Consuming As Social Action: Ethnographic Methods in Consumer Research

Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut-Hartford
ABSTRACT - Following a brief critique of the positivist orientation and method, this paper presents an alternative perspective (symbolic interactionism) and research approach (participant observation). The conclusion focuses on some issues of interest to consumer researchers which are most effectively investigated using this alternative orientation and methodology.
[ to cite ]:
Clinton R. Sanders (1987) ,"Consuming As Social Action: Ethnographic Methods in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 71-75.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 71-75


Clinton R. Sanders, University of Connecticut-Hartford


Following a brief critique of the positivist orientation and method, this paper presents an alternative perspective (symbolic interactionism) and research approach (participant observation). The conclusion focuses on some issues of interest to consumer researchers which are most effectively investigated using this alternative orientation and methodology.


Consumer researchers operate in a professional culture dominated by the related ideological perspectives of realism, determinism and positivism. Prom this standpoint the "world" to be understood exists apart from the cognition of social actors; human behavior is controlled by objective situations, environmental features or psychological forces; and explanations of inherently orderly, law-governed workings of reality may be derived through the systematic search for regularities and causal relationships. Logical empiricism is the procedure which typically guides the consumer researcher's rational discovery of the laws which determine behavior. An a priori model is logically constructed from the analyst's theoretically informed understanding of reality. This model is used to generate hypotheses which are then subjected to empirical tests. The data are employed to support, disconfirm or restructure the hypotheses and their contextual model. Explanatory understanding of the laws which determine the workings of behavioral reality provides the foundation for the prediction and manipulation of human behavior.

The belief that social reality, like obturate physical reality, consists of an objective order apart from the understanding and social activity of human actors underlies social scientists' use of methodologies akin to those employed by physical scientists. "Scientific" research, from this perspective, is a value-free researcher's investigation of a world reduced to a collection of discrete, measurable variables which he/she quantifies and manipulates in order to expose causal relationships. The more precise the quantification, the closer the analyst comes to identifying the objective structure underlying the observable world (Hirschman 1985, p. 228).

The allegiance to the positivist/realist/determinist perspective and associated research approaches repeatedly encountered in consumer research is eminently understandable given the desire for legitimacy felt by those who identify with and are active within this rising area of specialized interest. New disciplines or subdisciplines-especially those with an applied rather than a "pure science" focus - tend to mimic the models and approaches employed within established fields of study. Within the political structure of academia marginal specialties are more likely to be consensually defined as legitimate and receive resources when symbolically identifiable as serious, scientific and conventionally empirical. In this regard, the use of traditional perspectives and research approaches functions to legitimate consumer research and to enhance the prestige of its practitioners within the eyes of both the members of the academic community and the marketing managers who are the primary consumers of the practical services which they offer (Uusitalo and Uusitalo 1981, p. 560; Hudson and Murray 1986, p. 345; Anderson 1983; Young 1981, p. 121).

Emile Durkheim (1938), the key historical advocate of a positivist/functionalist approach within sociology, maintained that social scientists should employ the methodologies of the physical sciences to study "social facts."

Social facts are, from the Durkheimian perspective, variables characterized by their existence apart from the subjective experience of individual actors but which constrain behavior. Since these social variables are as "real" as the variables studied by physical scientists, Durkheim advocated the use of the positivist perspective and the scientific method to discover the cause of a social phenomenon and its social function. However, a considerable body of social scientific literature questions the utility of the normal science model in the study of human behavior. Max Weber (1949) and others (Dilthey 1936; Schutz 1954) have emphasized the unique differences between the subject matter of the physical sciences and that of the social sciences. For Weber, the subject matter of the social sciences did not consist of objective and concrete social facts. Instead, he directed social analysts to focus on "social action"--behavior which is subjectively meaningful to human actors. Weber maintained that understanding social behavior necessitated the utilization of a unique empirical approach. Through the use of "verstehen," empathic involvement with the subjective system of meanings which orients and grounds actors' behavior, social scientists could acquire an understanding of those activities (see Bruyn 1966, pp. 1-9; Collins 1975 and Rabinow and Sullivan 1979 for discussions of this critical sociological debate).

Various critics of the logical empiricist approach to social knowledge (eg., Blumer 1969, pp. 127-139; Deutscher 1973, pp. 244-246, 254-259) have maintained that the search for causally related, discrete, measurable variables entails an unrealistic and fruitless reductionism. Variable analysis as typically pursued by positivist social scientists is appropriate in only a few, limited areas of social life--those which are routinely constructed and highly stable. Further, the variables identified by objective social scientists have little explanatory utility because Zit is not the variable as objectively defined by the scientist which exerts influence on the action; to the contrary, it is the actor's interpretation of what that variable means which is related to his action" (Deutscher 1973. D- 255).

In turn, the traditional positivist methods--especially, experimentation and survey research--are the focus of considerable criticism. Experimental methods are viewed as generating findings with little external validity. Experimentation, at best, provides a glimpse of how people behave in the artificial social psychological circumstance of the experimental situation (see Ginsberg 1978; Orne 1962; Friedman 1967).

Assessments of a consuming devotion to and a faith in the data derived from survey methodologies tend to focus on three perceived inadequacies. First, the categories and issues teemed a priori to be of import on the basis of the investigator's objective, theoretically driven understanding possess questionable utility. They typically have little relationship to the categories of meaning which social actors employ to orient their behavior within the processual flow of their lived experience.

Second, surveys reveal attitudes rather than actual behavior. A sizable body of research and discussion is devoted to questioning the assumption of a direct correlation between these two key phenomena (e.g., LaPiere 1934; Kutner, et al. 1952; Fishbein and Ajzen 1972; Freeman and Ataov 1960).

The third major criticism of the survey approach focuses on the practical and data-problem generating issue of how survey research is organized. Since it is typically a large-scale and bureaucratized data collection process, the on-the-line work of survey administration is rarely carried out by those who designed the study, will analyze the data, will gain occupational prestige because of the study or who have a stake in the cumulative advance of Scientific knowledge. The actual work of survey data collection is done by "hired hands" (Roth 1965). As is typical for workers engaged in tedious and alienated labor, survey data collectors take shortcuts designed to ease and speed their occupational activity. Consequently, they cheat, guess, cut corners, alter wording, avoid asking "stupid" questions and otherwise threaten the sacred reliability of the research endeavor (see Schwartz and Jacobs 1979, pp. 133-142 for a striking illustration of the hired-hand problem in marketing research).

Founding an understanding of social behavior on the quantitative data commonly derived from the use of these research approaches is also questioned in the critical literature. T. R. Young (1981) observes that quantification involves an unrealistic simplification. If social Scientists are intent upon understanding human behavior, quantification is yet another step in a process which removes the analyst from contact with the phenomenon she/he wishes to understand.

One should realize that quantification is a process by which the richness of everyday life is made progressively more barren as it proceeds. One discards information (variety) as human behavior is translated into word sets. Still more information is discarded as one transfers data from word sets into number sets - a number set simply is not as informative as a word set since word sets are not limited by the constraints on number sets--ordinality, inter-vality, and ratio-nality. One loses still more information as one converts descriptive parameters into summary statistics. Quantification, then, is a process by which information is systematically discarded (p. 123).

The discussion which follows builds upon exhortations to enlarge the view and scope of consumer research. I will outline briefly symbolic interactionism, the dominant subjectivist/interpretive theoretical perspective within contemporary sociology. In turn, I will present the ethnographic method which is typically favored by symbolic interactionists. Finally, I will discuss areas of consumer behavior and features of commercial which can be fruitfully focused upon through the lens provided by this alternative perspective and methodology.


Given the oft-cited problems with the importation of the positivist/determinist/quantitativist perspective traditionally popular in the natural sciences into the very different activities involved in developing a disciplined understanding of human behavior, a growing number of consumer researchers are advocating and employing alternative perspectives and methods. Various authors advocate increased usage of a nominalist/voluntarist perspective (e.g., Uusitalo and Uusitalo 1981; Hudson and Murray 1986), increased attention to sociological (rather than psychological) features (e.g., Foxall 1974; Sofer 1965; Nicosia and Mayer 1976), intensified focus on the subjective factors shaping behavior (e.g., Hirschman 1984; Hudson and Murray 1986) and utilization of qualitative research approaches (e.g., Sherry 1983; Wells and Lo Sciuto 1966).

Symbolic interactionism stresses the centrality of the actor's subjective evaluations of his/her social and structural environment in the more-or-less voluntaristic everyday activity of constructing plans of action and choosing how to behave. Social action is premised on how participants subjectively define situations rather than on the basis of objectively measurable features, (cf., Belk 1975; Kakkar and Lutz 1981; Foxall 1983 pp. 62-67). Social structure (culture, stratification, action systems and so on) is not unimportant, but it is not the determinant of human action. Instead, features of social organization provide a framework inside of which human beings make choices in that social organization shapes the immediate situation (as it is understood by actors) in which activities occur (Blumer 1969, pp. 87-88).

The central component in the process of social interaction is the human actor constructing his/her behavior within a situational contest. Interaction entails the basic process of defining the situation and attempting to build an understanding of how co-interactants, in turn, define the situation. An actor's interpretation of the meaning of a situation ("What's going on here?") and understanding of how others perceive it facilitates "collective action" (i.e., coordinated social action involving the complex fitting together of the goals and situational definitions of the various actors) (see Becker 1974; Blumer 1969; Manis and Meltzer 1972).

Complex social interaction is possible because of human actors' symbolizing abilities. From the interactionist standpoint, the world of social behavior is essentially symbolic--we move in 8 social environment composed of multiple levels of meaning. Nonverbal and verbal symbolization cues co-interactants about the (potentially diverse) understandings actors carry, thereby rendering collective action possible.

Interactionism's focus on subjective meaning as the central factor shaping behavior is not reductionist solipsism. Members of social groups--from dyads to societies-share definitions of reality and common understandings about situationally appropriate behavior. These shared understandings constitute culture (see Geertz 1973). Roles and norms are key components of culture. Both consist of conventional knowledge regarding appropriate behavior given the situational circumstances and the relative status of the interactants within the specific situation.

The "dramaturgical a variant of interactionism--employs a theatrical analogy. It presents interaction as a play in which interactants act out roles, use "costumes," manipulate aspects of the "set," employ "props" and so forth in order to shape the "definition of the situation" they communicate to their fellow interactants. By manipulating these definitions social actors attempt to influence the behavior of those with whom they interact (Goffman 1959; Prus 1983).

The "production of culture perspective" is a recent focus of emphasis for interactionists who share interests with consumer researchers. This perspective looks at the social process whereby material goods (especially, art, popular culture materials and other "expressive" products) and services are conceived, created, evaluated, distributed and consumed (see Becker 1974; Peterson 1976; Sanders 1982; Hirschman 1981; Hirschman and Stampfl 1980).


When an actor's subjective definitions are central to the process whereby he/she chooses behavior and these definitions arise in the context of group interaction and situational experience, a disciplined understanding of behavior can best be achieved by tapping into cultural meanings as they are used in the immediate interaction situation. Participant observation is the predominant method employed by interactionists to achieve this goal. As Becker and Geer (1957, p. 28) observe:

The most complete form of the sociological datum, after all, is the form in which the participant observer gathers lt; an observation of some social event, the events which precede and follow it, and explanations of its meaning by participants and spectators, before, during, and after its occurrence. Such a datum gives us more information about the event under study than data gathered by any other sociological method. Participant observation can thus provide us with a yardstick against which to measure the completeness of data gathered in other ways (emphasis added).

The participant observer's primary goal is to become a well-socialized member of the social group in which he/she is interested. As an ongoing participant in the everyday interaction situations surrounding behavior the researcher acquires a direct empirical understanding of the complex meaning system actors use to orient their actions. The -thick description-' (Geertz 1973) provided by this ethnographic approach is superior to data derived through the use of other techniques. Systematic, non-participant observation offers information about what people do in immediate social situations but not why they do it (cf., Wells and Lo Sciuto 1966). Nonsituated interviewing elicits information about attitudes rather than actual behavior and is subject to demand characteristics and similar problems of reactivity. Participant observation, in contrast, allows direct experience of the meaning system used by social actors and decreases reactivity problems. The researcher contacts social behavior in the natural setting. Actors have more things to worry about (getting the job done, maintaining one's reputation in the eyes of peers, finishing the grocery shopping, and so on) than impressing the researcher or figuring out his/her intentions. In addition, participant observation allows the researcher to check what people say they do or would do (attitudes) against what they actually do in the immediate situation.

The data collection process of participant observation involves the researcher's: 1) identifying a group and an interaction setting of interest; 2) gaining access to the setting; 3) acquiring a basic understanding of the setting and the interaction within it during an initial reconnoitering phase, and; 4) generating a large body of "field notes" which systematically and completely describe the setting, the actors, interactions and relationships. Field interviewing - semi-focused conversations with actors in the course of their everyday activities - is also carried out and provides much of the material contained in the field notes.

Participant observation is typically (though not necessarily) an inductive process. Abstracted, theoretically meaningful analyses are drawn from the patterns observed in the ongoing flow of events in the field. Data collection and analysis proceed in tandem as the researcher develops informed hunches, checks these ideas out with actors in the field, seeks "negative cases" and revises and refines the hunches into more general statements of relationship (hypotheses). Com only, the participant observer uses this grounded understanding to structure the content of a series of semi-structured interviews with selected interactants late in the career of the field work. (For detailed presentations of this method see Lofland and Lofland 1984; Lofland 1976; McCall and Simmons 1969; Shaffir, et al. 1980; and Bruyn 1966. Systematic accounts of the analysis of qualitative data will be found in these volumes and in Glaser and Strauss 1967; Glaser 1978; Miles and Huberman 1984; Denzin 1978, pp. 191-201 and Robinson 1951.)

Participant observation is a research technique which is not suited for all issues nor all investigators. Complex, large scale social systems and phenomena are difficult (though, not impossible) to study when an individual researcher employs this approach. The research process is tedious, time-consuming and occasionally dangerous. It is not an activity which is best pursued by social scientists who experience discomfort with ambiguity, with being a stranger rather than exercising authority and who do not possess significant interpersonal skills. Conversely, it is the best method for gaining information about how social actors organize their behavior in the face of immediate situational contingencies and meaning contexts. It is also a research activity which is relatively inexpensive, can be pursued independent of the constraints commonly imposed by bureaucratic funding agencies and research organizations and the research process itself is a consistent source of intrinsic pleasure and excitement (cf., Hirschman 1985, pp. 232-237). The method is useful both as the sole approach to data collection and, as a number of writers have advocated, as a technique which can be employed to guide other, more traditionally structured methods and fill in the gaps in understanding left by the more conventional research approaches (see Sieber 1973; Sherry 1983. pp. 165-167; Denzin 1978, pp. 191-307).


The proceeding has been a brief presentation of a theoretical perspective and a related methodological approach which offer consumer researchers alternatives to the positivist, normal science model and quantitatively oriented methods which have dominated the field. The strength of the phenomenological orientation lies in its attention to the subjectively held, but socially shared, meaning structures which underlie behavior. The described approach is particularly appropriate for those interested in understanding consumption as a form of social behavior. The interactionist perspective directs attention to the collective action features of consumption buyer/seller interaction is portrayed as a process in which interactants are involved in ongoing attempts to define the "other" (Prus 1984, 1986; Mennerick 1974) and the situation. In turn, these definitions are manipulated by the interactants in order to exercise control within the purchase situation. Symbolic interactionism also emphasizes the central importance of the actor's definition of "self" and the significance of consumer products as symbolic objects which reinforce or aid in the transformation of one's understanding of who they are and how they present themselves to others (see Levy 1959; Solomon 1983).

Participant observation is particularly suited for the investigation of certain issues and interaction situations of relevance to consumer researchers. Shopping activities and service interaction, both conventional (e.g., Bertoia 1986; Bigus 1972) and "deviant" (e.g., Adler 1985; Sanders 1985, 1986), are especially appropriate areas in which the ethnographic approach can be used to advantage.

The activity of consumption, especially the consumption of products and services which provide the consumer with aesthetic/emotional experience (Hirschman 1984; Hudson and Murray 1986; Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Sanders 1974), is another basic area which may be most effectively explored using qualitative methods founded on direct researcher involvement (see Klein 1983: Levin 1986).

The interactionist perspective emphasizes the key importance of Personal networks and reference groups as providing and supporting the meaning construct which underlies an individual's behavior. Interactionist methodology is eminently suited for exploring subcultures--the social segments (e.g., ethnic, adolescent) which, in part, supply the consumer with his/her definitions of products and shape the ways in which products are chosen, valued and utilized (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, p. 99; Uusitalo and Uusitalo 1981. p. 561).

Prompted by a growing dissatisfaction with the ability of traditional models and empirical procedures to provide an adequate understanding of human behavior, subjectivist perspectives and qualitatively focused, interpretive methods are reasserting themselves within a variety of social scientific disciplines (see Sass 1986 and Hirschman 1985). The alternative perspective and method presented in this paper hold special promise for consumer researchers who wish to escape the constraints of traditional approaches. Although participant observation raises some unique ethical issues (Hirschman 1986, pp. 247-248), it holds the promise of avoiding the ethical problems inherent in the typical ways in which knowledge of consumer behavior has been utilized in the past. Rather than providing marketing managers with information which they can use to more effectively manipulate consumers, the interpretive/ethnographic approach can (and should be) used as a source of humanizing and liberating knowledge. Founded on an understanding of human behavior as rational (i.e., premised on a choice of practical alternatives as they are subjectively perceived and evaluated) and creative, the qualitative exploration of consumption holds the potential of expanding the knowledge and supporting the interests of consumers and researchers alike (Holbrook 1985; Comstock 1980).


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