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The spirit of Kellogg: teaching and research

Professor Robert Kozinets

Prof. Robert Kozinets  
Professor Robert Kozinets  
Assistant 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.

Kellogg 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 cutting-edge research?

Professor 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.

What excites you most about the research you're conducting?

To be 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.

What are some possible ramifications of your research findings?

There 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 so far.

How are media companies dealing with this apparent threat to their stability?

So far, 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.

You've also done some interesting investigations into consumer behavior, including at Burning Man. What are your interests in this regard?

I'm interested 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.

That sounds fascinating. What are some of the implications of this research?

There 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.

That 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?

Into the unknown, of course! Next up are pagan groups, new age gatherings, UFO devotees, and violent videogame communities. [laughs enthusiastically]

Given 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?

Explaining 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.

To people 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.

What 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?

The bottom 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.

Say a bit about the interplay between your role as teacher and as researcher. How does one role inform the other?

When you 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.

©2001 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University