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Thomas Burr
Thomas Burr
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Research​ Projects

In the last few years I have published some articles on consumer markets. In my dissertation I researched the national bicycle markets of Britain, France, and the United States in the period 1875 to 1910. Since then I have extended the time period back to 1865 and forward to 1914. These case studies have helped me develop a unique perspective on consumer markets.

The analysis of consumer markets is distributed across three mutually exclusive sub-disciplines in sociology (the sociology of markets, of commodity chains, and of consumption); three different sub-disciplines of economics (the economics of markets [really, of industries], of consumption, and of innovation); two aspects of marketing (consumer behavior and the product life-cycle); and geography (production networks). Researchers look variously at "culture," at "institutions," or at prices and sales volume, at different levels of analysis.

The fact that many different sets of scholars each study only certain aspects of markets, especially of consumer markets, is understandable, but problematic. Academic specialization helps scholars become experts in their fields, and develop new insights. However, in actual in the world, unlike in markets as academics understand them, many different social actors are constantly in relation to each other either directly or indirectly. For instance, consumers need producers to get the products that they want to use. Producers know that consumers (a) are their sole source of revenue and (b) want usable products. Intermediaries distribute producers' products to consumers and funnel money and consumer information back to producers. Thus, producers, distributors, and consumers are tightly interdependent, and all operate within a socially structured environment.

I have therefore tried to analyze how industries and their consumer bases interact over time by synthesizing ideas from different sub-disciplines of sociology, marketing, economics, and geography. It has been slow going and rather messy, but the data I collected on a number of research trips has provided me with new angles on a number of topics. Here are some basic results:

- Groups of producers and of consumers interact over time, responding to each other and to their respective institutional and macroeconomic environments. Varied environments lead to variations in market trajectories (variations in the product life-cycle).

- Consumers organize collectively in institutionally structured patterns to improve conditions of product use, which supports the market.

- In new markets, both producers and consumers work together to legitimize new products - to make them acceptable to use, and therefore to make their production and sale profitable.

- More generally, both producers and consumers try to increase demand indirectly by improving social environments for product use, not merely by trying to increase sales directly through, say, advertising.

- Market-wide institutions such as trade shows and trade publications facilitate product distribution. These seem to be especially important in distribution markets composed of numerous small producers and numerous small retailers, and with relatively loose relations between those producers and distributors.

- Consumers often collectively try to shape product design by testing producers' innovations and offering feedback through institutionally structured channels.

Right now further research is going in two different directions. First, the research so far has been consumer-heavy, and I want to collect more data on producers and distributors. Ultimately I would like to publish this research as a book. Also, I am beginning to apply this same approach to circus history. Both bicycles and circus may seem like quirky case studies for economic sociology. However, over one billion people ride bicycles daily on this planet, and circus is historically significant, as it was THE main form of entertainment in America and Western Europe before the 1910s. Furthermore, comparative study shows how societies produce and consume these objects and practices very differently.

Second, I have started a new project on trade shows. The scholarly literature on trade shows to date consists of over 100 articles written by scholars in marketing, who have a very applied orientation. Only a few articles in sociology, anthropology, and geography have been published, yet there is a great deal to be learned about them. There are thousands of international, national, and regional trade shows every year around the world, collectively serving hundreds of industries. They seem to me to be one of the basic institutions of capitalist distribution, and there are so many opportunities for comparative research - comparing trade shows in different industries, comparing them by historical period, and comparing different national traditions and institutions - which could lead to testable hypotheses about shows.

Finally, in a seemingly unrelated project, I am beginning to express my interests in long-term global history in a book. I have written up course materials into a book, which is in a very early stage. Each semester I revise it, but it will take a few years to be finished.