Special Session Summary Tales We Tell About Ourselves and Others: Heteroglossic Perspectives on Introspective Self-Report Applications in Consumer Research


Stephen Gould and Pauline Maclaran (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Tales We Tell About Ourselves and Others: Heteroglossic Perspectives on Introspective Self-Report Applications in Consumer Research", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 72-75.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 72-75



Stephen Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York, USA

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, UK


Introspection as the central element in self-report is a multi-headed hydra which is involved in consumer responses in interviews, surveys and experimental responses, as well as in researchers’ tales of their own experience, not to mention their reflexivity in research acts, ranging from choice of domain to interpretive processes (cf. Brown and Reid 1997). It also has been studied and considered in a wide range of perspectives, ranging from the psychological to the interpretive. Yet, for all the study, there is so much that remains unconsidered and unexplored. Perhaps this is because of the controversies surrounding it. In psychology, Nisbett and Wilson (1977) questioned how much introspection could even take place. In consumer research controversy over the very ability of researchers to even use introspection has so dominated the discussion that further inquiry has been largely blocked (Gould 1995; Wallendorf and Brucks 1993). But what a mistake. It is as though a novelist or an athlete could not further delve into and further develop her craft.

This session aims to push forward the craft of introspection (and consumer research) by investigating it from a Bakhtinian heteroglossia or multiple reading perspective (Brown, Stevens and Maclaran 1999). The approach here adapts the approach of Brown et al. who provided multiple readings of a single ad but also differs because we may not be looking at a single phenomenon. We are all using the same term, "introspection," but it is an open question as to whether we are referring to the same thing or not or even what that same thing might be. Nor is our aim here to provide some sort of nebulous agreement on what it is we are talking about. Instead, we triangulate among four quite different readings with the aim of opening up and enriching the scope of introspective investigation, both with respect to researchers engaging in personal introspection and with respect to "self-report" research (the dominant data source in consumer research) involving the broader range of everyday consumers. In many respects, the research process and the researcher qua researcher are revealed in their omnipresent reflexiveness. Thus, to borrow from one of the presenters, Lorna Stevens, it is beneficial, if not outright mandatory for us to introspect on introspection.

The four presentations draw on a wide variety of perspectives, including artistic, narrative, philosophical, psychological, and ethnographic and draw on personal applications by the presenters. Stephen Brown and Pauline Maclaran explore some of the issues involved in getting consumers to engage in subjective personal introspection, an issue virtually all researchers involved in seeking any type of self-report may recognize, but are not fully able to address. They provide new insights in this regard by considering the impact of creative writing by informants and how related techniques might also be used. Stephen Gould lays out various ways to introspect about the self and addresses a topic familiar to many researchers in unfamiliar ways, namely how both researchers and consumers perceive the self. Through introspective exercises, he explores both narrative and non-conceptual awareness perspectives on the self and renders the self as a set of introspective practices. Barbara Olsen explores the introspective elements of participant observation and uncovers some of the important dynamics of researcher-informant interaction. In doing so and drawing reflexively through introspective retextualization upon her own, extensive experiences as an ethnographer in the field (in Jamaica), she derives a new concept of Empathetic Ethnography that was driven by her sharing of her personal suffering with her informants. Finally, Lorna Stevens undertakes her own personal introspection on introspecting, describing some of the thoughts and feelings that she has experienced when writing introspections and offering her own defense for writing in the third person.

While clearly interpretive researchers will have an interest in this session, any researcher who engages in self-report research or deals with issues of researcher subjectivity or bias will gain from the insights provided in this session. Audience members should also benefit from these extended perspectives and applications of introspection, which reflect its broad ranging reach in addressing issues of concern in consumer research. When it comes to various types of consumer research, most, if not all of it is touched in some way by issues of introspective insights, reflexive responses and self-conscious narrativity. In addition although secondarily, researchers who deal with such issues as creative expression, various perspectives on the self, and ethnographic-cultural issues will also benefit from this session.




Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, UK

Stephen Brown, Unversity of Ulster, UK

The basis for what Holbrook (1995) describes as 'subjective personal introspection’ (or auto-ethnography) is that, as consumers, we can all meaningfully conduct participant observations on the nature of consumption from the experiences of it in our own lives. Using this method the researcher recalls and recounts thoughts and feelings on a particular subject or experience, bringing them together in the form of an extended autobiographical essay (Holbrook 1985, 1986, 1995, 1996; Lehmann 1987; Hirschman 1990, 1991, 1992; Gould 1991, 1995; Brown 1998a; Reid and Brown 1996; Brown and Reid 1997; Sherry 1998). Introspection is an important part of the researcher-as-instrument approach on which interpretivism is based, and it is particularly useful in providing fresh insights for emergent theory building (Gould 1995).

Despite its apparent usefulness, subjective personal introspection has proved a controversial and often criticised research technique (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993; Uusitalo 1996; O’Guinn 1996; Campbell 1996), particularly when judged by the criteria set down to prove validity and reliability according to positivistic research traditions. In this respect Brown (1998b) has offered the technique’s strongest defence by illustrating its similarities to autobiographical criticism, a well-respected literary theory technique whereby a critic reflects on his or her own personal experiences in relation to literary texts. The justification of introspection as a research method, Brown (1998b) argues, involves abandoning any aspiration to scientific status. If it is judged by appropriately aesthetic criteria, if it is seen as creating meaning and generating understanding, then it comes into its own. In other words, it needs to be assessed more as an art and less as a science.

Additional support for the technique comes from psychology, where personal introspection, both on the part of the researcher and the research subject, is recognised as having a role to play in studies of autobiographical memory. In particular, it is used to show how personal and social experiences are stored in the memory and later retrieved (Linton 1975; Wagenaar 1986; Brewer 1986; Menon and Johar 1993). The technique is also used to study other areas of inner experience such as daydreams or stream-of-consciousness thoughts in both psychology (Singer 1975a, 1975b; Singer and Switzer, 1980), and anthropology (Caughey 1984). It is recognised as yielding rich phenomenological descriptions similar to those used by James Joyce in Ulysses and giving insights into the dreams that "may take us to other worlds" (Caughey 1984, p. 119).

We seek to address one of the technique’s most recurrent criticisms, that it gives too much credence to the researcher’s own experiences, and that it is, in effect, a sample of one, by showing how this limitation can be overcome through the collection of multiple accounts. In its use as a way to allow research participants a mode of free expression, introspection is similar to the use of projective techniques that have a long tradition in the history of marketing research. Certain applications of these, such as Thematic Apperception Tests (TATS) (Rook, 1988) and creative writing (Durgee 1987) are regarded as particularly useful to elicit fantasy material. A major advantage that introspection has over such techniques, however, is that is allows participants much more time to express themselves, resulting in more detailed and imaginative expressions.

Specifically, we refer to a research project that collected sixty subjective personal introspections to explore the consumer imagination during a major refurbishment to a festival marketplace in Dublin. Individuals willing to write these accounts were identified through the researchers’ personal and professional networks. They were asked to write as creatively as they wished about their visits to the shopping centre, and to describe their impressions, feelings and associations, together with any memories that might have been evoked. Accounts reached essay size in some cases, varying in length between four hundred and two thousand words. These introspections proved a richer way to generate insights into aspects of the consumer imagination than either in-depth interviews or group discussions.

A major difficulty encountered during the research, however, was persuading individual consumers to write at sufficient length about their visits. Often they expressed embarrassment and a lack of confidence about committing their thoughts and feelings to paper. Our presentation is designed to consider the practicalities of collecting data through informant introspections and we discuss the various problems that we experienced alongside the many benefits. First we look at how informants can be encouraged and stimulated to express themselves creatively and in sufficient length. Then we outline the difficulties of obtaining volunteers willing to undertake introspections and the use of "captive groups" like students where the introspective essay is built into a module as part of their coursework. We also make reference to our own failed attempt to use creative writing groups in Ireland. Finally, we consider the future potential of this research technique, suggesting innovative ways to link up with willing writers (for example, through creative writing courses and book clubs) and how to carry out the technique in conjunction with other creative methods of data collection such as photography and videography.



Stephen J. Gould, The City University of New York, USA

The self is the self

And yet

And yet (adaptation of a Haiku from Issa)

The self is a central topic in consumer research and investigating it is very much the stuff of introspection. But what is the self we are speaking of? We can consider at least three perspectives that incorporate or embody various epistemological and ontological outlooks: psychological (There is a unitary self but how can consumers tell about it?), postmodern (Which self?) and Buddhist (Self? What self?). Psychological perspectives deal with a self that can be primed in various ways to focus on it and the mental processes related to it. Following the famous Nisbett and Wilson (1977) article, there still remain many issues concerning what people can introspect about mental processes involving the self, among other things. Postmodern, interpretive processes deconstruct the self in a number of ways, including multiple and extended selves, focus on it as a reflexive cultural construction and rely on various narrative forms of introspection to reveal it (e.g., Brown, Earl, Gould, Holbrook). Such introspection involves stories about oneself. A Buddhist perspective deconstructs the self even further by taking it apart and ultimately denying that such a self even exists. While it does recognize the conventional self that we all use in everyday life (i.e., myself as embodied in my body and mind), it seeks through meditative-introspective exercises (e.g., Gould 1995) to investigate whether there is a self beyond that designated self or not. For these I draw on my own long, longitudinal experience with them, as well as my continuing readings of introspective texts, including researchers’ introspections, consumers’ introspections as revealed in various research projects and articles, and texts everywhere construed broadly in terms of form (books, movies, everyday speech) that reveal something about the self and/or introspection.

Considering these three introspections as distinct but potentially intertextually linked in terms of what they tell us and how they may be applied, we apply exercises or physical/thought experiments to attempt to answer several questions. First, what is it we can tell ourselves about ourselves? To attempt to deal with this question however provisional any answer might be, we look for ourselves in whatever form we can discern, if we can at all, in our thoughts, emotions and physical feelings. Here, I want to explore something I have not seen in any research, namely conceptual thought versus non-conceptual experience or awareness as self-revelatory. This non-conceptuality is not the same as peripheral cues, unconscious impulses or automatic processes, but instead is direct conscious experience of something unmediated by thought. A sequence of short introspective exercises will aim at these manifestations of the alleged self.

Second, when either consumers or researchers engage in narrative introspection, what self is it they are revealing and which one are they hiding? For this question, we look as exercise at the discourse of the self in a narrative and see how it self-constructs. Third, when researchers interpret the introspections of consumers what of their own self are they drawing on and what can they know of other selves? What is emic about the etic? For these questions, we conduct a Buddhist introspective exercise of putting oneself in the place of the other.

In the end, after asking these questions and conducting these exercises, we ponder the practices of the self as both practitioners of introspection and as consumers. Indeed, the self would appear to be comprised of a set of ever-occurring introspective practices, incorporating both epistemological and ontological dimensions. Thus, whether we consider multiple selves, extended selves, desired selves and so on, we might explore them in terms of introspective practices in which consumers simultaneously search within and narratively produce the self on a dynamic, real-time basis. We may never agree on what the self is, or how to know it, or even whether it exists or not, but hopefully through considering the self in this way we will be more informed, both as researchers and as human beings.



Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury, USA

This paper explores the implications of reflexive introspection as an innovative contribution to ethnographic consumer research. Clifford (1988, p.24-25) reminds us that participant observation is a particularly sensitive tool "as a means for producing knowledge from an intense, intersubjective engagement," that when translated by the observer becomes "complicated by the action of multiple subjectivities and political constraints beyond the control of the writer." The participant in the observation is thus implicated in multiple layers of ethnography, each of which is bracketed by personally unique agendas that optimally must be revealed to harmonize the research hermeneutic.

Applying reflexive introspection to previously experienced ethnographic contexts allows a reinterpretation of those experiences. This introspective tool has been particularly fruitful in reanalyzing fieldwork notes ("retextualization"). For the purpose of this paper I will limit the primary discussion to ethnographic research collected during an evolving project that has spanned three decades with informants from several extended families in one community. Successive iterations have merged previous fieldwork and introspection with more recent fieldwork. This approach has benefitted an "anthropologically engaged" research which finds it imperative to include the perspective of the participant in the observation (Olsen 1997).

A recent probing of my earlier fieldwork in Jamaica yielded a curious relationship obtained initially between the researcher and informants 30 years ago that, subsequently and interestingly, has driven the later fieldwork (1999) and the emergent themes discovered in a current analysis (working paper with Stephen Gould). The participant observer 30 years ago was in fact observed by the informants to be a victim of affairs of the heart that initiated a more intimate ethnographic experience. The quality of the research I obtained thereafter is because of a failed marriage in the midst of the primary research collection. My personal loss was a familiar scenario that generated an outpouring of support and understanding from informants that helped evaporate the racial and class distinctions complicating fieldwork. The depth of the life histories I collected from both men and women was a response to similar emotional losses that we shared. Thus, in this longitudinal diachronic analysis, by utilizing a reflexive introspection of the fieldwork a new category of research, Empathetic Ethnography, was revealed.

As with any reflexive analysis, the goal of the research objective is determined by the historical circumstances of the researcher. In conclusion, other applications of this innovative approach will suggest new sites for ethnographic introspection.



Lorna Stevens, University of Ulster, UK

Like most of us, I suspect, I don’t know whether I would be categorised as an introvert or an extrovert and have often considered myself to be both. From being an extremely talkative, happy, confident and gregarious child I became at fourteen, a painfully self-conscious, lonely, withdrawn and miserable teenager, and when I emerged from this dark period in my life in my early twenties I seemed to have rediscovered my former self but I also retained my introspective, melancholy side. On the one hand I constantly subject myself to intense self- analysis and self-criticism with regard to my thoughts and feeling on all things, yet I am also an extrovert who is very interested in other people and I happily externalise my neuroses, foibles and frustrations, and indeed torture friends, family, colleagues (and even my students) with my discursive and self-relexive musings. If I can make such musings entertaining to all concerned I am a happy woman indeed, and feel lifted by this externalising process. Like the true Venusian (as Gray would have it), I speak (and probably write) as I think, in a discursive and self-reflexive way, working out my ideas as I engage in this process of outward articulation, wearing my neuroses like a badge or an endurance medal, with pride.

I am very comfortable with French feminist writers views, that as women we write from our bodies and from our essence as women, and we don’t want to write like men; we want to write "female sexed texts" as Cixous (1975) would describe them. I’ve always preferred circularity, and I’m not going to apologise for that, although I know it can be frustrating to listeners and readers who want me to come to the point (a masculine preoccupation, as Paglia 1990 would have it in any case, and I’m not a man and don’t want to be!).

What this discursive preamble is coming around to is: for some reason when I made my first foray into personal introspection, an interpretation for a Modt and Chandon advert (Brown et al 1999), I wrote entirely in the third person. I didn=t see this as particularly significant, but when we compared our respective readings of the ad Stephen commented on this, struck by what appeared to be my reluctance to get personal and write in the first person. Subsequent forays into subjective personal introspections about ads such as the Caffey’s Irish Ale campaign (Patterson et al 1998; Stevens et al 2000), an ad campaign for a women’s magazine called Red (Stevens 2002), as well as a shopping experience (Maclaran and Stevens 1998), have also followed this pattern. I am not aware of deliberately hiding myself in the text but I seem to want to assume the mantle of 'everywoman’. Maybe it’s the feminist in meBthe personal is politicalBwhich makes me generalise my response, as if I speak for other women; or maybe its arrogance; or maybe I want to be multiple, not singular in how I write; or maybe I don’t want to expose my inner self to the gaze of others (the painfully shy teenager who hated walking into a room of strangers and still does, come to think of it), unless it's on my terms. Here’s a confession; laugh at it if you like; in fact I want you to laugh; I’m laughing too; let’s share the laugh; but I’m allowed to have some secrets, and I’m not going to share my innermost thoughts with all and sundry! Come to think of it all my written introspections have been deeply personal, but only people who know me very well would recognise this. Personal anger translates into feminist rhetoric, perhaps, in some of the introspections I have written; personal disappointments are re-presented as disappointments all women may have felt. The truly personal is tucked ways in the text, perhaps camouflaged by the third person narrative I feel comfortable with, coded so that only an inner circle of loved ones can fully understand my interpretation; then again maybe it’s all out there and very obvious.

Maybe my writing in the third person can be attributed to a gender difference? Stern (1998) for example, writes of women’s greater propensity to propriety in their writing, and research we carried out with students on the Caffrey’s Irish Ale campaign showed that women reacted to this androcentric text by writing third person, tentative, descriptive and non-personal interpretations whilst the male students (the target audience of course) responded with often raucous, joyous and humourous first person ones (Stevens et al 1998). Men often tend to veil their innermost thoughts and insecurities within a protective veneer of self-mockery and humour (Bauer 1993; Gauntlett 2002); perhaps we all do to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes, though, a soap box just feels right.

Finally, I end my discursion into discursive writing, my introspection on introspective writing, with some inspiring words from Cixous, words that I may aspire to and certainly admire. Cixous describes women’s writing thus:

"her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible. When id is ambiguously utteredBthe wonder of being severalBshe doesn=t defend herself against these unknown women whom she’s surprised at becoming, but derives pleasure from this gift of alterability."


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Stephen Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York, USA
Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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