Scientific Progress and Research Traditions in Consumer Research

Liisa Uusitalo, International Institute for Environment and Society, Science Center Berlin
Jyrki Uusitalo, University of Helsinki
ABSTRACT - This paper takes up some programmatic points related to the question of scientific dynamics in the field of consumer research. The article first takes a few steps in the direction of general conceptual analysis concerning the notion and problematics of progress in the field of social science, and then proceeds to discuss specific themes of present dominant research traditions in consumer research. Finally, it is argued that scientific progress in this area presupposes the development of new theories by comparing and weighting the relative merits and dismerits of various traditions. Progress is not attainable merely by applying traditional models of consumption to new areas of phenomena. Alternative traditions and concepts should be proliferated on the field; this demand is also supported by the emergence of new societal problems pertinent to the field.
[ to cite ]:
Liisa Uusitalo and Jyrki Uusitalo (1981) ,"Scientific Progress and Research Traditions in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 559-563.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 559-563


Liisa Uusitalo, International Institute for Environment and Society, Science Center Berlin

Jyrki Uusitalo, University of Helsinki


This paper takes up some programmatic points related to the question of scientific dynamics in the field of consumer research. The article first takes a few steps in the direction of general conceptual analysis concerning the notion and problematics of progress in the field of social science, and then proceeds to discuss specific themes of present dominant research traditions in consumer research. Finally, it is argued that scientific progress in this area presupposes the development of new theories by comparing and weighting the relative merits and dismerits of various traditions. Progress is not attainable merely by applying traditional models of consumption to new areas of phenomena. Alternative traditions and concepts should be proliferated on the field; this demand is also supported by the emergence of new societal problems pertinent to the field.


Presently, the analysis of cognitive growth and progress discernible in various fields of scientific enterprise has become one of the key themes in the general philosophy of science. The "blockbuster" opening up this discussion was, as is generally known, the study by the American historian of natural science, Thomas S. Kuhn (1970). His study deals with so-called scientific revolutions, that is to say, global changes in the "paradigms" of natural science. These are changes in the scientific community's conceptual and methodological commitments that underlie scientific practice and that concern the subject matter and the methodology.

Kuhn's work itself brought about (or triggered off) some sort of "revolution" in the arena of science studies. Until then, in the wake of logical empiricism, the phenomenon of scientific progress itself had by no means been denied. However, it had been taken to consist mainly in a stepwise cumulative factgathering, and in the extension of previously well-confirmed theories, to cover new empirically observable phenomena. (For a good sue--sty of this standard view, see e.g. Nagel 1961). Kuhn's dynamized vision of science also drew attention to the significance of the scientific community by stressing that the paradigm facilitates the professional communication and judgments. Kuhn's idea was also supported by a newly arisen interest in Kantian philosophies of science that stressed the dependence of scientific observation on some conceptual structure and emphasized the "theory-ladenness" of empirical facts and findings. (Such a philosophy is advocated by e.g. Popper 1965, ch. 3.)

All these arguments called the standard view forcefully into question. The new approaches also differed from one another in some significant points. For instance, Kuhn was stressing the significance of cumulative "normal-scientific" stages of work between the conceptual revolutions, whereas Popper and his disciples laid emphasis on a continuous active "proliferation" of several potentially falsifiable theories and the scrutinization of them against one another. (See Lakatos and Musgrave (eds.) 1970.) At any rate, nowadays at least, in the domain of natural sciences, a generally accepted view is that the philosophic work on foundational questions takes place in "dynamized" frameworks of some kind or another. (For recent documentations of discussion, see e.g. Suppe 1978 and Niiniluoto & Tuomela (eds.) 1979).

One of these foundational issues is the problem of scientific progress. The new dynamic views of scientific activity have effectively helped scientists realize that progress in science is not necessarily guaranteed just by sticking to theories or theoretical structures that in the past have yielded the greatest number of successful predictions of phenomena. The new contributions in the philosophy of science have rather drawn general attention to the aspect of doing science which one might call, following Wartofsky (1976), "rational hopefulness" - that is, one's being able to choose on good grounds between rival research traditions and picking out those ones that most effectively helped one to tackle with the most important problems which the domain is facing. This precisely has been the background motive for some recent dynamic models of scientific activity that sharply dissociate themselves from the time-old empiricist tradition (Lakatos 1970, Laudan 1977).

Since the beginning of the above-described wave of discussion, attempts have also been made to thematize the field of social or "actional" sciences in a corresponding way. (For the case of sociology, see e.g. Friedrichs 1970 and Gouldner 1971; for economics, see Latsis 1976; for psychology, see Herrman 1976.) However, it seems that the overt plausibility of most of these studies (but not all of them) has often regrettably turned out to be illusory. Instead of first dealing with the important issue about the possible differences and contrasts between natural and social sciences, some authors have rather tended to pick out a priori some dynamic model of science and impose it on the discipline under study. Consequently, some of these studies have been inadequately treating the crucial question - that is, what kind of scientific knowledge is involved when the domain of human action is being studied.

For instance, Kuhn's dynamic model of science has frequently been used to describe paradigm change in social sciences mainly in terms of external factors (e.g., societal goal-settings and interests) affecting it. It is interesting to note, however, that Kuhn himself obviously did not intend his model of science to be understood in this sense only. Rather, he wanted to draw attention to the fact that science essentially is an activity of solving specific kinds of cognitive problems and always take place in a more or less well-established context of beliefs and assumptions about the disciplinary subject matter shared by the community of scholars in the field.

However, the notion of problem solving as a criterion of paradigm choice should not be understood in a straightforwardly "sociopragmatic" sense. For example, in the case of social science, it does not suggest the simple idea that science has just to solve externally determined "problems", but rather that cognitive activities in science also contribute to the structuring of the problems themselves.

In Kuhn's opinion, as is well known, the periods of stable "normal science" activity consist of attempts at making freshly observed phenomena intelligible in terms of the generally adopted set of beliefs about the subject matter of inquiry. Now, this idea of Kuhn's is obviously not directly applicable in constructing a "dynamized" model of social sciences. In these sciences, we are not dealing with a stable domain or reality which determines the research in the same way as "nature" does for the natural sciences; the social reality is always essentially constituted by human actions as well. (On this criterion demarcating between natural and social science, see Krnger 1979.) And, this is why it is hardly conceivable that one single "normal scientific" tradition could be reigning in any particular social-scientific discipline.

Social sciences would also seem to dispose over normative criteria of theory choice that are themselves continuously changing. The overall idea here, then, is that in social science, especially when a newly emerging and largely interdisciplinary field like consumer research is at stake, the choice of the most promising - i.e. progressive -research traditions is not a matter of arbitrary decision but must itself be grounded on rational appraisal concerning the long-term problem-solving efficacy of various theoretical alternatives as well as their capability of initiating inquiry in new fields.


Consumer research, as a newly emerging discipline, consciously thematizes itself in terms of a specific, even restricted sub-area of social behavior - that is, consumer behavior. Here, we meet a rather clear-cut case where a previously unknown area or subject matter has been repeatedly shaped up more or less by analogy with the practices of some already well-established social science, be it economics, psychology or sociology. For the theory formation and the choice of consumer theories taking place within any of the thus constituted traditions, different and often extensive lists of criteria have been suggested. (see e.g., Zaltman et. al. 1973, Bagozzi 1976a). An empiricist philosophy of science has often been dominating these texts. Also, some ideas from more recent, so-called realist philosophy of scientific explanation have been utilized in some cases, but the perspective has been mainly on a rather general programmatic level (e.g. Bagozzi 1976b).

When it comes to the consumer theory appraisal internal to some tradition, the term 'theory' in this context, is taken to mean various systems of propositions or models that explain certain given phenomena, i.e., a given subject matter. (For instance, Zaltman et. al. 1973 compare the consumer models presented by Howard & Sheth, Nicosia, and Engel & Kollat & Blackwell, all of these describing the decision processes of individual consumer choices.) In all, scientific criteria have been used predominantly in evaluating theories within one consumer research tradition, rather than in evaluating different research traditions or paradigmatic belief systems.

Actually, one might venture to suggest that in this discussion, the famous Kuhnian view of one dominating "paradigm" at a time has been taken for granted, even though rather implicitly, and consequently, consumer research has been treated as being constituted by a single paradigm. However, the Kuhnian idea of the sequential development of a given discipline between the stages of stabilized "normal science" has also been explicitly disputed even by authors active in this area, maintaining that consumer research as a field, in fact, consists of several simultaneous and competing "paradigms" or research traditions. (For example, Bagozzi 1976b presents this view by analyzing competing paradigms in "macro marketing". All macro paradigms, in turn, seem to compete with the prevailing micro approaches which unfortunately have not been discussed in detail.)

In fact, the view of several competing traditions in explaining different kinds of consumption phenomena appears also in the critique of psychological reductionism in present-day consumer research as well as in several calls for a different research approach that would allow an analysis of social phenomena which the psychologically oriented models never do bring into focus (e.g. Glock & Nicosia 1964, Levy & Zaltman 1974, Zaltman & Sternthal 1975, Angelmar & Pinson 1975, Arndt 1976, Mayer & Nicosia 1977, Bagozzi 1978, Jacoby 1978).

In a cross-scientific discipline like consumer research, it is, in fact, obvious that more than one research tradition will be present simultaneously rather than sequentially. As the situation now is, it seems, however, that these research traditions develop rather isolated from one another, and there seem to be very few integrating links between them. Therefore, it would seem to be more motivated to talk about a multi-disciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary discipline.

While some of these research traditions have been and still are very dominating, some others, in their turn, have for some reason or another been receiving less emphasis than they would obviously earn if certain criteria would be adopted which evaluate scientific progress based either on the potential problem-solving efficacy or on the capability of initiating theories for new fields of scientific inquiry.

When one takes a look back in time at the proceedings of all the ACR conferences or a look at some of the principal scientific journals where consumer research and its findings have been documented over the last ten years or so, one easily gets an impression of the overwhelmingly strong position of psychological research tradition in consumer research. In addition, most of the social-psychologically oriented research, say, research on social group influence or personal influence and its impact on consumption, is classifiable under this heading.

The subject matter of this tradition is constituted by individual product choices or decision processes leading to a choice. Among choices, the brand choice has been given an astonishingly strong emphasis in empirical research. The rapid development of the psychologically oriented research tradition - in a close connection to marketing research - is associated with the expansion of consumption in the 1960's and 1970's and the corresponding needs of competitive marketing. The formal development in cognitive psychology, from which the most significant models were taken, and the development of experimental research methods and multivariate analysis techniques, of course, have also contributed to the cumulative efforts and relatively high consensus on the constitution of the subject matter in this research tradition.

The approach being basically more or less predictively -and often even manipulatively - oriented in its workings, the realism of its background assumptions about the nature of human behavior bas not been much of a problem to the advocates of this school.

The stronger a tradition becomes institutionally, the more difficult it often seems to be to bring up alternative research traditions that do not rely on the methodological individualism or readily received quasi-natural-scientific or positivistic view of science, cherished by the psychological paradise and its underlying concepts of human action.

Actually, here, even the basic scientific terminology has been "psychologically biased". For example, If one presents the idea that consumption should be studied more than it has been hitherto in association with social factors or in itself as a social phenomenon, one easily meets the objection that such things already have been taken into account. Now, social, cultural and institutional factors, are, however, in these psychological or "social influence" models frequently reduced to an individual level and often presented in a more or less ad hoc fashion as so-called situational micro-level factors. Social factors associated with any macro-level social theory do not appear, with the possible exception of some eclectic studies concerning the significance of certain separate variables (like social class).

In fact, it is somewhat ironic that the defenders of present-day dominant psychological or social-psychological approaches in consumer research, who in their work implicitly accept this as the only legitimate research, do not seem to take into account that this tradition was originally started as (and still is) a competing tradition to the "pure" neo-classical economic consumption theory which was then considered to make too strong assumptions concerning consumer rationality and to lay too little emphasis on the changes in consumer preferences. The idea of the formation and change of preferences - however, mainly applied to brand preferences only - became, for pragmatic reasons, one of the main subjects of interest in the marketing-oriented consumer research during the 1970's.

There seems to be only a few connections between the psychological "behavioral" consumer research and the neoclassical economic consumption theory, which both have developed in separate scientific surroundings - the former among marketing-oriented researchers and the latter among economists. However, some models within the two traditions seem to lend support to one another very clearly. For instance, Lancaster's model of the maximization of utility received from different product characteristics is in accordance with the cognitive attitude or brand preference models. Basically, all "psychological" brand preference models are based on the same neoclassical idea of individual utility maximization as is the economic theory of consumption functions. (Therefore, there must also be more or less institutional, external reasons which could explain the divergence between economists on one hand and behavioral consumer researchers on the other.)


A positivistically modeled view of science seems to be common to both the neo-classical economic theory of consumption and the psychologically oriented research tradition. For example, the use of empirical findings and empirical research dealing with tendencies of human behavior on a societal scale as an aid to developing concepts or testing their construct validity is strikingly unusual in these approaches. And, empirical research is more often being considered just a case of hypothesis testing even in situations where there do not yet exist any theoretical concepts or propositions grounding the formation of hypotheses.

Now, a first step towards evaluating the merits and dismerits of these discussed traditions is to take their ideas about the subject matter of consumer research under a critical scrutiny. The domain of economic activity seems to have been in fact treated in a quasi-naturalistic way here, and by means of a methodology modeled on natural science.

The quasi-naturalistic character of economic and behavioral models can be seen to consist primarily of two interrelated tendencies: (1) First, the tendency to stress that the basic task of economic science is to work out predictions of future observable phenomena and not bother about the possibly lacking realism of theoretical assumptions, i.e. the tendency to adopt an instrumentalistic philosophy of science. (2) Second, the tendency to make particular ontological and metaphysical assumptions, about the behavior of economic agents. In these assumptions, the laws of rational economic activity are modeled on the idea of laws of nature in physical science. (For a critique of related ideas about the "plastic man", see Hollis 1977). Naturally, one here also should point out that the particular view of natural science adopted by the "quasi-naturalists" in social science is a through-and-through positivistic one, and that there are philosophies of natural science that sharply dissociate themselves from the above-mentioned basic tendencies (see e.g. HarrT 1970).

Moreover, the dominance of individualistically and psychologically oriented models have in fact excluded many questions from the problem-solving field of the established traditions. Such questions obviously deserve consideration in light of recent work in social science generally - i.e., research in the general field of social studies that has contributed to a deeper understanding of societal processes which obviously have an influence on consumption activities (for example, studies on structural change in society, the emergence of so-called post-industrial life patterns).

Recently, in this connection, the qualitative aspects and consequences of consumption have emerged as a new subject matter about which we still possess relatively little scientifically grounded information. An analysis working to explain these features of consumption activity must include variables that deal with the institutional conditions and surroundings of consumption. Without resorting to such variables, for instance, a historical analysis of consumption does not seem to be possible; and moreover, these variables are apt to prove fruitful for an investigation of differences in existing consumption and life-style patterns.

Naturally, one must also add here that a mere aggregate-level analysis (in the spirit of the traditional pure economic approach) is not sufficient in analyzing the qualitative features and social consequences of consumption in modern societies; the study of consumption features typical of the different segments of society and its population is also necessary.

All of this would seem to signal the emergence of a fresh research tradition in consumer research, the historical-institutional tradition which lays emphasis on the interrelations and interdependencies between consumption, economic structures of society, and the prevailing value and belief systems of human agents and groups. This approach is by no means totally new, as there have been several schools of thought since the last century that emphasize these interdependencies. (Most well known are perhaps the historic school in Germany, the Marxian school and the North American institutionalists, e.g. Veblen 1899. See also Seckler 1975.) Some other efforts to integrate the views of the economic and social sciences are exemplified in the works of Pareto 1935, Weber 1947, and Parsons & Smelser 1956. Thus far, however, these approaches have seldom inspired consumer research.

A cognitive choice in favor of any newly "budding" tradition, in contemporary circumstances, obviously cannot be grounded on only the quantitative appraisal of the number of significant empirical problems this tradition can solve or on phenomena it is able to explain by generating appropriate theories in the domain. The implementing of scientific progress in the presently discussed field involves, rather, the interesting task of finding a way of weighing the significance of empirical questions posed or, perhaps, even successfully answered by this approach, against the significance of problems posed or solved by the other traditions. Laudan (1977, p. 32) has put this general point in the following way: "If a philosophy of science, or a model of scientific progress, is going to be satisfactory, it must provide some guidelines not only for counting, but also of weighting, scientific problems on a scale of relative importance and cruciality."

One can easily see that the problem types of different traditions are not by far similar, which of course may make comparisons more difficult. However, even then it may be possible to measure and weight the efficiency of different traditions in the field by looking at the number of problems they solve and also the number and significance of problems they leave anomalous, that is, to be solved by some competing tradition. (On the role of problem-weighting in general, see Laudan 1977, 31-40.)

Ultimately, the weighting obviously also involves the comparison of the merits and demerits of the quasi-naturalizing and largely empiricist traditions on the one hand, and an interdisciplinary tradition enabling one to formulate several sorts of research tasks dealing with the social phenomenon of consumption, on the other hand. And, in dealing with a discipline that concerns itself with aspects of the human domain -i.e., consumption activities and their societal context - one might do well in opting for traditions that are most likely to do justice to the peculiar subject matter of social reality. The significant aspects of this reality can hardly be captured in terms of the utility-maximizing assumptions of established theories of economic rationality, even though the work done by these research traditions, when measured purely in terms of the quantitative magnitude of problems solved by them, may be impressive. After all, these research traditions are likely to leave many empirical problems about consumer behavior in its societal context unanswered.


The above presented criticism concerning the two most dominating theoretical research traditions in consumer research, economic consumption models and psychologically oriented consumer behavior models, is not to deny their obvious advantages in solving a number of research problems in the future as well. But, one cannot avoid seeing that they - bound to their specific type of models and methods -have also very much influenced the idea of what kind of problems have been considered to be "important" and "worthwhile" as a target of research in consumer science. Moreover, in both established traditions, a danger exists of treating existing theories as capable of solving all new problems too, and of explaining all new empirical social phenomena as well. That would mean sticking to the old, non-dynamic view of progress in science.

As an example of new social phenomena which call for new theory building, we can mention consumption-related environmental problems. It is true, for example, that economic demand functions or consumer attitude models can be applied in predicting consumers' reactions to certain parameter variables in affecting the environmentally relevant choices. The explaining and understanding of the causes of ecological damages, however, is possible neither in the pure framework of economic theory of consumption functions nor in any psychological information processing or group influence models. Neither do some eclectic middle range theories, borrowed from social science, prove very satisfactory as a basis of explanation.

What in fact are needed in this case are theories that lay emphasis on historic-institutional, cultural and economic development of societies or theories that describe the intermitting mechanism by which this development is reflected in micro-level consumer behavior. Of course, new concepts and theories do not emerge out of nothing. Therefore, they essentially have to integrate existing knowledge from different research traditions.

This integration work, at the same time, should be based on the motive of working out a methodology and philosophy of consumer research that dissociates itself from the research practice modeled on a purely positivistically understood idea of natural science. If this point is not stressed clearly enough, the misunderstanding would easily emerge that the call for theoretical innovation in consumer research actually were a call for increasing what is already a high level of eclecticism in consumer behavior studies.

What is really desirable and necessary, in our view, is the breakthrough of a new metascientific way of thinking and the subsequent proliferation of new theoretical approaches and research methods that are at present not generally accepted. Often, new theories must also start from the basic level of theory building, that is, from the level of heuristic theorizing and the development of theoretical frameworks that subsequently can be expected to give rise to fruitful hypotheses.


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