Interdisciplinary Marketing Study

Sidney W. Levy, Northwestern University
[ to cite ]:
Sidney W. Levy (1983) ,"Interdisciplinary Marketing Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 9-10.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 9-10


Sidney W. Levy, Northwestern University

The honor of being named a Fellow of the Association for Consumer Research is overwhelming and moving. Raving pursued a somewhat maverick vein of work for many years, I did not regard myself as in the mainstream of consumer research; thus, this substantial recognition seems paradoxical and surprising, and causes me concern that my prized iconoclasm has lost its distinction. However, as I have not chased novelty entirely for its own sake, I am grateful that the Association has found the work so worthy.

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of consumer behavior gets a certain amount of lip service. One sees the idea exemplified in the sequence of topics in textbooks on consumer behavior, in the diagram of consumers at the center of a series of concentric circles representing the behavioral disciplines. Having this item also permits scholars to focus where they wish on deep motives, on situations, on attitude change, on sociological groupings, on cultural characteristics, etc. Nevertheless, the results are often piecemeal, multi-rather than inter-disciplinary as each person works on preferred variables, processes, or level of conceptualization.

Achieving greater integration requires a holistic orientation that builds into an inquiry the varied perspectives and concepts of several behavioral modes of thought. When one individual is not able to do that through lack of training or experience, collaboration may bring about some useful melding. Short of integrating ideas, one might range across different fields sequentially, moving from an anthropological perspective to a psychological one in turn.

I was indoctrinated into the interdisciplinary viewpoint by my education in the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago, where the aim was to understand how people come to be, grow up, and die. That meant learning not to be a sociologist or psychologist defending one's disciplinary territory, but rather how to use anthropological, sociological. psychological, and biological ideas to study the phenomena of human growth.

One of the people whose influence was especially important to me was W. Lloyd Warner. His emphasis on understanding the social system as a symbol system pervades my thinking, always providing either a context or a focus in specific studies. He is well known for his seminal work on American social stratification, and sensitized me to the significance of hierarchy in social life and its highly ramified effects on human behavior. William E. Henry was an early mentor. As an authority on protective techniques, particularly the analysis of the Thematic Apperception Technique, he introduced me to a rich appreciation of how people project their personalities In the stories they tell about pictures. The experience since then of interpreting thousands of stories taught me much about the relationship of personality dynamics, ideas, and how people express them in words.

As a graduate student, I went to work at Social Research, Inc., developing these social and psychological foundations, and connecting them with problems of the marketplace. Under the leadership of Burleigh B. Gardner, anthropologist-author of Deep South and Human Relations in Industry, I had the joy of working for several years with a group of capable and stimulating people. Psychologist Harriett Bruce Moore has my greatest debt, as an indescribable model of how to think dynamically and deeply, to be free and brave in having and expressing one's thoughts. With Lee Rainwater, Richard Coleman, Gerald Handel, and others, we theorized, probed, and lived the psychological analysis of marketplace behavior. An extended personal psychoanalysis during these early years helped me to confront and explore my own psyche, that most vital tool for understanding any human behavior.

In 1955, Joe Newman visited Social Research, gathering data for his dissertation, later published as Motivation Research and Marketing Management, and starting a long-term friendship. Through his encouragement, I wrote (with Burleigh Gardner) "The Product and the Brand" for the Harvard Business Review, launching the concept of brand imagery into the business world, a concept that stressed the role of perception, directing attention to the importance of symbolic configurations in consumer behavior. This idea was extended in "Symbols for Sale." Joe's conference at Stanford University in 1964, On Knowing the Consumer, led me to prepare "Social Class and Consumer Behavior."

Wooed by Harper Boyd to Northwestern University's department of marketing in the then School of Business (now J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management), I collaborated with him on several topics that enhanced the pragmatic marketing content in my thinking in such areas as promotional behavior, marketing objectives, and the consumption system." which Ed Bursk of the Harvard Business Review flatteringly labelled "New Dimension in Consumer Analysis."

It has been an exciting time at Northwestern, participating in the growth of the management school and the stature of the marketing department. I was stirred to ruminations about marketing, its meaning and its domain. Phil Kotler and I -wrote "Broadening the Concept of Marketing,' creating some entertaining controversy, and fostering a lot of useful activity across territorial boundaries. We were even accused of fomenting social disorder. I suggested-that we call the scholarly study of marketing Marcology to distinguish it from the activity called marketing; so far that's gone nowhere. Phil and I wanted to highlight that marketing does not always woo more and more customers, but even wanes to avoid or exclude them; so we wrote about Demarketing.

My interdisciplinary orientation is kept refreshed by working on marketing research problems where I can ask how the issue fits contemporary and changing culture, social stratify the sample to see how social class affects the behavior, explore the nature of the social subgroups or segments involved, tease out the central psychological/dynamics, and so forth. Also, academic projects can examine various theoretical aspects that come to mind. Reviewing some of the anthropological perspectives in marketing reawakened a special interest in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, leading to the piece that appeared in the Journal of Marketing in 1981, "Interpreting Consumer Mythology: A Structural Approach to Consumer Behavior.

That article was especially integrative for me. The theory presented there exemplifies the following ideas:

a. Social life is powerfully governed by the system of symbols generated in the culture, forming the matrix for subgroup and individual lives.

b. The symbols are fundamentally ways of expressing personal identity, who one is and aspires to be. Personal identity is interpreted as a psychologization and projection of one's body into interpersonal relations. The resulting bio-psycho-social individual is a configuration of age, gender, and social status attributes, as variously perceived by the self and other people, and changing through time.

c. Products and services are interpreted for their component features, becoming more or less suited to a person's pattern of living. Objects gain meaning by being represented in the mind in particular forms and evaluated in various ways.

The inherent subjectivity and phenomenological character of the processes and structures implied above means that much depends on exploring reminiscence and self-report, to learn how reality is being construed. The role of fantasy is central, and the telling of stories--whether called scientific analyses, reports of consumption behavior, or dreamy tales That the main human activity about human experience at work and at play, through novels, movies, plays, music, comics, letter to Ann Landers, interviews, shop talk, speeches at conferences, endlessly, is the stuff of our lives. Marketing research and research into marketing are ways of investigating these fantasies, soliciting them, organizing and analyzing them, putting them into another fantastic form. one that we call theorizing.

The permissive and stimulating environment for behavioral studies in the marketing department at Northwestern is remarkable for the persons of Bobby Calder, Trudy Kehret, Brian Sternthal, and Alice Tybout. Projects with Alice and with Brian are under way and I look forward to learning more about the forever provocative field to which all of us-you and I--are devoted. On the way, thank you for recognizing some of the things that have gone on in the stories I have told.