Some Underpinnings For a Radical Theory of Consumption

Nikhilesh Dholakia, University of Rhode Island
ABSTRACT - Observing the existence of radical streams in the parent disciplines of consumer behavior, this paper examines the extent to which consumer research satisfies the requirements of radicalness. It is found that a radical theory of consumption is viable. Some substantive directions for such a theory are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Nikhilesh Dholakia (1982) ,"Some Underpinnings For a Radical Theory of Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 296-301.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 296-301


Nikhilesh Dholakia, University of Rhode Island


Observing the existence of radical streams in the parent disciplines of consumer behavior, this paper examines the extent to which consumer research satisfies the requirements of radicalness. It is found that a radical theory of consumption is viable. Some substantive directions for such a theory are suggested.


Each of the major social science disciplines from which consumer research draws its substantive theoretical support - economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology - has its radical stream of thought. And yet, consumer behavior - a skillfully blended inter-discipline has no radical stream of its own. The major reason for this is the ideological lineage of consumer behavior. Much of the consumer research has originated in or has been directed to the field of marketing (Arndt 1976). Because of its close alliance to private business enterprise, the field of marketing has not welcomed radical thought which often challenges the basic premises of capitalism.

The lack of a radical stream in consumer research, however, cannot be fully explained by this ideological resistance. A recent survey of the readers of Journal of Consumer Research indicated that a sizeable number of them is interested in seeing articles based on better theories and better explanation (Ferber 1981). Presumably, this segment of consumer researchers would not reject radical approaches to consumer behavior merely on ideological grounds. The absence of radical consumer-related theories, therefore, must be attributed to some combination of: (a) neglect, (b) lack of awareness, (c) apathy, and (d) lack of initiative. This paper takes the initiative to create a better awareness of the radical aspects of consumption. By so doing, it hopes to end the neglect and the apathy and to engender a debate. The argument in this paper is developed in the following way:

1. Characteristics of radical theories are examined. Starting from the question of "What is radical?", several characteristics of radical theories, in general, are outlined.

2. Implications of the above for consumer behavior are discussed. It is argued that a radical stream in an interdisciplinary field like consumer behavior would need to have all the characteristics of radical theories in general. Progress and prospects on these dimensions of "radicalness" are examined.

3. Some substantive concepts that could form the underpinnings of a radical theory of consumption are presented.

4. Possibilities of change in the consumer behavior field are presented in summary.

The four main sections that follow deal with each of the points enumerated above.


Two important ideas are inherent in the concept of radicalness. The first is the idea of searching for the roots, to go for the origin, to be fundamental. The second is the ides of departing from or challenging the traditional, i.e., to be critical.

In the natural sciences, the idea of being fundamental or basic is very important. Copernicus, Newton and Galileo were radical in that they presented a more fundamental or basic view of the universe than the geocentric view and other church-espoused orthodoxies. In so doing, of course, they had to be critical and were branded heretics. Recent revolutions in natural sciences have been characterized by the "fundamental" aspects overshadowing the "critical" aspects. Einstein's theories of relativity gave us a view of the universe more fundamental than did Newtonian physics. These theories were critical; however, no demands were made to stone Einstein to death or burn him at the stake. In social sciences, on the other hand, at the present conjuncture, the critical aspects of radical theories are perhaps more important than the fundamental aspects (Benson 1978, Brown 1974, Flax 1978, Freiberg 1979). This critical stance, as argued later, creates enormous difficulties in introducing radical theories in a field like consumer behavior.

In natural sciences, to be fundamental requires deeper exploration of matter; in social sciences, it requires deeper understanding of man. As the premier radical social scientist of the industrial era wrote: "To be radical is to grasp something at its roots. But for man the root is man himself. . ." (Marx, quoted in Fromm and Xirau 1968, p. 224). This means radical theories in social sciences (including consumer behavior) have to deal with basic questions of human nature and the human condition. Asking fundamental questions implies that prevalent, legitimized views of human nature and the human condition cannot be taken as given starting points. For example, customary assumptions about the rationality, autonomy, volition, motives and needs of the consumer become open to challenge under a radical approach. Similarly, the existing social structures, social relations, power structures, roles, etc. are challenged under a radical perspective. In other words, scientific inquiry while not ceasing to be exploratory or explanatory becomes critical in its approach to the subject matter.

Several other generalizations about radical social science theories follow from the above. Disciplinary barriers collapse when fundamentals critical questions are asked about human behavior and its context. For instance, needs are not merely endogenous psychological states but formations of a social process which occurs in a politico- economic context (Marcuse 1964). Thus, radical theories tend to be holistic and integrative - recognizing that disciplinary boundaries are for purposes of division of labor and not for fragmentation (and hence obfuscation) of reality. Radical theories challenge dominant social and intellectual structures because these structures are not unalterably given or indefinitely valid. For this reason, radical theories are dynamic - theories about change, its possibilities and the obstructions to it. These are also theories for change, in the sense of guiding the actions that change social and intellectual structures. This mutuality of theory and action is very important in radical social science. Such social science has praxis; theory informs (inspires, guides) action and action informs (enriches, develops) theory.

The asking of fundamental and critical questions about observed behaviors and structures leads a radical theory to investigate how these observed phenomena originated. To illustrate from physics, theories that probe the nature of matter inevitably raise questions about the origins of the universe (Bronowski 1973, ch. 10). In social science, questions arise about the origins of a social system or some component of it. This makes radical theories much more historical than traditional theories (Benson 1978).

A few other differences between radical and conventional theories deserve brief attention. Since conventional theories do not probe deep enough, some exogenous and unexplainable variables are implicitly given a spiritual justification: insatiability, avarice, inequity, etc. are variously explained in terms of the original sin, frailty of humans, gifts of got, etc. Radical theory, on the other hand, is thoroughly material - it requires that explanation be sought in the material (not necessarily physical, but worLdly) reality. While spirituality is an unacceptable theoretical refuge for radical social science, the goal of a humanity capable of reaching its highest (in this sense, spiritual) potential is highly valued. Radical theories are therefore very humanistic: not necessarily humane in the sense of engendering sympathy for the underprivileged but posing the fulfillment of human potential of all as a goal and challenge for social science (Fromm 1970). Finally, in contrast to conventional theories, radical theories do not have a one-way, linear view of causation. It is recognized that social and behavioral processes are often dialectic. This not only means that systemic models are favored over unidirectional models but also that contradictions do not vitiate a theoretical structure -they are a part of the theoretical structure.


Summarizing the characteristics of a radical theory, outlined in the foregoing section, such a theory is fundamental, critical, holistic, dynamic, historical, material, dialectic, and has a praxis. While all radical theories may not have all these characteristics, it can be argued that a radical theory in an interdisciplinary and action-oriented field like consumer behavior (consumption phenomena, broadly) would require all these features. The requirement of being "historical" may not appear very relevant for consumption research but it should be noted that both the context and the social purpose of consumption have varied through history.

Given the characteristics (requirements) of a radical theory, how does the current state of consumption research measure up? Are there indications that a radical theory of consumption exists or is viable? There would be a fair consensus that no well-developed radical theory of consumption currently exists. The question of future viability can be positively answered to the extent that many preconditions for the emergence of a radical theory can be found in contemporary consumer research. A brief discussion of the requirements of "radicalness" in relation to consumption research illustrates these preconditions:

1. Fundamental: Consumer behavior got its start by asking more basic, probing questions about the consumer than economics did (Sheth 1972). Deep probes have been made in areas like attitudes decision making, personality, information processing, group influences, persuasive communication etc. In some important areas, however, consumer research has seldom raised fundamental questions Some of these are: needs, social purpose and social relations of consumption, post-purchase consumption activities, consumption patterns at aggregate levels, choicelessness, consumptive change (a la social change), etc. The urgency to probe these areas would increase as consumer researchers study the temporal aspects o f consumption (Feldman and Hornik 1981), socialization processes (Ward 1974), changing social roles (Venkatesh 1980), low-involvement (or alienation) of consumers (Kassarjian 1981), etc.

2. Critical: While consumer researchers are often critical of specific effects of or on consumption, they rarely challenge the overall social structures that produce such effects. This is to be expected in a discipline which, for the most part, individualizes social, cultural, and institutional influences in a "more or less ad hoc fashion as so-called situational microlevel factors" (Uusitalo and Uusitalo 1981, 2- 561). There is reason to believe that this could change. In another applied, interdisciplinary, and scientifically very advanced field - medicine - critical theories that challenge the dominant social structures have emerged (Illich 1976, Waitzkin 1979, Zola 1972). The first step to being theoretically critical is the recognition of hegemonic tendencies and their likely causes: this is already occurring in consumption related fields (Firat and Dholakia 1977, Himmelweit and Mohun 1977, Hirschman 1981).

3. Holistic: The very structure of the major Association and the major Journal in the field of consumer research facilitates interdisciplinary perspectives. Interdisciplinary approaches in specific consumer behavior processes (e.g., Feldman and Hornik 1981) and application areas (e.g., Garcia 1980) are observable. The urgings and attempts to go beyond the psychological research traditions would further lead to theoretical broadening (Nicosia and Mayer 1976, Uusitalo and Uusitalo 1981, van Raaij 1981). Theoretical holism, however, is not just adopting an interdisciplinary perspective. It requires a nonfragmented view of the reality. In consumer research, this implies strengthening the links between microbehavior and macrostructures. In the field of marketing, at least, such a tendency is observable (Bagozzi 1976, Fisk 1980, Heede 1981).

4. Dynamic: Consumer research has traditionally been interested in dynamic aspects of consumption at the very micro levels: changes in brand preferences (e.g., Jacoby and Chestnut 1978) and brand-directed attitudes (e.g., Lutz 1975). A radical theory of consumption, however, requires dynamism of a much more comprehensive variety. It should not only be able to explain consumption changes at various levels (brand, product class, life style), but also relate consumption changes to social change in general. In fact, such a theory would not only be a theory of change but a theory for change: it would provide guidance for transforming unjust social and consumption structures. Contemporary consumer research is far from such a state; however, pointers for the direction to follow exist (Heede 1981)1

5. Historical: Interest in socialization of young consumers has added at least a longitudinal dimension to consumer research (Wart 1974). Socialization processes, however, focus on limited aspects of intragenerational change. A radical theory of consumption would examine not only the reproduction of consumption patterns over generations but also changes in the character of consumption from one epoch to another. Development-oriented theorists recognize, for example, that social purpose and form of consumption is different in primitive, feudal, industrial and post-industrial societies (Dalton 1971, Kumar 1978). In consumer research, the emergence of a viable historical perspective would hinge on the amount of interest in cross-cultural studies across space and time.

6. Material: On the surface, consumer research appears quite materialistic - concerned with behavior related to material objects of consumption. Consumer researchers, however, have avoided the metascientific issue of whether their theories are material in the ultimate sense. This has been accomplished by assuming away thorny areas where the questions of material or spiritual basis are highly relevant. These are areas like needs, choice, ability, distribution of resources, values, etc. A radical theory of consumption would reject explanations in these areas veering towards innateness, givenness, pre-existence or prescience - it would seek explanations grounded in the real material world.

7. Dialectic: Consumer behavior theories have been quite aware of the circularity of effects, interdependencies,-and systemic aspects in consumer decision processes (e.g., Howard and Sheth 1969). This systemic approach illustrates the acceptance of dialectic processes in consumer research. Such a systemic view needs to be extended to postpurchase phenomena (Berk 1980). Radical theories are "dialectic" in a much more basic way, however Such theories accept "contradiction" as an essential logical and conceptual category. In consumer research, this would imply that inconsistent findings may sometimes provide valuable insights. If a consumer holds a very negative attitude toward a product and yet consumes it regularly, and no normative or situational factors seem responsible, then the researcher, instead of despairing, may seek explanation at a higher level - the consumption of that product may serve some essential ideological purpose in the society.



8. Praxis: The strivings for a praxis are quite evident in a field like consumer research with its appeal to "relevance", "pro-active" research, etc. While knowledge generated by consumer researchers does inform practice, in whatever imperfect way, it mostly informs the practice of dominant interest groups and class. A radical theory would require a liberating praxis - an interchange in which man qua consumer gains a greater understanding of his condition and thereby greater autonomy, while the researcher qua radical enriches the theory through the experience and study of (liberated) consumption.

To summarize the above points, contemporary consumer research possesses some characteristics which exhibit elements of radicalness. Hence, a radical theory of consumption is viable although its actual emergence and growth would very such depend on the praxis of the field. To concretize the possibility a little bit, the nest section briefly outlines some substantive theoretical directions.


The theoretical task of developing a radical theory of consumption is quite straightforward - it is to challenge, robe, and extend the existing consumer behavior theories in the same way that behavioral researchers challenged, probed, and extended the economic view of consumption. As an ideological task, this is difficult because the worldviews underlying the dominant consumer behavior theories would be threatened.

Figure 1(a) represents the traditional, neoclassical, economic view of the relations between employment, buying, and consumption. The actual processes occurring in employment, buying, and consumption are treated in "black-box" fashion - only the outcomes are of interest. Behavioral inroads have been made in each of these black-boxes in recent years. Behavioral studies of employment have focused on the nature of "work" (Cass and Zimmer 1980, Walton 1980), especially interesting from the radical viewpoint being the ethnological insights of Braverman (1974). Buyer and consumer behavior theories have comprehensively explored the black-box of "buying" (cf. Engel, Kollat, Blackwell 1978), albeit limiting the focus mostly to buying of single brand-objects. The "New Rome Economics" has developed a fairly complex model of how households produce utilities (Berk 1980, Beutler and Owen 1980). In short, as Figure l(b) shows, the black-boxes have become translucent. Additional influences on the "black-boxes" have been identified. Links among the three, at least at the empirical level, are likely to be provided by studies on consumption of time (Feldman and Hornik 1981).

Radical theories of consumption take the state of affairs in Figure l(b) as a point of departure. Such theories extend, re-conceptualize, and challenge the status quo theories by:

1. Closing the loop, i.e., recognizing the mutual relationship between work (production) and consumption;

2. Emphasizing the context, i.e., requiring the analysis of behavior in relation to its socio-historic context;

3. Subverting the hegemony. i.e., exposing the ideological aspects of consumption in the contemporary world.

Brief comments on each of these three aspects follow. Figure l(c) summarizes the "new view" by using dashed lines.

Closing the Loop

While Figure l(a) recognizes the relationship from production (work) to consumption, this figure (and its behavioral variant lb) ignore the reverse relationship. For a radical theory, the two intertwined relationships are crucial:

Production is simultaneously consumption. . .Firstly . the individual, who develops his abilities while producing, expends them as well, using them up in the act of production . . . Secondly, it is consumption of the means of production, which are used and used up . . .

Consumption is simultaneously also production . . . it is obvious that man produces his own body, e.g., through feeding, one form of consumption . . . [elaborating] . . Consumption produces production in two ways . . . [First,] a product becomes a real product only through consumption. For example, a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn, a house which is uninhabited is indeed really not a house . . . [Second,] . consumption creates the need for new production . . consumption posits the object of production as a concept, an internal image, a need, a motive, a purpose. 'here is no production without a need . . 4 consumption recreates the need.

[Correspondingly] . . . production produces consumption 1) by providing the material of consumption; 2) by determining the mode of consumption; 3) by creating in the consumer a need for the objects it first presents as products. It therefore produces the object of consumption, the mode of consumption and the urge to consume.

(Marx 1970, pp. 195-197)  (original date 1857)

The mutual relationships described above are simple but their implications for consumer research are profound. A few are enumerated here. First, the view that production is simultaneously consumption provides an excellent rationale for the study of industrial/organizational buyer behavior. Second, this same view suggests a radical approach to the study of work - work as "consumption" of the worker's abilities. Third, the above discourse provides clues for understanding the nature of needs and consumption patterns (modes) - the origins of these must be sought in the structures of production in a society. Fourth, the idea that consumption entails the transformation of an object into a consumable item (the "dress" example) opens up many avenues of researching the meaning and symbolism of objects in everyday life. Fifth, the notion that "consumption posits the object of production as a concept" - which the perceptive will recognize as a statement par excellence of the so-called "marketing concept" - provides a criterion and approach to social policies regarding production and consumption. The list could be elongated but the point is simple: a radical closure of the production-consumption loop opens up many potent directions for consumer research.

Emphasizing the Contest

Just as the context of production has varied historically, so has the context of consumption. It is easy to visualize the contrast between a primitive peasant and a mechanized, capitalist farmer; between a village blacksmith and a robotized auto-assembly line. Radical consumption theories point to similar contrasts in the field of consumption - subsistence food habits and contemporary Western food habits, fertility behavior in rural Indonesia and fertility behavior in urban Japan, buying behavior of the ghetto unwed mother and the single, swinging suburbanite, etc. The point is not merely to recognize the similarities and differences but to seek explanation in the context. The explanations for observed buyer behavior in the ghetto, for example, lie in the social milieu of the ghetto as well as in the larger social structures that create the ghetto (Stein 1980). It is not enough to just seek contextual explanations of behavior - it is necessary to weave contextual change in the theories of consumer behavior. For instance, it is not enough to investigate how increasing participation of women in the labor market is altering the pattern of household consumption. It is also necessary to study why it is only in the era of late capitalism that the woman has been effectively able to challenge her exploited and subordinate role and, in the process, threaten the institution of the family (Boulding 1972). Does the household represent the latest frontier of capitalism in terms of markets for goods and labor? What are the theoretical links among changing household consumption pattern, changing role of women, and the changing character of capitalist economy?

The opportunity and the need to incorporate contextual factors would increase in the economically uncertain years ahead (van Raaij 1981). It would be interesting to observe and theorize as to how consumption patterns in a high-level capitalist service economy adapt to stagflationary conditions. The production and ideological requirements of such an economy, for example, are likely to foster the increased consumption of skill-oriented knowledge on the one hand and an increased consumption of coping devices such as drugs, pop-therapies, fantasies, etc., on the other hand.

Subverting the Hegemony

The ideological dimension alluded to above is likely to be the most controversial area for formulating and applying a radical theory of consumption. In the advanced Westernized societies, consumption is increasingly used as a means of ideological social control. In the early stages of industrialization, consumption merely reproduced the worker - from day-to-day and from generation-to-generation. As industrialization progressed, the society prospered but the social relationships did not change much - bosses hardly worked and workers hardly bossed. In such prosperous industrial societies, the role of consumption became to produce not just the worker but the total "work ethic". The mass consumption society, the American Dream, the license to be responsibly hedonistic (La Dolce Vita), etc. were the answers of the prosperous industrial age. Tendencies toward de-massified consumption (viz, hippism) were condemned as dangerous until they were assimilated into mainstream consumption ethics. At the present conjuncture, advanced post-industrial societies face some the , as. The nature of work is changing so as to make the biophysiological rationale for consumption redundant: we could live off a few pills. Since the social relations of production have not changed, the ideological role of consumption has greatly expanded. The role of consumption is not so much to produce and reproduce the e-bodied worker but to produce and reproduce the appropriate mental abilities and attitudes. The increasing knowledge requirements of a service economy, however, endanger the simple material sops that consumption has traditionally provided. Someone who can read Fortran can conceivably read Fromm; someone who knows Goal Programming may end up knowing Gramsci and Gorz - the liberating aspects of knowledge are ideologically potent. The consumption implications of this are fair grounds for research under a radical perspective. For example, one consequence that needs a great deal of attention is the expansion of the so-called "experience" (experience deadening?) industry. Is it a coincidence that drugs, pornography, micro-targeted cable TV, designer garments, fantasy vending, and such are emerging as the growth industries of 1984?


Starting with the observation that the parent disciplines of consumer behavior have their radical streams but consumer behavior does not have one, this paper has developed a conceptual framework for radical theories in general and applied it to consumer behavior theories. Some degree of radicalness exists in consumer research and a radical consumption theory is certainly viable. Some substantive theoretical directions were explored. Specifically, radical consumption theories urge a much stronger link between spheres of production and consumption, explore the social and historical context of consumption quite carefully, and unmask the ideological aspects of consumption

The emergence of such theory or theories would depend on how the research enterprise in the consumer behavior field evolves. In the long run, their emergence is inevitable through seepage from the parent disciplines. In the short run, consumer research may benefit from the rejuvenating and liberating effects of a radical paradigm, if it takes a pro-active approach to the development of such a paradigm.


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