Social construction and the tango rhythms of
As I write this, the teeming sixteen-lane streets of Buenos Aires clatter busily seven floors below my hotel room. The Argentine equivalent of MTV (‘MuchMusic’) throbs out a salsa beat to keep me company and three days worth of discarded underwear (mine) hums gently on the floor. I’m all conferenced out: the schmoozing, choosing, cruising, snoozing, enthusing and boozing have got to me and I’ve taken a time out from the American Marketing Association’s International Educator’s Conference, 2000. Yes: I brought the laptop so I could write even here. That’s dedication: that’s deadline panic. Yesterday I hit the conference wall: I got my own presentation over with then sat through a couple of hours in which every piece of research presented offered a quasi-experimental treatment of topics in advertising. It’s not so hard to do: put six graduate students in one room and six in another: to make it sexier make each group up from a different ethnic origin. Then have a man read out an advertisement to them but make him wear a white coat while he’s reading it to one of the groups. Then give the students a questionnaire and rate each delivery for source credibility. Perform a between subjects Wilcoxon text (or a Mann-Whitney if you don’t know your result beforehand). Then write a paper called something like ‘The White Coat Syndrome: Advertising Source Credibility and Ethnic Consumers: An Empirical Study’. Then publish the same paper multiple times with slight variations on the scale and design. Different races, different country, a different coat, a different questionnaire scale. Sometimes I worry that I’m too sweeping in my criticisms of mainstream marketing research. But I came out of that session thinking my interpretive project, hopeless certainly, inept perhaps, is God’s Work. Perhaps the presenters in the session were off form, maybe they were doing their worst paper just to get it in the proceedings, maybe the rest of the conference papers I didn’t see were great. But the low level of awareness and use of qualitative forms of enquiry, and the relative lack of willingness to engage with philosophical as opposed to technical issues of research method were evidence, I thought, that marketing method remains unreflexively monolithic, at least for significant swathes of academia. The reproduction of ideologically founded assumptions about the practical
relevance of research in marketing and about the role of scientific method in research was striking given that extremely able marketing researchers were presenting their work in dialogue with a research audience and yet there was, apparently, no critical vocabulary to draw on. My criticism is not levelled at the researchers, whose ideas and enthusiasm were engagingly communicated. My problem is with the narrow methodological assumptions of mainstream marketing research which, in spite of decades of debate in the marketing journals, remains institutionalised in a critical vacuum. A broad and philosophically informed social scientific education ought, I think, to be an explicit component of the marketing curriculum at every level. In each study the researchers suggested differing quasiexperimental methods to explore why people apparently showed this or that preference for a particular style of marketing intervention (interventions simulated by the researcher to isolate them from other, less controllable variables). The methodological myopia was palpable. It hung in the room like a coat. (I was going to say like the thick, sweet miasmic marihuana smoke of a backstreet Amsterdam café but I thought that would be over-egging the textual pudding. Well, coats hang, don’t they?) It wasn’t just me: I was sitting next to a committed quantitative marketing researcher and he was gnawing the desk after half an hour. Worst of all, the assumptions about a deep, mysterious, causative structure of reality were pervasive, unconscious and implicit. The most penetrating question during this grim, brain-curdling, surreal purgatorial penance was ‘Is the design within or between subjects?’ As I say again and again throughout the book, the existence of creditable research studies in marketing in no way demonstrates that it is wrong to say that in this field we are still methodologically hidebound by a woefully poor collective grasp of social scientific research philosophy. I went back to my hotel then walked the humid Argentinian streets. I ogled oleaginous street tango artists tremulously tangling their be-spatted, fish-netted limbs to the muffled rhythms of an ageing portable PA system. Just before I left England the television was filled with images of fat, thick young British men throwing plastic chairs in the streets of Brussels at the Euro 2000 soccer championships. South Americans use the streets for kissing each other and dancing the tango. It was kind of surreal after the quasi-experimental research studies I’d been listening to: how can you understand consumers unless you walk the streets with them? The warm and colourful bustle of Buenos Aires seemed such a contrast to the whitewashed vision of the consumer world put across in experimental marketing research papers.