On the Road Again: the Nature of Qualitative Research on the Consumer Behavior Odyssey

Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona
[ to cite ]:
Melanie Wallendorf (1987) ,"On the Road Again: the Nature of Qualitative Research on the Consumer Behavior Odyssey", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 374-375.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 374-375


Melanie Wallendorf, University of Arizona

"On the road again,

Like a band of gypsies we roll down the highway."

Willie Nelson

"On the Road Again,"

Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (And Some that Will Be),

Columbia Records

This paper is a general, somewhat personal reflection on the experience of being on the Consumer Behavior Odyssey for roughly two months this past summer. As the traveling part of the Odyssey was only recently completed, this paper, and the presentation which accompanied it, do not provide conclusive, substantive findings. Instead, this is meant to provide an update on "how I spent my summer vacation." As such, this paper is similar to the journal entries written by Odyssey participants on a daily basis to accompany their field notes.

The slide presentation which accompanied this talk visually portrayed the informants and the inquirers who participated in the Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Showing an entire summer in less than three minutes is not easy. However, the experience of watching a summerful of research in three minutes is much like the experience of being on the Odyssey. There was often a feeling that the pace was too fast, that we would like to stop the data collection for a moment and look at it more slowly and in more depth.

That is the stage that the Odyssey is currently in. It is as yet too early to offer conclusive findings as we have only just returned from the field and are now taking that slower, more in-depth look. Instead, this discussion will focus on the particular qualitative approach taken by the Odyssey in gathering data. Although we are currently exploring the themes which run through the data collected. these will not be the focus here.

The basic question to address is what it is that is so different about this research project. Certainly it has been seen as different by many. However, I have often had the sense that it is perceived as being different for the wrong reasons. In summary. what is different about this research was that we were constantly "on the road."

Contrary to what some might think, this research is not different or unusual by being qualitative. It is not unusual in its collection of approximately 800 pages of field notes, journals, and logs, nor in its shooting of approximately 3500 still photos, nor in its taping of approximately 60 hours of videotaped discussions with informants. In fact, qualitative field work is a very commonly used social science method. It is certainly a more traditional social science method than are surveys and experiments, which have somehow come to be seen as the norm in the relatively young field of consumer research. Qualitative research methods are traditional in the same way that the swap meets, flea markets, fairs, and festivals studied by the Odyssey are more traditional markets than are the fast food outlets. supermarkets, and shopping malls which seem to be the focus of most marketing-oriented consumer behavior research.

Thus, what is different or nontraditional about the Odyssey is that it was constantly moving. Rather than the in-depth study of one site which is accomplished by a traditional ethnography. the Odyssey defined its site or contest very broadly as being American consumption including the full range of acquisition, use, and disposition activities. We then purposively sampled and moved within this contest to provide contrasts.

Clearly. first to emerge as a contrast was what we thought was "not like me" or different from our own lives. This forced us to view ourselves, but also to move beyond this introspection. Although I have not systematically analyzed our field notes yet to test this notion. I would propose that it is likely that the sample observed, excluding ourselves. has a slight downscale bias. This is probably different from survey and experiment-based consumer behavior research which invariably notes a slight upscale bias to the sample in terms of income and/or education.

Sampling for contrasts. however. soon made us realize that across these supposed contrasts co-existed some similarities. For example. materialistic concerns with "stuff" led us to attempt to sample some individuals who were expected to be somewhat non-materialistic. Two types came to mind and both were interviewed. The first type of non-materialistic informant was a person who is revered and respected for having chosen a nonmaterialistic lifestyle. Nuns who take a vow of poverty were interviewed. Why do they do such a thing in a materialistic culture? The answer was cast in terms of being better able to serve others. A second contrasting type of non-materialistic informant is one who is socially spurned and rejected for this lifestyle. Homeless people were interviewed. Why do they do such a thing in a materialistic culture? The answers here are complex. However. in one case a man entered a shelter for the homeless because his mother and sister had been taking his subsistence checks and spending them. They had done him a disservice. Thus. where we expected to find contrasts. we also found similar themes, in this case service, cutting across them.

To take another example. we sampled to find contrasts within informants. In interviewing the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur who talked about the stability of her home and life, we also asked about losses that she might have experienced. She discussed losing the clay handprints her children made in kindergarten when her home was recently remodelled. In interviewing a transient man about what it is that provides sufficient stability to his life that he keeps going, he talked about his longing for a son who was lost in a divorce and his desire someday to get his baby back. Once again, what was expected to be a contrast showed a commonality linking the two.

As we moved across country. we saw parallels to our own moving in informants who were moving: vacationers. long distance movers. and wanderers. We saw their changes. and in some cases our own. as reflecting role transitions in which identity and material objects change and mutually shape each other. This is a theme which we will be analyzing further in the data. We saw informants selling possessions in anticipation of moving. but also talked with them about saving treasured possessions. such as ceramic watermelons, to provide security and stability through the transition.

For us, as well as for them, there was uncertainty as to what lies ahead down the road. Yet this was combined with a hope for greener pastures, a curiosity for something new that kept us moving. Yet this movement caused in us some disorientation. We experienced the intertwined nature of time and space by learning that as one of these elements changes, we lose sight of the other. My audio taped recordings of where we were at what time were crisp and accurate in Los Angeles, but soon became more confused and halting, until the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut borders were a blur to me. We saw in ourselves, as well as in our moving informants. a building of and clinging to security bases while in transition. For example, those who traveled on the Odyssey for the longest periods of time showed strong attachment to the RV as home (despite strong a priori attitudes to the contrary), as well as the development of small group culture in shared food rituals such as Oreo consumption.

With so much change and movement, how does one build stability in a moving research enterprise? How did Odyssey participants insure some continuity in the focus of the research? Storytelling was employed as an interview technique for getting reciprocal storytelling. This involved informants in our lives as we shared with them stories about ourselves and what we had seen previously. This technique also allowed us to carry forward on themes which had emerged earlier. For example, our descriptions of the self-sufficiency of motor homes in Las Vegas led to comments about self-sufficiency when talking with a cross country bicyclist and some backpackers in a national park. Similarly, some vacationers at the Statue of Liberty asked us if we had talked with any bicyclists, which allowed us to tell some stories and then ask them to make comparisons between their own vacation style and that of the bicyclist.

Thus what is different about this research is that we attempted depth and full elaboration of themes across sites rather than elaboration of all themes within a site. Doing the latter may not tap all aspects of a theme, because its full range may not exist within a site. Instead, we attempted to sample in order to fully capture the theme across sites rather than all themes within a site.

This meant that we always had to move on, making for what was in many ways a moving experience. What did we find? It is too early to say what we found. The only conclusion I can offer now is:

"The life I love is making music with my friends,

And I can't wait to Ret on the road again."

Willie Nelson

"On the Road Again,"

Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (And Some that Will Be),

Columbia Records