What Production Studies can learn from Consumption Studies

ChildressBy C. Clayton Childress, University of Toronto

The most important day in my brief life as a sociologist happened six years ago when I was a graduate student. I had recently finished my MA thesis on the mid-1990s transition on daytime television from “Trash Talk” shows (e.g. The Jerry Springer Show) to “Syndi-Court” shows (e.g. Judge Judy). It was a failed project of the “neither here nor there variety” in which I could never quite figure out what wasn’t working as I desperately tried to misuse my content analysis for something it wasn’t. As I’d guess almost all graduate students come to realize at some point, I had finally learned enough to know that I actually knew very little. In hindsight, I’m thankful for how little I knew, because otherwise, the most important day in my brief life as sociologist never would have happened.

I was gearing up to begin my dissertation, which for a variety of reasons, I had decided would be on books. As I sat in an advisor’s office, I told her that I wanted to study novels. “Interesting,” she said halfheartedly. “So, do you want to do a production study or a consumption study?” It was a life changing moment. Someone smarter than me would have known the answer. A more experienced and well-read sociologist would understand not only the deep importance of the question, but also the subtext of it. My response was sincere, I had of course thought about it, but out of a fair degree of ignorance I said the thing that would change everything: “Uh, both?”

By the grace of my initially concerned advisors, “both” is what I did. I spent about six months shadowing, interviewing, and surveying an author and her network as she wrote a book, another six months conducting an organizational ethnography of a publishing house while they edited her book, and then about another six months following the book through the review process, into bookstores and twenty-one book groups across the United States. At the end of this I circled back again to the author as she took what she had learned from the process and applied it to her next book. Somewhere along the way I realized I wasn’t just studying the relationship between production and consumption, but was actually studying the relationship between three interdependent fields with their own norms, values, orientations and power relations within. Yet there were also “circuits” that passed through these fields, and people who specialized in translating the values of novels as they crossed into new fields. Projects are “pitched” from one field to another, which we sometimes actually even refer to as a “pitch” in some media industries. While after the fact this all may give the false impression of neatness, the process was far from neat, and the conclusions were something I stumbled upon along the way.

In truth, studying the relationships between creation, production, and consumption is not without its challenges. Beyond the exciting work on “contact points” between fields (e.g. Hsu, et al 2009; Miller 2007; Peterson 1999), for the most part we’ve split babies (although, see Griswold 2000 for an excellent counter-example). While I’ve heard people say that scholars of production and scholars of consumption are on different “teams,” I suspect this might be an overstatement, as any mention of teams implies that these two groups are competing, or even on the same field, or playing the same game at all. Instead, as Paul DiMaggio (1987) noted 25 years ago “the divorce of reception and production studies has led to an estrangement between the sociology of art and the study of social organization…that a more integrative position can help bridge” (p. 442). Sadly, in the intervening two and one half decades I don’t think much has changed. Based on my initially oblivious foray into an integrative project, I can offer three brief suggestions for what production scholars can learn from consumption scholars. These are incremental steps of course, which hopefully might provide a path away from the “here or there” relationship of production and consumption studies, and toward a “here and there” relationship.

Three Things the Study of Production Can Learn From the Study of Consumption

1. Nobody Knows Anything: The oft-repeated maxims that “all hits are flukes” (Bielby and Bielby 1994) and that “nobody knows anything” (Caves 2000) about how successful a new media product will be are core to understanding media industries. Simply by knowing that, as a general rule, fixed costs are high and profitability is unlikely, we can get exceptionally far in describing how decisions are made in these industries. Yet, these maxims are not the result of failures within media industries or organizations, and instead emerge out of the consumption process. As we’ve learned from Matt Salganik’s creative work on artificial music markets (Salganik, et al. 2006, Salganik and Watts 2008; see also De Vany and Walls 1999), the easy assumption that “quality” should predict “success” is misguided, and bandwagon effects within communities of consumers are likely driving the unpredictability of success, at least from the perspective of producers (see also Bauman (2007) for the related concept of “swarms”). Consumption scholars are those best equipped to port the suggestions from Salganik’s lab experiment into naturally occurring field sites. Even better, consumption scholars can take their lessons back to production scholars. Knowing precisely why nobody knows anything, and figuring out if there is actually anything that anyone might know, are both consumption questions that production scholars need the answers to.

2. Demographically Conditioned Patterns of Taste: From consumption studies we know that tastes – be they engagement with, or stated preferences for, some cultural objects over others – are demographically conditioned. Different people comprised of different intersecting demographic attributes have different orientations to and affections for different media objects. Regardless of one’s perspective as a Bourdieusian or a feminist standpoint theorist, among consumption scholars this is a basic but indispensable observation and we have a wide variety of methods to test it, understand it, and tease it out. Yet it turns out that like consumption, once you open up the “black box” of media production, there are actually people in there. As production scholars know, these people also rely on their personal tastes when making decisions, as do viewers, readers, and listeners. Using the findings and methods from consumption studies, there is very little preventing researchers from analyzing the demographic attributes of creators and decision makers within media organizations to see how they align (or don’t align) with what is ultimately produced out of their respective industries.

3. Meaning Making: From excellent work on consumption we know that agentic and sometimes idiosyncratic processes of meaning making are core to reception practices. While the old, hoary ghosts of mindless automatons have been exorcised from work on consumption, we could still do a better job at treating media producers in parallel fashion. Although the existence of agency has been accepted, we still see a massive disconnect around sense and meaning-making between production and consumption studies. On the production side, from Bourdieu at his most mechanistic to various neo-institutional field theories, the roles of agency and meaning-making – issues that consumption studies have attended to in spades –are still somewhat underprivileged. As Ana Alacovska (2013) has shown of travel guidebook writers, Kasper T. Vangkilde (2013) has shown of fashion design teams, Leschziner and Green (2013) have shown of both culinary and sexual fields, and Alison Gerber (2013) is showing of artists, deliberate and non-dispositional processes of sense and meaning-making are deeply infused within production processes, be it for non-prestigious manual writing in the case of guidebooks, the creation of new fashion lines or new recipes in the production of clothes or food, or pricing in the case of artists. Yet one cannot overstate the head-start that consumption scholars have in this line of research. Production scholars would do well to take on these lessons, lest well-equipped consumption scholars decide to expand their reach and do it for them.

This list is surely incomplete, although I hope it serves its purpose in signaling that integrative positions in the study of production and consumption are not only possible, but also might be fruitful. As Klaus Nathaus and I have argued in a different venue (2013), another avenue for connection between production and consumption might center on genres, which both scholars of production and scholars of consumption –in addition to creators and consumers themselves – take interest in. Importantly, we can make these connections on the micro and meso-levels, and work to reintegrate the studies of production and consumption without relying on the macro-level paradigmatic statements of Parsons on the one hand, or the Frankfurt school on the other. One of the few things I can say with authority is that there’s no shame in starting small. In fact, starting small has its advantages. From my fieldwork on the creation, production and consumption of literature, I can also say that more often than not novel solutions to seemingly intractable problems require some integration. They take less “or” and more “and.”

C. Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at University of Toronto. His work on books has been published in American Sociological ReviewEuropean Journal of Cultural StudiesHistorical Social Research, and the Journal of Business Anthropology. A book-length monograph on the creation, production and consumption of Jarrettsville, a 2009 work of historical fiction, is under contract with Princeton University Press.

Works Cited

Alacovska, A. (2013). “Parachute Artists” or “Tourists With Typewriters”: Creative and Cocreative Labor in Travel Guidebook Production. Communication, Culture & Critique, 6(1), 41-63.

Bauman, Z. (2007). Consuming Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Bielby, W.T. and D.D. Bielby. 1994. “‘All Hits Are Flukes,’” American Journal of Sociology 99(5):1287-1313.

Caves, R.E. 2000. Creative industries. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

De Vany, A. and D. Walls (1999). “Uncertainty in the movie industry: does star power reduce the terror of the box office?”. Journal of Cultural Economics 23: 285–318.

DiMaggio, P. 1987. “Classification in Art.” American Sociologicall Review 52(4): 440–455.

Gerber, A. 2013. “Making Cents of Art.” Working Paper, Yale Center for Cultural Sociology.

Griswold, W. 2000. Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers, and the Novel in Nigeria. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hsu, G., M. T. Hannan, and O. Kocak. 2009. “Multiple Category Memberships in Markets.” American Sociological Review 74(1): 150-169.

Leschziner, V., and Green, A. I. (2013). “Thinking about Food and Sex: Deliberate Cognition in the Routine Practices of a Field.” Sociological Theory 31(2), 116-144.

Miller, L. 2007. Reluctant capitalists: Bookselling and the culture of consumption. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nathaus, K., and C.C. Childress. Fortchoming. “The production of culture perspective in historical research: integrating the study of the production, reception and meaning of symbolic objects.” Studies in Contemporary History.

Peterson, R.A. 1999. Creating Country Music. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Salganik, M.J, and D.J Watts. 2008. “Leading the Herd Astray: An Experimental Study of Self-fulfilling Prophecies in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Social Psychology Quarterly 71( 4): 338-355.

Salganik, M.J, P.S. Dodds, and D.J .Watts. 2006. “Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market,” Science 5762: 854-6.

Salganik, M. J., & Watts, D. J. 2008. “Leading the herd astray: An experimental study of self-fulfilling prophecies in an artificial cultural market.” Social Psychology Quarterly 71(4): 338-355.

Vangkilde, K. T. (2013). “In search of a creative concept in HUGO BOSS,” in (eds. Moeran and Christensen) Exploring Creativity: Evaluative Practices in Innovation, Design, and the Arts. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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