Cross Cultural Family Decisions: a Literature Review

P. J. O'Connor, Bernard Baruch College, City University of New York
Gary L. Sullivan, University of Cincinnati
Dana A. Pogorzelski, University of Cincinnati
ABSTRACT - A number of published studies of cross cultural family decision making which involve both economically advanced and lesser developed societies were reviewed. The objective was to determine whether cultural differences explain variations in family decision making for products. Rival explanations for observed effects are presented and evaluated and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the current literature are discussed. Pertinence of such research to multinational marketers is addressed.
[ to cite ]:
P. J. O'Connor, Gary L. Sullivan, and Dana A. Pogorzelski (1985) ,"Cross Cultural Family Decisions: a Literature Review", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 59-64.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 59-64


P. J. O'Connor, Bernard Baruch College, City University of New York

Gary L. Sullivan, University of Cincinnati

Dana A. Pogorzelski, University of Cincinnati


A number of published studies of cross cultural family decision making which involve both economically advanced and lesser developed societies were reviewed. The objective was to determine whether cultural differences explain variations in family decision making for products. Rival explanations for observed effects are presented and evaluated and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the current literature are discussed. Pertinence of such research to multinational marketers is addressed.


Over the past few decades, foreign investment by United States business firms has been consistently increasing (Plummer 19775. This increasing commitment by multinational corporations has not been limited to capital investment or manufacturing operations, but has come to include a greater share of marketing activities. Yet the expansion of the role of marketing has not been accompanied by any systematic investigation of the differences in buyer behavior around the globe as well as the causes of such differences. This situation is notably unfortunate since a lack of understanding has resulted in inefficiencies in resource allocation from the perspective of the firm as well as the countries involved (Sheth and Sethi 1977).

When planning a global marketing strategy, a firm must consider how local customs and attitudes will affect consumer behavior (Assael 1981). In recognition of this, a number of studies have been conducted in the area of comparative marketing, which deals with the systematic detection, identification, classification, measurement, and interpretation of similarities and differences among entire nations (Jaffe 1980). many comparative marketing studies are macro in nature, comparing entire marketing systems, (e.g., retailing institutions in the United States versus those of France). These studies tend to be descriptive in nature and lack a conceptual framework or underlying hypotheses. Typically, comparisons are drawn between such variables as number of households, per capita expenditures, or food production. For the most part, differences are identified and emphasized (Boddewyn 1981).

Micro comparative marketing studies, on the other hand, have focused mainly on market segments. These studies have dealt with such consumer behavior issues as: shopping (Douglas 1976; Green and Langeard 1975), innovator characteristics (Green and Langeard 1975), female role perception (Douglas 1976; Douglas and Urban 1977), media usage (Douglas 1976), life styles (Douglas and Urban 1977; Plummer 977), information seeking (Anderson and Engledow 1977; Thorelli, Becker, and Engledow 1975; Becker 1976), attitudes toward advertising (Anderson, Engledow, and Becker 1978; Kaynak and Mitchell 1981), reactions to product attributes (Green and White 1976), media preferences (Urban 1977), perceptions of foreign products (Nagashima 1970), risk aversion (Hoover, Green, and Saegert 1978), fashion involvement (Tigert, Kind, and Ring 1980), repeat buying behavior (Ehrenberg and Goodhardt 1969), product evaluation (Lehmann and O'Shoughnessy 1974), product information sources (Dolich et al. 1980), and product value perception (Chadabra and O'Keefe 1981).

The objective in micro studies tends to be to uncover similarities between various cultures and the investigator's domestic culture in order to identify comparable market segments. Such studies provide valuable information and have practical strategic implications. For an excellent review of comparative marketing studies, see Boddewyn (1981).


Increasingly, marketers have come to realize that a great deal of consumer behavior is not the result of individual unilateral decision making. Rather, consumers are, for the most part, organized into families which, due to special constraints, (i.e., shared resources and collective needs), produce joint decisions. Joint decision processes take such forms as consensus, bargaining, and negotiation, and are a function of differential influence by disparate family members.

As a consequence, it is clear that measurement of intra-family power and influence which relies on the report of only one family member may be seriously flawed. Indeed, substantial evidence exists that the reported perceptions of both husbands and wives needs to be considered in order to predict or explain family purchasing decisions (Davis 1970; Davis 1976; Ferber 1973; and Hempel 1976). Since the family is a major consumer decision making unit around the world, this caveat applies to cross cultural studies as well. However, attention to husband/wife influence has been less notable in cross cultural research than in studies conducted on American consumption patterns.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the variability in family purchasing and decision making across different cultures. This will be accomplished by reviewing the somewhat limited but noteworthy studies which have been conducted in this area. Some theoretical issues that relate to this topic will also be discussed.


Comparisons between cultures with respect to family decision making are based on the degree to which the husband or wife dominates the decision process, and on the degree of autonomic or syncratic decision making present. Variables which may affect marital dominance include: product category, the resources of each spouse, stage of the decision process, stage of societal development, and cultural prescriptions.

Major Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical tenets purporting to explain the similarities and differences in family purchasing have been developed by Blood and Wolfe (1960), and elaborated upon by Rodman (1967, 1972), Ferber (1973), and Granbois (1972). In the main, three general hypotheses have been advanced. First, the greater the resources, contribution, and status of the person relative to his or her spouse, the greater is his or her influence. Second, greater experience as a decision making unit results in a lessening of joint decisions. Third, greater interconnection in the family's social network and greater social distance of the family from the middle class (higher or lower) also results in a lessening of joint decisions. Rodman (1972) also proposed development of a societal taxonomy for explaining cultural differences in marital power and influence. Another area relating to cross cultural purchasing behavior involves differences in husbands' and wives' perceptions of their respective roles.

A Decision Process Approach

Roles are examined in Hempel's (1974) study of home purchasing which focuses on stages in the purchase decision process. In this research, an examination was conducted of husband/wife dominance and shared involvement across five related decisions of families in Connecticut and Northwest England. It was found that both countries exhibited an initiator role and an information seeker role in the purchase process. In the initiator role, English couples were more likely to report a shared input, whereas Connecticut couples tented to report the husband as more dominant. Information seekers obtain and evaluate information prior to the purchase. In both cultures, there was a good deal of joint decision making, (i.e., role sharing), at this stage. Interestingly, it was found that "sexual differences in role perception were greater than international differences" (Hempel 1974, D. 297).

Wives in both samples seemed to dominate the social expressive decisions of the home buying purchase (e.R., style, neighborhood), while husbands were more involved in financial and instrumental decisions. The English were less likely to report husband dominance, and more likely to report shared decision making. Additionally, in both cultures, conflicts were often settled in the wife's favor (Hempel 1974).

Marital Role Perceptions

Safilios-Rothschild's (1969) work in this area supports Hempel's findings about differences in husband/wife role perceptions. As is the case with domestic research, validity may be compromised if only one spouse's responses are elicited . This study specifically explored this aspect of cross cultural decision making and found incongruencies in perceptions of power between subjects in Athens and Detroit. In an effort to set methodological guidelines for research in this area, Safilios-Rothschild recommended interviewing both marital partners, incorporating the entire range of decisions, and determining the major influencer. It was concluded that these perceptual differences were present across cultures and socioeconomic levels. The incongruence of perceptions in decision making "may be due to one or both spouses ' need to adhere to equalitarian norms" (Safilios-Rothschild 1969, p. 301).

The results of this study differed from those of Hempel in that both spouses claimed more influence with respect to the control of money and the choice of friends and leisure time. These are instrumental and expressive roles, respectively. Such findings conflict with Hempel's designation of expressive roles to wives and instrumental roles to husbands across cultures. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that Hempel only studied a single decision situation, home purchasing. One final result of this study was that even in these two cultures, which differ in terms of societal development and family ideology, some decisions are perceived by both spouses as being predominantly masculine or feminine or joint (Safilios-Rothschild 1969). Such cross cultural similarity in the area of Render dominance, or appropriateness, indicates that cultures may be better described by degree of difference. rather than absolute distinctiveness.

Test of Resource Theory

Kandel and Lesser's (1972) study of urban Danish and American families attempted o clarify Blood and Wolfe's theory of resources. They intended to determine power in marital decision making by estimating relative participation in specific family decisions. However, only wives responded concerning the degree to which either Spouse made decisions unilaterally or jointlY- Care must be taken in evaluating their results for this reason.

Still, a great deal of joint decision making was reported in both countries with slightly more indicated for Denmark. When marital power was cross-tabulated with socioeconomic and demographic variables, theory of resources was not supported in some instances. The occupation of the husband showed a curvilinear relationship with husband's power. However, education level and employment of the wife outside the home was positively related to marital power. The authors suggested that "the wife's contacts outside the home increased the wife's power within the home because she had a chance to improve decision making skills (a resource) outside the family" (Kandel and Lesser 1972, p. 135)

Role Consistency across Cultures

Cross cultural differences in husband/wife involvement have also been investigated by Douglas (1979). While this research encompassed a domain of decisions which extends beyond consumption choices, it does provide valuable insight into cross cultural purchasing behavior. The study involved five countries which can be divided into French and English speaking groups. Seventeen different household activities were examined in order to compare degrees of husband/wife responsibility and to test the resource theory.

It was determined that across all five samples (Chicago, Glasgow/London, Paris, Brussels, Quebec City) there was substantial similarity in terms of husband/wife involvement in various activities; and marital roles were seen as traditionally masculine or feminine. Where there were differences in relative involvement, they often divided by language group. For instance, in the French speaking samples, there was greater involvement in the typically feminine tasks of supermarket shopping and vacuuming, and more shared involvement in some traditionally male responsibilities such as men's clothing decisions. Involvement in all the samples was often activity specific. Socioeconomic variables affected the degree of involvement, but in a similar manner across all samples (Douglas 1979).

It should be noted, however, that the data cited in the above study was subsequently reanalyzed for measure unreliability (Davis, Douglas, and Silk 1991). Two measures of reliability, within family response agreement and within respondent consistency, were employed. The results indicated that significant between sample reliability differences exist for the measures employed in these cross cultural surveys. It was also reported that measure equivalence is more difficult to obtain for attitudinal and perceptual variables than for demographic items. These difficulties result in large part front translation idiosyncracies.

Culturally Derived Roles and Values

Henry (1976) investigated how cultural values affected the likelihood of ownership of particular generic automobile categories. Though this study is not cross cultural in scope (all the data were collected in Los Angeles), it still contains some important ideas. The results provide evidence that supports the notion that culture is a basic determinant of consumer behavior, since cultural values were found to affect automobile ownership. Instead of merely describing similarities or differences which exist between disparate cultural groups, this study indicates that a knowledge of cultural values is an important prerequisite for development of appropriate marketing strategies.

Observers of family life in the westernized world have documented the increasing proclivity of women to step outside the restraints of their culturally prescribed roles and involve themselves in activities formerly relegated to the husband (Arndt and Crane 1974). This trend is also evident in Green, Verhage, and Cunningham's (1981) study of American and Dutch wives. Respondents in Houston and Rotterdam were given a list of products and services along with 38 specific decisions which need to be made when purchasing each. They were asked to identify whether each decision was normally made by the husband, the wife, or jointly. Again, note the potential for invalidity present due to surveying only one marital partner.

Significant differences, except for savings, were found between the two nationalities for the products and services investigated. Three dimensions of differences were noted. First, American wives reported making more autonomous decisions than their Dutch counterparts. However, this increased autonomy is actually a matter of degree. Second, in many cases the Dutch sample is marked by greater levels of joint decision making. Third, tn some cases roles are more highly structured by gender in the Dutch sample than in the American sample. These differences tend to hold up irrespective of the employment status of the wife (Green, Verhage, and Cunningham 1981).

Level of Economic Development

It is clearly apparent that many of the studies investigating cross cultural family purchase decisions have been conducted in highly developed industrialized countries. The preponderance of similarities uncovered may he due to this artifact of similar socioeconomic stage of development. One paper which looks outside this domain is Green and Cunningham's (1980) comparison of purchasing roles tn the United States and Venezuela. Since these two countries do not share the cultural proximity and stage of economic development found in American/European studies, it was expected that greater differences in decision making patterns would be found.

Again, though, only married women were sampled in Houston and Valencia, and the data were collected four years apart in the two cities. As is the usual case, respondents were asked to specify whether specific decisions were normally made by the husband, the wife, or both, for decisions associated with the purchase of nine products and services. Significant differences in husband dominance were found between the two samples for seven of the nine products and services. In each of these instances, the Venezuelan husband had more power and influence. In like manner, American families are characterized by greater levels of mutual decision making. These findings are felt to be illustrative of the greater variation which exists in family purchasing roles among more diverse cultures (Green and Cunningham 19205.

Time Allocation

A very interesting study conducted by Hawes, Gronmo and Arndt (1978) focused on comparisons of time budget expenditures. Using relatively larger samples than most researchers (3,040 Norwegians and 1,115 Americans in nationwide samples), they examined differences in shopping time versus leisure time activities.

Results indicated very clear cross cultural differences in the use of leisure time. These are reflected for both genders as well as for other demographic categories. DesPite these variations in leisure time activities, connoting differing life styles, a great deal of similarity in shopping time was found between the two countries. For example, in both countries, heavy shoppers (i.e., those who spend more shopping) spend less time at work and more time at home in sedentary activities. In general, it seems that time spent on shopping varies across differing consumer categories and directly affects the time spent on other pursuits. It was also suggested that non-traditional, non-economic variables may play a more significant role in purchasing behavior than previously believed (Haves, Gronmo, and Arndt 1478).

Employment of Wives

Douglas (1976) compared working versus non-working wives in France and the United States. The objective was to determine if working wives who would tend to have similar problems, such as constraints on the time available for shopping, would adopt similar purchasing strategies distinct from their non-working brethren. Alternatively, would national differences in behavior patterns prove greater than employment differences? Areas investigated included grocery purchasing, clothing purchasing, attitudes toward female roles, and family background variables.

The results indicated that differences between the two national samples were more significant than between working and non-working wives across all four sets of variables. This was true even after adjusting for socioeconomic and demographic differences. The main differences between the two samples in grocery shopping was in the type of store where they shopped. American wives tended to do more shopping in large supermarkets and less in neighborhood and corner stores than did French housewives. However, the author points out that these differences are largely due to the differing retail environment since large supermarkets are more prevalent in the United States and small neighborhood stores are more common in France. Still, the reverse can be argued, that the differences in the recall institutions available in each country reflect underlying differences in preferences and attitudes in the two countries, (i.e., cultural differences). In general, there is little support for the idea that a strategy of cross national segmentatiOn concentrating on the employment status of wives is likely to he meaningful (Douglas 1976).

Stage of Societal Development

One of the more comprehensive studies of cross cultural family purchasing behavior was recently undertaken by Green, Leonardi, Chandon, Cunningham, Verhage, and Strazzieri (1983). The theory of resources and the new typology of societies theory was investigated in five countries. The authors explain that the original resource theory was appropriate for many countries, but is inadequate when applied to less developed countries such as Greece or Yugoslavia. In order to deal with this, Rodman (1967, 1972) hypothesized that certain criteria must be present for the theory of resources to be applicable, criteria which are typically found in modern societies. These include: a transition toward an equalitarian marital ethic; a high level of flexibility about the distribution of marital power; and the importance of education, occupation, and income in defining a person's status.

In less modern societies, educational level may bring about an increase in an equalitarian marital ethic. Thus, a husband with a lot of education (a resource) in a less developed country may not have increased influence in the family, which contradicts the resource theory, but is explained in terms of the culture--it is not modern. Rodman (1972) also concluded that in addition to comparative resources of the partners, marital power is influenced by cultural and subcultural expectations concerning the distribution of marital power .

Green et al. (1983) examined a typology of societal development based on differences in the applicability of the theory of resources. It hat been hypothesized that there are four types of societies: patriarchy, characterized by little variation in strong patriarchal norms and overly stratified groups (e.g., India); modified patriarchy, where masculine authority is accompanied by rapid modernization (e.g., Greece); transitional equalitarianism, where equalitarian norms are replacing patriarchal norms (e.g., United States); and equalitarianism, characterized by strong husband/wife sharing of power (e.g., Denmark). Green et al. (1983) tested this typology's applicability to understanding husband/wife involvement in purchasing in the United States, France, Holland, Gabon, and Venezuela.

Results indicated that certain product categories are universally sale or female stereotyped. In all the countries surveyed, the wife had major influence in grocery decisions whereas husbands were more likely to dominate automobile and insurance decisions. However, variations do exist which can be accounted for by cultural differences. For instance, developing countries exhibit greater autonomous decision making in various product categories. Additionally, two country comparisons of the data were conducted. An overall trend indicated that husbands in less developed countries made significantly more decisions than those in modern countries. Gabon exhibited stricter purchasing roles than Venezuela, (i.e., more autonomous decision making). Venezuela showed more joint decisions than Gabon. There were fewer differences among the three more developed countries (Green et al. 1983).

Analysis of this data tends to support Rodman's typology. Gabon is in the patriarchy stage, with husband dominance and little shared decision making. Venezuela seems to be R modified patriarchy, with a greater degree of shared decision making. The remaining countries, the United States, France, and Holland, are in the transitional stage with some specified autonomous roles, but with a large degree of shared decision making as well (Green et al. 1983).

The cross cultural distinctions noted above could be due to the fact that in less developed folk societies life centers around the family and behavior tends to be based on customs and tradition. In modern industrialized societies, life centers less around the family and more around other social institutions, and customs and tradition are not allowed to impede progress (Redfield 1956).


In general, these studies suggest that some tentative conclusions may be drawn with respect to cross cultural family decision making. Some decision situations are believed to conform to either masculine or feminine roles across widely differing cultures. In more modern societies, the resources that a spouse brings to a marriage affect his or her relative power. A nation's stage of economic and social development can also explain some variations in family decision making. Researchers need to investigate a number of product categories when attempting to delineate cross cultural family purchasing patterns. Because much cross cultural research has been exploratory in nature, there is a continuing need for extensive and programmatic research in many nations. The study of cross cultural differences and similarities can provide explanations which are useful in the development of international marketing strategies.

Still, several factors may need to be considered to explain consumption related differences across countries. For instance, dally shopping by wives may be due to such stage of development characteristics as the absence of home refrigeration facilities, although preferences for personal relationships with neighborhood shopkeepers, a cultural factor, may also be important (Goldman 1974). Other factors to consider include the idea that shopping may serve as a desired social outlet, or that consumers may be unable to finance extensive home inventories.

With respect to the development of international marketing strategies, virtually all aspects of the marketing mix come into play. Understanding the significance and social symbolism of products in differing cultures is important in designing positioning strategies for foreign markets and for such related decisions as pricing and packaging (Levy 1954). The choice of distribution channels in foreign markets is often restricted by cultural prescription. And, of course, the development of advertising themes and messages raises the question of their appropriateness in different cultures. Marketers must be careful to assess all aspects of the cultural environment prior to marketing strategy implementation.


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