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Social Systems in Marketing

Giesler, Markus (2003), "Social Systems in Marketing," in European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research: 249-256.

Abstract

There can be little doubt that the concept of social systems is central to marketing if we are, as Latour (1993) notes, increasingly enmeshed in hybrid networks of social, ecological, and informational systems. Yet it is surprising to find such a paucity of marketing and consumer research addressing it. This paper advances the idea of social systems in marketing. A social system is what emerges as soon as an actor or his action seeks to refer to a phenomenon (Luhmann 1966). A social system organizes, for an observer, the relation between freedom, blindness and dependence: a social system is free in the way of drawing its distinction, it is blind for the consequences; and for the success of its distinction dependent on everything it excludes. A social system is a way of establishing control through communication. To best reveal the idea of social systems in marketing, I explore and develop the tetralemma of the system, an analytical framework for systemic structuration, which is used to discuss two important social systems in marketing and consumer research: brand systems and protest systems. Findings demonstrate that social systems reveal formerly neglected important socio-cultural insights into the study of branding and consumer protest behavior. Further implications for marketing and consumer research are discussed in a concluding section.

Introduction


"We need a theory that shows how the system remains a system even as systemness is challenged."

 - Grant McCracken, Plenitude 2.0 (1998)

Social systems make a difference. Their notion is central to social thought (e.g. Ashby 1956, 1961; Bateson 1972, 1979; Bourgine and Varela 1992; Durkheim [1893] 1933; Glanville 1979, 1982; Gunther 1962; Habermas 1984; Hegel 1830; Levi-Strauss 1966; L÷fgren 1977; Luhmann 1984; Maffesoli 1996; Marx [1867] 1946; McCarthy 1991; Parsons and Shils 1951; von Foerster 1981; Wiener 1948). Social systems, once suggesting that there is more order in the world than any of us is able to account for, immediately shatter any illusion of order today and instead remind us to look at everything excluded by them. Social systems distinguish between system and environment states and address the ongoing oscillation between them (Baecker 2002). There can be little doubt that the concept of social systems is central to marketing if we are, as Latour (1993) notes, increasingly enmeshed in hybrid networks of social, ecological, and informational systems. Yet despite their widely acknowledged significance, especially in the context of consumption, social systems have rarely been explored in the marketing literature. Such a lack of understanding is highlighted by recent calls for a balanced consideration of the dialectical interplay between agency and structure (e.g. Murray 2002). This research seeks to address this peculiar absence.

I explore the idea of social systems in marketing. A social system is what emerges as soon as an actor or his action seeks to refer to a phenomenon (Luhmann 1966). A system is "the matrix that embeds" (von Foerster 1997) the relation between freedom, blindness and dependence: a system is free in the way of drawing its distinction, it is blind for the consequences; and for the success of its distinction dependent on everything it excludes. A social system is a way of establishing control through communication. In doing so, it presents a powerful analytical concept of social analysis for market researchers.

To best reveal the idea of social systems in marketing, I will first specify an epistemological imbalance within current marketing research and then explore the tripartite sociological notion of systems, control and communication. Then I will present an analytical framework for systemic structuration, the tetralemma of the system, which is used to discuss two particular social marketing systems: brand systems and protest systems. A brand system is theorized as the matrix that embeds consumers’ and producers’ brand specific communication to establish control over consumption. A protest system is understood as an ongoing process of ensuring "outsider status" through social communication. In the concluding section, I will develop the implications of this paper for our understanding of the relations between marketing, consumption, culture and social systems.

Representationalism and Beyond

A questionable pragmatic epistemology organizes current inquiry in marketing research (e.g. Lincoln and Denzin 1994; Brown 1995). As the past two ACR/JCR/JMR decades clearly evidence, the vast majority of marketing scholars have embraced the framework of representationalism where "’making true’ and 'representing’ are reciprocal relations" (Rorty 1991, p. 4). Contemporary inquiry is conducted under realistic and relativistic ontological and epistemological assumptions (e.g. Brown 1995, p. 171-172, see Figure 1). Like the modernist novel, positivist consumer research text presumes a stable external social reality that can be recorded by a stable, objective, scientific observer (e.g. Hunt 1989; 1993; 1994). Like its postmodern counterpart, post-positivist consumer research text attempts to connect mobile, moving, shifting minds (and their representations) to a shifting, external world (e.g. Hirschman 1986; Holbrook 1992; Sherry 1991; Sherry and Schouten 2002). While this external world may yield to multiple interpretations, the interpretive, mobile consciousness of the researcher-as-observer is able to form certain and conclusive representations about it (Denzin 1991a, 1991b, 1997, forthcoming; McHale 1992).

This representationalist framework, however, fails to let us account for the idea that, as Richard Rorty (1991) laments, "it is no truer that'atoms are what they are because we use "atom" as we do’ than that 'we use "atom" as we do because atoms are as they are’" (p. 5). Neither does thought determine reality nor, in the sense intended by the realist, does reality determine thought. Following Rorty, the history of philosophy rather showed, that there are no final answers to the traditional questions about "knowledge," "truth" and "representation." Consequently, they should be rejected.

Rasch and Wolfe (2000) have demonstrated how the limitations of the representationalist framework for dealing with the problems of knowledge are especially clear in the ongoing debates over the status of postmodernity. On one hand, there are critics of diverse political stripe who lament that with the breakdown of the realist worldview, we experience what Foucault (1969; 1972, p. 387) calls the "death of the subject" and that the loss of meaning that undermines the philosophical, ethical, and political promises of the project of modernity. On the other side, we find proponents of postmodernism who accept or even celebrate this very loss of representational veracity as a liberation of philosophical, social and cultural analysis from what Derrida (1967, see also Rosenau 1992) has termed "logocentrism." Most marketing scholars have settled for an uneasy position somewhere in the middle of the continuum between realism and relativism: there is indeed a preexistent, finite reality with its own objective nature, but one that is viewed differently by different observers according to the cultural and social determinations that shape their particular view of things (e.g. Brown 1996, p. 179; Scott 1992; Sherry 1991; Thompson 1993). Yet, as Rasch and Wolfe (2000, p. 16) passionately advocate, such a position is "purchased at the expense of incoherence, since it simultaneously endorses and disavows the very representationalism that it bridles against". This, after all, may be "the crisis of representation" that is challenging marketing and consumer behavior research (e.g. Denzin 1997; Sherry 2000; Sherry and Kozinets 2000): the urgent suspicion that marketing research has an ontological center from which it prefers to operate, leads to the even stronger suspicion that, if realism is lost, so is relativism.

In the current social and critical moment, no project is therefore more overdue than a "poetics of desire" (Halperin, Winkler, and Zeitlin 1990) that moves beyond the limitations of the representationalist framework and instead commits to questions of epistemology within Latour’s (1991) "hybrid networks" of social, informational, and ecological systems in which we will find ourselves increasingly enmeshed. The time is ripe for market researchers to acknowledge these systems and reformulate the way they think about the relations between markets and consumer culture, consumer agency and marketplace empowerment. In what follows, I will explore the notions of social systems in marketing. I will (1) review the tripartite notion of social systems, control and communication; (2) introduce an analytical framework for systemic structuration in marketing, (3) discuss two different systems in marketing and consumer research, and (4) develop the implications of this paper for our understanding of the relations between consumption, culture and social systems. By exploring and problematizing the notion of social systems in marketing, this paper helps market researchers reformulate the way they think about the cultural structuring of marketing and consumption.

Control and Communication

'System’ is a complex and many-sided notion in social thought. Its intellectual history is lengthy and abundant. Systems were a prominent concern of the great social theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. Durkheim [1893] 1933; Hegel 1830; Marx [1867] 1946) and have continued to be so among contemporary contributors (e.g. Ashby 1956, 1961; Bateson 1972, 1979; Baudrillard 1968; Bourgine and Varela 1999; Glanville 1979, 1982; Gnnther 1962; Habermas 1984; LTvi-Strauss 1966; L÷fgren 1977; Luhmann 1984; Maffesoli 1996; McCarthy 1991; Parsons and Shils 1951; von Foerster 1981; Wiener 1948). Although some scholars have used 'system’ to macrologically systematize the world of goods and marketing (e.g. Baudrillard 1968, 'system of objects; Douglas and Isherwood 1979, 'goods as information system’; Moyer 1967, 'changing marketing systems’; Arndt 1981, 'the political economy of marketing systems’; Savitt 1984,'comparative marketing systems’), the notion of 'social system’ as it is used in sociological systems theory (e.g. Baecker 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2001, 2002; Luhmann 1984, 1997) is not explicitly theorized. For the purpose of this study, I am relying on the tripartite systemic notion of social systems, control and communication, the tenets of which I will briefly review.

The sociological concept of systems is historically situated in modern society’s attempt to monitor and control itself (e.g. Wiener 1948; Hayles 1999). Control means to establish causality ensured by communication (Baecker 2001), i.e. control presupposes communication. It implies a negotiation, a kind of contract to be concluded. This contract is not based on ideal speech and historically grounded reason (e.g. Habermas 1984; Bannet 1993; Ray 1993). Rather it is based on a specific relation between causes and effects. This specific relation can then be referred to as the system (and its environment), emergent from communication and self-selected by an observer who distinguishes it from the heteroglossia of causes and effects all around him. But why the observer? This issue is explicitly addressed by Varela (1979) who discusses the fundamental cognitive act of distinction:

"...[T]he establishment of system boundaries is inescapably associated with what I shall call a cognitive point of view, that is, a particular set of presuppositions and attitudes, a perspective, or a frame in the sense of [Gregory] Bateson ... or [Erving] Goffman...; in particular, it is associated with some notion of value, or interest. It is also linked up with the cognitive capacities ... of the distinctor. Conversely, the distinctions made reveal the cognitive capabilities of the distinctor" (p. 85).

In other words, the demarcation of a social system is contextualized with respect to the observer effecting the demarcation. After all, te fundamental epistemological tenet of the systemic perspective is that: 'Everything said is said by an observer’ (Maturana and Varela 1980, p. xix). For an observer, then, a social system is a way "to communicate control if there is no other way to control but to communicate" Baecker (2001). If control based on communication describes a system’s attempt to set its own causality in relation to other social systems’ causalities, what kind of communication makes this "split causality" possible?

We may turn to Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) Mathematical Theory of Communication. As Baecker (2001) sets out, "almost everybody trained in the humanities or social sciences is quick to dismiss [Shannon and Weaver’s theory] as a purely technical vision, which fails to take into account the semantic, let alone the pragmatic, aspects of communication" and goes on to say: "It is easy to quote [them], both of whom are eager to put brackets around the questions of semantics. Yet one should know that questions in brackets are not really questions left aside. Rather, they are tackled in a different and perhaps completely new way, following the old perception that problems cannot be resolved by attacking them directly but only by circumventing them and doing something else, which results in dissolving the problem or at least in posing the question differently." Shannon and Weaver’s theory thus offer an insightful perspective on communication beyond sender, receiver, noise and channel.

Shannon and Weaver simply define a message as "one selected from a set of possible messages" (p. 31). Accordingly, a receiver can only read a "C" if he knows that it belongs to the Latin alphabet and if the context tells the receiver that it is not the number "100" but the letter, which is relevant. The set of possible messages "A, B, C,..., Z" must be technically defined before "C" as one possible message out of this set makes sense. In the case of social communication, its semantics and pragmatics, the set of possibilities is not technically but socially defined, i.e. constrained. The important point is that a receiver does not understand a message by looking at the transmitted" content but by looking at the selection being made among a set of other possibilities. A selection, in turn, requires a distinction to be drawn between the selection and what is left aside. In this way, communication can be understood as the concatenation of selections, i.e. operations of drawing distinctions and observations of these operations performed by drawing other distinctions. The idea of systems reveals two insights about communication. As Baecker (2001) notes, "systems first of all explain that there are sets of possibilities before any specific possibility can be selected at all. And secondly, they explain that the set of possibilities is not a given one but is reproduced by the very selections being feasible which recursively constitute (by being remembered, forgotten and re-invented) that set of possibilities." Communication therefore means production of redundancy (Bateson 1972, pp. 406-407). It defines both the message being selected and the set of possibilities from which it is selected. Communication consists in checking out that redundancy, and that is why it is stimulated both by non-knowledge and by knowledge, by what has been said and by what has not been said, by the determinate and by the indeterminate, and by the meaning included and by the meaning excluded (Luhmann 1997a, pp. 37-8; Baecker 2001). In the next section, I will translate these insights into an analytical framework for systemic structuration in marketing, the central topic to which the paper now turns.

The Tetralemma of the System

In the previous section, I have theorized systems as being emergent from communication, the concatenation of operations of drawing distinctions and observations of these operations performed by drawing other distinctions. Social systems present, for an observer, (1) the possibility of drawing a distinction, (2) the environment as distinguished from the system, and (3) the distinction itself as the relation between the social system and its environment. Social systems organize the relation between freedom, blindness and dependence: a social system is free in the way of drawing its distinction, it is blind for the consequences; and for the success of its distinction dependent on everything it excludes (environment).

To further explore these insights, I introduce the tetralemma of the system (cf. Varga von Kibed 2000; Baecker 2002), an analytical framework for the systemic structuration of marketing and consumer behavior. The tetralemma of the system is a cycle diagram that shows how a social system is emergent from and brought forth by communication. The Spencer-Brownian (1969) mark indicates "is distinguished from" (see Figure 2). The arrows demonstrate the recursive movement of the reflection and, finally, the re-entry of all single elements into the social system. Accordingly, the "freedom, caprice and imagination" of position 1 coincide with the "wisdom" of position 5.

Let us briefly go through each position of the tetralemma of the system: (1) A social system is emergent from communication (as was discussed in the last section). (2) A social system is a system within its environment. (3) In the ways of negotiating inside and outside state, a social system is intelligent if and as long it is able to reproduce itself. Intelligence, then, is the system’s ability to "reflect on an environment"(Gnnther 1962, p. 318; see also Baecker 1994; Lacan 1949; Wiener 1948, p. 162), i.e. to substitute its own knowledge with the non-knowledge of its environment. (4) Both the social system and its environment are set in the implicit context, a causally non-related social realm. (5.1) In the medium of meaning, the social system does not communicate with but about its environment. (5.2) In the medium of rationality, the social system reflects the distinction that it draws. The idea of rationality in position 5 formulates that the re-entry of a distinction into the realm of the distinction (Spencer-Brown 1972) does not claim Truth but rather another distinctionBa position of reflectionBthat sets itself in relation to the "freedom, caprice and imagination" of position 1. The tetralemma of the system thus expresses the oscillation between five analytical positions that help explore and develop some of the key features of social systems in marketing and consumer research.

Systems in Marketing

So far, I have presented (1) an epistemological critique of current representationalist approaches in marketing and consumer research, discussed (2) the tripartite sociological notion of social systems, control and communication, and introduced (3) the tetralemma of the system, an analytical framework for systemic structuration. We are now equipped to delve into the substance of different marketing related social systems that are currently on the rise and of interest to marketing researchers. I will now exemplarily discuss two different social systems in marketing and consumer research: brand systems and protest systems. In the concluding section I will then develop the implications of this paper for our understanding of the relations between consumption, culture and social systems.

Brand Systems

Brands are central to marketing. Yet despite almost universal experience with brands (e.g. Aaker and Joachimsthaler 2000; Biel 1992; De Chernatony 1993; De Chernatony & Dall’Omo Riley 1998; Gordon 1991; Kapferer 1994; Keller 1993; Keller 1998; Marder 1997), they remain poorly understood. Conventional concepts of branding are ill-equipped to guide the creation of brand leadership when consumers socialize. Therefore scholars have recently begun to move thinking away from the traditional consumer-brand dyad to the consumer-brand-consumertriad (e.g. Muniz and O’ Guinn 2001; Holt 2002). Yet much more theorizing remains to be done in order to thoroughly understand brands on the cultural level of analysis. While current research provides a useful insight into the complex cultural processes underlying the construction of brands, it remains silent about the dialectical interplay between agency and structure. Marketing theory is unequipped to answer questions about what Jeff Murray (2002) recently described as "the tension between sign experimentation and sign domination" (p. 42) involved in the cultural construction of brand meaning.

I propose to theorize brands as social systems. In contrast to Douglas and Isherwood (1979, p. 38), who 'systematize’ the entire world of goods as an information system making visible and stable the categories of culture, I 'systemize’ brand specific communication (position 1) as a brand system. A brand system is the "matrix that embeds" (von Foerster 1994) consumers’ and producers’ brand specific communication to establish control over consumption. A brand system organizes, for an observer, the relation between freedom, blindness and dependence: a brand system is free in the way of drawing its distinction (position 2), it is blind for the consequences (position 4); and for the success of its distinction dependent on everything it excludes (position 3). As Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) report:

"[M]any members of the Macintosh brand community derived an important aspect of their community experience from their opposition to PCs, PC users, and PC software giant Microsoft. This opposition to Microsoft is an important source of unity among Macintosh brand community members. Evidence for thisassertion comes from both the face-to-face data, as well as the computer-mediated communication data. The existence of a common enemy against whom to unite makes this brand community particularly strong. The threat from this enemy is made all the more real by the fact that it had succeeded in displacing the Macintoshand assimilating many former Macintosh users by appropriating aspects of the Macintosh operating system." (p. 420)

As the above statement amply illustrates, a great deal of understanding of brand systems can be derived from looking at what they exclude."The existence of a common enemy against whom to unite" makes not only this particular Macintosh brand community strong, but also hints at the intelligence of the larger Apple brand system in which it is set. Brand systems distinguish between brand system and brand environment states and formulate the ongoing oscillation between them. Brand systems are different. Understanding the brand system’s intelligence means to understand the relationship between what the brand system communicates to be and what it rejects (position 3). Market researchers have been slow to see this relationship and slower still to take stock of its significance. Understanding brands means, first of all, looking at what they are not.

Brand systems do not only explain the brand’s social constructedness (e.g. Muniz and O’Guinn 2001; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). They also serve as a cultural resource. In his dialectical theory of consumer culture and branding, Douglas Holt (2002), for instance, concludes that, "brands will become another form of expressive culture, no different in principle from films or television programs or rock bands. Brands that create worlds that strike consumers’ imaginations, that inspire and provoke and stimulate" (p. 87). In the idea of the brand system we find articulated Holt’s (2002) dialectical relationship between consumer culture and branding. Brand systems are a cultural resource, when they formulate some kind of difference, which they do, to argue with Jeff Murray (2002), if and as long as they articulate the tension between sign experimentation and sign domination (position 5.2). Quite literally, brands are alive when they communicate.

Conventional marketing wisdom holds that image brands succeed when "they make an emotional connection with consumers" (e.g. Tybout and Carpenter 2000, p. 88). But how is this emotional connection achieved? Brand systems reflect the tension between how brands are communicated and how an observer sets himself or herself into relation to this communication. Brand systems are, for an observer, "pregnant with meaning" (Turner 1967, p. 44) because they make a difference (Bateson 1972). Yet this difference is subject to a constant shift of attributions (e.g. Heider 1958). As the tetralemma of the system clearly illustrates, the recursive construction of a brand system trough communication brings time into play. Brand meaning, therefore, is highly unstable and merely predictable in its effect and associability. Once the emotional connection with the consumer is subject to such dynamism, the concept of brand image turns out to be impoverished. The insight that ontology conceives the static duality of all being (something either is or is not), leads to the even stronger insight that, if representationalism is lost, so is the idea of brand image. A brand is a mobile army of meanings. Instead of residing in the ontological realms of brand image, market researchers can now strive for and ontogenetical vision of, what I call, brand flow. How do brand systems evolve over time? How are brand systems created, maintained and eventually destroyed through communication? And consequently, how does the brand system’s environment evolve over time? In this way, understanding brand systems and their brand flow could be a critical step in truly actualizing the idea of dynamic brand leadership.

Protest Systems

Another remarkable phenomenon currently of interest to marketing researchers can be summarized like this: some consumers protest. They engage in consumer boycotts and resistance (Friedman 1985, 1995, 1999; Kozinets and Handelman 1998), different forms of market subversion (Penaloza and Price 1993; Dobscha 1998; Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Thompson and Haytko 1997; Kates and Belk 2000), and ultimately emancipate themselves from the restrictive influences of the dominant market culture (e.g. Firat and Dholokia 1998; Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Giesler and Pohlmann 2003a, 2003b; Kozinets 2002, 1999; Murray and Ozanne 1991). Investigating the complex processes involved in the struggle for marketplace empowerment, consumer agency and consumer emancipation, consumer researchers have provided a useful, yet incomplete picture of communally enacted protest behavior.

To distance themselves from their (market dominated) social environment, I propose, consumers construct protest systems. A protest system is understood as an ongoing process of ensuring "outsider status" (Schouten and McAlexander 1995, p, 58; Hebdige 1979) through social communication (see Figure 2). Similar to Victor Turner’s (1978, p. 250) notion of communitas, a protest system is of antistructural character but not necessarily "full of unmediated communication, even communion, between definite and determinate identities, which arises spontaneously in all kinds of groups, situations, and circumstances."

For the success of its distinction, a protest system simply depends on everything it excludes. In his investigation of consumer emancipation at Burning Man, Rob Kozinets (2000) observes that, "it is as if by keeping the market centered in the cultural crosshairs, its alleged evils will be exorcised" (p. 26). Giesler and Pohlmann (2003b; see also Luhmann 1999) theorize this observation as the paradox of consumer emancipation. Although (especially because) the protest system offers an alternative protocol to the mainstream market environment (e.g. through consuming music at Napster as a gift and NOT (distinction) as a commodity), it paradoxically re-imports the social relation between itself and the rejected social entities (position 5.2). Therefore, Kozinets (2002) suggests that, "the urge to differentiate from other consumers drives participation at Burning Man, and does not release them from grip of the market’s sign game and social logics" (p. 36). However, Kozinets goes on to theorize consumer emancipation in hypercommunity context and suggests that consumer emancipation, if possible at all, has to be perceived of as temporary and local. Although Kozinets observes the urge to differentiate as the driving force behind Burning Man (position 1), he fails to close the systemic cycle (position 5 position 1) and the inherent protest rationality. As a result, his concept of hypercommunity fails to acknowledge the role of communication (position 1) and protest intelligence (position 3) for the success of consumer emancipation. A protest system is successful not necessarily if its temporary and local but if and as long it is able to reproduce itself, i.e. to "reflect on an environment" (Gunther 1962, p. 318; see also Baecker 1994; Lacan 1949; Wiener 1948) that is different. Although the Burning Man festival is temporary and locally bound, the Burning Man protest system and its potential for consumer emancipation are not as long as communication takes place (e.g. on the Burning Man Website, the Burning Man Newsletter or in this paper). In this way, understanding protest systems could be a critical step in truly actualizing the idea of consumer emancipation.

Conclusion

Social systems make a difference in marketing. This research has developed and evidenced some of its key facets. It has clearly demonstrated that social systems are an evocative analytical technology that contextualizes a myriad of socio-cultural relationships in marketing and consumer behavior. Social systems in marketing address the socially constructed nature of marketing and consumption as something more than just the summation of images, meanings, norms and values. Social systems in marketing hold that consumer culture is not given and marketing knowledge not constitutedBas in the traditional, representationalist frameworkBbut rather brought forth in the dynamic interaction of observer and observed.

We do not experience culture as an arbitrary set of meaning making conventions. Instead, it appears to us, for most of the time, invisible to the social world it constructs for us. But this does not give us license to "see through" and ignore the patterned quality of social life. Representationalist marketing and consumer research offers many important insights into contemporary marketplace behavior but it fails to let us account for the miracle of modern life, namely, that although we are living in this culture of commotion, we continue to function as a social life world. As Grant McCracken (1998, p. 120) notes, "we are living somewhere between chaos and order, not in the formers clutches. We need a theory that shows how the system remains a system even as systemness is challenged." To do so, this research has demonstrated, theoreticians have to go beyond representationalism and acknowledge, as Gregory Bateson (1972) did, that things are only the epiphenomena of the relations between them. Working with the concept of social systems in marketing means trying to understand the interfaces of relationships, the pattern that connects and the matrix that embeds the plenitude of social, ecological, and informational systems and their environments all around us.

Given Jeff Murray’s (2002) recent call for a balanced consideration of the dialectical interplay between agency and structure, the concept o social systems in marketing presents one possible strategy to pursue this goal in service of a more critical poetics of consumption. In the idea of systems in marketing we find articulated the dialectical and discursive tension between modern society’s attempt to monitor and control itself and the postmodern struggle for consumer agency and marketplace empowerment. Social systems reveal that, as Baecker (2001) noted, "control cannot be mentioned without communication." This research has amply illustrated that social systems are fundamentallysocial entities, created as much by consumers as by marketers in an effort to reduce marketplace complexity through deciding self-referentially over outside reference. Market researchers can now reformulate the way they think about the relations between markets and culture, and consumer agency and marketplace empowerment using the concept of systems.

So far, only few marketing scholars have been willing to brave the profound theoretical issues associated with the study of markets and consumption using the concept of social systems (Giesler and Pohlmann 2003a, 2003b). This hesitancy may stem from the fact that, as Brown (1995) recognizes, "the definition of what constitutes marketing 'knowledge’ has enormous practical implications for the pedagogic process, publication opportunities and, not least, the career paths and employment prospects of individual researchers" (p. 170). During the past decade, most market research has operated within the representationalist framework. And of course, the importance of emphasizing, especially the humanistic, phenomenological, textual and rhetorical generation of marketing knowledge is indisputable. However, thematic imbalance can also reinforce disciplinary boundaries rather than encourage vigorous interdisciplinary dialogue about the nature of knowledge and the problem of interpretation. At this very moment, the social sciences and humanities share a common set of fundamental epistemological problems: logical circularity, paradoxical self-reference, unpredictable recursivity and self-organization, to name just a few (e.g. Davis 1998; Haraway 1991; Hayles 1999; Latour 1993; Serres 1981). The concept of social systems in marketing demonstrates the cross-fertilization of humanistic and social-scientific theories; it is "the white box emerging from two interacting black boxes" (Glanville 1979, 1982) C.P. Snow (1959) once called "the two cultures" on general epistemological questions of interpretation.

Once thoroughly implemented in their research agenda, social systems enable marketing researchers to relate to methodological concerns new epistemological questions of the social distinction between actor and observer, the ecological distinction between social form of emancipation and its environment, and the temporal distinction between past, present, and future. Then they can strive to improve the discipline’s instruments of analysis and to build a greater amount of complexity into the self-description of consumer culture. As if by itself, more precision and rigor in one’s own communication makes visible what it excludes.


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