Boghossian and David (2021). Under the Umbrella: Goal-Derived Category Construction and Product Category Nesting.

Johnny Boghossian – Université Laval
Robert J. David – McGill University

Gavin Williamson – University of Tennessee
Tan Kim – University of Tennessee

Article Link:

1.    How did you become interested in product categorization and the idea of category nesting?  Why should other scholars who found your paper interesting study the organization of categories further?

We were initially intrigued by the empirical observation of how new product categories become highly valued by consumers and other stakeholders, sometimes within a few short years. This is important because categorization of all types shape our interaction with the world. Product categories, in particular, are highly relevant to us as organizational scholars. When we begin speaking of the construction of new product categories to our MBA students, they often look at us with suspicion at first, but then get very excited about the notion of collective action and processes that transcend what any single firm or actor does.

The topic of category nesting arose as our research progressed, as opposed to being an a priori interest. When we began our study, we had no idea that we would eventually focus on category nesting. At the start of the project, we were curious about how artisan cheese had become perceived as a product category with a long and rich history in Quebec, despite it actually being of recent origin. However, we quickly found that this was not due to the cheese producers at all. In effect, we too were surprised to uncover the extent of the collective action that took place and the processes that transcended the level of the product category. We now believe that there is often much more that occurs at this higher level of analysis than has been identified in extant research and the study of category nesting can help uncover these larger processes.

2.    One thing we found interesting about this study was the illustration of both successful and unsuccessful attempts to instantiate the Quebec terroir category.  If an entrepreneur or a policymaker asked you for a brief summary what you learned about the do’s and do not’s for creating and nesting new categories from these successes and failures, what would you tell them? requests from the review team were the most challenging?

In short, our takeaway was that one cannot force the issue. In the two failed attempts, macro-actors sought to redefine the meanings ascribed to well-established products that buyers were already accustomed to consuming. In effect, this meant entirely changing the public’s relationship to specific dishes and foods by imbuing them with a new sense of cultural authenticity.

In contrast, the third attempt occurred in a context that was seeing the appearance of many new types of products with which consumers did not have much prior experience. The appearance of artisanal products was fueled by a separate movement in favor of small-scale agriculture. As such, it was much easier to capitalize on this growing interest and inscribe into these products new meanings. Moreover, artisanal producers already sought to produce products with a high degree of personal authenticity, and it was therefore much easier for macro-actors to overlay onto this a discourse of cultural authenticity.

That said, we do not believe that the first two attempts were entirely lost. Throughout the first two periods, actors were learning to work together, and the notion of terroir was developing along the way. In growing waves, market intermediaries were getting accustomed to the idea of a Quebec Terroir, the umbrella category under which artisanal products later became nested. This may also explain the rapid rise in the use of the Quebec Terroir category when the attention ultimately shifted to artisanal products.

3. I think a lot of researchers, especially junior researchers, look at deeply context-embedded studies like this one and think “I would love to do a project like that.”  The challenges with that are you have to 1) be aware of a context where potentially interesting phenomena are lurking, with lots of discoverable information to analyze and 2) commit to a rather large investment time and effort in collecting and analyzing the data.  How did you decide to use the Quebec terroir context for research, and how did you go about leveraging it as a data source?  Were there other data sources related to terroir you considered analyzing, but ultimately did not?

This is a very important question. There is a great deal of intuition involved that junior scholars will develop as they progress along their careers. One cannot know what they will discover in advance of actually conducting the research. However, a good rule of thumb is to look for contradictions. When we embarked on our research, we knew that artisanal cheese was a novel category, but we also knew that it was often portrayed as a product with hundreds of years of history. That contradiction alone seemed to warrant study. Our assumption, based on extant research, was that it was artisanal producers who had worked to fashion these beliefs. When we began our study and found that artisanal producers openly disavowed a long history of cheese-making in the province, this set the stage for yet another contradiction. It was the latter contradiction, with extant theory, that we then set out to resolve throughout the large part of our study.

In terms of data, it is crucial today to find adequate archival data. One source of data that unfortunately often goes untapped in management research is internal government data. As management scholars, we are all very aware of the importance of the state in all facets of markets. Moreover, Western governments are not only required by law to maintain their internal records, but to also release them upon request. One cannot imagine a better set of circumstances for data collection. Governments often maintain rich records of their activities, all the way down to the level of correspondence between individuals. Citizens have access to this data by virtue of laws such as the Access to Information Act in Canada or the Freedom of Information Act in the United States. Even once redacted, the data often remains very useful. Beyond information requests submitted to specific government departments, governments often transfer their older records to government archives and libraries that are accessible to the public. For our study, we submitted information requests to and visited the library of the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We also found the archival data of the main hospitality institute (another public institution) at the Quebec National Archives.

4.    You note in the paper that “surprising and unexpected initial findings forced us to suspend our initial notions and motivated our subsequent inquiry.”  How did you navigate the changes to research questions and preconceived notion that occur so often in qualitative research?  How would you advise others manage these changes, especially when it comes to keeping clear coding from start to finish?

This question touches on the points we alluded to above, specifically with respect to being attentive to contradictions in the field and with theory. What we did not mention above was that this is neither easy nor linear. Your question asks how to keep clear coding from start to finish. When the research question itself is changing and one’s understanding of the context is transforming, it is virtually impossible to maintain clear coding from start to finish. We had to restart our coding with a clean slate more than once. Ideally this would not have been necessary, but then we may not have been uncovering anything particularly novel either.  

Co-authorship was also helpful here, at least in our case. When working with rich qualitative data and, as you point out, the need to revisit and recode the data, we found it important to spend a lot of time in the same room going over our ideas. While extremely time consuming, the “productive tension” that often occurred during such meetings was critical to developing the paper. 

5.    What advice would you give readers that aspire to see their ideas in ASQ?

We wish we had the secret! We are not sure we can add to what has already been said by various editorials published in the journal. As your first question suggests, rich data is the starting point, the price of entry as it were. But generating theoretical insights from the data is also essential. Here, the reviewers and editor are often helpful, because they zero-in on points that may be interesting but underdeveloped. Finally, we can say that we are grateful for the opportunity provided by ASQ to publish rich, sociological research. Scholars have bemoaned the decreasing emphasis on publishing books in academia, as books can often provide a level of depth that articles may lack. Thankfully ASQ remains a venue for similarly rich studies that let authors express their ideas in full.

Interviewer Bios:

Gavin Williamson is a Ph.D. student in the Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Organization program, entering in the Fall of 2020. He received his B.A in Business Administration with a minor in Entrepreneurship from Lycoming College. Prior to joining the program, Gavin worked in various roles in nonprofits and freelanced as a GMAT tutor on the side. Gavin’s research interests include exploring how entrepreneurs and stakeholders engage with each other and unpacking the attitudes that influence how people take entrepreneurial action.

Tan Kim entered the SEO program in the Fall of 2020. His research interests broadly center on corporate political behavior and sustainability in an uncertain environment. More specifically, his research examines how firms and entrepreneurs maintain high status as they deal with political aspects involving reputation, stakeholder management, corporate social responsibility, and non-market strategy. His research also addresses nascent entrepreneurs’ bricolage strategy and resource mobilization as micro-foundation for bricolage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: