Astrid Van den Bossche


DPhil Programme in Management Studies






Started in 2013

By Astrid Van den Bossche

On interdisciplinarity, your advertising scepticism, and children’s picture books

Needless to say that given the morally dubious status of the business realm, the prejudice seeps through to the business school’s academic denizens and their research activities. But I suspect only a small percentage of my colleagues would agree the bulk of their work can be described as narrowly as ‘how to make more money.’ If anything, we’re at a business school because we have a common interest: organisations and exchange at a variety of levels and from a variety of perspectives. Not just the accumulation of capital.

In fact, most of us could probably make ourselves at home at other departments. It’s a common acknowledgement that management studies draws heavily from older and more established disciplines to fuel the fires of its own research. The debt extends from psychology, sociology and anthropology, to physics and economics as sources of theory and methodology, but also as ancestors to the types of questions we ask. Slowly but surely, these commonalities and synergies are being rediscovered and embraced.

Last week, a group of interdisciplinary enthusiasts gathered for another Engaging with the Humanities event—this time for a panel discussion about how business and the humanities can become relevant to each other. Scrap that; how the fields are relevant but why the interface leaves much to be desired. The debate featured examples of the fruitfulness of and difficulties in producing such boundary-spanning research. Yet most comments only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the treasure trove that is the humanities for subjects to study, and the insights into management that business can contribute, what about methodological interdisciplinarity, for example?

I didn’t get a chance to add my two cents, but here is my confession: though technically part of the consumer research (that’s marketing) clan, I am a humanities scholar at heart. For this last post, allow me to present my own work as an example of how interdisciplinarity could yield some pretty cool research. At least, I think it’s cool—I have to, or the doctoral condition would become unbearable.

In marketing speak, I study ‘early childhood socialisation into consumer behaviour and (specifically) advertising scepticism.’ In plain English, I am interested in how we learn, as children, to become sceptical of ads. It’s not just a question of undergoing some kind of purchase trauma or intense parental drilling. If that were the case, we’d be pretty dupable, because we’d need to make a lot of mistakes, or read a lot of warning labels, to become savvy consumers. (Yes, I know you remember the first time you felt cheated in a purchase. Did it prevent you from ever buying anything again? I think not—imagine the consequences.)

No, it’s something else: our amazing ability to read and make inferences in a world that is constantly changing. If Patagonia can say, “Don’t buy this jacket,” and actually mean, “only buy this jacket (and maybe an accessory or two),” it’s because we have magical powers of interpretation. Somehow we know what they really want, and in a split second, we’ve also decided to care, not to care, to look out for a Patagonia sale, or to rant about their obnoxiousness. That’s a lot of seemingly effortless ‘processing’ on our parts, and how we learn to do this is a daunting research question.

In order to lift a tiny tip of the veil, I thought it would be neat to look at how we talk to children about money and consumption while they are developing the skills of interpretation and inference. How exactly do we frame the issue of poverty or the concept of a loan to three-year-olds? What exactly are we saying in The Gruffalo or This is not my hat about lying and deceit, property and theft? And, considering what I might conclude, is it really that surprising most consumers are sceptical, yet advertising still booms as an industry? Is it really that surprising we allow financial considerations into our moral decision making?

I will focus on analysing the materials through a cognitive/literary lens and drawing wider inferences through computational methods. Both approaches are pretty new in the humanities, but also have natural synergies with the marketing discipline. Pointing these out is just as big a part of my work as my actual research question. But before I can do that, I will need to read a lot of picture books. So as my parting words, a question to you: Can you think of a picture book I should definitely include in my study?

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