The Problems, Pitfalls, and Opportunities in Interdisciplinary Applied Consumer Research

Joseph Barry Mason, The University of Alabama
Helen Goetz, The University of Alabama
ABSTRACT - This paper explores the problems and opportunities inherent in the pursuit of interdisciplinary research and outlines various strategies for encouraging faculty involvement in such activities.
[ to cite ]:
Joseph Barry Mason and Helen Goetz (1978) ,"The Problems, Pitfalls, and Opportunities in Interdisciplinary Applied Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 734-737.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 734-737


Joseph Barry Mason, The University of Alabama

Helen Goetz, The University of Alabama


This paper explores the problems and opportunities inherent in the pursuit of interdisciplinary research and outlines various strategies for encouraging faculty involvement in such activities.


The problems of interdisciplinary research are discussed infrequently in the published literature and few empirical studies have been published on the topic. Thus, few role models exist. One exception is the work being pursued at the University of Washington under a National Science Foundation grant as part of the Research Management Improvement Program (e.g., Birnbaum, 1975; Gillespie, 1976; Mason, 1975).

Further, the concept and practice of interdisciplinary research is fraught with myths and misconceptions. Also, few persons have invested the time and energy necessary to establish truly interdisciplinary research activities. Disagreement even exists on the meaning of the term "interdisciplinary." The terms interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and transdisciplinary are often used interchangeably by colleagues discussing the subject. For the sake of clarity the following definitions are presented.

Discipline - A specific body of teachable knowledge with its own background of education, training, procedures, methods, and content areas.

Multidisciplinary - Juxtaposition of various disciplines, sometimes with no apparent connection between them. e.g.: music + mathematics + history.

Pluridisciplinary - Juxtaposition of disciplines assumed to be more or less related. e.g.: mathematics + physics, or French + Latin + Greek: "classical humanities" in France.

Interdisciplinary - An adjective describing the interaction among two or more different disciplines. This interaction may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organizing concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data and organization of research and education in a fairly large field. An interdisciplinary group consists of persons trained in different fields of knowledge (disciplines) with different concepts, methods, and data and terms organized into a common effort on a common problem with continuous intercommunication among the participants from the different disciplines.

Transdisciplinary - Establishing a common system of axioms for a set of disciplines, e.g., anthropology considered as "the science of man and his accomplishments.'' (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 1972, pp. 25, 26).

Most persons probably agree that the major problems of contemporary society are increasingly interdisciplinary in nature, but neither interdisciplinary research nor education are simple processes, especially given the discipline-oriented university and the mission oriented society of today. Ideally, interdisciplinary research efforts involve pooling the talents of several faculty members from various disciplines who integrate their knowledge in conducting research on a problem that individual researchers working alone could not effectively resolve. Too often, however, multi-disciplinary research is the end product, not interdisciplinary research. As noted, "multi-disciplinary research... can be performed by experts with interdisciplinary backgrounds, but who work separately, not necessarily in the same environment or within a mutual confrontation, exploring different aspects of a central problem. Results of multi-disciplinary research may be integrated by one of the researchers or by someone else (Nilles, 1976, p. 80; also, Segner, 1973).

The lack of ready acceptance of interdisciplinary research efforts is at least partially due to the nature of the university. Disciplinary structures are the basis of the university and of the professions engaged in teaching and research. The arrangement provides a convenient breakdown of knowledge into readily identifiable parts. However, disciplines as we know them today do not represent a preordained order of knowledge. The dynamics of social phenomena forces interchange between disciplines and even creates new disciplines. "The inter-discipline of today is the 'discipline' of tomorrow" (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 1972, p. 9).

Unfortunately, most persons experienced in interdisciplinary research agree with the statement that "a principle feature of interdisciplinary research is not necessarily profound scientific development, but an improvement in human relations to overcome the intolerance, bigotry, and barriers not only among individuals, but within and among disciplines" (Mar, 1976, p. 65; also, Sherif and Sherif, 1969; Piaget, 1970).

The discussion that follows reflects our joint experience in interdisciplinary research, graduate and undergraduate teaching, development of interdisciplinary curricula, and the direction of interdisciplinary masters theses and doctoral dissertations. The thoughts presented also reflect the experiences of colleagues at other institutions with whom we have discussed this area.

Potential Problems in Interdisciplinary Research

Colleague support of interdisciplinary research activities. The quality and worth of much interdisciplinary research is suspect in the eyes of many colleagues. This often occurs because of the blending of concepts from two or more disciplines in an interdisciplinary research activity, but typically not the use of frontier concepts from either discipline. Thus, the research activity is likely to reflect breadth of knowledge, perhaps more than depth of knowledge. Faculty members are trained in doctoral programs and selected for faculty appointments on the basis of their knowledge of and research skills appropriate to a particular discipline, not because of interdisciplinary skills. Thus, suspicion of the unknown is to be expected.

We have clearly seen the suspicion with which interdisciplinary research is viewed by various professional associations. For example, a session focusing on consumer education at the secondary school level was recently proposed to the program committee of a major national consumer association with an avowed interdisciplinary thrust. The proposed session, including three empirically based papers, was not accepted because the program committee felt that the topic was not appropriate for sponsorship by the organization. Likewise, when two of our marketing colleagues presented a paper at the American Council for Consumer Interests meeting a few years ago and approached the problem from a marketing perspective--development of marketing strategies for reaching consumers--instead of from the home economics perspective--consumer welfare--criticisms of the paper and the approach were both intense and vocal. Much progress in the recognition of the value of interdisciplinary research remains to be accomplished.

Recognition and support by administrators. Faculty members who pursue research activities outside their own primary area of expertise face the possibility that this will be viewed as contrary to the goals of their college and to the goals of the individual faculty member, defined as achieving excellence in a particular discipline. For example, we know of a young home economics colleague who, with the support of the department chairman, began to pursue interdisciplinary research with young faculty members in the marketing department of a college of business. The chairman of the marketing department also supported this effort. The result yielded several quality articles which were published in such journals as the Journal of Social Psychology. However, the Dean of the College of Home Economics indicated to the young faculty member that this activity was largely a waste of time as it did not contribute to the visibility of the College of Home Economics or contribute to the conceptual and technical skills of the individual in terms of solving problems unique to home economics. As part of the process of chastisement, support to the individual in the form of research monies and computer time were lessened. Also, it was made clear the research accomplishments in no way contributed to progress toward promotion and tenure.

Finally, one further example illustrates the point. One of the authors recently collaborated with a young faculty member in writing an article from the young person's doctoral dissertation. The logical publication outlet for the article appeared to be the new British journal, the Journal of Consumer Studies and Home Economics. However, the young faculty member indicated that he preferred not to have the article published in this journal because the publication would be viewed by his colleagues and his dean as a relatively insignificant contribution which would not be acceptable by a marketing journal. These narrow viewpoints and outright prejudices against interdisciplinary research can be very disheartening.

In summary, interdisciplinary research in a university setting often faces major human relations problems and requires a continuing education of other faculty members and administrators on the value of such activity. In the absence of support by peers and administrators, the path is particularly fraught with difficulties for a young faculty member in a promotion and tenure track. However, the benefits to the individual and society can be tremendous, and these comments are not designed to frighten people away from interdisciplinary research efforts but simply are offered to point out some of the pragmatic realities which often exist today.

Ways of Generating Interdisciplinary Research

The following discussion reflects on the various activities in which we have engaged over the past ten years and which have been useful in developing and encouraging an interdisciplinary research environment in our departments. The various approaches are relatively easy to implement and can yield significant benefits.

Strive for better communication. Communication is probably the fundamental problem in interdisciplinary research. The persons involved must understand the different viewpoints focusing upon a central research problem. Without this appreciation, which requires a high level of tolerance and patience, good interdisciplinary research simply cannot occur. Establishing adequate communication is a time consuming process even under the best of circumstances and may well take several years. Otherwise, what happens is a multi-disciplinary effort.

Each discipline has its own sophisticated Jargon which can only be understood over time. To many people, this process of establishing constructive communication may seem scientifically unproductive. We have observed that persons who are strongly committed to a narrow academic specialization have difficulty in participating in interdisciplinary research for this very reason.

Further, it is necessary to recognize that disciplines often have intolerance for other disciplines. Representatives of each discipline are likely to claim superiority or intellectual distinction over the others. For example, we probably all have heard a colleague ask the question, "What can a home economist possibly tell me about consumer behavior?" or "Those faculty members in marketing are simply interested in finding ways to help businesses exploit the consumer; they have no interest in consumer welfare."

How, then, can communication be encouraged? The following possibilities seem to work fairly well.

Cross-listed courses. One of our major breakthroughs occurred when Professor Joseph Uhl, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, taught a graduate consumer behavior course at the University of Alabama which was cross-listed between home economics and marketing. Students from both disciplines enrolled in the course. The resulting dialogue was lively and instructive. At least one doctoral dissertation emerged as a result of the discussions in the course, and a heightened awareness of and interest in interdisciplinary problems emerged on the part of both students and faculty members.

Interdisciplinary curricula. In 1970, the consumer sciences curriculum in the College of Home Economics was revised at both the graduate and undergraduate levels to require or encourage consumer science students to take courses outside the College of Home Economics. Even though our joint interests in interdisciplinary activities extend back to 1968, the curriculum revision which occurred accelerated the interest and placed several graduate and undergraduate home economics students in the marketing curricula on a regular basis.

Colloquia. Several seminars for graduate students and faculty have been conducted in recent years in which research ideas and research findings have been presented. Also, focuses on common methodological concerns have been a part of these discussions. Lastly, areas of common consumer research interests are likely to emerge.

Joint appointments. Joint appointments, if more than simply an arrangement on paper, can be especially useful in encouraging an appreciation of the values of interdisciplinary research. Such arrangements allow badly needed dialogue at faculty meetings, give a measure of credibility to the activities of the faculty member which would otherwise be lacking, and encourage broadened dialogue with graduate students and faculty members who share joint interests in a given area of research.

Masters theses and doctoral dissertations. Two interdisciplinary doctoral dissertations have been completed under our joint direction. The focus of one was on evaluating the effectiveness of consumer education at the secondary school level, and the second dealt with consumer cognized distance and the factors which affect distance perception. Five or six masters theses on diverse aspects of consumer behavior have also been completed under our supervision in recent years.

Students and faculty members have to be selected carefully for participation in this process. For example, students must be capable of tolerating a higher level of ambiguity than is normal because of the complexities of working with faculty members from more than one discipline. Also, we have found that the senior faculty members involved have to be constantly on the alert so that the student is not "used" by a faculty member from one of the disciplines in generating research which is primarily disciplinary in nature, but which is conducted under the guise of interdisciplinary research. Intellectual snobbery often occurs when a young faculty member makes disparaging remarks about the other discipline involved.

Interdisciplinary doctoral programs. We have been successful in structuring one doctoral level curriculum and one masters program in the last few years which have been truly interdisciplinary. These were housed in the Graduate School of the University to avoid the problem of departmental barriers. These vehicles are useful in allowing students to select courses from a wide array of disciplines such as marketing, economics, consumer sciences, psychology, geography, sociology, and other areas which are appropriate to a particular area of study. The result is a stronger conceptual and methodological base for conducting research.

Interdisciplinary research committees. The two of us have made a continuing effort to serve on committees which are evaluating possible areas for interdisciplinary research. These have included activities related to the Center for the Aging, Center for the Study of Drug and Alcoholism Abuse, the New College of the University, the Health Care Management Advisory Committee and similar programs or institutes. These arrangements provide a unique opportunity for advocating quality interdisciplinary efforts.

Advantages of Interdisciplinary Research

Development of a broader philosophy. Inevitably, interdisciplinary research activities will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the philosophies underlying the respective disciplines of marketing and consumer science. The horizons of the participants are expanded. Problems are more readily viewed from a variety of different perspectives and a greater tolerance for diverse viewpoints occurs. Also, entirely new dimensions of rather conventional research problems emerge. As recently noted, for example, marketers often treat the "consumer not as the subject, but as an object to be affected in order to realize their behavior goals" (Arndt, 1977, p. 13). Interdisciplinary research helps overcome this bias.

Language barriers are overcome. As a result of interdisciplinary efforts, faculty members will benefit by becoming able to read a greater variety of journals. Language barriers are resolved and levels of heightened intellectual awareness and appreciation occur.

Development of new conceptual frameworks. The value of differing conceptual frameworks for focusing on a given problem is quickly realized. Alternative assumptions and viewpoints emerge which make one more sensitive to the nuances of language and of the need for developing shared meanings to permit linking of insights into the disciplines involved. An interdisciplinary focus also fosters the convergence of the two disciplines in developing more comprehensive consumer interest and public policy perspectives and helps conceptualize public policy on matters of broad social concern.

Current Research Activities

This paper is not primarily designed to report on our ongoing research. However, a brief discussion of how the research originated and its focus will help to reveal some of the everyday realities of interdisciplinary research. The focus of our current research effort is the senior citizen and the marketplace. Funding was provided by the Center for Aging on the University of Alabama campus. It quickly became apparent to us that an interdisciplinary focus on senior citizens shopping behavior was badly needed. Thus, the specific areas of focus of the research include the shopping behavior of the senior citizen, information seeking activities, food consumption patterns, and satisfaction and dissatisfaction with various products or services and complaint behavior, nutritional adequacy of diets, and the adequacy of physical facilities within the senior citizen household.

Logical Areas for Interdisciplinary Research

Numerous opportunities exist for meaningful interdisciplinary research between the Colleges of Business and Colleges of Home Economics. A few areas quickly come to mind and include various dimensions of public policy, metrication, consumer education, quality of life, the handicapped, use of leisure time, improving consumer competence, and family resource use. For example, a recent conference at the University of Nevada identified the following areas of research in the generally defined area of "improving consumer competence in family resource use":

A. Comparison shopping studies for both goods and services.

B. Family expenditure for food, clothing, shelter, services.

C. Assessment of non-food items charged to the food budget.

D. Comparison of convenience foods and/or prepared foods with those made at home.

E. Evaluation of information available to consumers in relation to potential purchases.

F. Comparison of costs in different retail outlets.

G. Assessment of knowledge regarding consumer credit.

H. Attitudes and values of different groups about money and financial management.

I. Knowledge of credit costs and available information about credit.


Truly, the opportunities for and the values of interdisciplinary research are many. However, persons contemplating such activities should be fully aware of the potential pitfalls and frustrations and the large amount of time necessary to establish communication links which are necessary for an atmosphere of mutual trust and support. Finally, one needs to be prepared to answer questions about the relevance and quality of the research from persons in both disciplines.

However, the potential problems are well worth the benefit, particularly for persons who are well established in their respective disciplines and who can afford to pursue interdisciplinary research even in the face of some uncertainties and risk. As noted, "working outside the conventional structure is costly in time, energy and general strain. Its only conceivable justification is that it opens up educational territories that could otherwise remain unexplored" (Southern Regional Education Board, 1972, p. 6).

Really, an interdisciplinary focus is a mental outlook and a desire for self fulfillment through different approaches to problems. It necessitates open-mindedness and requires continuing practice and flexible mental patterns. Properly approached, it can be a new stage in the development of scientific knowledge as is reflected in the papers presented in the recently released Association for Consumer Research publication entitled The Broadened Concept of Consumer Behavior (Zaltman and Sternthal, 1975).

Strong support and recognition of the value of interdisciplinary research, such as shown by the development of this forum, also is a vital and necessary force for effectively overcoming disciplinary barriers and rigidities. Clearly, peer recognition at the national level of the value of such activities is a fundamental requisite, given the realities of promotion and tenure guidelines in most major universities today.


Johan Arndt, "A Critique of Marketing and The Broadened Marketing Concepts," paper presented at the Second Macro-Theory Seminar, University of Colorado, Boulder, August 1977.

Phillip H. Birnbaum, "Management of Interdisciplinary Research Projects in Academic Institutions," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 1975.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1972).

D. F. Gillespie, "Research Team Effectiveness in the Academic Setting," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 1976.

Brian W. Mar, William T. Newell, and Borje O. Saxberg, "Interdisciplinary Research in the University Setting," Environmental Science and Technology, 10 (1976).

James Roy Mason, "Management of Organized Interdisciplinary Research Units in Universities: Selected Cases," unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, 1976.

Jack N. Nilles, "Interdisciplinary Policy Research and the Universities," IEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Vol. EM-23 (May, 1976).

Jean Piaget, "General Problems of Interdisciplinary Research and Common Mechanisms," in Main Trends in the Social and Human Sciences (Paris: UNESCO, 1970).

E. P. Segner, "Administrative Structure for Interdisciplinary Research: A Panacea or a Can of Worms?" A paper presented at the Workshop on Implementation of Interdisciplinary Research, 81st Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, Ohio State University (June 29, 1973).

Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn W. Sherif (eds.) Interdisciplinary Relationships in the Social Sciences (Chicago: Aldine Press, 1969).

Southern Regional Education Board, Regional Spotlight: Interdisciplinary Explorations in the South (Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board, 1972).

Gerald Zaltman and Brian Sternthal (eds.) The Broadened Concept of Consumer Behavior (Chicago: Association for Consumer Research, 1975).