group are manifest through the thoughts, meanings, and actions of the individual, and the collective is made up of amassed individual influences. Culture, the market, the community, the collective–whatever you want to call it–it’s a big part of being us, and it constrains what we do as surely as pretty much as securely as our genetics do. Despite our shared need to differentiate and strong culture of rugged invididualism, it turns out that we’re pack animals after all. Solid primates, one and all.

Five years ago I published an article whose title asked “Can Consumers Escape the Market?” The answer: nope. Not really. Not if by consumers you mean people and by market you mean our entire culture and civilization.

Of course, there are degrees of freedom. This all hearkens back to what’s called the “Structure versus Agency” debate, which asks pretty much the same thing: how free is the individual to make choices and act in our society? The answer is contingent on many things, and its become pretty clear that people in our society are neither wholly free nor completely oppressed, but somewhere interestingly in between.

The Session and its core question is spurring some very interesting discussion on the Association for Consumer Research web-site, which I believe is publicly accessible here. There are lots of great posts. One of my favorite ones so far is by my friend and colleague Russ Belk, who talks about a classroom exercise he conducts in order to illustrate some of these points. He says:

“When I teach an introductory marketing course I have students do an in-class exercise to create their own economy by focusing on specific cases of what consumers in their economy will and will not be allowed to freely choose. I begin by soliciting the amount of support for allowing free choice for each member of such pairs of consumer goods as:

1. Guns and knives
a. Handguns and rifles
b. Butcher knives and switchblades
2. Firecrackers and hand grenades
3. Cigarettes and marijuana
a. For children and adults
b. For the poor and the rich
4. Alcohol and heroin
5. Motor-scooters and Hummers
6. Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and hardcore pornography
7. Prostitution and child pornography

As a result of these straw polls we get some interesting splits (e.g., knives are okay, but guns, or at least handguns, should be outlawed). So then I ask “Why will you allow choice A, but not choice B?” Although a few libertarians insist that all of these things should be freely available, most believe that there must be some freedom of choice but also some restraint where having total freedom of choosing would result in negative individual or social consequences.

So after a day of these guns versus butter sorts of arguments we begin to further consider how to create a fair, just, and humane society, how much is enough, how much is too much, who is responsible for addressing problems like global warming, and so forth. Finally, having hopefully sensitized class members to social versus individual interests, we circle back to the earlier choices and I ask are consumers really free to choose or really precluded from choosing each of these things in our own economy. . . .What these exercises suggest is that underlying the behavioral questions raised here are philosophical questions with important political, moral, environmental, and economic implications.”

So, illustrating the characteristic way he brilliantly inverts questions, Russ is drawing our attention to the flipside. Although the question tended to lead us to where consumers were constrained and might need more freedom, Russ is leading us to consider where consumers are free and might need more supervision or restraint, and also to consider why we aren’t so free–why there are social controls where collective forces restrict individual urges.

And while I’m plugging the ACR session on Friday (wake up early, it’s a 8 am), I may as well plug the CNN Special “A Planet in Peril.” It premieres tonight at 9 PM EST. It’s being hyped pretty effectively already, but I’m going to lend my WOM voice and blog to the chorus. I think Ted Turner and CNN aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues, which are our species’ environmental impacts, the legacy of our current age and its consumer culture and lifestyle. He’s been raising awareness of the issue for almost two decades now (does anyone else remember Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel “Ishmael“), and this looks like it could well be a milestone documentary, a great eye-opener in the tradition of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The two topics–the Epistemic Session and the Planet in Peril– are intimately connected.

As Citizen Consumers, how are we free to help the planet and how are we deeply, systemically restricted? As Citizen Consumers, what sorts of actions would have the biggest impact in reducing planetary devastation the quickest? That’s not an ivory tower exercise. That’s the Great Challenge of our times.