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.


Learning business in China

I recently went to China on a study trip with a group of MBA students and faculty from my university. The trip is part of a partnership between Universidad Católica de Chile and Tshingua University, sponsored by Banco de Chile. Every year, a group of our Chilean MBA students travels to China, and a group of Chinese students from Tshingua University comes to Chile to take classes, visit companies, and learn about the local business culture. This was my first time in Asia, and I must confess I was awestruck. We landed in Shanghai, a large, modern, and very much Western (at least at first sight) looking city. Huge highways crisscross each other way up in the sky, 14 tunnels and 8 bridges cut through the Huangpu River and link the financial center of Lujiazui, at the newly developed Eastern bank of Pudong, to the historic center of the city, the Puxi area, located on the western side of the Huangpu. If you’ve been there, you know – it’s breathtaking. That, and our Chinese tour guide, Mr. Yu, spoke perfect Spanish, allowing us to call him Julio. Impressive indeed.
But more impressive than this was the economic growth and potential of the Chinese market (I know better than to think China is one big market, we’ll get to the details soon). We spent four days in Shanghai, where we visited the Harvard Shanghai Center, and had a discussion panel with representatives of Chilean companies operating in China. We visited Yihaodian, where we spent an hour with CEO and co-founder Gang Yu. Mr. Yu and his partner got together in 2008 to start the online supermarket that currently sells more than US$ 500m/year and grows at an impressive rate of 20% per month. In 2012, Walmart announced further investment to Yihaodian under the approval of Chinese Ministry of Commerce, and became the biggest shareholder of Yiyuandian (with 51% of shares). We also visited a factory of Nexans, a French cable systems company that has copper as one of its core raw materials. Chile is the world’s largest exporter of copper, and 31% of all copper exported by Chile goes to China.
In fact, China is Chile’s most important commercial partner. The relations between the People's Republic of China and Chile began 1970, shortly following the election of Salvador Allende. Chile became the first South American country to recognize the mainland Chinese government. Following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état which saw the overthrow of the Allende government, China was the only Communist country not to have severed ties with Augusto Pinochet's new regime, due to the latter's continued endorsement of the One China Policy. The continued relationship was built on pragmatism and non-interference. China supported Chile's claim of sovereignty over Antarctic, and in turn, Chile allowed the Chinese to build the Great Wall research station inside Chile's territorial claims. Following the end of the Cold War and fall of the Pinochet regime in 1990, bilateral relations continued, with the new Chilean government pursuing a policy of free trade, and supported China's entrance into the World Trade Organization. The free trade agreement between the two countries was signed in 2006, and the bilateral trade volume has been increasing since then. Chile became China's third largest Latin American trading partner behind Brazil and Mexico. Bilateral trade volume exceeded US$32 billion in 2012. China is a market of enormous proportions compared to any other, but it shines especially bright on the eyes of Chilean companies, for the small Chilean population of 17.2 million makes the local market very limiting.
We spent another week in Beijing, China’s political capital and site of Tshingua University. In addition to taking classes at SEM, Tshingua’s school of management, we visited Nestlé’s headquarters (once more, impressive numbers – 33 factories in China and growing an average of 20% per month), Lenovo (where we were introduced to their “phablet”), and the Columbia Global Center, where Dr. Joan Kaufman, Columbia Beijing Global Center Director mediated a discussion panel with Professor Wang Zhenyao (former Ministry of Civil Affairs, and current Dean of the School of Public Policy at Beijing Normal University); Roger Di (Non-profit sector partner of KPMG-China); Steven Blake (Communications Manager for The Nature Conservancy China Program); Brent Johnson (Vice President of the United Family Hospitals Group), and Pengcheng Qu (Director of Government Relations for the World Economic Forum in China). The discussion centered on the opportunities and limitations for conducting non-profit and social responsibility activities in China and was enlightening in many ways. We also spent some time with the Chilean ambassador in China, Mr. Luis Schmidt Montes, and visited Banco de Chile’s office in China, an important business platform between Chile and Asia Pacific. Through Banco de Chile, relevant developments have materialized; Chilean companies have strengthened their relationship with major Chinese financial institutions, as Banco de Chile has signed agreements with the China Development Bank (CDB) and The Export and Import Bank of China (Eximbank).
All these visits and activities were incredibly interesting – but as a consumer culture scholar, what I was really thrilled to observe were the cultural differences, and the particular aspects of Chinese consumers’ relations to brands and products, as well as how some Chinese traditions seem to impact the introduction and marketing of new products in the country. I will share these on my next post, coming soon.