denconsumerres Notes on: Denzin, N (2001). The Seventh Moment: Qualitative Enquiry and the Practices of a More Radical Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research, 28:324-- 30. DOI: 10.1086/322907.

Dave Harris

Qualitative enquiry is a reformist movement that began in the early 1970s, and there are different paradigms involving 'complex epistemological and ethical criticisms of traditional social science research' (324) later developments included the narrative turn, the understanding that writing is 'not an innocent practice' (it is gendered for example), that there are new ways of doing ethnography including involving drama fiction performance test tests and poetry. Social science journals publish fiction, civic journalists are experimenting with critical ethnography. Its appeal it is increasing and this may be the seventh moment, 'a period of forment and explosion' and breaks with the past, a focus on previously silenced voices, performance texts, a concern with moral discourse and with critical conversations about democracy and social stratification. [these seven moments are defined in note 1. They 'simultaneously operate in the present'. They are the 'traditional (1900 – 50), the modernist (1950 – 70), blurred genres (1970 – 86), the crisis of representation (1986 – 90), post-modern or experimental (1990 – 95), post experimental (1995 – 2000) and the future)'

We need to change the world in positive ways by making these practices more widespread, for example into consumer research. For cultural studies, consumption means a site where 'power, ideology, gender, and social class circulate and shape one another (325). Consumers can be empowered or disenfranchised, or stereotyped. They are 'trapped within a hegemonic marketplace' and anyone who challenges hegemonic practices are only 'located in an ever expanding post-modern market tailored to fit their individual needs. There is a wider '"circuit of culture"' [quoting du Gay!] — meanings are defined by mass media [and engineers!] and there is a circuit connecting several distinct and contingent processes which mutually influence each other. Human experiences not just a matter of interaction or social acts — we 'live in a second-hand world', and, as Mills argued, they stand between human consciousness and material production. This second-hand world is naturalised and made invisible by the mass media, as Barthes argues, and this is done in the commercial interests of the media. They create audiences who become consumers of the advertised products; who engaging consumption practices 'that conform to the norms of possessive individualism'; support the strategic policies of the state via public opinion; are persuaded not to see themselves as commodities.

Qualitative researchers are not objective or politically neutral, outside the circuits of culture' but are 'historically and locally situated within the very processes being studied'. Historical and gendered selves are created with their own history of shifting identities depending on how consumption is being shaped. There is no absolute methodological certainty, only standpoints. All observation is theory laden. There can be no value free knowledge, so no naive realism or naive positivism. Instead we have 'critical and historical realism, and various versions of relativism' [held at the same time? Tactically?]

We can undertake critical interpretive consumer research at each stage of the circuit of culture, to untangle and disrupt the apparently unbreakable ritualised links. Critical researchers constantly try to see how processes 'overdetermine' the meanings that cultural commodities have. Moral ethnographers must become visible in the text, 'disclosing, illuminating, and criticising' constraints and commodification.

There are 'rituals of cultural production and consumption'(326) supported by complex discourses and ideological processes. There is a 'racially preferred gendered self'for each historical period. These formations and the influences on them must be investigated, and the main question is 'how do these structures undermine and distort the promises of a radically free democratic society… How do these processes contribute to the reproduction of systems of racial and gender domination and repression in the culture?' [Radically free democratic society is not defined, class seems to have been ignored]. Critical social sciences anti-foundational, so it is grounded not in science, including any post positivist forms, but rather 'in a commitment to a post-Marxism and communitarian feminism with hope but no guarantees'. The point is to see how power and ideology operate in 'systems of discourse, cultural commodities, and cultural texts' — how words and texts 'play a pivotal part in the culture's "decisive performances of race, class [and] gender"'.

The evaluating criteria must be 'moral and ethical'. Critical qualitative work 'blends aesthetics, ethics and epistemologies'. Those who have power 'determine what is aesthetically pleasing and ethically acceptable' so they can be no distinction between epistemology, aesthetics and ethics [it is all a dreadful conspiracy and to take it on, we must be politically engaged, now rendered as 'aesthetics and ethics' close]. Communitarian feminists would agree: relations of difference also 'answer to a political and epistemological aesthetic'. All aesthetics and standards are based on 'particular moral standpoints'. There is no objective morally neutral standpoint. An 'Afrocentric feminist aesthetic (and epistemology) stresses the importance of truth, knowledge, and beauty ("Black is beautiful"). These are based on storytelling and experiential and shared wisdom, 'derived from local lived experience… lore, folktale and myth'

The approach involves 'a give-and-take and ongoing moral dialogue between persons', and ethics of care and of personal and communal responsibility. It develops an aesthetic imagining how a truly democratic society might look, 'including one free of race prejudice and depression… Beauty and artistry as well as movement, rhythm, colour and texture in everyday life. It celebrates difference and the sounds of many different voices. It expresses an ethic of empowerment' [all slogans really to rally the troops and show you belong — academic virtue signalling].

The ethic 'presumes a moral community that is ontologically prior to the person', which shared moral values including love kindness and neighbourliness. This 'embodies a sacred, existential epistemology that locates persons in a non-competitive, nonhierarchical relationship [and] declares that all persons deserve dignity and the sacred status in the world' [which seems to contradict the central role of the community, or perhaps assumes there will be no deviants]. It 'enables social criticism and engenders resistance', helps us imagine new forms of emancipation and 'enacts' them in dialogue [that is engages in imaginary politics]. It sanctions nonviolent forms of civil disobedience, 'if necessary'.

It understands that 'moral criteria are always fitted to the contingencies of concrete circumstances, assessed in terms of those local understandings that flow from a feminist, communitarian moral ethic' [preposterously self-contradictory].There are roots in liberation theology, neo-Marxist work on the community, human rights activism. It 'is [!] characterised by' shared ownership of the research, community-based analysis and a commitment to emancipatory community action. In particular, in the form of consumer research, it helps us '"release ourselves from the constraints embedded in the social media"' [the anthropology of struggling man again]. [Repeating himself] interpretive work founds social criticism and social action [although it has no foundations]. Researchers must 'take an informed moral and ethical position… Anchored in a specific community of moral discourse'.

Taking sides is complex [referring to Becker]. Researchers must clarify their own value positions and the 'so-called objective facts and ideological assumptions that they attach' to them. (327) They should then identify and analyse values in positions contrary to their own. Then they should show how appeals to ideology and objective knowledge 'reflect a particular moral and historical standpoint' which has to be shown to disadvantage and disempower members of specific groups. They then appealed to 'participate in, feminist, communitarian ethic instead with all that it implies [repeated from above]. The Black Arts Movement, for example 'asked how much more beautiful power, melody, play, novel, or film made the life of a single black person' [and how the fuck did they actually do that?]. We need to engage in concrete steps to change situations, and 'they may teach consumers how to bring new value to commodities and texts that are marginalised and stigmatised by the larger culture' [traditional academic task of renewing the Canon]. They need to show how negative effects arise and how particular texts 'misrepresent persons and reproduce prejudice and stereotypes'. This utopian project is to be based on new standards and new evaluation criteria — the Black Arts Movement again suggested that black art should be 'functional, collective, and committed'[that is now avant-garde artist should apply — compare with Stalinist Soviet realism]. 'It would not be art for arts sake; rather it would be art for our sake'. Black art comes from the people and must be returned to the people [it is Stalinist Soviet realism!] but more beautiful and colourful than it was in real life. 'Such art is [!] committed, it is democratic, and it celebrates diversity as well as personal and collective freedom. It is not elitist' [the same sort of proposal was to be developed for academic work of course].

As a case study, we can read the hood movies. Black and brown youths had already 'begun to mobilise' around hip-hop culture and this was 'visible, complex, and commercially viable' film companies and others attempted commodification of hip-hop culture [and were successful, Denzin argues]. Over 20 mainstream Hollywood films 'aimed at this audience'were released, and had the effect of creating spaces and battlegrounds for racial violence, through the 'battlefields of cultural representation'. A new war zone emerged 'in the national popular imagination — the black and brown hood', with drive-bys, rap. 'In the minds of many [soft quantification] rap music meant racial violence'. There were two forms action comedy or cop buddy and also ones that emphasised 'didactics, social realist and social problems messages [including Boyz 'N the Hood]. They were utopian and 'shaped by a dialectic of fear and hope' there were coming-of-age all male narratives and 'a uniform Conservative moral message'. There was no critical race, Marxist feminist or postcolonial theories, but 'an neo-nationalistic, is centralising, homophobic, masculinist, gender, and identity politics'.

The American new right were already blaming people of colour for problems in the ghetto, 'anchored in the crack cocaine wars'. Hood films narrated these. Subsequent[?] Police surveillance contributed to the idea of the ghetto as of violent or crumbling internal colony. Racial gangs recruited units and 'soon young men were shooting one another'. White America was isolated from the violent ghetto.

The Hollywood films were not progressive or subversive but created additional gender and class divisions. 'Women [!] called the films misogynist' and black and brown middle-class people objected to the guns and drugs. Black activists 'said the films were reactionary'. They did not attack underlying ideologies and material conditions that perpetuate racial oppression, even if there were films made by black and brown filmmakers (328). Such filmmakers were unwilling and unable to attack the ideology, to expose the larger racial apparatus — 'it is as if they are trapped by the very violence they want to criticise'. Considered as protest art, the films still 'enacted in the centralising social problems ideology', based on identity politics and the 'values of home and community'. These and other democratic values were assumed to be irrespective of race, and included the myths of success, the values of the family, romantic love, education and hard work [they reproduced the categories of classic work on American deviants — corner boy, college boy, sporting hero, gangster]. They offered images of community disorganisation apparently caused by pathological individuals, young black or brown males. Thus a societal condition of violence and drugs was made to coincide with a personal problem '(absent fathers)', a character defect '(attraction to violence)', and of violent act. These permitted a moral message involving comments on individuals their problems and the wider society. This was didactic, but also tautological. Racial violence and so on a central social problems creating social disorganisation, producing a pathological community, experience through various cultural signifiers like rap and drug dealing. Violent youth have not been successfully socialised, so the answer to social disorganisation is clear — the police must help the community get rid of the deviants, and normal family discipline must be restored.

Critical consumer research will use different interpretive criteria and takes sides, showing 'consumers how to find their own cultural homes' inside global and local capitalism. It will help them shape their own grounded aesthetics [with a reference to Willis] that will be political and personal. It deconstructs commodity ethics. Local bricoleurs use other commodities as symbolic resources to construct 'social and personal identity'[of a sad and recuperative kind]. Practices like this show the complex interplay between resistance and consumption and indicate different ways in which consumers 'creatively use the resources of popular culture for personal and group empowerment'.

Grounded aesthetic activities like this are both 'vehicles and sites of resistance'. They can help deconstruct negative racial images, or produce new cultural images and slogans. The consumer becomes an active player, and fresh meanings are given to structural and cultural formations. Consumers can critically evaluate the processes of representation and commodification. [If they are professors of cultural studies].

Critical scholars should make their own values clear, but 'at the same time they should listen to the perspectives and voices of many different stakeholders'. They should advocate for the side of the underdog and this will create critical moral consciousness among consumers. The point will be to argue that 'happiness is not necessarily connected to the possession of particular material objects' and that the 'desire to possess is… Fermented, if not created, by manufacturers and marketers' [good luck with that].

The task is to show how particular consumption patterns and choices reflect 'normative ideologies', including 'current fashion'. [What you make of this — 'research on adolescence shows, for example, that peers, not family at the most important influence on hairstyle, clothing, and media consumption' citing a book by Grossberg et al]. We should be thinking about attaining 'specific nonmaterial ethical and moral goals' not just possessing material goods' (329). We should show how 'advertising reproduces gender, racial, sexual orientation, and social class stereotypes', and how some consumer practices are harmful to personal health and the environment. This involves social critique and moral dialogue to identify the 'different gendered relations of cultural capital' at work. Researchers should also evaluate programs and make recommendations about consumption practices and choices, 'advocating lines of action that maximise consumer autonomy', and thus becoming accountable for any consequences.

So there is a pressing need for this sort of consumer research, with its 'dreams of a radically democratic society where individuals "freely determine their needs and desires"'. With this seventh moment, 'this society can come into focus — and perhaps into being — through the implementation of the kinds of interpretive practices outlined above'. This convinces him that there is a vital moral and political role to play '"in the new millennium"', including worrying about threats to our place in the natural world. We must therefore use a clear set of moral and political goals to inform our radical interpretive practices.

social theory