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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.

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