Consume This! Are Cultural Objects Free Floating Signifiers? Some Potential Problems for our Studies of Evaluation and Meaning


In this month’s blog post, Clayton Childress raises a call for analytic clarity among consumption scholarship which typically brackets production from consumption, separating cultural objects from their audiences’ reception of them. Drawing from a provocative snippet of survey data from his new book, Under the Cover (Princeton 2017), Childress’ post is sure to raise some eyebrows and reflection for sociologists of consumption, and like his book, Childress’ ideas push us to think critically about the production of our own field of knowledge.

– Ashley Mears


Are Cultural Objects Free Floating Signifiers? Some Potential Problems for our Studies of Evaluation and Meaning.

By Clayton Childress

When studying cultural taste and reception, as consumption scholars we often treat the objects being consumed as free floating signifiers. That is, we treat cultural objects as blank slates onto which any range of evaluations and meanings can be imprinted. The most extreme form of this position, which used to be bandied about a lot more than it is these days, was to declare that consumption was actually its own wholly independent second production. We don’t come out and state this belief as much as we used to, but in practice many of us still proceed as if we believe it to be true. We do so, I think, for two reasons.

The first is that it’s incredibly methodologically convenient to do so. Due in large part to the intellectual history of the split of consumption studies from production studies, we’ve done quite a good job of convincing ourselves that consumption can be treated as wholly its own sphere of activity that is entirely free from exogenous influences and forces. That the objects being consumed in fact come from exogenous places can be brushed aside as long as we insist that they exert no influence or force. This is a seductive belief to pantomime, even if one does not believe it to actually be true, as acknowledging its unlikeliness comes with substantial costs: acknowledging it means that our consumption studies would also take some creation and production studies to fully capture what’s going on.

The second reason, which thankfully provides a bit of relief from the first, is that the way we’ve gone about studying consumption and reception largely sidesteps this problem: we’ve constrained the types of questions we ask to those that minimize it. When studying consumption and reception, as good sociologists, we’re usually on the hunt for variation in taste and meaning making. The takeaway, many times over, is that our tastes and meaning making practices reflect, reinforce, and even produce societal divisions, and it is our socio-cultural demographics (or positions, or standpoints, or whatever term you prefer) that cause these differences. In this framework, if the objects of consumption (and what has gone into them) are constraining is beside the point: we want to explain heterogeneity in taste and meaning making, and as a result any unexplained homogeneity in them is just grist for the mill.

While these two reasons –convenience and the dominance of certain research questions –work to explain why we might treat objects as free floating signifiers, it doesn’t mean they actually are.

Childress Cover
Cover design by Amanda Weiss

As I write about in my new book, back in 2008-2009 I studied an author, Cornelia Nixon, as she worked on a novel, which would eventually be titled Jarrettsville. I then studied Jarrettsville’s publisher, Counterpoint Press, as they developed, packaged, and promoted it, and then followed it through distribution, marketing, reviewing, selling, and eventually into twenty-one book groups across the United States. As part of my research design, readers filled out several surveys about their consumption and reception of Jarrettsville, including their evaluations of it, and interpretations of it on 37 interpretive dimensions. Nixon filled out the exact same survey, but about her intentions for Jarrettsville’s interpretation, which she definitely had.

The first thing I found was that although readers weren’t trapped by Nixon’s intentions, they were certainly pitched in the general directions of them. Among the over 200 readers who took my survey, those most unconstrained by Nixon’s intentions still relied on them for about 50% of their meaning making: half of the meaning they made of Jarrettsville came from its author. On the opposite side of the range, those who read most closely to Nixon’s intentions made it about 85% of the way to her intentions: 15% of the meaning they drew out of Jarrettsville came from somewhere else. On average, about two-thirds of the meaning that readers made of the text weren’t their own, but had been transmitted from the novel’s author.

While the people who read closer to Nixon’s intentions weren’t better educated or more well read, they did have something in common: they liked the book more. Reading more in accordance with the author’s intentions correlated with thinking the novel was a better one.

Childress image - jonathan-wolstenholme-cross-reference
Painting by Jonathan Wolstenholme

The takeaway from this research was that to treat Jarrettsville as if it was of infinitely variable meanings, or as if its consumption could be understood without considering what had gone into its writing and publishing, was to fundamentally misunderstand not only the relationship between an author and her readers, but to also fundamentally misunderstand consumption and reception themselves. All of that unexplained homogeneity in reception was actually very explainable: the book had an author, who wrote with intentions, which to varying degrees guided readers’ interpretations, which affected how much they liked the book or not.

The question remains to what extent any of this matters. And to be fair, if you want to understand heterogeneity in consumption and meaning making it doesn’t matter that much, beyond suppressing variation in your results. But if you want to understand consumption and meaning making as they actually occur, it matters a whole lot. My initial research on this question suggests it might matter to the tune of about two-thirds of what’s going on. To know if that figure generalizes or not would require many more studies with different cultural objects, different methods and procedures, and different definitions of meaning too. First and foremost, however, it would require us to reconsider the role of cultural objects in our studies of the consumption and reception of them.



Clayton Childress is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Toronto. His work on the creation, production, and reception of culture has been published in American Sociological Review, Poetics, Cultural Sociology, American Behavioral Scientist, and other venues. His book on the topic, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel, is now out with Princeton University Press.








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