Object-Oriented Approaches to Consumer Research

"An OOO philisophy would encourage consumer researchers to go where the human is not, in order to tell alternative stories of human consumption."
(Campbell and McHugh, OOO:oooh!, in Assembling Consumption)
The curious explorer from the photos below is my daughter. She is turning one soon, and as any one-year old, she is obsessed with objects. She is learning about the world through her senses – so every day is an exploration of textures, forms, densities, tastes, colors, and physical properties. Does this make a sound if I drop it to the floor, can I squish that? She is being in the world (that’s Heiddeger’s concept), she is figuring out that her own existence in the world is tied to that of many, many things.
And the rightful classifier in the photos below is my two and half year old son. As any prescholer, he is also obsessed with things. But this is different. He knows he is a person by now, and that things are separate from him. He classifies, labels, organizes, and picks objects according to ever changing criteria. He is very attached to the objects he likes – cars, mostly – and completely upset if objects he does not like are presented to him. He is learning how to be a social being in the world, and uses objects in this process. He is sorting things out – and that is the title of a really nice book by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star on classification and its consequences.
But if objects are so important in defining who we are and how we socialize, why is it that, as social researchers we have basically let them out of a lot of the learning about the world that we do? One take on this is that we haven´t as much ignored objects as we have considered them too much, or from too upclose. Or what Ian Bogost (check out his cool project Object Lessons), a media studies scholar, calls undermining and overmining positions.
“Undermining positions understand reality as smaller bits, be they quarks, DNA or mathematics. Ordinary things such as sheep or battleships become fictions, tricks that deceive minds too naive to understand their depths. Overmining positions take objects to be less real than the processes and circumstances that produce them.”
So we either put objects under the microscope, or we fetishize them. They are either atoms or culturally laden symbols and tooos – they are never just stuff. But obviously there has been research that falls in between these extremes. And here I highlight four key theoretical streams or theoretical approaches that do take objects into account for what they are:
And some of the names listed in the figure above are the exponents of a particular approach, others are just favorites of mine, really. If you want to learn more about Actor-network theory, you can join this Facebook group, where members share links to many resources. To read about assemblage theory and how it has been applied to consumer research, check out the book Assembling Consumption: Researching Actors, Networks, and Markets. And for Material Culture Studies, a good point of departure are Daniel Miller's books and articles.
Practice Theory may seem to be an unlikely suspect to be among object-oriented approaches, since practices are routinized, meaningful social actions. If you look at the work of Bourdieu on practices, for example, objects are barely visible – he focuses on the social. But Schatski and Shove highlight objects – or materials – as Shove calls them, as a component of practices.

Now, if you want to conduct object-oriented consumer research, what should be your methodology? As Shove highlights when discussing Practice Theory, there are no specific methodologies for conducting object-oriented research. But there are several ways in which researchers can sensitize themselves to objects, and shift the focus to account for the role of objects in consumer culture and consumption-related phenomena.
For those who use ethnography as a research method, the guidelines provided by Sarah Pink in Doing Sensory Ethnography are a great start. Sometimes a simple tweak in the data collection approach adopted in a study can help researchers consider objects and their "provocations", as suggested by Janine Morley on an essay about the sequencing of research methods. Another very useful approach comes from Human geography – and it consists in following things – tracing their origins and trajectories, and that of their parts.

This is what my co-author Bernardo Figueiredo and I did when conducting research on geocaching trackables as we studied the systemic creation of value through circulation in collaborative consumer networks. In another object-oriented study, Marcia Christina Ferreira and I used data from blogs to learn about how consumers interact with plastic shoes and its pre-objectification elements. As we extend this project to learn about consumer collections, we collaborate with Emily Chung to analyze YouTube videos and interviews with informants at their homes. Objects are everywhere we look at.

If you are interested in conducting object-oriented research, there are plenty of examples and resources out there. The most important thing is to understand that objects can be more than culturally-produced artefacts, resources for identity construction or mediators in social interactions. Objects can be seen as provocateurs that make us do and feel things. Objects can be seen as dynamic entities that grow, move, deteriorate, change. Objects are not just things, but also actants, components, materials, substances, human-technology hybrids, animals, and even non-objects (such as the wind, software, the sky, etc). You can see a stone in the middle of the way and walk around it, or you can stop and look at that stone.

Additional Reading:
Borgerson, Janet “The flickering consumer: new materialities and consumer research” Research in Consumer Behavior, 15, 125-144.
Kravets, O, & Örge, Ö. (2010). Iconic Brands A Socio-Material Story. Journal of Material Culture, 15 (2), 205-232.
Brownlie, D., & Hewer, P. (2007). Prime beef cuts: culinary images for thinking ‘men’. Consumption Markets and Culture, 10 (3), 229-250.
Bettany, Shona M., Ben Kerrane, and Margaret K. Hogg. "The material-semiotics of fatherhood: The co-emergence of technology and contemporary fatherhood." Journal of Business Research 67.7 (2014): 1544-1551.