The Role of the Humanities in Consumer Research: Close Encounters and Coastal Disturbances


Morris B. Holbrook, Stephen Bell, and Mark W. Grayson (1989) ,"The Role of the Humanities in Consumer Research: Close Encounters and Coastal Disturbances", in SV - Interpretive Consumer Research, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 29-47.

Interpretive Consumer Research, 1989     Pages 29-47


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

Stephen Bell, Columbia University

Mark W. Grayson, Columbia University

[The authors thank Laurie Hudson, David Mick, and Barbara Stem for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. The paper also benefitted from the criticisms of Paul Surgi Speck, though it appears clear the latter reviewer disagrees with several aspects of the analysis. Finally, the first author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund.]

The inner history of the last thousand years is the history of mankind achieving self-expression: this is what philology, a historicist discipline, treats. This history contains the records of man's mighty, adventurous advance to a consciousness of his human condition and to the realization of his given potential (Auerbach 1969, p. 5).

The ultimate comparison ... measures literature against life itself, authenticating the one while enhancing the other (Levin 1972, p.75).


This paper describes a broadened view of humanistic inquiry and emphasizes the relevance of the humanities in general and the arts in particular to consumer research. It offers a counterexample of the scientific approach to interpretive hypothesis testing, with self-critical attention to its potential shortcomings. Finally, it illustrates a potentially more insightful interpretive approach that draws on the humanities to analyze the meaning of consumption symbolism in a work of art.


Recent developments in consumer research indicate that, at last, humanistic approaches have begun to creep into our field of inquiry. These indications include general review articles on semiotics (Holbrook 1987b; Mick 1986), hermeneutics (Hudson and Ozanne 1988), and humanistic inquiry (Hirschman 1986); conferences (Umiker-Sebeok 1987), conference sessions (Biocca 1987; Camargo 1987; Holbrook 1988c), and conference papers (Holbrook 1987a, 1988b) on various aspects of the interpretive approach; and occasional interpretive applications that have begun to appear in the literature (Hirschman 1987a, 1987b; Holbrook 1988a; Holbrook and Grayson 1986). Yet, already, this flurry of activity involving the movement by consumer researchers toward embracing the humanities has begun to encounter barriers, resistance, and other limitations.

First, one often confronts lingering reactions of reviewers, editors, and various self-appointed critics to the effect that this kind of approach is inappropriate for studies in marketing and consumer research (Holbrook 1987a, 1987b, 1988b). Second, one faces overt attacks on interpretivism as inherently nonscientific, as merely entertaining, or as only a source of hypotheses to be tested by more rigorous approaches ( Calder and Tybout 1987). Third, one suspects that even the most supportive efforts may fail to move all the way toward defining humanism with sufficient breadth and may stop short of fully acknowledging the potential role of the humanities in consumer research (Hirschman 1986).

In response to these three concerns, we shall begin by providing a general description of our broadened view of humanistic inquiry and our emphasis on the relevance of the humanities in general and the arts in particular to consumer research. We shall then offer a counterexample of the scientistic approach to interpretive hypothesis testing, with self critical attention to its potential shortcomings. Finally, we shall illustrate what we regard as a More insightful interpretive approach that draws on the humanities to analyze the meaning of consumption symbolism in a work of art.

These three stages account for the title and subtitle of our paper. Specifically, the first stage explains "The Role of the Humanities in Consumer Research." The second stage illustrates the partial breakdown of the scientistic approach via a positivistic study of the effects of consumption symbolism in a short story (here entitled "Close Encounters"). ne third stage illustrates what we consider the fruitful application of a sermotic/hermeneutic approach to the analysis of consumption symbolism in a recent highly acclaimed play by Tina Howe ("Coastal Disturbances").

However, the subtitle also carries some significance beyond its relevance to particular works of art. Specifically, we wish to argue that the time has come for "close encounters" between consumer research and what has thus far seemed an alien viewpoint. For many, enmeshed in the positivistic approach to research in our field, the humanities appear as an invasion from outer space. Yet, increasingly, some consumer researchers (including many of those represented by this volume of collected papers) have begun to call for welcoming such alien influences into our midst. This project is bound to cause "coastal disturbances" in the form of debates and disputes at our boundaries. The questions posed by attacks on interpretivism concern the issue of whether the boundaries of science in consumer research will turn out to be permeable or whether, as interpretivists, we must simply expand our horizon past the coastlines of scientism to encompass a broader world of human meaning that lies beyond.


Beyond Humanistic Inquiry

In a recent article entitled "Humanistic Inquiry in Marketing Research" Hirschman (1986) provided an excellent description of a post-positivistic approach to research that has been treated at greater length in works by, among others, Geertz (1973), Morgan (1983), and Lincoln and Guba (1985). In Hirschman's (1986) view, humanism "advocates in-dwelling of the researcher with the phenomena under investigation" (p. 238). Yet she never really defines humanism, but rather focuses on a series of parallel comparisons between humanistic and positivistic methods of inquiry. In a sense, her treatment delineates humanism by contrasting it against what it is not -- namely, positivism -- extrapolating this distinction into a discussion of one type of method from among a variety of approaches more generally known by such names as "naturalistic inquiry" (Lincoln and Guba 1985).

We applaud Hirschman's (1986) attempt to highlight viable alternative modes of consumer research and admire the careful organization and provocative viewpoint of her article. Yet we fear that she may have unintentionally and unnecessarily worked toward narrowing our conception of humanism by implicitly restricting the scope of its potential contribution to that associated with naturalistic inquiry. This paper counteracts that unintended consequence of Hirshman's article by arguing for a broader view of humanistic inquiry in consumer research.

Toward this end, we adopt the first dictionary definition of humanism as "devotion to the humanities" (Holbrook 1987a). This specification, of course, immediately raises the cognate question of how we would define the humanities. Here, the dictionary proves somewhat less helpful, describing this vague concept as "the branches of learning ... that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes" (Holbrook 1987a). Apparently, our notion of the humanities has evolved with changes in the course of human constructs and concerns. All this, therefore, requires some preliminary discussion.

Humanism and the Humanities

Briefly, from this perspective, humanism traces its roots back to Fourteenth Century Florence. [Here, we refer to the growth of humanism rather than to broader aspects of interpretivism such as that found in the development of hermeneutics (beginning with very early examples of Biblical exegesis and classical scholarship).] Although some historians simply argue that humanism originated in the social and political influences broadly operating in this Italian city-state, Pfeiffer (1976) claims quite convincingly that the movement ultimately derived from the ideas of a single man -- namely, Petrarch, whose study of ancient texts was motivated by "a longing for true wisdom": "He did not long, however, for the logic of metaphysics or natural sciences offered by the Aristotelian revival of the later Scholastic philosophy, but for knowledge of the human soul and human values" (p. 11). Petrarch's study of texts from the ancient world (Rome and the early Church) led to his belief that "the litterae he cultivated paved the way to moral values and true wisdom" (p. 15). This link "between litterae and humanitas" (p. 15) entails what Pfeiffer describes as a compassionate attitude to one's fellow man. The term "humanitas," however, was also used more specifically to refer to the critical scholarship that Petrarch recreated. Indeed, it has remained closely associated with the study of the letters, philosophy, politics, and ethics of the ancient world. Academies were formed to educate the Florentian elite in the humanities. Thence, the study of classical texts spread throughout the rest of Europe.

A crucial moment in the development of humanism and the emergence of the humanities occurred in the anti-Enlightenment revolt during the Eighteenth Century. For example, though he influenced few of his contemporaries, Vico (ed. 1976) argued, against the Baconian and Cartesian emphasis on science and rationality, that humans can best understand the social products that they themselves have created (Burke 1985, p. 78) so that the historical cycles of the social world (versus the causal phenomena of nature) are most intelligible to human thought. As explained by Cassirer (1961):

According to Vico, the true goal of our knowledge is not knowledge of nature but human self-knowledge.... For Vico,the highest law of knowledge is the statement that any being truly conceives and fathoms only that which it itself has produced.... Nature is the work of God and accordingly is completely intelligible only to that divine understanding which brought it forth. What man can truly conceive is ... the structure and specificity of his own Works .... And it is above all to these that Vico turns his gaze in constructing ... the logic of the humanities -- as the logic of language, poetry, and history (pp. 52-54).

The humanities build their basic rationale upon this fundamental insight. As Spitzer (1967) puts it, "'Me Humanist believes in the power bestowed on the human mind of investigating the human mind" (p. 24).

This central premise informed the distinction drawn by Dilthey (ed. 1972) between the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (the human studies). Dilthey's view of the human studies harks back to Vico's point that "the one who examines history also makes history" (quoted by Makkreel 1975, p. 25) and places its emphasis on types of knowledge that can he known from within (Kermode 1966). Thus, Dilthey (ed. 1972) sees "the theory of interpretation," driven toward an understanding or Verstehen of this "inner reality," as "an essential component in ... the human studies" (p. 244). Toward this end, he pursues the hermeneutic approach developed by Schleiermacher (ed. 1978). Like Schleiermacher, he shows a deep concern for the validity of interpretation and raises questions about the objectivity of the Hermencutic Circle that have only begun to reach resolution in more recent hermeneutic approaches (e.g., Gadamer 1975; Ricoeur 1976, 1981). In short, Dilthey's split between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften ratified a distinction that has, in one way or another, confronted us ever since. Thus, even while denying any simplistic division between the sciences and the humanities, Frye (1966) manages to retain the essential spirit of Dilthey's central dichotomy when he characterizes science as exhibiting "a method and a mental attitude ... of a stabilized subject and an impartial and detached treatment of evidence" and the humanities as expressing "the nature of the human involvement with the human world, which is essential to any serious man's attitude to life" (p. 54).

In a sense, "humanism" simply refers to everything on the "Geistes" side of Dilthey's split between the natural sciences and human studies. Yet, as noted by Bird (1976), the term "humanistic" simply "has too many connotations that are wrong and misleading." Put differently, "humanism" lacks specificity (Abbagnano 1967), referring to a wide range of disciplinary perspectives that deserve to be distinguished. Toward that end, we propose the schematic breakdown between the natural sciences and human studies shown in Figure 1.

Several aspects of this scheme require brief comment. First, it preserves the basic distinction between natural sciences and human studies (Dilthey ed. 1972; Makkreel 1975). In our usage, "humanism" would refer to everything vertically aligned with the human studies column (where the upper portion refers primarily to "doing" and the lower to "knowing"). Second, the top part of the scheme distinguishes vertically between "humanitarianism" and "ethical or religious humanism" (Lamont 1962). The former places its emphasis on working toward the welfare and happiness of mankind (Bahn 1962) and may well use the tools of science for that purpose. Also in partial sympathy with the aims of science, the latter has been defined by Lamont (1982) as "rejecting supernaturalism and seeking man's fulfillment in the here and now of this world" (p. xi) via "joyous service for the greater good of all humanity" based on "the methods of reason, science, and democracy" (p. 12). Third, we follow Huhne (ed. 1987) in drawing a contrast between ethical or religious humanism (as just defined) and the realm of "pure" ethics or "pure" religion as directed toward producing objective, absolute, abstract knowledge and, therefore, as outside the bounds of any subjective, relativistic, action-oriented humanism. Fourth, like many recent commentators, we retain the familiar breakdown between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (Adelson 1985; Kaufmann 1977; Matthews 1968). In this connection, Vertically, we place the social sciences at an intermediate position between the natural sciences and the humanities. Fifth, we follow a number of authorities in regarding the humanities as uniquely concerned with the historical and cultural products of mankind (Abbagnano 1967; Lamont 1962). Several commentators list literature, the arts, history, and philosophy as providing the primary exemplars of such historical cultural products (Beardsley 1966; Frye 1966; Kaufmann 1977).

As a passionate spokesman for the humanities, Cassirer (1961) defines their contribution as that Of Providing unique insights into life and the world of lived experience so as "to understand the universal and basic Cultural orientation" (p. 36). This focus on the interpretive aims of literary or artistic studies, history, and philosophy extends throughout Olafson's (1979) account of history as "the dialectic of action":

The humanities ... are interested in man primarily as the possesor of certain powers.... These powers have traditionally been held to comprise those of thought and articulate speech, of purposive action and will, as well as of feeling that is informed by thought and purpose... history, as well as literature and philosophy, is concerned with human beings and with human beings as possessed of and exercising these distinctive powers (p. 6).

Not incidentally, one area in which humans exercise their powers of thinking, feeling, and acting -in ways that give structure to their lived experience -occurs in their everyday consumption activities. Thus, Cassirer (1961) quotes with approval [Today, as noted by one reviewer, Cassirer's approval would not be shared by such anti-historicists as the Yale School, the post-structuralists, the deconstructionists, and the "New" New Critics. By contrast with these latter perspectives, we focus here on somewhat more venerable viewpoints.] the following comment, of clear relevance to the pervasive role of consumer behavior, from Taine's History of English Literature:

True history first emerges for us when the historian succeeds in taking us across the barrier of time and face to face with living human beings -- human beings-with the same completeness and clarity belonging to those human beings who walk our own streets.... The genuinely real ... is what can be handled, the bodily and visible human being, who cats, works, and fights ... the human being at work, in his office, in his field, with his sunshine, his soil, his shelter, his clothes, and his mealtime (pp. 27-28).

The Two Cultures and, Perhaps, a Third

The venerable distinction between the natural sciences and human studies -- or, more loosely, between Science and Humanism -- reached its modem apotheosis in the controversy surrounding Snow's (ed. 1964) famous reflections in his 1959 Rede Lecture on "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." Snow (ed. 1964) argued that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups" (p. 3) and that "at one pole we have the literary intellectuals ... at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists" (p. 4). Snow predicted that this split would produce dire consequences and sought relief in the form of a revised educational System Oriented toward "closing the gap between our cultures" (p. 50). Critics gleefully leaped to the challenge of repudiating Snow's implicit elevation of the scientific above the literary culture. For example, Leavis (ed. 1972) caustically referred to Snow as "portentously ignorant" (p. 41) and "intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be" (p. 42); condemned Snow's essay as exhibiting "an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style" (p. 44); charged that Snow was a bad novelist and an incompetent scientist; and concluded, contra Snow, that "what we need ... is something with the livingness of the deepest vital instinct; as intelligence, a power rooted, strong in experience, and supremely human of creative response to the new challenges of time; something that is alien to either of Snow's cultures" (pp. 60-61). Others responded to Snow's critique in more moderate tones. Thus, Polanyi (1959) questioned the scientific "ideal of impersonal objectivity" (p. 32) and called for "a humanistic revisionism" (p. 32) that would counteract "the disregard of truth in favour of hardboiled scientific ideals" (pp. 27-28). Meanwhile, Bantock (1960) questioned whether a rapprochement between science and the humanities is even possible given that, in his view, science focuses on descriptive regularities "in the grip of the facts" whereas a writer pursuing the humanities expresses "a unique vision" whose "coherence ... is-emotional" (p. 39).



Perhaps the most constructive critical response to the issues raised by Snow (ed. 1964) appeared in a book by Davy (1978) entitled Towards a Third Culture. In this work, Davy blames the rational scientific consciousness for leading mankind into a predicament in which "we are able to study the processes of nature in fine analytical detail and thus to gain control over them, but we are strangers in a universe which has lost human meaning" (p. 51). In Davy's view, the restoration of "human meaning" requires a humanizing counter-current in the form of a "third culture":

the third culture ... will retain the particular virtues of the scientific outlook -- disciplined thinking, respect for facts, testing by experiment -- but it will use them differently.... it will be ... also a religious and an artistic culture (p. 93).

Thus, echoing Leavis (1952) in The Common Pursuit, Davy hopes that the third culture will assert "a humanizing influence which would correct the tendencies of science ... to lose sight of the whole human being" (p. 104).

The Humanities and the Social Sciences

All this -- the gap between the natural sciences and human studies, the coexistence of the social sciences and the humanities as subspecies of humanism, and the need for a humanizing focus on the meaning of the world -- suggests the possibility of a role for the humanities in the social sciences in general and consumer research in particular. Not surprisingly, numerous thinkers have articulated views compatible with this position from a number of different perspectives. We shall briefly review three such perspectives, the third of which corresponds most closely to our own viewpoint.

(1) First, some commentators have attempted to abolish the cleavage between the humanities and the natural sciences by arguing for a positivistic view of the humanities. For example, Northrop (1947) suggests that the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities are subject to the same philosophy of science -- namely, one based on "experimentally verified theory" (p. 361). One application of this viewpoint appears in the approach to literary analysis taken by Lane (1961). Following the "practical criticism" of Richards (1935), Lane (1961) calls for the greatest possible denotative precision in the critic's use of language (p. 100). Ultimately, in this pursuit, he tends to dissolve the difference between the natural sciences and the humanities:

There is not, in particular, any formal difference between the humanities and the sciences in the appropriate method of theory formation, conceptualization, classification, verification, and evaluation.... there are not, in any event, two sets of methods.... there is only one logic (with different notations) that gives each of these schemes its rationale (p. 123).

(2) The construal adopted by Northrop (1947) and Lane (1961) neglects what we regard as the venerable distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. A second, more tenable position emphasizes the contrast between the contexts of discovery and justification, regarding the humanities as suitable aids to the development of theory or generation of hypotheses to be tested by more scientific means. For example, Nisbet (1976) emphasizes the role for artistic creativity in the process of discovery:

What is vital is the underlying act of discovery or illumination or invention that is the clue to all genuine Creative work. 'Me greater scientists have long been aware of the basic unity of the creative act as found in the arts and in the sciences. A large and growing literature attests to the awareness. Only in the social sciences....has awareness of the real nature of discovery tended to lag. Countless works in the social sciences reveal the inability of their authors to bear in mind the crucial difference between what may properly be called the logic of discovery and the logic of demonstration. The second is properly subject to rules and prescriptions; the first isn't (p. 5).

Bird (1976) calls attention to this same parallel between art and science in the act of discovery wherein a scientific theory is "a work of creative imagination" so that "science, as a creative achievement," is no different from any of the most creative works of the humanities and the arts" (p. 168). From this perspective, it follows that literature (or the other humanities) may suggest an "hypothesis" to be tested by "further observations that confirm its truth" via more rigorous approaches (Beardsley 1966, p. 27). In essence, this argument borrows from Popper's (1959) falsificationist criterion. Indeed, numerous commentators (e.g., Hirsch 1967; Ricocur 1976, 1981), including Popper (1976) himself, have noted the fundamental consistency between falsificationism and the interpretive task of checking hypotheses concerning the humanities against the evidence provided by a close reading of their text. Here, for example, Bruner (1986) views the humanities as a potential source of hypotheses suitable for a sort of falsificationist testing. In his perspective, "the humanities have as their implicit agenda the cultivation of hypotheses, the art of hypothesis generating" (Bruner 1986, p. 52). But, for him, the tests imposed on humanistic hypotheses differ from those imposed on science in that they emphasize the more human perspective of "verisimilitude" in the sense of "true to conceivable experience" (p. 52):

With science, we ask finally for some verification (or some proof against falsification). In the domain of narrative and explication of human action, we ask instead that, upon reflection, the account correspond to some perspective we can imagine or "feel" as right. The one, science, is oriented outward to an external world; the other, inward toward a perspective and a point of view toward the world. They are, in effect, two forms of an illusion of reality -- very different forms. But their respective "falsifiability" in Popper's sense does not fully distinguish them (pp. 5152).

One must emphasize that, from this viewpoint, the distinctive hypothesis -generating contribution of the humanities stems from their unique ability to put us in touch with the human condition: "My interest in theater and literature ... has joined me to the possible worlds that provide the landscape for thinking about the human condition, the human condition as it exists in the culture which I live" (Bruner 1986, p. 128). In this, Bruner echoes the arguments offered by Huxley (1963) in his treatment of Literature and Science. Huxley (1963) lavished considerable attention on the contrasts between science and literature (cf. Richards ed. 1970) in terms of content (public/private), stance (objective/subjective), manner (abstract/concrete), approach (general/particular), level (quantitative/qualitative), language (technical jargon/rich allusions), and goals (to simplify reality into a rational order/to communicate multiple meanings). However, Huxley (1963) continued to insist on the humanistic premise that "the proper study ... of mankind is man" (p. 80) and steadfastly regarded literature as a window on the nature and meaning of life through which "our own immediate experiences come to us, so to say, through the refracting medium of the art we like" (p. 71).

(3) From here, it requires only a short advance to arrive at a third perspective favored by the current authors -- namely, that works of art (literature and the other humanities) can themselves provide evidence against which to test the hypotheses concerning the nature of the human condition that they themselves suggest. In this, we move close to the position adopted by Berger (1963) contra all "humorless scientism" (p. 165) and in support of his view of "sociology as a humanistic discipline" (p. 176):

Sociology ... has...traits that assign it to the immediate vicinity of the humanities.... sociology is vitally concerned with what is, after all, the principal subject matter of the humanities -- the human condition itself.... sociology comes time and again on the fundamental question of what it means to be a man.... Openness to the humanistic scope of sociology further implies an ongoing communication with other disciplines that are vitally concerned with explaining the human condition. The most important of these are history and philosophy (pp. 167-168).

On this same note of humanistic concern, Berger and Luckmarm (1966) conclude their "treatise in the sociology of knowledge" with a "conception of sociology in general" (p. 189) that they might almost have torn from the pages of Vico (ed. 1976) in which:

Sociology takes its place in the company of the sciences that deal with man as man.... it is, in that specific sense, a humanistic discipline.... sociology must be carried on in a continuous conversation with both history and philosophy or lose its proper object of inquiry. This object is society as part of a human world, made be men, inhabited by men, and, in turn, making men, an an ongoing historical process (p. 189)

The implications of this view for the role of the humanities in the social sciences receive their fullest elaboration in the work by Brown (1977) entitled A Poetic for Sociology. Herein, Brown (1977) contrasts what he calls the "positivistic" (rational, scientific, empirical) and "romantic" (intuitive, metaphysical, evaluative) views, but refuses to be trapped by this stultifying split and instead adopts a self-consciously interpretive approach:

our project -- a poetic for sociology -- is an attempt to provide an epistemic self-consciousness for sociological thought.... we no longer are forced to choose between two sociologics: one positivist, which tells us everything about society and nothing about ourselves; the other romantic, which expresses insight into moral agency but lacks empirical rigor. We can begin instead to cast such sterile dichotomies aside -- scientific sociology can be seen as interpretive, while insight or interpretation can be made a disciplined, rulebound procedure (p. 234)

An even more poetically interpretivistic view of the social sciences informs the recent work by Geertz (1988) subtitled "The Anthropologist as Author." Geertz argues that ethnographers; use their writing persuasively "to convince us that what they say is a result of their having actually penetrated ... another form of life" (p. 4) so that the criteria for judging works of cultural anthropology come to resemble those applied in the humanities:

as the criticism of fiction and poetry grows best out of an imaginative engagement with fiction and poetry themselves, not out of imported notions about what they should be, the criticism of anthropological writing ... ought to grow out of a similar engagement with it, not out of preconceptions of what it must look like to qualify as science (p. 6).

From this perspective, in an echo of Brown, Geertz concludes that "ethnographies tend to look at least as much like romances as they do like lab reports" (p. 8) so that ethnographical writing occupies an intermediate position "between author- saturated texts like David Copperfield and author-evacuated ones like 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies"' (p. 141). Thus, for Geertz, the natural sciences and humanities merge in the realm of social science:

the burden of authorship cannot be evaded.... ethnography .... like quantum mechanics or the Italian opera .... is a work of the imagination, less extravagant than the first, less methodical than the second.... writing of ethnography involves telling stories, making pictures, concocting symbolisms, and deploying tropes (p. 140)

In his review, Schweder (1988) summarizes Geertz as suggesting that "a great ethnography is not simply a compilation of facts; it is an imaginative way of seeing through experience" (p. 13). Clearly, in this view, the line between social scientist and novelist grows very thin indeed:

According to Mr. Geertz, ethnographic reality does not exist apart from our literary versions of it.... the appreciation of Mr. Geertz's brilliant writing is much like the appreciation of a brilliant metaphor. Both suffer from explication; something inevitably gets lost in translation.... to disentangle substance from style destroys the object of enhancement (p. 13).

The Humanities in Consumer Research

In studying customer behavior, consumer research has traditionally employed methodology borrowed from the social sciences, which have themselves tended to emulate the natural sciences. Hirschman's (1986) article raises the issue whether other methods might be relevant as well and suggests that a humanistic approach might provide useful insights. While we agree with her proposition, the mode of research that she describes is based on a rather narrow conception of humanism.

A fully humanistic approach would embrace the humanities and thus would include research based on the direct involvement of a critical interpreter in a literary text or artistic work. In addition, as noted earlier, the humanities would encompass various aspects of history, philosophy, and other related areas of inquiry. However, here, we shall focus primarily on those humanistic contributions associated with literature and the arts. In this connection, Holbrook (1987a, 1987b, 1988b) has argued that the humanities in general and the arts in particular are relevant to marketing and consumer research precisely because consumer products function symbolically in art as they do in everyday life. They communicate as part of a complex network of symbolic meanings. For example, the third author recently reviewed ten films directed by John Huston, tracking the use of imagery associated with guns, alcohol, and tobacco and arriving at the tentative conclusion that consumption of these products differentiates Huston's male characters in the degree to which they possess strength, power, aggressiveness, cunning, and sexual potency. This conclusion depends on the interpreter's own subjective judgment and on the critical experience he brings to the analysis of these movies. While these conclusions seem intuitively plausible, they only suggest ways in which products might be read in consumers' minds within the context of these particular films. They remain idiographic with no intended claims to nomothetic generalizability.

Such interpretive readings may do much to suggest the meaning of marketing and consumer behavior. However, inextricably anchored in subjective responses, they inevitably elicit criticisms from adherents to the positivistic view of marketing research. Yet, as Hirschman's article and many others have already conveyed, the "received view" of logical empiricism no longer remains tenable without qualification (Anderson 1987; Deshpande 1983; Peter and Olson 1983). Once we have turned to other approaches, a key remaining issue concerns the substantive areas of their application. This latter issue poses a question that the humanities seem well suited to answer.

Art, Life, and Consumption

A well-known tenet underlying much literary and esthetic criticism claims that art imitates life by providing a representation of reality (Auerbach 1953). Assumptions about the character of this mimetic function do, of course, change through time and therefore vary radically from one historical moment to another. Thus, the classicists believed that art holds a mirror up to nature and copies various external properties of the world around us (Abrams 1981). By contrast, the romantics felt that art illuminates various human emotions and thereby expresses something from the universe within (Abrams 1953). More contemporary criticism tends to regard art as a conceptual embodiment of ideas that raise questions about the artwork's own ontology (Danto 1981). Nevertheless, whatever their contrasting viewpoints, all these perspectives interpret art as a microcosm of larger meanings that, together, say something important about life by commenting significantly on the human condition.

This point aligns closely with the view of those who would apply insights from the arts and humanities to the advancement of knowledge in the social sciences. For example, drawing on Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical model, Elain (1980) suggests that "the way in which we make sense of our lives and their component acts is very considerably influenced by our experience of dramatic worlds, where actions are seen in their intentional and teleological purity" and that "in this sense, the elements of a general theory of human action ... are not only directly applicable to but directly derivative from the drama" (p. 134). Similar arguments have appeared in work on the role of narrative in the social sciences (Burke 1945; Fisher 1985; Olafson 1979). Indeed, Bruner (1986) regards narrative as the key to social understanding:

Insofar as we account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama, it is conceivable that our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us. The common coin may be provided by the focus of narrative that the culture offers us. Again, life could be said to imitate art (p. 69).

This view suggests that interpretive strategies useful for understanding the meaning of an artistic text or other artwork can fruitfully be applied to the problems of an artistic text or other artwork can fruitfully be applied to the problems of understanding life in the abstract or lived events in particular. One such analytic approach involves the use of consumption symbolism or marketing imagery in a work of art to suggest or to bolster an interpretation of its meaning (Holbrook 1987a, 1988b; Holbrook and Grayson 1986). Here, we intend "consumption symbolism" to refer to all suggestive aspects of the acquiring, usage, and disposition of products (goods, services, events, or ideas) that produce valued experiences. Similarly, we intend "marketing imagery" to refer to any concretization that conjures up a visual or other sensory mental representation of consumer activities or related business practices via either pictorial or verbal signs (e.g., a photograph or a use of figurative language). (For further discussion of symbolism and imagery, see Abrams 1981.) In short, this viewpoint regards consumption in an artistic text as an imaginative Microcosm that tells us something about the artwork's significance. Similarly, that artistic interpretation may radiate outward so that, by extension, the microcosm of consumption within an artwork may bear on life's larger meanings.


As one recent illustration of the humanistic viewpoint just described, Holbrook and Grayson (1986) have analyzed the manner in which consumption symbolism contributes to the development of plot and character in an artwork -namely, the movie Out of Africa. This interpretive approach in general and the Holbrook -Grayson article in particular have prompted a thoughtful critique by Calder and Tybout (1987). These authors acknowledge that a semiological approach may help to establish what they call "interpretive knowledge" in which "the conceptual argument is used to give an account of the data" (p. 138) and admit that such an analysis can make "provocative and entertaining reading" (p. 139). But they expicitly deny the scientific status of interpretive studies when they assert that "such conceptualizations should not be equated with scientific knowledge" (p. 139) so that "interpretive knowledge must stand apart ... from science" (p. 140). Science, they suggest, requires a methodology of falsificationism (Lakatos 1970; Popper 1959) in which "the goal of research is to expose a theory to possible refutation" (p. 138) in a Process wherein .1 scientific knowledge comes from the confrontation of theory with data" (p. 138). It follows, in this view (echoing Nisbet 1976, Bird 1976, and Beardsley 1966, discussed earlier), that the interpretive approach can contribute to the progress of science only when it aids the development of hypotheses that a falsificationist approach can then subject to empirical testing:

There is no reason that the conceptualizations of interpretive knowledge cannot be submitted to sophisticated falsificationist methodology; they may, in fact, be a good source of scientifically testable hypotheses (p. 139).

We have commented elsewhere (Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy 1988) on what we regard as the profound conceptual problems that pervade Calder and Tybout's (1987) scientistic attack on interpretivism. (For further critical replies from the viewpoint of the philosophy of science, see Anderson 1987.) We shall not repeat these arguments in the present paper. Here, by contrast, we propose to focus on the practical consequences of heeding Calder and Tybout's advice. Toward this end, in a conscientious attempt to follow that advice as closely as possible, we apply the Calder-Tybout perspective by using a falsificationist approach to test an interpretive hypothesis. Specifically, we employ an experimental design to collect data that confront Holbrook and Grayson's (1986) conceptual argument that consumption symbolism contributes to the development of character in a work of art. Here, to facilitate testing, the artwork we use is a very short story entitled "Close Encounters," while the symbolic consumption of interest involves different brands or types of automobiles, drinks, cats, books, and shirts.


Projective Technique. As our basic method, we used a structured projective technique in which subjects inferred a consumer's personality characteristics from a short story that, among other topics, described his consumption behavior. This procedure draws on the early shopping-list study by Haire (1950), except that we substituted an artwork for the grocery list, used a more complex factorial design, and collected a more structured set of response ratings as suggested by, among others, Westfall, Boyd, and Campbell (1957). We believe that our structured projective task represents an advance in methodological sophistication over comparable techniques used in previous research (e.g., Holbrook and Hughes 1978).

Stimuli. The basis for constructing our set of stimuli was a very short story describing a "close encounter" between a man (George) and a woman (Julia). Written by the authors for purposes of this experiment and therefore not claimed as an exemplar of literary excellence, this story served as a carefully controlled vehicle for the manipulation of consumption symbolism. Specifically, as indicated in the following quotation, it mentioned five consumer products shown here in brackets [AUTOMOBILE, DRINK, CAT, BOOK, and SHIRT] that served as factors for our factorial design (based on two different versions for each bracketed factor):

Close Encounters

Julia rang the doorbell again. This time she held the buzzer for a few seconds. Where could he be? The [AUTOMOBILE] was parked outside, so he could not have gone far. Besides, they had agreed that she would meet him at his apartment, since she would be in the neighborhood. She turned the doorknob. To her surprise it was unlocked.

Tiger, George's big, orange [CAT], tried to slip through the crack in the door. Julia let herself in quickly. The apartment was quiet, though it revealed that George had been there only minutes before. A [DRINK] stood next to an open book, [BOOK]. Julia smiled. It was so like George. She picked up the book and started flipping through the pages. Within minutes, she was lost in another world. His world.

An opening door broke her concentration. She looked to the front of the apartment. No sign of George. Then she heard a cough from behind her.

"Don't rum around," a familiar baritone voice intoned.

"And why not?"

"I'd be embarrassed and so would you."

"Why?" Julia spotted his yellow [SHIRT], jeans, and boxers on the bed. "Oh," she coyly added, "Do you need your clothes? Here, let me get them for you."

George hid behind the hall door.

"What do you want me to do, leave the room?" She laughed at his discomfort. "C'mon, George, be a sport. So many other women have seen you in the raw. Why not me?"

"Why not? Because your my sister."

Using this short story as a frame, the factorial design replaced each bracketed product name with one of two contrasting versions so as to create 32 different stimuli from the 25 possibilities shown in Table 1.

Instrument. Each subject read one version of the story and then rated the male protagonist (George) on ten bipolar adjectival scales. These ten scales were chosen on the basis of a pilot study with 60 respondents drawn from the same pool of MBA students that were later used in the main test. In the pilot interviews, each subject read a version of the story and then gave free responses as to the adjectives that might describe its hero George. Among these responses, ten adjectives were mentioned by at least four respondents. We selected these ten for further use, created bipolar adjectival scales in the seven-position check-mark format, and then randomized these scales in terms of both order and direction. The final form of the instrument appeared as shown in Figure 2.

Subjects. Our subjects were 109 MBA candidates at a major Eastern university who completed the reading -and-rating task as a requirement in a beginning marketing class (after which they were debriefed as to the nature and purpose of the study). Subjects were assigned randomly to the 32 different factorially designed stimuli. Generally, in the debriefing session, they showed no awareness that different subjects had received different stimuli (thereby suggesting that we had succeeded in guarding against this potential source of demand effects).

Procedure. The subjects began by completing an exercise intended to give them practice with the instrument. Specifically, they first read a sample story (different from the test story but the same for all subjects) and rated its female protagonist on the ten adjectival scales. After this practice task, each subject read one of the 32 versions of the test story (assigned at random) and completed the structured rating scales to assess the character of George.

Data Analysis. We began by using principal components analysis with varimax rotation to reduce the original ten adjectival scales to a smaller number of uncorrelated dimensions. Taking these rotated principal components as dependent variables, we then regressed the component scores on independent variables constructed to represent the various product categories (coded as -1/+l dummy variables). (Recall that the principal components were, by definition, uncorrelated and therefore permitted the use of single dependent variables rather than some sort of MANOVA procedure.) We performed these regressions both with and without the inclusion of 2, 3, and 4-way multiplicative interaction terms. Overall, however, the interaction effects turned out to be generally without statistical significance. Hence, we shall not discuss these interactions further, but shall focus instead on the main effects due to the contrasting versions of the product factors.

Hypothesis. To repeat, our main interpretive hypothesis (derived from Holbrook and Grayson's semiotic analysis) is that consumption symbolism (as represented by the two different versions of each product factor) contributes to the development of character (as assessed by principal components based on the subjects' adjectival ratings of the male protagonist).




Principal Components Analysis. Three varimax-rotated principal components, accounting for 56.7 percent of the variance, had eigenvalues greater than 1.0. Because the inclusion of fewer or more dimensions failed to improve the interpretability of the principal components solution, we retained these three components for further analysis. Based on the following set of loadings (with scales reordered to provide clarity), we named the components "Down-And-Out," "Out-Of-It," and "Outrageous," respectively Table 2).

Regression Analyses. In the regression analyses, we adopted a level of p < .05 as our criterion for establishing a statistically significant effect of a product version on a character dimension. Using this criterion, we found significant tendencies for the interpretation of George's character to depend on the product versions contained in the story (Table 3). Specifically, George appeared more "down -and-out" (i.e., unambitious, etc.) when he drove a Toyota, drank Budweiser, and read Small Is Beautiful. He seemed more "out-of-it" (i.e., conservative, etc.) when he wore an Alligator shirt. And he conveyed more of an .1 outrageous" (i.e., thoughtless, etc.) character when he read Dress For Success.

Faisificationist Conclusion

Like any single set of findings in consumer research, our experimental results are limited by the fact that they might vary with different stimuli (e.g., poetry versus prose), different contexts (e.g., listening versus reading), or different subjects (e.g., members of the Book-of-the-Month Club versus students). Thus, future laboratory research along similar lines should explore the replicability, robustness, and boundary conditions for the present set of findings.

Subject to these limitations, our results do appear to support the Holbrook-Grayson hypothesis that consumption symbolism contributes to the development of character in a work of art. We found no significant effects of the difference between a Persian and an alley cat (suggesting that, perhaps, we should have included more extreme types of pets such as a Persian and a German Shepherd). However, readers' interpretations of George's character as down-and-out, out-of-it, and outrageous did depend significantly on the consumption symbolism conveyed by his choice of car, libation, Clothing, and reading material. From the perspective of a falsificationist, this finding corroborates (by failing to refute) the interpretive hypothesis of a link between consumption symbolism and character development in works of art. [One reviewer suggested, apparently as a criticism, that Calder and Tybout would agree with this conclusion. Indeed, we hope that they would, though we do not dare to take any such acquiescence for granted.]

The Literal and Ironic Meanings of the Conclusion

The experimental study reported here permits at least two Sorts of readings, both valid in their own terms and both tending toward the support of the Holbrook-Grayson analysis. For purposes of this discussion, we shall call the first positivistic and the second interpretivistic, though other terms (such as "scientistic" and "humanistic") might apply equally well.

The Positivistic Reading. The positivistic reading would accord, we hope, with the dictates laid down by Calder and Tybout (1987). It would accept those authors' contention that the only proper scientific use for an interpretation lies in its ability to suggest hypotheses suitable for a confrontation with data. From this viewpoint, it would regard Holbrook and Grayson's (1986) interpretation concerning the role of consumption symbolism in shaping the development of character in an artwork as, at best, an hypothesis to be tested by subjection to possible empirical falsification. On this logic, it would take the test Provided by the present study literally. Specifically, it would see the fictional variations in consumer products as experimental treatments designed to manipulate consumption symbolism in a short story and would accept the semantic differential scales as measures of the readers' responses to these differences in the hero's character-revealing consumption habits. Indeed, countless other positivistic studies have used comparable experimental manipulations and comparable response measures to reach comparable conclusions concerning other questions of interest. Such applications provide the bread and butter of the positivist's approach. Simple logical consistency compels the positivist to accept them, here, as one more example of the hypothetico-deductive method that the falsificationist holds as the standard for scientific verification and that therefore, in the present case, supports the validity of the Holbrook- Grayson thesis rather convincingly. Needless to say, such a positivistic reading would correspond to the literal statement of the authors' intentions in performing and reporting the study.



The Interpretivistic Reading. In vivid contrast to what we might regard as the relatively straightforward positivistic reading that logical consistency and operational precedent would compel someone of the falsificationist faith to follow, one might entertain various interpretive approaches to understanding the the text of the authors' research report. One such interpretive strategy might regard the meaning of the report as at least partly ironic. Here, we emphatically do not intend the term "irony" to refer to parody, sarcasm, or invective; rather, we refer to what Abrams (1981) calls "the root sense of...a difference between what is asserted and what is actually the case" (p. 89). In other words, one might interpret the authors' real (latent) intent as Something rather different from their literal (manifest) content and might infer that the study claims overtly to use falsificationist procedures to show something about responses to an artwork which the authors covertly believe that the standard positivistic hypothetico-deductive method is in fact ill-equipped to demonstrate. One might bolster this self-critical interpretation by pointing to the difficulty of capturing the organic unity of an artistic gestalt via anything so clumsy as a set of factorially designed experimental manipulations. One might further note the departure from reality involved in assessing the most delicate nonverbal esthetic responses by means of verbal paper- and-pencil semantic differential scales. The credibility of this ironic interpretation would gain some contextual support (of the type sometimes referred to as "auctorial intent") from the fact that one of the authors of the study has himself raised exactly these (and other) arguments on behalf of intertetivism at the expense of narrow or scientistic positivism on several previous occasions (Holbrook 1987a, 1987b, 1988b, 1988c). This self-critical move toward interpretivism would discredit the positivistic reading of the study, would reject its falsificationist premises, and would argue for its sustained ironic implications as an embodiment of the inadequacies inherent in using the hypothetico-deductive approach to understand a work of art. However, precisely because this ironic reading would rely on an interpretation of the authors' text, it would serve to support Holbrook and Grayson's original claims on behalf of interpretivism by virtue of its very existence. In other words, however valid its arguments, the ironic interpretation would actually instantiate the value of the kind of reading initially proposed by Holbrook and Grayson.



The Meaning. Either way, by either route, the literal or the ironic, we arrive at essentially the same meaning for the "Close Encounters" study. The positivistic reading simply regards it literally, in the spirit of the Calder-Tybout suggestion, as providing support for the Holbrook-Grayson interpretation viewed as a falsifiable hypothesis. The interpretivistic reading regards it, somewhat more subtly, as a piece of sustained irony that casts self-critical doubt on the usefulness of the falsificationist procedures to clarify the meanings of artworks and that thereby reaffirms the potential validity of interpretivism. In sympathy with the latter perspective, Abrams (1981) regards irony as "an ultimate test of skill in reading between the lines" and suggests that "recourse to irony by an author carries an implicit compliment to the intelligence of the reader" (P. 90). [One reviewer, who refused to acknowledge the essentially pro-interprevistist implications of the ironic viewpoint, apparently did not wish to accept this intended compliment. The moral seems to be that those who prefer literal interpretations tend to resist irony.] Similarly, Brown (1977) has commented at length on the use of irony, drawn from the humanities, as a mode of discovery and way of knowing in the social sciences -- though, unfortunately, irony loses much of its force if, as here, it needs to be explained (p. 219). Even so, irony can serve to make its point in a manner more gentle than could be accomplished via righteous invective. Thus, Brown (1977) translates and quotes Anatole France as follows:

The irony I invoke is not cruel. It mocks neither love nor beauty. It is mild and benevolent. Its laughter calms anger, and it is this irony that teaches us to make fun of the fools and villians whom otherwise we might have been weak enough to hate (p. 213).

In short, then, someone wishing to criticize the present study, cannot have it both ways. Either the study supports the Holbrook-Grayson hypothesis in a fairly straightforward way (thereby lending credit to their interpretive approach), or it invites an ironic interpretation based on the apparent shortcomings of the falsificationist approach (thereby assuming the validity of interpretivism that we set out to demonstrate in the first place).

Apologia. One might wonder with which of these two readings -- the positivistic or the interprefivistic -- we happen to agree. The answer is that we lean toward the second reading. We did try conscientiously to reflect the spirit of the Calder-Tybout suggestion by designing a test to collect some evidence with which to confront the Holbrook-Grayson interpretation. However, we freely acknowledge the inevitable limitations and weaknesses inherent in this empirical enterprise.

Apparently, the humanities in general and artworks in particular contain truths that escape procedures of the hypothetico-deductive method. These limitations ultimately force us to turn toward interpretivism. An immediate benefit of our move toward interpretivism comes from our potential understanding of the present study as a piece of irony. A more dramatic and long-lasting benefit comes from recognizing the way in which this ironic reading implicitly assumes the validity of the interpretive approach.


Although the preceding apologia for interpretivism and its relevance to a role for the humanities in consumer research strikes us as plausible at the general level, it would be considerably more convincing if we could show that a specific artwork can insightfully be interpreted in a manner that supports our critical stance. In other words, our abstract argument would gain force if we could provide a concrete example of an artistic text that uses consumption symbolism to comment on the meaning of life and the nature of humanity. Toward that end, we shall critically examine the thematic and imaginative structure of a recent play by Tina Howe entitled Coastal Disturbances

An Extended Illustration

As a critically acclaimed dramatic production that enjoyed successful runs both off and on Broadway, Coastal Disturbances exhibits the repeated use of consumer behavior to build consumption microcosms that attain larger metaphorical significance by providing links between art and life. By thus tying together consumption, art, and life, Tina Howe's play uses consumer behavior as a source for symbolic imagery that illuminates the human condition.

In exploring these theatrical devices, we do not mean to suggest that all plays function in this way nor that our own critical analysis is the only acceptable interpretation of this particular artwork. We do suggest, however, that the consumption-in-art-in-life theme provides one valid viewpoint on the meaning of Howe's play and that its validity can be supported by evidence drawn from a close reading of the text -- or, in this case, a careful (re)viewing of the theatrical production. Specifically, the authors have attended several performances of Coastal Disturbances, have examined a pre-publication copy of the script (generously supplied by the playwright's associates), and have converged on the interpretation that follows. [At the time of writing this paper, Coastal Disturbances had not yet reached the stage of publication. However, since Tina Howe's other plays have regularly appeared in print, we trust that this one will also be available, in due course, for any readers who wish to examine its text more closely for purposes of verifying or questioning the validity of our interpretation.] Our consensus provides some degree of triangulation Or intersubjective agreement, but in no way rules out the possibility that others might Teach alternative conclusions. Such is the relativity inherent in the critical enterprise that confronts the multiple meanings or "plurivocality" immanent in any artistic or literary text (Ricoeur 1976, 1981)


Coastal Disturbances portrays six adults and two children who spend the last two weeks of August at a private beach on Massachusetts' North Shore. In a rather striking set design, the stage is covered ankle-deep in sand. Its major piece of scenery consists of a tall seat occupied by Leo Hart, the lifeguard who oversees the activities of Faith Bigelow and Ariel Took, two young mothers and former roommates at Wellesley who visit the beach each day with their respective children, Miranda and Winston. The only other regular visitors are M.J. and Hammy Adams, an older couple who appear to be entrenched Bostonians (accustomed to such amenities as playing touch football with the Kennedy family). The action begins with the arrival of Holly Dancer (a beautiful young photographer), who has come from New York to stay with her aunt, fleeing an unhappy love affair with Andre Sor (the owner of a photo gallery) in the City. Holly gradually falls in love with the lifeguard Leo, only to be jolted back to reality when Andre arrives and announces his determination that she return to New York (where she feels trapped and unhappy but alive).

The Theme

A central theme of the play emerges in a monologue spoken by Andre (his dramatic raison d'etrc)as he pleads with Holly to come back to New York with him. We shall take this speech as our point of departure, our Ansatzpunki, from which radiate the play's peripheral constellation of meanings (cf. Auerbach 1953, 1969). In this monologue, Andre tells the story of childhood experiences with his father, a Jewish immigrant who left his trade as a jeweler in Antwerp and fled the Nazis to settle in Brooklyn. Having lost access to his artistic materials, Andre's father brought with him only his talent. Every Sunday, Mr. Sor would take his children down to a pier by the East River to gaze at Manhattan and to learn the names of its tall buildings. As a former professional diamond cutter and amateur watch maker, now forced to support his family by means of odd jobs and menial labor, Mr. Sor retained the gift of finding the possibilities in the world's minutiae and then turning these possibilities into wonderful creations, much as a jeweler crafts a beautiful gem from a rough stone: "It was his eye! He could see the jewel where none existed." In his fallen stature as a handyman and an inveterate collector of discarded odds and ends, Andre's father would bring home huge quantities of other people's cast-off junk ("clock Springs, sewing machine parts, glass door knobs, old eyeglasses"). Then, three or four times a year, he would suddenly announce that he had made a new creation, and his delighted children would discover that he had used his apparently worthless assortment of trash to fashion something wonderful. The most marvelous of such creations was a glass sphere containing a miniature clock-like replica of their beloved view of lower Manhattan. Thus, in Andre's story, does consumption inform art via the transformation of otherwise trivial trash into a wondrous invention; thus does art reflect life via a crystal ball that captures a family's most cherished moments; and thus does life imitate artistry via Mr. Sor's visionary ability to delight his children by creating something magical from what to others would seem like the meaningless dross of an otherwise depressing existence: "My father's fancy had not only animated our secret world, it also made it tangible -something we could hold in OUT hands."

This compact and crystalline image itself serves as a reflexive embodiment of what it purports to represent -- namely, the creative power of the artist. It stands as a central symbol producing what Spitzer (1967) calls a "click" of awareness through which we can view the rest of the play. In this literary use of marketing imagery, Howe has condensed all phases of the process wherein consumption provides the material from which to construct an artwork that itself presents a microcosm of life. Andre (the businessman) sees his father's ability to turn junk into inventive creations as "a testament to the transforming eye of the artist." He laments to Holly (the photographer) that he himself lacks this gift, "but you and my father -you walk with the angels."

This view of consumption as art, and art as life, and all three as the creative process of finding immanent possibilities and helping them take shape permeates and integrates Tina Howe's play. Andre's tragedy -- the wedge that ultimately estranges him from Holly -- is that he can appreciate the gift but does not himself possess its power. He can admire it, but he cannot do it. Indeed, paradoxically, the more mundane characters in the play come closest to art when they are least concerned with artistic creativity and most concerned with living their lives as ordinary consumers by finding ways to develop their hidden possibilities, much as Andre's father discovered the facets of the stones with which he once worked. Cutting diamonds provides the central metaphor for Mr. Sor's creative vision. Thus, in a telling self-description for the play's program notes, Tina Howe speaks of herself (the playwright) as "pounding her typewriter into jewelry." By implication, she sees her play as a cut diamond whose facets reflect the artistic lesson conveyed by the story in which Andre's father walks with the angels.

The Structure

This central theme in Coastal Disturbances is organized around the setting of the beach (the titular "coast") as the locus for three pairwise matchings, each of which contains a basic contrast, conflict, or contradiction (the titular "disturbances"). These tensions and their associated consumption symbolism provide the play's chief dynamics. Yet, crucial to the play's development, each "coastal disturbance" holds out the possibility of resolution via a type of creative achievement. In Howe's worldview, reconciliation, reconstitution, or rescue remains possible via the enactment of life as a work of art.

The following sections will describe these tensions and potential resolutions. Toward this end, we shall pursue the schematic outline shown in Table 4.

Like the mode of analysis associated with structuralism (e.g., in linguistics, Saussure ed. 1966; in anthropology, Levi-Strauss 1963; in literary criticism, Culler 1975 and Scholes 1974; in consumer research, Levy 1981), our schematic outline is constructed via a series of parallel binary oppositions (tensions associated with various consumption symbolism) that reveal certain homologies (resolutions associated with various creative consumption experiences). However, we intend the validity of our scheme to depend on the internal evidence of the play rather than its tenuous links with structuralism. Let us, therefore, turn to a detailed discussion of that internal evidence.

Faith Bigelow and Ariel Took

Faith exudes a feeling of fecundity and an overflowing of motherly impulses. Formerly childless, she adopted Miranda, but now has managed to get pregnant and conspicuously displays about six months of fetal progress. She finds herself obsessed by the reproductive process and regards it as endlessly fascinating that baby girls have all their eggs when they are first born and that they therefore possess their childbearing potential from the very beginning. She compares them to nesting Russian dolls that contain dolls inside dolls, layer after layer, until finally one arrives at what seems as if it must surely be the last doll, only to find that it holds lots of tiny seeds with faces painted on them. Cleary, Faith sees children as full of multi-layered potentialities, full of endless seedlike possibilities that need (like Mr. Sor's jewels) to be discovered, shaped, and developed. Unfortunately, however, her parental instincts are lax and overindulgent. She lets Miranda run around the beach with Winston, making a general nuisance of herself and irritating everybody, especially Leo the lifeguard. By contrast, Ariel sees herself as one of "the true lunatics, the certifiables" and seems to regard her parental relationship to Winston as a contest of wills -one that she approaches with gratingly shriek-like threats and warnings and one that she appears to be losing in the face of Winston's fractious intractability. Unlike Faith, who has recently found fecundity, Ariel has separated from her husband, has entered menopause prematurely, and now dwells on her perception of herself as infertile and desiccated. Feeling "dried up" and "filled with dust" like a "walking sand bag,": she fantasizes about giving birth, after hard labor, to a small gray ring-tailed moth that flies into the air where the doctor tries to catch it. [As implied by one reviewer, regarding this moth imagery as an example of consumption symbolism requires some stretch of the imagination. nose who feel similarly reluctant to tax their imaginative powers may take some comfort in the clear parallelism with the aforementioned Russian doll metaphor. In any event, all will presumably agree that motherhood -- the conceiving, bearing, and raising of children -- is inextricably embedded within the context of daily consumption activities (as in the ritual healing via spray disinfectant discussed in the next paragraph).] Ariel's gaze moves upward and encounters Winston, who has climbed onto the railing of the lifeguard chair, where he perches precariously with his arms outstretched like wings and shouts insistently, "Hey everybody, look at me!"

The resolution of the implicit tension between Faith and Ariel lies in the potential fulfillment of their creative roles as mothers of what M.J. calls "those dreadful children." Both Miranda and Winston are obnoxious and ill-behaved; both are disruptive and interruptive. Indeed, other characters must frequently pause in their lines while the mothers yell at their kids in desperate but futile efforts to persuade them to behave and while the children yell back and emit car-shattering vulgarities. Yet, even in this unruly behavior, there resides the possibility for a creative shaping of these misbegotten children's hidden capacities. In one dramatic scene, Miranda (out of control as usual) steps on some glass, hurts her foot, and requires Leo's expert first-aid assistance. Via the magical restorative powers of some spray disinfectant and via Leo's tender concern for her injury, she is healed -- literally and figuratively. In a parallel movement within the same scene, Leo chides Ariel for yelling at Winston. At first, Ariel is furious; but, during Leo's ministrations to Miranda, Ariel and Winston grow caliner. Ultimately, mother and son appear to have reached some kind of reconciliation. Ariel says that she is "OK ... more or less." "More," Winston replies sympathetically. They embrace. Then, together, they carry their collection of umbrellas, tote bags, and picnic baskets from the beach, arm-in-arm in relative tranquility. Ultimately, Winston too is healed -- or, at least, accepted -- when Ariel recognizes his potential: "You're going to be a great man some day.... You've got a lot of spirit. Spirit counts for everything in this world."


Hammy and M.J. Adams

A parallel tension between the constructive and destructive forces of playfulness and seriousness pervades the actions of an elderly couple, Hammy (an apparently prosperous and probably retired eye surgeon) and his wife M.J. (a rather dour and cynical amateur painter). Hammy shows a capacity for wonder and endless fascination over such otherwise mundane objects as a piece of brain coral and other "treasures from the deep" that he finds washed up onto the shore. In this, paradoxically, he evinces more of the artistic temperament than does his less imaginative wife (who regards his fantastic treasures as "perfectly obscene"). Thus, when he extravagantly admires a sketch that M.J. has just drawn of the beach, she rudely acknowledges his esthetic sensitivity by crumpling it into a wad of paper and storming off. As an eye surgeon, Hammy possesses the power to heal sight, a faculty in which his wife shows some weakness. Indeed, M.J.'s sketches and water colors only serve as ironic manifestations of her own lack of artistic vision. She cranks them out in great numbers, but they mean nothing. She regards them only as pathetic "scribblings" that merely serve to distract her from her loneliness. Herein, she reveals a highly developed capacity for jaded cynicism, commenting importunately to anyone who will listen about Hammy's past marital indiscretions. One senses that these complaints convey more about the relative balance of their creative powers than they do about any tendency toward real infidelity on his part.

Yet, together, in an almost mystical moment of joint creativity, Hammy and M.J. construct the play's most moving artistic symbol. In the last scene, they arrive at the beach carrying a picnic supper, champagne, a table, chairs, a lantern, china, and a billowing tent made from gauzelike white cheesecloth. With Leo's help, they erect this tent and begin a ritual feast performed each year as a celebration of their wedding anniversary. As they sit at twilight, pouring wine and reminiscing over past celebrations, they suddenly reveal the depth of feeling that sustains their long marital bond. We realize that, for all its flaws, their marriage stands (like their bright tent) as their ultimate artistic creation (cut like a shining diamond from the material in their lives). The tent looms as a sculpturesque embodiment of their sustaining love. This effect is heightened by the deeply ironic spectacle of Leo, watching their happiness from the vantage point of his seat on the lifeguard tower, where he contemplates the state of his own precarious relationship with Holly.

Leo Hart and Holly Dancer

Leo the lifeguard, king and guardian of the sandy beach, is a reformed drifter who has moved through a series of jobs (auto mechanic, double-A ballplayer, contractor, and possibly skydiver or stockcar racer), whose most recent relationship with a woman has failed after three years, and who now longs for the feeling of permanence that would come from settling down and building a solid relationship. His urge toward stability is figuratively embodied by the throne-like lion-hearted majesty of his enormous lifeguard tower -- the tallest, sturdiest, and most overtly phallic object to be found amidst the shifting sands of the beach. From it, he commands a godlike view of all he surveys. His godlike powers appear in his role as guardian (protecting people from drowning), his responsibilities as rule enforcer (preserving the decorum of the beach), his flair for magic (performing parlor tricks to the delight of the audience below), and his capabilities as medicine man (healing Miranda's injured sole). But, most of all, his godlike powers appear in his elevated and expanded vision. His lofty perch instantiates an ability to see comparable to that which Andre ascribes to the artist. Indeed, Andre himself remarks that, on Leo's tower, you "feel like a king.... You can see for miles!" Early in the play, Holly looks across the ocean and jokes that she cannot quite make out the coast of Europe; Leo replies that he can see the Pyramids. More importantly, like an artist, he views life in terms of its creative possibilities. This artistic vision finds its symbolic expression in Leo's sculpturesque reshaping of Holly who, in one vividly evocative scene, lies immobile on the beach while he piles sand on top of her and molds it until she literally cannot move. Having created a sort of living supine statue, he passionately declares to her a love that she reciprocates. Figuratively, their relationship has become his masterpiece.

The relationship between Leo and Holly parallels that of Hammy and M.J. in that, imaginatively as sand sculptor, Leo is the true artist though, as a professional photographer, Holly is the one who makes ostensible claims to artistic stature. Leo tells Holly that she has "incredible eyes," and Andre describes her imagination in similar terms: "No one sees the world like you." Yet, as both an artist and a person, Holly has lost her hearings. She longs to escape from the tormented, unfulfilling relationship with Andre that makes her feel alive but that also sends her into the streets of New York to yell at the traffic. As a person, she balances precariously on the edge of hysteria (constantly on the verge of uncontrollable tears and incessantly complaining that she is "crazy" or "falling apart"). As a photographer, she snaps her camera haphazardly at what appear to be unpromising subjects (the water or Miranda and Winston in candid but essentially uninteresting poses). Indeed, in one crucial scene, Holly struggles in vain to set up her tripod. She swears and curses at it, but cannot make it open. Thus, despite her vilest vituperation, she finds that she cannot get it to work: "I can't handle my equipment, I can't set up a decent shot.... I can't even hold the camera steady." Symbolically, Holly has lost her support and her triangulation on reality * The three-legged foundation for her camera work has failed her. Lately, her art has consisted of taking nude self-portraits of herself. Now the basis for even this mechanistic and narcissistic gesture towards creativity has collapsed. Without Leo's protective, magical, and visionary assistance, her own artistry fails. Her tripod, a symbol for her photographic imagination, will not function without his help.

Later, Holly foresakes this crucial support when she tears herself away from Leo and prepares to return to New York with Andre. Leo feels mortally wounded and draws a clear parallel between himself and a dead whale that has washed up on the beach, its side torn open by sharks: "Did you ever stop to think about how it feels to be going along thinking 'what a nice day' and then you're blindsided?" When Holly arrives at the beach to say goodbye, she wears a chic blue jumpsuit with a black leather belt and high heels. While Holly's feet wobble precariously, Leo steps on Winston's shovel, hurts his own foot, and falls down. Meanwhile, Holly lurches around until he wrestles her to the ground, removes her shoes, and makes her tell him her address and phone number. He scribbles these on an invitation to a showing at Andre's gallery that he snatches from her purse. Significantly, Holly still cannot walk properly -- even without her high-heeled shoes -- but, literally overcome with emotion, she crawls from the beach and leaves Leo to contemplate the ceremonial festivities of Hammy and M.J. from his solitary perch. At first, Leo stares at Holly's empty shoes (which he still holds in his hands as an emblem of his encroaching loneliness). But, while Hammy and MJ. reminisce with growing wan-nth and affection about their past anniversaries in the glowing white tent, Leo's attention suddenly shifts to the phone number and address scrawled on what we ultimately realize is the invitation to an artistic event. Metaphorically, he clutches his potential access to a creative life with Holly, his living sculpture. As the play ends, Leo begins to smile.


Based on an illustrative interpretation of Coastal Disturbances, we may conclude that the humanities in general and the ans in particular bear directly on at least some of the problems of consumer research. If consumption fills art, if art mirrors life, and if both life and art embrace microcosms of consumption behavior that, in turn, capture and reflect the totalities in which they participate (like Mr. Sor's crystal ball), then it follows that consumption and art are interwoven inextricably in our lives. First, as numerous consumer researchers have pointed out, we consume artistic creations in a manner that deserves study for its implications concerning esthetic value (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985). Second, art represents activities that include the ways in which we consume and that may therefore serve as a source of information about consumer behavior (Belk 1986). Third, art and entertainment may help indoctrinate us into culture of consumption via processes of socialization (O'Guinn, Lee, and Faber 1986). Fourth, art may reflect latent myths and symbols buried in a collective unconscious that underlies our orientation toward pop culture (Hirschman 1987b). Fifth, art may achieve some of its Most Powerful effects via the manipulation of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery (Holbrook 1987a, 1988a; Holbrook and Grayson 1986). Sixth, as we have tried to show in our interpretation of Tina Howe's play, art may Teach beyond the meaning of a specific work to weave symbolic consumer behavior into a pattern that says something about life itself and that thereby comments on the human condition.

All six of these points deserve careful study by consumer researchers, and all six areas of study may benefit from the use of interpretive methods borrowed from the humanities. In this paper, we have played variations primarily on the themes associated with the fifth and sixth points. Here, with respect to the fifth point, our positivistic study of "Close Encounters" should suggest both that the methods of conventional positivism can be adapted to investigate topics of interest to the humanities but that such applications may well sacrifice the richness of insight and depth of understanding available to more interpretive approaches. As an illustration of the latter, our interpretation of Coastal Disturbances attempts to push our understanding of consumption symbolism toward a deeper appreciation of its significance for the human condition. The latter theme, linked to our sixth point, appears to engage areas of lived experience into which conventional positivistic methods can seldom if ever penetrate.

In essence, a work of art such as Coastal Disturbances shows consumers going about their daily routines, engaged in processes of consumption. They bring their towels and blankets and umbrellas and chairs to the beach. They eat their picnics and drink their iced tea with fresh orange juice squeezed into it. They wear their swimsuits and show off their chic wardrobes. They put on and take off their sweat shirts.

They work fitfully on their sun tans. In short, they allocate their leisure time to a variety of consumption experiences. But, at a much deeper level, they transform their consumption behavior into the core of their beings. Their consumption experiences provide metaphors for the central concerns in their lives. Their lives become artistic expressions, and those artistic expressions revolve around their experiences as consumers. Those lived consumption experiences -like the play, like the creations of Andre's father, like motherhood, like the festive tent, like Holly's photography, like the jewelry into which the playwright creatively pounds her typewriter -- are works of art. In this, consumer behavior becomes a microcosm of the human condition. In this, consumer research and the humanities comprise one vision in which consumption is a window. In this, like Holly's camera, beneath the watchful eye of a more clairvoyant Lifeguard, our vision rests precariously amidst the shifting sands of time atop a wobbly tripod on the beach, awaiting close encounters along a disturbed but fascinating coastal frontier.


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Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
Stephen Bell, Columbia University
Mark W. Grayson, Columbia University


SV - Interpretive Consumer Research | 1989

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