The status of Consumer Research: a student problem

In a recent talk at Bournemouth University (and as an extension of a theme also presented at CCT in Madison in the summer) James Fitchett and Andrea Davis set out to challenge the purpose of consumer research and more broadly marketing as an academic discipline. There remains a question about what marketing theory does and about the apparent central role of the consumer in such work. To make such an argument more contentious for students, we might add that if marketing as an academic practice has little or no authority, what is the status of a degree in marketing? Is it no more than training for a job with a dubious reputation? Or can we wear the label BA (Hons) Marketing, Advertising, PR with a confidence that it has the same status as English, Maths, History, or even Ecconomics. And if consumer research somehow ‘misses the point’ even of marketing theory, why might we press ahead with studies of the consumer? The argument put forward by James and Andrea recognises that although the discipline claims legitimacy on the basis of its unique ability to comment on the consumer (the consumer as hero for the marketing academic), this is also potentially a problem. A narrow (and perhaps narrowing) focus on the consumer disallows marketing theory a potential to speak to broader issues and to do so critically. Instead we tend to recreate versions of ‘management insight’ (ways to celebrate ever more elaborate satisfactions of consumer needs and wants), or endless narratives of the alienated consumer-victim (a critique that is perhaps without claim to the potential for a positive contribution). I don’t think we are quite done with the consumer myself, but I also recognise that it is desirable to more away from these restrictions. For example, I like the idea that consumer research may really be the study of how much of our reality is assembled through complex networks where agency can be usefully described in terms of market and consumer actors (although I’m also taken with the idea that ‘we have never been consumers’). These problems seem to be good ones to start the new academic year with and to place before students who have chosen consumer research as a final year option.  We can add it to what the unit guide says we will be doing the first week and it fits well because we are going to start the unit with some history (particularly Fordism and Post-Fordist narratives relating to the ‘evolution’ of our contemporary consumer society), with an overview of the different ‘faces’ of the consumer (from Gabriel and Lang), and with a review of what those at the heart of consumer culture theory say about the future of consumer research (Eric Arnould and Craig Thompson’s paper on ‘20 years of CCT’ also revisited at Madison) These themes have something else in common that is worth dealing with. They speak to progress. The history of our consumer society may be seen as a story of the complex assembling of progress via the market, though it contains plenty of angst that any progress is illusionary and that’s one thing that comes across in Gabrial and Lang’s review. Arnould, Thompson, Fitchett and Davis are also calling for progress (for us to move forward with our research and to ‘make things better’) and one challenge here might be to recognise that these claims are also attempts at individual narratives of progress. It is, after all, careers that are well served by the publication and acceptance of the latest ideas. I’m not accusing anyone of such cynicism of course, but rather asking students about their motives and roles in this. If we want to tackle the larger challenges possible in this course we might have to first reflect on such motives. Tutors have a job to do and students a course to pass, but we could set these practicalities aside and instead try for something more bold. We can have both a ‘successful’ unit and a feeling that we are doing more than just performing HE.  You comments are welcome.

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    Well, are we just responding to a crisis of representation within the marketing discipline? I suspect this may be perpetuated by academics needing something to write about and react to. There is no point in shooting down the only subject you can say something about with some degree of credibility. If you go back to the CCT definite model (JCR, 2005) you find the consumer to still be a central figure, in effect that is what differentiates that lot from cultural theorists at large. If the consumer disappears, then what are going to write about and act upon? The disappearance of the consumer may be good for mankind perhaps, but not good for the discipline. This would constitute too much of a paradigm shift, if we are seriously advocating this, we must dream up different alternatives and articulate justifications to edify such a project. Or perhaps we can see how the very definitions of the consumer that we currently hold are producing the narrow readings of consumption and marketing we are complaining about. Perhaps this is what that talk was all about?

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Faculty of Media & Communication, Bournemouth University