Toward a Reconstruction of the Meanings, Processes, and Culture of Consumer Research: Valorizing the Cultures of Visual Impairment As Salient and Informing

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould (1999) ,"Toward a Reconstruction of the Meanings, Processes, and Culture of Consumer Research: Valorizing the Cultures of Visual Impairment As Salient and Informing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 414-415.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 414-415


Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York


As with everything else in postmodernity, visual impairment is being problematized and reconstructed. Prior definitions, meanings, perceptions and behaviors have been altered, renamed, and/or displaced in a torrent of textual transformation. Yet, the fact remains that consumers who are visually impaired comprise an alternative (sub)culture interacting with the larger culture (Gould 1990, 1997). Very often, this means that different products and meanings evolve in both mainstream culture and the alternative culture of visual impairment. Often, they and the people involved may cross over from one culture to another. Visual impairment, itself, is not one culture but rather a culture of cultures. In the main, it is comprised of the separate although often interacting subcultures of those people who have no sight at all and those who are partially sighted. Other cultural divisions also exist (e.g., those born without sight and those who lose it later in life). Visual impairment may be further contextualized in terms of other disabilities and their cultural constructions as manifested, for example, in the Americans with Disabilities Act which in recent years has become the contested basis of the very meaning of disability.


Drawing on my experience as a participant-observation in which I (a sighted person) served as a partial member of these cultures (Adler and Adler 1987) since the 1970’s (off and on) through my work with a center for visually impaired computer users, and alsothrough my own research on visual impairment (Gould 1997), as well as alternative culture (e.g., Gould 1990), I look at consumer research and behavior and show how they may be problematized, deconstructed, reconstructed, revalorized and reconceptualized. In this sense, I take an intertextual, hybridizing, and at times, introspective approach in which meanings and effects are transferred, albeit not without transformation and resignification across the cultures.


Based on this analysis, I find the following prevailing and/or emergent themes: (1) the nature of physicality (i.e. degrees of visual impairment or capacity) as a basis for and determinant of a consumption (sub)culture, (2) mainstream, normal, effective, and hybridized consumption (cf. Andreasen (1975) among others) and how that is constructed, (3) equity issues in terms of fairness in being able to consume, (4) freedom and independence as a desirable consumer state, (cf. Murray and Ozanne (1991) on emancipation in terms of critical theory and Firat and Venkatesh (1995) on postmodernity) and (5) how one’s consciousness as a consumer researcher and human being is radically altered when one considers visual impairment.


The main implication of this analysis is that if researchers include visual impairment in their research (not to mention other disabilities), if only in the introduction or implications sections of their papers, then consumer research will be transformed because it will consider any meaning or psychosocial process as possibly being changed by such impairment. Thus, much as we might speak of different effects or meanings if various segments or groupings are examined (e.g., gender, regional, cultural, or personality type), we should also consider that visual and other impairments, as well as other alternative cultures, comprise major variables of theoretical distinction.

To illustrate (for sighted researchers), try the following introspective exercise. Attempt to place your self in the role of a visually impaired consumer. Cover and/or close your eyes and imagine or even try being in various consuming situations (e.g., shopping, cleaning the house, seeking product information, using the Internet). Admittedly certain aspects of this may be difficult. For instance, if you close your eyes, you will still see mental imagery that a visually impaired consumer clearly would not. Still even these difficulties can be revealing. If possible, it would of course be good to discuss these processes with such visually impaired consumers. Visually impaired researchers might try something on the order of the opposite though I would expect that this imagining process is not entirely new to you. If you have never been sighted, have partial sight, or have lost your sight, you very likely have thought about and/or imagined the fully sighted conditionCthis is a salience effect that minority and/or disadvantaged groups often display (Stayman and Deshpande 1989; Gould 1996). Whatever the case, the idea of this introspective exercise is not so much to be precise but to build empathy and insight for developing a deeper and richer consumer research domain.


Based on the foregoing analysis, I offer the following research questions:

1.  Does current consumer research theory and knowledge explain or offer any explanation for what you are experiencing in the exercise and what you think visually impaired consumers might be experiencing?

2.  Do the experiences of visually impaired consumers appear to be merely along a continuum of all consumer experiences or are there elements that represent some sort of discontinuity that leads you to consider new phenomena or new explanations? For example, to take the most obvious phenomenon, is sight versus non-sight or degree of sight a continuum or is there something qualitatively different about these categories that requires some major theoretical/perspectival shifts?

3.  How do we explain the role of sight in consumer behavior? Should there be a theory of consumer sight?

4.  How do the other senses relate to and interact with sight in consumer behavior? What happens when there is a deficit in any of the senses? For example, what happens when the visual rhetoric of advertising (Scott 1994) is not accessible? Can current consumer research theory deal with these questions?

5.  Does current consumer theory deal with the sort of culture that might arise around a condition such as visual impairment? Can you imagine how a visually impaired consumer might interact with others, form a (sub)culture with people in the same situation, and interact with mainstream culture? These might be harder questions unless you have encountered such a subculture extensively, but if you give it a little thought or even seek out this culture, it might lead you to ask whether we have an adequate theory to explain how such cultures emerge or evolve according to conditions. My own work with AIDS patients and alternative health subcultures which adapts the McCracken (1986) model of cultural meaning and transfer is suggestive (Gould 1991). So are ideas concerning cultural hybridization (Thompson and Tambyah 1998) and intertextuality (Gould 1998).

6.  In how many ways might we apply the Derrida’s (1982) deconstructive idea of diffOrance to the consideration of sightedness versus visually impairment as cultural categories? Reflecting perspectives of salience (cf. Stayman and Deshpande 1989; Gould 1996), do visually impaired consumers fill in their self-perspectives and identities with thoughts of sight more than sighted people do with non-sight, and more importantly, what are the significations, affect, and consumption perspectives that emerge from these processes? Embodying these ideas in a theory of consumer culture requires a bit of work, perhaps from a master bricoleur.

7. Ironically perhaps, can introspecting by the researcher about visual impairment combined with interaction with its cultures provide some fresh insight? It should be noted in this regard that introspection is very much, almost in oxymoronic or paradoxical fashion, a tool of cultural explorationCit leads one to understand and empathize with cultural processes as they manifest or do not manifest within oneself. My experience in working with visual impaired consumers, not to mention a large part of my intent to inspire the application of multiple introspective perspectives in consumer research (Gould 1991, 1993, 1995), underscores for me the intricately reflexive nature of consumer research (i.e., involving the osmotic, empathetic and living exchange between researcher-consumer-selves and consumer-others) and the need to rebalance the scope and framing of such research with an infusion of the recognition of this element. Insight even (especially) in this very specific domain of individual differences in visual ability involves a two-way street of continual traffic rather than a lonely or solipsistic one-way road.


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