Monday, November 1, 2010

Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research

Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research
Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny
Left Coast Press
Walnut Creek, CA
2007
368 pp. (Paperback)
ISBN 978-1-59874-091-2
Keywords: Anthropology, Consumer, Culture, Cultural Analysis, Ethnography

Originally published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 26, Issue 7. 2009


As a business professor who has been teaching marketing and consumer behavior courses at the college level for over 10 years, I was immediately fully attracted by the book entitled “Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research” and finished my reading in almost one single sitting. The educational and practical information contains in the book, the new elaborating and editing styles, as well as the collaborations among the principal authors, foreword authors and the editor for one book draw all my attention without any delay. I must admit that this book is really a good reading book for the students and scholars who are interesting in consumer behavior studies; it is also a very good informative resource for all business managers who are interested in better understanding their consumers and thus providing better products and service to meet their customers’ need. Just as professor Donald Stull at University of Kansas put it: “Had I had access to such a text, my students would have been far more aware of, and far better for, the careers that awaited them.”

The book is authored by Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita, M. Denny, published by Left Coast Press in Walnut Creek, CA. Russell Belk, John F. Sherry Jr., and several other well known scholars in consumer behavior field have presented their perspectives and comments in several forewords. It is the essential new guide to the theory and practice of conducting ethnographic research in consumer science. More and more applied anthropologists employ qualitative techniques along with some quantitative approaches (survey, for example) in complex organizations from community centers to large corporations conducting their researches. More recently many anthropologists involve themselves into marketing researches although not many involved into the consumer behavior field yet. Meanwhile more and more marketers are using anthropological methods in their marketing practice and research, especially in consumer studies. Sunderland and Denny reframe the field by re-attaching ethnography to theoretically robust and methodologically rigorous cultural analysis. Their eclectic variety of case studies combined with four provocative forewords by leading figures in anthropology and consumer research push the boundaries of the field and challenge the divide between academic and applied work.

The book is consisting of four parts, 11 chapters. The first part includes three chapters, the first chapter provides readers with a brief discussion of the background and context surrounding current practices by the business anthropologists in consumer research, the examples and cases presented in this chapter are not only from the United States, but also drawn upon the content from the United Kingdom and France. In Chapter 2 the authors introduce the readers a cultural approach and analysis in consumer research, which in this reviewer’s opinion is the unique contribution that business anthropologists made to consumer behavior studies. In Chapter 3 the authors show the readers how coffee and its consumption are cultural matters that can only be understood in specified cultural context. They also demonstrate how effective the anthropologists can help business managers to better understand their customers by using ethnographic methods and through cultural analysis.

The second part contains four chapters provide readers with some in-depth detailed examples from the authors’ own research practice. Chapter 4 calls readers’ attention to the ways metaphoric understanding as the frames with which consumption and other human behavior take place. The authors, based on multiple research and analyses, demonstrate how metaphor of computing have changed American cultural definitions of self, others, work, and pleasure, which, again in this reviewer’s opinion, will have significant influence on consumer behavior that need to be further studied. In Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, the authors illustrate the cultural constitution of emotion among young people in the United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand through the integration of ethnography with text-based analyses. Chapter 7 depicts how the focus group, a traditional consumer research method, can be used as a site for cultural analysis. The authors by using insights of linguistic anthropology show readers how people talked about and framed their expectations of utilities functions as the clue to their implicit expectations to the product and service they consume.

Part Three comprises chapters 8, 9, and 10, which present several case studies, focus on current issues that business anthropologists must encounter in consumer research. The authors aim at making the entanglements of differing epistemologies, politics of power, institutionalized exigencies, and practicalities ethnographically explicit. The issues addressed include matters of ethnoracial consumer segmentation and visual representation in consumer research. The authors indicate “it is obvious that many of the practical activities of marketing and consumer research (e.g., the development of product, advertising, or research on distinct consumer segments) are constitutive elements of racial and ethnic categorizations.” (p. 211) In Chapter 9 the authors based on their own experience demonstrate how ethnographic consumer researchers can fulfill the generative promise of video in practice when “videographic recording of ethnography is currently exceedingly common place within applied consumer research.” (249).

Part Four includes a single chapter of Chapter 11. In this concluding chapter the authors provide readers some final words regarding what they view as the possibilities and promise of a re-attachment of cultural analysis in the practice of consumer research. The authors suggest that playing in the interstitial spaces between anthropology, academic marketing, and practice not only has great merit, but also has benefits to both academic world and real business world. “Academic anthropologists and academic consumer researchers will also need to speak with one another and with consumer researchers engaged in applied practice, recognizing, refracting, and reflecting the strengths of each.” (p. 326).

The authors themselves are productive and successful business anthropologists who have been conducting ethnographic consumer research for corporate and institutional clients since 1980s. They have worked with the producers, suppliers, and advertisers of consumer goods ranging from drain cleaners and power drills to 24-carat-gold ingots and fine arts. They have worked with financial, healthcare, and educational institutions, retail conglomerates, emerging technology industries, and governmental nonprofits. Their cultural analyses have helped clients to brand and market their goods and services in relevant and resonant ways as well as to think about entirely new products and services. Their triumphant practical experience itself serves as a solid base upon which we can continuously construct the future of consumer research in new perspectives.

As a reader and reviewer, I have no doubt that this book will fill the important gap in the consumer behavior literature, and as such I strongly suggest my colleagues who are involved in consumer research, no matter academically or practically take a break from their routine and daily work to read this excellent book. Meanwhile, as the book succeeds in expanding our knowledge of consumer behavior and consumer research, I believe it has definite appeal to students of consumer behavior because it aids understanding of the cultural meanings of consumer choice. Ultimately, this book represents a useful “how to” guide for both the business practitioner and the educational professional on how to put anthropological methods into consumer research. Clearly it represents a useful resource for anyone looking to understand the significance of the social environment and cultural values in individual consumption choice. I am sure that regardless of one’s background and orientation, the readers will find the book both refreshingly informative and cerebrally stimulating since everybody in life engages in consumer and consumptive behavior.


Dr. Robert Guang Tian

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