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Research Ethics and Fieldwork at New Consumption Communities

By C Bekin


It is hard to deny that marketing practice has changed considerably during recent years. This is reflected in its increased focus on customisation, coproduction and interactive marketing, much of which has been enabled by\ud new information technologies. While marketing has remained innovative there has also been much rhetoric and little reflexivity about what has been done (Szmigin, 2003). Although marketers may have been listening more to consumers (e.g. through qualitative research), efforts have almost always been directed at controlling consumers; ranges of products pre-determined by\ud producers have been pushed through with little real involvement of consumers in the process, at a time in which we, consumers (are we not consumers as well as marketers?), are ever more aware of what is being done to us (Szmigin, 2003). In fact, many of these issues are also reflected in current consumer research practice. Consumer research has been of paramount importance to the development of marketing theory and practice, yet control over the research process remains entirely in the hands of marketers and academic marketing researchers alike. Consumers are seldom, if ever, involved in the research design and analysis processes, which raises issues that go beyond ethics and into an epistemological arena. These issues are particularly problematic when participant-observation is employed, as little is (and little could be) addressed by research guidelines and codes of ethics relevant to marketing research. Adopting an ethical standpoint of care and responsibility based on feminist theories (Edwards and Mauthner, 2002), I address some of the relevant ethical issues pertinent to participant-observation that arise from the lack of inclusion of the consumer in the research process (as well as the potential issues that may be involved in participatory and emancipatory research designs), the shortcomings of the available marketing research guidelines and codes of ethics as far as participant-observation is concerned, alongside the several issues that may\ud arise during fieldwork. To illustrate the discussion a reflexive account of my own fieldwork at six distinct New Consumption Communities (Szmigin and Carrigan, 2003) is presented. Although some authors have put reflexivity as the means to achieve ethical fieldwork conduct and relationships (Guillemin\ud and Gillam, 2004), such argument disregards the real-time and context-bound nature of ethical circumstances at the field, where the researcher must often respond to unexpected situations immediately. Reflexivity is a tool but cannot\ud be used alone; it is not completely exempt from its own political, philosophical and epistemological stances and paradoxes, as well explored by Harley, Hardy and Alvesson (2004).\ud This paper therefore does not aim to construct yet another set of guidelines for researchers that will engage or are already engaged in participantobservation; what goes on in the field can be unpredictable and fluid. Rather, the aim is to discuss the key issues that may be encountered while in the field through practical examples. This should prove valuable in alerting consumer researchers on the breadth and depth of ethical issues in the field, and on the all encompassing epistemological issues that we face, as researchers, on a daily basis. As put by Birch et al. (2002, p.3), the aim here “is to suggest\ud ethical ways of thinking rather than to provide answers or rules to be adhered to”. In this study such ethical ways of thinking will be placed within the particular context of participant-observation

Topics: research ethics, ethnography, participant-observation
Publisher: 4th International Critical Management Studies Conference, Critical Marketing Stream
Year: 2005
OAI identifier:

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