Special Session Summary Ablind Men Feeling Elephants@ B Multiple Perspectives on Reality


Richard Elliott (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Ablind Men Feeling Elephants@ B Multiple Perspectives on Reality", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 252-253.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 252-253



Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, England

The #interpretive turn’ in consumer research has led to a plethora of new methodologies drawing on a wide range of philosophical positions. The extent to which these approaches are compatible or incommensurable is seldom discussed in the literature, and very rarely debated at a conference. This session explores the ontological assumptions of a range of approaches to consumer research ranging from the extreme positivism of radical behaviourism to the postmodern extreme of personal introspection, via pragmatic realism and poststructuralism.




Gordon R. Foxall, University of Wales

The radical behaviorist paradigm seeks to explain behavior in terms of the contingent relationships of a response and the consequences it produces in the presence of an antecedent stimulus. The use of this paradigm in marketing and consumer research has generally assumed that its explanatory system can be extrapolated from the animal laboratory where the evidence that supports it has for the most part been accumulated to the sphere of complex human behavior such as purchase and consumption. This paper is concerned with the implications for the application of radical behaviorism to the study of consumer choice of situational and speciational discontinuities between animal and human behaviors which determine that the account this paradigm provides of non-laboratory human activity take the form of interpretation rather than explanation. Particular attention is accorded the capacity of humans for verbal control of behavior which may not, therefore, be directly exposed to the contingencies of reinforcement among a discriminative stimulus and the consequences it signals to depend upon the performance of a specific response. This distinction between contingency-shaped and rule-governed behavior is central to the accurate understanding of the explicatory role of radical behaviorism in consumer researc. The need for a radical behaviorist interpretation of human consumer behavior is further elaborated by reference to the complexity of the behavior settings in which purchase and consumption take place.



Larry Percy, University of Oxford

While not meaning to discourage new ways of thinking about consumer response, and behaviour, have those advocating new definitions of "reality" given thought to what it might mean if they were really right? There is no doubt these methods and philosophies offer interesting perspectives on the behaviour, at least surface behaviour, of individuals; and if one really buys the notion of "markets of one," they might even provide some useful marketing insight.

But where would this leave us, if true? If everyone defines their own reality, we would indeed need to study every individual in order to address their particular and unique needs. Once we "understand" those "needs," we could then manufacture a produce or create a service to satisfy each unique "market of one." If we were really lucky, there might even be some people out there with the odd need in common, so we really wouldn’t have to literally market to a single individual, we might be able to bundle them into markets of two or three; or who knows, perhaps there might be as many as a dozen people with the same view of the world (but only, of course, for one particular part of it, never the whole thing).

No, it simply will not do. We have evolved as a species by retaining common ways of optimizing our response to the world around us; "rules" of responding that are stored in our limbic or paleomammalian mind. Why else, for example (as Bloom points out in his analysis of the Western canon) has Shakespeare been able to touch all men, including non-Western man, with his characterizations?

Fads will come and go, and the French will always try to recover their perceived past intellectual glories. But in the end, we do best when we look to tap into what for lack of a better word we might think of as our humanness. This is why there is such a thing as #good taste.’ This is what permits successful marketing. This is what permits community. This is what we explore in this paper.



Richard Elliott, University of Oxford

Poststructuralist approaches to reality are languacentric, a perspective which views consciousness as being constituted by discourse, and discourse itself as not neutral but the site of competing and conflicting accounts. However, the individual "assumes that she is the author of the discourse which she is speaking, and thinks as if she were in control of meaning". Derrida emphasises the indeterminacy of meaning and the inherent instability of language: all signs are connected to and defined by other signs and the appearance of a meaning external to the signifying system is merely an illusion. In this view the very sense of a self existing outside of language and using language as a tool is itself an illusion.

Foucault demonstrates the relationship between power and knowledge, and suggests that it is ower, rather than discourse which constructs reality. Language is a medium oriented towards action and function, and people use language to construct accounts or versions of the social world. But all discourses contain the sediment of social structure and social practices which are to a large extent inescapable and thus the individual is the subject of a discursive field which is historically and socially located.

The extent to which we can have access to essential feelings is challenged by the social constructionist theory of emotions views emotions not as natural responses elicited by natural features in a situation, but as sociocultural constructions which serve a situated social function, so that the meaning of an emotion is located within the sociocultural system in which it is culturally appropriate. But despite their situational contingency, emotions may be law-like in their effect upon us. The "law of apparent reality" states that once events are subjectively perceived to be real, often through imagination and fantasy, then the emotional responses overwhelm objective evidence; and the "law of closure" proposes that emotions are blind to reason and that they "know no probabilities...they do not weigh likelihoods."

Thus even our emotions may be constructed by fields of discourse which limit what we can think and even what we can feel, and we may be unable to step outside our sociocultural location even through the adoption of an ironic perspective. All our taken for granted understandings have no transcendent foundations but are constructed from social interactions, and the real collapses into language. Yet limited freedom may be allowed to the individual through consumption choices through which the individual must take responsibility to invent and consciously create a self-identity. Through existential consumption the freedom to create new meanings for goods can be used for collective and individual resistance against the imposed meanings of the dominant cultural categories, particularly through the choice of style and the use of "bricolage" tactics. We may dismiss an individual’s claim to be making conscious choices about consumption as "false consciousness" but the freedom of practical existentialism is authentic, even if it is constrained by inequalities in the economic system and by ideological hegemony.



Patrick Hetzel, University of Strasbourg

In this presentation we are setting the emphasis on the role of personal interpretation in seeking to understand the universe of consumption which surrounds us. To do this, we shall make use of a specific example on which we worked in 1996, by way of an ethnographic approach: The Mall of America in Minneapolis. This colossal commercial centre is of interest in a number of respects. It is a place where reality, hyper-reality, non-reality and fiction are ceaselessly intermixed. Cast in the image of Las Vegas, this place, born of nothing, poses the problem of a relationship with the world and the ontological dimension which it encapsulates. It is the prime example of the artefact made real. It exists by mixing the virtual with the construct. Its reality is hyper-reality, and the commutative universes mix within in at will. The basic question is therefore this: To what extent can the "interpretative" function of the researcher allow us to come to a better understanding of the system of consumption? In the image of Baudrillard, whose pertinence and contribution in this field of knowledge no-one would deny, there can be no question of arguing that an interpretation by a researcher, if based on an ethnographic approach, would be irrefutable and would conform to "reality". It is nevertheless an interesting construct, allowing us to make an approach to reality, and perhaps contributing also towards providing an interesting context for analysis, because it is the ruit of the labour of explanation, the explanation of perpetual individual phenomena. In terms purely of an exercise, the researcher into consumer behaviour can experiment with the phenomenology of direct consumption. The system of consumption then becomes a kind of Odyssey, in which the researcher can play the roles of Odysseus and Homer simultaneously.



Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, England


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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