Unpacking What a “Relationship” Means to Commercial Buyers: How the Relationship Metaphor Creates Tension and Obscures Experience
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. Results of an interpretive study drawing on depth interviews demonstrate that buyers’ colloquial use of “relationship” language is ubiquitous. However, buyers’ 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 buyers’ experiences. Implications for understanding buyers’ desire for relational bonds and recasting ironic “dark side” research findings offer challenges for relationship marketing research.
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