The spirit of Kellogg: teaching and research
Professor Robert Kozinets
Professor of Marketing Robert Kozinets discusses the
aspects of Kellogg's culture that contribute to the school's
powerful research environment. In addition, Professor Kozinets
explains what is most compelling to him about his own research
in media management, technology consumption and consumer subcultures,
among other phenomena.
World: What do you think makes Kellogg an exciting place
to teach and research? Can you isolate a couple key components
that make the school a dynamic environment in which to conduct
Robert Kozinets: Clearly, its the world-class faculty and
the world-class students. I was very fortunate to have [Professor]
John [Sherry] as a mentor, but a number of other Kellogg faculty
members have been very mentorly to me, and have helped me
and my research along in many ways. Brian Sternthal has been
very supportive. I've also had the pleasure of several very
interesting discussions with Paul Hirsch and Marc Ventresca.
I've gotten together with people in communications studies,
and with colleagues who are doing great work in our world-class
sociology department. It's obviously the meeting of minds
that takes place at such a high level. Of course, we get a
lot of institutional support for our research. I feel wonderful
about the way Dean Jain and Associate Deans Robert Magee and
David Besanko have really put research out front, publicized
it, helped us to demonstrate its usefulness to the students,
business, and the public.
excites you most about the research you're conducting?
honest, its doing the research itself that excite me. Getting
out into a field site and exploring it, learning about it,
learning new customs, rituals, meeting new people. That's
the whole reason I got into this business in the first place.
I'm a curious person by nature, and I love to talk to people,
to get into their heads and their lives and connect with them.
Anthropology does that. It allows me to see the perspective
of the Other, and then figure out some ways to make that useful
and interesting enough that other people are going to want
to hear what I have to say them. As an anthropologist, there
is plenty to see and do in the field. Good research is the
research that transforms you, that causes you to look at yourself
and the world differently.
are some possible ramifications of your research findings?
are lots of ramifications. Virtual communities are empowering
people like never before (something we're seeing in the post-9-11-01
world, where many of the terrorists used the Internet extensively
for their communications). The world is becoming much smaller
because the ability to find and create communities with common
interests has vastly increased. I have a friend who is a member
of a beading virtual community. No one in her neighborhood
could care less about beading, but she and other beading connoisseurs
go online almost every night and chat, scan in pictures of
their beading and send each other stuff. To me, some of the
interesting implications are in what happens when consumers
get empowered by this technology/community. What develops
is consumer activism and letter writing. Then we get Napster.
Soon we have to start talking about what I call the "coming
post-copyright apocalypse." Copyright is just years from
being unsustainable. We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg
are media companies dealing with this apparent threat to their
they're hiding their heads in the sand, trying to fight the
invaders with legal weaponry. But it's utterly ineffective.
Yet the mass media doesn't find that story interesting anymore.
What I've done is tried to be at the crest of this still-cresting
wave, by not only writing about virtual communities, but by
formulating a new method that a range of other researchers
from around the world (most of them grad students in European
universities) are already using to study virtual communities.
It extends traditional anthropology into what I have called
"netnography": anthropology online, the study of
eTribes rather than tribes, a method adapted to the quandaries
and qualities of cyberspace.
also done some interesting investigations into consumer behavior,
including at Burning Man. What are your interests in this
in how we can rejuvenate and revivify the marketplace experience.
At Burning Man, when people think that they've somehow escaped
or eluded the market, they have a great time. They are people
who think that the social logics dominated by the market lead
to a less expressive, less communal, less fulfilling life.
In the absence of the market, life itself turns in art, and
a festival. Yet my work on Wal-Mart and ESPN Zone suggests
that it's not necessary to escape the market at all to fulfill
this hunger for community and even self-expression. There
are many other ways that retailers can go about configuring
the experience of retailing to satisfy these deeper, human,
spiritual needs of consumers that we seem to shy away from
as business people, but which I believe will be increasingly
urgent as business plays a more therapeutic role in the 21st
century social economy.
sounds fascinating. What are some of the implications of this
are lots of other implications: that consumption has become
institutionalized as a "good" (and engine of progress
no less) and thus invisible and impervious to many kinds of
important social critiques. In addition, consumers generally
tend to leave the future to people who know better, and simply
pick and choose from the technology that they see as almost
out of their control (rather than the opposite, current model
that says technology is driven by consumer choice and demand).
Some stigmatic groups, such as particular "Star Trek"
fans, actually consider their communities to function like
a religion, but what they are really saying is that popular
culture is one of the few areas of social space in which human
being can invest themselves emotionally, carving out a sense
of unique identity and what matters to them in life.
last point in particular would seem to merit considerable
reflection. It speaks volumes about our current socio-political
environment. Where do you see your research heading from here?
unknown, of course! Next up are pagan groups, new age gatherings,
UFO devotees, and violent videogame communities. [laughs enthusiastically]
the great creativity associated with your research, as well
as what some might consider the avant-garde subject matter,
have you encountered any difficulties discussing your work
with your peers?
my research to people has been a challenge from Day One. But
people are fairly open-minded. There are some groups of researchers
who just don't see the value in anthropology. They don't consider
it a science, and so dismiss it. That's their loss, I think.
If they ask politely, I'll explain politely. Otherwise, we
kind of go our separate ways. The few dozen people around
the world who conduct similar kinds of research form a supportive,
cohesive community, and I feel I've been very blessed to be
working with such a great group of devoted, brilliant scholars.
who actually do marketing, the value of what I do is almost
instantly obvious. Understanding a consumer's worldview, perspective,
fears, dreams, desires, tastes, feelings, the symbols that
matter to him or her, these are all vital everyday matters
for marketers, and the marketers I talk to are always very
interested in hearing more about my methods and findings.
aspects of your research have most surprised you? What have
you discovered that you may not have expected to find, and
how has this discovery informed subsequent research?
line I give my students always revolves around the fact that,
when we actually go out and talk to them, watch them, try
to get inside their homes and their lifeworlds, consumers
are far more creative, resourceful, self-expressive, different,
communal, and hungry for meaning than we ever gave them credit
for. My research starts from the ground up, so I really don't
walk into a place like Burning Man expecting particular theoretical
things to be in evidence there. I keep my eyes open and go.
What do I expect? I expect the experience to change me, in
big or little ways. I expect to be challenged, personally
and professionally. I expect to learn a lot. I expect it to
be a hard time forcing that knowledge into the theoretical
structures demanded by the top journals, and therefore demanded
by the promotion and tenure committees. I expect it to be
worth it. So far, I love what I do.
a bit about the interplay between your role as teacher and
as researcher. How does one role inform the other?
understand how to understand consumers, you've figured out
an extremely important, rare and valuable part of marketing.
I try not to tell my students too much about what I've found
in the various cultures and subcultures I've studied, but
to give them the research tools they need to make their own
discoveries. If I didn't know how to research, I wouldn't
be able to teach it. And if I didn't have students pushing
me on, asking me questions about virtual communities and Napster
and entertainment in the future, then I wouldn't push as hard
as I do to develop techniques and frameworks for them, and
to keep pushing further into the new, dark, cool, crevices
of our consumer-oriented society.