Out of Darkness Cometh Research Light

The Whitby Gothic Weekend. Three thousand people with a penchant for the weird and wonderful descend upon the seaside town with the Dracula connection twice a year.


Vampire paraphernalia, black velvet and lace adorn the shops, bars and clubs, and hearses driven by darkly-clad characters in top hats are not an uncommon sight.


This unconventional setting is not the most likely venue for a business researcher. But for Professor Christina Goulding it was the ideal event to begin researching the dark side of consumption. And her findings have been very surprising.


Professor Goulding, of the Department of Marketing and Economics at the University of Wolverhampton Business School, is a leading figure in the analysis of consumer behaviour and new forms of marketing.


Her research is not in the mainstream of business and management but develops academic themes within consumer behaviour and falls under the umbrella of critical marketing.


She examines the link between consumption and identity, with a particular focus on body image, non-conformist ‘new’ consumer behaviour, and modern-day ‘tribes’.


“The Goths were a very interesting case study,” she says. “We were originally looking at the dark side of consumption, examining how death is consumed in the media, and the Whitby Festival seemed the ideal starting place.


“I had expected to be one of the oldest there and also thought the Goths might be moody and morbid. What I found challenged all the usual stereotypes and changed the focus of our research.”


Professor Goulding discovered a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere, with relaxed, cheerful groups of people aged up to 80 who were willing to give up hours of their time to talk to her.


“There were people from all walks of life, with different degrees of commitment to being a Goth, and strong identities. I discovered there is no ‘typical’ Goth and moved away from the dark side of consumerism. The stronger issues were those of identity, community and performance.


“For some, image was central to their lifestyle, while others were ‘part-time’ as it may not fit in with their working life. There were doctors, lawyers and even diving instructors and members of the Territorial Army.”


The other strong element of the Whitby Festival her research uncovered was its commodification and the enormous retail consumption aspect. Huge revenue is generated for the town through the event.


“It is fascinating to see a traditional fishing village and holiday destination transformed for the weekend, turned into a ‘stage’ on which the Goths can perform. It becomes like a living theatre and costumes are diverse.”


Examining the notion of consumption and performance, Professor Goulding uncovered a ‘star’ system of Goth ‘performers’ at the festival. Some simply favoured black clothing, while others spent thousands on original Victorian attire or created a whole ‘vampire’ look, with contact lenses, fangs and top hat and tails, revelling in the attention and happily posing for tourists’ pictures.


The Goths enabled her to examine aesthetics and consumption, with modern identities drawing on notions from the past.


Professor Goulding, who is based at the Management Research Centre, has worked for the University of Wolverhampton for 19 years and her research has developed from her early interests. Her PhD researched consumer behaviour, examining the heritage boom and looking at how people consume the past. She is one of the founding members of the critical marketing group, which emerged from an Economic and Social Research Council funded seminar series.


This research has expanded to cover a variety of new areas, including fashion as an extreme form of consumption. It is also part of a sub-discipline of consumer behaviour known as Consumer Culture Theory. This tends to focus on brand communities and consumer identities.


“It is a new perspective that is being adopted outside of academia with companies such as Nike and Ducati starting to move away from market segmentation to talk about their ‘tribes’ and rituals,” she says.


The research to date has been published in world class international journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, Consumption, Markets and Culture, Psychology and Marketing and the European Journal of Marketing.


Published papers include the Management of Illicit Pleasure, which examines how the illegal underground rave scene developed into a controlled clubbing culture. Professor Goulding works closely with colleagues at other institutions and has supervised a diverse range of PhD students, looking at topics such as tattoos, including the notion of permanent branding and being part of a community.


One PhD student uncovered three different types of tattooed people: those influenced by fashion and celebrity culture who want to emulate stars like Angelina Jolie and David Beckham; those who are ‘committed but concealed’ and have a ‘secret self’ with hidden tattoos; and those who are extreme, to the point of social exclusion, with tattoos covering their whole body or face and neck. Interestingly, as his research has developed, the research student has become more tattooed himself. While Professor Goulding has not become quite so embedded with her subjects, she says she can see what attracts people to the Goth culture and has been fascinated by how it cuts across class, race and gender.


Even though her trips to Whitby have led her away from her original theme of the consumption of death and mortality, this is still something she plans to research further. And she’s not ruling out the possibility that some of her Gothic connections may yet assist her in this area.


The Goths enabled her to examine aesthetics and consumption, with modern identities drawing on notions from the past.