Market Research Things: An Opportunity for Collaboration


1. Remarks on Collaboration

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”
–Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

We find ourselves compelled, but perplexed, by Henare, Holbraad and Wastell’s call for an ethnographic methodology of engaging heuristically with things. They write, “Rather than going into the field armed with a set of pre-determined theoretical criteria against which to measure the ‘things’ one already anticipates might be encountered, it is proposed that the ‘things’ that present themselves be allowed to serve as a heuristic with which a particular field of phenomena can be identified, which only then engender theory” (5). We’re interested in what might help us continue to think about how to craft such a methodology. In this context, we want to explore where the idiom of collaboration takes us. We want to bring to bear on our work with things some thoughts on ethnographic relationships configured as collaborations. Where does it take us to think of things as collaborators in research?

Collaboration strikes us as an interesting idiom because of some particularly rich discussions of collaboration in ethnographic work, collaboration both as a methodology for research and as an object of analysis. We are being, we recognize, a bit playful in exploring the idea that–in the same way that we have registered a parallel between a post-colonial interest in whether the subaltern can speak and a materially-oriented interest in whether the thing can–we now want to suggest a productivity in sketching an incipient parallel between a shift in the focus of ethnographic relationships from an other to an informant to a collaborator and a shift in the focus of our relationship with things from radical ontological alterity to collaborative potential.

The discussions of collaboration in ethnographic work are useful in this context in that they not only proceed with a sense that collaboration is possible across multiple epistemologies (or epistemic communities), but in fact that the multiplicity is what makes collaboration so necessary. The question we want to pose is whether we enact a similar move for ontologies, and thereby see collaboration as a way of conceptualizing how we relate to things.

2. Ethnographic Collaborations

Looking at Doug Holmes and George Marcus’s recent article “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter,” we can imagine a parallel between the way they talk about relationships among people and about knowing, on the one hand, and a way of thinking about relationships between people and things and about being very much along the lines of Henare et al.’s discussion, on the other hand. They write, “Working amid and on collaborations significantly shifts the purposes of ethnography from description and analysis, inevitably distanced practices for which it has settled, to a deferral to subjects’ modes of knowing, a function to which ethnography has long aspired” (2). “The point is, again, to integrate fully our subjects’ analytical acumen and insights to define the issues at stake in our projects, as well as the means by which we explore them” (8).

In her ethnography Friction, Anna Tsing makes the point that collaboration is not at all inhibited, but rather enabled, by divergence among collaborators. “Through the frictions of such collaborations, global conservation projects–like other forms of traveling knowledge–gain their shape. Collaboration is not a simple sharing of information. There is no reason to assume that collaborators share common goals. In transnational collaborations, overlapping but discrepant forms of cosmopolitanism may inform contributors, allowing them to converse–but across difference. Attention to collaboration moves discussion beyond the eternal standoff between opposing interest groups…but not because it assumes that compromise is always imminent. Collaboration creates new interests and identities, but not to everyone’s benefit” (13).

Annemarie Mol, writing about artherosclerosis in her ethnography The Body Multiple, brings us even closer to applying a this way of seeing collaboration to a discussion of ontologies. She makes the point that a capacity to act does not rest upon shared ontology. “A shared, coherent ontology is not required for treatment and prevention practices. Incompatibilities between objects enacted are no obstacle to medicine’s capabilities to intervene….That the ontology enacted in medical practice is an amalgam of variants-in-tension is more likely to contribute to the rich, adaptable, and yet tenacious character of medical practice. Distributions separate out what might otherwise clash” (115).

Working with this idea that collaboration doesn’t require similarity but rather proceeds through dissimilarity, collaboration as a different way of talking about the rhizomatic entanglements of things can perhaps move us away from considering thingness primarily in the breakdown of things. The question we pose, which we’d like to consider in light of a question about alternatives to hyper-humanism and post-humanism, is not “What do things want?” or “Why do things resist?” but rather, what do things and we together enact? To speak of collaboration attunes us to enactment, and in particular to the practices through which enactment occurs.

We turn, then, to a particular site, where this idea of things as collaborators in research can finally take on some actual thingness. We want to look at market research as a set of practices through which our relationships with things are organized, keeping in mind the question of whether the idiom of collaboration is at all useful for considering these practices. Does considering market research as collaboration help us to recognize, yet feel neither alienated nor overwhelmed by (and thus still entangled with), the force of things?

3. Market Research Things

And so for four years and maybe more they explored and interviewed and analysed. Why are pure-suction vacuum cleaners selling so poorly? What do people of modest origin think of chicory? Do you like ready-made mashed potato and if so, why? Because it’s light? Because it’s creamy? Because it’s easy to make – just open it up and there you are? Do people really reckon baby carriages are expensive? Aren’t you always prepared to fork out a bit extra for the good of the kids? Which way will French women vote? Do people like cheese in squeezy tubes? Are you for or against public transport? What do you notice first when you eat yoghurt? – the colour? the texture? the taste? natural odour? … Do you like frozen food? How much do you think a lighter like this costs, eh? What do you look for in a mattress? Describe a man who likes pasta. What do you think of your washing machine? …

There was washing, drying, ironing. Gas, electricity and the telephone. Children. Clothes and underclothes. Mustard. Packet soups, tinned soups. Hair: how to wash it, how to dry it, how to make it hold a wave, how to make it shine. Students, fingernails, cough syrup, typewriters, fertilizers, tractors, leisure pursuits, presents, stationary, linen, politics, motorways, alcoholic drinks, mineral water, cheeses, jams, lamps and curtains, insurance and gardening. Nil humani alienum… Nothing that was human was outside their scope.

Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties

The interview (individual or focus group) is only one of the many technologies of market research.  There are national surveys sampling the population across every relevant variable and correlating them with sale statistics.  Segments are identified based on affinity and made into target groups.  There are blind taste tests where consumers evaluate beer for drinkability, bitterness, gas and foam, and chocolate for sweetness and if it does not stick to the tongue too much. Ethnology students—Malinowski in hand—move in with “regular people” do participant observation of their coffee brewing practices.  Others hang out with the cool kids to study new trends.  In a lab in Warsaw an expert in neuromarketing puts electrodes to subjects heads to measure how their frontal lobes respond to certain commercials.

A vast industry in every market economy, market research makes the consumers visible to the marketers—literally, as in the case of a moderated discussion in a room with a two-way mirror, and more figuratively through statistics and quantitative models of economic behavior, psychological studies of consumer unconscious and ethnographic research into the consumer’s everyday.  This knowledge is used to develop and refine mass-produced things or gauge the price people will be willing to pay for them.  More importantly, it gives input to the work of branding and advertisement, which invest the products with subtly designed and controlled meanings and emotional appeal beyond their utilitarian use.  (For example, a particular brand of beer may expected to speak about masculinity and male bonding, symbolically addressing perceived emotional and social needs or lacks in its target group.)

We plan to explore market research as a site of mediation and collaboration.  Firstly, it is a set of practices bringing together the producers and the consumers in performing the market—their mutual relationship figured as “supply” and “demand” through statistical description and probabilistic reasoning.  Secondly, in this interaction a lot of attention is given to localizing or nationalizing the products and brands in transnational circulation (market research is expected to articulate the “local difference” within the global capitalist economy).  Third, marketers are careful to use research to negotiate the manufactured versus authentic binary.  Hence their preoccupation with ethnography and questions of everyday appropriation of consumer products in everyday life of “real people,” as well as interest in psychology of the subconscious (thus “real”) needs and desires that consumers have.  Finally, in market research there is a tension between the immateriality of the abstract “market” and the materiality of actual things that are manufactured, advertised, sold and consumed.

We will be interested in market research as a site of knowledge production, where it is not only information that is produced, but through this process new kinds of people and new kinds of practices.
market research is a field where things and people collaborate to produce a new kind of subject, the consumer, and new kinds of consumption practices.

Thinking about an ethnography of capitalism focused on practices engaging affect that perform the consumer market we are inspired by Michel Callon et al.’s (2002) notion of the economy of qualities.  In an effort to present a description of the market that follows from an analytical symmetry between human and non-human actors Callon et al. offer a conceptualization of a product that foregrounds its unstable and fluid nature.

The product is a sequence of transformations.  This notion of product is contrasted with a more traditional economic notion of a good.  For example, a car as an economic good is a stable object with predetermined qualities, use and value.  As a product, however, it does not have qualities; it has to constantly be qualified.  “[I]t starts off by existing in the form of a set of specifications, then a model, then a prototype, then a series of assembled elements and, finally, a car in a catalogue that is ordered from a dealer…” (p. 198).

It is through this process of qualification (aided by techniques of market research) that stable marketable things emerge: “All quality is obtained at the end of a process of qualification, and all qualification aims to establish a constellation of characteristics, stabilized at least for a while, which are attached to the product and transform it temporarily into a tradable good in the market” (p. 199).

Such a “thing theory” positing the ontological stability of products on the market as something achieved and temporary rather than given enables us to see that market research is equally concerned with reflexive stabilization and destabilization of products (see Foster 2007).

4. Collaborating on/with bottled water

Marketing concept:

I usually drink water when I’m thirsty. Don’t wait for thirst. Do you know that a 2% loss of water in your body can make your body’s efficiency drop by 20%? Remember, drink 1.5 liters of the water X everyday, even if you’re not thirsty.


Q (researcher): If I was a Martian and had no idea was thirst is, how would you describe it?

A (consumer): Your lips are dry.

Q: Uhuh, dry lips, what else?

A: You can’t concentrate, you can’t focus, all you think about is that you want something to drink. And then this drink will bring relaxation, a sort of relief, will take the stress away. Because this dryness in the mouth is the kind that you think that in a moment you’re going to die.


Q: What is the difference between fizzy and still water?

A: The still one, you can say, is tasteless. It’s like that. And you know I’ve been married to my husband, such a long time, and he always says that still water is like drinking that awful tap water. So this influences me, this talk, and he keeps telling me that fizzy is good and still is bad. And I also tried this Lemon Arctic brand, but it was too sweet. So maybe now this water I’ll be experimenting with will have this something which will be awesome. And maybe it will be a substitute for the water I drink in my fitness club. But with water I’m more theory than practice. Theoretically I know that one should drink the still kind.

Q: OK, so I understand, theoretically it’s the still water, but what does it do to your body? Does it do something else with your body than other beverages?

A: Yes, I think so, because it doesn’t have all these chemicals in it. It’s made of natural ingredients. So one feels better after drinking this. Physically, because your bowels work differently. Your stomach acids work better. And the whole digestion is just better. It’s healthier than stuffing yourself with bubbles. You know, bicarbonate. Because a lot of fizzy waters, you know, they have this bicarbonate. And you burp.

Q What do you think would happen if you drank that much water every day from now on?

A: … if this water was a kind of like everyday ritual… I don’t know if my skin would be even be more supple, softer, but maybe, you know, all your skin would get better on the legs and everywhere, because in every human being the skin on the legs is thicker, it’s both in men and women. And older women have drier skin because they don’t have water in their body. These processes of, you know, hydration are not happening. I noticed that my skin was softer after these two weeks. And because I earlier had problems with it, because you know my skin has this tendency to get dry, on my hands. My husband, by the way, has horrible hands because he got frostbite when he was in the military. But my skin now is very nice. You can touch it if you like. Is it OK for researchers to touch women?

Q: Yes, I think we do it sometimes. I was more interested in how it makes you feel.

A: It feels nicer, my skin is more silky. I feel better with it, I feel comfortable. It’s about my pleasure really because I’m not the kind of person who’s looking to others to tell me that I look good. But it’s also nice to think that your hand feels better in contact with another person, like when you shake hands or a man kisses you on the hand.

Q: So what else happened during this experiment?

A: Psychologically, I got pissed off. All this drinking and constant going to the bathroom. Physically, I feel lighter. I lost 1.5 kilos.

Q: After drinking this water for two weeks everyday, if you were to write a letter or give a speech to a friend to convince her to do this, what would you say?

A: I would say, Ursula, I strongly recommend that you drink still water, because in a two-week experiment I noticed that I got thinner, I feel lighter, I feel more toned, and you don’t get this feeling of being full like you get with the fizzy water. Oh, oh, and my skin is better moisturized and supple. So I strongly recommend it, even though I know you hate still water.


Callon, Michel, Cécile Méadel and Volonona Rabeharisoa. 2002. “The economy of qualities.” Economy and Society 31:2: 194-217.
Foster, Robert J. 2007. “The work of the new economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 707-731.
Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell. 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge.
Holmes, Douglas R. & George E. Marcus 2008. “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter,” Collaborative Anthropologies 1:136-70.
Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke Univerity Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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