Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993 Pages 439-443
A CRITIQUE OF CRITICAL THEORY: RESPONSE TO MURRAY AND OZANNE'S "THE CRITICAL IMAGINATION"
Val Larsen, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Newell D. Wright, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
This paper critiques an article (Murray and Ozanne 1991) which introduces critical theory into consumer research. It makes explicit the neo-Marxist roots of critical theory and shows that important assumptions of the theory are untenable. It calls into question the normative foundation proposed by Murray and Ozanne, and it argues that in their paper, critical theory fails the test of praxis. This comment ultimately claims that critical theory is unworkable in consumer research because of its flaws.
Most marketing academics now regard social marketing as an integral part of their discipline (Hunt 1976). Perhaps because they see it as part of the larger enterprise, there has been little effort to build for it an independent theory base. One exception is a recent JCR article, "The Critical Imagination: Emancipatory Interests in Consumer Research," in which Murray and Ozanne (1991; hereafter M&O) attempt to root social marketing and socially conscious consumer research in the neo-Marxist analytic called critical theory. As an explication of critical theory, the M&O article is a great success, for it succinctly and lucidly lays out the assumptions, history, and methods of this complex research tradition. But these virtues notwithstanding, the article does not provide a reliable program for consumer and marketing research because it never explains how the basic weaknesses of critical theory can be overcome. In this response, we argue that the weaknesses cannot be transcended and, consequently, that critical theory cannot provide an adequate theoretical foundation for socially conscious marketing research.
M&O acknowledge but do not make sufficiently clear the Marxist roots of critical theory, which was designed to reconstruct an intellectually credible Marxism in the light of historical developments following Marx's death, developments which meant there would be no dictatorship of the proletariat, no withering of the state, no natural evolution into a classless society (Habermas 1973, pp. 196-198). Critical theorists of the first generation (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, among others) undertook the reconstruction, unified by two value judgements-"human life is worth living," "human life can be improved"-and by a shared terminal goal, their desire to create "a form of social organization that makes possible freedom, justice, and reason" (Marcuse 1964; M&O, p. 134). Though M&O mention this first generation, they focus on Jnrgen Habermas, the most prominent critical theorist of the second generation. Habermas sought to address two basic questions which had been raised in the work of earlier theorists: a) how can critical theory be connected to political practice, i.e. who or what will be the agent of social change, and b) how can a theory which arises within history provide a basis for an ahistorical, universal critique? Critical theorists must confront these two questions, for if they are not answered, the value judgments and terminal goal of critical theory become mere platitudes, abstract ideals subscribed to by most everyone, not guides to responsible and effective social action. Unfortunately, as we argue below, neither Habermas nor M&O adequately answer these questions.
We discuss the failure to answer Habermas' first question in the section on agents of change, the failure to answer the second question in the section on normative foundations. In the third section of our paper, we go on to critique M&O's examples, suggesting that they do not pass the important test of praxis.
AGENTS OF CHANGE
Critical theorists do have an answer, albeit an unsatisfactory one, for Habermas' first question, which answer M&O espouse. Since the proletariat, Marx's agent of change, did not act as predicted, effecting a radical restructuring of society, critical theorists propose that they themselves and other like-minded intellectuals serve as the agents of change (Habermas 1973, pp. 1-7; Horkheimer 1974). This answer is unsatisfactory partly because it leads directly to Habermas' second question, which has no answer, partly because it casts critical practitioners in a paternalistic role that seems inconsistent with genuine emancipation. The paternalism is evident in M&O's suggestion that critical researchers must
move beyond mere observation of subjects or participation in the informants' social reality and attempt through dialogue to reveal constraints, thereby motivating informants to engage in conscious political action (praxis). Simply put, the purpose of the critical research is to make life better for the social actor. . . . Metaphorically, the critical theorist is a "liberator" seeking through dialogue to make social actors aware of oppressive structures, a first step on the road to social change. (M&O, p. 136)
M&O imply that critical practitioners should intervene in the lives of others, acting as liberators, because they perceive the condition and interests of their informants better than the informants themselves and are thus positioned to stimulate them to discover or create just and reasonable solutions for their practical problems. This amounts to a claim on the part of the critical practitioner of special insight into social ethics. But, to take M&O's own example, on the issue of minivan safety, why should the ethical views of a critical researcher be any more valid than those of others who are intimately involved with this issue: UAW members and officers, Chrysler managers, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration bureaucrats, Consumer Union automotive specialists, politicians, consumers, the groups and individuals who presently work out a solution to the problem in the public arena? While consumer researchers have their own domain of expertise and can certainly contribute to the debate on this and other issues, they cannot claim the central role unless their moral understanding transcends that of other human beings. This is all the more true because consumer researchers are not empowered by an explicit constituency as are politicians, managers, union officials, and even employees of the Consumer Union. While democratic values or crude utilitarianism-the greatest good for the greatest number-might have justified Marx's proletariat had it taken up the agent-of-change role, the intellectual elite of critical theory can assume this role only if their actions are firmly grounded in superior moral understanding. This brings us to Habermas' second, more fundamental question: is it possible for critical theory to arise within history and yet provide superior moral understanding and the basis for a universal social critique?
While reviewing weaknesses of critical theory at the conclusion of their article, M&O concede that the theory is undermined by a fundamental contradiction, a problem
rooted in the critical theorists' claim that all knowledge is historical. If that is so, how can a researcher step out of this historicity and offer a critique of society by a transcendent rational standard? It is difficult to defend the existence of historical knowledge while at the same time suggesting that an ahistorical basis for critique exists.-.-.-. Although we recognize the problem, we choose to align with Habermas and his notion of an ideal speech situation. (M&O, p. 141)
This is a remarkable passage, for in it, M&O describe very clearly a fundamental flaw of critical theory, and yet they "choose" to overlook the flaw. Given their practice of making much hay of contradictions discovered in the thought or behavior of others, it ill behooves critical theorists to accept so easily a basic contradiction in their own thought. In this section, we show that the contradiction cannot be passed over, for it undermines the entire critical theoretic endeavor, transforming it from an objective moral science into an exercise in personal politics. We focus first on the ideal speech situation, a relatively concrete foundation for social norms, then discuss the critical theoretic view of reason, tradition, and science, concepts which provide the larger context in which critical theorists make normative claims.
Ideal Speech Situation
As mentioned above, the abstract ideals and terminal goals of critical theory-freedom, justice, and reason-are mere platitudes unless they are concretized in a comprehensive analysis of social relations. In M&O's article, Habermas' ideal speech situation provides the requisite concretization, for their discussion of the ideal speech situation is the one place where they spell out their normative social vision. Nor is this just one foundation among many that are available to critical theorists. As Fay (1987, p. 184), a scholar sympathetic to critical theory, points out, "This is by far the most sophisticated and powerful argument advanced in support of [the ideal of collective autonomy] from within the tradition of critical social science." If this foundation proves inadequate, there is in the tradition no other to supplant it.
M&O effectively encapsulate Habermas' position. An ideal speech situation is "a condition of symmetrical free speech,"
in which all people have an equal opportunity to engage in discourse unconstrained by authority, tradition, or dogma.-.-.-. All participants must have the same chance to employ constantive, regulative, and representative speech acts. This requirement ensures that no assertion will be exempt from critique, no single participant will gain privilege, and the participants will be truthful so that their inner natures will become transparent to others. (p. 134)
What one finds here in a new, sociolinguistic frame is Marx's utopian classless society, the commune devoid of hierarchy and social tension, which Marx held to be the terminus ad quem of history (Marx 1977, pp. 169, 190-91). The utopian terminus and standard of truth for Habermas is "rational consensus," allegedly the natural result of a speech situation in which everyone fully understands everyone else. This consensus discloses an underlying truth, thereby providing a foundation for social criticism (Fay 1987, p. 187-190; Habermas 1983; 1987, pp. 27, 71-72).
The limitations of this analysis become apparent when M&O attempt to apply it. As an approximate example of the ideal speech situation, they offer the Calvert Social Investment Fund (CSIF), a mutual fund which specializes in socially responsible investing. The CSIF advisory board includes representatives of various progressive social movements, environmentalists, educators, health care professionals, labor unionists, etc. The board invests in a company when the various advisors come to a rational consensus on the wisdom of doing so, all having participated openly, honestly, and with equal power in a discussion of the company's merits.
Though admirable in some respects, this speech situation is hardly ideal, for while the advisory board might achieve consensus on occasion, it does so by being ideologically homogeneous to begin with. The board includes no representatives of the political right, i.e. Eagle Forum, the NRA, groups supported by millions of Americans. Consequently, a certain viewpoint is privileged before the discussion even begins. And given the exclusion of the right, a whole range of assertions will probably be exempt from criticism. Were the right included, on the other hand, the advisory council might never reach consensus, a failure which would again call the entire concept of an ideal speech situation into question.
It is worth noting that while M&O say the ideal speech situation should "serve as a guide or as a critical standard from which actual discourse can be evaluated" (p. 134), they do not conform their own research program to this standard. Thus, in their minivan example, they do not suggest that a researcher bring company management, union officers, government regulators, and consumer groups together in order that they may forge a rational consensus-perhaps for the very good reasons that these groups would not assemble at the bidding of a consumer researcher and would not achieve consensus if they did assemble. Instead, they propose that the researcher, having talked with the various groups, act unilaterally to publicize the contradiction between the manufacturer's safety claims and the van's actual lack of safety, an act which the manufacturer surely and the unions probably would have vetoed if consensus were required as the basis for action. Given that a consensus is not sought or achieved, the consumer researcher has no foundation except personal politics, insights, and values when she or he acts unilaterally to bring about social change. It is appropriate to act upon such insights and values, but they are not a foundation for the kind of ahistorical, universal social critique critical theory claims to offer. One might add that Habermas' analysis is at odds with the most powerful contemporary emancipatory force, the multicultural movement, which has sought to empower minorities and broaden participation in social and economic institutions by arguing that the perspectives of minorities are unique, that no universalizing consensus can capture those perspectives (Hooks 1989).
Reason, Tradition, and Science
Reason and Tradition. It is no accident that rational consensus is the alleged product of an ideal speech situation. Critical theory takes for granted the existence of an autonomous rationality which is capable of discovering and disclosing objective truths that have been hidden by ideology and false consciousness (Fay 1987; Habermas 1983). It poses a problem-people are oppressed but do not perceive the oppression-and proposes a solution, a rational critique of the oppression which will make people aware of their true circumstances and, thereby, motivate them to change the social order making it more just and reasonable. (See steps 4 and 5 in M&O's methodological approach to critical research). This critique is possible, in the critical theoretic view, only when reason is uncontaminated by the corrupting influence of an inherited intellectual and social tradition, for only then are valid, i.e. rational, social norms revealed (Habermas 1973, pp. 32-37; 1984, 61-66).
Fundamental though it is to critical theory, the concept of autonomous rationality cannot be sustained. The notion that reason is autonomous and tradition corrupt derives, Ricoeur (1981) argues, from the Enlightenment. Fay (1987, pp. 161-2) traces it further back in the Age of Reason to Descartes who tried to doubt away everything that was dubitable and then to reconstruct the world upon a rationally certain foundation. But it is unrealistic, Fay says, for "those enthralled by the Enlightenment spirit which animates critical social science-.-.-. to insist that no part of a tradition be sacrosanct, exempt from scrutiny and assessment."
To bracket or question everything about oneself is to condemn oneself to silence. Without accepting some of the contents of one's tradition, there can be no questions and no answers; indeed, there can be no person to ask or answer them. This is why the notion of scrutinizing any and all of one's inheritance is literally nonsense. (Fay 1987, pp. 161-2)
Thus, reason, the abstraction which the ideal speech situation makes concrete, is no more adequate as a foundation for ahistorical critique than the speech situation itself, for reason is bound up with inherited assumptions, as Ozanne herself has very clearly shown (Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
M&O acknowledge the difficulty of actually attaining rational autonomy, but they nevertheless adopt it as a regulative ideal in their research program. They express the usual critical theoretic antipathy for tradition, which is held to distort discourse, and for established institutions, which are held to embody injustice. Thus, they refer to tradition as one of the "constraints" that lead to "distorted communication" (p. 135), meaning communication that produces belief systems which "could not be validated if subjected to rational discourse" (p. 142). Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, they suggest that it is possible to subject any and all traditions to a critical examination, then, if contradictions arise, to imagine a better social order and replace the old with the new. But even dramatic revolutions like those in France and Russia have been unable to expunge the cultural continuities which memory and habit preserve (Johnson 1979; Koenker, Rosenberg, and Suny 1989). And a number of consumer researchers, Ozanne among them, have shown that cultural traditions endow products with meaning (e.g., Belk 1991; Claiborne and Ozanne 1990; McCracken 1988; Ozanne 1992; Ozanne, Hill and Wright 1992). While these culturally grounded meanings are not always rational, they are the indispensable substance of our lives. Moreover, as Fay has indicated, researchers must be grounded in some intellectual tradition, for traditions make insight possible (Chalmers 1982; Hudson and Ozanne 1988). Without a tradition to build upon, there can be no progressive deepening of understanding (Gadamer 1975).
Science. In their use and discussion of the term science, M&O display a kind of conceptual schizophrenia. On the one hand they use the prestige and credibility of the word (Chalmers 1982) to buttress the claim that critical theorists have special insight into the nature of a properly rational social order. Thus, they repeatedly refer to critical theory as a science and claim that "genuine knowledge (products of science)" is the critical theorist's "most effective instrument for the emancipation of humans" (p. 131, italics added), as if science were a kind of fixed Archimedean point with which one could get rational leverage on the world. (For an extended critique of this conception of science, see Anderson 1983, 1986; Latour 1987; and Rorty 1979). In using the term this way, they try to lay a foundation for the critical theorist's ahistorical social critique (Ricoeur 1981). On the other hand, they also claim that all knowledge is socially constructed, that "researchers cannot produce neutral knowledge" (p. 138), that "knowledge is inescapably tied to interests. The issue," they say, is "not whether one can be apolitical in research, but rather what political stance one takes" (p. 130). Here, they hold that knowledge is a function of political preferences. If this view of science is applied to critical theory itself, then the critical theorist's social vision, like that of others, becomes a function of personal political preferences, not of ahistorical and objective rational analysis.
The same conceptual schizophrenia is apparent in their distinction between subjective and objective reality. This dichotomy smuggles into the analysis another implicit claim that critical theory is built on a foundation of rational certainty, for it suggests that critical theorists have access to objective reality, to things as they really are, whereas others perceive realities that are merely subjective. From these assumptions, it follows that critical theorists can transform the consciousness of others by helping them to see the contradictions between their subjective perceptions and the objective truth, i.e. by helping them to see the world as a critical theorist does. However, if M&O are correct about the social construction of reality, then their distinction between subjective and objective realities becomes untenable, for all realities become subjective, including the reality of the critical theorists themselves. And if this is so, then constituents merely exchange one subjective view for another when they adopt the viewpoint of a critical theorist.
The emphasis in the article on grasping the "historical totality" is, implicitly, another foundationalist claim. As McInnes (1967, p. 175) has pointed out, "With this notion of totality the [neo-Marxist] relativists have brought back the Absolute that they first threw out in favor of the historically relative." The notion that human beings can grasp the historical totality is rooted in nineteenth-century science and historiography (Carr 1961, pp. 3-15) and in one of the weaker claims of Marx's mentor Hegel (Hegel 1977, pp. 479-493; cf. Copleston pp. 216-218 for criticisms of the idea). The notion is inconsistent with the "epistemological limits" which circumscribe the range of possible human experiences (Fay 1987, pp. 144-5), for it ignores human finitude and the inherent opacity of human life. In the case of the minivan, for example, no individual or team could ever engage the social and historical totality imbricated with it, the demographic, lifestyle, strategic, design, engineering, and marketing considerations to name just a few of the relevant social and historical factors. So though M&O deny it, what they call "the problem of implementation" (p. 141) is a basic flaw in critical theory. This is all the more true because their totalization objective is inconsistent with their rational consensus objective. Nearly impossible to achieve even in relatively small groups, rational consensus is unimaginable among all the people involved with a mass market product like the minivan.
EXAMPLES AND THE TEST OF PRAXIS
The weaknesses of critical theory as an analytic framework become most apparent when M&O try to apply it to particular marketing phenomena. When they turn to concrete instances, both negative and positive, their major theoretical points are generally not applicable and are not applied. Thus, in their examples, they do not analyze the specific business situation and managers' consequent motivations, showing how perverted social arrangements induce managers to behave corruptly. And apart from the original exemplification of the idea, they never use the ideal speech situation to establish norms, i.e. to explain how a business should act in a given situation. As a result, managers in the negative examples seem malevolently conspiratorial when their behavior does not serve the public interest, and those in positive examples seem inexplicably benevolent when it does.
The hint of conspiracy is apparent in a negative example which suggests that manufacturers mass produce even though doing so does not serve the interests of their customers.
Many consumers in the United States believe a democratic ideology exists that allows free speech, individualism, and pluralism. As a consequence, they believe they exercise free will in their consumption choices. However, the people who control mass production benefit by producing homogeneous products, so the production technology constrains choices. The interpretive understanding of the subject (that we freely consume) is contradicted by the concrete social reality (mass consumption). (M&O, p. 133)
But have owners and managers really conspired, as M&O hint, to limit consumers' choices to mass-produced products? It seems more plausible to suggest, as Marx (1977, pp. 226, 307ff) did, that the limits imposed by available production technologies constrain producers just as much as consumers. And, indeed, as opportunity has arisen, producers have shown a willingness to provide consumers with a broader range of choices. Using new technologies that have recently made shorter production runs economical, they have increasingly taken up niche marketing and product customization (DiMingo 1988; McKenna 1988; Smith 1956). In any case, there seems to be no necessary contradiction between freedom and mass consumption. Even when other options are available (i.e. customized or hand-made goods), consumers may freely choose the price/performance mix made possible by mass production efficiencies and economies of scale.
Other examples of socially irresponsible business practices-the sale of sugared cereals and the export of goods not approved for sale in the United States-suffer from a similar failure to analyze the motives of the business people and consumers involved. M&O assert that "the manufacturers of sugared foods have created a social production process that serves their interests but not the interests of parents and children" (p. 134). They never ask, however, what motivates manufacturers to advertise sugared rather than unsugared cereals on programs targeted at children. Why are these companies anxious to sell one kind of cereal rather than another? Do they own sugar plantations or sugar factories? Are they simply malevolent? A conventional analysis grounded in the marketing concept (Kholi and Jaworski 1990) would probably suggest that the companies are motivated by the eating pleasure of their customers, the children, i.e. by the children's self-defined interests. Anxious to move as much product as possible, they capitalize on children's natural taste for sweets (Conner and Booth 1988), advertising and selling the kind of cereal that their customers will consume most avidly. And many parents at least acquiesce in these purchases, casting their dollar votes for sugared rather than unsugared cereal. While a nutritionist might disagree with the choices made by these children and their parents, the logic of the marketing concept makes it at least arguable that the cereal companies should be attuned to the desires of their customers, letting them make their own choices.
M&O associate their positive examples with critical theory no more convincingly than their negative examples, for they show no necessary connection between the examples and their critical theoretic program of research. They cite as positive examples Starkist's marketing of dolphin safe tuna, the Council on Economic Priorities' pamphlet called "Shopping for a Better World," and The Body Shop's manufacture and marketing of cosmetics without pollution, animal testing, or unreasonable product claims. While each of these organizations do engage in social marketing, there is no evidence that they were motivated to do so by a critical theoretic study. Nor is there any reason to assume that a laborious critical analysis would be required to induce companies to adopt such socially responsible policies. These examples may well reflect two rather basic marketing principles. First, owners and managers express their values in their business decisions just as consumers express theirs when they make a purchase. Second, if businesses can embody a value in a product, then they can use that value attribute to differentiate the product, making it more attractive to consumers who hold that value (Kahle 1983). These principles are applicable even if, as we have argued, ahistorical critique and rational consensus are illusions and the critical theoretic research program is unworkable. And since this kind of social marketing occurs in the absence of a critical study, these examples cannot be held to show the usefulness of critical theory.
We offer this extended critique of M&O's examples because practical applications are especially important for critical theory. Praxis, a theoretically grounded program of action, is the final step in the critical theoretic research method (M&O, p. 138). If, as we have argued, the analysis of the practical examples is flawed or there is no clear connection between theory and practice, then critical theory fails by its own ultimate criterion.
Like Marx and Freud, the two figures who most influenced them, critical theorists see the surfaces of experience as a disguise which masks an underlying reality (Ricoeur 1974, pp. 21-22; 1981). This insight reflects the experience of discovering that one's prior beliefs, especially social beliefs, have been systematically distorted. Though we accept this basic insight as sometimes valid, we differ with critical theorists on the status of the new reality against which the old ideas are measured and found wanting. With "a proud gesture of defiance," critical theory purports to measure old ideas and social structures against a monistic and ahistorical ideal standard. Much more defensible is the pluralism of the conceptual and moral marketplace in which ideas must compete to become the temporary standard of thought and value. This liberal pluralism is embodied in the "humble" gesture of hermeneutics, the approach we prefer because it makes conceptual and social progress possible without denying "the historical conditions to which all human understanding is subsumed in the reign of finitude" (Ricoeur 1981, p. 87).
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