Interpretation Strikes Again, Again, and Again: a Postpositivist Reflection on Papers By Bristol and Fern, Hunt and Hoyer, and Larsen and Wright


Craig J. Thompson (1993) ,"Interpretation Strikes Again, Again, and Again: a Postpositivist Reflection on Papers By Bristol and Fern, Hunt and Hoyer, and Larsen and Wright", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 455-457.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 455-457


Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The differences among these papers initially seemed more prominent than their similarities. Hunt and Hoyer employ a hypothetico-deductive, experimental methodology to measure the effects a hypothesized psychological process may have on consumer attitudes and behavior. Bristol and Fern draw on group process theory to assess potential biases posed by the interpersonal dynamics of focus groups. A more dramatic contrast is offered by Larsen and Wright who adopt a postpositivist orientation (i.e. hermeneutics) to critique recent proposals regarding the use of critical theory in consumer research (Murray and Ozanne 1991). Upon further reflection, I realized that they could be interpreted in a way that highlights a series of parallels and mutual implications.

My interpretive synthesis is that each of these papers address the role of interpretation in consumer research: Hunt and Hoyer address how consumers interpret their actions; Bristol and Fern address how consumer researchers should interpret the interpretations consumers express in focus group settings; Larsen and Wright address how consumer researchers should conceptualize the nature of their own interpretations (and critiques) regarding the actions of marketing firms. This common focus is not immediately apparent for two reasons; 1) different aspects of interpretation are being considered; and 2) the differing philosophical world-views that underlie the papers motivate contrasting stands on the question whether the interpretive circle is "vicious" or productive. As a useful starting point for comparing these papers, I would like to give a brief consideration to these differences in worldview.


The question of interpretation has been most explicitly pursued by researchers who ascribe to a postpositivist worldview (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). A central theme of postpositivist research is that the interpretative circle is a necessary and productive dimension of all forms of human understanding, including that resulting from the scientific research process. Rather than seeking to make understandings more objective by reducing sources of "subjective bias," the postpositivist agenda is to explore how interpretive presuppositions necessarily shape understanding. This goal applies to the understandings of research participants and, in a more self-reflexive sense, to the understandings of the researchers themselves (Joy 1991). This reflexive implication is the one that Larsen and Wright most explicitly address. Their primary critique is that advocates of critical theory claim that their analyses reveal the "objective conditions" of social life. This claim implicitly assumes that critical theory provides an evaluative framework that stands outside of the interpretive circle and, as such, critical theorists do not recognize the interpretive presuppositions manifested in their own analyses. By deconstructing Murray and Ozanne's (1991) recent proposals for critical theory, the Larsen and Wright paper engages in the prototypic postpositivist tasks of demonstrating that all understandings, including those of critical theorists, are interpretations "all the way down."

While postpositivists seek to highlight the interpretive circle, researchers ascribing to a more positivistic worldview generally prefer to discount this dimension of understanding because it conflicts with preferred conceptions of objective knowledge. The interpretive circle implies that understandings always and necessarily evoke historically bound of presuppositions. As such, the presumed objectivity of scientific research methods and knowledge claims would become subject to more relativistic conceptions (Anderson 1986). Second, the explicit recognition that human understanding is interpretive also conflicts with positivistic assumptions regarding the stability of social phenomena (Hudson and Ozanne 1988). To say that consumer understandings emerge from an interpretive process is also to accept that these expressed understandings can change in reflection of different contextual circumstances. These two implications pose numerous complexities (and anomalies) for the methodological and theoretical orientations that derive from a positivistic world-view (see Hudson and Ozanne 1988).

Despite this differential emphasis on the issue of interpretation, it would be misinterpretation to conclude that only postpositivist researchers are active participants in the "interpretive turn" transpiring in all branches of the social sciences. This "turn" is one that has impacted the general zeitgeist (or general philosophical context) in which social science is conducted (Hekman 1986). Regardless of methodological world-view, social science researchers are recognizing the interpretative dimension of human understanding in some form. Perhaps the most common recognition is that "meaning" is not objectively determined by the characteristics of a situation but rather it emerges from the interplay between the person and the situation-as-interpreted; as such, different individuals can ascribe very different meanings to the "same" situation, event, or object (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989). This particular issue is the one that Bristol and Fern and Hunt and Hoyer pursue while still remaining within a more positivistic framework.


A major thesis of this paper is that situational characteristics are best understood in relation to the perspective of the actor. Hunt and Hoyer offer Action Identification Theory as way to explain the interpretive dimensions of consumer understanding in terms of psychological processes that are beyond the subjective control of the actor. In this regard, the Hunt and Hoyer paper follows in a long tradition of psychological research approaches seeks to provide an objective explanation of subjective differences in perceptions on the basis of objective processes. That is, the subjective is reduced to the outcome of psychological processes that are stable, not contingent on personal perceptions, and they generate reliable and predictable effects. In accord with the explanatory axiology of the positivistic tradition, the variability in perceived meanings that emerges from this interpretive encounter between person and situation is treated as a controllable phenomenon having important managerial implications.

From my postpositivist perspective, one major contribution of this paper is that it highlights the often overlooked fact that consumption is not just a concept. Hunt and Hoyer suggests a need to more systematically explore the meanings and understandings that emerge through a person's embodied interactions with products. A large array of context specific understandings may be focal when using products but may not be evoked when a person considers the "meaning of things" in a more abstract fashion.


This paper explores the question of how situations interpreted by consumers and, more specifically, what effects do social processes have on these interpretations. A key assumption is that these social processes exert an unreflected or unconscious influence on understanding. That is, the actors participating in this group process are not explicitly aware of the processes motivating their shift in attitudes. A corresponding assumption is that informed researchers can understand the individuals better than they understand themselves and ascertain that processes that impact their interpretations. This logic bears a strong similarity to that found in critical theory; namely, that consumers are often immersed in a state of "false consciousness" in which they adhere to an ideology of consumption values and beliefs that conflict with the objective conditions of their everyday experiences (Murray and Ozanne 1991). In light of this similarity, the logic of the Larsen and Wright deconstruction of critical theory can also be applied to the Bristol and Fern paper. That is, the "objective" assessment of the biases ensuing from group processes is contingent on a series of strong assumptions.

The basic assumption of the Bristol and Fern paper is that "real" attitudes are formed through an individuated, cognitive activity. Although this assumption is commonplace, it is not a self-evident fact but rather it is a theoretically (and culturally) based presuppositions. For example, cultural anthropology (Geertz 1973), Skinnerian behaviorism (1972), sociological phenomenology (Berger and Luckmann 1967) are but a few of the research programs that indicate personal understandings are fundamentally intertwined with broader societal forces and processes. This socio-cultural orientation would reverse the entire logic of the Bristol and Fern paper. That is, focus groups and other methods that document consumer meanings as they emerge in a social context would be become the implicit standard of "reality" whereas the validity of methods and measures that isolate consumers from social interactions would become more suspect. As such, the implicit standard of methodological rigor is contingent on the researchers interpretive frame of reference.

This paper also demonstrates the role of researcher interpretations in another important way. That is, it shows that focus groups simply cannot be expected to produce "self-evident" facts. Focus group data is no more inherently meaningful at face value than is quantitative data. Rather it must be interpreted in order to be meaningful and the quality of focus group research is no better or worse than the quality of the interpretations that derive from it. In light of Bristol and Fern's analysis, interpreters of focus group research should be aware that these consumer meanings were formed and expressed in a particular social context and, that in another context, the panel members could have derived different meanings. This caveat, however, is one that is an inevitable consequence of the interpretive dimension of consumer understanding and, therefore, would apply to any research situation.


In global terms, this article focuses on the issue of whether interpretations can somehow get outside of the interpretive circle. The paper's deconstructive logic evokes many of the issues raised in the much noted debates between the seminal critical theorists Jurgen Habermas and the seminal hermeneutic theorists H.G. Gadamer (see Hekman 1986). At the core of this debate is the question of whether critiques of socio-cultural practices can be verified or justified by appeal to an ahistoric framework of rational discourse. An inverse way of stating this question is whether such an ahistoric framework is a necessary condition for effectively critiquing contemporary social practices? Gadamer endorses the hermeneutic thesis that all understanding derives from culturally bound interpretations. As such, there is no presuppositionless framework or form of discourse from which to issue an "objective" critique of socio-cultural practices. Rather, such critiques would always be relative to a particular culture bound point-of-view. In contrast, Habermas (1972) portrays this hermeneutic position as one that "bangs helplessly from within the walls of tradition" and, instead, contends that effective critiques require a framework of rational analysis that transcends the culturally constructed meanings being considered. The Larsen and Wright paper does a very thorough job in evaluating these issues from a perspective that favors the Gadamerian position. In terms of this interpretation, the project of critical theory, as advocated by Habermas, simply represents another unattainable quest for an omnipotent view of "how things really are."

When commentators discuss the Gademer-Habermas debate, there is a tendency to render their positions as being more polemical than the actual texts of the debates might otherwise indicate. Perhaps the group processes noted by Bristol and Fern operate at a more macro level in regard to scholarly interpretations of scholarly debates. In any case, it should be noted that the Gadamer-Habermas debate also was dialogue between two intellectuals who were, in many respects, each others most learned students (Bernstein 1986). Through their ongoing dialogues, Gadamer and Habermas became more responsive to the criticisms issued by the other and their positions evolved in a mutually informed direction (Ricoeur 1986). This dialogical transformation is often ignored or discounted by those who report on the debate itself. "Habermasian" critics of Gadamer often leave the impression that his hermeneutic position would render social actors as unreflective slaves to tradition and authority. Gadamer, however, became increasingly aware that tradition and authority need to be challenged and that distinctions can be made between justifiable and unjustifiable "prejudgments." As with critical theory, Gadamer's hermeneutics manifests a suspicion of the "technocratic interest:" that is, an alignment of science and technology in which the ability to use techniques for social control becomes the standard of knowledge. In his latter works, Gadamer (1986) asserts that hermeneutic reflection is means to offer an historical (culturally) based evaluation of the technocratic interests and overcome this alienation. As such, hermeneutic reflection is offered in the service of the emancipatory interest discussed by critical theorists.

In a similar vien, hermeneutic critics often portray Habermas as remaining hopelessly enamored with the ideal of an omnipotent perspective that stands outside of all history and meaning. Another reading of Habermas, however, is that his agenda has attempted to take into account the many compelling critiques that have been issued against this form of Cartesian rationalism (see Held 1980). In terms of this reading, Habermas is seeking to identify a social context and mode of reasoning that enable fully historical and situated social actors to critically reflect upon the society in which they live. For example, Habermas notes that the ability to attain a rational consensus is contingent on the development of "ideal speech situations" that are free from the distorting influence of power and, accordingly, in which all participants in the discourse are equals. Although the concept of an ideal speech situation is often critiqued as being Utopian, it does demonstrate that the rationalism advocated by Habermas is quite different from that of the classic Cartesian-Kantian genre.

If we suspend the polarizing issue of the "ahistoric framework" and the litany of critiques and counter critiques that follow from it, it can be recognized that Gadamer and Habermas (and by implication hermeneutics and critical theory) can both meaningfully speak to the question of how socially constructed knowledge is related to cultural practices. Murray and Ozanne employed critical theory as a vehicle for encouraging consumer researchers to give more consideration to the cultural implications and ramifications that derive from marketing knowledge and practices. This same call, however, could have been framed and justified in hermeneutic terms. In sum, the theoretical and practical efficacy of critical theory and hermeneutics has been, and will continue to be, enhanced through their critical dialogues. As interpreters of these dialogues, however, we should remain aware that common meanings and interests are often expressed in different theoretical languages.

Due to space limitations references have been omitted. For a list of references, please contact the author.



Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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