Casey At the Conference: Some Reflections on the ACR Experience

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
Ernest Lawrence Thayer, Deceased
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook and Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1985) ,"Casey At the Conference: Some Reflections on the ACR Experience", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 598-600.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 598-600

CASEY AT THE CONFERENCE: SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE ACR EXPERIENCE

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

Ernest Lawrence Thayer, Deceased

It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day,

The score stood four to six with but an inning left to play.

And so, when Cooney died at first, and Burrows did the same,

A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

Many of us approach academic conferences with a trepidation that might produce ghostlike pallors in less rugged individuals. First, the selection of the conference site--usually some unmentionable Mudville that no one except a native son or daughter could conceivably want to visit--invariably seems calculated more to minimize hotel costs than to inspire our nobler instincts toward travel and tourism. Second, because of gaps in the promotional communication system, many of us hear about conferences (especially the ones held in posh European seaside resorts) at the last inning, too late to prepare and submit a paper for consideration. Some of those foresighted enough to plan ahead and to enter a submission may suffer fates comparable to the misfortunes of the hapless Cooney and Burrows when their manuscripts are mercilessly rejected by tyrannical conference chairpeople. In either event, those without scheduled presentations must grovel in humble supplication for a spot on the program as a session chairman or discussant so that their universities will agree to pay their way to the conference or, barring their willingness to face that embarrassment, must suffer the even greater spiritual and financial humiliation of buying their own tickets. Faced with these psychological barriers, some lapses in conference attendance may occur.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest,

With that hope which springs eternal within the human breast.

For they thought if only Casey could get a whack at that,

They'd put up even money with Casey at the bat.

Conference attendees (like the patrons of other entertainment and sports events) are at heart consumers. They seek experiences that they will find pleasurable or informative or, even better, both. The expectation of such rewards keeps them in the audience, returning year after year, forever in search of truth and enlightenment. They wait expectantly, like hungry cocker spaniels, with eternal hope for the appearance of some speaker on the program (some intellectual Casey) to give them "a whack on the side of the head" by presenting some super-provocative thought or some hyper-suggestive finding. In anticipation of such revelations, they may even put up their own money to cover travel expenses.

But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did Blake,

And the former was a pudding and the latter was a fake;

So on that stricken multitude a death-like silence sat,

For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

At the conference, these noble fans of scientific research and scholarship receive their programs and find themselves confronted by a seemingly endless series of boring sessions strung together from dreary papers that somehow passed the reviewers' careless scrutiny. For every paper of potential interest, they must endure two of no conceivable relevance to their own carefully programmed stream of research. They must suffer the unbearable tedium of listening to still one more extension of Flynn's trivial study on preferences toward different brands of gelatin desserts. Worse, they must tolerate an unintelligible discussion by Blake of a method for data reduction that contains innumerable glaring methodological flaws and probably works only on doctored data. In the face of such stultifying mediocrity, they sit silently, stricken by the near abandonment of any prospect that something interesting might happen.

But Flynn let drive a single to the wonderment of all,

And the much despised Blakey tore the cover of. the ball 9

And when the dust had lifted and they saw what had occurred,

There was Blakey safe on second, and Flynn a-hugging third.

Sometimes they get caught by surprise to discover fascinating and even wondrous ramifications in work that at first seemed irrelevant to their own interests. Perhaps Flynn has cleverly devised a unidimensional scale of taste satisfaction that they can use in their own research on soft drinks and cigarettes. Maybe Blake has torn away the surface mystification that formerly shrouded his complex procedure and has finally laid bare its essence for all to marvel at and admire. For the first time, both scholars have swept away clouds of dust and opened up new research horizons.

Then from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell,

It bounded from the mountain top and rattled in the dell,

It struck upon the hillside, and rebounded on the flat,

For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

These discoveries of Flynn and Blake prepare the way for the appearance of the speaker that they really came to hear--Casey, the one played in our mind's eye by Gary Cooper or Robert Redford; mighty Casey, the one who faces nearly intolerable pressure to be creative, to be relevant, to say something insightful, to speak profoundly every time he stePS to the Podium.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place,

There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face,

And when responding to the cheers he lightly doffed his hat,

No stranger in the crowd could doubt, 'twas Casey at the bat.

Casey responds to this pressure, this weight of expectation and obligation, by affecting a few seemingly careless mannerisms of the absent-minted professor. Even while trembling and fluttering inside, he makes it all look easy. He strolls nonchalantly but confidently to the microphone. He adjusts the overheat projector. He smiles charmingly. He removes his jacket.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt,

Five thousand tongues applauded as he wiped them on his shirt;

And while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip-

Defiance gleamed from Casey's eye--a sneer curled Casey's lip.

The audience applauds and eagerly watches as Casey makes a few more ritualistic adjustments to his apparel. He rolls up his sleeves. He loosens his tie. Just now, to his ineffable consternation, he spots sitting in the crowd the editor of a prestigious journal that recently rejected from publication the very paper which he is about to deliver. He inwardly recoils with defiant bitterness over his callous treatment by this journal and can hardly suppress a sneer in the direction of its editor.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,

And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there;

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped

"That hain't my style" said Casey "Strike one," the Umpire said.

Casey begins his talk by pointing out that his research style involves the unobtrusive observation of consumption behavior with no particular regard for any managerial implications that his findings might hold for marketing practitioners. Indeed, he deals primarily with rarified theory and typically employs student subjects with haughty disregard for issues concerning the generalization of his results to the real marketplace. At the back of the room, the director of marketing research for a large corporation lurks furtively in the shadows and wonders why his extremely negative review of Casey's initial manuscript did not kill the paper forever as he had hoped and thereby spare him this further indignity. Querulously, he now thrusts out his right hand, proclaims his status as a referee on an earlier draft of the paper, pronounces it worthless, and publicly scolds Casey for not exploring its managerial implications.

From the bleachers black with people there rose a sullen roar,

Like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and distant shore,

"Kill him. Kill the Umpire"' shouted some one from the stand

And it's likely they'd have done it had not Casey raised his hand.

Casey has friends and supporters in the audience. They groan sullenly at the practitioner's tiresome tirade about usefulness and applicability. A pure theorist who spends most of his time writing voluminous literature reviews and concocting the most fanciful of hypotheses and propositions shouts his enraged objection to the reviewer's rude intrusion. Nearby spectators fear that a fist-fight might ensue until Casey interrupts by resuming his presentation.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone,

He stilled the rising tumult and he bade the game go on;

He signalled to the pitcher and again the spheroid flew,

But Casey still ignored it and the Umpire said "Strike two."

Casey smiles politely and points out that, for him, consumer research is like a game which he plays for its own sake as an end in itself. He mentions that he regards his research efforts as a gift to the academic community and that his own rewards stem primarily from the intrinsic satisfactions derived from the scholarly activities involved. He ignores managerial applications not as any concession to convenience, but as a matter of nearly religious principle. This time, the section editor who managed the review process for the paper feels called upon to abandon his silence. He throws up his right hand and says that, even if Casey's paper did have practical relevance (which it doesn't), it would remain worthless because it fails to satisfy several key requirements of the positivistic approach to science. Only several revisions--each accompanied by detailed replies to the reviewers' constructive if mutually inconsistent criticisms could possibly save the paper. Casey's obdurate slothfulness in ignoring the reviewers' many helpful suggestions has rendered the paper unacceptable to this referee and suitable only for presentation at a conference. This referee cannot resist adding that even the latter ignominious disposition remains dubious at best.

"Fraud"' yelled the maddened thousands, and the echo answered "Fraud."

But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed;

They saw his face grow stern and cold; they saw his muscles strain,

And they knew that Casey would not let that ball go by again.

Casey's friends again object, this time by citing arguments for personal creativity and interpersonal relativism in science. Angrily, they yell out claims that science does not proceed in the orderly progression envisioned by the positivists. They echo one another's examples of subjectivity and intuition in scientific endeavor. But, to their awed amazement, Casey reacts with scorn. Casey sternly rejects any attempt to escape positivism's cold dictates by retreating into the comfortable apologies of relativism. Casey distinguishes between theory development and theory testing. He embraces subjectivity in the former, but remains an empiricist in the latter. He knows that, for him, science proceeds by the recurrent cycles of developing and testing theory and that he must consequently endure the strain of pitting hypotheses against data. Casey knows that he is playing hardball. The ball represents the target of valid empirical research. Hitting that target, like batting a baseball, is one of the most difficult acts that humans have invented. But Casey cannot help himself. He feels compelled to try to do it.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip; his teeth are clenched with hate,

He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,

And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Caught in these cross-currents of conflicting intellectual and emotional pressures, Casey feels bewildered, frustrated, and ultimately furious. He feels anger toward the umpires who call his best shots foul and toward the pitcher who unfairly loads up the ball and toward the fans whose cheers lull him into complacency and toward himself for not always striving hard enough to do his best work. He expresses his momentary hate by violently pounding his hand on the lectern. He grits his teeth, sneaks a cruel look at the unsympathetic editor, and summons all his strength for a more forceful attempt to clarify his position. He breathes deeply and prepares mentally for one last heroic exertion.

But, in his wise heart if not his numbed mind, Casey knows that his pitiable attempts to penetrate the mysteries of consumer behavior will exert little effect on the world around him. His discovery of today may entertain scholars or challenge reviewers or alienate managers for a few brief moments, but will be enlarged upon, extended, and eventually eclipsed by the findings of more sophisticated consumer researchers. And, all the while, men and women and children will continue to consume, to bask in the sun and listen to music and travel to exotic lands, and to express their joy in these consumption experiences by laughter and shouting and light hearts. And his work - in its mighty, heroic fallibility -- will not have mattered very much at all.

Oh' somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing. and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has "Struck Out."

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