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Unpacking What a Relationship Means to Commercial Buyers

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Unpacking What a “Relationship” Means to Commercial Buyers: How the Relationship Metaphor Creates Tension and Obscures Experience
Christopher P. Blocker, Mark B. Houston and Daniel J. Flint

Journal of Consumer Research
Volume 38, Number 5, February 2012, pp. 886-908
The Chicago University Press

Scholars apply the relationship metaphor as a default conceptual lens to understand commercial interactions. Yet whereas the relationship paradigm sheds light on how the socially embedded structure of these interactions impacts their outcomes, the relationship metaphor can also obscure scholarly understanding of business buyers’ experiences. Buyer colloquial use of “relationship” language is ubiquitous. However, buyer narratives reveal instrumentally saturated emic meanings and felt tensions for the notion of expressive relationships with suppliers, which manifest deep conceptual friction with the constellation of etic relationship properties and constructs used by scholars to explain business interactions. Using Bauman’s sociological commentary on liquid modernity, analyses indicate that framing these interactions as “connections” is a more theoretically congruent lens for viewing buyer experiences. Implications for understanding buyer desire for relational bonds and recasting ironic “dark side” research findings offer challenges for relationship marketing research.

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