Prospects For Consumer Research

Jack Haas, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario
ABSTRACT - This paper provides an "outsider's" view of consumer research and argues that the dominant paradigm of positivism and the concern with objectivity denies or obscures the social or subjective nature of research and consumer behavior. A qualitative approach to the study of consumer behavior is advocated and the intimately related theory of symbolic-interactionism and field research methods are described as ways of understanding consumer behavior in a subjective or social, inductive and holistic way.
[ to cite ]:
Jack Haas (1987) ,"Prospects For Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 76-78.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 76-78


Jack Haas, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario


This paper provides an "outsider's" view of consumer research and argues that the dominant paradigm of positivism and the concern with objectivity denies or obscures the social or subjective nature of research and consumer behavior. A qualitative approach to the study of consumer behavior is advocated and the intimately related theory of symbolic-interactionism and field research methods are described as ways of understanding consumer behavior in a subjective or social, inductive and holistic way.


In approaching this topic I bring an orientation as a qualitative sociologist and my experiences as a consumer. Beyond that, I have perused several tests and journals in the marketing and consumer behavior field. Although in some eyes this may disqualify me as a potential contributor; for others, my very naivete and strangeness to the "discipline" provides me a certain "objectivity." Ideally, the "taken for granteds" of the discipline under study are more visible to the outsider like myself who, like the anthropologist studying a foreign culture, has not been socialized into this "different" way of understanding life.

One immediate perception is that, in fact, things are not so much different in consumer research. Although the "applied" orientation is an unfamiliar emphasis, immediately raising questions and doubts about the relevance of such acadamese to the practitioner; the field suffers or enjoys the same "scientific" development as other social sciences. The research, at some cost, is clearly dominated by the logical empiricist paradigm stressing rationality, objectivity and measurement.

Long ago I learned that practitioners of ny approach of science are often strongly, sometimes hostilely, resistant to the idea that other methods, perspectives or paradigms might fruitfully contribute to heir pursuit of knowledge.

Paradigms in power become particularly defensive and monopolistic. Professions and their specialties are often deliberately obscure and esoteric as they seek to cloak their "business" in an aura of competence in their search for scientific legitimacy. Professional journals effectively reflect the control of the positivists in social science and consumer and marketing research as part of the "cloak of competence" (Haas and Shaffir, 1977) of professionalization. "Objectivity" is the code word of this ideology as the social nature of human activities like science is either denied, overlooked or obscured. The reality that paradigms are social constructions reflecting the values and interests of dominant researchers and elite interests is often hidden. The consensual and conservative nature of legitimated science and the social fact that theories and findings are appraised on scientific criteria as well as class and professional interests and dominance goes unappreciated. We deny the very reality we attribute to other relationships and institutions of society. Somehow, our ritual baths in scientific rhetoric purify us from the contamination of subjectivity and vested interests.

Appreciating the idea that science is a social activity requires a certain reflexivity, a recognition that we affect and are affected by the research process. Rarely, however, do we provide self-conscious reports of the process of research, relying instead on objectivist accounts of the scientific nature of our procedures. The detached observer becomes the ideal, based on the presumption that such an alienation is both possible and desirable.

And so, I would argue that the prospects for consumer research are self-limited by the vested interests of persons trained and believing in specific ways of doing things, who do what they specialize in well, but who gain only a very partial and fragmented picture of reality because of the limits of an objectivist approach.

On the other hand, these prospects, I argue, would be immeasurably enhanced by an acceptance of a more relativistic, contextual approach to consumer research. Instead of, or in combination with, the positivist approach to consumer research, this paper advocates the necessity of research empathy and intimacy to acquire understanding of consumer behavior. The call to examine consumer behavior as process is recognized by a very few researchers in the field. A respected contributor to consumer research, Jacob Jacoby, describes the problem I've noted and calls for an approach emphasizing the processual when he argues that consumer researchers should: devote less time to studying what people say they do and spend more time examining what it is that they do do.... We also need to begin studying consumer behavior in terms of the dynamic process it is ... probably 99 + % of all consumer research conducted to date examines consumer behavior via static methods administered either before or after the fact (1978:90).

Peter similarly argues that: we clearly need to know what behaviors people perform before we explain why they perform them. Not only has little study been devoted to overt behavior but little attention has been given to delineating the basic sequence of behaviors people must perform to purchase a product or other sequence of behavior of interest in marketing (1981: 144).

More recently, other researchers have challenged the heavy reliance upon self-report techniques and fixed-format surveys designed for computer-analytic processing, arguing for a relativist, contextual approach to research stressing the subjective, phenomenological, holistic aspects of events and behavior, and the necessity of research empathy and intimacy in order to acquire understanding (Deshpande, 1983; Hirschman, 1985; Peter and Olsen, 1983).

This paper reinforces the call for a more subjective, inductive and holistic approach to the study of consumer behavior. The paper attempts to provide some conceptual and methodological direction for understanding and examining consumer behavior as social processes requiring methodologies that emphasize observation, interaction and interpretation. I describe the social psychological perspective of symbolic-interactionism and its attendant qualitative technique of study as ways of inductively deriving understandings about consumer behavior. I conclude by offering an example of qualitative techniques that might be considered for getting at the "social" and "process" nature of consumer behavior.


The investigation of consumer behavior as social process involves the distinctive combination of symbolic-interaction theory and field study methodology. This combination of theory and method combines the social psychological contributions of George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, John Dewey, and Everett C. Hughes, [See Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1956); John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, (New York:Modern Library, 1930); George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), and The Philosophy of the Act, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938); Everett C. Hughes, Men and Their Work. For a summary of symbolic interaction theory see, Arnold M. Rose, ed., Human Behavior and Social Processes, (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962), particularly chapter 1 by Arnold M. Rose, "A Systematic Summary of Symbolic Interaction Theory," pp. 3-19. See also Jerome G. Manis and Bernard N. Meltzer, eds., Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1967).] among others, with the methodology of field research, an anthropological approach introduced to the University of Chicago by Robert S. Park. Before directing the reader to the particular concepts which are used in this analysis, it is necessary to outline some general theoretical underpinnings which directly affect both the research and analysis.

A basic idea shared by symbolic interactionists is that the distinctive attributes of human behavior grow from man's immersion in a cultural environment which depends upon the existence of language behavior and the creation and manipulation of signs and symbols. Language is the vehicle by which culture is transmitted from generation to generation, and it is through language or symbolic behavior that individuals are able to align their actions within a framework of mutual expectations. Communication through the use of symbols makes the formation of human groups possible and gives them continuity in time and space. The creation of symbols initiates and facilitates the evolution and transmission of traditions, skills, goals, tactics, rules and procedures.

Human behavior is understood as the conscious and rational interpretation by individuals of these symbolic, as well as physical, stimuli in their environment. Individuals define and construct their social situations, and the basis for these interpretations are provided by sets of cultural meanings and understandings. In such interactions, individuals explain to one another what they ought, or are expected, to do. We make indications to one another, symbolically communicating a series of definitions and expectations, thus providing a framework for definition of the situation.

Humans, it is emphasized, live in a world of meanings and we respond to our world on the basis of the meanings. The meanings of objects, actions and situations are social products arising from the defining activities of individuals as they interact with one another. Human behavior is a process in which individuals act toward and in response to various objects depending upon the culturally-derived meanings of those objects.

Individuals often guide and control their behavior by considering what they believe to be the expectations of others. Their assessment of the situation includes an attempt to define the expectations of others. We are able to consider the expectations of others because of the uniquely human ability to take the role of the other. [Anticipating the response of others to our behavior is possible only by perceiving the other person's point of view. The ability to imaginatively enact the role of others is a precondition for the anticipation of the responses of others and for adequate perception of one's self (Mead, 1934: 152-64).]

Individuals are able to understand others, because they are able to imagine how they feel and think. We do this by empathizing with others, by symbolically assuming their point of view. Because we are able to perceive social situations from others' viewpoints, we can anticipate and weigh their possible reactions to our behavior. We can assay the situation from several viewpoints, consider several alternative lines of action, and act in ways we consider most appropriate or most likely successful.

This process of definition is continuous and dynamic. As we move through new situations we acquire new definitions. As our relationships with others change, so does our behavior toward or with them. Throughout our lives we come to learn a host of definitions, meanings and expectations. In a complex and heterogenous society, such as ours, we learn many expectations, some of which may conflict. The problem of understanding human behavior thus becomes even more problematic.

The definitions of social situations may or may not come to be shared. Individuals may interact with different or conflicting definitions. Shared definitions and meanings are more likely to occur in situations which necessitate extended and continuous interaction. This is particularly true for groups of individuals who occupy similar positions and face the same or similar situations.

It is this congruence of individual definitions and lines of actions which defines a social group. Members of a social group are so defined because they express and act out a set of mutually shared definitions and expectations. The individual is viewed as a product of the group. The group antedates the individual and provides him a set of meanings and definitions which serve as a framework for his thought and action.

The analysis of social process examines ways in which behavior of various groups are developed, sustained and changed. The individual and society are seen as linked wherein individual behavior is continually shaped by social processes and influences. A full understanding requires an understanding of the historical context, the ongoing social structure and the basic processes of social life. Within this framework we hope to link the individual to the larger social and historical context in which he lives.

Herbert Blumer summarizes the basic position of symbolic interactionism in the form of three prepositions or premises:

1) Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings the things have for them.

2) The meanings of such things are derived from, or arise out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows.

3) These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters (Blumer, 1969:2).


The theoretical perspective of symbolic interaction that underlies this approach takes as a given the idea that the understanding of human conduct requires an understanding of the meanings and definitions which evoke the conduct. To understand the meaning of overt acts requires knowledge of the subjective ingredients and shared interpretations which lie at the base of the behavior. The study of consumer behavior therefore emphasizes an explanation of consumer behavior from consumers' points of view, understanding their actions in terms of their referents.

The study of inner meanings presents a problem particular to the social sciences. Though scientific research requires objectivity, the social scientist must also be concerned with the critically important subjective bases of behavior. To attempt the understanding of behavior in the absence of knowledge of the participants' definition is futile. Thus, overcoming objectivity in methods may reduce analysis to a state of sterility. If social science research does not take into account the subjects' point of view, the explanation and analysis rests on intuition. Human action is inseparable from its context, and the meanings of acts cannot be divorced from actors' definitions.

Field study methods provides the modus operandi for data collection about social processes. This approach includes a body of research strategies which allow the researcher to collect data by the most appropriate means. The research strategy is an inductive one, ideally suited for discovering hypotheses and observing the relationships between several sets of behavior, different participants, and varying groups in the settings. The advantage of inductive research is that it enables the observer to construct and refine hypotheses as the research continues. Hopefully, this process of reasoning results in a more complete understanding.

The inductive approach facilitates the acquisition of a more nearly complete conceptual framework-and the recognition of the relationship of events, sequences of action, and necessary, sufficient, and contributing aspects of the situation. As contrasted with traditional, deductive social science research which seeks to isolate, contrast, and test variables, our strategy is to unveil preceding and surrounding events and circumstances, and their perception by participants.

One objective of ethnographic research is the study of behavior in natural settings. The study of consumer behavior is the study of a form of collective behavior involving the actions of-a variety of individuals who bring a set of different experiences and backgrounds, needs and wants to the marketplace.

There are a number of prospective studies that might be fruitfully undertaken. Clearly, if we can agree that consumer behavior involves a social process then any part of that process deserves attention. Qualitative research could then generate hypotheses which might be tested by more quantifiable techniques.

The model we propose is an inductive one which begins with the idea that hypotheses or hunches about what people perceive about product needs, value, packaging, identification, etc, should be derived by collecting data in natural settings. We assume then rather than begin by testing hypotheses we need to first observe consumer behavior in an unaffected way. Unobtrusive observation is then complemented by informal interviewing of the consumer about their choice and the important considerations that influence their decisions.

Study participants would, for e ample, be observed in markets and stores making choices about products. After their choice was made, they would be informally interviewed about what they considered in making their choice. Alternatively, participants would be asked to dictate on tape the process of product selection from the genesis of the idea to purchase decision. They would carry a small tape recorder with them describing the decision-making process as it unfolded.

In both these examples, the social researcher could alter the retail environment by introducing stimuli that would hypothetically influence decision-making. Changes in product location, advertising, price, packaging etc., could be used as variables to influence choice.

The main consideration is the recognition of consumer behavior as a subjective process and that perceptions and considerations are of prime interest. Moreover the meanings given the series of acts leading to a decision are of interest to the PersOns marketing products.


Human behavior is best understood as a social process and, as such, requires a methodological approach which emphasizes the interaction of individuals and groups and the meanings they derive. Fundamentally, marketing and consumer behavior are social activities inviting a methodology that gets at social process and the interpretive nature of human interaction. The researcher must seek to observe and understand the perspective or role of the subjects of study while at the same time maintaining the distinction between everyday and scientific conceptions of reality. If consumers are the subjects of study then the researcher must link their definitions and interpretations of reality with the social relationships, situations, and groups that provide those conceptions. Recognizing that activity is constructed and that humans do not respond passively or mechanically to stimuli points to the significance of the meanings given what is perceived in the ongoing context.

Understanding the process by which individuals make decisions and act involves exploring the process by which they adjust and take various lines of action on the basis of their ongoing interpretations of the world. Again Herbert Blumer best summarizes the relationship between the symbolic-interactionist perspective and the importance of a research approach that seeks to unveil the subjective when he says:

On the methodological or research side the study of action would have to be made from the position of the actor. Since action is forged by the actor out of what he perceives, interprets, and judges, one would have to see the operating situation as the actor sees it, perceive objects as the actor perceives them, ascertain their meaning in terms of the meaning they have for the actor, and follow the actor's line of conduct or the actor organizes it -in short, one would have to take the role of the actor and see the world from his standpoint (1975:325).


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