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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.

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