Rashomon Visits Consumer Behavior: an Interpretive Critique of Naturalistic Inquiry

Douglas B. Holt, Northwestern University
ABSTRACT - A body of substantive and methodological work is currently evolving within consumer behavior, drawing from Lincoln and Guba's (1985) "naturalistic inquiry" program for post-positivist research, which seeks to establish criteria to evaluate the "trustworthiness" of ethnographic-style consumer research. Applying insights from the growing body of interpretive anthropological criticism, this paper critiques the epistemological foundations of the evaluation of trustworthiness, as well as the specific techniques suggested to meet this objective. The main arguments of interpretive anthropology are summarized, the evaluation of trustworthiness as expounded by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Wallendorf and Belk (1989) is reviewed, and then the interpretive critique is applied to this evaluative standard as it is used in consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Douglas B. Holt (1991) ,"Rashomon Visits Consumer Behavior: an Interpretive Critique of Naturalistic Inquiry", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 57-62.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 57-62


Douglas B. Holt, Northwestern University

[I would like to thank John Sherry and Helen Schwartzman for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper, as well as for their sage political advice.]


A body of substantive and methodological work is currently evolving within consumer behavior, drawing from Lincoln and Guba's (1985) "naturalistic inquiry" program for post-positivist research, which seeks to establish criteria to evaluate the "trustworthiness" of ethnographic-style consumer research. Applying insights from the growing body of interpretive anthropological criticism, this paper critiques the epistemological foundations of the evaluation of trustworthiness, as well as the specific techniques suggested to meet this objective. The main arguments of interpretive anthropology are summarized, the evaluation of trustworthiness as expounded by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Wallendorf and Belk (1989) is reviewed, and then the interpretive critique is applied to this evaluative standard as it is used in consumer research.


In the classic Japanese film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, an encounter in a forest between a newlywed couple and a bandit is described by the four individuals who observed the encounter: the husband, the wife, the bandit, and a woodchopper who was passing by. Kurosawa re-enacts each version of the incident so that each appears as reality: although the individuals are describing the same set of events from first-hand experience, the stories are startlingly different. None of the versions is given greater credence at the end of the film; each represents a "correct" interpretation for the individual participant-observer.

The Rashomon parable has been used in anthropology (Heider 1988) to convey the essence of the interpretive dilemma facing social scientists in seeking a "true" understanding of the phenomena under investigation. However, the implications of this dilemma have been generally avoided in the representation and evaluation of ethnographic research. Recently, though, a body of thought which travels under the covering label of "interpretive anthropology" (Marcus and Fischer 1986) has applied a Rashomon-style critique to ethnography.

The purpose of this essay is to critically examine the emerging "naturalistic inquiry" tradition in consumer research from the perspective of current interpretive anthropological thought. A brief synopsis of the nature of the interpretive anthropological critique will be presented. Then, the application of the critique to consumer research will focus on the evaluative criteria espoused by Lincoln and Guba's naturalistic inquiry framework (1985), and the extension of this framework by Belk and Wallendorf (1989). The final section will demonstrate how the interpretive critique can be brought to bear on the representation of naturalistic inquiry in consumer research.


Traditionally, anthropologists, influenced by the extended coattails of positivist science, either stated or implicitly accepted the view that their ethnographic training and method gave their interpretations a certain truth value not achievable by laymen (Clifford 1988). In participant observation, the classic ethnographic method, it was assumed that understandings were transparent, that the ethnographer as measurement instrument could reflect the informants' experiences without misshaping them. Given the (assumed) impartial, omniscient quality of the anthropologist's method, the traditional ethnography was written from an implicit position of authority derived from this "scientific" character, as evangelized by Malinowski (1922).

The critique of this authority by interpretive anthropology as misplaced was succinctly stated early-on in Geertz' (1973) famous adaptation of the constructionist view of reality (i.e., the ontological assumption that reality is constructed through ideographic social processes): that social life should be conceived as a web of negotiated meanings which, when considering the process through which one comes to understand these meanings, is analogous to a text. This metaphor is provocative because it implicates the researcher as well as the observed. Participant observation -- the communicative processes by which the anthropologist in the field gains knowledge of his or her subject's systems of cultural meaning in order to represent them in ethnographic texts (Marcus and Fischer 1986) -- could no longer be isolated from this revelation. As Clifford (1988) states:

"Textualization" is understood as a prerequisite to interpretation...It is the process through which unwritten behavior, speech, beliefs, oral tradition, and ritual come to be marked as a corpus, a potentially meaningful ensemble separated out from an immediate discursive or performative situation...A world cannot be apprehended directly; it is always inferred on the basis of its parts, and the parts must be conceptually and perceptually cut out of the flux of experience. (p.38)

Extending the textual metaphor, culture is composed of contested codes. The ethnographer's representations of these codes can be considered partial truths" or "ethnographic fictions," in the sense (borrowed from literary criticism) that they are "something made or fashioned" in their systematic and exclusive manner of reporting (Clifford 1986). To cite Clifford (1986) again:

Ethnographic writing is determined in at least six ways: (1) contextually (it draws from and creates meaningful social milieux); (2) rhetorically (it uses and is used by expressive conventions); (3) institutionally (one writes within, and against, specific traditions, disciplines, audiences); (4) generically (an ethnography is usually distinguishable from a novel or travel account); (5) politically (the authority to represent cultural realities is unequally shared and at times contested); (6) historically (all the above conventions and constraints are changing). (p.6)

Following Geertz' (1973, 1983) early lead, other social scientists have developed the interpretive critique to challenge the received style of ethnographic representation (Clifford 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Cushman 1982; Marcus and Fischer 1986; Van Manaan 1988) including the works of Geertz himself (Crapanzano 1986). According to these critics, ethnographic authority cannot be achieved through method. The subjective, contextual nature of the researcher's interpretive task can be no different from that of the subject. A "correct" interpretation of meaning is forever elusive because an infinite number of interpretations, based on differing "contextual assortments," are possible. When meaning is construed as a dialectic process between the object and its interpreter, rather than an immanent attribute, evaluation of the accuracy of an interpretation, based purely on the methods used, becomes impossible.


Lincoln and Guba's Naturalistic Inquiry

The naturalistic inquiry framework proposed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) is a hybrid fieldwork primer -- borrowing from anthropology, sociology, educational research, and other fields -- stressing an emic, constructionist view of understanding through ethnographic and related "in situ" methods. As such, the methods reviewed in this text provide an excellent resource for guiding fieldwork. However, though espousing a constructionist view of reality, Lincoln and Guba's epistemological position fits squarely in the traditional ethnographic schools of anthropology and sociology. They advocate that the field researcher follow certain techniques that increase the trustworthiness of the research (dimensionalized as credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability). The reader is to judge the rigor of the research by the extent to which he or she is persuaded by its performance on these four specific evaluative criteria (which Lincoln and Guba set up as analogous to positivisms criteria of internal validity, external validity, reliability, and objectivity). The definitions of these evaluative criteria (also found in Hirschman 1986) are:

a. credibility: Does the interpretation agree with the "subject's" opinion?

b. transferability: Given sensitivity to changing context, is the interpretation generalizable?

c. dependability of measure: Is the researcher, as measurement instrument, consistent?

d. confirmability: Is the interpretation logical, nonprejudiced, nonjudgmental, supportable based on data?

The techniques that allow the researcher to meet these criteria,- according to Lincoln and Guba, are: prolonged engagement/persistent observation; triangulation across sources, methods, and researchers; regular on-site team interaction; negative case analysis; debriefing by peers; member checks; seeking limiting exceptions; purposive sampling; reflexive journals; and independent audits (Wallendorf and Belk 1989). Lincoln and Guba claim that the combined evaluative dimension captured by these four criteria -- trustworthiness -- can be used:

to make ex post facto judgments about reports or case studies as a prelude to a decision to publish or otherwise use them. Journal referees, dissertation committee members, members of other bodies called on to make judgments can use the criteria for that purpose. (p.330)

Although they warn against the constitution of a "neo-orthodoxy" in the use of the criteria (i.e., as "prescriptions of how inquiry must be done," p.331), they do not shy away from their argument that these are useful evaluative measures.

Wallendorf and Belk's Extension

In their contribution to Interpretive Consumer Research entitled "Assessing Trustworthiness in Naturalistic Consumer Research," Wallendorf and Belk (1989) propose a modified version of Lincoln and Guba's framework to be used in consumer research at the "workbench level." (Deshpande (1983) and Hirschman (1986) were the first consumer researchers to attempt to merge interpretive consumer research with positivist criteria.) Their purpose appears to be two-fold: to suggest some useful methods that have worked in their fieldwork experiences and to propose a modified version of Lincoln and Guba's evaluative criteria for consumer research. This paper only examines the techniques in their capacity to serve as evaluative criteria. (When judged as a methodological resource, the discussion of techniques provides valuable information for the naturalistic inquirer.) That Wallendorf and Belk seek to establish rigorous procedures to assess credibility in this alternative paradigm is understandable given the socio-political climate in which this research sits (i.e., the traditionally positivist turf of the Journal of Consumer Research). However, such normative guidelines run counter to much contemporary social thought outside the area of marketing/consumer research.

Trustworthiness, according to Wallendorf and Belk, is a "component of good research" (in addition to being interesting and insightful, p.69) that can and should be assessed as part of the evaluative process of naturalistic research. Wallendorf and Belk accept Lincoln and Guba's four evaluative criteria but somewhat modify the associated methodological techniques used to meet these criteria based on field experience. They also add a fifth criterion -- integrity (of the informant). According to Wallendorf and Belk.

the use of these techniques enables researchers who are conducting as well as those who are reading the output of naturalistic inquiry to evaluate the completeness of the research procedures used and the human instrument employed. (p.70)

Similar to Lincoln and Guba, Wallendorf and Belk insist that they do not intend to present a "new orthodoxy" (p.70) in terms of the design and implementation of interpretive research, but they firmly adhere to the set of evaluative criteria that should be used to judge the trustworthiness of interpretive work.

In the following section, the specific techniques suggested by Wallendorf and Belk to meet these trustworthiness criteria are considered using implications derived from the interpretive critique developed earlier in the paper.


Methods As Evaluative Criteria in Naturalistic Inquiry

Both Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk insist that, through following certain methods, the naturalistic inquirer can develop more trustworthy interpretations. Wallendorf and Belk advocate that readers and reviewers should isolate, and evaluate separately, the trustworthiness component of the research (apart from the overall quality of the research, which is necessarily subjective). Trustworthiness, then, in both the Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk conceptions, is an objective, measurable component of naturalistic research. (Wallendorf and Belk frequently mention that the measurement of trustworthiness is difficult and inherently imperfect, but this does not cause them to back away from their objectivist conception of trustworthiness as an evaluative criterion.)

Insights supplied by the interpretive critique would suggest that this evaluative enterprise is not achievable. The act of representing others (whether behaviors or beliefs) is necessarily a construction of the others' reality, one of many. This construction is shaped by many cultural and idiosyncratic forces (as the quote from Clifford (1986) above demonstrates) such that the achievement of transparent representation is not tenable. Trustworthiness -- as a criterion based on the objective, invariant, and generalizable qualities of an interpretation -- seeks to gauge transparency. The interpretive critique suggests that trustworthiness is at odds with the nature of the epistemological beast.

In addition, even if one assumes that transparent representation were tenable, it appears that its evaluation would be highly problematic. Given that in naturalistic inquiry, (1) the research instrument is a human with unique abilities and perspectives and (2) evaluation of the research rests in the hands of the (also idiosyncratic) reader/reviewer, any attempt to isolate and objectively verify the trustworthiness of researcher interpretations is fraught with epistemological problems. Thus, the trustworthiness criterion and associated techniques proposed by Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk contradict the nature of the interpretive task, and furthermore, pose insurmountable problems in application.

Support for this critique follows by reviewing the specific list of research techniques and evaluative criteria offered for judging naturalistic inquiry. These techniques will be evaluated in four broad groups: field methods, purposive sampling and triangulation, thick description, and checks and audits.

Field Methods. The credibility criterion suggests that if the researcher follows certain field methods, the reader should have more confidence in the interpretation. For example, Wallendorf and Belk suggest a list of techniques -- prolonged engagement, persistent observation, regular on-site team interaction, negative case analysis, debriefing by peers -- that are thought to enhance the credibility of the research. Based on the argument developed above, the use of particular field methods can give no guarantee of increased credibility. The techniques certainly may improve the quality of the interpretation and thus attain increased credibility in the eye of the reader indirectly based on their impact on the research document; but the credibility of the interpretation cannot be inferred separate from its reading. For example, a reviewer may judge an inquiry of a phenomenon using persistent observation over three months to be more credible than an inquiry of the same phenomenon lasting a year because the first interpreter was able to coax richer or more complex information from his or her informants. Similarly, the other suggested field techniques -- negative case analysis, team interaction, and peer debriefing -- however useful in specific research applications, do not carry special status as guarantors of credibility.

Purposive Sampling and Triangulation. To meet the transferability criterion, Wallendorf and Belk and Lincoln and Guba focus on purposive sampling (which allows triangulation across sites in similar fashion to external validity). Both groups also suggest that various types of triangulation (across researchers, sources, and methods) increase the credibility, transferability, confirmability (and, in the case of Wallendorf and Belk, integrity) of the research. Neither provides an acceptable criterion for evaluating research. As Thompson (1990) cogently argues, the notion that multiple data points increase the trustworthiness of the research is inconsistent with the naturalistic inquirer's constructionist ontological position. Since each empirical source represents a unique construction of reality (i.e., the observer-observed relationship is ideographic), there is no reason to believe that a consistent result across sources is more trustworthy.

Thick Description. Lincoln and Guba also emphasize the need for "thick description" to achieve transferability. However, given the dialectic relationship -between observer and observed, the thick description created in one context cannot be objectively transferred to a new context, nor could a judge objectively evaluate such a transfer. Lincoln and Guba suggest that the transfer of an interpretation must be sensitive to changing context, but who judges whose context?

Checks and Audits. Techniques meant to enhance the status of the research ex post facto are also flawed. Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk suggest that informants review the interpretation to check for accuracy. This criterion contradicts the interpretivist's constructionist ontological assumption; a construction of a construction of a construction (a "triple hermeneutic" of sorts) does not add credibility.

Also, this criterion, as Wallendorf and Belk recognize, denies credibility to interpretive work (such as French structuralism and Marxist analysis) that takes an etic perspective. But Wallendorf and Belk are mistaken in their assertion that the member checks are appropriate techniques for ascertaining emic credibility (p.75). Emic information, while giving the appearance of transparent observation, is just as much an interpretation as the etic perspective. Informant commentary on emic interpretations does not avoid the dynamics of the "triple hermeneutic."

Both Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk assert that confirmability can be assessed via an auditing procedure where all research materials are submitted to a peer for review of the "plausibility of the interpretations and the adequacy of the data." (Wallendorf and Belk 1989, p.79) This procedure also fails as a criterion using arguments developed above. The interpretation an auditor brings to a researcher's data is just as idiosyncratic as the researcher's original interpretation. Even if the auditors are multi-disciplinary, they still cannot capture the full range of possible interpretations. They are bounded by the social science discipline as a whole, Western ways of thinking, a time-bound theoretical position, and undoubtedly many other factors. Also, as Thompson (1990) argues, given the level of immersion characteristic of naturalistic inquiry, it is hard to believe that detached auditors could ever adequately grasp the relationship between the observer's experience and his or her interpretations.

The framework proposed by Lincoln and Guba and extended by Wallendorf and Belk serves as a valuable storehouse of naturalistic research techniques. But their belief that the successful application of these techniques leads to a more trustworthy interpretation, and that criteria exist that can be used objectively to judge this trustworthiness, cannot be supported based on arguments developed using the interpretive critique.


At the time of this writing, three studies have been published in The Journal of Consumer Research using the Lincoln and Guba/Wallendorf and Belk framework (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988; Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989; O'Guinn and Belk 1989). Again, the fact that these authors have chosen to use "naturalistic inquiry" methods is incidental to this paper. What is problematic, however, is that these articles leverage the evaluative criteria proposed by Lincoln and Guba and Wallendorf and Belk in order to represent their interpretations as more trustworthy. This "ethnographic authority," based solely on methods, is unfounded according to the interpretive critique.

For instance, in Belk et al. (1988), despite reservations expressed by an auditor, the authors assert:

...we are convinced that the careful use of auditing techniques and scrutiny of their outcome by reviewers and editors could prevent the publication of works that, in the final analysis, are not based on careful field methods and data collection. (p.456)

Again, regarding the audit procedure in O'Guinn and Belk (1989):

The audit permitted careful scrutiny of our conclusions by a scholar/peer able to assess the faithfulness of our interpretations and the adequacy of our methods. (p.228)

The implication of these comments is that peer auditing should be recognized as a necessary procedure (analogous to manipulation checks in experimental science) to insure a satisfactory level of trustworthiness in naturalistic inquiry.

Unfortunately, for much the same reason that manipulation checks do not necessarily provide additional credibility to an experimental result (Sternthal, Calder, and Tybout 1987), audits do not necessarily add credibility to an interpretation. The researcher's field notes may provide an interpretation of his or her observations that is convincing enough to sway the auditor, or the auditor may just happen to draw interpretive links in similar fashion to the researcher. But both of these results are part of the constructed, idiosyncratic nature of the interpretive task; neither guarantees a more trustworthy interpretation.

Similar arguments could be drawn concerning the use of other techniques found in these articles -such as triangulation and purposive sampling -- to the extent that their use leads to claims of ethnographic authority which lie in the method alone.


The desire to develop objective evaluative criteria for naturalistic inquiry is no-doubt seductive. Positivist-inclined researchers who pass judgement and thus participate in the legitimization of this research in the consumer behavior field are grounded Sin objectivist evaluation. Their most fervent concerns with post^positivist research are in regard to the "anarchy" that may result when there are no objective evaluative criteria to test theory (Calder and Tybout 1987, 1989; Hunt 1989). The Lincoln and Guba/Wallendorf and BeLk evaluative framework (as well as Hirschman's (1986) original introduction of the framework to the field) can be seen as a panacea to ameliorate these positivist concerns. For instance, Cote and Foxman (1987), two positivists who participated in the Consumer Odyssey, reach a satisfactory comfort level with naturalistic inquiry because of the rigor derived from the "systematic rules for the conduct of research...[the] numerous techniques used to control the accuracy of the data...techniques used to verify "facts" after they have been recorded" (p.36 1), and so on, leading to such conclusions as, "the auditor plays an important role in the evaluation of naturalistic research." (p.364) In addition, Hunt (1989) comments that the Wallendorf and BeLk framework is exemplary because it:

clearly demonstrates that there are both good procedures to adopt in actually conducting naturalistic inquiry and that these procedures can be used as evaluative criteria for assessing the justificatory warrant of the knowledge-claims generated by such research. (p. 187)

However successful this framework is in legitimizing naturalistic inquiry in the short-run, I can't help but feel it eventually will be self-defeating. In adopting an objectivist evaluative banner, interpretive consumer research risks displacing insightful interpretation with methodological dogma that will constrain research without yielding a balancing increase in verity.

The interpretive critique of naturalistic inquiry suggests that the research process is analogous to the reading of a text, where the observer interacts with the observed to form an ideographic, negotiated reality. Acceptance of the interpretive view gives rise to methodological and representational implications. The use of specific techniques, such as those proposed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Wallendorf and Belk (1989), does not necessarily lead to more trustworthy research and thus they should not be used as criteria for evaluation. Likewise, since these techniques do not insure greater trustworthiness, the researcher as author should be discouraged from using them to garner added authority in the written representation of the research.

As an alternative, I believe that interpretations should be judged on their insightfulness (for an example of this approach, see Thompson's (1990) explication of the gestalt experience) and their ability to convince the reader, no more. These criteria are by nature subjective, but do not necessarily lead to the nihilism of more solipsistic perspectives. Because interpretation is empirically grounded, the reader can confront the interpretation with his or her own experiences (including research) with the world. While it should be clear from the critique above that this empirical confrontation is an interpretive act, I believe that the subjective judgements of one's peers converge enough to allow for some interpretations to be favored over others. (Note that this convergence does not necessarily signify greater truth value, but rather shows that the interpretation is subjectively judged to be both insightful and convincing.) Cultural anthropology and interpretive sociology operate using this type of evaluative system and continue to thrive; pluralism of perspectives is dominant in these fields, not anarchy.

This "stakeholder consensus" model of knowledge differs from "contemporary social science" (Hunt 1989; or "scientific realism," Hunt 1990) only in that specific techniques cannot act as guarantors of privileged status in what is necessarily an interpretive process. Research methods are certainly pertinent to the judgement process, but they do not act as objective criteria. Like all other elements of the interpretation, research methods are judged by the reader. It is only in interaction with the reader that the interpretation can develop privileged status as a credible and insightful work.


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