Complex Adaptive Systems and Conversation Analysis: A New Perspective for Consumer Behaviour Research?
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The research question for this study is “Can concepts from complex adaptive systems and conversation analysis be used to research consumer behaviour?" This is, primarily, a theoretical question. After a wide-ranging literature search no scholarly publications linking the qualitative aspects of complex adaptive systems theory to marketing or consumer research were located. In addition, there appear to be few papers on consumer research which use conversation analysis. A theory for the research methodology was developed. It was argued that the production of a research theory and methodology to test the relevance and appropriateness of two very different theories - complex adaptive systems and conversation analysis was the major undertaking of this thesis. The problem of combining an essentially scientific perspective (complex adaptive systems) with an essentially qualitative one (ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) was resolved as part of the research process. A bridging theory was developed through the common ground offered by the sociology of scientific knowledge on the one hand and social-constructionist theory on the other. This methodology was successful in supporting the choice of conversation analysis as the data-collection method and provided the rationale for observing five characteristics of a complex adaptive system. The methodology was tested empirically and, in keeping with exploratory work, iteratively. It is not intended that this type of research will have predictive value. The complex adaptive system studied was consumers in a small group. There were two research locations with six data-collection sessions in each. The first location collected data from organisational groups. The second collected data from groups of consumers convened in a meeting room.Data were transcribed and analysed for all sessions according to the conventions of conversation analysis. In the meeting-room sessions, data were also collected by electronic-group-support-systems technology and subjected to a modified form of content analysis. The broad findings showed the following. The assumption that there was little evidence of interest in complex adaptive systems among consumer behaviour researchers was confirmed. Apart from one paper calling for the use of conversation analysis in consumer behaviour research, there appeared to have been no subsequent reports of its adoption. The potential for conversation analysis in consumer research has probably not been understood because it was seen as a data-collection method only within an ethnomethodological perspective. The discursive theoretical perspective, which gives a prime position to conversation analysis in the construction of factual accounts, was found to be an innovative way to study consumer behaviour. A discursive theoretical research perspective could have provided a more robust theoretical justification for the fieldwork carried out in this study than the theory of the methodology that was first developed for this study. Conversation analysis did meet the five criteria proposed for surfacing a complex adaptive system in a small group but in an unexpected way. It met these criteria through the research process. In other words, by setting up an appropriate research environment and using conversation analysis, it was shown that a complex adaptive system was in operation.An outcome of employing complex adaptive systems theory and conversation analysis is a new way of seeing groups of consumers as a self-organised, nonlinear, interactive entity. Conversation analysis has proven to be a method of empirically observing this entity, whilst preserving the consumer groups' complex adaptiveness. There were three conclusions. The first is that the discursive paradigm appears to be an alternative paradigm for consumer behaviour research that is appropriate for certain applications. For example, marketing communications and word-of-mouth communication. The second conclusion is that when small-group talk-in-interaction is recorded and analysed using conversation analysis, the characteristics of a complex adaptive system theorised in this study seem evident to the researcher. The third is that complex adaptive systems appear to be capable of being researched in the field, but more work is needed on defining the characteristics to be researched.
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