Conceptualizing Collectives as Practice Entities and Negotiated Exchange Arenas: An Analysis of ‘Chama’ Collectives in Kenya

Fredah Mwiti, 2013

This research contributes to an understanding of consumption collectives by using a practice approach to illuminate various dynamics of exchange that constitute collectives.  The study uses ethnographic methods to depict exchanges occurring within specific collectives (Chama) in Kenya.  The term ‘Chama’ refers to collectives very similar to the Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) (Kimuyu, 1999; Johnson, 2004).  Specifically this study advances studies in consumer literature that portray collectives as relatively homologous entities that are constituted and enacted around shared ideals or resources (Schouten and McAlexander, 1995; Canniford and Shankar, 2005).  The study reveals the protean nature of collectives (Kates, 2002; Cova, 2007), while at the same time suggesting that collectives may stabilize as recognizable entities.  The contributions therefore revolve around conceptualizing collectives as practices that stabilize as entities and/or as negotiated exchange arenas.

By considering collectives as stabilized practices, this study addresses calls to account for collectives that ‘coalesce into visible, vibrant, and multifaceted [..] communities’ (McAlexander et al, 2002: 39).  Such calls emerge from the views that consumption collectives are amorphous, non-stable, contested entities whose boundaries consistently shift (Boorstin, 1974; McAlexander et al, 2002; Kates, 2002; Cova, 2007; Thomas et al, 2013).  In this study the amorphous nature of collectives is similarly acknowledged as will be subsequently discussed. However by adopting Schatzki’s (2002) idea of practices-as-entities it is also noted that certain collectives do stabilize and become recognized as specific kinds of entities.  This is achieved when collectives are consistently performed within specific conventions and rules (structures) (Shove et al, 2012).  However even while they might be stable, practices are transformed by the same structures that they organize (Giddens, 1984), which means that even collectives that have stabilized evolve over time.  

The second view of collectives as negotiated exchange contexts is revealed through an exchange framework modified from (Biggart and Delbridge’s (2004) exchange systems model.  The framework reveals that collectives exhibit varied characteristics and take on different identities (Cova, 2007) as participants draw on different structures to constitute the collective in different ways.  Collectives may therefore be enacted as forms of markets, forms of charity organizations, as social enterprises or even as social clubs.    Such views therefore challenge the dualistic labels used to distinguish collectives (e.g. commercial versus the communal - Kozinets, 2002) since they depict collectives as homologous entities distinct from other entities.  This study hence demonstrates that collectives could adopt either of these identities.   The study also advances other consumer studies that have similarly challenged such dualities (Kates, 2002; Cova, 2007) by revealing that the hybrid nature of collectives can be observed within a single collective, rather than across similar collectives.  Such views become pertinent not only in advancing knowledge but also in terms of informing managerial and policy decisions targeting such collectives.