Applying Reader-Response Theory to a Television Program

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1999) ,"Applying Reader-Response Theory to a Television Program", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 549-554.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 549-554

APPLYING READER-RESPONSE THEORY TO A TELEVISION PROGRAM

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, interpretive consumer researchers have demonstrated an increasing interest in text-based analysis, both as an investigative method and theoretical approach. This research stream began with Mick’s (1986) seminal article introducing the semiotic approach to textual analysis, which relies upon the sign structure seen as inherent in the text. An application of this approach followed shortly thereafter with Holbrook and Grayson’s (1986) interpretive analysis of the motion picture Out of Africa, which described cultural themes, e.g., Nature versus Culture, encoded within that textual product. The semiotic approach has continued in consumer research over the past decade and expanded in scope to include a variety of textual products, such as Broadway plays (Holbrook, Bell and Grayson 1989), advertisements (Mick and Politi 1989; McQuarrie and Mick 1992; McQuarrie 1989), television shows (Hirschman 1988), and magazines, novels and autobiographies (Hirschman 1990). [Readers desiring more detailed descriptions of semiotics and historical references to its development are referred to Mick's excellent (1986) discussion.]

Alongside the semiotic tradition, a second approach to textual analysis has sprung up. Originating with the work of Barbara Stern (1988), this formalist method is drawn from the New Critical school of literary criticism and examines the formal features of a text in terms of images, metaphors, irony, allusions and personae (see McQuarrie and Mick 1996; Stern 1990, 1991, 1993). More recently, the formalist approach has been supplemented by demonstrations of the reader-response method within literary criticism (see Scott 1990, 1991, 1994a), whch 'tries to show how a text works with the probable knowledge, expectations, or motives of the reader (Scott 1994a, p.463)’. In this vein, Mick and Buhl (1992) conducted an in-depth study of how three Danish brothers related ideas present in a set of print advertisements to their life themes and life projects. They found that each brother bought his own interpretive framework to the task of textual sense-making. Despite the fact that the works by Stern, Scott, and Mick all represent textual analysis, they are premised upon different assumptions about the nature of the text and the reader.

Common-Culture versus Expert Readers and Readings. At this point, over a decade’s worth of text-based interpretive analysis has been conducted in consumer research, and it is useful to introduce some conceptual distinctions which have previously been omitted from discussion. First, it is important to distinguish between common-culture readers and expert readers. Common-culture readers are those consumers who have been socialized into the primary, i.e., common, culture of their country and who would respond to a textual-product such as a television show or a novel based upon the ideals, values and beliefs promulgated in their culture (see Berger and Luckman 1966). From an ethnomethodological perspective, such consumers are using the 'common stock of knowledge at hand’ or the 'common sense’ to interpret the product. They are providing a 'common wo/man’ reading of the product (see Hirschman and Holbrook 1992).

An example of a study using common-culture readers is Mick and Buhl’s previously mentioned (1992) inquiry. The three Danish brothers who served as their informants were relying upon the common stock of knowledge in Denmark to interpret the meaning of ads for a new beer and a business suit. In the process of constructing their interpretations, these common-culture readers provided common culture readings.

In contrast to common-culture readers and readings, we may distinguish expert readers and expert readings. Expert readers are those who have been socialized into a second ideological perspective which they may choose to apply to interpreting textual-products, in addition to using their common-culture knowledge. Often this secondary socialization comes about as a result of formal education, for example, one can be trained as a cultural anthropologist, cognitive psychologist, literary critic or Marxist. It may also result from socialization into a subculture which possesses a specialized set of knowledge, say for example, the Gay/lesbian subculture or the African-American subculture.

Expert readers, we anticipate, will produce interpretations (i.e., readings) of textual products that differ from those produced by common-culture readers because their interpretations are expert readings. A recent example of an expert reader producing an expert reading is Sterns’ deconstruction of the Joe Camel advertising campaign (Stern 1996). Stern first constructs an expert reading of this series of advertisements using structural analysis and a Feminist perspective. She next deconstructs this interpretation by subverting its themes to arrive at a counter meaning. Because expert readers have access to un-common knowledge structures, they can construct interpretations which are 'unknown’ or 'invisible’ to common-culture readers (see e.g., Hirschman and Holbrook 1992).

Perhaps most frequent in the published consumer research literature, however, are common-culture readings produced by expert readers. In this category of research would come the many studies produced by expert consumer researchers/readers attempting to read textual products as if they were common-culture readers. Examples would include Holbrook and Grayson’s (1986) analysis of Out of Africa, Hirschman’s interpretations of Dallas and Dynasty (1988) and the ideology of the affluent (1990), and Scott’s (1994a,b) work on advertising imagery and reader-response theory. [A reviewer has contested my statement here, noting that these authors are all "expert readers writing for expert readers". However I still contend that I (and the others) were trying to write as if we were responding as average consumers.]

In all these cases the researcher is calling primarily upon hs/her primary socialization as an American consumer to view textual products as the average consumer would interpret them. Although these researchers organized their findings using higher-level abstractions such as 'political economy’ (Hirschman 1989), 'wilderness versus civilization’ (Holbrook and Grayson 1986) and 'visual rhetoric’ (Scott 1994a), at basis their analyses are conceptually grounded in the ideological structure and knowledge of everyday life. By way of contrast, much of Stern’s formalist work uses interpretive strategies and terminology available only to those in the New Critical subculture.

THE CONSUMERS’ MISSING VOICE

Within the consumer research literature over the past decade, very few studies have employed actual consumers’ interpretations of textual products, be they magazines, print advertisements, motion pictures or television shows (for exceptions see McQuarrie and Mick 1992; Mick and Politi 1989; Mick and Buhl 1992; Umiker-Sebeok 1992). Most often, consumer researchers conducting textual analyses have positioned themselves as surrogate consumers or as expert interpreters of textual products. While these two postures are, in and of themselves, quite valuable and have served to introduce many novel interpretive strategies, e.g., Formalism, semiotics, structural analysis, feminism, rhetoric, and reader response, to our field, they can be usefully supplemented by including the voices of actual consumers. The present paper features readings produced by expert consumers in response to an extended textual productBa pilot television show.

The most prominent consumer-based study to date, Mick and Buhl (1992) employed only three common-culture consumers, who were responding to print advertisements and not to lengthy textual-products such as television shows. Thus, our present knowledge of how consumers interpret extended textual products is quite limited.

In the Mick and Buhl (1992) study, the authors brought focus to their endeavor by selecting advertisements of interest primarily to men and by using only male consumers, (thus narrowing their scope to one gender) and by selecting respondents from one family (brothers) who had similar backgrounds and experiences. Even with this purposeful interpretive confinement, the researchers found ample individuality and diversity among the brothers’ readings. In the present study, I also placed restrictions on the scope of consumers’ interpretations in order to provide a manageable level of diversity within which to assess their readings.

To accomplish this, I chose to have expert consumers provide expert readings of the textual-product. This was done to encircle the diversity of interpretations rendered within a meaningful frame. According to Fish (1979), many persons dwell within 'interpretive communities’ which, in essence, are social groups having shared ideologies, i.e., ideological subcultures. Within a given interpretive community, consumers share common strategies for making meaning and evaluating knowledge. Expert consumers, by definition, belong to an interpretive community, be it baseball aficionados, literary critics, cultural anthropologists, gourmet cooks or equestrians.

Because I wanted to provide my own textual interpretation of the television show for comparison with those of the expert consumers, I chose consumers from two interpretive communities to which I also belong, that of Marxist/Critical theorists and Feminists. Marxists and Feminists are interpretive communities relevant to consumer research for several reasons. First, both these interpretive communities promulgate ideologies that directly implicate consumer behavior values and practices. Marxism, for example, proposes that consumers may fall prey to commodity fetishism (see e.g., Kellner 1978, 1990) whereby the sign value (e.g., prestige, elitism) of capitalist-produced goods creates a false consciosness of materialism to the detriment of human community. Similarly, feminists have brought into question the historic confinement of women to the private, domestic sphere and men to the public, economic sphere, which has acted to greatly reduce women’s (and men’s) experience of the world (see e.g., Landry and McClean 1993).

Second, both Marxism and Feminism have been applied to the critique of American television programmingBthe textual products upon which the present study is focused. Marxists, for instance, frequently criticize the mass media as supportive of capitalist ideology which favors material competition over communal goals (see e.g., Kellner 1990); whereas feminists often take television programming to task for reinforcing patriarchal values which keep women (and men) 'in their place’ (see e.g., Stevenson 1995).

Third, and importantly, both these ideologies have already been introduced into consumer research theorization; thus they should be familiar to the present audience. Marxism was put forward quite recently as a theoretical vantage point by Hirschman (1993), Murray and Ozanne (1991, 1994), Hetrick and Lozada (1994) and Stern (1989). Feminism has had a much longer history in our field, beginning with the work of Venkatesh (1980), and Ferber and Birnbaum (1980) and extending into conferences on gender (Costa 1991) and a recent set of articles (Bristor and Fisher 1993; Hirschman 1993; Stern 1993).

METHOD

The two primary objectives of the research project were to continue the tradition of researcher-generated textual interpretation already underway and to extend it forward to the recently expressed goal of obtaining consumer-generated textual interpretations (Scott 1994b).

Expert Consumers Expert consumers were recruited through a snowball sampling procedure, using the researcher’s social contacts. After contacting one person from the Marxist interpretive community and one from the Feminist interpretive community, I began contacting others they each suggested, until a group of five consumers expert in Marxist/critical theory had agreed to participate in the project and group of four consumers expert in Feminist theory had agreed to participate.

Textual Products The researcher was very fortunate to gain access to almost the entire set of new (pilot) television programs scheduled to debut on network television during the 1995-1996 season. Use of pilot programs permitted the expert consumers to provide fresh responses to the shows, which would not have been possible if current shows had been used. (My concern here was that one or more of the expert consumers might have been a regular viewer of any existing show.) From this set, five were selected for analysis and the present paper focuses upon one, Murder One, a dramatic series by successful producer-writer, Stephen Bochco. [This program seemed most appropriate for the present analysis as it was the product of a very successful creator. I wanted a vehicle that was typical of popular, present-day television fare.]

Videotapes of the pilot program were sent to each of the study participants with instructions that they view the show as many times as they desired and then provide a written Marxist (or Feminist) interpretation of its content. (I also requested that they provide a written statement of their view of Marxist (or Feminist) ideology, in order to assess the consistency of each interpretive community’s perspective. Due to length constraints it was not possible to include these statements here. They are available from the author).

In the analysis section which follows, I first discuss the written interpretations (i.e., readings) of each participant. Next, I deconstruct the set of interpretations for the show, attempting to discern how the readers 'made sense’ of the textual product and identifying why differences in interpretation may have arisen. These interpretations and re-interpretations were sent to each of the expert consumers for comment. Their responses are incorporated in the deconstruction discussion of the show. Through this multi-layered discourse, the rader is invited to see how textual product meaning is constructed, negotiated and re-negotiated.

ANALYSIS

Murder One: Feminist Readings

As indicated by the set of readings given below, this program was viewed by the Feminist participants as low in feminist content. Further, the four Feminist participants exhibited a relatively strong level of consistency in their descriptions of the show.

Expert Consumer 1: A part of the plot is that a woman has been sexually assaulted and murdered, thereby addressing a feminist issue. However, the murdered woman, at least in the plot so far, is also portrayed as being involved in drugs and 'clubbing’, with a suggestion that her behavior may have led to her being murdered. This suggestion is certainly ant-feminist. In addition, the vast majority of the female characters in this program are portrayed stereotypically and/or in negative terms. The female receptionist and the female court recorder are shown 'eavesdropping’; the wife of the suspect is portrayed as making 'a life out of looking the other way’, she states to her husband that 'this is going to be very expensive’, suggesting that she is willing to put up with the situation as long as she gets money out of it. Of the two female lawyers, one behaves inappropriately toward other women (suggesting another woman’s breasts are 'fake’), suggests her body gets her things she wants (breathes deeply to show her breasts during a conference), and tries to manipulate her way to power (speaking up to the media), for which she is reprimanded. The other female lawyer is portrayed as naive and meek. There are some female roles which are either neutral or more powerful: the female judge, the female district attorney, the lawyer’s wife, media journalists, and the girlfriend/model. Later segments of this program may develop their characters to the point that the feminist orientation of the program overall may have to be judged differently.

Expert Consumer 2: We see there are few lead roles for women here, and the minor women’s roles with one or two exceptions are pretty conventional. The district attorney played by Barbara Bosson is promising in a feminist way, in that she’s older, not gorgeous, and not at all sexy. But in this pilot (which is all I saw of the series) we see very little of her. And there is the female judge. She caves in on Neil Avedon, but seems to at least have the independence of mind to ask Theodore Hoffman if he doesn’t sometimes make himself sick. Again, we don’t see much of her. Other than these two semi-unconventional women in powerful roles, we see the standard roles and relationships: the murder victim, a beautiful, powerless girl; the model, a beautiful, powerless girl; the wife of Theodore Hoffman, a beautiful and long-suffering wife whose main job is to be there for her man when he gets home; the wife of Richard Cross, a beautiful and long-suffering wife who has the same job description. There might be some feminist hope given that two of the lawyers in Hoffman’s firms are female. Alas, we see standard stereotypes played out when Miss Appleton tries to get 'second seat’ by denigrating her female colleague and when she is punished by her boss for speaking out of turn at the press conference. Similarly, Lisa seems to get the job of second seat not because she is a good lawyer, but not because she will look good on the seatBshe is even told to improve her wardrobe in order to prepare for the trial, just in case we, the audience, had any doubts about what purpose she serves. In this show it seems clear that the person who pulls the strings is a rich, older, white man.

Expert Consumer 3: The woman judge is fairly commonly used as an acquiescence to women’s liberation, but you only see her for a few seconds on the show. An older woman makes a remark that ?he (her husband) would have kept me bare foot and pregnant’. There are women lawyers; there’s a male secretary or clerk, but he’s gay. One of the women lawyers sticks out her chest and says she managed to appease a disgruntled client, implying that she has used her feminine wiles. Another woman lawyer is appointed to assist the main character, a lawyer, in a case, because it will look good to have a woman on that particular case. I think just showing women playing lawyers isn’t enough to make it feminist. You have to look at the overall image that the show is presenting, and how those images are counteracted or contradicted by other messages in the show.

Expert Consumer 4: The image and message that is repeatedly sent in this show is that of women as window dressing. This is highlighted by references to women with dialogue like 'boobs & ass’ and 'tootsie’. It is also clear in the lead’s discussion with the female lawyer he selected to be his assistant regarding the importance of her style of dress at the upcoming trial. This aspect of the show suggests that women’s worth is often defined by men’s viewpoints. However, without some element of satire or counterpoint, the message is more sexist than feminist. The show also highlights the patriarchal order of the legal profession. Being masculine is being in the public sphere, while the lead’s wife sits quietly (almost invisibly) in the background keeping the home fires burning (the private sphere). While there are a number of themes of sexism in the show, the show neither embraces nor advances feminist ideology.

Researcher: 'Murder One’s’ storyline is extremely traditional in its presentation of gender relationships. Although women are nominally represented as having careers, for example, the judge in the opening scene is a woman and there are female attorneys at Hoffman’s law firm, the three primary protagonistsBHoffman, Richard Cross, and Detective PolsenBare all male. Women are generally assigned ancillary status in the narrative, either to fulfill social roles, e.g., wife, or to propel the storyline, e.g., girlfriend, murder victim. As is quite often the case in detective/legal shows, women are cast as subordinates, caretakers, or those in need of protection; whereas men are given the activities of threatening or protecting them. "Murder One’ very much adheres to this pattern. For example, the entire narrative is set in motion by the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl. Ted Hoffman is called upon to defend the prime suspect, Richard Cross. He immediately sends for Cross’s girlfriend, the victim’s sister, and 'manages’ her in support of his client. He then contacts Francesca, Cross’s estranged wife, and enlists her support of his client. Hoffman finally returns home where his own wife waits dutifully in the kitchen, cooking his dinner. Hoffman then sends his young daughter upstairs to protect her from contamination by the news media, and changes their home phone number to protect his family from outside intrusions. Thus, we are instructed that, on the domestic front, women are to be controlled, insulated and isolated. They are not to get involved in the rough and tumble play of the men’s world, lest they end up dead and violated.

Deconstructing 'Murder One’: Feminist

Both the expert consumers and researcher take to task the false front of female window dressing in this text. 'Murder One’ includes several female characters in central positions, but then subverts their ideological value by showing them to be either weak, endangered, or masculinized. What we, as consumers, are perceiving, is the presence of a subtle but powerful form of anti-feminist backlash in this program. In the guise of promoting women’s professional roles, their security, happiness and competence are consistently questioned and ultimately undermined. The fact that all of the present consumers detectedBor projectedBthis undercutting message suggests that this type of textual product is one that is frequently encountered in current U.S. culture, andthat feminist consumers such as these have developed a commonly-shared, or collective, ideological response to it.

Importantly, given Hall’s (1980) notion of oppositional readings and Stern’s (1996) discussion of deconstructive readings, none of us attempted to interpret the show in a subversive way, by reversing its content. Instead, our readings for the show appear to be examples of what Hall (1982) terms negotiated readings. That is, the reader perceives that the text is not entirely consistent with his/her ideological stance and attempts to take issue with or re-label those portions of the text that are offensive.

In the present case, we consumers 'saw’ the surface message paying lip service to women’s professional roles, but then read beneath the surface to make visible the anti-feminist deep structure of the show. However, we have not gone the additional step of conjecturing why women viewers might be being 'conned’ by this text, i.e., whose interests are being served by lessening women’s power as professionals? how might those interests have entered into the construction and dissemination of the present textual product? and so forth.

Murder One: Marxist Interpretations

With the exception of the first expert Marxist consumer, the rest interpreted 'Murder One’ as having a moderate level of Marxist ideology. Their readings were generally consistent as to meaning, as well.

Expert Consumer 1: The Murder One episode represents the typical rich lawyer sagas we have seen for years in other programs. They are, themselves, rich and work for rich capitalists and rentiers, but no issues of class inequalities, critiques of how these fortunes are made and used to exploit and abuseBfrom a Marxist perspectiveBare presented.

Expert Consumer 2: This program aims at a sophisticated, perhaps elitist, audience. Yes, it is about a celebrity murder case and its tabloid-like content, but the characters definitely seem to possess an intelligence level that most television shows refuse to forward. In its attempt to present a more 'realistic’ view of American law, this show takes the legal system to task. There are concerns with the way justice is dispensed in America, and how money sometimes can buy 'justice’. However... it is nothing to really brag about. The show still focuses on the affluent, unscrupulous, immoral, and corrupt, and on the ties between the aforementioned qualities and business people. There is no real call for a different system, no effort at radically ruffling any capitalistic feathers.

Expert Consumer 3: In terms of Marxism, the wealthy are portrayed as amoral, corrupt, tied to drugs and vice, involved in continual lies and deceptions. The only saving grace of the corrupt wealthy here is the mention that the suspect is a big supporter of the Philharmonic, indicating philanthropy. In general, class differences are apparent, the intelligentsia (attorneys, judges) are portrayed generally as moral, the less-advantaged are portrayed as subject to the violence and depravity of the wealthy, and the wealthy are amoral.

Expert Consumer 4: At the beginning of this pilot, Ted Hoffman is shown representing the interests of a wealthy, but somewhat sleazy, movie star. Hoffman is portrayed as expensive, but extremely capable. The message is clear right from the beginning: if you are rich, then you have the resources needed to assert your interests, even if those interests contradict the public interest. The show therefore illustrates the mechanics of assuring ideological domination. One of the few truly practical applications of Critical Theory has been in area of legal studies. Is the law and its use designed to protect the interests of the wealthy? Those individuals who are upper class become the 'ruling’ class since they are able to influence the construction of a society which protects their interests. Wealthy individuals can influence who is elected, what candidates stand fr, and the kind of legislation that is successful. They can also afford to hire powerful lawyers to protect their own individual social position. These are timely and important points given the continuing political debates over trial lawyers and the recent O.J. Simpson spectacle.

Expert Consumer 5: Marxists are generally not concerned with the constitution of the human character or in the acting out of other foibles that have little meaning for their analysis of class struggle and capitalist exploitation of the working class. However, it is possible to view the film using the prism of critical theory of Marxist feminism. If one were to represent the condition of women in a patriarchal society as a class situation as well as gender situation, the story reveals how gender becomes an economically exploited class. Thus both the lawyer and the accused are males, well entrenched in the patriarchal system of class/gender privilege. Viewed in this way, the story is (a) about rescuing the male business type from a scandal into which a cruel fate draws him, and (b) about a male lawyer who is dedicated to upholding the law against all the odds that capitalism creates in its quest for justice. For the business man, the female friend is an illicit zone of comfort and for the lawyer-lone ranger his female subordinates are dutiful servants. But in both cases, the females are exploited in the cause of bourgeois virtue.

Researcher: In a narrative where everyone is wealthy and powerful, what possibility is there for class struggle? However, a Marxist frame can provide a view of some textual aspects not otherwise readily apparent. The primary point of illumination in 'Murder One’ is in exposing the inherent corruptibility of the American criminal justice system by the ruling class pressures of money and power. Richard Cross, the prime murder suspect, is a billionaire. As such, he is able to acquire the best justice that money can buy, and that justice is not the same as the justice available to an indigent defendant. This, however, does not in and of itself necessarily condemn either Cross or the American justice system. In a market economy all resources, including legal ones, are marketable and subject to competitive pricing. Those who can afford better, get better, whether it be health care, automobiles or criminal defense. However, the script takes us a step deeper than this. As Ted Hoffman argues with the drunk in the bar, the drunk challenges him: 'I’ll bet you your client (Richard Cross) is guilty’, says the drunk. 'I’ll take the bet’, says Hoffman. "And I’ll bet you can get him off anyway.’, says the drunk. 'Never bet against me on that.’, replies Hoffman, making it quite plain that if they pay enough, the rich and guilty can indeed get away with murder. 'Murder One’, therefore, would be classifiable as at least moderately progressive from a Marxist perspective, in that it may cause consumers to question the inequities of the current system of justice.

Deconstructing 'Murder One’: Marxist

With the exception of the last expert consumer, who focused on gender issues from a Critical Theory perspective, the other five saw the corruption of the American justice system as the central issue represented in the narrative. The expert consumers differed, however, in their optimism/pessimism over whether the text would be sufficiently motivating to cause most people to challenge inequities in the current justice system, or would the spectacle of the personalities involved divert attention from the liberatory message?

Deconstructing these concerns, we can see that either way, the issue of the inherent inequality of placing justice in a marketplace context can be a valuable fulcrum of Marxist thought regarding consumption. In the perspective of these consumers, one of the greatest strengths of Marxist ideology as a critical device is to identify those aspects of human culture that should not be subject to economic power in determining the outcome. To those using this perspective, it is at these awkwardjuxtapositions that the imperfect fit between capitalism, as an economic system, and democracy, as a political system, become visible. In their view, for a consumer to be able to 'buy justice’ is an internal contradiction, for justice is supposed to reside above and beyond the marketplace. Yet our expert Marxist consumers argue that the guilty can go free and the innocent be imprisoned, because justice was and is made subject to the laws of the marketplace.

DISCUSSION

Scott (1994b) was the first in consumer research to call for the inclusion of reader-response theory in our view of how textual products are consumed. She argued eloquently that we must take note of the meanings which consumers bring to their interpretations of products, especially those such as advertisements, which are textual in nature. Only a few years earlier, Mick and Buhl (1992) empirically demonstrated the presence of this phenomenon in their study of three Danish brothers’ interpretations of print advertisements. Although their respondents came from the same familial background and were of the same gender, they exhibited ample individuality in the interpretations they provided.

The present inquiry has added to these theoretical and empirical contributions by explicitly incorporating the notion of interpretive communities (Fish 1980). Interpretive communities are ideological subcultures which are proposed by Fish (1980; and see also Scott 1994b) to be composed of persons who will produce the same interpretations in response to a given text. Consumers from two interpretive communitiesBMarxism and FeminismBwere chosen because they are relevant both to consumer behavior and the textual product, i.e., a television program, used in the present study. By comparing their interpretations of the text we are able to detect in both the Feminist and Marxist consumer groups a common lexicon, set of evaluative criteria, and world view. In other words, each group used a commonly-shared (among group members) interpretive frame. For example, Feminist expert consumers concentrated their attention upon gender inequalities and female stereotyping, while the Marxist expert consumers focused upon interclass conflict and inequities in class-based access to economic resources.

Despite this shared interpretive frame, however, each expert consumer brought to the interpretive task a measure of personal idiosyncrasy, that is, a distinctive gaze which provided their readings with unique features. What we are witnessing, I believe, are instances of bounded diversity; i.e., the construction of individualized meaning within the interpretive confines of an ideological structure. These results, coupled with those of Mick and Buhl (1992), should have significance for consumer researchers who are investigating product meaning within various types of social group contexts’: as they suggest that consumers’ interpretations of marketplace phenomena are simultaneously bounded and unique.

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