Forget cash: geocaching shows there are other ways to create value online

File 20170702 8214 9l8jvt
Geocaching players move treasures all over the world, creating value for themselves and other players. Martyn Wright 2011, CC BY-ND
Bernardo Figueiredo, RMIT University; Daiane Scaraboto, Universidad Católica de Chile, and Nancy Mills, University of Melbourne

Although we focus on the financial health of online networks, there are other ways to create value in digital spaces.

Take controversial companies like Uber, Airbnb and Airtasker, which are heralded as the poster children of the so-called sharing economy. By focusing on money changing hands, they miss the chance to help users collaboratively share other kinds of value that don’t have a price tag.

On Airbnb, users often undertake actions that don’t create immediate economic benefit: meeting guests, giving gifts, or helping with travel advice. But these actions aren’t captured by the platform beyond the review section.

To better understand how non-economic value creation works, we examined the global treasure-hunting game known as geocaching.

In the game, network members can generate non-financial value from connecting socially or being well regarded by others. They can also gain value from feeling a sense of adventure or acquiring knowledge.

Despite having different locations, culture and social capital, members of such collaborative networks can come together for common goals.

What can geo-caching teach us about value?

Geocaching claims to have millions of players or “geocachers” who hunt for more than 2.8 million treasures (“geocaches”) hidden all over the world.

The game involves creating and exchanging “travel bugs”. These are objects as innocuous as an old whistle or a teddy bear that carry identification tags and are assigned goals by their creators. Geocachers collaborate to help the travel bug move from one cache to another.

We found that individual geocachers are part of a systemic process of value creation.

How does this work? Individual actions, such as a geocacher hiding or finding a geocache, are registered and stored in the form of blog posts, photographs, comments and reviews. When other participants see these registrations (sometimes years later or while living on other continents), they continue yielding value, because others recognise the benefits of these actions to members of the geocaching network.

The key feature of its collaborative network is that the value of one action gets stored with the value of other actions, and becomes redistributed to other participants.

Examples of geocaching homemade video.

For example, when a geocacher reads some posts and learns about the adventures of objects moved from cache to cache by other geocachers, they gain knowledge, a sense of adventure and connection to others in the network. The network stores and redistributes the value outcomes of actions performed by its members.

To an outsider, geocaching might seem like just a hobby, but these activities are extremely valuable to participants. While each action alone means very little, the totality of actions can move a worthless toy across the globe and even to space. What is valuable are the collaborative, often peripheral actions that make this movement happen.

Other platforms, like Couchsurfing, can also store different types of value. Everyday actions performed by users and captured by Couchsurfing include those linked to non-economic value, such as the guests cooking a meal, or hosts giving insights into their home country.

What can other networks learn?

When compared to geocaching, companies like Uber, Airbnb and Airtasker are not fulfilling their potential for creating systemic value.

The platforms don’t completely capture other forms of value creation. These are the collaborative and often peripheral actions that help the system move, like a particularly friendly Uber driver or an Airbnb host who offers useful travel advice.

Although Airbnb has member reviews, it’s up to users whether they mention other forms of value. Airtasker reviews are about services provided, and Uber focuses on ratings.

To capture additional value, these companies should create additional ways for participants to register these other actions. What amazing stories have you discovered from talking to your Uber driver? Have you brought a gift for your Airbnb host? What have you learned from your Airtasker helper?

Questions like these would allow the systemic accumulation of other types of value, which not only enrich the network, but encourage other participants to engage in similar actions.

The ConversationLike geocachers, platforms in the sharing economy will benefit from embracing sharing in its deepest meanings. Only then will users become participants of a true collaborative culture.

Bernardo Figueiredo, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, RMIT University; Daiane Scaraboto, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Universidad Católica de Chile, and Nancy Mills, Postgrad student and freelance writer, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Women who are fat have historically been deemed an unworthy consumer segment by fashion brands and designers (Stearns 1997). Yet, plus-sized fashion bloggers and their audiences, self-labeled fatshionistas, have re-appropriated elements from the mainstream fashion field and employed these to subvert the stigma of fat (Scaraboto and Fischer 2013; Harju and Huovinen 2015). Fat acceptance assumes that individuals should change their bodies to comply with social and cultural expectations for particular shapes and sizes. Yet, when women who are fat and accept their bodies enter the field of fashion, they face a different set of expectations – they bodies need to dress well in clothes that are made for much smaller bodies or according to different shape patterns.

Because the intersection of mainstream fashion and fat acceptance has conflicting logics (Scaraboto and Fischer 2016), fatshionistas may experience certain consumer goods and practices as paradoxical. In particular, objects that allow fatshionistas to cross boundaries between the intersecting fields entice conflicting reactions for offering the possibility of inclusion and validation in the marketplace while acting as enablers of the stigmatization these consumers fight. To advance understanding of the dynamics of consumer enrollment in uneasy intersecting assemblages, my colleague Maria Carolina Zanette (Universidade de Ribeirão Preto, Brazil) and I embarked on a research project to address the following research question: how do consumers make sense of paradoxical objects?

Drawing from qualitative data collected through a 5-year netnography (Kozinets 2015) of the Fat Acceptance Movement, we examine discourses of fatshionistas regarding a particular category of objects: shapewear. By wearing shapewear, plus-sized women can defy the stigma associated with being fat by fitting into clothing that is not “meant for them”, yet subject themselves to the norms of the fashion industry where lumps and rolls protruding from under a garment are deemed unsightly. Conversely, by not wearing shapewear, plus-sized consumers defy the stigma through making their bodies and their fat visible, albeit dressed with the limited clothing options offered by the scant brands and designers that cater to them. The ambiguous meanings and transitional functions of shapewear characterize it as a boundary object (Star 1988, 2010).

In order to examine women’s shapewear as a boundary object, we draw from Susan Pearce’s model for artefact studies (1994). Pearce argues that to develop an object-centered understanding of sociality, four aspects of artefacts should be examined: materials, history, environment, and significance. Studies on gender and gendered objects mostly focuses on one or two of these aspects (frequently significance, more recently environment), but leave historical and material aspects of the artefact uncovered (for an exception see Ostberg’s [2012] chapter on men’s socks). Hence, by adopting Pearce’s analytical framework, we extend current understanding of gendered objects (Kirkham 1996), and contribute to advancing object-centered perspectives in consumer research. Before explaining our research procedures and developing our situated analysis of shapewear, we briefly review the concept of boundary objects and the intersecting assemblages centered on them.

The concept of “boundary objects” has been developed in science and technology studies (STS) to explain the material arrangements that allow two individuals (or groups) to cooperate without consensus (Star 1988, 2010). Explaining that such objects occupy an intersection between groups or fields, Star notes how these objects form boundaries as they are acted upon, discussed, and interpreted by each group. Even though the term “object” is commonly employed in many disciplines (including consumer research) to refer to specific material artefacts, the notion of boundary objects as developed in STS requires thinking about them as assemblages of processual acts and material infrastructures that are acted upon by subjects. Even though consumer research has noted that consumption goods have different meanings that are culturally and contextually determined (McCracken 1986, Thompson and Troester 2002), when acted upon by two groups that follow different logics (and hence maintain different conceptions of those artifacts within a shared social world), a consumption good and the assemblage it partakes in becomes a boundary object and can be examined to illuminate the multiplicity of logics at play in intersecting fields (Bettany 2016). We will mobilize this concept to develop our analysis of how consumers who sit at intersecting market assemblages market make sense of (and act upon) objects that are paradoxical for them.

Material and historical aspects of shapewear
What is currently called shapewear has historically been an object of discussion. A book by William Barry Lord, published in 1868, traces the origin of the corset to the Indian hunting-belt and shows that ancient civilizations in South America, Java, and Egypt among other places, adopted practices of reducing female’s waists through objects similar to the corset. In the Victorian Era, controversies about the corset were common. Although there are interpretations of it as being an object of sexual oppression, the corset was an object that allowed women to articulate their sexual subjectivity (Kunzle, 1977; Steele, 2001). At the end of the Victorian Era, the dress reform united both suffragist feminists and mainly male doctors. Feminists claimed conspiratorially that the female garments were the result of the male patriarchy in restraining female action (Riegel, 1963), whilst doctors tended to follow the rousseaunian idea of “natural” and condemned women using the corset, especially the ones who engaged in tight-lacing (the practice of shaping the body and reducing waistline through the use of the corset) as intellectually inferior (Kunzel, 1977).
Despite the controversies, it was only in the 1920’s that the corset was substituted by simpler undergarments. Nowadays, the corset is considered part of a fetishist subculture and the object itself represents female empowerment (O’Donnel, 1999), albeit not without controversies. That is, from its origins, shapewear have been ambiguous objects. The disputes around their use usually revolved around health issues or expressed a male gaze and masculine perceptions of women who wore the garment.
Different types of shapewear have different effects on the body, depending on compressing strength of the object. Differently from the Victorian corset (Steele, 2001), which was essentially the same for all women, contemporary shapewear includes several kinds of models (as waist cincher, thigh compressor, body suits and contouring bras), and are fabricated in assorted materials (as elastic, wire, leather, fabric, nylon). The effects of each material and type of shapewear on the body were elements of great discussion in our dataset. Comfort, level of compression and “fitting” were among the aspects mentioned by bloggers and consumers. Putting on and taking of the shapewear is a difficult task, due to the restricted stretching of the material. Bloggers and their audiences described those difficulties in detail.
Other material aspects discussed were durability, color and aesthetics – consumers complained that, mostly, shapewear products are beige and ugly. This complaint is related to the ambiguity of use for shapewear, which are considered intimate, that is, supposed to be hidden, but also shown to a sexual partner.
The corset used to be considered an erotic piece, even more erotic than nudity itself (Steele 2001). However, the shapewear that is used to smooth or reduce the body lost erotic appeal. Hence, the relation between contemporary shapewear and the male gaze is a complex one. Moreover, both health and beauty benefits are claimed as alleged benefits of shapewear, contrasting with the idea propagated during the dress reform that corsets were bad for women’s health, especially affecting female abilities for maternity (Kunzel, 1977).

Corsets have been boundary objects since the eighteenth century (Steele, 2001), when both conservative advocators and feminists were publicly against its use. The semiotic-material elements that surround criticism of shapewear comprise feminist claims (using shapewear is the same as “non-accepting” one’s body), material aspects that provoke body constrains (complains that it restrains movements) and considerations of the male gaze (shapewear is no longer erotic, but a shameful piece in a world where natural beauty and nudeness are desirable).
Our preliminary findings suggest that shapewear is used predominantly for smoothing bodylines, softening aspects of their bodies that prevent fatshionistas from “dressing well”. While acknowledging that shapewear reduces body measures and that this is a perceived benefit for some consumers, for the bloggers we studied size matters less than shape. Having an hourglass-type, smooth figure is important for their fatshionista identity and for fitting their bodies into the clothes they choose. Solutions created by fatshionistas for these conflicting discourses include singularizing and fetishizing the object (Kopytoff, 1986). Consumers fetishize shapewear that comes in certain colors or shapes, refer to shapewear as their fantasy “armor” of self-esteem and tend to use it more in special occasions. In some sense, the fetish is both on the object and on the effect it produces on the body. The body in shapewear is more erotic than the body without it (as it was in the Victorian era) because shapewear grants the body confidence. However, contemporary, Spanx-like shapewear can only be erotic when covered with clothes, because it is a feminine piece unsuitable to the male gaze, who would ideally feast on the corseted body without a corset.

This research project has been funded by CONYCIT/FONDECYT through a research grant FONDECYT Iniciación Etapa 2013.

The plastic dreams of Melissa consumers

Prior consumer research has established that individuals relate to consumption objects as a means to develop, reinforce, transform, or align their fragmented individual identities. This literature has mainly focused on understanding the identity-shaping potential of finished products (e.g., branded shoes). Less attention has been dedicated to understanding how materials, designer intentions, and marketing efforts jointly influence the materialities of consumption objects and their identity-shaping outcomes. My colleague Marcia Christina Ferreira (Liverpool John Moores University) and I studied an online community of plastic shoe aficionados – fans of the Brazilian brand Melissa - to extend current understandings of object-consumer relations. The model we developed includes pre-objectification – a process whereby cultural ideas are translated into material objects. Our study answers: How do consumers relate to pre-objectification elements? And what identity-related and cultural outcomes can be unveiled through an extended view on object-consumer relations? In this post, I share the highlights of the study. For the complete article, which is part of the special issue “Leaving Pleasantville: Macro/micro, public/private, conscious/non-conscious, volitional/imposed, and permanent/ephemeral transformations beyond everyday life” of the Journal of Business Research, click here!
Our inspiration to expand the model of consumer relation to products comes from object-relations theory, as developed in psychoanalytical research (Woodward, 2011). According to this perspective, as they relate with objects, individuals are socialized, from early infancy, into the world of object-symbols (Dittmars, 1992). In object-relations theory, objects are not limited to physical things, but also include “psychological objects such as a parent or body part” (Woodward, 2011; Winnicott, 1971) or, as the term is most frequently employed in psychopathology treating, to people. Hence, objects can be animate or inanimate, human or non-human. Further, the object-relations perspective differentiates between part-objects and whole-objects: “For example, a parent would be considered a whole-object, while the particular bodily part of the mother’s breast would be a part-object” (Woodward, 2011, p. 373). In the context of our research, we understand plastic shoes and consumer bodies as whole-objects, while plastic (material substance) and feet (body part) are seen as part-objects. We combined the notion of object-relations with current understandings of the outcomes of object-consumer relations in consumer research and other disciplines:
We call pre-objectification the phase in the materialization process where material substances, designer intentions, and marketing efforts are the elements involved in creating and producing a consumption object. Of note, these elements interact in a non-linear fashion: designers and marketers work with material substances to create an object and imbue it with meaning. The center of our model depicts the creative space emerging as object and consumer interact. This space is loaded with emotional energy, which feeds into the consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, her current, past, and desired selves. The last stage in the materialization process is that in which such outcomes are materialized, and consumer and object transformations get embedded into consumer identity projects and cultural forms.
Our research context is the brand of plastic shoes Melissa and its aficionado consumers. This context can be introduced in relation to its pre-objectification elements: material substances, design intentions, and marketing efforts.
Material substances – Melissa shoes are made of a patented material called Melflex, which is composed of PVC crystals stabilized by calcium and zinc, arguably less toxic than the heavy metals usually employed in PVC compounds. This substance has allowed designers to create a myriad of different shapes and finishes for Melissa shoes, varying from high-gloss to opaque, from sequined to velvety looking. As a result, even though all Melissa shoes are plastic shoes, the experience of touching or wearing one of Melissa’s models is not necessarily similar that of touching or wearing another. One consistent element across models and collections is the shoes’ scent: aroma particles are incorporated into Melflex, attributing to all Melissa shoes a characteristic lingering bubble-gum scent. Most Melissa shoes will deform under excessive heat, and because plastic is not porous or breathable, most Melissa shoes will repel water and will not absorb transpiration. Plastic is a durable material, and Melissa shoes are consequently long-lasting. Yet, each of the different finishes employed in different Melissa models mean that different shoes will degrade in different ways throughout usage and interaction with consumers and their body parts.

Design - As interpreters of cultural ideas, designers’ intentions are influenced by the capacity of the plastic to introduce reflexive thoughts over their creative process. “Plastic is such a malleable material, so flexible, biomorphic, high performing, democratic, comfortable, soft, complex, moldable and variable,” says Karim Rashid, the designer of a high-heeled Melissa shaped as teardrops (Greenwood, 2010). Bringing their imagination to the development of new objects, designers are allured and challenged by the possibilities of plastic. Responding to a couple of years of sales stagnation in the early 2000s, Melissa started developing improvements in its material substance and production process. It also partnered with designers known for their innovative and audacious work. For the first time, the product design no longer looked like a reproduction in plastic of ‘real’ shoes and turned into an object whose conceptual form was chosen to be materialized in plastic. From that moment on, the interaction between the designer and the material substance became the catalyst of the object transformation, as Jason Wu, another fashion designer invited to collaborate with Melissa, explains: “It was really interesting for me to explore design possibilities with plastic. I wanted to take advantage of the materials I was given, make it all completely functional and waterproof and yet still remain extremely sophisticated” (Cullity, 2012).

Marketing – From the brand’s origins in 1979, Melissa shoes targeted the modern, fashion-oriented crowd of consumers. With the popularization of plastic shoes in Brazil through the 80s, prices dropped, devaluing the brand for fashionistas. Moreover, plastic became synonymous with cheap shoes, and perceptions of the material as uncomfortable, inferior to leather, and a producer of nasty odors gained relevance among Brazilian consumers. To change the image of plastic shoes and rescue the brand, Grendene decided to reapproximate consumers to the material substance and to elevate plastic shoes to the status of fashionable accessories. The company invited famous Brazilian soap-opera actresses to become spokespersons for Melissa and entered international markets through partnerships with fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and others mentioned above.
We capture the evolution through time of the proposed meanings for plastic, plastic shoes, and the brand, through an analysis of the digital version of 112 print ads for Melissa shoes launched over 34 years (1978-2012). We identified six phases distinctly marked by changes in how body and plastic relate in the ads. This analysis informed our understanding of how marketing efforts correspond to plastic in the pre-objectification stage and support our interpretation of the interactions between consumers and the material substance.
After studying the blogs of Melissa fans, we were able to identify two outcomes that arise from consumers’ interactions with these pre-objectification elements in the creative space: the Melisseira identity, and the cultural space shaped by Melissa fans. We show that, in selectively projecting their emotions onto one or another element of the pre-objectification stage rather than on the finished shoes, Melissa consumers can build flexible identities that minimize the risk of social disapproval of an identity choice. The cultural space created by Melissa fans unites the human subject with the external environment via transitional (Woodward, 2011) or “transformational objects” (Bollas, 1987; Woodward, 2011). Emotional energy still works as a catalyst of the cultural space, and it feeds into consumer’s transitions between her internal and external worlds, core, and extended selves. For instance, Melissas can are frequently treated as transitional objects by mothers, who have worn the shoes in their own childhood and are now keen to introducing their daughters to the shoes.

Since the publication of the article on the Journal of Business Research, Chris Ferreira and I have continued to work on this research context, now also collaborating with Emily Chung, from RMIT University, and looking at collectors of Melissa shoes. So keep tuned, for more posts on consumer-object relations through a materiality lens.

This study was funded by CONICYT/FONDECYT through a research grant FONDECYT Iniciación Etapa 2013.


How consumers build and sustain hybrid economies

Collaborative consumer-producer networks are characterized by complex interactions between social and commercial interests, and by the aggregate efforts of interdependent participants who switch between the roles of consumer and producer as they engage in social and economic activities directed toward creating value. You probably know a few collaborative consumer-producer networks, such as Couchsurfing, Etsy, and Geocaching. Participants in these networks use market-based exchange, gift-giving, sharing, and other modes of exchange simultaneously to distribute collectively created value. As a result, collaborative networks develop hybrid economies.

Whereas market economies are largely guided by logics of profit-maximization and independence between parties, and non-market economies (e.g. gift economies, sharing economies) mostly follow the logics of solidarity and interdependence among participants, hybrid economies are shaped by multiple modes of exchange, guided by logics that only squarely fit those commonly associated with market and non-market economies.

But how do hybrid economies emerge in collaborative consumer-producer networks? And what is the role of consumers in shaping and sustaining hybrid economies?
For 8 years, I studied Geocaching, whose economy is characterized by the employment of multiple logics and modes of exchange to distribute collaboratively created value. Geocaching is a hobby currently practiced worldwide by an estimated 6 million people. The basic concept is that, using GPS technology and the Internet, players hide objects (called caches) anywhere in the world and try to find each other’s caches.
The main website for publishing coordinates and other information essential to the hobby is, a commercial enterprise originally created by a geocaching player turned entrepreneur, and currently incorporated as Groundspeak Inc. Various participants across the world collaborate to hide and review caches, upload them to, and moderate discussion forums on the website. Geocaching players have also developed successful geocaching-related not-for-profit initiatives, as well as businesses in online retailing, tourism, and publishing. Open-source developments related to geocaching have also flourished within the network.
Studying the hybrid economy of geocaching, I found that the oppositional logics of different modes of exchange are sometimes difficult to reconcile, so the status of hybrid economies is constantly under threat of destabilization by the struggle between competing enactments of market and non-market modes of exchange. However, despite latent tension between competing enactments, hybrid economies can be sustained because participants who engage in collaborative consumption and production have an interest in reconciling their social and economic goals.
When the ultimate goal is to collaborate to keep the hobby alive and interesting, people compromise.
Eventually, though, some participants will disagree on how a particular valuable should be distributed in the network, and that creates heightened tension and controversy. I noticed that when tension is heightened participants make efforts to dissipate it by blurring the logics of market and non-market modes of exchange. In doing so, they allow for a transaction to happen, even though the different parties engaging in that transaction may not agree on its meaning. For example, when distributing GSAK, a geocaching software that makes it easier to search for multiple (thousands of!) caches, its creator uses a sophisticated pricing system that allows some people to download some versions of the software for free or for a discounted price, and charges different fees for upgrades depending on prior purchases or donations. This strategy is a mix of market and non-market forms of exchange.
Controversies can also be dissipated through extensive negotiations among participants regarding how a particular valuable should be distributed within the network. Special geocaching collectors' items such as the first Geocoin motivate such negotiations.
In the collaborative network of geocaching and in similar others, participants not only collaborate, but also frequently switch between the roles of consumer and producer. My research suggests that, in such cases, we can expect that hybrid economies will emerge that are characterized by common goals and a positive and productive sum of forces, reflected in a tendency for consumers to engage in efforts to sustain the economy as a rather stable hybrid.
But in other collaborative networks where consumers engage in fewer production activities and still rely mostly on resources supplied by marketers, as is the case in brand and fan communities, things unfold a bit differently. In such contexts, participants will rarely engage in power disputes with marketers over how resources should be exchanged, as their mutual resource dependency implies that the most efficient way to operate in this economy is by searching for compromise that allows for resources to be exchanged in mutually beneficial ways. So even though we might also expect the economy for such collectives to unfold as a hybrid, it is not going to be strongly marked by tension.

Finally, when consumers collaborate among themselves to produce resources in networks that, intentionally or not, threaten marketers (e.g. consumer activism and market-resistance movements), we may expect to see economies that will distance themselves from the market economy as much as possible. Hence, attempts at blurring elements from different modes of exchange in such collaborative networks will be faced with participants who are highly motivated to question the meanings of each transaction, and who are not likely to engage in efforts that could minimize the tension resulting from controversial transactions. This has happened recently with Amazon's entry into the online marketplaces for handmade and craft goods and the outrage some Etsy sellers manifested regarding Etsy's policy and guidelines changes.

To read more about hybrid economies, check out: "Selling, Sharing, and Everything in Between: The Hybrid Economies of Collaborative Networks"

Commercial exchange and communal transfer get squared

Have you ever got to the point where your research data stops making sense? Well, I did. Looking at the data I collected for my dissertation is no longer fun. I have read it so many times already, that nothing new catches my attention. It feels like looking at the world through dirty glasses: annoying. So I decided to approach the data from a different angle. I tried to use the semiotic square to sort out examples I found in the data while clarifying key concepts I've been working with.
The semiotic square was developed by Greimas to liberate our understanding from a network of invisible relationships that situate any element within a system. Its origins are in linguistics, but it has been used in consumer research (check Kozinets (2008), Holbrook and Hirschman, for example). Other bloggers have also played with the tool, like Ben Davis here, who sees social media as opposed to art and then unfolds that dychotomy using the semiotic square. (If you need more background on semiotic analysis, check Daniel Chandler's online book.)
The semiotic square is intended to map the logical conjunctions and disjunctions relating key semantic features in a text. Fredric Jameson notes that 'the entire mechanism... is capable of generating at least ten conceivable positions out of a rudimentary binary opposition' (in Greimas 1987, xiv). Whilst this suggests that the possibilities for signification in a semiotic system are richer than the either/or of binary logic, but that they are nevertheless subject to 'semiotic constraints' - 'deep structures' providing basic axes of signification.
- Chandler

Ten conceivable positions out of a rudimentary opposition? Sounds promising. I started my exercise with a tricky binary: commercial exchange (the exchange of goods/services for money at a market) - communal transfer (non-reciprocal transfer of valuables within communities). Here is what I got thus far:

I am still thinking about what would be not S1 nor S2 (not commercial exchange nor communal transfer), but the good thing is that my data tells me a lot about what is both at the same time, so I can see a little clearer now!
I am sharing my power point template of a semiotic square so you can fill in the blanks with your own constructs and get some inspiration for your own research. If you are interested in talking about the commercial exchange-communal transfer duo, leave a comment, and let's see where the semiotic square takes us.


2013 Consumer Culture Theory Conference - Part II

Day 2 was all sorts of awesome – not all conferences have their early sessions packed (but they don’t serve gigantic cookies during the coffee break either).
Session: Materiality Matters: Investigations of the (De)stabilizing capacities of material elements in consumption-related assemblages I co-chaired this session with Eileen Fischer (York University). We invited some colleagues who have been working with socio-material theories to present their work and discuss the usefulness of a socio-material perspective to illuminate a variety of consumption phenomena.
Socio-material theories provide a lens that differs from the social constructivist perspectives that have dominated CCT research. In contrast to the social constructivist’s metaphoric use of the term “construction,” proponents of a socio material perspectives adopt a realist social ontology that defends the literal meaning of social construction – or, as Manuel DeLanda explains, “building or assembling [the social] from parts”. In this sense, assemblages or actor networks can be defined as “wholes whose properties emerge from the interactions between parts.”
Socio material perspectives highlight the capacities, instead of properties, of elements that are part of assemblages or networks. While properties are given and can be listed at any point in time, capacities are not given – they might go unexercised if no suitable agent for interaction is around. Therefore, the whole is not explained by the properties of the elements interacting in it, but by the capacities these elements exercise when they come together. A second facet of socio-material theories is that they emphasize that assemblages or actor networks are not inherently stable or enduring. Thus, studies infused with these perspectives tend to focus on dynamics that lead to or impede the breakdown of social constructions. Finally, socio-material theories accord agency to material elements of social construction just as they do to human elements.

Assemblage theory was developed by Deleuze and Guattari. I must say I am yet to dive into their work (click here for 13 surprising facts about the lives of these two philosophers). I did find DeLanda’s introduction very helpful, and it was sufficient to get me started in questioning phenomena from a different perspective. I am sure I will end up going to Deleuze for more, but when it comes to a topic such as social complexity, it is comforting to start with a friendly little book.
“A new philosophy of society” .

Robin Canniford (University of Melbourne) and Avi Shankar (University of Bath) started the session presenting their study of betrayal and purification in consumption assemblages. They illustrate the practices of multiple actors engaged in overcoming betrayals in assemblages with data on the (de)stabilization of a surfing point in Portugal’s seashore.
Marie-Agnès Parmentier (HEC Montrèal) followed to present her research on the materiality of serial entertainment brands, describing the unfolding of narratives and materiality over time for the America’s Next Top Model reality show.
I then presented the study I’ve been working on with Eileen on the materiality of plus-size fashion. Extending our research on the plus-size fashion market, we explain how both the expressive and the material aspects of fashion matter to the consumption practices of consumers who do not “fit” the ideals of fashion marketers. Lots of beautiful pictures illustrated the entire session: wild nature, beaches, and models of all sizes.
Dannie Kjeldgaard did a great job as the session discussant, noting the importance of reflexivity when adopting a new ontology, and bringing important questions to the foreground (How are the boundaries of assemblages traced? Who decides what the preferred assemblages are? What is the role of the researcher in assemblage theory?).

Session: Consumer Identity Crossings This time I couldn’t quite resist shifting between two sessions and sat for a while at the session “Enacting, Imagining, and Promoting the Ideal Home, chaired by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder (both at Rochester Institute of Technology), where I saw Jonathan Bean’s (Bucknell University) presentation on the ideal North American home in the postwar era. A historical examination beautifully illustrated.
At the consumer identity crossings session, I caught Jenna Drenten’s (John Carroll University) presentation on coming of age consumption practices among adolescent girls. In her powerful voice, Jenna showed how her findings question conventional perspectives on rites of passage and point to many identity tensions that market-mediated milestones serve to alleviate.
In this session I also got to know Kyle Puetz (University of Arizona), whose really interesting study aims to understand (from a rather unexpected approach) different logics of taste that structure consumer identity. Kyle uses social network analysis tools (blackmodelling) to examine the issue, with data from critics’ preferred film selections. His research is one example of what David Crockett (University of South Carolina) mentioned in his commentary during the lunch plenary on day 1: consumer culture research can largely benefit from further exploring the tools of social network analysis.

Session: Consumer Engagement and Resistance This was a super interesting session about various forms of consumer action: David Crockett and Nicholas Pendarvis (University of South Carolina) presented a study of “Bank Transfer Day” as a consumer movement; Carla Walters (University Savoy) suggested using dance in social marketing campaigns promoting anti-consumption, and Marlon Dalmoro (UNIVATES) presented his work co-authored with Lisa Peñaloza (Bordeaux Management School) and Walter Nique (UFRGS) on the sustenance of the Gaucho culture in southern Brazil.
Marlon and his co-authors’ reflections on the role of consumption in market resistance draws from extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the south of Brazil. That is very close to home, as I am married to a “Gaucho” and have lived for almost 10 years in the southernmost state of Brazil. Most Gauchos are extremely proud of their culture, even though they might have never been in a farm or mounted a horse, and have no clue how to roast barbecue over a fire pit (in case you haven’t guessed yet, Gauchos are Brazilian cowboys). Marlon showed how consumers support an organized alternative market system in which their practices sustain local producers and reinvigorate Gaucho culture, without ever leaving the mainstream market.

Salons and an “Auto-Ethnographic Collective Experiment of Object Circulation” The second half of the day was set up a little differently. Rather than having several little breakout sessions to choose from, attendees could sign-up for one of 8 salons. Each room had been set up with two or three large round tables and salons were topped at 20 participants each. As the conference co-chairs Linda Price and Lisa Peñaloza proposed them, salons were set up to be “Imaginative, collaborative work-play spaces modeled after the creative theory spaces at HCR, the localized field encounters at EPIC, the highly coveted, artsy, politically charged tertulias in Latin America, and the literary-philosophic social gatherings in Europe – all so important in advancing the role of the public intellectual.”
Bernardo Figueiredo and I were hosting a salon, based on our project on object circulation. I will tell you more about this research project on a separate post, but let me say that the salon format worked really well to get people thinking about object circulation, exchange ideas about future directions for our study, and maybe plan studies of their own around issues we raised. In addition to the objects Bernardo and I set out to circulate before the conference, another one has started circulating already that has been created by participants of our salon. The salon format for CCT was debriefed during the awards brunch, apparently with very positive feedback from organizers and attendees.

Speaking of awards…
Although I missed the awards brunch (early flight – long trip back home), I was really happy to hear that the Sidney Levy Award went to Elif Izberk-Bilgin, University of Michigan-Dearborn, for her article “Infidel Brands: Unveiling Alternative Meanings of Global Brands at the Nexus of Globalization, Consumer Culture, and Islamism.” Published on the Journal of Consumer Research, in December 2012. Her paper investigates how the religious ideology of Islamism informs brand meanings among low-income Turkish consumers and identifies three discourses that construct global brands as infidels. A topic that would be relevant at any time, but that is now timelier than ever. The opening paragraph of the article, an excerpt from her field notes, is one of the best I have ever seen - it brings the reader right into her research context and illustrates the research problem so clearly that no doubt is left so as to the relevance of the study. Here it is:
“Infidel! Infidel!” cries the six-year-old boy upon hearing his mother mention Nestlé during our interview. The father, who has just returned from evening prayer at the local mosque, tries to change the subject quickly. He appears to be acutely aware of the symbolic meaning of my unveiled attire and our likely ideological differences. Despite the pro-Islamist government’s renewal of power and the relaxed attitudes toward expressing religious identity in Turkey, the father avoids commenting on the “infidel” remark, carefully weighing his words to prevent an ideological clash. The mother, on the other hand, who volunteers as a Quran instructor for the shantytown’s young girls, could care less about political correctness. As passionate as her son, she believes that Nestlé, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are “infidels” because “they are killing Muslims in Palestine and now Iraq.”
Elif dedicated her award to those suffering in Turkey. The “best competitive paper” prize went to Becca Watkins and Mike Molesworth with an honourable mention to Janet Borgerson. The “best poster prize” went to: Anastasia Seregina (Aalto University) with honorable mentions to Aimee Dinnin Huff (moving soon to Oregon State University) and Sarah Wilner (Wilfrid Laurier University) as well as Andrew Smith and Pierre-Yann Dolbec (both my former colleagues at York University).
With that, the 2013 Consumer Culture Theory Conference came to a close – and we are all looking forward to the next one, to be hosted in 2014 by Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland.


Consumer Culture Theory Conference 2013 - Part 1

I attended the Consumer Culture Theory Conference in Tucson, Arizona last week (June 13-16). There was a lot of new information, tons of interesting research being presented and developed, and many good friends to see, all in an awesome location! The conference was so well organized that I experienced it as a flow – fully involved and enjoying every minute of it.
Before I share the highlights of CCT 2013, let me just do a quick review on Consumer Culture Theory for those of you who are reading about this topic for the first time: (Someone did a good job on editing the CCT page on Wikipedia, so this text is slightly adapted from it)
Consumer culture theory is a marketing school of thought interested in studying consumption choices and behaviors from a social and cultural point of view, as opposed to an economic or psychological one. It does not offer a grand unifying theory but “refers to a family of theoretical perspectives that address the dynamic relationships between consumer actions, the marketplace, and cultural meanings.” Consumer culture is viewed as a “social arrangement in which the relations between lived culture and social resources, between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, are mediated through markets.” CCT scholars view consumers as individuals who participate in an interconnected system of commercially produced products and images which they use to construct their identity and orient their relationships with others. While CCT is often associated with qualitative methodologies, such as interviews, case studies and ethnographies, which are well adapted to study the experiential, sociological and cultural aspects of consumption, these are not a prerequisite to CCT contribution (Arnould & Thompson 2005).
Now, let’s talk about the conference! Day I is reviewed below, and I will soon post highlights of days 2 and 3. The conference was four days long, the first of which was dedicated to a CCT board meeting, a welcoming reception, and acclimating to the hot and dry Arizona weather. Each of the following days was organized around several different breakout sessions that could be attended. Sometimes I wished I could be in two places at once…parallel sessions are torture! So mind you, my review will cover only the sessions I attended.

Session: Consumer Embodiment and Lived Time
Alex Schwob and Joel Hietanen, from Aalto University started the session presenting their perspective on the phenomenological experience of lived time. Their study was conceptual – and will serve as the basis for an investigation of the lived time experience of inmates. Rebecca Scott followed presenting her work with Mark Uncles (The University of New South Wales) on how the senses interrelate to constitute extreme consumption experiences. One of their research contexts is “Tough Mudder,” a military style adventure racing. Really extreme! The session closed with Bernardo Figueiredo (University of Southern Denmark) presenting his work (also co-authored with Mark Uncles) on the impact of mobility on consumers’ temporal frameworks. They explain how mobile consumers (who have lived in at least 3 different countries) develop their own time-managing practices and temporal structures, which ultimately influence the way these individuals consume. Try to find a restaurant open to have lunch before 1pm in Santiago de Chile and you will understand. Having lived in two other countries where lunch is to be had at noon, 11am snacking is my latest hunger-management practice.
Plenary: Prof. Carlos G. Vélez-Ibañez We had a plenary at lunch time, and Prof. Vélez-Ibañez presented his long-term research on transnational community and household economies, focusing on rural areas of California and New Mexico – and their sending communities in Mexico. His research is fascinating, especially in respect to how social ties influence exchange. I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this very useful diagram he presented, showing the ritual cycle of exchange that contributes to the formation of dense ties among members of the local community.
Dense ties imply in feelings of trust, reciprocity, and mutual responsibility. These come in handy when one needs to leave their child under a neighbor’s watch or borrow money through participating in a community credit system. The discussion on ritual cycles of exchange is in Vélez-Ibañez’s book “Border Visions”. First chapter is available on Google Books:

Session: Cultural Contentions: Reconciliation in Value Co-Creation
Co-creation is a topic that I have been reading a lot on – and writing some – since the framing of my dissertation proposal a couple of years ago. In this session, Melissa Akaka (University of Denver) presented her work with Hope Schau and Rob Lusch (both from the University of Arizona), focusing on the differences between local and global institutions through the growth of a market culture. They have collected data on surfing, comparing Hawaiian surfing culture with the broader, “global” surfing culture. Although Melissa hasn’t mentioned this, it seems that this case goes beyond co-creation to be one of co-management– in which members of the Hawaiian surfing culture collaborate with local companies to preserve and perpetuate the original aspects of surfing. By the way, Melissa’s paper with Jennifer Chandler on is a great read for those of you who are (I know I am!) interested on working with value co-creation from a network perspective.
In the same session, Angeline Nariswari and Navin Bahl (both from University of Hawaii) presented their papers on how co-creation unfolds in two contested contexts: Valentine’s day in Indonesia and online poker gambling in the U.S. For me, the most interesting takeaway from this session was that all three projects looked at co-creation from a consumer-centric, macro-level perspective. They haven’t focused on one particular company that invites consumers to collaborate in a very much structured co-creation project, nor on consumers congregating around a brand in a brand community. The phenomena Melissa, Angeline, Navin, and their co-authors are investigating are broader movements, led by individuals (the ones we refer to as consumers). In developing these movements, consumers cross ways not only with market agents, but also with other actors such as government and religious representatives. I think this move further approximates the co-creation literature with CCT and its very promising in terms of developing both.
Session: The value(s) of value(s)? A CCT perspective
In a packed room, Dannie Kjeldgaard (University of Southern Denmark) and Eminegul Karababa (Middle East Technical University) got the discussion started on what value means. They presented the multiple definitions of value that have been around in the literature: a long list including concepts such as “economic value,” “symbolic value,” and “social value.” Although I am familiar with the multiple definitions of value and have used some of them in writing my dissertation, Dannie’s and Emi’s presentation was really interesting and brought some great insights on how to deal with this definitional complexity in very practical terms. In particular, I found really useful their observation that market segmentation is a tool that allows marketers to integrate perceived value and economic value. Identifying other such tools may be the key to integrating multiple forms of value into a complete value system.
Eric Arnould (University of Bath) shared his perspective on value (and values) as an outcome of consumer practices. He highlighted that value is the outcome of interactions – it is, in fact, contingent on interactions that are supported by resources. Eric also observed that macro-level distinctions between gift-giving, barter, and commodity exchange determine the type of value resulting from practices. This links directly to the research project Bernardo Figueiredo and I have been working on, in which one of our goals is to understand the value created by object circulation, and how it compares to other types of value. Finally, Alladi Venkatesh (UC Irvine) presented a summary of the discussion in a visual representation of value systems. The session was closed by Soren Askegaard, who made the bold and tempting proposition that we should “get rid of value” and think of other outcomes and concepts to replace it with.