Reflections on CCT2010: The Final Posting

I had hoped to do a long, detailed, involved set of postings on CCT 2010. But that’s not going to happen.Time just keeps marching on, and this is busy season for academic conferences. It’s already almost time for the next one.I’ll be presenting virtually in Marseilles on the weekend at ICAR/NACRE, the Symposium dedicated to anti-consumption issues. And I’ll be in London next week for the 2010 European ACR Conference. And after that I will be presenting at the workshop and New Research Methods Festival in Oxford England on July 5 and 6.

To close off my entries on CCT, I would like to offer some impressionistic jottings about some wonderful sessions.  I enjoyed the session on Consumer Resistance during which Tim Dewhirst and I presented some of our new anti-smoking culture jamming research. Holland Wilde presented a wild bit of “cultural farming” a type of critical commentary montage of video clips from ads, movies and the news about the BP oil disaster. Sofia Ulver-Sneistrup, Soren Askegaard, and Dorthe Brogard Kristensen presented a fascinating and complex model about how we could rethink brand resistance.

The posters were very high quality, too. And on Saturday there was a magnificent session about “place” in consumer culture theory which presented three wonderful studies of our “hobbit holes” and what we do with them. Jeppe Linnet of the U of Southern Denmark led off with a detailed explanation of the complex Danish social-place concept of “hygge” (did I spell that right?).  Yesim Ozalp presented her work on the gentrification of Toronto’s retail spaces. And Zeynep Arsel and Jonathan Bean finished off this very stimulating session by talking about “Apartment Therapy” and online and media narrative of fashioning space and place.

Bryant Simon, our plenary guest speaker historian, gave a very intriguing talk about work policies, race, and branding in the Starbucks chain. After lunch there was another great session on co-creation, culture and consumption(Matthias Bode’s work on created Danish Christmas beer rituals; Robert Harrison on Black Friday and its internal role in helping form corporate rituals; and of course Daiane Scaraboto’s work on the geocaching subculture and its grassroots opportunism; all were outstanding).

The afternoon session on The Mediatized Body and Healthism also gave me plenty to think about. Can you hear how breathless I am recounting all of this to you? It was 2 weeks ago and I”m still incredibly enthusiastic about it.

That evening was extremely memorable to me because of our poetry reading session. John Sherry, Hilary Downey, and Sidney Levy, among others, read some wonderful poems. And then, thanks to the openness of the CCT organizers (thanks Craig and Dave), and the incredibly helpful work of dub-master Risto Roman from Helsinki, Finland, I was able to perform my poem Marketing Life 101 to the CCT group. I had such a great time, and I was so pleased with how the entire poetry session went this year. It was even collected and published in a book called “Canaries Coalmines Thunderstones” by Roel Wijland.

I am hoping to have a video of the poem performance up on YouTube at some point soon. When I do, I’ll flag it and maybe expand on it in this blog. For now, if you are interested you can listen to this earlier production of the  Marketing Life 101 poem I created in GarageBand. If you are interested in seeing the written version of the poem too, leave a comment and I’ll post it.

I hope to see many of you in Europe this coming week. If we haven’t met yet, don’t be shy, come on up and introduce yourself.

Reflections on CCT 2010, Part 3–Publics and Professionalization

russ_belk_and-megan-fox-kinect-at_cct.jpgIn my review of CCT 2010, we’re now up to 10:30am on the morning of Friday, the first day. I chose the session “Who is in Charge Here? Contesting Public Goods.” This was an All-Star session with some of the biggest, most established names in CCT presenting. As well, the topic of the session, public space and public goods, was of great interest to me.

The session started with research presented by Linda Scott of Oxford University on the Goddess Pageant in Glastonbury. Using maps and a lot of on-the-ground video, Linda’s work with Pauline Maclaran showed how the annual Goddess Pageant subverted traditional patriarchal and religious patterns, traversing a traditional Catholic parade path in reverse and temporarily claiming and public space for ancient pagan rituals and modes of being. She also nicely tied success in the ritual to commercial action on the retail strip of the city.

Next was work on street artists across a number of cities in North America and Europe by Luca Visconti and Stefania Borghini of Boconni University in Milan, Laurie Anderson of ASU in Phoenix, and John Sherry of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. This fascinating presentation examined how street art is emphasizing the role of public participation in art and in civic life, showing how what seems a trivial act (painting or spraying on city walls) can be seen as an empowerment of citizenry to claim public space as their own, and to beatify and improve it (or use it as a place to comment on how society could be made better).

Finally Russ Belk of the Schulich School at York University spoke about the tension between private and commercial ownership. Providing a dizzying array of thought-provoking examples (water, eggs and sperm, the military, higher education) Russ expanded upon the ideas in his recent article on sharing in JCR to talk about why privatization was occurring around the world, and what its consequences might be. He linked the Internet to a resurgence of sharing activity and new forms for that sharing to take place. He also sounded a call for more research in this area that could be directed at policy-making in the public interest, rather than simply following the blind path of laissez faire, a social slippage in which everything become commoditized.

john_deighton_or_tiger-woods-at_cct.jpgThis theme of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the models of moderns Economics was picked up quite explicitly in the lunch speech by John Deighton, the current Chief Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

John began his talk, which I found inspiring, pretty much where the last talk, from the 2008 ACR in San Francisco, began. He spoke about the opportunity we had before us in marketing, and perhaps in CCT especially, to institutionalize CCT from a bankrupt economics. He must have said several times during the presentation that he believed the people in the field of consumer culture theory were doing the most interesting and most important work being published in JCR, and in the field of consumer research, today.

That seemed like going out on a limb, sort of like Jacob giving Joseph the magnificent coat of many colors. I am fully expecting our field to thus be abandoned by its sibling disciplines and sold into slavery (perhaps to Sociology or, gasp!, Urban Studies). Well, we haven’t actually got the coat yet.

But John did say that we are over-represented in JCR. If you count the percentage of the ACR membership who are CCT researchers it is twelve percent. And if you count the page space in JCR devoted to CCT articles it comes out to about sixteen percent of all of the articles. So, as John pointed out, that is an extra four over twelve percent, a thirty-three percent over-representation.

So when people tell you not to do cultural research, you can tell them you crunched the numbers and it automatically gives you a thirty-three percent edge. True.

John was asking what made us impactful as scholars. It’s a matter that I have thought about, talked about, and presented on a lot lately. John said he thought that we were publishing the best stuff because this is the stuff that would be remembered in forty years. That’s a pretty high bar. And quite difficult to judge in advance, for certain.

Then, John’s powerful talk challenged us to move beyond journal publications for our legitimacy. He asked “Who among you will have an impact on the way that not just marketing, but management will be done?” As I do, John sees the Field of Marketing changing. Changing into what is anyone’s guess.

But he also said that Harvard Business School did a study of its courses over an, I believe, 80- year or so history. He said many courses and names and disciplines for business education came and went, fashion and fad, boom and bust. On the bottom were two sets of lines that were constant and unwavering. Finance and Marketing. The two core disciplines of all business schools. The rests come and go.

 So the question became how can you do work that will impact management, how management is done?

And from that or interrelated with its answer, another question: how will we, CCT, as a field, professionalize? John highly recommended a book: Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor

The book was drawn from Abbott’s research about how the American Medical Association had taken over so many disparate disciplines and associated itself with so many phenomena. The example John used was alcoholism (a very appropriate example for our little group), which used to be treated by the clergy and by the police (the former, spiritually, and the latter, punitively). Using “science” and “medicalization,” the AMA declared and pushed the idea that alcoholism is a “condition,” something that required medical treatment by a licensed physician, rather than spiritual guidance. To consolidate power, they got the police on board.

So, what did this book tell us about what we need to do as a field? Again, see my blog post about Gokcen Coskuner-Balli’s excellent opening presentation-the topic is a hot one and the ideas dovetail. I used an article by Andrew Abbott called “The Order of Professionalization: An Empirical Analysis” to get a sense of Abbott’s work, while my book is on order from Amazon.

Abbott’s work argues that there are various stages to professionalization, but that they usually include the following:

  • The rise of association and an Association
  • Control of Work (through, e.g., certification, reviews, fees)
  • Interest in Professional education
  • Pursuit of professional knowledge, and the “Scientific” transformation of knowledge
  • Tangential knowledge
  • Profession dominated work sites

I won’t offer details on these just yet because they are rich concepts that deserve their own posting and further unpacking. However, what seems clear to me after reading Abbott’s work and after hearing John’s interpretation of it is that we do not yet offer ourselves up to relevant decision-makers as offering any kind of advantage. We certainly could, because I think that activities like ethnography or netnography put companies at an advantage. But we do not.

The way that John put it was to ask which areas we, as consumer culture theorists, we could could own. Which practical areas of business or policy-making could we stake out a claim to be better at informing.? I think Grant McCracken has already begun doing this with his work in Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation and of course beyond. And so have Rita Denny and Patti Sunderland with the Practica group and their work.

The bigger question is what jurisdictions or practical areas can we own or make a play for? 

From what I saw at the CCT conference this year, I think we have excellent claims to understand holistically the following areas:

  1. Branding and Brand Management;
  2. Social media in marketing and management;
  3. Retailing;
  4. Consumer Subcultures, Cultures, and Communities;
  5. Consumption Rituals and Marketing
  6. Sustainability;
  7. Consumer Insight, Innovation, and Ideas. 

For starters. 

The key is to find and solve the right problems for the right people. Another nice turn of phrase John offered up was that we need to move from micro explication to macro proscription. We are good as a field at analyzing problems and providing nuanced explanations of what is going on. But we are weak at offering normative proscriptions after that of what to do. What should managers and decision-makers, those who act on the work, do with our knowledge? That is key.

Another incredibly interesting set of sessions. And more review to come (although perhaps not so detailed or it might take until next year to recount them all to you…).

State of the Craft: Reflections on the 2010 CCT Conference, Part 2

cct_logo.jpgSo where we left off was in the CCT’s Future presentation that was the middle of the kick-off session of CCT5 2010′s conference on cultural consumer research

The presenter called for “please no more stand alone case studies.”

John Deighton, the editor of our flagship journal the Journal of Consumer Research, JCR, said in the session that he thought that statement was “provocative” and asked for other opinions in the room.

I asked for a clarification. I was wondering if the statement meant that we needed more integrative conceptual thought work that integrated across multiple domains. This is something John Deighton has called for recently, and it’s a great move because it is big thought pieces-of the kind that Russ Belk is known to write, or which Susan Fournier has done-that move the field to a new and more integrative level.

reconciliation_web.jpgSo, for example, if we were to write about contemporary consumer’s relationships with nature, we might integrate individual empirical research articles and pieces on river-rafting, camping, sky-diving, hiking, scuba diving, gardening, surfing, Mountain Man rendezvous and even Burning Man into a conceptual piece that looks at the various contexts and meanings that surround the contemporary “consumption” of nature. No extra empirical research needed. Just add deep though. Integrate. Build theory.

Eric used the American Girl research written by Nina Diamond, Stefania Borhini, Mary Ann McGrath, Al Muniz, john Sherry, and myself as an example. He talked about how it didn’t simply study the American Girl Place retail store and leave it at that, but also did the ethnography out on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in people’s homes, in some other American Girl stores, online in the web store and through analysis of the books, printed magazine, and the catalogs. That makes great sense to me. And it also seems like it studies a single phenomenon, but does it in a relatively sophisticated way.

  • This is actually a pretty minor controversy, I think, based more on statement that needed some elaboration than any genuine conflict in the field. Eric’s statement makes this clear, and I second his call for more quality ethnographies.

So we can see that a sharing of different opinions in the field is certainly not always bad. Questioning assumptions and having a bold oppositional vision can move a field forward. If there really is something seriously wrong with the field that needs fixing, pragmatic considerations need to be weighed against how much potential there is in the new vision. The weight of the past shouldn’t keep us back from changing if there is great potential in changing or great error in continuing.

But change of this type can also have the effect of creating the appearance that people in a field have unclear or shifting standards. That certainly does not inspire confidence, especially for junior people who need clear guidelines so that they can get their careers going with some confidence that their work will be published.kumbayah.jpg

  • So I want to use this blog entry to assure junior people that I think, for the time being, nothing about ethnographic acceptance in CCT has changed. And for the foreseeable future nothing will change. The standards we enjoyed, and that you probably toil under very diligently right now are, at least if I have anything to say about it, very much intact.


This was not a discussion about ethnography so much as it was about case study it seems, as Eric, in his “Popeye” persona (see comment) offers.

One big confusion was between “stand alone case studies” and “single site ethnographies.” So I will go on a little bit of a tangent here, and talk about why there are at least six reasons why I think doing away with individual ethnographic studies as discrete empirical journal article contributions would be a very bad idea. And, conversely, why we should continue on our present course. This may not have been what Eric said, or meant, but there was enough confusion in the room and beyond it into other venues and sites that I think it is worth defusing that ticking bomb in public. And here are my points.

  1. First, context is good, going deep into a single context is also good, and ethnography leave unclear what the difference is between “single” and “not-single”. Context is our business-that’s what we do and do best. And “single-sited” does not have a very precise meaning. I think the American Girl piece was still single-sited. It dealt with a single, albeit very complex, brand. We just followed it around and noticed where it went. The same with my work on Burning Man (online and offline, at the airport, at stores, in different cities along the way, at regional meetings), and Star Trek (conventions, fan clubs, Star Trek parties, Halloween, people’s homes, and so on). Culture lives in many locations, that is why it can be borne. Good ethnographies rarely stay in one GPS location—this is part of the translocal consumer culture phenomenon that our colleague Joonas Rokka is writing about.
  2. Second, people are always going to label ethnographic pieces by their context. Who cares? As long as we actually do a good job of developing theory and building on it when you read the articles, should we focus on what the people who only read the titles call them? Did I write the Burning Man ethnography? Yep. And if you read it you know I developed some theory from it, too.
  3. Third, and most importantly, it’s very very difficult to do a good ethnography across many different sites or phenomena. It is hard enough, time-consuming enough, and challenging enough to do a good ethnography that looks in a focused way at only one cogently defined phenomenon. Will it be seen as more generalizable if we look at three sites? I seriously doubt someone trained in generalizability would see an N = 3 as really more significant than an N = 1. What if we just said, as I have been wont to do, that we talked to 5,231 Star Trek fans across 26 countries. Doesn’t that have a better ring to it?
  4. Fourth, we need to stay the course. We have gotten where we are as a field largely on the strength of ethnography as we have been doing it. That’s why ethnography is recognized as the gold standard of consumer research by designers and by many forward-thinking firms like Intel and P&G. Why would we abandon the techniques that have gotten us, and our colleagues in industry like Grant McCracken and Rita Denny, so far?
  5. Fifth, who is going to teach these new forms of ethnography? If this is an emerging trend, then let it emerge with powerful examples that illustrate the benefits. Perhaps, as Eric’s comment suggests, examples are already emerging (I also thank him for suggesting that my work is exemplary in this regard). If so, junior scholars should attend to this work by staying tuned with it, but, I think, no changes in the immediate present are required. Keep the discussion in mind, and continue to watch as quality standards becomes clearer and evolve, gradually, as they always do.
  6. Finally, and just as importantly, the strength of complex cultural work is never to verify its own theories in other sites. Never had been and never will be. We are not equipped in the scientific rhetoric knowledge game that way. Let me explain.

 Ethnographies are great for generating theories from the field, from real life. Real life is highly complex, requiring us to look at and consider many different possible constructs, categories, and relationships before we settle on a greatly reduced set that we find to be important.

 We should not do things like social psychology, which deals with micro-individual processes, using cultural methods. Sample sizes are for counting individuals-we don’t focus on the study of individuals. We look at meanings, rituals, and cultures. Sample sizes of sites does not make sense to me, since sites are social construction and, if we are to note and understand the networked nature of social reality, they are all interconnected in complex ways.

  • If we go back to ontology and epistemology, the root level of philosophy of science and ask about what kinds of knowledge we are after and whether we are working inductively or deductively, for the most part, the answers become clearer.
  • Are we focused on the dynamism, complexity, and multifaceted nature of actual human cultural reality, or are we seeking universally generalizable propositions and then verifying them? The former, of course. That’s our ontology and it guides our epistemology.

How many discrete, separate, ethnographies do we need to do to be seen as theoretically relevant? One, I would say. One good one. One good one with rich, thick, theoretical ideas.

Could they be with strange, odd, marginal groups? Definitely. Stuff that I found studying Star Trek fans and Burning Man burners is becoming increasingly mainstream now. I found phenomena sketched out in high relief in these “weird” field sites that help me to understand the emerging mainstream. And they are fun to study, to boot. How they look to others as “weird science” actually doesn’t bother me much. It may be bad P.R., but it’s perfectly fine as science.

Similarly, we could get great theory from interviewing one single person, if it was a real good interview. Recall what Susan Fournier did with brand relationship theory (based on a sample of N=3). How many of Craig Thompson’s masterpieces were written based on samples of three? My Ideology of Technology article in JCR last year used a sample of six. But all of them had, I think, big, valuable, intriguing, useful theoretical ideas. The field will sort the value of the theory out. It sure doesn’t come from the sample size. Reading Eric’s comments, his point seems directed more at the quality and attentiveness of the ethnography (vs. “case study”)—a point I wholeheartedly embrace. Maybe we need more clear delineations of the differences between case studies and ethnographies, then.

  • As Denzin, Lincoln and Guba have all written extensively about, if we can be persuasive and novel and suggest new things then what we contribute has the potential to be valuable and useful to other scholars, other writers, and people in general.
  •  We are theory generators. Not theory testers. Not theory verifiers. Quantity is not a quality of quality ethnography.

 Now, having written this, I am grateful for the provocation, because it is an opportunity for discussion and clarification. I wanted to write this blog post to assure everyone involved that there is no lasting confusion. The ground is not shifting. I believe completely that ethnographies of single phenomena are here to stay in our field and beyond.

I welcome comment and continuing commentary from anyone, including of course all those involved at the conference and interested in it, using this blog or through other means. And my coverage of the intriguing events and presentations of CCT 2010 will continue in the next blog posting…