Marketplace Dynamics: the P's of &Quot;People&Quot; and &Quot;Process&Quot;

Robert Prus, University of Waterloo
Wendy Frisby, University of Waterloo
ABSTRACT - To-date, marketing has been studied largely from a "positivist" perspective. In contrast to this "cause" or "factor" oriented paradigm, an alternative model is proposed. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, marketing is viewed as a process which is best understood by examining the actualities of ongoing human interaction. Marketing is defined by the relationships (including preparations, encounters, and subsequent adjustments) of the involved parties and the (symbolic) meanings of the objects being exchanged. By focusing on the "activities" in which people find themselves engaging, the perspectives of the people involved, their ongoing definitions of the situation, and the processes by which they work out their activities with others, this statement offers a dynamic framework from which to view marketing activity. If marketing theory is to "come alive," it needs to be more sensitive to the actualities of the marketplace. It must be prepared to examine marketplace behavior as "social activity.
[ to cite ]:
Robert Prus and Wendy Frisby (1987) ,"Marketplace Dynamics: the P's of &Quot;People&Quot; and &Quot;Process&Quot;", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 61-65.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 61-65


Robert Prus, University of Waterloo

Wendy Frisby, University of Waterloo


To-date, marketing has been studied largely from a "positivist" perspective. In contrast to this "cause" or "factor" oriented paradigm, an alternative model is proposed. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, marketing is viewed as a process which is best understood by examining the actualities of ongoing human interaction. Marketing is defined by the relationships (including preparations, encounters, and subsequent adjustments) of the involved parties and the (symbolic) meanings of the objects being exchanged. By focusing on the "activities" in which people find themselves engaging, the perspectives of the people involved, their ongoing definitions of the situation, and the processes by which they work out their activities with others, this statement offers a dynamic framework from which to view marketing activity. If marketing theory is to "come alive," it needs to be more sensitive to the actualities of the marketplace. It must be prepared to examine marketplace behavior as "social activity.


In their opening statements to an American Marketing Association conference, Bagozzi (1979), Enis (1979) and Lutz (19 79) observed that there hat been little new conceptual work in the field of marketing over the last several years. This,they claimed, was particularly true of buyer-seller encounters and the relationships emerging therein. In addition, several others (Bunt, 1983; Anderson, 1983; and Deshpande, 1983) have more recently commented on the domination (and subsequent restrictiveness) of the positivist tradition in the field of marketing. The (positivist) emphasis has been on arriving at "facts," "models," and "formulae" designed to better able marketers to predict and control the business world. The preponderance of this approach may facilitate managerial practices. But, as Anderson (1983) contents, it toes not lead to an increased understanding of marketing as a generic human activity. Consequently, with the exceptions of Bonoma and Zaltman (1978), Levy (1978), and Reingen and Woodside (1981), there have been few attempts to understand marketing as a fundamentally "social phenomenon." To better appreciate the actualities of the marketplace, we need an alternative conceptual scheme, along with a methodology sensitive to the understanding of marketplace dynamics.

Building on "symbolic interaction," a sociological social psychology (Meat, 1934; Blumer, 1969), this paper draws attention to the fundamentally social nature of marketplace activity and provides a conceptual scheme sensitive to the "Ps" of "people" and "process." By recognizing the perspectival, reflective, negotiable, relational, and emergent nature of human behavior, it makes marketing theory attend to the actualities of exchanges. Thus, in-depth interviews, participation, and observation of buyer-seller activities are seen as vital in enabling researchers to better approximate the perspectives of the participants to the exchange, as well as their uncertainties, strategies, and ongoing adjustments to one another.


So far, those in marketing typically have focused on questions of the sort, "What makes salespeople sell more?" and "Why do customers buy certain products?" Relying heavily on experimental social psychology and survey research, and intensively searching for "factors" and "causes" of behavior, as well as "formulae" to better predict and control buying behavior, this approach is both arbitrary and prescriptive. It is arbitrary because it neither depicts the world experienced by the participants in the marketplace, nor studies the interaction between them. The emphasis has been on controlled quantitative data collection and on hypotheses testing. With this approach, the dynamics of the marketplace are reduced to static and one-sided versions of reality, and the data collected has been extremely narrow in nature. It is prescriptive because it is intended to make marketing a more efficient tool, rather than a phenomena to be studied in its own right. [1As Anderson (1983) notes, it will be difficult for marketing to acquire the status of a "science" unless more attention is given to the task of acquiring "knowledge for knowledge's sake."] Surprisingly scant consideration is given to the "actualities of doing business in its natural setting." It is here, by drawing attention to the social nature of all marketing and sales activity, and by depicting the ways in which these activities are worked out by the parties involved, that symbolic interactionism can make contributions to what is already an immense literature.

Market Mix

The concept of "market mix" represents a major attempt to provide a conceptual scheme for the field of marketing. Thus, in what has become a classic in marketing, Borden (1964) introduces the "4 P's; product, price, promotion, and place (distribution). Although not always guided by this scheme, many research endeavors can be subsumed by these concepts. These include studies (ant evaluations) of product lines, packaging and identity, pricing structures, trends, and discounts; promotional efforts through the media, management, and salespeople; and locations, layouts. and designs.

While promoting an order in a discipline characterized by fragmented realms of study, market mix (as presently formulated) neglects the two most important "P's," those of "people" and "process." It fails to appreciate the social and emergent nature of the marketplace. If marketing denotes the study of buyer-seller interaction, then "people" and "process" should represent central themes of marketing.

When speaking of "people," it is critical that we appreciate the perspectival and self-reflective nature of "minded behavior." Not only do people acquire perspectives (i.e. "world views," "conceptual schemes," "interpretative frames"), but they also develop capacities for taking themselves (and others) into account in developing lines of action. They are not mere targets of action, they are planners and doers. People interpret situations in reference to themselves (perspectives, interests, identities). Further, insofar as they influence (negotiate and develop bonds with) one another, people's behavior cannot be causally reduced to their individual qualities.

It is also vital that we recognize the "processual" nature of group life. This is one reason that interaction is problematic in its outcome. Interaction represents the "working out of exchanges." As encounters take place within an ongoing time-frame, participants can intent to selectively present themselves to others, but they can also assess their interchanges, and reorient their action towards one another on an ongoing basis (as they take themselves and others into account). By focusing on the P's of "people" and "process," the remainder of this paper will indicate how the symbolic interactionist perspective can be used to generate a better understanding of marketplace exchanges.


Business involves the exchange of goods and services, but it is fundamentally "social activity." Not only (1) all exchanges best seen as denoting "relationships" among the parties involved, but (2) even the meanings of the objects being exchanged reflect emergent group interactions. This means that vendor activities need to be examined in reference to their pre-sale preparations, direct customer contacts, and their post-contact behaviors, as together these define the "social activity of marketing." While direct vendor-prospect interaction is most obviously subject to negotiation, all vendor activities pertaining to those exchanges (before, during, and after) are of significance for understanding those encounters and any subsequent vendor-prospect encounters.

It is also crucial that the meanings that people have for "objects" be considered in reference to their social nature. The "value" of objects arises not from any "inherent properties" or "objective worths." 'North" is the value "attributed to objects by prospective buyers" (a valuing which may be shaped by the vendor and others). Thus, central significance should be given to the "symbolic nature of exchange;" to the meanings of objects as attributed to them by those engaged in exchange. Although there may be but "one exchange," any exchange may be seen in several different ways by the participants and any other observers (A) in anticipation of the exchange, (B) as it unfolds. and (C) in retrospect.

Sales might be most basically defined as "exchanges of goods," but like all social behavior, marketplace exchanges may entail a great deal of anticipation, assessment, and ongoing adjustment on the part of those involved. Exchanges involve commitments on behalf of all participants, and the resultant alterations in "goods" can significantly effect the subsequent experiences of those involved in the exchange. As such, one finds the weighing of resources, the assessment of options, the anticipation of consequences, and the emergence of strategies designed to enhance one's position. With some experience, also comes the recognition of similar concerns on the part of others, mutual capacities for deception, opportunities for misunderstanding, and possibilities of disappointment.

Exchanges (and the activities involved thereof) can be challenging, reflecting adversity, excitement, risk, and failure. Likewise, they can be entertaining, stimulating, refreshing and creative, as well as dull, uninspiring, and boring. Buyer-vendor encounters afford opportunities for persuasion, diplomacy, deception, and pressure, but they may also entail inquiry and assessment, honesty, and trust. Marketplace exchanges are far from a simple (and very misleading) matter of "supply and demand." [Readers are referred to Simmel (1978) for the statement which most clearly nullifies the notion that "value" is contingent on supply and demand.]

Viewed in these ways, it becomes evident that business is (1) "perspectival," reflecting the viewpoints, interests, and interpretations of the involved parties at any given points in time. Business is likewise (2) "reflective" in that people have capacities to define themselves in relation to others, and to take themselves and others into account in developing lines of action. Further, business is (3) "negotiable." Participants may influence ant/or be influenced by others, not only in reference to settling on the "desirability" and "monetary value" of items, but also in reference to any definitions of self and others that might be introduced as relevant to the issue by one of the parties. Like other aspects of life, business assumes a (4) relational quality. People develop bonds with one another and these alignments impact upon future transactions (e.g. trust, loyalty). Business is also (5) "processual," denoting the emergent and problematic nature of interaction. Actors may plan and anticipate certain outcomes, but marketplace exchanges entail cooperative behavior on the part of the parties involved, as they (jointly) work out their encounters.

Marketing as Joint Activity

Blumer (1969) uses the term "joint activity" to refer to the processes by which people work out lines of action with respect to one another. This concept is most relevant to the sales setting as buyers and sellers take one another (and themselves) into account and proceed to "jointly construct" their encounters.

The notion of joint activity does not presume that the parties involved take equal initiative or that they have equal-impact on the emerging interaction. However, it does alert us to the "cooperative" and "processual" nature of interaction. It means that no matter how "convincing" one vendor may be (compared to others), any encounter involving that vendor and any prospect is subject to definition and negotiation (including termination) on the part of the prospect. The vendor's "success" (making the sale) is contingent on the prospect's willingness to make the appropriate commitments. Even though vendors may plan and attempt to move the interaction in specific directions, the ensuing interaction may assume directions (and outcomes) quite at variance from those intended by either the vendors or the prospects.

Vendors may "sell products," but they are "selling products to people." Thus, in contrast to those who work with aluminum or plastics, for example (in which quality control can be rather sharply defined), salespeople face the task of working with "materials" which are not only (1) quite variable, (2) complex, and (3) unstable, [The term "unstable" denotes the abilities of people to change their viewpoints, emphases, and strategies in very short periods of time. Thus, in contrast to properties attributed to inanimate objects, those attributed to persons are highly vulnerable to error.] but which can also (4) assess the vendors' procedures as these pertain to their own situations, [This capacity for "self-reflectivity" (to be an object unto oneself) fundamentally distinguishes humans from other "objects." As "objects unto themselves ," humans may not only take themselves into account in planning lines of action, but also recognize the abilities of others to do so as well.] and (5) act back upon the vendors. Thus, it is one thing to "know one's products" and to be able to "present them" in a general sense, but it is another thing to obtain purchasing commitments regarding those items from others. In this respect, it is essential that vendor-buyer relationships be considered with regards to "impression management."

Marketing as Dramaturgical Activity

Since purchases reflect the "images" the prospects associate with purchasing situations, vendors typically wish to "present themselves" (and products) in ways prospects will find appealing (acceptable minimally). Nowhere is the practice of "impression management" more carefully explicated than in the works of Erving Goffman (1959). Recognizing that people are self-reflective beings who can take themselves and others into account, Goffman shows how people may selectively "present themselves" to others to promote particular definitions (of self) by others.

In examining "impression management," Goffman is not concerned with people's "true selves," but rather with their "projected selves;" the "images people present to others." Recognizing that persons may find it advantageous to be seen in certain ways and may attempt to influence the ways in which others define them, Goffman indicates how persons may promote ("give off") particular images of themselves to others. [It needn't be assumed that people are always concerned with "giving off" and/or "reading" impressions. The participants can vary greatly in the degree of concern they experience in either "portraying" or "monitoring" impressions.]

Rather than making claims about people's "true selves," [Goffman avoids the very thorny and elusive phenomenon of the "true self" by concentrating on the selection, presentation, and interpretation of people's "social selves."] the emphasis is on people's presentations of self and the interpretations of these presentations by others. These (ongoing) presentations and interpretations, Goffman posits, are central to the emergence and maintenance of "social order." While any presentation may entail some insincerity, Goffman views "impression management" as an inevitable aspect of group life as the participants attempt to deal with others in ways they most prefer.

Everyday "audiences" (viewing the world as a stage) are all those who witness people's activities. In contrast to theatrical settings, however, everyday audiences may much more readily "join those on stage." In the process all involved can be seen to jointly develop (negotiate) the "scenarios" they experience. Each-participant may have certain objectives in mind, but so may the others. And, although some participants may assume the role of supporting casts, others may be much less cooperative. Hence, people find themselves making ongoing adjustments to others, fitting their preferred lines of action into the emergent (and negotiable) encounters in which they find themselves. Goffman's everyday actors are more dynamic than their stage counterparts; their obstacles are greater and their resources, subsequent lines of action, and outcomes are much less clearly defined. They may endeavor to present themselves in certain ways, but their successes in doing so are clearly dependent on interpretations of their behaviors by others.

Seen in this manner, people are not "just actors," they are "interactors" whose life-chances are dependent on how their performances are received by others. Reflecting a mixture of viewpoints, unfolding exchanges, uncertain outcomes, and opportunities for input from all parties, sales-related encounters can be considered in "dramaturgical" terms. As with actors in a play, salespeople can be seen as "on stage" as they enter the prospect's presence. But, unlike people witnessing plays, their prospects may play a more direct, interactive role in the process. AS in all everyday encounters, salespeople are dependent on the "cooperation" of those with whom they interact. Vendors may have scripts from which to work, but they will also find themselves negotiating encounters with prospects and making ongoing adjustments as these encounters take place. Impression management, thus, is best seen in processual terms as buyers and sellers make ongoing adjustments to one another. Each party may have his own anticipations and experiences to draw upon, but the encounter is to be worked out with much less certainty as to outcome.


Given concerns with a processual, people oriented study of marketplace exchange, it seems appropriate to indicate the general strategies of research most consistent with these concerns. Interactionism makes five basic and interrelated demands on researchers.

First, there is the concern that researchers attend to the meanings people attach to the situations in which they find themselves. Thus, attention is given to both the perspectives (viewpoints, interpretative frames, paradigms) with which people approach situations and the implications of these viewpoints for the meanings people attribute to situations. Important, likewise, are any shifts in the perspectives from which people view situations.

Second, this approach acknowledges people's capacities for "minded activity," including therein people's abilities to interpret the situations they encounter and to take multiple aspects of situations (including past experiences and future projections) into account when considering ongoing situations. In addition to defining other objects (vs. reacting to stimuli), minded activity includes capacities for "self reflectivity" (being an object unto oneself) "role taking" (taking the perspectives of another into account), and "impression management" (managing images given off to others). As with other objects, one's views of self and others may change over time, and researchers would want to be sensitive to these aspects of interaction as well.

Third, recognizing that "we are all in this together," interactionism prompts a methodology sensitive to the negotiable nature of everyday life. Not only may people take others into account (via role-taking), but people are also apt to find themselves attempting to influence others (suggestions, strategies, resistances, conflicts, cooperation) and being subject to influence from others as their interactions unfold.

Fourth, this approach draws attention to both the continuity and selectivity implied by people's tendencies to develop relationships with one another. While some encounters are quite fleeting, people's past experiences with particular (and generalized) others may figure prominently in their future plans and activities.

Fifth, interactionism requires that researchers appreciate the processual nature of group life, that we attend to the "histories" or "careers" of the phenomena (activities, identities, commitments, perspectives, and relationships) being studied. This emphasis on the natural history of occurrences contrasts sharply with correlational research which flattens (or artificially imposes parameters on) time. Working from this tradition, researchers give much consideration to the unfolding or sequencing of events and assess consequences within the emergent contexts in which they take place.

These guiding principles suggest that we study group life relative to: (1) the meanings people develop relative to the situations in which they find themselves; (2) the capacities people have for taking themselves and other people into account in contemplating and developing lines of action; (3) the negotiable nature of human encounters; (4) the desirability of contextualizing action within ongoing relationships; and (5) the processes through which events take place .

A People and Process Methodology

The central task of an interactionist methodology is that of achieving "intimate familiarity" with the dynamics of group life. To this end, three methodological approaches are indicated along with brief statements on their respective capabilities and limitations. These are observations, interviews, and participant-observation. While these By be combined to achieve a more thorough appreciation of the phenomenon under study, this may not be feasible in every case.

Observation. Reflecting a form of "first hand" experience, observation may provide researchers with (A) ideas for subsequent research, (B) coding schemes and frequency counts, and (C) opportunities to assess information gathered in other ways. Observation allows for exploration, tabulation, and verification. Beyond visual modes of observation, researchers would also find it valuable to attend to conversations among the parties being studied.

The major limitation of observation alone, is that so much must be inferred from "surface impressions." Observers By penetrate back regions and/or uncover inadvertent disclosures, but researchers are left to infer meanings about people and their activities from "what they witness." They can easily miss people's preparations, dilemmas, negotiations and strategies. Researchers relying exclusively on observation fail to benefit from the (typically rich) set of accounts (histories, observations, interpretations, explanations, and qualifications) the participants can provide.

Interviews. Whether combined with observation or used on their own, interviews represent a valuable means of arriving at a more complete understanding of people's experiences and concerns. Interview material depends heavily on the cooperation of those being studied. But when participants are given adequate opportunity to express themselves, interviews can generate great detail in reference to meanings, reflections, negotiations, relationships and process.

The main limitations of interviews are those pertaining to the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the accounts obtained. Interviewees may intentionally mislead interviewers, but researchers can facilitate honest and complete statements by the ways in which they approach and conduct interviews. Generally speaking, more inquisitive, patient, interested, and nonjudgemental approaches seem to fare better. The effective interviewer is first and foremost a good listener. When people feel rushed, directed, or judged, they are less apt to provide researchers with complete and accurate information. And, insofar as the researcher learns more about a situation from one interview to the next, inquiries should be more insightful and more thorough as the interviews proceed (each interview advantaging the interviewer for the next).

Participant Observation. The third major research strategy is that of the researcher actively engaging in the subject matter being discussed. While the participant-observer strategy of research denotes a rich data base in its own right, it can become even more powerful when combined with more extensive interviews and observations. Each can alert the researcher to matters pertinent to the phenomenon under study, and each provides a base for assessing information obtained by these other means. Whether involvements precede or overlap with these other modes of investigation, this "inside dopester" role can be extremely valuable in developing more insightful interviews and in allowing researchers to make more informed observations. Since participants are generally less obtrusive observers than others, they may be able to more readily access other information than would other researchers.

The participant observer role also has some noteworthy limitations. To the extent these insiders (A) "presume" rather than inquire into the activities of others, (B) moralize and/or attempt to educate others, or (C) take sides (or are so perceived), their information generally becomes less valuable. Access to certain others may also be severely jeopardized by virtue of their role involvements. Finally, while outsiders may have difficulties (time, contacts) entering and being accepted in a particular role, so may insiders find it difficult to sustain the role of the researcher (i.e. they become "absorbed by the role being studied;"the anthropologists use the term, "going native").

While one person may be able to obtain information in each of these means (observation, interviews, participant-observation), researchers may also find it valuable to work in teams. Teamwork can be troublesome in some respects (e.g. uneven contributions, different perspectives and objectives), but it may allow researchers to access (and evaluate) more information than may a "lone wolf" approach. It means, for instance, that researchers may be able to participate in several roles in a research site, access a greater number/assortment of participants, and make more sustained observations than might a solitary researcher over the same time frame.


This paper offers a "bottoms-up" approach for understanding marketing activities by being sensitive to the actualities of social interaction in the marketplace. In contrast to marketing approaches, people are viewed not as the (unthinking) targets of marketing strategies but as actors with capacities to interpret situations and select courses of action. In addition, the interactions that take place between buyers and sellers are seen not as static one-time occurrences but as evolving over time as people anticipate, assess, and adjust to each other and the situations in which they find themselves.

Positivist research may be useful for improving the effectiveness of marketing strategies from the marketers' point of view, but this "top-down" approach to research and theory is not true to the subject matter under investigation. Hence, instead of searching for simplistic "causes" or "formulae" designed to enable marketers to control buying behavior, the approach outlined herein is concerned with the understanding of marketing as generic human activity. By acknowledging the "P's" of "people" and "process", we may develop a framework for better understanding how people become involved, stay involved and make decisions about future exchange activities.

In conjunction with an approach sensitive to the perspectival, reflective, negotiable, relational and processual nature of marketplace exchanges, an alternative research methodology is required; one sensitive to the complex and problematic nature of human interaction. Survey methods, hypotheses testing, and the use of statistical procedures to not and cannot adequately recognize the emergent, social nature of group life. Instead, we need to attend to the "natural histories" or "careers" of marketing activities through observation, interviews and participant observation.

Defining as "empirical" only that which can be measured, some may criticize these methods as being subjective and nonempirical. In contrast, we view empiricism as a method of study which endeavors to be true to the phenomenon under study. Thus, if people can view the "same objects" differently, one to another, or over time, then some appreciation of multiple meanings seems incontestable. If people are able to think and can assess themselves and others, then some notion of reflectivity should be incorporated into the study of human behavior. If people can influence others, and be influenced by them, then the negotiable nature of group life should be appreciated. If people selectively interact with others, both ln immediate situations and over time, then we should be prepared to acknowledge the significance of these relationships for their behaviors. And, if there is an emergent quality to human life, then we should be sensitive to that as well. These "natural qualities" of human life (and marketplace exchange) have been overlooked by conventional research for much too long.


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