Culture Jamming: Expanding the Application of the Critical Research Project

Jay M. Handelman, University of Lethbridge
ABSTRACT - Culture-jamming represents activity aimed at countering the continuous, recombinant barrage of capitalist laden messages fed through the mass media. This term was coined by the Media Foundation (a not-for-profit, non-academic, social activist organization) to describe their consumer resistance crusade. The Media Foundation’s culture-jamming tactics adhere to the spirit and normative structure of the critical theory paradigm. These culture-jamming activities present an opportunity to develop a framework for evaluating a critical research project and for conceptualizing the application of critical theory beyond the academic environment.
[ to cite ]:
Jay M. Handelman (1999) ,"Culture Jamming: Expanding the Application of the Critical Research Project", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 399-404.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 399-404

CULTURE JAMMING: EXPANDING THE APPLICATION OF THE CRITICAL RESEARCH PROJECT

Jay M. Handelman, University of Lethbridge

ABSTRACT -

Culture-jamming represents activity aimed at countering the continuous, recombinant barrage of capitalist laden messages fed through the mass media. This term was coined by the Media Foundation (a not-for-profit, non-academic, social activist organization) to describe their consumer resistance crusade. The Media Foundation’s culture-jamming tactics adhere to the spirit and normative structure of the critical theory paradigm. These culture-jamming activities present an opportunity to develop a framework for evaluating a critical research project and for conceptualizing the application of critical theory beyond the academic environment.

INTRODUCTION

The critical imagination, introduced into our discipline earlier this decade (cf. Murray and Ozanne 1991), provides a conceptual foundation that enhances our ability as researchers to disrupt and challenge the status quo in consumer research. While not without criticism of its own (cf. Hetrick and Lozada 1994), since the introduction of the critical research agenda by Murray and Ozanne, many consumer behavior research projects have challenged conventional thinking in an attempt to unveil taken-for-granted power structures in consumer behavior.

Some critical research projects have focused on particular groups in society who have been marginalized by dominant social structures. Such groups include Mexican immigrants to the United States and their attempts to learn how to buy American products (PeĀ±aloza 1994); the damaging effects for people in developing countries who turn to the Western ideology of consumption and materialism in an attempt to improve the quality of life (Ger 1997); the dehumanization and resulting consumption patterns of institutionalized people (Cornwell and Gabel 1996); the misrepresentation by marketers of the mobility-disabled (Burnett and Paul 1996). Other critical research projects have turned their focus inward and critically assessed the marketing ideology in general, or the consumer behavior research academy in particular. For instance, Kilbourne, McDonagh and Prothers (1997) critically examined the relationship between the dominant social paradigm of consumption and a deteriorating quality of life. Bristor and Fischer (1993) and Hirschman (1993) exposed the prevailing ideology in consumer research and its misrepresentation of women.

All of these studies may be considered part of the critical theory paradigm in that they critique the dominant, taken-for-granted reality that privileges one world view at the cost of marginalizing others (Murray and Ozanne 1991). However, as valuable as these studies are in their contribution to the critical imagination, it can be argued that they do not fully meet the criteria of critical theory for two reasons: 1) they collectively lack substantive insight into the concept of emancipation and enlightenment (Hetrick and Lozada 1994) and, 2) these studies position the academic social scientist in the privileged position of determining the dominant social structures and their meanings (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994). While the latter point may not be an issue when academic researchers reflect on the practices of their own social science, it is less appropriate when trying to speak for marginalize groups in society.

The ultimate goal of the critical research project is emancipation (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). As such, any meaningful and lasting emancipatory change has to involve critical self-reflection combined with self-transformation on the part of the individuals in the marginalized group (Alvesson and Willmott 1992). It is not enough to only uncover the social constraints on human self-determination and freedom. The critical project must actively engage participants to take steps towards the removal of the constraints imposed by the dominant ideology "thus allowing nonelite people to develop the capacity for autonomous action" (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, p. 552, italics added). Such emancipation can only occur if there is an active process by individuals (the "nonelite") to engage in self-reflection (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994) in an attempt to achieve a freedom to an alternative way of thinking and behaving (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). The above studies present academics’ perspectives of social structures that individuals must be freed from, rather than actively engaging the "nonelite" in a process of self-reflection and freedom towards self-determined alternatives.

In light of these shortcomigs, and given the emancipatory spirit of the critical theory perspective, the purpose of this paper is to expand our understanding of the critical theory methodology with respect to its practical application to societal members. To this end, a framework will be presented and illustrated that allows for an assessment of the critical research project’s adherence to the spirit and normative structure of the critical theory paradigm. This framework can serve as a template by which critical researchers can evaluate the rigor and credibility of a given critical research project, particularly a project that has been designed and implemented outside the domain of the academic environment.

The next section of this paper will conceptually develop this critical research framework by pointing out both the intended spirit of critical theory, and the expected normative structure of a critical research project. This conceptual development will be followed by an illustrative application of the framework. To illustrate this framework for assessing a critical research project, an existing, ongoing critical research project will be evaluated. In particular, the critical research activities of a not-for-profit and non-academic organization called The Media Foundation will be analyzed and assessed.

THE CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK TO ASSESS CRITICAL THEORY RESEARCH

Critical theory, rooted in Marxist thought and conceptualized by the famed "Frankfurt Circle" [Given space limitations, details of the "Frankfurt Circle's" development of critical theory will not be made here. However, for more information, refer to Murray and Ozanne (1991).] provides a conceptual framework for the critique of the social structures constructed under the capitalist ideology (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). While these structures are socially constructed, they emerge in the interest of the capitalist agenda by those who control the technological, financial, communication, and transportation infrastructures (Murray and Ozanne 1991). Once constructed, these social structures "act back" by becoming reified for members of society. These social structures become "facts" that appear to exist objectively and come to define "appropriate" social behavior. These structures thus become constraints for self determination and freedom (Murray and Ozanne 1991). Therefore, the core of the critical research project is to engage societal members in a process of critical self-reflection to arrive at an awareness of dominant, socially constructed, ideological imperatives that drive frames of reference and behaviors (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994).

FIGURE 1

THE CRITICAL RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

While the core of the critical research project involves self-reflection leading to the awareness of constraining social structures, the overriding goal of the critical research project must be emancipation (Hetrick and Lozada 1994; Murray and Ozanne 1991). Emancipation involves a transformation process away from the constraints of the existing social structures towards "a form of social organization that makes possible freedom, justice, and reason" (Murray and Ozanne 1991, p. 134). Hetrick and Lozada (1994) stress that the critical theory project must go beyond the critique of existing social structures (referred to as "freedom from" or "negative freedom") by offerin alternative social structures that enhance human freedom and self determination (referred to as "positive freedom" or "freedom to").

This concept of the critical theory project envisions humans as active beings who must be the authors of their own destinies (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). In the tradition of enlightenment upon which critical theory is based, humans must actively free themselves from their "inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another" (Kant 1970, p. 54). However, to achieve this state of enlightenment (or emancipation), the ones who are to be emancipated must be actively engaged in the transformation process of self-reflection and self-consciousness criticism (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994).

Murray and Ozanne’s (1991) conceptualization of critical theory has been criticized for minimizing the "radical bite" of traditional critical theory thought. "Any version of a critical theory should be wholly inconsistent with the notion of a capitalist commodity structure and its continual drive towards efficiency and profit" (Hetrick and Lozada 1994, p. 549). While critical theory may be used to critique all forms of domination, it must include a critique of capitalism (Murray, Ozanne and Shapiro 1994).

One significant aspect of this "capitalist commodity structure" is the "culture industry" (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). This culture industry, which includes forms of mass communication, is one means by which capitalist ideology is upheld by presenting the priorities of the marketplace phrased in the context of the public good (Ewen and Ewen 1992). Mass media vehicles have emerged as the harbinger of the capitalist vision. "The basic premise is that in a corporate, industrial world, it is agencies of communication that provide the mechanisms for social order" (Ewen and Ewen 1992, p. 24). The mass imagery delivered on mass media vehicles controlled by a capitalist elite, delivers the pretext for a social order which is based on the creation of a system of beliefs consistent with the capitalist ideology. Therefore, one way in which the "radical bite" of critical theory can be maintained is to challenge a key component the capitalist ideology, namely, the culture industry.

OVERVIEW OF THE CRITICAL RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

This conceptual backdrop provides the basis upon which a framework can be developed that allows for an evaluation of a critical research project’s adherence to the spirit and philosophy of the critical theory paradigm. The framework, which is summarized in Figure 1, is presented in three parts. The first part assesses the critical research project for its adherence to the spirit of the critical theory paradigm. The second part of the framework presents a guideline by which the specifics of the research project can be evaluated for its consistency with the philosophical tenets of critical theory. Finally, the third part of the framework outlines how the credibility (known as validity in the positivist tradition) of the critical research project can be evaluated.

Evaluating the Spirit of the Critical Research Project

First, when assessing the isomorphism between the critical research project and the spirit of the critical theory paradigm, three components must be considered as summarized from the conceptual development in the previous section. 1) The critical theory project must endeavor to identify the contradictions and constraints to human freedom of the underlying, taken-for-granted social structures imposed by the capitalist ideology as it is articulated and perpetuated by the culture industry; 2) The critical theory project must endeavor to engage members of society in an active process of self-reflection and transformation; 3) The critical theory project must endeavor to aid members to arrive at alternative social structures that will enhance human freedom and self-determination (enlightenment), also referred to as "praxis" (Murray and Ozanne 1991).

Given these three criteria, it becomes apparent that a critical theory research project can be exceedingly practical in its contribution to progressive, societal change without being under the control of a formally trained social scientist (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994). In order to illustrate this point, an existing project has been chosen for evaluation. Specifically, the ongoing efforts of the Media Foundation [Much of the information provided here about the Media Foundation is based upon first hand interviews with the organization's members on location in Vancouver as part of a larger ongoing consumer behavior research project.] are chosen. First it will be demonstrated that the work of The Media Foundation does represent the spirit of the critical theory paradigm. Then, a sample of one of their research tactics will be evaluated for its adherence to the normative structure of the critical theory paradigm, and its credibility as a research project.

The Media Foundation is a not-for-profit, non-academic, grassroots organization located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The work of the Media Foundation is carried out by a handful of full time individuals who are "refugees" from the advertising and media industry. As well, the Media Foundation relies on the work of many volunteers, which include a range of people from advertising production professionals who volunteer their production equipment and skills, to teenagers who help with daily office administrative duties.

The primary purpose of The Media Foundation is to serve as a "culture-jamming" movement (Edelman 1997). Culture-jamming involves countering the continuous, recombinant barrage of capitalist laden messages fed through the mass media. Their mission is, "to build the new social activist movement of our information age" (Adbusters 1997, p. 72). In this sense, the Media Foundation meets the first criteria stated above. By taking direct aim at the "culture industry", the Media Foundation is tackling the capitalist ideology at its core (Ewen and Ewen 1992), by attempting to uncover the contradictions inherent in the resulting social structures. Having capitalism at the core of their attack is consistent with the Media Foundation’s stated objective of interrupting the barrage of capitalist laden messages in the media (Edelman 1997).

It is worth noting, that the viewpoint taken by those of the Media Foundation is clearly rooted in the modernist tradition in that there is a clear, singular oppressor (capitalist ideology delivered by way of the culture industry) and the oppressed can be clearly identifiedBthe consumer. Such a view is inconsistent with the growing postmodern perspective. An increasing awareness of the multiplicity of consumer perspectives and interpretations undermines the viewpoint of a transcendent, unified oppressor. Increasingly, consumers are seen to be socially saturated with fragmented and nonrational experiences (Gergen 1991). This contrasts the view of massoppression by a unified oppressor. Nonetheless, the viewpoint taken by those of the media foundation is undeniably modernist, as exemplified by their "culture-jamming" tactics.

The Media Foundation uses a number of tactics to engage in culture-jamming. They publish the quarterly magazine Adbusters, which they dub the "Journal of the Mental Environment". This magazine contains articles and editorials that critique the influence of the mass media and the marketing actions of large organizations. This magazine also includes parodies of actual advertising campaigns. (One particularly popular parody is that of Philip Morris’ "Joe Camel" character which is recast in Adbusters as "Joe Chemo".) The Media Foundation also produces what they call "un-commercials", which are professionally produced 30 second television ads that challenge the underlying ideology transmitted by the mass media.

These "culture-jamming" tactics are directly aimed at consumers, attempting to actively engage the consumer in a process of self-reflection. The content of these tactics admonish consumers to consider the role that large industrial companies play, in conjunction with the power of the mass media, in controlling their lives (Adbusters 1997, p.72). This thought provoking material produced by the Media Foundation, is consistent with the second criteria in assessing the spirit of the critical theory project. The Media Foundation, as evidenced by these ongoing actions, is attempting to actively engage consumers in a process of self-reflection and awareness of the control that social structures embedded in the capitalist ideology have over their lives.

Consistent with the third criteria for assessing the spirit of the critical research project, the Media Foundation actively organizes and encourages consumers to participate in a number of activities that represent steps towards alternatives to the "capitalist way of life". For example, the Media Foundation seeks out "culture-jamming volunteers" to take video copies of the un-commercials to local television stations and challenge the station to place them on the air. In both the United States and Canada, the refusal by television networks to air these un-commercials, even when being paid for the time, has led the Media Foundation to launch legal action against these media outlets for restricting equal access to the airwaves.

The Media Foundation has also been actively involved in the promotion of such grassroots consumer activities as the annual "Buy Nothing Day" (which is always one day after the American ThanksgivingBtypically one of the highest retail sales days of the year), and "Turn TV Off Week". These grassroots activities represent an attempt by the Media Foundation to suggest alternative actions (Murray and Ozanne’s "praxis step") to counter the barrage of the capitalist laden media. Such activities, therefore, represent adherence to the third criteria for assessing the spirit of the critical research project.

Evaluating the Normative Structure

Having shown that the activities of the Media Foundation adhere to the spirit of the critical theory paradigm, the next task is to assess the normativ structure of the specific tactics used in this research project (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994; Murray and Ozanne 1991). In order to do this, one specific tactic used by the Media Foundation will be examined. In particular, one 30 second un-commercial will be structurally analyzed. Structuralism combines a formal model of explanation (i.e. the normative structure of critical theory) with an analytical approach related to semiotics (Manning and Cullum-Swan 1994). Both critical theorists and those who employ structuralism view reality as socially constructed. And like critical theory, structuralism sees that the texts produced by social interaction become real and decipherable through a set of interpretive lenses (Manning and Cullum-Swan 1994). In the context of this paper, critical theory is the interpretive lens. The specific elements of one 30 second un-commercial are analyzed using the interpretive lens of critical theory to determine the structure of meaning inherent in that text.

While it may be more appropriate to analyze more than one piece of evidence from the research project, space limitations prevent this. However, the main purpose of this paper is to illustrate the usefulness of this critical theory framework as applied beyond an academic environmentBnot to conclusively demonstrate the "validity" of the Media Foundation’s critical research project. Therefore, the analysis of one representative research tactic is appropriate. A description of the un-commercial to be assessed is presented in Table 1.

TABLE 1

DESCRIPTION OF THE 30 SECOND UN-COMMERCIAL: "THE PRODUCT IS YOU"

Murray and Ozanne (1991) identified the ontological, axiological and epistemological assumptions that comprise the normative structure of critical theory. The tactics used in the critical research project of the Media Foundation, as represented by the un-commercial described in Table 1, will now be assessed for its adherence to this normative structure.

Ontological Assumptions. Ontologically, critical theorists believe that reality is socially produced. However, the social structures that produce this reality begin to appear concrete or objective. Once this happens, these social structures begin to "act back" by presenting the individual with "appropriate" social behavior. The ideology underlying these social structures is hidden. While these social structures do become entrenched, which in turn constrains human freedom, critical theory ontology does emphasize the human potential to overcome this inertia (Murray and Ozanne 1991).

This ontology is consistent with the tactics of the Media Foundation, as represented by the un-commercial describe in Table 1. The only activity occurring in the ad is that surrounding the television. The man in the ad is sitting motionless and expressionless in front of the television, awash in the sounds and glow being emittedBa passive receptor of the capitalist message. The living room has been transformed into a "factory" in which the man is being socially "manufactured" through the presence of electronic communication systems (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994). In this sense, the man’s consciousness and vision of reality is being "constructed" by the social structure of the marketplace as delivered by the mass media.

Evidence that it is capitalist ideology as the dominant social structure that is shaping reality for the man abounds in this un-commercial. At the heart of the capitalist ideology is a commodity fetishism in which consumption and production are co-requisites of one another (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). A capitalist ideology encompasses the spheres of both production and consumption in that the laborer and the consumer are one in the same. In the capitalist system, laborers are alienated from the products they produce, but may take onership of those products only when they play the role of consumer. Consumers in turn are also treated as commodity objects, there to be shaped by the dominant ideology (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). Thus, products are commodities which exist separate from any human skill or identity,Ba commodity fetishism in which the lifeless commodity becomes the focus of human aspirations.

The un-commercial presented above captures the idea of commodity fetishism. In that ad, even a person can become a commodity, systematically produced by the culture industry. The viewer in the un-commercial is sitting alone, isolated, alienated from society, speechless, motionless, thoughtless. The viewer has been rendered an emotionless, non-spiritual, reluctant participator in the "modernist project" of capitalism (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). The man in the un-commercial has become a lifeless productBa commodityBmanufactured by the capitalist ideology delivered by the culture industry. The words "factory" and "product", and the idea that the man (a consumer) is also a product captures the capitalist interplay of consumption and production, and represents the ultimate in commodity fetishism in which the man himself has become a commodity.

However, the other ontological assumptionBhuman potentialBis also represented in this un-commercial in that the viewer is encouraged to "Cast off the chains of market structured consciousness". This message is encouraging the viewer to engage in self-reflection in order to consider how the social structures around him are shaping his view of the world, and ultimately, his actions (or inaction). Hope and human potential to break free ("Cast off the chains...") from these social constraints do prevail in the Media Foundation’s message. So, ontologically, this critical research tactic does adhere to the belief that one’s view of the world is socially constructed, but that it appears objective and controlling. However, there is the human potential to break free from this social control.

Axiological Assumptions. The overriding goal of a critical research project must be emancipation and enlightenment (Hetrick and Lozade 1994; Murray and Ozanne 1991). The tactics taken in the critical research project must first attempt to demystify the underlying ideology that is constructing the reality of the individual (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). Rather than seeing the social structures as existing objectively, separate from any human construction and control, the individual must come to see these social structures as existing within his/her own control. Such liberation cannot possibly be achieved if the unilateral logic of the capitalist marketplace is not challenged (Firat and Venkatesh 1995).

As evidenced in the un-commercial, the logic of the marketplace is what is being directly attacked and demystified. The man is actively inspired to consider the marketplace not as some immutable, objective fact, but rather as shackles imposed on him with the effect of constraining his freedom of thought and consciousness. An ideology is a form of consciousness, a system of meaning, that sustains the domination of the underlying social structure (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). The un-commercial admonishes the viewer to break free from this ideological constraint, what is referred to as the "chains of market structured consciousness". Consistent with the axiology of emancipation, the tactics of the Media Foundation actively attempt to make the viewers aware of the hidden ideology that controls their lives, and then demystify this ideology by pointing out the control viewers have to change their own consciousness. Such encouragement is harmonious with Kant’s (1970) vision of enlightenment in which individuals are free to think for themselves, and not rely on the guidance of others.

Epistemological Assumptions. Critical theory is based on the epistemology that knowledge generated from the critical research project must be forward looking, unmasking, practical, and reflective (Murray and Ozanne 1991). The un-commercial describe in Table 1 meets all these epistemological criteria. It is forward looking n that it encourages the viewer to free oneself from the constraints of the market ideology. A phone number is given for the viewer to call to find out more information and receive support in the endeavor to start on the path of understanding and escaping the socially constructed constraints. In this sense, the un-commercial is also unmasking. The message is that one’s view of the world has been constructed by a market structured ideology. The un-commercial attempts to unmask (or demystify) this ideology by pointing out that the individual can gain control of and independence from the unilateral logic of the marketplace. This critical research project encourages reflection on the part of the viewer. The viewer is encouraged to reflect upon these social constraints and the steps that can be taken to push towards more liberating alternatives.

One of the intriguing factors that differentiates this critical research project from those in the extant consumer behavior literature is its practicality. The knowledge generated by the activities of the Media Foundation, as represented in the un-commercial presented in Table 1, are directly applicable to the consumer. Consumers themselves are encouraged to take the role of critical researchers by challenging their own positionality as reified commodities defined by prevailing discourses of capitalist ideology (Kincheloe and McLaren 1994).

Evaluating the Credibility of the Critical Research Project

As with any other research project, the credibility of critical research must also be evaluated consistent with the tenets of the critical theory paradigm. Given this paradigm, the main test of the critical research is: "does it work"? In other words, do consumers become aware of how the capitalist ideology has focused their activities, and do consumers change their activities having gained such awareness? Kincheloe and McLaren (1994) have described this in two categories: 1) Credibility of the portrayals of the constructed realities; 2) Catalytic validity.

Credibility of the portrayal of the constructed realities assesses the critical research project for the reaction of the participants and their emotional involvement. This provides evidence that the social constructions presented are plausible for the participants in their attempt to see the effects of the oppression imposed by the dominant ideology. Catalytic validity refers to the reality-altering impact of the critical research project on the individuals involved. Catalytic validity establishes the extent to which participants become engaged in a self-transformation process

Both of these tests of credibility require primary research in order to assess whether the emotional involvement of individuals is high and that the critical research project has had an effect in altering the view of reality of the participants. Such research goes beyond the scope of this paper. However, some secondary evidence may serve as initial evidence of the credibility of the Media Foundation’s critical research project.

The secondary evidence that points to some initial evidence of catalytic validity is the growing attention that the Media Foundation has received as a result of its activities. The November 1997 Buy Nothing Day was celebrated in 10 countries and was reported in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (Media Foundation Web Site 1998). Further, Statistics Canada reports that Adbusters has become Canada’s top exported magazine. While such evidence does not conclusively indicate that catalytic validity has been achieved, it does indicate that the Media Foundation’s critique of the capitalist ideology and the resulting pattern of consumption is engaging the interest of an increasing number of people each year.

CONCLUSIONS

This paper has presented a conceptual framework through which a critical research project can be assessed for its adherence to the spirit and normative structure of the critical theory paradigm. An intriguing implication of this investigation is the demonstration that a critical research project may be designed and implemented completely outside the domain of the academic social scientist. The activities of the Media Foundation, which were analyzed in this paper, follow the spirit and normative structure of the critical theory paradigm, as outlined by Murray and Ozanne (1991), while maintaining the "radical bite" advocated by Hetrick and Lozada (1994). While providing direct evidence of the credibility of this critical research project fell outside the range of this paper, secondary data was presented that provides some initial evidence that the Media Foundation’s critical research project is having some impact.

The framework presented in this paper provides the groundwork for future critical theory research. First, primary research is needed in order to determine the credibility and catalytic validity of a given critical research project. As the Media Foundation expands its activities, developing a research program that seeks to assess the emotional involvement by participants and the resulting reality altering impact would help assess the credibility of the Media Foundations activities. As well, such research would also provide interesting insight into the concepts of emancipation and enlightenment, which is an under studied area in critical research (Hetrick and Lozada 1994). Finally, the framework presented in this paper may serve as the foundation for the development, implementation, and assessment of future critical research projects.

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