Cultural Studies meet Trends Studies

A Critical Review on Trend Forecasters handbook by Martin Raymond and An Introduction to Cultural Studies: Theory and  Practice by Chris Barker

Jorge Rodriguez Nieto · Tópicos em Estudos de Cultura II · PhD Program in Cultural Studies Program in Culture and Communication · School of Arts and Humanities · University of Lisbon, January 4/ 2018 

The two texts that have been chosen for this critical review are Martin Raymond´s  (2010) Trends Forecasters Handbook and An introduction to Cultural Studies by Chris Barker (2008).

The purpose of articulating these two texts is to establish connections between the basic definitions of Trend Studies and Cultural Studies. Two fields of research with both humanistic and scientific foundations. This link should help build a new perspective for the study of trends provided they work on humanistic perspective that can be intertwined with a business side of culture.

  Martin Raymond (2010) is currently one of the key thinkers for Trend Studies and brings with this book a non-academic perspective in an effort to integrate knowledge into business. On the other side, Chris Barker (2008) sets a group of relevant definitions and considerations around Cultural Studies that help us create a framework for it. Both texts are somehow introductory and descriptive and open the opportunity to establish relations between concepts.

In his work, Martin Raymond (2010) approaches a methodology for spotting and analysing trends as a way to understand consumers and market contexts in relation to cultural change. When the author describes trends in the first chapter of the book, he mentions:

although from the 60s onwards, thanks to the activity of economists writers, mystics and social scientists such as Herman Kahn, Pierre Wack, Michel Godet and Peter Schwartz, this term (tendency) began to be associated also with aspects of our culture more difficult to quantify, such as the emotional, structural, psychological or lifestyle changes that lead people to wear short skirts and not long, to buy frozen vegetables instead of fresh, to choose a brand of car more than another, or to use a PC instead of a Mac.

(Raymond 2010:14)

The structure of the book in the first and second chapters offers a step-by-step method for aspiring trend forecasters to work professionally. Chapters three and four are dedicated to the understanding of mindsets and how knowledge management may work, understanding networks their structures, and the way information flows through them. Chapter five brings some very interesting concepts about the cultural triangulation that provides the key for real understanding of cultural impact of trends and how to approach it. More than just a method, this book provides tools to understand how knowledge, information, Visual communication and behaviour analysis can help us plan future strategies for companies and organisations.

Chris Barker (2008) on his work provides an interesting overview and context starting with the intellectual scope of Cultural Studies, he reminds us about how marxism, capitalism, culturalism, structuralism, post-structuralism and other mindsets and ideologies are said the skeleton for this body of knowledge.

One important thing for the purpose of this review, that Barker provides in his article, is the inclusion of topics as feminism, colonialism and post-colonialism, ethnicity, hybridity, language, pop culture, location and globalisation as key elements to be considered in the study of culture. All these elements are crucial in the study of trends too, since lifestyle and identity are somehow the centre of it and reveal how consumer society works today and towards the future as presented by the work of Henrik Vejlgaard (2008), Peter A. Gloor and Scott M. Cooper (2007), Malcolm Gladwell (1997) Amy Webb (2016) and Guillaume Erner (2009)

One of the key ideas in this work is about today´s consumption, not just as a commercial exchange anymore, but as a cultural statement, a political act and even a way of expressing individualism, identity and ideology. When Raymond (2010) created the trends forecasters handbook, many technological tools that we have today, such as big data, the semantic web, spyware and tracking algorithms, and cookies, to explore and analyse human behaviour where not yet being used to understand consumption and the way society moves. Trends analysis today may not only be a matter of instinct, but also a matter of data and the management of all the resources a trend forecaster has beyond methods, traditional tools and his own instinct, a delicate balance between rationality and a human holistic self understanding (Raymond, 2010: 37-40). Companies like PSFK or WGSN use a balance of human talent and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to develop deeper analysis of the information, verify sources and filter false leads.

The first criticism for Raymond´s work is about the way trends are explained (Raymond, 2010: 12-17). Possibly in an effort to make it easier for the reader, he presents signals to be understood as trends, which to start understanding Trends Studies could generate confusion to novice readers. As we know, signals or objects, as he defines them (Raymond, 2010: 34), are a manifestation of deeper phenomena happening in society. Objects are not trends. Objects are the materialisation of human agreement, intention and preference. They are the tip of the iceberg, that tiny element we see that is always more complex than we imagine before we study its origins and consequences. So, mixing both concepts does not really help the reader to differentiate between trends, their directions and the objects, or signals, that reveal them.

The second criticism is about the curve of innovation diffusion, studied by Prof. Everett Rogers in his book Diffusion of innovations published in 1962, that considers five key elements of this process: Invention, Adopters, Communication Channels, Time and Social System. What Raymond presents us (Raymond, 2010: 19) is closer to a map of actors that activate a social process of influence related to the diffusion of preferences and choices. These actors are very relevant for the process, but do not constitute the process itself. The process of diffusion of innovations involves a whole system of variables and circumstances that include these actors. The diamond model created by Henrik Vejgaard in Anatomy of a Trend (2008:36-64) represents relationships, exchange and communication between key individuals, social groups on their dialogue around objects and ideas, but does not define or explain the process as we can see in the second chapter “The Cast of Characters: Trend Creators and Trendsetters” (Vejgaard, 2008:36-64) of his work Anatomy of a Trend (2008). This cast of characters alone does not constitute a clear model that may articulate a deeper analysis, when we are studying the uncertainty of cultural change.

Two powerful concepts are presented by Raymond in his book: Homeophilia, that similarity or desire to  be like others that makes the majority of people feel safe and Heterophilia, understood as the tendency of groups to be more open and enthusiastic about change,relate to wider and ethnically diverse social circles (Raymond, 2010: 29:31) that can link to Barker´s (and ´even more specifically Canclini´s) references to cultural hybridisation in his book Hybrid Cultures (1999), since they understand culture not as a fixed scene, but as a continuum constantly mutating . If we wanted to go a bit further, we may even include the concept of liquid modernity as stated by Zygmunt Bauman in most of his work between 2000 and 2007 when he wrote: Liquid Modernity (2000) and: Culture in a Liquid Modern World (2011) . These concepts add complexity to this attempt to link cultural and trend studies, since it becomes especially complex to work under these changing conditions. Here it can be realise no fixed formula or model may apply to any of them but there are tools and perspectives to approach these changing factors. Homeophilia and Heterophilia represent the type of contexts where we currently coexist and try to make sense as human beings.

The section about Piers Fawkes, founder of PSFK (Raymond, 2010: 37-40) shows a very accurate link between social sciences, business and trends. The way Fawkes researches, analyses and comes up with tailor-made solutions for his clients, make a good fit for these three fields of work.

Transcultural analysis is presented as method for verification and evaluation and provides the evidence and proof of any analysis previously performed (Raymond, 2010: 44-65). In terms of research projects, transcultural analysis also brings an international approach to any social or business enterprise willing to understand broader or global markets as a bigger opportunity. Practical activities and exercises are also provided by the book as tools for the trend forecaster to perform service, like how to create analysis walls as trendboarding, how to run an analysis session, among others (Raymond, 2010: 61). But this collection of examples unfortunately doesn’t constitute a guide to develop a trends research project. These activities may stimulate ideas and personal methods for agencies to establish their own way of researching and somehow also relate to some of the signifying practices described by Barker (2008) in his text: representation, articulation, popular culture and identity (Barker, 2008: 7-12) with Chapters 3, 4 and 5 from Raymond´s book is interesting from the developing of the mindset point of view. This means that they are helpful when reflecting on the way we think as professionals and researchers and on the way we capture and filter key information that becomes part of our research projects either Cultural or Trend Studies. It is interesting to link these chapters of Raymond´s work to the psychoanalysis and subjectivity section (Barker, 2008: 22-25) on Barker’s document and understand Barker’s politics of difference as filters that can bias any researcher or any trend forecaster when performing intuitive collection of data or physical evidence for a project. How our own human nature, as stated by both authors, can be either an excellent tool or an element of risk for the results of any investigation. Subjectivity  and language may play a dangerous role here as they are mutable when transmitted. Class and capitalism (as approached by Marxism) provide a more contrasting perspective to the regular approach of clients and companies developing trends analysis for business, but have meeting points in class division, commodification and economic determinism. All being examined from both sides in a 360º Vision.. Trends Studies do not see consumers as victims of capitalism, but as active creators of both ideology and hegemony and brands and companies depending on understanding them. Certainly a relation of power.

In terms of Culturalism, Trends Studies may offer many topics to be linked and explored from the perspective of Raymond Williams and his Structure of Felling Williams, (1975) as he defines the actual living, the deep community that makes communication possible, a sense of belonging and the ability of decoding specific manifestations within human communities and social groups. A notion and understanding of the subtle way culture changes and evolves that cannot ignore consumption or popular expressions.

In terms of Structuralism, where the social system, institutions, regulations, governance and policy determining at a great extent the transformation culture and society Barker (2008), Trends Studies do need to consider – apart from categorising the state of the cycles or the stage of a momentum – which would be those structures and factors that shape the evolution of certain trends. Public policy for example is currently one powerful pattern changer that redirects social movements and public opinion. More methods for an structuralist analysis of these forces would definitely help trends studies for explaining the roots of certain trends and their direction. Language is another key element for cultural studies as expressed by Barker in his text (Barker, 2008: 26:28), not only a transformative element and powerful signal when it comes to trend analysis, but the system we build our universe with. It is the way we provide meaning to things and express their meaning among each other that makes the diffusion of innovations and practices possible. It is somehow the channel where we exchange their importance and adopt preferences.

On the other hand, strategic intuition as described by Raymond (Raymond, 2010:78) seems nothing more than the exaltation of individual and already recognised talents inside the trends industry, which doesn’t mean it is necessarily a resource for professional trend forecasters, but a skill that they need to develop, in order to enter some kind of privilege genius circle, (similar to the art world or the design industry). Even though personally profess deep admiration for Li Edelkoort and all other relevant leaders of the trends industry, a forecasters handbook should be more a kind of a tool kit and a knowledge reference than the affirmation of the existence of geniuses that regular professionals will probably never meet. Including case studies should be a way of illustrating how methods and knowledge are implemented. Nevertheless, the tips about the three types of intuition may come in handy for rationalising the way we perform research and discover our own individual mindset and how it works, a fact that is never indicated or even suggested to professionals in sciences as useful as it could be. An interesting topic to reflect would be when a discipline stops being questioned and it’s mindset becomes fully reliable to become valid and follow that process process to Make Trend Studies as relevant as they are.

The next relationship to be made is about the Location of Culture with the reference made by Barker to Raymond Williams, where he states that :

(…) culture is located, to all intents and purposes, with being flexible but identifiable boundaries. That is, understood to be at facet of place. Indeed it is constitutive of place. In so far as culture is a common hallway of life, its boundaries are largely loved into those of nationality and ethnicity, that is, the culture of coma for example, the English or perhaps the British. However, globalisation has made the idea of culture as a whole way of life located we’ve been definite boundaries increasingly problematic (…)”

(Williams apud Barker, 2008: 28)

In this section Barker presents the concepts of Global versus Local that we can see as Mega, Macro and Microtrends meet in trans-local (Robertson, 1992) which depicts not only the simultaneity of Glocal but the transitions between the three types of trends (mega, macro and micro), by virtue of the mobility of cultural elements from one location to another or the growth of impact from regional to global. This concept links smoothly with the notion of collection of information in networks presented by Raymond in chapter four (Raymond, 2010:93-119). Location is no longer exclusively geographical but a position within and interconnected group of participants, whether they are individuals, communities, leaders or institutions and companies. When Barker talks about The Location of Culture mentioning that “the duality of culture lie in its being both “in-place” and of “no-place” (Barker, 2008: 29) Raymond provides one good option, looking at networks as one of the places of culture, understanding that geography is not the only notion for place anymore since the digital world exists. Networks have always being there since humans are social beings, but technology has changed dramatically the way they work. When Barker ask us about what kind of place we call home we may think about  many things today one of them could be where are my people are (Barker, 2008: 29). Very different types of networks are analysed by Raymond (Raymond, 2010:93-119) and some key rules to understand them are provided to the reader. The most important thing about it is the new notion of the role of relationships and how they are a transformational factor for culture and for trends.

Cultural triangulation (Raymond, 2010:119-146) and trends evolution is the answer that comes to my mind to the question How is cultural change possible? We could even also add the question: how is cultural Change measurable? To answer – among other methods – with Cultural Triangulation as a methodology setting new mindsets in business with big companies and organisations (maybe not yet with academia) at combining rational and perceptive, quantitative and qualitative. Left and right sides of the brain in collaboration.

Cultural Triangulation is presented as a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods for researching consumer behaviour, trends and future opportunities (Raymond, 2010:142-146). It seems like a good combination of rational and intuitive analysis that support each other in order to obtain the more accurate and sensitive information that they provide, actionable insights for marketing or commercial strategies. It includes activities that the come from both scientific and creative or social fields. The purpose of this combination is mainly to make intuitive data measurable and understandable by big companies and financial planners. Measuring the level of risk and accuracy of this intuitions will just provide security to decision makers who are normally not used to do this format of information. But the interesting part of cultural triangulation is not only providing security to clients, it is actually being able to operate both sides of the brain. The combination of social sciences with numeric metrics, melting polls, statistics, calculations, but also interviews ethnography, observation, and interpretation of images and language, make all these data and analysis fully reliable for organisations and appeals the mindset of structuralism still so strong in the business world.

Many tools can be chosen according to the project, the client and the context where research will be performed. Nevertheless, the last word and the decisions are still in the hands of human beings. Reports, charts, diagrams and detailed descriptions trigger ideas and confirm or destroy assumptions from decision makers. Cultural triangulation seems to be more a framework than a toolbox and one important part of it is to choose the methods correctly and how they balance and test each other.

Looking at Barker’s text and his statement about rationality and it’s limits It seems clear that cultural triangulation is an efficient method to understand cultural change. When Barker cites Foucault it seems both are talking about Cultural triangulation:  Knowledge is not metaphysical, transcendental or universal; knowledge is a matter of perspective. knowledge is not pure or neutral but is always from the point of view. knowledge is it self implicated in regimes of power (Barker, 2008: 20). Which somehow is what trends research does when providing companies with all the information about context and people that people themselves don’t have.

In order to conclude this critical review I would like say that trends research could become one of the key methodologies in Cultural Studies that Barker mentions at the end article, together with ethnography, textual approaches and reception studies. It maybe too soon for social sciences to include methodologies and tools that have not been born within the scope of Science itself, but it may only be a matter of time and results.

The role of technology in the future of trends research and as a tool to be included in the toolbox of Cultural Studies, may certainly impact the way researchers and companies believe in the information that big data analysis, versus human analysis can provide, but the human factor will still be relevant, in terms of securing a critical perspective and understanding of what humans themselves do. This means that whatever the sources of data and information are, it is probably the analysis what is the key, as this profession and organisations still rely on criteria made by humans about humans. Even though we have faith in science and technology we still believe in myths, narratives and our ability to invent our own present and future.

Both Barker and Raymond may be talking about the same thing and even following the same objectives, of understanding the multiple facets and possibilities of human interaction, its causes and consequences, but just from a slightly different perspective. This exercise has been useful to link concepts, ideas and also authors and references not only to my phD project, but to the methodology for researching trends we have created and currently use at to programs I run in Barcelona. It also provides me with references, foundation and structure for the book on Trends Research methodology that will be published this year. Certainly enjoyed the dialog between authors, perspective and set opportunities to combine them in a deeper research project. (good conclusion)

Agradecimientos a Samuel Lopez por la foto en este post

References

Raymond, Martin (2010).  The Trendforcaster´s Handbook. London: Lawrence King Publishing Ltd

Vejlgaard Henrik (2008), Anatomy of a trend, Copenhagen, Confetti Publishing Denmark.

Gloor Peter A. and Scott M. Cooper (2007),  Coolhunting: Chasing Down the Next Big Thing, New York Amacom Books.

Webb Amy (2016) The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, New York, Perseus Books.

Guillaume Erner (2009) Sociologie des tendances: « Que sais-je ?, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Rogers, Everett (1962 : 1995) Diffusion of innovations. New York, The Free Press – Simon & Schuster.

Gladwell, Malcolm (1997). “The Coolhunt” Annals of style, The New Yorker, March 17, 1997 (78:84)

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