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Journal of the Market Research Society
, July 1995 v37 n3 p287(24)

Postmodern marketing research: no representation without taxation.

Stephen Brown

Many marketing researchers have the misconception that the
marketing research strategy is a combination of unorthodox methodologies and
perspectives. However, a more thorough analysis will show that postmodern research
is different from interpretive marketing research with respect to a number of factors
Postmodernism should be viewed as a marketing principle that challenges
conventional assumptions on human subjectivity, determinate meaning and perpetual

Full Text:
COPYRIGHT 1995 Market Research Society (UK)

`Postmodern' is one of those ubiqu
itous words that no
one quite understands. In
marketing, there is a widespread assumption that `postmodern' is an umbrella term for
the plethora of interpretive research procedures

semiotics, hermeneutics,
phenomenology and so on which have materialised

in recent years. This paper argues
that such an assumption is mistaken, that postmodern and interpretive marketing
research are polar opposites in certain important respects. The paper contends that the
postmodern project has very serious implications for

conventional marketing research,
both qualitative and quantitative.

According to the proto
postmodern philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1986 pp 33), a
word is like `a pocket into which now this, now that, now several things at once have
been put'. Althou
gh this pocket metaphor is true of innumerable words

just think of
the diverse and ever
changing interpretations of marketing terms such as
`involvement', `branding', `impulse shopping' or indeed `marketing' itself

there is
perhaps no word to which t
his analogy is more applicable than `postmodern'. Few
words in contemporary discourse are so widely and indiscriminately used; few words
carry as much intellectual baggage, arguably excess intellectual baggage; and, few
words appear to be so wilfully and c
omprehensively misunderstood. Indeed, the
postmodern project has variously been described as `..a con' (Hattenstone 1992 pp 7),
`the kiss of death to any art form, high or low' (Burchill 1994 pp 4) and `tailor
for the thinking man's fashion victim...t
o serious philosophy what flares are to fashion'
(Beaumont 1993 pp 43).

The misunderstanding that surrounds the term `postmodern' end its associated family
of terms (postmodernism, postmodernity, postmodernisation and so on) is equally
apparent in the mar
keting literature. The word has recently been added to the
marketing lexicon and several interpretations of its meaning are already evident
(Rothman 1992; Soderlund 1990; Morello 1993; Firat & Venkatesh 1993). By far the
most important of these, and by far

the most widely accepted, derives from the sub
discipline of consumer research, where the term is closely associated with the latter
day advent of `interpretive' or `naturalistic' approaches to the analysis of consumption
activities (Hirschman & Holbrook
1992; Sherry 1991; Holbrook & Hirschman 1993).
Although the postmodern movement has much in common with this `interpretive turn'
(which has now spread far beyond the sub
field of consumer behaviour), it is
important to emphasise that these perspectives are

not one and the same. On the
contrary, they are diametrically opposed in certain important respects. In fact,
interpretive researchers have frequently been accused of appropriating the term
`postmodern', with all its cutting edge connotations, and using i
t as a weapon in intra
disciplinary power politics (Grafton
Small 1993). While this may or may not be the
case, the upshot of such terminological disputation is a widespread sense of confusion
over the precise meaning of the central construct. If the defin
itions in best
textbooks are any indication, many marketing and consumer researchers appear to be
under the mistaken impression that `postmodern' is a portmanteau term for the
plethora of unorthodox perspectives and methodologies which have materia
lised in
recent years

humanism, semiotics, critical theory, hermeneutics, existentialism,
phenomenology and many more besides (e.g. Solomon 1992; Engel et al 1995).

In light of this apparent misunderstanding, the overall objective of the present paper
to tease out the various threads that comprise the tangled skein of `postmodern'
marketing research. It commences with a summary of the postmodern condition,
arguing that it is essentially a `crisis of representation', where the old certitudes of
ality, objectivity and progress have been challenged, subverted and rendered all
but redundant. The paper continues with an analysis of the interpretive research
paradigm and highlights how its underpinning assumptions differ from those of the
postmodern p
roject. This leads into a discussion of the epistemological and
ontological impediments to postmodern marketing research

the `no representation
without taxation' of the title

and the essay concludes with a brief assessment of
alternative methodologic
al options and the likelihood of their adoption. This paper, it
must be stressed, does not claim to be the last word on the topic and acknowledges
from the outset the difficulties involved in attempts to tie down and label the eclectic,
pluralistic postmod
ern phenomenon. But, in its endeavour to cut one path (among
many potential paths) through the postmodern thicket the impenetrability of which has
disorientated and deterred many would
be explorers

such a reconnaissance exercise
may prove worthwhile and

help provide a point of departure for future expeditions
into the terra incognita (some would say Bermuda Triangle) that is postmodern
marketing research.

The postmodern condition

The widespread sense of confusion that surrounds the postmodern project i
s partly
due to the political proclivities of self
aggrandising academics (Featherstone 1991). It
is also attributable to the notorious lack of a clear
cut and universally agreed
definition, the fact that `it gets everywhere but no
one can quite explain wh
at it is'
(Fielding 1992). However, perhaps the best way of approaching the postmodern
conundrum, and certainly the most accessible, is by means of the suffix rather than the
prefix. As the term implies, `postmodern' represents some kind of reaction to,
parture from or extension of that which is considered `modern'.


Although the nature and characteristics of the `modern' have been subject to almost as
much discussion as the postmodern, if not more, there is a degree of agreement
the modern world emerged from a series of profound political, economic, social and
cultural transformations which began with the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth
century; saw the creation of the modern nation state in the sixteenth; witnessed the
dual secularisation and democratisation of western society in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries; and which climaxed in the Agricultural and Industrial
Revolutions of the nineteenth. In point of fact, it was the excesses of the last of these
that spa
wned the artistic and cultural movement commonly known as `modernism'.
This began with avant garde developments in mid
nineteenth century Paris, reached
its apogee prior to the first world war and continued to dominate artistic sensibilities
until the late

early 1960s (Johnson 1991; Toulmin 1990; Wagner 1994).

Alongside the inexorable `rise of the west', the emergence of the modern world was
characterised by a dramatic transformation in scientific and intellectual endeavour.
Prefigured by the insight
s of Galileo, Newton and Keppler in the physical sciences
and Bacon, Descartes and Locke in philosophical method, this intellectual revolution
came to fruition in the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century. Like most
intellectual movements, the En
lightenment exhibited considerable internal diversity.
Nevertheless it embraced a constellation of concepts including a belief in the primacy
of reason and rationality as a means of organising knowledge; empiricism, the idea
that knowledge of the world is
premised on empirical facts which can be apprehended
through sense organs; the assumption that science, and the experimental method, is
the key to isolating truth and expanding human knowledge; universalism, the
presupposition that reason and science are i
nvariant, apply in all circumstances and
that general laws could be derived; scepticism, the conviction that no knowledge
claims should be accepted at face value but subjected to detailed, objective scrutiny;
and, not least, secularism, a belief that the d
isinterested pursuit of objective
knowledge would lead to the extinction of ignorance, religious dogma, superstition
and oppressive clericalism, and hence to a better, more tolerant, free and open society
(Porter 1990).

As the foregoing synopsis indicates
, modernity is a complex phenomenon, involving a
variety of tightly interwoven, often contradictory, processes operating over an
extended time scale. But, if it had to be summarised in a single word, that word would
probably be progress. The modern conditi
on is characterised, above all, by a belief
that humanity `has advanced in the now advancing, and will continue to
advance through the foreseeable future' (Nisbet, 1980, pp 4
5). Although the idea of
inexorable human progress is a relatively rece
nt development prior to the
Enlightenment the prevailing assumption was that the past was superior to the present
and that life was lived against a backdrop of irredeemable decline (see Bowler 1989;
Gordon 1991)

there is no doubt that compared with the
bestiality, squalour and
degradation of earlier times, it is our good fortune to be born into the modern world.
We are better fed and educated, more affluent and live longer than our ancestors, we
are free to think and say what we like, and live in the rea
sonable expectation that
things will continue to improve, diseases will be conquered, technological
breakthroughs achieved and, periodic economic crises notwithstanding, our material
being maintained (Toulmin 1990).


Just as the p
roject of modernity was distinguished by the complex interpenetration of
contrasting artistic, technological, socio
economic and intellectual components, so too
the postmodern moment is made up of a multiplicity of highly diverse, often
antithetical, eleme
nts. Indeed, in our endeavours to comprehend this fascinating yet
frustrating phenomenon, perhaps the single most important point to note about the
postmodern condition is that it comprises four separate but interdependent strands.

The first, and for most

people, probably the most clearly identifiable aspect of
postmodernism, is a very distinctive post
war artistic and cultural movement (some
commentators restrict use of the term `postmodernism' to this particular arena,
whereas others employ it in a catch
all sense, thereby adding to the terminological
confusion). In essence, postmodernism in the arts comprises a latter
day reaction
against the, once radical and challenging but subsequently tamed and canonised,
`modern' movement of the first half of the pr
esent century, and a tongue
return to pre
modern precepts of representation. Whether it be fine art, architecture,
literature, music, dance, design, drama or whatever, the postmodern movement is
characterised by the belief that there is no artisti
c orthodoxy, or single overarching
style. All traditions have some merit; there is a smorgasbord of choice; the challenge
is to combine elements of existing traditions in an eclectic, hybrid, ironic style; and,
not least, that the traditional boundary betw
een elite and popular cultural pursuits no
longer exists. Just as popular preoccupations have been appropriated by `high' culture
(vernacular architecture, pop
art, science fiction etc.), so too serious treatment is now
accorded to what were once dismissed

as `low' or degraded cultural forms

television, popular music, fashion, football, comic books, hairstyles and, indeed,
marketing and advertising (Boyne & Rattansi 1990; Jencks 1989).

The second element of the postmodern project, which is often a
ccorded the epithet
`postmodernity', pertains to a series of significant post
war social and economic
developments (Bocock & Thompson 1992; Smart 1993). Socially, these include the
decline of organised religion; the fragmentation of nation states and polit
ical blocs;
the collapse of traditional party politics; the demise of the nuclear family; and, the
proliferation of media and communications technologies, which, according to the high
priest of postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard (1983, 1988), have created a d
world of simulation where images bear no discernible relationship to external `reality'
and where artifice is even better than the real thing. In economic terms, moreover,
recent years have witnessed a post
Fordist revolution in the workplace, whe
re the
aided, flexible production of specialised or semi
bespoke products for niche
markets has superseded the traditional Fordist regime of the mass production of
standardised products for mass markets (Cooke 1990). This has been accompanied by
he emergence of an increasingly information and services driven post
order. In short, Silicon Glen rather than Clyde shipbuilding, science parks rather than
steel plants, building societies rather than bricks and mortar, and mining museums
r than working pits (Rose 1991).

The third component of the postmodern movement is found in the physical sciences.
Postmodern science is predicated on a repudiation of the mechanistic, deterministic,
particularistic and static worldview of `modem' science

in favour of a new paradigm
based on principles of uncertainty, indeterminacy, holism and change. For Galileo,
Newton and the other giants of western science, the universe was akin to a vast
mechanism governed by inviolate laws which functioned in a stabl
e, orderly and
predictable manner. The nature of these laws, what is more, could be deciphered
through scientific observation, rigorous experimentation, precise mathematics and the
disinterested application of the powers of human reason. Since attaining it
s apogee in
the late nineteenth century, however, this mechanistic model of science has been
slowly but inexorably undermined. Apart from the challenges presented by the advent
of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, chaos theory end `fuzzy logic' (Griffin 1
Best 1991; Kosko 1993), developments in the history and philosophy of science
demonstrate that the behaviour of scientists is not rigorous, disinterested and unbiased
but the expression of social, political and professional interests, which insinuate
themselves into and taint scientific practice at every level (Woolgar 1988; Pickering
1992; Collins & Pinch 1993).

The fourth, final and, for many people, the most convoluted and impenetrable aspect
of the postmodern moment derives from the work of severa
l prominent `post
structuralist' thinkers, principally Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan,
Michel Foucault and Jean
Francois Lyotard. Although the contributions of these post
structuralists are many and varied, ranging across fields as diverse
as linguistics,
literary theory, philosophy, history and psychoanalysis, they all exhibit a concern with
textuality, narrative, discourse and language. Language, according to this perspective,
does not reflect reality but actively constitutes it. The world
, in other words, is not
composed of meaningful entities to which language attaches names in a neutral and
mimetic fashion. Language, rather, is involved in the construction of reality, the
understandings that are derived from it, the sense that is made of

it (for example,
when an English speaker looks at an Arctic landscape, he or she sees `snow', whereas
an Eskimo,.with over fifty words for snow, sees something quite different when
looking at the exact same landscape(*)). Language, moreover, is by no mean
translucent, its meanings are not unequivocal and, indeed, there may be no discernible
relationship to any extra
linguistic or textual referents at all. `Il n'y a pas de hors
[there is nothing outside the text] (see Sturrock 1979, 1993).


While it is possible to identify four broad strands within the postmodern project
cultural, socio
economic, scientific and linguistic

it is necessary to stress that these
strands are not entirely separate nor are they directly related to one another. Ju
st as the
project of modernity involved several deeply interwoven components, sometimes
working together, sometimes cancelling out, so too the postmodern movement is a
complex, inchoate phenomenon. Most of its key thinkers profoundly disagree; few, if

are models of consistency in terms of the philosophical positions they adopt; and,
almost without exception they have spurned the label `postmodernist'. Indeed, it
sometimes appears that the only thing they share is their utter and unremitting
aversion to

their `postmodern' designation.

Despite these differences, it can be contended that the postmodern perspective is
characterised by three shared assumptions

the death of the subject, the repudiation
of meaning and the denial of progress

which togeth
er comprise a fundamental
`crisis of representation'. For most mainstream marketing researchers, the concept of
the death of the subject can seem somewhat strange, at least initially. This confusion
is largely attributable to the fact that the `subject' of

postmodern discourse means
something quite different from the `subject' as it is conventionally understood in
marketing (i.e. the `subjects' that participate in marketing experiments or the field of
study itself) In postmodern analyses, it refers to the a
ssumption that we


are autonomous, coherent, free
thinking, self
determining human beings
(i.e. subjects), who are directly responsible for their thoughts, actions and intentions
and whose perceptions, motives and beliefs are the wellsp
ring of consciousness, our
sense of ourselves. Postmodernists, Michel Foucault (1972, 1974) in particular, reject
this idea of rational, free, intentional human beings, arguing that the subject is a
construct or effect of desire, power, the unconscious and
, especially, language.
Language precedes and exceeds us; it is something we are initiated into; our every
utterance is governed and shaped by language; and, we are not free to deploy it
whenever we write or speak. Human subjects, in short, are not so much

the producers
of language as the products of it.

If postmodernists eschew the Cartesian notion of human subjects as free intellectual
agents in favour of subjects as epiphenomena of language, at least language is
transparent with clear
cut and universall
y agreed meanings. Unfortunately this is not
so. According to the majority of post
structuralist thinkers, most notably Jacques
Derrida and Roland Barthes, linguistic meaning is extremely difficult to tie down.
Contra Saussure, who argued that linguistic s
igns are like two sides of a coin,
comprising a word (signifier) and the concept (signified) to which it refers, Derrida
(1991, 1992) contends that the signifier and signified are more akin to two constantly
moving layers which are fused together temporari
ly in the act of reading or listening.
The linguistic sign is inherently unstable and its meaning is thus suspended,
postponed, fragmented, fleeting, contingent, context
dependent and extremely diffuse.
In a similar vein, Barthes (1977, 1990) maintains tha
t the meaning of a literary text
does not derive from its author or creator but from its readers, those who bring their
own idiosyncratic interpretations to bear upon the material and thereby generate a
multiplicity of different, possibly incompatible, mea
nings. Readers, in fact, are free to
enter a text at will, to undermine or reject the author's intentions, to `take pleasure in
the text' end spawn as many irreconcilable meanings as they wish.

Just as the modernist search for `right', `better', `correct'
, `privileged' or `superior'
textual meanings has fallen into disfavour, so too the modern, western worldview

the idea of inexorable, if occasionally fitful, human progress

has been called into
question (Toulmin 1990). While it is undeniable that fou
r hundred years of modernity
have provided unimaginable material well
being, incalculable knowledge
accumulation, astonishing aesthetic accomplishment and incredible technological
innovation, postmodernists argue that the material benefits of modernity and

promise of perpetual plenitude have been achieved at a very heavy social,
environmental and political price. The mass of society may be better off than before
but, as the homeless and destitute daily remind us, the division of wealth is as
unequal, ar
guably more unequal than ever. The rise of the west has been at the
expense of the subjugation, exploitation, usurpation and coca
colonisation of `tine
rest', and left a legacy of political instability, famine, desertification, ethnic conflict,
racial stri
fe, economic dependency, resource depletion and environmental
despoliation. Postmodernists acknowledge that while `progress' may have been made
by certain groups of people (white, male, heterosexual, university professors in the
western world, for instance
), the same is not necessarily true for others

female, homosexual, unemployed, non
westerners, the marginal, the underprivileged,
the different, the `deviant'. For postmodernists, Foucault (1990) and Lyotard (1984) in
particular, it is time to

abandon the western `metanarrative' of progress (and all its
discredited `scientific' paraphernalia) and listen instead to the voices of the hitherto
excluded, the silenced, the `other'.

The upshot of postmodern scepticism towards human subjectivity, uni
vocal meanings
and the ascent of man is a profound crisis of representation which goes to the very
heart of our conventional understanding of the human and physical world. The
modern endeavour to develop rational science, objective knowledge, universal law
and absolute truths has been challenged, undermined and replaced with, well, a refusal
to act as replacement. Postmodernists maintain that knowledge is bounded, that our
capacity to develop meaningful generalisations is limited and rather than seeking th
chimera of universal truth we should eschew foundationalist or totalising systems of
thought, exercise the art of judgement in the absence of rules, emphasise the
importance of pragmatism, provisionality and local forms of knowledge, and resist the
ation to seek consensus, since this only suppresses heterogeneity.
Postmodernists, in effect, offer ambiguity where modernists offered certainty, they
embrace complexity where their predecessors embraced simplification, they see
disorder where their forebe
ars saw order, and they replace the traditional modernist
emphasis on analysis, planning and control with intuition, spontaneity and freedom,
with paradox, uncertainty and creativity, with a rationale that rejects rationality.
Above all else, then, the pos
tmodern movement is a way of looking at the world. It is
a way of looking askance at the world (Brown 1995).

`Postmodern' marketing research: the interpretive interpretation

Although it is sometimes regarded as the latest intellectual affectation from Pa
ris, the
term `postmodern' has a surprisingly long history in the marketing literature. It was
first used by the codifier of the marketing concept, Peter Drucker, in a 1957 volume
entitled Landmarks of tomorrow. Another early exponent was Weldon J. Taylor
(1965) who, in a contribution to the perennial `art or science?' debate, described the
nature of marketing science in a postmodern world. Contemporary versions of
postmodern marketing, however, date from the middle to late 1980s when a group of
radical con
sumer researchers, inspired by Anderson (1983) and Peter & Olson's
(1983) advocation of philosophical relativism, sought to challenge the prevailing
positivistic orthodoxy. Disillusioned by the traditionalists' mechanistic, hypothetico
deductive search for

like generalisations, these self
styled `postmodern' consumer
researchers endeavoured to comprehend, through a variety of methodological
approaches, the deeply felt beliefs, emotions and meanings that inhere in the rituals,
myths and symbols of consum
ption behaviour.

As noted earlier, this latter
day profusion of epistemological alternatives (which has
spread far beyond the sub
field of consumer behaviour) is such that many
commentators have taken to using the term `postmodern', with all its polysemic

ecumenical overtones, to describe the development. For example, in his introduction
to the June 1989 issue of Journal of Consumer Research, which contains the
apotheosis of interpretive consumer research, Belk, Wallendorf & Sherry's exposition
of the
Consumer Odyssey project, the editor of the journal, Richard J. Lutz, describes
their work as `post
modern'. The recent, exemplary monographs by Hirschman &
Holbrook (1992) and Sherry (1991) place humanism, critical theory, hermeneutics,
semiotics, phenome
nology, existentialism, historical analysis and several other
perspectives under the capacious `postmodern' umbrella. Even critics of the
interpretive turn, most notably Shelby Hunt (1994), have taken to using `postmodern'
in a catch
all sense. Closer exam
ination, however, reveals that most of these positions
do not accord with the postmodern project as it is conventionally represented.


According to its principal adherent in marketing and consumer research, the
humanistic perspective involves an
`orienting strategy' (a basic set of beliefs which
cannot be validated as true or false and is rarely, if ever, replaced) made up of the
following assumptions: that human beings construct multiple realities; that the
researcher and the phenomenon under stu
dy are mutually interactive; that research
inquiry is directed towards the development of idiographic knowledge; that causes
and effects cannot be separated; that research is inherently value
laden; and, that the
outcome of research

i.e. knowledge


socially constructed, not discovered.
Clearly, this is a world away from the controlled experiments and mathematical
models of the traditional marketing metaphysic, which holds that there is a single
tangible reality, the researcher and the researched are

independent, generalisable truth
statements are identifiable, causes and effects can be distinguished, and, objective,
free knowledge can be discovered (Hirschman 1986). Be that as it may,
Hirschman's humanism is not, and cannot be construed as, pos
tmodernism, because it
presupposes an autonomous human subject, the free
thinking, self
individual that post
structuralists, such as Derrida and Foucault, categorically
repudiated and considered to be essentially an epiphenomenon of language.


The critical theory of the Frankfurt School is also often cited as an example of
postmodernism in marketing and consumer research (Rogers 1987; Firat 1989;
Hetrick 1989; Iyer 1991). Perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective is found

a paper by Murray & Ozanne (1991), who presented a brief history of the Institute for
Social Research and outlined critical theory's principal principles. These include the
belief that research should comprise a critique of society; that this criticism

should be
interdisciplinary; that theory and practice are inseparable; that orthodox Marxism
should be rejected and the proletariat abandoned as an agent of change; that facts and
values are interdependent; and, that genuine knowledge is a potential instr
ument of
emancipation. Whereas, in other words, the positivistically inclined hold that reality is
objective, singular and divisible, and humanists consider it to be socially constructed,
multiple and holistic, critical theorists see reality in its dynamic
, historical totality, as
a `force field' between subject and object.

Although marketing has much to learn from critical theory, it is quite incorrect to
conclude that the postmodern movement and critical theory are one and the same. On
the contrary, the
foremost contemporary figure in the Frankfurt School tradition,
Jurgen Habermas, is far and away postmodernism's most formidable critic. Habermas
(1985, 1987, 1992), in complete contrast to Lyotard, firmly believes in the continuing
importance of the moder
n project, though he acknowledges that its record is far from
perfect. He arguos, nevertheless, that to abandon the emancipatory aspirations of
modernity, to give it up as a lost cause, or to deny the genuine progress that has been
made since the pre
n period, is merely to acquiesce to anti
modernists like
Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, which can only result in disillusion, entropy and
conservatism. Yet, despite Habermas's doughty attempts to hold back the tides of

and the irrati
onalists' tart rejoinders (see Rorty 1985; Foucault 1991)

it is generally accepted that the credibility of critical theory has been severely dented
by the advent of the postmodern project and attempts to rethink the movement are
underway (e.g. Bannet 19
93). As Ray (1993, pp ix) acknowledges, `the notion of
historically grounded reason, which offers both the legitimisation for Critical Theory
and the impetus behind the resistance of oppression, has become unfashionable in an
intellectual milieu informed b
y relativism and postmodernism.'


Closely aligned with critical theory, in so far as Habermasian insights are dependent
on a modification of the procedure, is the so
called `Linguistic turn' in consumer and
marketing research (O
'Shaughnessy & Holbrook 1988). Frequently portrayed as an
integral part of the postmodern marketing project, this comprises hermeneutics,
semiotics and several analogous positions (see Mick 1986), all of which are premised
on what Hirschman & Holbrook (199
2) term, a `linguistic construction of reality'.
Originally a method for recovering the meaning of ancient texts, and regarded by
Dilthley as the key to the human sciences' ultimate aim of `understanding',
hermeneutics was extended by Gadamer and Ricocur t
o the interpretation of the entire
gamut of human activities (Silverman 1991). In effect, every human action or artifact
can be `read' as if it is a `text' and an understanding of its meaning derived by recourse
to the appropriate methodology, namely the `
hermeneutic circle'. For Gadamer, this is
a self
correcting cycle of interpretive interplay between the whole of the text and its
parts, whereby understanding derives from the fusion of the researcher's
preconceptions and the context dependent meanings of
the text under consideration
(Outhwaite 1985).

This interpretation of meanings is equally central to semiotics, the study or science of
signs. Derived, on the one hand, from Saussure's subdivision of the linguistic sign into
`signifier' end `signified' en
d indebted, on the other hand, to US philosopher C.S.
Pierce's triadic distinction between `sign', `interpretant' and `designatum', semiotics
(or semiology, for those in the European tradition) involves the analysis of systems of
signification, the means b
y which human beings communicate or attempt to
communicate through gestures, music, language itself and, of course, food, clothing,
possessions, advertisements etc. (Curler 1981). Although the development of
semiotics owes much to the methodical, `neo
tivistic' endeavours of Mills
(Holbrook & Hirschman 1993), the semiological artiste par excellence was the early
Roland Barthes (1973). In a series of dazzling analyses of French popular culture

wrestling, soap powder, steak and chips, the Citroen DS 19


he stripped away the
surface level of denotative meaning (e.g. a photograph in Paris
Match of a black
soldier saluting the French flag) to expose a second level

the `what

of connotation and proceeded to examine its underlying

implications (i.e. French imperialism).

The marketing devotees of hermeneutics/semiotics/semiology occasionally complain
of their maltreatment at the hands of unsympathetic reviewers (Holbrook &
Hirschman 1993), but it is fair to say that suc
h perspectives are now widely regarded
as a legitimate, if not entirely mainstream, approach to consumer and marketing
research (e.g. Holbrook & Grayson 1986; McQuarrie & Mick 1992; Sherry &
Camargo 1987; Solomon 1983; Deighton 1992; Thompson et al 1994).
procedures, of course, are far from perfect (see Firat 1989; O'Shaughnessy 1992;
Arnold & Fischer 1994), though, for the purposes of the present discussion, these
shortcomings are inconsequential compared with the simple fact that semiotics and
utics should not be confused with the postmodern. Roland Barthes, for
example, eventually eschewed the science of semiology, abandoned his search for
deep, underlying structures of meaning and in his late, post
structuralist phase,
acknowledged the multipl
icity of meanings in a text, the sheer profusion of potential
interpretations (see Rylance 1994). Foucault & Derrida, furthermore, regarded
hermeneutics as old
fashioned, logocentric and predicated on the western metaphysic
of progress (metaphysical in so
far as it treats the text in a holistic fashion and
progressive in its assumption that a closer and closer approximation to true meaning is
possible). Nor, it must be emphasised, is this simply a matter of allowing multiple
meanings in any given text

coeur recognised this possibility, after all. Derrida
demonstrates that meaning is indeterminate, that texts are saturated with irresolvable
ambiguities, with innumerable, conflicting meanings that operate simultaneously and
are disseminated across the iri
descent surface of the text.


Besides the `linguistic construction of reality' championed by hermeneuticists and
semioticians, a number of `postmodern' marketing exponents of `individual
construction of reality', in the sh
ape of existentialism and phenomenology, are also
evident (Hirschman & Holbrook 1992). Existentialism, as formulated by Kierkegaard
in the nineteenth century, elaborated by Heidegger in the 1930s and popularised by
Paul Sartre in the early post
war pe
riod, is a philosophical movement which
holds that humans are self
creating beings, creatures who are not initially endowed
with characters and goals, but who can choose them and what they want to be by an
act of pure decision. Whereas everything else in e
xistence merely exists, humans are


aware of their existence and consequently have the potential to
understand and (possibly) control it. Knowledge resides in the gestalt, the totality of
human existence, and the key to knowledge is an on
ng process of self
understanding, which is continually evolving, inherently unstable and never
completed (Warnock 1970; Silverman 1988).

If, to paraphrase Jean
Paul Sartre, existence precedes understanding, phenomenology
provides a means of comprehending
the peculiarities of the human condition.
According to its founding father, Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is nothing less
than the `science of the subjective'. It assumes that even though we cannot be certain
about the independent existence of objects in t
he external world, we can be certain
about how they appear to us in consciousness. Objects, therefore, are not regarded as
things in themselves but as things posited, or intended, by consciousness and hence
the act of thinking and the object of the thought

are interdependent. For
phenomenologists, the external world is reduced to the contents of consciousness
alone and it is the exploration of individual human consciousness, either through
introspection or third person accounts of others' experiences, that
enables genuine,
meaningful knowledge to be attained (Kearney 1986; Macann 1993).

Irrespective of its intellectual heritage, the existential/phenomenological perspective
has quite a few contemporary adherents in the marketing research community (see for
.g. Holbrook 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988; Mick & Buhl 1992; Mick & DeMoss 1990).
Like the hermeneutic/semiotic standpoint, however, it is not short of shortcomings
(O'Shaughnessy 1992; Wallendorf & Brooks 1993). By far the most important of
these is that it is
not postmodern. More than almost any other philosophical position,
existentialism/ phenomenology is predicated on the `transcendental ego', on free
thinking, autonomous human subjects. In Eagleton's (1983) words, it `restored the
transcendental subject to
its rightful throne. The subject was to be seen as the source
and origin of all meaning...The world is what I posit or `intend': it is to be grasped in
relation to me, as a correlate of my consciousness'. In fact, it was the outmoded
existentialism of Sart
re and Camus that French structuralist and post
thinkers, with their emphasis on the constitutive effects of language and their attempts
to de
centre the human subject, were reacting to and stood four
square against
(Hawkes 1977; Sturrock 197
9). To conclude, therefore, that
existentialism/phenomenology is a postmodern position, as Thompson, Locander &
Pollio (1989, 1990) have done, is to stretch the concept some way beyond its elastic
limit, ductile though it undoubtedly is.


Popular as existentialism/phenomenology is proving, perhaps the single largest sub
field of `postmodern' marketing research is historical analysis (see for example
Hollander & Rassuli 1993). In fact, Sherry (1991) goes so far as to suggest that
cal perspectives, with their inherently interpretive world view, provide the key
to comprehending postmodern developments in contemporary consumer research.
Nevett (1991) maintains that as there are many similarities between the problems that
face practici
ng marketing managers and those typically encountered in the study of
history, an historical orientation provides a useful antidote to the sterility of the
positivistic standpoint which continues to pervade academic marketing. And,
according to Lavin & Arc
hdeacon (1989), marketing's latter
day intellectual shift in
the direction of interpretivism/relativism has been facilitated by

and has facilitated
in turn

the growth of an historical consciousness.

Although historical analysis is inherently interpr
etive, it is important to emphasise that
there are numerous schools of historical thought

positivist, Marxist, hermeneutic,
psychoanalytic, structuralist, idealist, narrative and many more (Jones 1991). While
the majority of these contrast sharply with
mainstream marketing scholarship, to
suggest that historical approaches per se count as `postmodern marketing' is a gross
exaggeration. Postmodernism, if anything, endorses the `end of history' thesis,
cultivates a posthistoire attitude or, like Foucault,
champions an historical world view
consisting of radical discontinuities and iconoclastic revisionism (Rosenau 1992;
Niethammer 1992; Goldstein 1994). There is, admittedly, a postmodern movement
within historical scholarship

several papers on the implic
ations of postmodernism
for history have been published and the `new historicism' paradigm of contemporary
literary theory is broadly postmodernist in ethos (e.g. Ankersmit 1989; Zagorin 1990;
Veeser 1989)

but none of this material has materialised in t
he marketing and
consumer research literature. In fact, the one and only reference(to Hayden White's
(1989) assessment of the New Historicism movement) specifically dismisses this
particular line of thought (Smith & Lux 1993).

No representation without ta

The foregoing discussion of `postmodern' marketing research methods should not be
construed as an attempt to denigrate or undermine the marketing insights that have
been attained through the adoption of humanism, critical theory, semiology,
nology, historical analysis or whatever. On the contrary, marketing is a much
richer discipline thanks to the endeavours of the interpretivists. The Consumer
Odyssey, to name but one of their achievements, will undoubtedly be remembered as
a seminal moment

of post
war marketing research. Nor, it must be stressed, does the
above mean to imply that interpretive marketing researchers are unaware or somehow
ignorant of the extant postmodern literature. Nothing could be further from the `truth'.
As a glance at t
he recent publications of (say) Belk, Hirschman, Holbrook, Sherry,
Stern or Thompson amply testify, the holy trinity of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard are
routinely referred to, Baudrillard's `black hole' of hyper
reality has absorbed
innumerable marketing
researchers, and few would deny that Roland Barthes is
presently enjoying a whole new lease of life in the marketing literature, the (literal)
death of the author notwithstanding.

Nor, for that matter, does the foregoing overview suggest that there are no meaningful
parallels between interpretive and postmodern marketing research; quite the reverse.
The interpretivists espousal of multiple perspectives

their desire, in effect, to

let a
thousand methodological flowers bloom

is very much in keeping with the
prevailing postmodern ethos of `anything goes' (though we must not confuse the
consequences of a postmodern outlook with its premises). What is more, if we
imagine a conceptua
l continuum with (say) logical empiricism at one end and
Baudrillard's apocalyptic postmodern vision at the other, then it is undeniable that the
bulk of interpretive research lies towards the latter end of the spectrum. True, most of
the positions champio
ned by interpretive marketing researchers have been specifically
rejected by the leading lights of the postmodern moment

as many commentators on
postmodern marketing have been at pains to point out (eg Firat et al 1994; Venkatesh
et al 1993)

but comp
ared with the worldview propagated by positivists, empiricists
and their fellow travellers, interpretive and postmodern marketing research are cheek
by philosophical jowl.

Indeed, the ultimate irony is that any postmodernistically informed attempt to
grate the interpretivists, the very act of expressing a purist, `holier than thou'
evaluation of this self
styled body of `postmodern' marketing research, founders on
the very rock of postmodernism(*) with its emphasis on the inherent and irreducible
idability of meaning. If some marketing scholars choose to employ the term
`postmodern' for perspectives

such as McCracken's (1988, 1990) anthropological

which would be considered essentially `modern' in the original discipline
(cf Tyler 198
7; Sangren 1988), or which bear little or no relation to the postmodern
condition as it is conventionally portrayed, then so be it. It is a perfectly postmodern
thing to do, and for a postmodernist to deny them this freedom, or even attempt to tie
down the

meaning of postmodernism, is to repudiate the very position he or she
purportedly espouses. Silence, as Baudrillard rightly reminds us, is the only
appropriate postmodern reaction.


Despite these qualifications and circumlocut
ions, it is important to emphasise, if only
for expositional purposes, that there are a number of differences between the
interpretive and postmodern marketing research paradigms. One possible way of
representing these differences is by means of a basic, o
simplified and admittedly
modernist four
cell matrix. Illustrated in figure 1, this distinguishes between
epistemology (the grounds of knowledge) and ontology (the nature of the world) and
arbitrarily subdivides these continua along objective and subje
ctive dimensions (see
Hudson & Murray 1986; Thompson 1990). The top left hand cell assumes that
individuals have direct, unmeditated access to the real world and that, notwithstanding
the problems associated with sampling, questionnaire design and suchlike
, it is
possible to obtain hard, secure, objective knowledge about this single external reality.
The vast bulk of everyday marketing research, from attempts to measure advertising
recall rates, through taste tests on new product prototypes, to empirical an
alyses of the
shopping behaviour of green consumers, would fall into this category. The top right
hand cell also assumes direct, unmeditated access to external reality but assumes that
people's knowledge of this world is highly individual, subjective, unqu
difficult to access and best illuminated through the use of `traditional' qualitative
research procedures like depth interviews and group discussions. Such studies not
only provide hypotheses for subsequent empirical tests, but for some marketi
researchers, they also form the basis of meaningful generalisations and model
development in their own right (see Carson 1989; Gordon 1994). The bottom left
hand cell presupposes that individuals do not have direct access to the real world

culture, theory and other distortions are interposed

but that their
knowledge of this perceived world (or worlds) is meaningful in its `non terms and can
be understood through careful use of appropriate naturalistic or ethnographic research
though generalisations and universally valid findings are unattainable.
Much of marketing's interpretive research tradition, from the celebrated Consumer
Odyssey and Hirschman's (1990, 1991, 1992) personal revelations, to Gould's (1991)
celebration of sex,

drugs and rock `n' roll, is incorporated within this category. The
final, bottom right
hand cell represents the postmodern position which not only rejects
the notion that individuals have unmeditated access to external reality, but it also
questions the v
ery existence of the free
thinking `subject'. It maintains that the
knowledge people imagine they possess is unreliable, dispersed, fragmented, pre
existing and an epiphenomenon of language. In other words, it demotes the human
subject from a constitutive
to a constituted status and, more to the point, presents very
serious practical problems for putative postmodern marketing researchers.


Indeed, according to Baudrillard and like
minded commentators on the apocalyptic
of the postmodern movement, empirical research has been rendered impossible
due to the implosion of the social into the media. By this he means that the
extraordinarily vivid images, which are created, amplified, circulated and analysed by
the increasingly

headed media, no longer represent the `real'some accessible
external reality

but merely allude to each other in a complex self
arabesque. For Baudrillard, there have been four successive stages in the relationship
between images and r
eality. First, they are a reflection of basic reality; secondly, they
mask and pervert basic reality; thirdly, they mask the absence of a basic reality; and,
fourthly, they bear no relation to any reality whatsoever. The upshot of this
`procession of simul
acra' is a postmodern hall of mirrors where signs, images and
representations are reflected, refracted and represented in perpetuity. In these
disorientating circumstances, where the rug of representation has effectively been
pulled from under our feet, th
e very notion of undertaking empirical research is
subverted and problematised

to put it mildly.

This argument, admittedly, is somewhat abstract and can be readily dismissed as
grand continental armchair theorising of the worst kind. But a glance at th
e current
marketing scene suggests that Baudrillard's dystopian vision is closer to science fact
than science fiction. Numerous commentators, for example, contend that the
contemporary marketing world is dominated by advertisements about advertisements,
oducts that parody other products, pseudo
sales promotions, customer services and
price wars, and, as pre
electoral `poll of polls' amply testify, marketing research about
marketing research (Adair 1992; Moore 1993). While such assertions are grossly
erated, they remind us that marketing and marketing research are indeed self
referential and deeply implicated in the phenomena they seek to portray. We are all
familiar with the `problem' of respondents "tactical" responses to political opinion
polls (the

survey, in other words, is no longer measuring voters' intentions but their
response to being surveyed) and agonise over the extent to which interviewees present
an idealised version of their behaviours to interviewers (Crewe 1993). We are equally
aware o
f managers who have (to take but one example) deleted products because of
their belief in the product life cycle, a theory which is far from proven, and have come
to realise that the latter
day fragmentation of markets is partly attributable to the rise

marketing with the enormous emphasis that it places on segmentation, targeting
and positioning (Brown 1995). Even the popular perception of `science', the ideal to
which marketing scholarship aspires but is unlikely ever to achieve, is partly a
creation thanks to generations of washing powder, cosmetics, shampoo and
patent medicine commercials (white coats, spotless labs, all
pervasive air of rigour
and objectivity). Marketing research, in short, does not reflect an external marketing
reality in
a neutral and transparent fashion. It does not stand outside the system it
seeks to describe. Marketing research, rather, constitutes, conditions, affects, alters,
influences, implicates, distorts and re
directs the very thing it purports to represent

nd vice versa (Mort 1989).


There is more to postmodern marketing research, however, than the difficulties of
disentangling fact and artifact, cause and effect, theory and practice, reflection and
reflexivity, observer and ob
served and so on. If, as noted earlier, the postmodern
condition comprises a `crisis of representation', then the implications for conventional
marketing research are extremely serious

because marketing research is inherently
representational. Whether i
t be representative samples, the representation of
respondents' actions, attitudes and intentions in survey research exercises, which
themselves represent researchers' representations of the topics under investigation, or
indeed our very attempts to develo
p theoretical/statistical/diagrammatic
representations of marketing phenomena, representation represents the raison detre of
marketing research. After all, the output of most marketing research exercises actually
comprises a representation (verbal delivery
), of a representation (report, academic
paper), of a representation (data analysis) of a representation (survey instrument), of a
representation (sample), of a representation (respondents' response), of a
representation (the researcher's assumption, or th
e client's belief, that there is an issue
worth researching), of a representation (the textual context

secondary data, extant
publications etc

from which this assumption derives). Even papers on the
postmodern `crisis of representation' represent rep
resentations of an anti
representative position!

More specifically, the concept of `death' of the human subject

as an autonomous,
thinking, self
knowing individual

transforms the bulk of workaday marketing
research into the epistemological equi
valent of re
arranging the deck
chairs on the
Titanic. Mining data sets with the aid of statistical techniques, content analyses,
hermeneutic circles or whatever is rendered redundant, not simply by the fact that
such procedures create rather than uncover
meaning, but also by the multiplicity, the
sheer profusion, of potential meanings that may be inscribed therein. In fact, the very
notion that one meaning, interpretation or representation may be better than the others
is, in itself, a manifestation of the

discredited modern metaphysic of inexorable
progress, as is the assumption that superior concepts, theories, models, methodologies
and, not least, the nirvana of marketing orientation, are just around the corner, almost
within our grasp, achievable with o
ne final supreme effort. For most postmodernists,
such endeavours are doomed to inevitable failure, a complete waste of time and effort.

Faced with this epistemological impasse, most `mainstream' marketing researchers
might reasonably respond with the dem
and that postmodernists provide some methods
and procedures of their own. Challenged, in effect, to put up or shut up, the `standard'
postmodern response is that any attempt to formulate meaningful alternatives should
be resisted as yet another instantiati
on of the west's progressive ideology. This point
blank refusal to participate in the modernist game of representation may seem like an
utterly hopeless position

a dead
end that is best avoided

but it is important to
emphasise that the postmodern pro
ject does not pretend to offer a way forward. It
poses questions rather than provides answers. Its answer is that there is no answer.
Postmodern philosophy, in Rorty's (1980) apt phraseology, is edifying rather than

Despite their reluctance to

play the modernist game

in theory at least

postmodernists do offer a number of anti
method methods in practice. Perhaps the
most important of these are deconstruction and cognitive mapping. Although it has
entered popular parlance as a chic synonym
for `criticism', `subversion', or `analysis',
deconstruction is a procedure for interrogating texts, which, by means of careful and
detailed reading, seeks to expose their inconsistencies, contradictions, unrecognised
assumptions and implicit conceptual hi
erarchies. To show, as Norris (1991, pp 35)
aptly puts it, that a text `cannot mean what it says...or say what it means'. The
objective of the deconstructive exercise, however, is not to resolve textual
shortcomings or elucidate inherent ambiguities, as th
is merely substitutes one
subjective reading for another. The purpose rather is to demonstrate that there are no
hidden truths within a text, that there is no fixed, correct or privileged interpretation
and, not least, that the desire for a `centre', or fo
cal point of transcendent meaning, is
itself meaningless. Initially applied to the literary and philosophical canon,
deconstruction has since been adapted to all manner of social and cultural phenomena.
These range from food and fashions to art and archite
cture, though as virtually
anything can be considered a `text' (advertisements, price wars, marketing theories,
the research process etc), the potential applications to marketing phenomena are
almost limitless.

Cognitive mapping, as originally developed b
y Lynch (1960) and subsequently
advocated by Jameson (1991), substitutes the modern emphasis on time (historical
progress) with a postmodern emphasis on space. The technique, which requires
respondents to draw sketch maps of geographical locations, is much

less anarchistic
than Derrida's deconstruction. Indeed, it is predicated on the notion of representation

maps are representations too

but Jameson argues that in the confusing, chaotic and
disorientating postmodern world, some form of representation
is still required.
Cognitive maps may be representative but they are not mimetic. In other words, they
do not aspire to be accurate, precise or cadastral depictions of an unchanging external
reality. On the contrary, they are idiosyncratic, impressionistic
, distorted, fragmented
and mutable, just like the postmodern world they seek to portray. Cognitive mapping,
however, is not confined to spatial relationships

the procedure can be applied to
social, political, cultural and economic phenomena nor does it

necessarily involve a
map drawing exercise. According to Jameson, films, plays, poems, paintings and
books, such as Herr's Dispatches (an especially vivid evocation of the Vietnam War
`experience') can also comprise a form of cognitive mapping.


Many marketing researchers may be prepared to concede that the works of poets,
novelists and film
makers provide privileged insights into the nature of contemporary
consumer culture (or comprise a useful source of testable hypotheses, if no
thing else).
Some might be willing to entertain the addition of cognitive mapping and (even)
deconstruction to marketing's extensive methodological array. But few, one suspects,
are ready to dynamite the tower block of modern marketing scholarship

a bui
that has been painstakingly constructed over generations of research endeavour

order to play peek
boo among the postmodern ruins. The prospect of pressing the
plunger is undeniably exhilarating, as is the vision of an ostensibly indestructibl
edifice sliding majestically to its doom, but the fact of the matter is that it is our abode
that is under threat and the postmodern project offers little by way of shelter to
dispossessed marketing researchers.

Postmodernism, in sum, is not a fashionab
le pied
terre to add to marketing's already
bulging property portfolio, its many methodological mansions. On the contrary, it
dismisses modern marketing as the work of jerry
builders; it interprets the manifold
cracks in marketing's facade as evidence of

subsidence rather than settling; and, it
recommends demolition instead of conversion or additional bijou extensions.
Postmodern marketing research is the equivalent of a detailed structural survey, an
examination of the very foundations of the marketing d
iscipline, a repudiation of the
assumptions of representation upon which the fabric (or should that be fabrication?)
of conventional quantitative and qualitative marketing research rests.

Now, it is arguable that such challenges to modern marketing ideolo
gy are long
overdue. Numerous benefits flow from introspective self
examination, not least the
realisation that marketing representation does not come without taxation. But it is
quite incorrect to assume, as many marketers appear to maintain, that postmod
ern is
just another word, albeit a chic and fashionable word, for the latter
day `interpretive
turn' in marketing and consumer research (Hill 1993; Hirschman 1993). The
postmodern project is as much a threat to the interpretive research tradition as it is
the positivistic orthodoxy. It does not help us understand the (marketing) world, it
forces us to try to understand ourselves. Above all, postmodernism suggests that the
fundamental problem we face is not marketing myopia, but the myopia of marketing.


Few words in contemporary discourse have been so widely used and abused as
`postmodern'. As a result of its appropriation by a group of avant garde academics,
many marketing researchers appear to be under the impression that `postmodern' is an
umbrella term for the host of unorthodox methodologies and perspectives that have
materialised in recent years. Although the postmodern project has much in common
with the latter
day `interpretive turn', it is different in several important respects. This
paper has attempted to highlight these differences, arguing that postmodernism is
essentially a profound `crisis of representation' which challenges long
assumptions concerning human subjectivity, determinate meaning and perpetual
progress. Indeed
, as representation is the raison d'etre of marketing research, the
postmodern turn renders traditional quantitative and qualitative market research
procedures problematical at best and impossible at worst. While numerous benefits
may flow from this method
ological implosion

periodic assessments of marketing's
most deep
rooted assumptions are both healthy and prudent

it is important to
appreciate that postmodernism is not just another weapon in our specialism's
intellectual arsenal. The postmodern market
ing condition necessitates the surrender of
many extant methodological weapons, though it remains to be seen whether the front
line foot
soldiers of research are prepared to hand over their arms.

(*) I fully appreciate that the `rock' metaphor is totally
inappropriate descriptor for
postmodernism. It is perhaps best described as a spider's web, a vortex, a hall of
mirrors, a cascade of soap
bubbles or an implosive Black Hole. But the very
incongruity of the metaphor highlights the all
important part played

by figurative
thinking in the process of theory articulation, in our very understanding of the world
(see Brown 1995). As Rorty ( 1980) makes clear

metaphorically of course

important thing is not whether an analogy is `right' or `wrong', but our

reaction to it,
our decision whether


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