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Divergent representational practices in advertising and consumer research: some thoughts on integration

Chris Hackley

Introduction
Empirical fact and imaginative truth in textual representation In Oscar Wilde's last reported public lecture in March, 1888, he said of the forger of Jacobean plays, Chatterton:
Chatterton may not have had the moral conscience which is truth to fact ± but he had the artistic conscience which is truth to Beauty. He had the artist's yearning to represent and if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery he needs must forge.

The author Chris Hackley is Senior Lecturer at the Birmingam Business School, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK. Keywords Research, Advertising, Advertising agencies, Representation Abstract This essay refers to working practices in advertising agency research as a source of reflection on representational practices in the wider worlds of consumer research. The representational conventions of ``the essay'' allow the paper's exploratory theme to be developed through the use of several speculative but connected analogies. ``Divergence'' refers to the differing conventions of representation that obtain within advertising agencies. The counterpoint between artistic representation and empirical fact that was a foundation of Oscar Wilde's writing is used to indicate an important aspect of this divergence. Finally, the hermeneutic circle of consumer research is offered as an integrating perspective. The essay thus explores divergence in the representational practices of advertising and consumer research in order to explore the preconditions for convergence. Electronic access The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at http://www.emeraldinsight.com/researchregister The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at http://www.emeraldinsight.com/1352-2752.htm
Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . pp. 175-183 # MCB UP Limited . ISSN 1352-2752 DOI 10.1108/13522750310478976

``Representation'' here is invoked as a counterpoint to empirical truth. Wilde's criterion of truth was imaginative and aesthetic rather than factual. He felt that art offered a more profound and resonant truth than empirical fact even (or especially) when it did not conform to conventional standards of literal truth. This view reflects a commonly invoked dichotomy that can be traced back to Plato's distinction between the flawed truth of sense perception and the absolute truth of the ideal. This distinction was played out in philosophical debate in terms of rationalism ``versus'' empiricism. Rationalism referred to the truths revealed through rational thought, empiricism to those revealed by sense perception. For centuries rationality was held to be a privileged source of intellectual truth. Modern scientific discourse has inverted this dichotomy so that empirical fact is seen as the privileged form of truth, superior to that arising from the speculative synthesis of ideas. While postmodernist consumer researchers are familiar with the relativistic notion that all texts are constituted through representational practices, many sites of consumer research and marketing practice remain riven with debate between the differing practices that can be invoked to represent consumers. This is especially evident where representational practices diverge between the aesthetic/ imaginative and the empirical/factual traditions. Advertising is a useful source of reflection on representation in consumer research because it is a succinct metaphor for the wider marketing industry. The comparatively tiny advertising industry reflects debates and conflicts that are repeated in many different organisational settings. Advertising agencies are engaged with a central problem of marketing: that is, how to generate insightful understanding of consumers in forms that can be translated into marketing offers and

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Divergent representational practices in advertising

Chris Hackley

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . 175-183

invitations. This can be seen as a problem of representation in a telling sense. A contemporary multi-billion dollar research industry can generate consumer and marketing data on a huge scale. The marketing and consumer landscape of products, services and organisations is moulded by the ways in which these data sets are interpreted and acted on. The question for researchers is ``how can data sets be represented in ways which produce insightful interpretation?'' The interpretive turn in consumer research (Beckmann and Elliott, 2000) and, in particular, the social constructionist influences in this turn (Hackley, 2001a) draw attention to the role of language and discourse in actively constituting its objects. Consumer insight, then, cannot be said to sit among data simply waiting to be seen. Insight is actively constituted through representational practice because they are ontologically inseparable. The criteria by which differing representational practices are categorised and evaluated is, therefore, a key problem for practitioners, academics and, by default, for consumers. In this paper ``representational practice'' refers to the range of textual, rhetorical and political discourses that are invoked to privilege particular representations over alternatives. For example, ``creative'' advertising professionals see consumer behaviour as an imaginative activity realised through symbolic consumption as opposed to a merely instrumental activity driven by rational product evaluations. Consumer behaviour is therefore construed as activity ``inspired'' by the beauty of persuasive and alluring images and ideas. Creative advertising professionals engage with consumer practices in an intuitive and relatively a-theoretical way (Kover, 1995). Agency researchers, too, engage in this quest for consumer insight by employing relatively informal modes of qualitative research (Hackley, 2000) to gain a sense of the consumer experience and meaning in particular consumption contexts. At the same time agencies employ neo-positivistic research methods to try to offer ``hard'' factual data to clients as rational justification for the money they want to spend. Awareness surveys are used to measure the ``impact'' on recognition and memory of advertising campaigns.

Quasi-experimental ``copy-testing'' techniques are used to try to isolate and measure atomised consumer responses to specific aspects of advertisements. Agencies use statistical techniques such as econometrics to try to link sales patterns and advertising exposures. The two broad schools of consumer research, the interpretive and the neopositive, are often the sites of conflict within agencies. In advertising, as in other settings, representational practices are bound up with the traditions and politics of the industry. Selected representational practices become conventional (including the representational practice of representing advertising as a conflict-ridden industry divided by concerns for creativity on the one hand and science on the other). Clearly, the categories ``interpretive'' and ``neo-positivistic'' are not mutually exclusive. The respective categories embrace traditions that have contrasting epistemological and ontological standpoints. Nonetheless, it is equally clear that these categories refer to an influential cultural divide in representing knowledge and the world. C.P. Snow's ``two cultures'' of science and art find many expressions.

Fact and insight in advertising consumer research
The ostensible aim of neo-positivistic research methods in advertising consumer research is to produce facts about consumer likes, dislikes, perceptions and attitudes. Copy-test results and survey findings are not generally regarded as creative interpretations. They are, rather, held to be factual truths, or as near as research can get to factual truths. Increasingly, advertising agencies also draw on interpretive traditions of research to understand consumers and consumption practices in their cultural context. For example, Ogilvy of New York have a ``discovery team'' of anthropologists working on consumer research projects and DDB Needham Worldwide (also of New York) employ account planners with similar skills to conduct, for example, ``deprivation studies'' to seek insights into the role of consumption as social practice (Hackley, 2002). London agencies and consumer research companies have used versions of quasi-ethnography, discourse analysis and semiotics in generating

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Divergent representational practices in advertising

Chris Hackley

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . 175-183

consumer insights (Elliott, 2001). Agencies also engage in informal interpretive research when they interpret focus group data or interviews in order to establish the consumption conventions, practices and meanings surrounding a particular brand or product. Agency professionals sometimes invoke interpretive traditions to justify particular approaches but many describe all their qualitative research as, simply, ``talking to people'' (Hackley, 2001b). Cultural knowledge in advertising consumer research The use or espousal of interpretive research approaches in advertising may be merely instrumental or fashionable but it may also represent the industry's attempt to grasp after an elusive but emerging truth about how advertising ``works''. Specifically, this paper will suggest that two related propositions emerge from advertising agencies' move towards interpretive modes of consumer research. First, advertising's power to resonate with meaning for consumers as a totality rests on culturally situated conditions of understanding. In order for advertising to ``work'' in any way there must be, as a precondition, a complex of cultural knowledge brought to the interpretation of the ad. Following from this, agencies can be said to mobilise a hermeneutic form of understanding in order to grasp and assimilate the consumer cultural meanings that creative advertising must mobilise and exploit. This form of understanding entails an imaginative leap from barren data to a sympathetic understanding of the consumer situation. These propositions are implied in previous consumer research on advertising, examples of which are cited below. What has been absent from consumer research into advertising thus far has been an exploration of how this cultural understanding comes about in advertising agencies through particular representational practices of consumer research. Many consumer researchers working within differing interpretive traditions have suggested that a considerable base of cultural knowledge is a precondition for ``reading'' and hence interpreting advertising (e.g. Scott, 1994; McCracken, 1986; Thompson et al., 1994; Mick and Buhl, 1992). Sherry (1985, pp. 1, 3, cited in Mick, 1986) suggests that advertising may be seen as a ``cultural

document, a way of construing'' (p. 203). Mick (1986) writes of advertising's power to exploit cultural semiosis in order to suggestively transfer meanings from culture to product. This transference of meaning demands cultural knowledge as a precondition, both on the part of the consumer, and on the part of the advertising agency. The power of advertising to resonate with meaning for consumer groups can be seen to rest significantly on the agency's ability to gather, assimilate and creatively transform, consumer cultural knowledge. Making reality in consumer research entails representational practices that are, often, taken for granted (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1992). In advertising agencies the political conflict that surrounds the uses of consumer research can be seen as a force destabilising such practices in a kind of critical dialectic. Hence under some conditions advertising agencies are useful laboratories for studying consumer research in action. Many international agencies, then, seem to be employing techniques of consumer research that draw on interpretive traditions in addition (and often in opposition to) neo-positivistic forms of research such as copy-testing. The implication of this is that, if much consumer experience is itself symbolic/ imaginative rather than rational/instrumental, then advertising consumer research that generates representations of ``factual'' data offers only partial insights. On the other hand, research that creatively interprets consumer data within its cultural context may generate insights that can more readily be turned to commercial purposes. What has occurred in the industry, then, is not simply a change in methodological fashion but a change in representational practice.

Representation and interpretation in advertising work
Interpretive consumer research in advertising seeks to import fragments of the experiential world of the consumer into the agency. The growing use (or espousal) of ethnographic research traditions in advertising might reflect a general sense that other research approaches cannot capture the consumer experience of advertising as adequately. But what are the assumptions lying behind this trend? As previously noted the ways in which consumer

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Divergent representational practices in advertising

Chris Hackley

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . 175-183

research and, by implication, consumers are represented in agencies are contested. Conflict can result. Account managers tend to be more comfortable with the ``hard'' data of copy-test results and survey data. Creative and account planning staff tend to be more accustomed to using qualitative data as the basis for reasoning and inference concerning creative advertising development. It is important to note that the representational practices of qualitative and interpretive research cannot claim to offer a clearer or more precise picture of consumer reality than quantitative and positivistic representation. Ethnographic techniques, for example, might be thought to generate greater verisimilitude with regard to consumer practices in social context than abstracted survey results since they seek a ``rich'' and detailed description of the consumer's social milieu. But the supposition that an appropriate choice of research methodology can get consumer researchers ``closer'' to reality is highly problematic (Brownlie, 2001, p. 50). If discourse is constitutive of social reality then a ``research methodology'' becomes a system of representation rather than a set of ontological, epistemological and methodological conventions for generating truth. So the ``problem'' of representation in consumer research cannot be avoided through the use of interpretive and qualitative techniques. Interpretive researchers are not ``closer'' to the consumer because what they are trying to get closer to is a social construction of which, as researchers, they are part. Interpretive research works up findings and accounts for events by using discursive strategies that differ from those of positivist research. In advertising agencies there is a demarcation between research results that result from questionnaire surveys, econometric studies or ``copy tests'' on the one hand, and those that derive from interpretations of video, interview transcripts, audio-recorded group discussions, diary records or creative introspection on the other. The ways in which ``insights'' are produced or interpreted differs according to the audience and the particular agency tradition. However, it is widely accepted that clients react differently, and perhaps more credulously, to ``results'' that are cast in a neo-positivist light than they do to results which are more clearly the result of interpretative processes.

Neo-positivist, quantifiable research findings are often represented in terms which produce a sense of scientific objectivity. For postmodernist researchers ``objectivity'' can be seen as a discursive accomplishment of the text itself (Brownlie, 2001, p. 51). What interpretive research practices are equipped to do is to draw attention to the representational conventions being employed through researcher reflexivity (Geertz, 1973). If discourse is constitutive of action then the representational practices employed within advertising agencies are constitutive of the professional practices of account teams. The philosophical ``problem'' of representation becomes less of a practical problem where it is the very practices of representation that constitute professional expertise in a field. Brownlie (2001, p. 58) suggests that:
. . . it is possible to understand the interpretive turn in consumer research as a necessary condition of the voice of the commodified consumer.

The use of interpretive methods signifies that the organisation is giving the consumer the forum to express its collective voice. Acts of interpretation frame what can be ``said and seen'' (Brownlie, 2001, p. 55, citing Sherry, 1987; Woolgar, 1988; Eco, 1985 and others). While the adoption of interpretive modes of representation in advertising agencies can be seen in an instrumental light their use can also change account team practices because assumptions about consumers can be challenged and new representations can supersede old ones. Interpretive research practices can change what advertising account teams can say and see about consumers. ``Theory'' and consumer research The increasing adoption of interpretive consumer research methods by advertising agencies and other commercial research companies reflects an increasing interest from commercial researchers in the theoretical approaches of academic researchers. ``Theory'' has traditionally been a highly problematic issue in advertising as well as in management and organisation practice more broadly. As Kover (1995, p. 596) has noted business people in general and advertising copywriters in particular ``want little to do with theory''; and hence tend to talk about their work in colloquial and a-theoretical terms. For Kover (1995) one important way of deepening understanding of how agencies

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Divergent representational practices in advertising

Chris Hackley

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . 175-183

create advertising was to postulate ``implicit'' theories of communication and to search for hints of these in the ways copywriters talked about their work. Theoretical perspectives offer alternative modes of representation that assist commercial researchers in making their work resonate with clients. In advertising the association of qualitative research with the account planning ``philosophy'' of creative advertising development reflects a view that qualitative research can be particularly useful for feeding into strategy and planning. An interpretive insight can be taken on to frame creative work. A statistical fact or generalised truth may not have this quality. If, as this paper is suggesting, creative interpretation of research data is particularly telling in generating representations that can be translated into action by planners and creative staff, then a model of this process would be useful. The ``hermeneutic circle'' provides such a model.

modes of representation associated with each field. The hermeneutic circle is offered here as a basis for integration of the diverging representational strategies that are employed in consumer and advertising research. The interpretive perspective has been set out at length over the course of two decades of consumer research (Holbrook, 1984; Sherry 1991). It is worth briefly revisiting some major themes established near the beginning of this cycle in order to substantiate the category of ``interpretive'' that this paper uses in discussing representations of advertising consumer research. Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy (1988, p. 400) argued that all knowledge and all science depend on interpretation. They used the concept of the hermeneutic circle to illustrate this:
In the Hermeneutic Circle, an interpreter's tentative grasp of the whole text guides an initial reading of its parts. The detailed reading, in turn, leads towards a revision of the original overview. This dialogue between reader and text then proceeds through subsequent iterations of a circular process that . . . tends towards its own correction . . .

Interpretive research and the hermeneutic circle
In seeking imaginative reconstructions of consumer experience, interpretive research traditions employed within advertising agencies are engaged in a dialectical process. They produce texts of consumer life such as interview or focus group transcripts, videos of observational exercises, and written subjective, introspective or biographical accounts of consumer experience. These are used as the basis for a creative interpretation that is mediated by the evidence of the texts and subject to counter-interpretations of other account team members. Through this process a compelling insight is sought that can ground the creative advertising development process and, moreover, that can bend the creative work to a commercial purpose. The ``hermeneutic circle'' can be used as a rough analogy of the process through which advertising agencies read research data in order to work up representations of consumer life. In invoking the hermeneutic circle in their discussion on the value of interpretive consumer research Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy (1988) did not conceive of human understanding as a different character of thing in physical or social sciences. They did acknowledge that there are divergent

In some advertising agencies a new brief will go straight to the office of the star creative. In other more research-orientated agencies the hermeneutic process begins with research to understand the phenomenon in question. This may include quantitative data regarding the marketing infrastructure, market size, relative market share of competitors and so on. Importantly, it also includes qualitative research to understand what a particular brand or consumption practice means to consumers. The marketing data can substantiate the case for advertising. The qualitative data offer insights that can frame the creative execution of the advertising in terms that will resonate with the targeted consumer group. The initial focus group data will be imported back to the agency and discussed in planning meetings. Differing views will be aired on what are the important insights that emerge from these data. Eventually agreement will be reached, even if it is only agreement to gather more data, perhaps from a different source. The important thing is that in this hermeneutic process the variation of representational practices afforded by theoretically informed interpretations of qualitative data sets provides the setting for the hermeneutic circle.

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Divergent representational practices in advertising

Chris Hackley

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 6 . Number 3 . 2003 . 175-183

It is perhaps idealistic to propose that consumer research can be discussed in a Socratic spirit when jobs, careers and reputations are at stake. The hermeneutic circle as an analogy of a group process is indeed somewhat idealised. Advertising agency planning meetings are rarely Socratic. The various parties have interests to uphold and political agendas to play out. Nonetheless the analogy might illustrate how differing representational practices in consumer research might be integrated within a purposive framework. The analogy seems particularly apt for advertising since it reflects an interpretative viewpoint on how consumers themselves understand advertising and integrate it into their experience. Hermeneutics and understanding advertising The analysis of all social texts is a hermeneutic task in the broad sense that text and researcher are engaged in a cycle of re-interpretation and substantiation. Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy (1988, p. 400) suggest that humans are seekers after meaning who live ``embedded within a shared system of signs based on public language and other symbolic objects . . .''. Thompson et al. (1994, p. 433) refer to Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy's (1988) use of the hermeneutic circle as a perspective on the culturally situated character of scientific knowledge. They suggest that the hermeneutic circle is most commonly invoked in consumer research as a methodological process for interpreting qualitative data (Thompson et al., 1994, p. 433, citing Hirschman, 1990; Thompson et al., 1989, 1990, in support). Thompson et al. (1994, p. 433, citing Benhabib, 1992, and Faulconer and Williams, 1985, as support) suggest that a third meaning of the hermeneutic circle can be invoked to refer to ``a general model of the process by which understandings are formed''. Within this latter approach they suggest that:
. . . personal understandings are always situated within a network of culturally shared knowledge, beliefs, ideals and taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of social life.

principles enshrined in the hermeneutic circle have been reflected in much consumer research on advertising although the extent to which consumer meanings have been situated within a cultural context has varied. Mick and Buhl (1992, p. 335) used personal interviews for their ``consumer advertising research''. They explored the ways in which consumers read meaning into advertising through a process of ``eisegesis, defined as interpretation that reveals the interpreter's viewpoint'' (Mick and Buhl, 1992, p.333). They conclude that . . .
The motivations and meanings of life are mirrored in the motivations and meanings of advertising experiences. As a result, beyond the sign structure and denotative content of contemporary advertisements, and contrary to the information approach to advertising, there are multiple legitimate interpretations, that is, actualized connotative meanings. Understanding them holistically . . . should become a higher priority in consumer research. Otherwise our theories and knowledge of advertising will remain mechanistic and impoverished (Mick and Buhl, 1992, p. 336).

For Thompson et al. (1994, p. 432) hermeneutic research seeks to elicit insights into the ``unspoken'' background of socially shared meanings by which a person interprets his/her experiences''. The broadly interpretive

These research perspectives show that the hermeneutic circle can be deployed to integrate different forms of culturally mediated understanding. If consumers' engagement with advertising were interpretative in character then advertising agencies would be wise to try to understand consumers in the same way. Scott (1994, p. 462) argues that findings such as those in Mick and Buhl (1992) can be used to ``alter theories of text''. In this sense Scott's (1994) suggestion follows the work of Deighton et al. (1989) regarding the potential for synthesis between approaches to advertising research deriving from literature and from the more individuated advertising research tradition itself. Rather than focusing on what advertising does to the psychology of the consumer Scott (1994) advocates interpretive research that focuses on the strategies consumers employ to read meaning into advertising in their situated social contexts. These strategies may be contingent on particular textual conditions and they may reflect socially situated realities in consumer culture. Advertising consumer research that draws on interpretive traditions might, then, be said to replicate consumer forms of understanding.

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Representing insight in consumer advertising research Interpretive consumer research clearly cannot be represented in terms of a neo-positive epistemology. Findings or insights are contested, tentative, and expressed in terms of relatively intangible arguments. Quotes, metaphors, illustrative exemplars can be used but, rhetorically, the representational practices of interpretive research tend towards argument by persuasive analogy rather than proof. Interpretive research may generate findings that are more or less plausible and well (or less well) argued. They may be supported with corroborating evidence or, alternatively, offered as speculative reasoning based on few, or one, illustrative case(s). However, crucially, hermeneutic epistemologies employ representational strategies that differ from those deriving from positive epistemologies. Hence there is an issue of representation in the ways in which interpretive and other modes of consumer research are communicated. Brownlie (2001) has discussed modes of representation in consumer research in terms of an ontological distinction between the world and the world-as-described. This distinction obtains, he suggests, in the representational practices of marketing research. Brownlie (2001) draws attention to work that has problematised the uses to which language is put in social research. He draws attention to the rhetorical character of all forms of linguistic representation and the cultural norms and social orders that forms of representation (discourses) reflect and reproduce. Stern (1996) makes the social constructionist point that representation of the world cannot rightly be distinguished from the world-in-itself because ``text is the deconstructive locus of reality . . . linguistic forms reproduce the historical and institutional arrangements accepted as `reality''' (p. 137, citing Calas and Smircich, Â 1992). Stern (1996, p. 137) adds trenchantly that ``the realities of social institutions such as marketing, consumption, and advertising are inseparable from the discursive practices displayed in text'' (p. 137). Hence the representational practices of consumer research are far from neutral: they impose epistemological and ontological preconditions on consumer knowledge. Advertising agencies must acquire and assimilate consumer cultural knowledge in

order to populate advertising with signs and symbols that resonate with meaning for particular consumer communities. This process of acquisition and assimilation requires that representations of consumer cultural life are imported into agencies in the form of, either, informal or relatively formalised advertising consumer research. These research texts (videos, interview transcripts, recordings, survey data, etc.) are subject to informal semiotic, ethnographic and deconstructive interpretive strategies within agencies. If agencies are to produce advertising that resonates with meaning for consumers this interpretive process must entail an imaginative leap into the consumer's world. As Scott (1994, p. 463) notes, texts cannot compel understanding but:
. . . what binds together the intention and the anticipated response is shared knowledge of cultural conventions and the invocation of probable strategies for reading.

This implies that complex and culturally informed reading strategies are required to enable advertising professionals to realise the potential insights in consumer research data. The empirical fact in itself cannot constitute insight unless its meaning and symbolism are imaginatively construed. That is, insight entails inference that goes beyond the logic of the fact and demands a complex synthesis of disparate ideas. As Wilde averred, art (and perhaps the art of and in advertising) does not represent factual truth. Rather, it demands a creative engagement with factual truth. In advertising agencies the interpretive consumer research traditions provide a way of articulating this creative engagement. The representational practices of interpretive consumer research do not hold a mirror up to consumer reality. Yet they may be more powerful than their neo-positivist counterparts in providing the cultural material for turning art to a commercial purpose. Wilde's most important essay, The Decay of Lying, was not written in advocacy of untruth. It implied that beauty, or imagination, could yield a higher form of truth. In this principle Wilde's art reproduced Plato's idealistic epistemology. Commercial sites of consumer research such as advertising are beginning to acknowledge the value of interpretative theory for constructing, and legitimising, imaginative representations of consumers and consumption.

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Concluding comment
This essay has tried to explore divergence in representational practices with reference to current practices in advertising agency consumer research. In so doing the essay aimed to establish some of the preconditions for convergence of these practices. The essay used several analogies to speculatively develop its themes. In particular it referred to the philosophical divide between empiricism and rationalism and the ways in which this ``two cultures'' epistemology may be reproduced within areas of consumer research theory and practice. While acknowledging that many techniques of consumer research cannot be placed neatly into mutually exclusive categories, the essay did suggest that there is an element of divergence that can be seen as a divergence of representational practice as opposed to one of epistemology or methodology. The ``hermeneutic circle'' was offered as an analogy that can be seen as an integrating perspective. As such it might indicate possibilities for research and practice in consumer research that explicitly recognise the representational character of the field and broaden the possibilities for integrated research approaches.

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